The mystery genre has always been claimed to be dead by people. Cellphones killed the genre because anyone can be contacted anywhere for alibis. Mysteries are superficial literature compared to the likes of Dickens and Soseki. People who read them are not readers of literature, just insane puzzle fans. But one look at the airport bookstore and you can see mystery writers like Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson sell.
You can, of course, say people who buy those books have nothing to do in the airport, so they have decided to feel intellectual for once. However, there is growing interest in the genre from young people when video game franchises like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa sell.
Let’s look into the discrepancy with some data and analysis. Sisters in Crime, an organization of women mystery writers, has compiled 2010 publishing industry data on mystery readers in America. According to the PubTrack data, 68% of people who buy mysteries are women and half of the audience is over 50. On page 34 of the pdf, respondents are asked why they read mysteries. Escapism, solving the crime or figuring out the ending of the book, and attachment to characters are the biggest reasons given in the survey. Page 36 has a question asking them what sets apart mysteries from other genres and the feeling of suspense is universally shared by the respondents.
It is no surprise then to see novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train sell, sell, and sell. The latter has in fact made the writer who has flop after flop one of the richest writers according to Forbes. These novels examine women’s lives in marriage, their relationships, and how these women are connected through these everyday occurrences in life. It just so happens that a murder reveals the bare naked truth for the readers and the audience is likely to be an old woman.
Mysteries in literature therefore have been the genre for “bored housewives who have nothing to do”. It has always been like that in literary history. Raymond Chandler, most famous for writing hardboiled mysteries from the 40s to 60s, writes in “The Simple Art of Murder” that “old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue.” Beneath the sarcasm and distaste for old women lies Chandler’s biggest grip on the genre: it’s not good fiction.
Chandler is an ardent believer that “fiction in any form is meant to be realistic”. But he cites examples of how the “British detective fiction” writers screw the realism up by using preposterous murder techniques and unbelievable characters. This leads the genre to trip over itself:
If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it. The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway. The detection of quality in writing is difficult enough even for those who make a career of the job, without paying too much attention to the matter of advance sales.
Even the best detective fiction is rarely good fiction. It never follows the elements of good characterization. It is just a puzzle. Writers he respect like Hammett have invoked a sense of realism by putting the “murder back into the alleys”. Yet, that is still not enough. Art is not simple, hence the title. Art is about redemption. Readers are not drawn to the details of the murder but the suffering people endure.
This shared feeling that detective fiction is not good art or realistic pervades through American mystery writers. World War 2 happened and nobody can take mysteries solved by fat Belgian men seriously. Real murders are fucked up. So magazines like The Black Mask popped up in the 40s to show the real gritty world of America, not some uphill mansion with rich white folks. Films like Chinatown are argued by John G. Cawelti as deconstructions of the genre because they are critical of the unrealistic portrayals and conventions provided by the burlesque phase of the genre. Long gone are the fine gentlemen detectives, all hail the rise of hardboiled detectives.
Even mysteries today written for the “bored housewives” are undergoing, to use Cawelti’s wording, a reconstruction phase. The Girl on the Train is partly a police procedural as a detective interrogates the main character for clues. Very interesting when you consider that The Girl on the Train is actually a British book but it has to align to American sensibilities in order to sell.
This is why you won’t see anyone don a deerstalker without jest. These traditional mysteries are considered old-fashioned, even for the “bored housewives”, and will not sell in the current mystery markets. Instead, novels like Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and modernized retellings like BBC’s Sherlock do. People need something “literary” to go with the mystery plot. In most cases, as one respondent in the Sisters in Crime survey puts it, people “enjoy the learning of human nature that mystery writers tend to explore more than many other writers do.” More have been emphasized on the motive and the sociology that drives people to murder. Mysteries aren’t a game anymore; they are an examination of the human condition for the “flustered old ladies” in Chandler’s words.
This has led to the genre to a whole new didactic level. Authority figures like the police are questioned. Peace and security are artificial, ready to dissipate when something dangerous approaches. Books always end for a call for action or at least some awareness of the world from the reader.
That doesn’t mean it actually commentates on them directly. The political thriller, a close cousin to the American mysteries, deals with corruption. In Noah Berlatsky’s Corruption: American Political Films, he analyzes the unwillingness to “connect” politics to “actual people”. Political fiction has to deal with politicians who divorce themselves from their constituents. Mysteries do this too: these books allow them to think about the corruption and debasing of institutions in settings they know. This is why a good chunk of them is set in suburbia like Christian Moerk’s Darling Jim: the charismatic neighbor, the weird family of three sisters, the friendly but eccentric postman, and more are familiar archetypes that are ready to be dismantled in the comfort of the reader’s imagination.
So even though Chandler and others have led the charge, mysteries in America have not changed one bit. The reluctance of writers and audiences to deal with real sociological issues has led to erroneous layman psychology. Indeed, the ending of The Girl on the Train suggests that men are all evil and women are abused forever; only a coalition of these abused women can stand up to men. It paints a disgusting picture of the two genders especially without considering transgender people and people of different sexualities. But people love the book for its supposed realism and seem to have accepted its extremely heteronormative message.
It’s why the mystery genre in the West is considered dead. They are at best popcorn reads that let people pretend to be critical about life. This pseudo-sociological approach isn’t always intentional, but the books always remain having a sense of didacticism. They want to teach you something by the murder and interactions between characters. But they fail at this because something about it is always unrealistic or not at all true. Instead, it plays upon the worries and stereotypes one may have and reinforces them. Look at how this genre portrays serial killers: Films like The Silence of the Lamb show that serial murderers are sex-craved transsexuals who have an Oedipus complex. That is beyond plausibility and it is just lazy, sensationalist writing. The film refuses to explain the psychology of the serial killer, just that he’s fucked up and should be taken down. None of this is good fiction whatsoever.
But the story is quite different in Japan and video games.
Japan has not burned out from traditional mysteries after WW2. Case in point: Detective Conan has been running since 1994. It is the landmark manga and anime alongside Chibi Maruko-chan and Doraemon that everyone in Japan has read and watched. What makes Conan really special in the history of detective fiction is that it shouldn’t have existed according to the trends in the American market. Recurring settings include inns and closed off islands owned by rich fat men. Murders are rarely motivated by sociological reasons. All the cases are puzzle-driven and feature ridiculous murder weapons like an anvil tied to a melting ice cube. It is as old-school as it can go.
The most interesting part of the whole show is the character’s name. When Shinichi transforms into a kid and is asked by Ran what his name is, he sees some mystery books and names himself after two mystery writers: Edogawa Ranpo and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Edogawa Conan, as he is now known, is not just a portmanteau but a homage to traditional mystery writers.
We shouldn’t see that just as a clever joke; it is part of something bigger. The 本格ミステリー (honkaku misuteri) movement has caused a renaissance of traditional whodunnit mysteries. リラ荘殺人事件 (Rira sou satsujin jiken), published in 1968, can make the avid Western mystery reader feel like they have time-travelled to the past. The novel has zero characterization or an ounce of good writing like any Agatha Christie novel; instead, it’s all about looking through the details of the case. In this particular instance, the novel cracks at how alibis are done.
These mysteries are faithful to the forms of traditional mysteries the likes of Johnson Dickson Carr craved for. Writers are aware of Father Knox’s Ten Commandments and Van Dine’s Twenty Rules and follow them by heart. They are continuing the game left by the Americans and British and write compelling mystery books that capture the hearts of many readers. This is how Detective Conan is born; the mangaka is in love with these books and are continuing the tradition.
But in the year 1987, everything changed. A new phrase popped up: 新本格ミステリー. Shinhonkaku mystery first appeared in a recommendation for 十角館の殺人, but it has roots to リラ荘殺人事件. The adherence to the form of mysteries is wearing out and writers are beginning to try weird and crazy shit to make their books amazing. That said, these so-called new traditionalist mystery writers didn’t get the message that the detective fiction genre was outdated and kept on going full steam. They are living in the past and so do the readers.
Everyone writing and reading this genre is aware of it. 鏡の中は日曜日 (Kagami no naka wa nichiyoubi) is a mystery book written by Mephisto awarded writer Shuno Masayuki and plays with the time dissonance between 本格 (traditional) and 新本格 (new traditional). A modern detective in 2001 tries to investigate an already-solved case by another in 1985. The modern detective is a fan of the traditional detective and has read all of the books involving the latter. You actually read the “book” in chapters that detail the past and it provides information for the case. Stylistic quirks like not revealing the name of the university the suspects go to are present in these chapters; the chapters in the present show the name of the university as if it doesn’t matter. In any case, the “book” is well-written according to the modern detective but the hypothesis by the traditional detective doesn’t actually make sense in reality. When the modern detective visits the suspects and the inn the “book” takes place in, he is surprised every suspect has grown up to be normal depressed adults and the inn’s impractical design has been obliterated. The book ends with the modern detective asking an autograph from the traditional detective.
People trapped in the genre love everything about the setting, conventions, and plotting. But they also realize that none of this make sense in reality. Writers like Outarou Maijou play with mystery conventions in Disco Wednesdayyy, showing the ridiculousness of everything in the genre.
Yet, these books sell regardless of the realist critique given by Chandler or that the genre is in life support. Higashino Keigo’s mystery books have taken the top three spot in 2015.ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟 (Miracles of the Namiya General Store) is the number one selling book and has 801,068 copies moved, beating bestsellers like 船を編む (The Great Passage). In fact, there are a surprising amount of mysteries on the list: the Biblia series, Initiation Love, and books by mystery writers Minato Kanae and Miyabe Miyuki have all beaten the dreaded bestseller-for-life Sword Art Online. While some of these books have some of the hardboiled realism Chandler is talking about, there is no fucking way a Biblia book makes any sense whatsoever.
Every 新本格ミステリー writer is testing the limits of what mysteries can do. Early Mephisto winners are seen as pioneers of this movement. Mori Hiroshi, when he wrote すべてがFになる The Perfect Insider, has claimed that he is writing a 理系 (logical) version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None which he sees as 文系 (artistic). Seiryouin Ryuusui’sコズミック 世紀末探偵神話 (Cosmic) has been cited by writers like Maijou and Kodama as major influences on their fiction; it is a book that tries to stretch the limits of what closed room mysteries can do. Nisioisin’s Zaregoto series is an attempt to twist the genre around with every book.
In fact, Danganronpa is the continuation of this insane tradition of breaking traditions.
Mysteries have not died in video games. They are seen as important prime influencers in both the West and Japan. Western games like Her Story and Indigo Prophecy are sold as art games and, regardless of their poor quality, are important in developing an appreciation of video games as a form of art. This philosophy is best summarized in the G.K. Chesterton quote: “The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.” Meanwhile, Japanese ADV games (or visual novels) like Ace Attorney (逆転裁判) andポートピア連続殺人事件 (Kojima Hideo has said Portopia Serial Murder Case inspired him to make games) never seem to be out of the limelight.
Gamers are enamored with the thrill and suspense of these games. Unlike the typical “flustered old lady” mystery reader, these people love the craziness and weirdness of the characters and the murders. It isn’t difficult to find roleplay Tumblrs of Danganronpa and Ace Attorney; as of this writing, Danganronpa V3 is not out in English yet but that hasn’t stopped many Western fans from roleplaying these characters. Memes, Pixiv fanart, and Twitter avatars are abundant.
It is easy to forget that, in the midst of all this love for the genre, there is a literary history behind it. The connection between 新本格ミステリー and visual novels becomes apparent when you realize they they have grown up together. Their audiences and creators are living through Detective Conan airings and share a love for subcultures and a sense of humor for the postmodernist ridiculousness of everything.
An example: Sakuraba Kazuki, a Naoki awardwinning writer who has written books like 砂糖菓子の弾丸は撃ちぬけない A Lollypop or A Bullet, has ties to the visual novel industry for example. She has written infamous games like EVE the lost one which apparently has no connection to the series whatsoever. Sakuraba’s books are sometimes classified as 新本格ミステリー and include bizarre murders.
Japanese literature and subcultures are friends and enemies in the land of visual novels. The quirks of the 新本格ミステリー movement can be found in visual novels and are lamented as “visual novel tropes” that plague the medium when it has a basis in revered mystery books.
So subculture works especially Danganronpa can be seen as following the 新本格ミステリー movement. But what makes Danganronpa special is that the franchise uses itself to comment on this movement and the genre of detective fiction.
The first Danganronpa game sets the stage for the whole franchise. A mystery murder cum battle royale of wits, the series features characters who are classified by their specialties: for example, Kirigiri is a Super High School Detective. These traits are crucial to solving the mysteries in the game. The first mystery’s trick could only be done by one character who possesses a certain skill.
As the player progresses through the game, they learn about the extraordinary circumstances these characters are in. The characters are students of Hope’s Peak Academy, but they are trapped in the futuristic high school and are forced to solve murders done by a member of the class. If they solve the murder and figure out who did it, the murderer is spectacularly punished by Monokuma in absurd cutscenes. If they don’t, the murderer gets scot-free and everyone else dies. This life-or-death situation is apparent in the class courtroom trials where everyone battles it out with theories on how the murder is done.
The game ends with despair almost winning but hope gets a crazy comeback and wins in the end. This catharsis driven by hope overcoming despair is what makes the first game so well-loved by fans and gamers alike. It is a darker and edgier version of games like Ace Attorney. In the final case, you can really feel the despair of the characters as they learn about the truth of the world they are in. But you root for them as they take a step into the new world and decide their own future. This journey has captured the hearts of many players and becomes the foundation of the series. It is no wonder people love this game.
… Unless you’re me. I honestly found the game really tiring to play when most of the mysteries have clues that immediately point out the perpetrators. The game also suffers from flaws Chandler has already pointed out: the characterization save a few characters doesn’t exist. Then, there’s the whole premise of the game. Its setting is like a third-rate light novel and the characters are stupid badass people with no sense of personality except for their traits. It’s such an anime game that it has ceased to be anything realistic.
For a long time, I had a tough time reading mysteries if they felt like games. Playing Danganronpa 1 was the worst for me because it was a game. It’s weird because I loved reading mysteries as a kid. But the genre became more superficial as I grew up and read more books. I thought mysteries were basically lazy excuses for plots, so I avoided them as much as possible.
The only reason I played Danganronpa anyway was because I played it when the fan translation was out. I didn’t know Japanese then, so I was like anybody in the Western visual novel community and played anything — no matter how awful it might look — that resembled a VN. The game’s poor writing and mysteries really threw me off the loop as the series progressed. I didn’t care about the growing (and honestly insane) fandom for the series and refused to play it until people convinced me years later.
The year the final game V3 was released.
I don’t really talk about why I write a particular post in that same post — it’s unprofessional after all — but I have to be clear with this Danganronpa post. I am writing for people who thought Danganronpa was anime trash after playing the first game or seeing the fandom explode. It took me years to take the franchise seriously and not as “lol bricking shit” the game. A lot of that reasoning comes from not connecting 新本格ミステリー to otaku media. Others come from egregiously bad examples of Japanese mysteries like a certain well-loved game set on an island that make me think mysteries are not worth exploring anymore.
But I think mysteries in the hands of 新本格ミステリー writers and games like Danganronpa can go beyond the cliches and puzzles of mysteries. They don’t have to be sociological didactic works but an inspection of form and its impact on readers.
Super Danganronpa 2 touches on that by playing with expectations and assumptions players have after playing the first game. As a sequel, it has leeway to not only expand on the setting and gameplay but how we interact with the game.
By this point, players are accustomed to the structure of the game and even the characters are aware of the formula. Characters comment on the meta traits of one another as well as the mysteries they need to solve. Even the themes of hope and despair that should have been resolved in the first game come under the microscope again.
I have to even admit the mysteries are actually well-written. The fifth mystery has a damn good trick I wonder if anyone can solve it by the clues presented. It’s obvious now that I think about it, but the presentation of that mystery and the stakes there make it a compelling read nonetheless.
All of this can be explained by better writing and that Danganronpa 1 is actually a prologue for the real game Super Danganronpa 2. But that’s not just the reasons why it’s such a successful entry — it’s because it actually is a good 新本格ミステリー game.
The first game feels like a weird experiment in mysteries, but the second game is so fleshed out and developed it can be part of the conversation in the genre. Its mysteries are the evidence: none of the cases rely on the theatrics Ace Attorney employs but rather traditional conventions detectives often examine — alibis, murder weapon, time of death etc. The Monokuma files, which details the murder, sometimes have missing information that everyone ponders about. It is no different from リラ荘殺人事件 and that’s important. Super Danganronpa 2 is a savvy return to traditional mystery ideas and themes in its bizarre setting.
This is also why the final chapter and the ending can pull the rug under us and either leave us gasping for more or be extremely pissed. For the most part, the game has followed traditional mystery ideas until the end where nothing actually matters. It is a huge middle finger to people who expected more mysteries or of the same. The ending of the game is actually a commentary on Uminekozawa Melon’s 左巻キ式ラストリゾート (Samaki kiishiki Last Resort), an eroge that was adapted into a book and called by Azuma Hiroki (Database Animals guy) the “gravestone of the 00年代”. In that book, the book praises escapism as a challenge against the nihilism in reluctantly accepting reality. Super Danganronpa 2 becomes an antigame of sorts when it rejects that idea. That nihilism is only hesitation between the battle of hope and despair. Through the structure of the final chapter and mysteries, you can only arrive at the conclusion that you have to decide and carve your path to your own new future.
None of this could work if the game has not embraced its 新本格ミステリー roots: the genre is all about playing with form. It is the technical aspects that come under investigation, which then can become a more beneficial tool to examine ourselves.Chandler’s realist critique only works when the technical aspects aren’t focused upon. Japanese mysteries are not sociological lenses but experiments upon form. Mysteries (or art in general) are our tools to look into ourselves, so wouldn’t it make sense to look at their flaws and try to improve them? We need to look into why we are fooled or pissed when it comes to expectations and premises. That way, we can understand ourselves better.
So mysteries have to evolve if they want to stay relevant to our lives or else they become formulaic literature nobody reads. That’s the gist of 新本格ミステリー. Danganronpa V3 actually is a statement that affirms this logic.
It is a game that sacrifices itself to show how screwed up the genre is. Characters in this game feel more pain and despair than characters in previous entries. Murderers are driven by motives that are not only more believable but are forced by their humility to perform these egregious acts. When the senseless murder does happen, the characters realize how nonsensical everything is. More time has been given to developing these characters into fully fleshed out people. And the whole premise of Danganronpa is put into question with each trial.
The sheer inhumanity of the punishments can shred even the players’ cold hearts. This game makes you really attached to every character in the game, so you don’t want anyone to die. Everyone in the cast is not just some character with a distinctive trait but someone you could meet on the street.Its strength as a game is a complete reversal of the flaws in Danganronpa 1: we are dealing with actual people and not characters. Seeing them die for stupid things is pure despair.
And because these people are suffering and they feel real to us, we are forced to question the whole concept of the mystery genre. In a way, Danganronpa V3 is the culmination of everything what 新本格ミステリー stands for: this is the limit of where mysteries can go and we need to do something about it.
This struggle to love the genre and yet be faithful to reality is what makes 新本格ミステリー works. It is an important war between fiction and reality, creator and audience, truth and lies, and of course hope and despair. Everyone has to participate in this ongoing battle, not just the creators and characters. They have to ask why they are reading mysteries and why they keep doing so.
Or else, the genre will just collapse and be complete nonsense and, as said by Chandler, written (and read) by “no one or psychopaths”.
Raymond Chandler has a theory of what mystery readers actually want and laid it out in a letter to a Frederick Lewis Allen, the editor of Harper’s:
My theory was that readers just thought they cared nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialog and description. The things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers.
His “paperclip theory” is what Danganronpa V3 and 新本格ミステリー are going for. It is not the suspense and thrill people feel solving these mysteries in the book or game but the emotions everyone feels when characters they love die. The sadistic pleasure people have reading and playing these mysteries has little place in the grand scale of art. It is the desire for redemption that makes the genre work.
But that is only one solution. For Chandler, achieving that goal means going hardboiled. Japanese mysteries, on the other hand, are still playing with traditional conventions and the rules of the game. They don’t have to arrive at the same conclusion.
Yet, something has to change in Japanese mysteries. It has to adapt the forces of the market and the sensibilities of the reader. It can’t always rely on the same audience forever. It needs to step out of the comfort zone and make a change.
Writers can’t do it alone; the readers have to as well. Adapting to the changes requires everyone. It is this honest call for help from Danganronpa and the 新本格ミステリー writers that can make the form of mystery everyone loves endure in these trying times. We can’t just let some nobody ruin the principles of the establishment we adore destroy an important tradition we all need and respect.
Traditions have to evolve or they’ll go extinct. They may not be “traditional” in the strictest sense of the word, but they are still the same genre. Fans who say they love the genre and the game will have to create a new world order or see them fall to another senseless death.