Hopefully you know the drill by now, but just in case: full spoilers ahead, with killers named, details of the plot laid bare, and everything on the table — so don’t sally into this under the impression that we’re not going into much detail; this series is called Spoiler Warning for a reason.
JJ: I don’t have much experience of anime — indeed, my only experience of non-novel/short story Japanese detection is the Detective Conan manga and The Perfect Insider TV show, both of which I think you put me onto. For anyone in the same position, is there anything about Detective School Q that you want to mention before we get started?
TC: Well, for the uninitiated, Tantei Gakuen Q (Detective School Q) originally began as a manga (comic) series, written and illustrated by Amagi Seimaru and Satō Fumiya — who are perhaps better known as the creators of The Kindaichi Case Files. A detective-series most of you probably only know through the sporadic reviews on my and Ho-Ling Wong’s blogs.
Detective School Q focuses on a specially selected group of youngsters, Class Q, who were hand-picked by a legendary, now wheelchair bound detective, Dan Morihiko. The founder of the equally legendary Dan Detective School (DDS).
All of the Class Q members have a special ability. Kyu and Ryu are the all-round talents of the class with great deductive abilities, but, personality-wise, they’re the polar opposites of each other. Megumi has an amazing photographic memory, allowing her never to forget anything she sees, but this can come with some baggage. Such as when she’s being confronted with a dead body. The youngest member of the group, Kazume, is a computer genius, while the oldest one, Kintaro, is the athletic, more hardboiled, type with 20/20 sight – which makes him perfect for tailing people. So this should give most people some idea of what the series is about.
JJ: I find it interesting to compare Class Q with Class A, as at the start of this story. Where Class A seems more up-together and emotionally restrained in the classic detective mould, each perhaps an island on their own and possessing the various facets a detective would need, the focus with Q seems to be more on collaboration, of each person bringing their skill to solving the puzzle. In a way this is very much the rejection of the classic detective of yore — who was much more like your Class A student on their inexorable path to the truth with little concern for personality — and seems to be a way to update what is but now a fairly old routine. It makes it feel fresh even while we also want it to feel reminiscent of something far older.
TC: Well, there were some detective-teams during the Golden Age (see Craig Rice), but nothing that can be compared to Class Q. You might appreciate to learn that there’s an early (school trip) story-arc, entitled ‘The Cut-Throat Who Crossed Through Time’, in which they begin to understand how to pool their different talents and skills. Something they’ll put to the test in this episode.
But before we go to town on this multi-episode story, I wanted to briefly explain why I picked this series. And in particular ‘The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case’.
JJ: By all means…
TC: Firstly, I think these episodes perfectly demonstrates the difference between the status of the detective story in the East and West. You have to keep in my mind that Detective School Q, originally serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine, is targeted at high school and college students.
Now just think back what kind of impression mystery writers, like John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, left on us when we discovered them around that age. When you’re born in Japan, you’re likely introduced to the genre through Detective Conan, Kindaichi or Detective School Q. Just imagine ‘The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case’ is one of your first memories of the detective story. A story about two lonely, isolated villages, dominated by a plague-cult, where people vanish under miraculous circumstances and that scene when they arrive in Kamikakushi Village — after going through the tunnel Hyoutan Village. And they walk out in a gloomy, mist-enshrouded village with that soft, haunting music playing the background and everyone wearing those grotesque masks. That’s the kind of stuff fans are made of!
Secondly, I wanted to see if you recognized what I recognized in the plot.
JJ: We get two impossible crimes here — the vanishing of the student with the footprints stopping in the middle of the field that occurs before Class Q arrive at the village, and the impossible flying into the air of the TV journalist which is captured on his video camera. While the first might be argued as fairly clued, the second most certainly isn’t. Equally, the revelation that the two villages are simply one divided down the middle is never really prepared for beyond that whole “the sun is to the right of me” thing (we have no idea where the crucial dam is in relation to anything else, for one thing…). I’m a fan of fair play and feel that the visual medium afford more chances to show this sort of clewing, but I’m curious how you feel about it.
TC: You’re so wrong here, I hardly know where to begin! Firstly, there’s a third impossible crime, which is set up in episode 19, when the mysterious founder, “Eki Shin,” prophetizes another death in Hyoutan Village and challenged Ryu — telling him to stay at “the lodge located at the entrance of the tunnel.” This is the only connection between the two villages. So, when the murder is committed, the founder has a rock-solid alibi backed by Ryu and Megumi. This alibi-trick, tied to the village-puzzle, counts as an impossible crime (see my comment on this blog-post).
JJ: Hmmm, but that’s only an impossibility after the fact though, right? When you go “But Mio was the killer!” and everyone is amazed because she was thought to be elsewhere on the phone the whole time. There’s nothing about it as presented that makes it impossible — especially as a point is made of them being able to hear the clock chiming in the background when she phones them, but they’re not able to hear the victim’s loud snoring. Nah, as it’s presented what happens is that someone walks into the room and stabs a dude…could’ve been anyone at that stage.
TC: Yes, it was an impossibility after the fact, but so’s Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (1937) and you don’t hear anybody complain about that, now do you? It’s an impossible crime. And didn’t she cover the victim’s mouth and nose with his blanket?[Turns out no, she didn’t]
JJ: Wait…what? Death on the Nile? I’m always tempted to bow to your greater experience, but…Death on the Nile is an impossible crime?!
TC: Technically, Death on the Nile qualifies as an impossible crime, because [there followed here a discussion on the mechanics of the first murder in Death on the Nile; I’ve removed it to preserve it for anyone who doesn’t know] However, the real discussion is whether, or not, Rex Stout’s The Doorbell Rang (1965) has any claim to the status of a locked room mystery, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The solution to that village-puzzle was not only fairly clued, it was clued in a brazenly and audacious way. In episode 17, the first clue is a drawing of the infinity symbol, which was left by one of the people who disappeared, followed by map of the two villages. Only difference between the two is the two circles (villages) on the map are separated by a tunnel and spiral staircase. If you put this together, not only don’t you need the very late sun-clue, but realize what it means the moment Kyu figures it out. So how, in Poe’s name, did you miss that visual clue?
JJ: Hang on, the infinity symbol is the two villages? Huh. Yeah, I missed that. I had assumed it was something about being spun around by the staircase and not being fully aware of which way you were facing when you exit the tunnel.
TC: No. It meant that the two villages were connected and not divided by long tunnel with a spiral staircase. You’re mostly right about the impossible disappearance-into-the-sky. There were the sounds in the video, but this is hardly sufficient to put together the trick. A nifty trick, but hardly fair.
JJ: Which is a shame, because that and the use of the flooded field and the raft in the impossible footprints riddle that opens this case are actually pretty neat. I guess unless you have someone talking ab out their tractor going missing, or something about how Mio knows how to operate all the machinery in the village or something it’s difficult to prepare for without lampshading it to a ridiculous extent. I liked it in principle, but just feel this aspect of the clewing unfortunately when awry.
It also struck me as weird that much is made about having to wear masks in the second village and yet both Class Q and the reporters wander around without their masks on without any serious repercussions (the violent deaths aside). This is one of those bizarrely framings that the shin honkaku stories we’ve seen coming out of Locked Room International’s stable excel at — think the weird architecture of The 8 Mansion Murders (1989, tr. 2018) and Death in the House of Rain (2006, tr. 2017), or the way the Moai statues play into the ‘evolving puzzle’ of The Moai Island Puzzle (1989, tr. 2016). Typically these stories introduce this bizarre elements and really embrace them, but here – in a visual medium, no less, where it would be even more effective — it just felt a little tangential and easily discarded.
TC: I was afraid you’re were going to bring up the masks. You missed a prominently displayed visual clue, but you noticed the masks were, more or less, ditched shortly upon their arrival. Unfortunately, you’re right. I think this would not have been problem had one of the previous episodes not made a big deal about it. Class Q even drew lots to see who got the last two “guest masks” (get it?) to travel through the tunnel to the other village. So, yes, this visual aspect of the story should have been fully embraced and the previously mentioned scene, when they arrived in the mist-enshrouded village, showed how effectively they can be used — especially to set the mood.
JJ: I also find it pretty unbelievable that a 17 year-old girl could murder a full grown woman, cart her body away, and bury it in a nearby grave. We have no idea how many of the recent disappearances she’s responsible for, but it feels a little unfair to me to set up such physical expectations and then ignore them when it comes to your culprit.
TC: I believe it was mentioned she was only responsible for the most recent disappearances/murders, but this is one of those detective stories that would have actually benefited from an accomplice to help bury the bodies.
JJ: However, I loved the motive for the murders: the idea that there’s this world-ending plague in Hyoutan village that could be released if the truth ever gets out. That’s amazing, and such a punch to the gut when you realise the magnitude of what’s being protected. It might actually be my favourite motive for anything I’ve yet encountered in the genre.
TC: The motive is an absolute gem! A classic tragedy of doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. Remember that the original villages, who came up with the plan, had seen the potential, world-ending destruction of the atomic bomb. So they likely took the weapons of modern science deadly serious. And than you’re given that final blow when they reveal that the hidden, walled up village had been a paradise where people had survived. And lived on for many decades behind a sealed wall.
JJ: It was a very clever way to get around the horror of what had come before — that this village had been subject to such awfulness turned into a bower of sanctuary from the outside world. It’s still moderately horrible if you choose to pick it apart too much, but as payoffs go it was devastation smartly replaced with a delightfully non-cloying emotional punch.
TC: However, it was hilarious how easy the wall, dividing the two villages, was broken by two blows with a pickaxe. It looked like it was hit by a bombshell!
JJ: Well, I guess it was…! It’s a great reveal, and sets up so much about the motive, that I suppose that representation of the ‘bombshell’ plays into the slightly OTT nature of the animation.
Personally, I suspect Amagi Seimaru used the bare-bone premise of Brean’s Wilders Walks Away to write ‘The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case’. The similar premise of villages where people have been disappearing under seemingly impossible circumstances could have been a coincidence, but in both stories the bodies were buried in the local cemetery. The solution to the village-puzzle anticipates the trick of the vanishing street in Halter’s The Phantom Passage. One of my reasons for picking this specific story-arc.
JJ: Huh, how about that. I wouldn’t have put it together myself, but you’re right on both counts. I suppose a cemetery is a good place to hide a dead body — very Chestertonian — and the village trick here is similar enough to The Phantom Passage that you could place them in the same category, certainly. I don’t know if I’d say this strikes me as being similar enough to Wilders Walk Away to have been definitively lifted from it — the motive is a damn sight more interesting, for one, and I have a feeling it was reto-fitted from there — but I love how what are essentially the same core ideas can be reused again and again in the service of so many different tricks and still come off as unique. It was core to the Golden Age, and continues to this day.
Beware No More
TC: So what did you think of our little excursion into the world of the anime detective? I know you have read some Detective Conan, but I believe this was the first time you saw a traditional, shin honkaku-style detective story come to live as an animation. So did you like it? Do you want to sample more? And how far will you go down this rabbit hole?
JJ: I wholeheartedly agree with Ho-Ling’s comment at the announcement of this particular undertaking that it would have been better to have in some way supported the creators by using a site or a medium that they’d get paid for the use of, and I’d love to check out the manga in order to do just that but I believe it hasn’t been translated from what I can see. I’ll watch more of this, certainly, possibly from the beginning – though that will take a while, since I’m bad at watching TV stuff – and I understand there’s also a live action version. Do you know if they’re different? Does the manga just get adapted directly to the mange which in turn gets adapted for live action? Or are there different plots each time?
Either way, I hope to invest a bit more time into this and others, and I’m grateful for this having been brought to my attention. Thank-you for suggesting something a little different!
TC: I have only seen one or two episodes of the live-action adaptation, years ago, but barely remember anything about them. They didn’t leave an impression. I remember one of the actors from the DSQ live-action series played a young Furuhata (Japanese Columbo) in a fun 2008 TV-special, though!
I hope that us talking about this series will help generate some attention among mystery readers for these splendid anime and manga detective series. Detective Conan is published in the West as Case Closed and the translations, as of this writing, are up to volume 70, but is mostly bought by anime/manga fans. My impression is that there’s very little overlap, over here, between mystery readers and fans of series such as Detective Conan, The Kindaichi Case Files and DSQ, but if more mystery readers would take the jump and start exploring Case Closed, it might act as an incentive to translate more of these series — something you want to happen if you love the shin honkaku-style mystery. Now that I think about it, perhaps we should have reviewed something from the Case Closed series.
I’m glad you enjoyed it — let’s do this again sometime!
And so over to you, folks — what did you make of Tantei Gakuen Q? Was I a fool for missing the infinity clue? Is Death on the Nile an impossible crime? Weigh in, we’d love to hear your thoughts…