Zaregoto Series: An Introduction to Shinhonkaku Mysteries and Nisioisin

In the beginning, God created mysteries.

Humans, those servants of God, were at awe by His ways. The weather could change at will, floods can wipe out villages and collectives, diseases and plagues creep into homes and snatch sleeping souls away — all are done in the hands of this omniscient and overpowering God. His acts take the breath of people away.

But when the first detective of the world figured out how to make fire, they have brought upon us the Original Sin. “As long as you have mystery, you have health,” G.K. Chesterton writes, “when you destroy mystery, you create morbidity.” He was right. Detectives began to reveal the inner workings of the world. They showed us reality. They gave us the fruit of knowledge. This knowledge flowed quicker than the river of Nile. Everyone saw the truth behind the mystery and the mysticism of God vanished. The unknown is now the known. He became less of a mysterious figure and more like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be finished.

Mysteries only exist to be solved. Perfect crimes exist for the great detectives. God was a locked room mystery that needed a key.

God is dead. Mysteries are dead. Detectives are alive. We are alive.

It is this nihilism that dictated the soul of the new traditional Japanese mysteries, the shinhonkaku mystery (新本格ミステリー) movement. What does it mean to write a mystery in a godless world with no mysteries to solve? Can such a thing exist? Can we still have mysteries in a not-so-mysterious world?

To ask such questions may be proof that God and mysteries still exist out there.


So where are these mysteries, you may ask? They can be found on a bookshelf in your local bookstore or international Amazon.com. Names like Stieg Larsson and Dennis Lehane may ring a bell. They are good reads on the airplane or the train; it is also nice to enjoy these books with a tasteless cup of coffee from Starbucks. These mysteries — these small miraculous creations made by one of us — are pure entertainment and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them.

But they are not the kind that make you marvel at the work. Sure, a twist could give you a little scare. However, once it is over, they aren’t that mysterious anymore. You can flip to the end of the book and see that, yes, that bastard you thought all along was in fact the killer. What about those three hundred and eight pages you skipped though? In most mystery books, they are nothing but filler content — red herrings, very slow buildup, and so on. The book you have just bought won’t leave a lasting impression on you. That’s fine if you just want a nice thriller to read. They often become pretty good Hollywood action movies.

However, mysteries can be something more than adaptation material for Hollywood.

Enter the world of Japanese mysteries. They too can be found in bookstores and Amazon.com, but they may give you a punch in the gut. Provocative, explosive, and even dangerous — these books tend to be subversive and critical on how we look at the world. People who encounter them would either fall in love with the genre or throw away the books because of their explorations on the ambiguity of life.

Today’s Japanese mysteries mostly come from the shinhonkaku movement. It is, to put it lightly, a mystery movement asking us to see the genre in a different light. They engage in a discussion with novels of previous generations and invert our expectations that we have built up from reading these mysteries. In essence, these mysteries destroy older mystery books.

This destruction of nostalgia isn’t a sign of their hatred of their past. It is a love letter to those good ol’ days and why they can’t write these old-fashioned mysteries anymore.

It is sometimes necessary to destroy our nostalgia. The shinhonkaku writers grew up reading honkaku (本格, i.e. traditional) mysteries, but they are unable to write a version of their favorite books for a modern audience.

After all, would most people want to read something as antiquated as a whodunnit today? Because that’s what a honkaku mystery essentially is. It is the old-school mysteries we imagine Sherlock Holmes would solve. Nobody can write these mysteries seriously anymore; by the time World War II began, people began caricaturing those mysteries written in the 1920s and 30s in a parodic fashion. Americans were writing hardboiled mysteries while the Brits began to be observant on the battlefield.

But the Japanese writers went on writing these mysteries, even way after World War II ended. In the 70s and 80s, it was not unusual to find these traditional mysteries on bookshelves everywhere. Then, a honkaku mystery writer by the name of Yokomizo Seishi brought everyone to their knees with his wonderfully crafted mysteries. In an age when mysteries were dead in the English-speaking world, Yokomizo and his publisher Kadokawa Bunko were able to create a mystery boom. Many writers — old and new, good and bad — rode on his coattails and created a new era of mysteries that impressed upon the minds of future shinhonkaku writers.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn then that honkaku writers were inspired by the British Golden Age of Mystery, that era that had now been parodied to death. Names like Agatha Christie would pop up in their books about college kids vacationing to big estates for holidays. Like their British predecessors, the honkaku writers saw the books not as novels but as puzzles, a challenge to the reader to figure out who did it before they reach the end of the book.

Rules like SS Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” remind future writers that:

“the detective story is a game. It is more–it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader’s interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws–unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.”

Of course, today’s Western readers don’t want a game. That’s why mysteries died out in the West. Readers want more of the sociology of the world they live, the struggle of PIs like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and the human emotions that explode out of the page. Christie imitators slept with the fishes and hardboiled fiction still reigns supreme today, influencing not only thrillers but nonfiction books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Yet, the honkaku writers kept on writing. Hardboiled fiction would also appear in Japan, but more puzzlers were getting written. People still enjoyed reading these books right before the 90s happened.

However, people began to be more aware that this couldn’t go on. Modernism and postmodernism were knocking on these mystery writers’ doors, telling them to be quiet for once. This roused the children next door; they could only get out of their beds, rub their eyes, and listen to their complaints. These puzzles the mystery writers were writing weren’t really puzzles; they’re defective. They not only broke the rules mystery writers had claimed to follow but their books actually don’t make much sense. This trauma never left these children who would eventually become shinhonkaku writers and mystery critics. These two factions began dismantling the genre piece by piece.

The many criticisms of Japanese traditional mysteries had can be summed up in two major problems dubbed as the “Later Ellery Queen Problems” (後期クイーン的問題):

「作中で探偵が最終的に提示した解決が、本当に真の解決かどうか作中では証明できないこと」
“Even though the detective may present their deductions and solve the case, the actual truth of the mystery novel cannot be revealed.”

「作中で探偵が神であるかの様に振るまい、登場人物の運命を決定することについての是非」
“In the mystery novel, the detective plays God while the fate of the rest of the case has been decided.”

(My translations)

In the first problem, it reveals that detectives are just as human as us. No one is that superhuman. Western thinkers like Pierre Bayard have written books like Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong and reinvestigated classics like The Hound of the Baskerville to show how flawed the methodology was as an exercise of close reading; he describes his brand of “detective criticism” as thus:

“Many of the murders narrated in literature were not committed by the people accused by the text. In literature as in life, the true criminals often elude the investigators and allow secondary characters to be accused and condemned. In its passion for justice, detective criticism commits itself to rediscovering the truth. If it is unable to arrest the guilty parties, it can at least clear the names of the innocent.”

While Bayard plays with it as a theoretical exercise, shinhonkaku writers go further: they reveal the mystery genre as deeply flawed and, by extension, humanity as myopic and biased. They can make mistakes in their deductions or worse, lie. Shuunou Masayuki’s books like ハサミ男 and 鏡の中は日曜日 reveal that detectives are prone to mistakes and criminals can get away as the victors of the book.

In the second Queen problem, the detectives are gods — they are in fact demigod figures like Heracles in Greek mythology — and toy with the fate of mankind. I have written about this in regards to Disco Wednesdayyy and Edgar Allan Poe’s ratiocination tales, so I recommend reading that if you’re interested in it. Suffice to say, writers and detectives playing as gods are along the lines of fantasy and not reality. We the readers aren’t able to solve the mysteries, even if we wanted to.

The general rulebook of mysteries is thus not a rulebook. The rules aren’t real and their artificiality has huge holes one can fit their finger in them. Mysteries are just convoluted puzzles that require a high level of suspension of disbelief.

Even before the advent of cellphones which eliminated most alibi tricks, the genre of mysteries under these attacks became more or less a zombie. Half alive, half dead, it roams about in the middle of the night with nowhere to go.

And yet, these shinhonkaku writers are still in love with that zombie. That’s why they write — they know they are necrophiliacs.


The first book ever marketed as a shinhonkaku mystery book, 十角館の殺人 (The Decagon House Murders), may not be impressive today. But its twist was revolutionary and its statement that mysteries were outdated regardless of whatever philosophical debates people may have about mysteries created a huge impression on many readers of the day.

Many writers followed in its wake. The Holmes and Watson duo are interrogated in Shimada Souji’s works like 占星術殺人事件 (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) and blatant commentary on how we perceive and misperceive turn these mystery novels into novels about us. The consequences of geniuses and Ubermensch in our world are examined through the symbolism of a detective wrecking the status quo.

Shinhonkaku mysteries are still flawed games, but they have a bigger ambition; as writers struggle to make sense of what they write, they begin to touch on subjects that may be taboos in other genres of literature. Each work is reformulating our conceptions of what a mystery should be.

It is in this era of eccentric mystery writers when the writer known as Nisioisin picked up his first mystery books, Byebye Angel by Kasai Kiyoshi and 亜愛一郎の狼狽 by Tsumao Awasaka, during middle school. Their plots must have been radical to him. The latter writer also introduced Nisio into the joy of manipulating words (言葉遊び) and Nisio’s punny penname was inspired by Tsumao’s. When he looked for these books again as an adult, these previously out-of-print books were reprinted again on another label and thought this was fate. Through this immersion of shinhonkaku mystery books do we get the Nisioisin everyone loves.

Ideas and concepts now familiar to us in Zaregoto and Monogatari first lived as shinhonkaku mystery tropes and techniques. In Zaregoto Dictional, he cites an unnamed mystery book series where the detective figure has disappeared midway through the series; characters are confused until the end where the detective appears shortly like a Superman to lay out their deductions. This formula haunted him, first appearing in Zaregoto but also manifesting in different forms such as the anticlimaxes in 十二大戦 (Zodiac War).

Nisioisin became one of the many writers who found themselves writing shinhonkaku mystery-styled books. He appeared at the right time when the Mephisto magazine was asking for submissions from new writers in a contest for the coveted Mephisto Prize. An award that praises the excellence of the radical writing in debut mysteries, its books has shaped the generations of mystery writers and readers to come. In 2002, Nisio’s first novel* クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い (Decapitation – Kubikiri Cycle: The Blue Savant and the Nonsense User) won the 23rd Mephisto Prize and joined the annals of shinhonkaku mystery history alongside 煙か土か食い物 Smoke, Soil or Sacrifices by Outarou Maijou and Cosmic by Seiryouin Ryuusei. The latter praised Nisioisin’s writing as an excellent piece of literature and the Kodansha NOVELS imprint printed the book on February that year.

He was just 20 years old when his first award-winning novel was published.


Nisioisin’s connection to the shinhonkaku movement remained strong till the end of Zaregoto. It wasn’t unusual to see the books be on the same shelf with other Kodansha NOVELS writers like Higashino Keigo, a literary mystery writer who started on the same imprint and now popular for 容疑者Xの献身 (The Devotion of Suspect X). Nisio’s stories were serialized in the popular Faust magazine where Mephisto Prize-winning writers visual novel scenarists like Kinoko Nasu of Fate wrote together in the same volume. 誰にも続かない was one Faust collaboration: Nisio described himself as the anchor while Otsuichi (GOTH), Kitayama Takekuni (『クロック城』殺人事件), Satou Yuuya, and Takimoto Tatsuhiko (Welcome to the NHK) wrote the story. He also wrote ニンギョウがニンギョウ for the magazine. ダブルダウン勘繰郎 and トリプルプレイ助悪郎, together with Maijou’s 九十九十九 and literary critic/novelist Ootsuka Eiji’s and mangaka Hashii Chizu’s 探偵儀式, are tributes to the JDC (Japan Detective Club) series written by Seiryouin. He was already a big name then, way before Studio SHAFT adapted the Monogatari series.

Nowadays, he doesn’t write much shinhonkaku mysteries. Works like Okitegami are more like those old-school traditional mysteries he always wanted to write, even if the gimmick is an amnesiac girl playing detective. Nisio isn’t exploring the limits of mysteries anymore. Yet, he still exploits the rules and conventions of storytelling in visual novels like the Monogatari series and shounen manga tropes like Medaka Box. None of this meta love letters would be possible without his childhood of shinhonkaku mysteries and his breakout series, Zaregoto.

And Zaregoto‘s legacy is beyond anybody’s ability to write. The work has influenced many, many, many creators. Ii-chan’s narration, the strange mixture of Osamu Dazai’s protagonist in 人間失格 (No Longer Human) and JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, has infected writers — light novels and mainstream/literary — without them realizing. It is not an exaggeration to say that visual novels like Danganronpa would not exist without Zaregoto.The worldbuilding techniques that writers associate with the likes of Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere could be charted to the Zaregoto series. Its influence goes beyond the constraints of genre and literature: it may be one of the many parts that constitute what a Japanese novel can be.

This is the first of eight (maybe?) posts on the Zaregoto series where I will talk about the books without too much of spoilers and my impressions on the series’ themes. The series changed my thoughts on how mysteries worked, why stories affected me, and so on. At the same time, I’ll talk about its shortcomings and why the series is flawed. It is a messy series as we will soon see, but there is a charm to this that can’t be found in Nisio’s future (more polished) works.

I hope this series of posts will be fun and informative to read. Reading this series of posts again, I have come to the conclusion I have mostly written over the top nonsense — probably the kind that Ii-chan will give me a pat on the back for. Maybe this juvenile talk of mine and Ii-chan can provide some meaning into the chaotic nonsense of the world we live in today. Maybe it could be a long detour but in the end it will lead us to the royal road of faith.

So let our digressions begin: with Kubikiri Cycle starting the cycle next week.

An all red fairy tale starts the cycle.

 

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8 thoughts on “Zaregoto Series: An Introduction to Shinhonkaku Mysteries and Nisioisin

  1. Anony-mouse99 July 11, 2018 / 5:35 am

    Thanks for doing this series. I’ve always been interested in Nisio Isin’s background. I’ve read someone alluding to the mystery genre being his forte and not fantasy. Not knowing Japanese makes it difficult to find out this information. Looking forward to your exposition on Zaregoto.

    • Kastel July 12, 2018 / 4:51 am

      Thank you for reading this! The next posts are more like my silly analyses of the books in the series, their themes, and how they are juggling with the ideas of shinhonkaku mysteries. I hope you look forward to them as much as me!

  2. i July 15, 2018 / 6:47 am

    i have no clever comment to drop here other than thank you for writing about zaregoto, and your writing is very good and comfortable to read. keep it up.

    • Kastel July 17, 2018 / 9:42 pm

      Thank you for reading this. I’m happy that you commented regardless; it’s always good to feel like I’m being read!

  3. Banroh July 15, 2018 / 6:39 pm

    Thanks for another interesting article. I have some questions though.

    >storytelling in visual novels like the Monogatari series

    I think you meant light novels. Or are there any Monogatari visual novels that I’m simply not aware of?

    >The worldbuilding techniques that writers associate with the likes of Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere could be charted to the Zaregoto series.

    I’d love to see a particular example. I have read only two volumes of Zaregoto and I couldn’t find any similarities. IIRC Kawakami said he had the whole thing planned out from the CITY series and is now basically filling in the blanks.

    • Kastel July 17, 2018 / 9:41 pm

      > Regarding Monogatari/visual novels

      Wow, I didn’t think the phrasing would be this confusing. Go English.

      What I mean essentially is “visual novel storytelling” found in Monogatari. It’s pretty much Nisio playing with the ideas found in visual novel presentation/storytelling.

      Also, fun fact: people often debate whether Zaregoto, Monogatari, and other Nisio titles are light novels. I plan to talk about this in this Zaregoto series.

      > Regarding worldbuilding

      I’ll talk about this in later posts of the series because they don’t really pop up in the first two books. But basically, the third book (Kubitsuri High School), the fifth (Hitokui Magical), and the sixth/last books (Nekosogi Radical) just dump you setting information out of nowhere. A decent example I can provide at the moment involves Zerozaki Hitoshiki’s family; they’re just one of the many types of assassin families in the world of Zaregoto. Later books show that they are everywhere and are employed by the various “worlds” like the business world. It gets ridiculously complicated and Nisio doesn’t really go out to explain any of this shit.

      If you really want to dive into the lore, Zaregoto spinoffs including (and especially) the Ningen series talk about the setting way more than the Zaregoto titles. They are pretty silly and made up on the go unlike Kawakami’s CITY megaseries. I just find the infodumping quite similar.

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