The Kindaichi Case Files: The Opera House Murders (Operazakan Satsujin) (1993)
by Yozaburo Kanari and Fumiya Sato
After the last review, I needed something completely different to cleanse my palate - and what luck! Next on the list was this little mystery manga from the nineties (I mistakenly listed it as 2003, but that's just when the translation was published in the U.S.; it was first published in Japan in 1993), as different as apples are from beavers. Thank goodness. I haven't had the chance to review too many resources yet in this project that weren't American or British, simply because so many of them aren't translated or available to the English-speaking world (Mid-nightmare, wherefore hast thou forsaken me?), so I was very excited to see how it might differ from the western interpretations I'm more used to.
As in any comic book adaptation, the art is front and center; Sato's illustrations are a little on the ho-hum side, very much reminiscent of a thousand other mangas from the same time period. It's not bad, of course - the ideas come across just fine and the characters and set pieces are distinguishable from one another, but there's nothing innovative or exciting to look at, and Tokyopop's predilection for computer-generated shading and effects doesn't help matters much. It facilitates the story, so I have no real complaints, but it isn't anything you could call stimulating or interesting, even from a layman's art perspective.
The basic premise of the story is that Kindaichi, a typical no-good layabout rebel in a Japanese high school, is accompanying the drama club on a retreat/rehearsal clinic that they've been planning, at the behest of his actress friend Miyuki. The setup is reliably clichéd - Kindaichi is pretty much textbook "bad boy with a heart of gold", Miyuki is your usual "sweet, shy good girl whose love will eventually warm him", and much ado is made of how Kindaichi, despite his incredibly low marks in all subjects, is actually a genius with the highest entrance test scores in history. Oh, and his grandfather was a famous detective, which everyone assumes he also must be (spoiler: he is) because apparently detectiving is genetic. None of this is too painful; it's just also not interesting, and I was glad when we moved away from the frankly rather flat characters and got on to the mystery. I recognize that this is the first book in a long series, so there will probably be less of a hurried introduction and more character development in later installments, but I would still have preferred something a little less right out of the can.
The drama club is currently studying and planning to perform The Phantom of the Opera, naturally; interestingly, they refer to the author several times as Gaston Leroux, despite the fact that they are presenting the story as a play and not as a novel. It appears that Kanari is intentionally fudging facts a bit to claim that Leroux himself wrote a stage version of his story, which is fine with me for story purposes; it's even more intriguing that there doesn't appear to be too much influence from the Lloyd Webber musical, which is where one would usually assume a stage adaptation might draw source material.
The opera house of the title is not actually an opera house at all; it's the Opera House Hotel, a large hotel on an otherwise uninhabited island, boasting a large stage and performance area due to having once been the mansion of an eccentric drama-lover. The architecture of the establishing shot of the place is especially similar to that of the opera house in the 1995 Yu/Cheung film, but since that movie was released two years after this book, there can't be a direct connection. I wonder if they were drawing from a similar source in their designs for the building. The owner of the place (as in many modern adaptations, both managers have been squashed into one to save time), Kasuma Kurosawa, has a large scar down one side of his face, an interesting visual element for his character considering the direction the story is going to take. While he isn't actually the Phantom character, he fulfills the directorial role ably, and his decision to hide himself away in a hotel on a deserted island due to personal tragedy in his past is reminiscent of Leroux's Erik and his retreat from society.
The mask used for the play (and, naturally, for the Phantom himself once he shows up) is a full-faced affair, resembling more the ones from the 1943 Lubin/Rains or 1990 Richardson/Dance films than anything else. Since it's a black-and-white comic, there's not a lot of detail to be hand, but based on later evidence I'm leaning more toward the 1943 film as a source of inspiration for this.
The tragic story of a young actress from the drama club, Fuyuko Tsukishima, forms the main centerpiece of this story. She was horribly scarred by sulfuric acid in a science lab accident, leaving her irreparably disfigured and causing her to take her own life not long after regaining consciousness; the combination of the sulfuric acid and the full-face bandages that she wears in her few flashback appearances remind me powerfully of the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film, especially in light of later information, and the piteous imagery sets her up very well as a sympathetic, innocent Phantom in the fine tradition of the 1937, 1943, and 1962 films. It's also interesting to note that this is only the second time I've seen a female even nominally in the role of the Phantom (the first being Ransom's 1989 short story "Dark Angel"). Her very public suicide, which involved her leaping off a roof to her death in front of the entire drama club, has left the high school kids understandably a little traumatized and prone to depression and funks as they try to soldier on with their production anyway, now with another (and, it is repeatedly stated, inferior) actress in the lead role.
Since this is a hotel, there are other guests present, whose function is pretty much solely to provide more avenues for red herrings so the mystery doesn't clear up too quickly. In particular, a brash, rude detective (well, there's got to be some competition for young Kindaichi to show up, right?) and a doctor who prefers to eat his food with scalpels and medical instruments (eww) are more grating than entertaining, as they have no personalities and are pretty much just bundles of quirks thrust at the reader in a distraction tactic. Luckily, not much time will be devoted to them because somebody has been murdered by page 64.
The unlucky victim is one Orie Hidaka, a bright young girl we saw in the role of Meg earlier in rehearsals; she's been crushed to death by a fallen lighting rig, leaving her pinned and splattered over much of the stage. Sato doesn't skimp on the gore; there's blood, and a lot of it, and the dead girl is very thoroughly dead-looking. Everyone is inclined to believe that this is an accident since the theatre is so old, but Kindaichi's discovery of the neatly-cut cable that was holding the rig up clues everyone in that this was premeditated murder, and it's off to the whodunit we go. While Kanari's drama is often poorly paced and uninteresting, his mystery is compelling; despite a few annoying touches here and there, he does use many of the classic forms (the locked-room conundrum, false identities, etc.) to great effect, and it's not easy to pin down the culprit early in the story. At this point, no one (including me) is sure why anyone would want to kill Orie, and until the bad weather lets up enough for them to boat back to the mainland, they're stuck trying to figure out who did it before the killer strikes again (DUN DUN DUNNNN).
Since no one has really seen the Phantom at this point, there's much speculation over whether this is someone reacting violently to Fuyuko's death (the spray-painting of some of her last words all over a room in the hotel seems to indicate that she is at the center of the murderer's motivations) or whether it might be the ghost of the girl herself; it becomes obvious to the reader in pretty short order that the Phantom is a large figure who doesn't seem to physically match Fuyuko, but since the characters don't get to see as much of him as we do the story manages to maintain a good balance between down-to-earth crime investigation and supernatural tingling. There really isn't much mystery about that, but the story doesn't suffer for it.
Wanton destruction of all the play's props reminds me of the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, though that Phantom was mostly benevolent and this one is apparently anything but. A more hilarious film tie-in is the fact that someone brought a crossbow to the theatre (why? I have no idea! they said it was for the play - a fully-functioning, loaded crossbow!) and the Phantom has stolen it. Oh, Friedman/Rydall film! Everywhere I go, there you are... bafflingly.
We finally get a synopsis of the "play by Gaston Leroux" that everyone is supposed to be performing here, and it has several very interesting features. In it, the Phantom kills an actress in order to give Christine her shot at the big time - but it's not Carlotta. Instead, he kills another woman and then starts a campaign of rumors that lead the management to believe Carlotta is cursed, removing her from the show without any violence directed at her person. It's an interesting idea because of the implication that the Phantom was intentionally avoiding causing Carlotta harm; this might suggest that he values her voice or performance ability, or even that there is a pre-existing relationship (teacher/student, or even romantic) between the two. His second murder is the strangling (by hand; there doesn't appear to be a lasso in the art anywhere here) of a stagehand who knew his identity and might have outed his secret; this reminds me most strongly of the contemporarily released game Return of the Phantom, in which the stagehand, Jacques, was killed because of his childhood knowledge of the Phantom. His third and final murder is the drowning of a man in the underground lake, after the fellow chased after him during his abduction of Christine; it's not clear whether this is meant to be Raoul, meaning that he is killed in this version of the story (a la the 1989 Little/Englund film) or whether Phillippe is finally getting his moment in the sun (or dank, murky water) here, but either way it's an interesting choice. It's telling when it comes to the author's perception of this story (or at least his choice of it as a vehicle for his mystery): Raoul is never mentioned elsewhere in the recap, suggesting that Kanari is not particularly interested in the romantic facets of the story, and whether he ends up dead or Phillippe's often-overlooked demise is included in the retelling despite many other details being omitted, it implies to me that Kanari is much more fixated on the horror and mystery aspects of the story. This is a mystery with heavy elements of horror attached, and Leroux's suspense novel provides a perfect background for it.
Another interesting possible influence is revealed when, in trying to figure out how the Phantom might be moving around the hotel unseen, someone suggests hidden passageways and relates an anecdote about rich people in times past hiding their unwanted children in basement oubliettes. This has obvious shades of Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask from his The Three Musketeers stories, an idea we've seen tied to the Phantom story (the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film comes to mind) a few times by virtue of the mask, and also provides a semi-plausible (within the realm of sensational detective fiction, anyway) reason for the Phantom to be able to run around with impunity.
Because no one has yet solved the mystery, a second girl from the drama club, Harumi Kiriyuu (playing the role of Carlotta), is killed, apparently hung from a tree outside her window. A predictable amount of panic ensues when everyone realizes that the Phantom's killings are patterned after those in the play (the first killing was a dropped chandelier, the second a strangling, and so forth). The hanging is a more traditional method of Phantom murder, showing the story's roots, and the following anonymous note informing one of the two remaining girls, Ryoko Saotome, that she must allow the deceased Fuyuko to play the lead role (ironically, the part of Christine, of course) is another direct import from Leroux's tale. Kanari overdoes it a little bit when it comes to trying to make the owner look suspicious; if his strange, squint-eyed looks at the girls now and then weren't enough, we also find out that his 17-year-old daughter died about four years ago (my mind went there first, too, but Fuyuko died much more recently than that, so that can't be the connection). It's overplayed just a little too much, so there's no way the reader is really falling for it, though again it does serve adequately as a distracting tactic to keep them from really examining other people.
The twist in the story has finally arrived, and it's an interesting one; it turns out that Ryoko and the deceased Harumi and Orie, jealous of Fuyuko's talent and featured role, staged the lab accident that disfigured her (they were just trying to frighten her, not destroy her face forever, but panic and flailing don't mix well with open containers of acid). While we've occasionally seen examples of jealousy or ill-will toward Christine for her success in other sources (the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, for example, or the 1998 D'Amato/Foster adult film), usually from Carlotta, we've never seen a triumvirate diva before, nor has that jealousy ever resulted in her death or serious injury. It's also a very interesting inversion that Fuyuko, who now seems to function obviously as the Christine character, is the one who ends up horribly disfigured and shunned. It's now clear what the Phantom killer is after: revenge for Fuyuko's injury and death, and in turn, because of the way that Kanari is enjoying turning all the characters inside-out here, I now have a pretty decent idea who the culprit is. It's done well enough, though, that it doesn't feel either trite or visible from a mile away, so I have no issue with that.
Another little snippet from the Leroux "play" that they're performing is that the Phantom is cornered at the end of the play and presumably dies; this would also seem to indicate influence from the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film, or possibly from the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, both of which featured a mostly-blameless Phantom being cornered and killed by his enemies in the heart of his domain.
In the end, when Christine has the Phantom's face, Carlotta, Meg, and Christine are being killed for causing it, and the manager looks mighty suspicious and creepy, there's only one place left to look for the murderer, and of course that's who it turns out to be: Raoul. Or, more specifically, Yuji Arimori, the kid playing Raoul in the play, who, it is revealed, was engaged to Fuyuko and who learned the truth of the incident that so badly scarred her shortly before her suicide. Thematically, it's a very interesting idea; instead of having the Phantom and Raoul at odds with one another over Christine, Raoul becomes the Phantom after losing his love, illustrating the effect of such irreparable trauma on both his psyche and hers. The traditional conflict between the two characters is not lost, either; the revelation of a letter written by Fuyuko pre-suicide begging him not to seek revenge for her very pithily underlines the difference between the gentle, loving man she had been engaged to and the crazed monster he has become by the end of the story. The idea of the gentle Raoul archetype going mad to become the violent Phantom one is one I haven't seen before in this project (authors who claim for convenience's sake that he was always evil are not counted in this tally), and it's handled surprisingly well for the brevity and shallowness of the size and format of the narrative. In the end, realizing that he has become something that Fuyuko would not have loved, Arimori commits suicide via crossbow bolt, a poignant end for the divided personality he had become.
Of course, I could have done without Kindaichi constantly inserting himself into the proceedings and screaming "WHY?!?!?!" with tears streaming down his face after Arimori kills himself. It's not all about YOU, random high school boy. Let the people with a point to make through!
A further suggestion made in the text is that Fuyuko, her life and future destroyed, killed herself not to avoid suffering but to avoid becoming the bitter creature she believed she was now fated to be; her farewell note is filled with references to the hatred and bitterness she can feel building inside her and to her desire to leave the world without causing it more harm. This points toward a further layer of symbolism, suggesting that Fuyuko would have become the Phantom had she lived, and that Arimori took that role on for her after her death, allowing her to reach heaven pure, as was her wish.
For those interested, by the way, it turns out that the owner's daughter, left by the man she loved, had committed suicide via poison onstage four years ago, which is why he seems so moody and obsessed with things going on there. Additionally, it's revealed that the play she was performing in was also The Phantom of the Opera, and the final suggestion that the theatre or possibly the play itself is cursed is one we've seen before, most obviously in the 1987 Argento/Barberini film and the 1997 Spencer musical.
An interesting side conversation occurred when John, hanging out with me in line while I was reading this, looked over my shoulder at the full-page spread of Orie's grisly demise and said, "Why is her skirt hiked up so I can see her panties?" This was a good question, since we didn't have any sexual or romantic vibes or story elements at all in this little volume. We actually found that, far from being an isolated incident, the deaths actually escalated in nudity and titillation factor; Harumi's hung corpse is wearing only panties and a rain-soaked white shirt, clearly showing her erect nipples beneath it, and the murdered music teacher is stripped entirely naked and dropped into a bathtub, from whence her generous curves are on full display for more than three pages. While the bathtub corpse's nudity could be said to be included for shock value, the other two seem to be purely for the hell of it. I suggested that horror films often include an element of sexuality in murders; it's one of the reasons that a disproportionate number of horror film victims are attractive females, and might have something to do with an idea of helpless, distressed females being sexually exciting (Dario Argento is quoted as saying that he likes beautiful women and "would rather watch a beautiful woman be killed than a not-so-beautiful one"). I also put forth that the book has no real romantic or sexual plots, so perhaps Kanari was trying to include something to keep readers looking for one mollified, and that it might be an artistic choice on Sato's part, juxtaposing the attractiveness of the girls with the ugliness of their deaths, highlighting both.
His male-perspective response: "No. They're just using it to show some skin on girls who can't fight back. It's gross."
And he's right, really. Horror movies don't accidentally sexualize the murder of women and girls, they do it on purpose, and this book carries on with the same idea.
The framework of this story is frankly pretty bad. The recurring characters, who I assume will go on to other mysteries later in the series, are a cookie-cutter cast without much to recommend them beyond their ability to show up where things are happening, and the comic relief and attempts to confuse the reader are uninteresting at best. But where Kanari really shines is in his adaptation of Leroux's story, which he not only retains fairly cohesively but also turns upside-down and interprets through the lens of a different culture, leading to very intriguing results and a mystery that doesn't give up before the finish line.
Sometimes great source material just shines through, and some authors are mediocre storytellers but born interpreters, and I'm okay with that.