Zaregoto – The Next Step from Philip Marlowe

Zaregoto’s amateur detective, Ii-chan, is a detective who would rather not do any detecting if he could help it, but he gets dragged into a mystery, anyway, and with his partner,  Tomo Kunagisa, Ii-chan goes through the motions of solving the seemingly impossible murders on an isolated island. But, as tends to happen, the murders give Il-chan a bit more than he bargains for.

(Some spoilers and hints about the conclusion of the first novel in the Zaregoto series are in this post, so read with caution if you have yet to take in this book.)

What is interesting about The Kubikiri Cycle is not so much the mystery itself but the way the world works around the mystery. Motivations, identity and worldviews are murky; the mystery has a how, but the why doesn’t totally make sense . . . or, rather, it is a bit beyond normal comprehension.

There are plenty of small character threads that are hanging around for Il-chan to tug. Sometimes he gets something, and sometimes there’s nothing on the other end. For instance, whenever Il-chan believes he has the three maids — Akari, Hikari and Teruko — figured out, something comes along to upset every conception he holds about the three. Maki Himena, the fortune teller who is always ready with an insult, remains just out of Il-chan’s mental grasp throughout the story, and her parting request for Il-chan throws him for a loop.

And, of course, the actual murders themselves and their resolution is ultimately beyond Il-chan, even though he gets nearly all the way to understanding the how — it’s that tricky why that puts the whole thing out of his reach. That whirlwind of an epilogue where everything Il-chan has learned is turned on its head strikes a chord; it’s not so much that the detective cannot completely solve the mystery that delivers the oomph (after all, many modern detective stories end on a similar note), but more so the inevitability of Il-chan’s failure to see the entire picture, because it seems as if his basic personality and the world itself are constructed to prevent him from neatly putting all the pieces together.

The detective has all the odds stacked against him in a way that is almost unfair. Who could possibly solve such a mystery? (Aside from Jun Aikawa, that is. :p) Even when making some of the insane logical leaps for which detectives are known and revered, Il-chan still cannot form the whole picture. He concentrates on the logical details like a good fictional detective, but because he doesn’t take the human element of the mystery completely into account, Il-chan can’t finish the job. In this way, The Kubikiri Cycle reminds me of a great detective movie from the early 1970s . . .

1973’s The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman, stars Elliot Gould as Raymond Chandler’s famous creation, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was originally written as a sort of modern (at that time) knight keeping some sense of light and morality on the mean streets of a decaying urban world, a hard-edged, hard-drinking, tough son of a bitch who would never bend no matter who tried to break him — not even the femme fatales for which these types of stories (and film noir) are famous.

The Long Goodbye twists that conception of Marlowe; it is written as if Marlowe  has been transported from the early 1950s (when the novel’s story takes place) to the early 1970s. It’s not literally time traveling, but Marlowe has the disoriented spirit of someone living in an age he cannot comprehend. Marlowe lives alone with his cat (and never seems able to feed it; it’s almost as if even the cat is full of contempt for Marlowe), is often unsure of how to respond to various characters (good, bad or neither) and stumbles through the mystery until he is finally woken up as he clues in to the one result he does not expect.

If the Raymond Chandler novels show Marlowe in a decaying world, then Altman’s movie shows him in a world that has died long ago. His role as a moral light in a harsh world is meaningless in this setting; to put it bluntly, traditional morality means jack shit in this world and is non-existent. The thugs are more brutal, the mysteries more maddening, the betrayals more sinister. Marlowe bumbles around because the world doesn’t need him as he is. I like the detail Roger Ebert points out in his essay on the movie: Marlowe spends 10 minutes searching for the right cat food; he is more loyal to his cat than anyone is to him. He lives by outdated values, and when the mystery finally becomes clear to Marlowe, it is because he solves it by the rules of this cruel, harsh world, and not by the rules of his moral values.

Marlowe is a suit-wearing, chain smoking, morally upright anachronism in a sex-soaked, violent, corrupt world built from the ground up to chew him up and spit him out.

Getting back to The Kubikiri Cycle, when I finished that book, it felt as if it completed this cycle of Marlowe — Chandler’s novels are the decaying world, Altman’s movie is the dead world and NISIOISIN’s world is one that has risen from the ashes of cynicism, technology and pure isolation. People seem to get along, but it’s only because they’re so far away from each other; islands are classic settings for mystery stories, but they also scream isolation in an emotional way. Everyone keeps their identities in plain view, and yet they seem distant nonetheless — Kunagisa and her computers; Ibuki and her need to draw alone; Himena and her permanent fixation on past, present and future; Yayoi and her cooking, which keeps her locked up in the kitchen; and Sonoyama, who seems closest to Il-chan of anyone aside from Kunagisa, but who ends up the furthest away.

Like The Long Goodbye, The Kubikiri Cycle is set up in a way where the mystery seems almost incidental. Il-chan drifts from clue to clue, scenario to scenario, figuring out isolated mind games but not quite seeing how they fit into a cohesive whole. He talks with everyone, gets funny feelings from them and ultimately dismisses his gut instincts because he cannot rationalize how they jive with his narrow view of the murders. Even though with every interaction he has with another person, it seems as if the mystery gets more confused in Il-chan’s mind, the progress toward the solution continues like clockwork until the point in the story where Kunagisa and Il-chan put their final plan into action based on the only solution they believe is possible.

But though it appears the case is closed, Il-chan’s assumptions are shown by Aikawa to have failed Il-chan. What appeared to be the conventional solution is ultimately meaningless. (Random interesting note: Raymond Chandler greatly disliked Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and the British style of murder mystery, which Chandler viewed the as neat, perfect puzzles waiting to be solved rather than the messy, emotional crimes about which he preferred to write.) And when Aikawa lays it all out on the table for Il-chan, he is left without a clear understanding of the why.

That’s what makes the world of The Kubikiri Cycle differ from The Long Goodbye, I think — the latter’s whys exist in a world of corruption and brutality, where morality has gone missing, but it’s still clear why people do what they do. The Zaregoto world, however, seems more a word entirely devoid of meaning, where the real mystery is our fellow man, and the lens of the detective is just not a good enough tool to clearly see the world for what it is. Il-chan leaves the island further away from his new acquaintances than he was when he first arrived — with the exception, of course, of Kunagisa — and through it all, he keeps drifting along, not really concerned about how wrong he was, because it’s just a hell of a bother.

After all, why should one get so worked up about a role that has long since expired, and which no longer holds any meaning? There are plenty of other things to do.

One random thing that didn’t really fit into what I was going for: I like how Il-chan casually tosses in suggestions that he has lived a pretty crazy, fucked up life. It’s fun to imagine what kind of weird shit he has gone through before coming to Wet Crow’s Feather Island.

Like 2DT, I pictured The Kubikiri Cycle like an anime universe, and even associated certain characters strongly with certain seiyuu. For instance, from the moment Shinya, Ibuki’s caretaker, appears, I heard his voice as Daisuke Ono. Sonoyama, meanwhile, gave off strong Miyuki Sawashiro vibes to me. And Jun Aikawa is definitely the Mitsuki Saiga type.

The Long Goodbye is a great movie, and along the same lines, Chinatown and Night Moves are great movies.

And just for fun, a famous essay by Raymond Chandler entitled “The Simple Art of Murder”. (You’re already interested, aren’t you? I can tell.)

9 Responses to “Zaregoto – The Next Step from Philip Marlowe”

  1. Modernity — meaning is king. Grand narratives are pursued, such as righteousness and morality. Altman’s film seems part of, or at least refers to this tradition.

    Zaregoto portrays a postmodern existence where meaning in the absolute sense is absent. Everything is arbitrary.

    The movie is as if portraying a loss and a hapless fight to get it back. The light novel starts off with absence already, and I don’t know if any of the characters — though I suspect some readers, remember love for it; meaning I mean.

    • Yeah, I’d say that is accurate in regards to Altman’s movie. Even if he is a pathetic sort of detective, we’re still meant to sympathize — at least to an extent — with Altman’s Marlowe, because he has genuine good in him and traits that should be kept alive, even if they are taken advantage of in a harsh world.

      With Zaregoto, I think there is a lack of meaning but also an attempt to FIND the meaning. The nagging feelings Il-chan initially ignores are important not just because they’re a detective’s instinct, but also because they’re feelings that allow him to connect with and understand (even in a limited way) someone who seems entirely unknowable. Maybe Il-chan doesn’t get it right his time, but there’s the possibility he could get it right down the road. (Or maybe not; maybe his personality is there to stay. Having read just the one book, I can only speculate!)

  2. I have to say I absolutely hated Zaregoto, well the first book anyway which didn’t encourage me to go further with the series. As a mystery fan the disregard to the actual mystery wasn’t something I could really accept.

    And randomly, I found the translation often hard to follow with dialogue often not being attached to a speaker.

    • I can definitely understand that criticism. What I liked about the book I found interesting enough to forgive the handling of the mystery, but I can’t say it didn’t irritate me. If I didn’t care about the kind of stuff I wrote about, I’m sure I would have hated Zaregoto, too, haha.

      And, yeah, I also agree with the point about the dialogue. I could keep up with most of it via the different tones of speakers and through a bit of re-reading, but a couple of cases were just too difficult for me to decipher who was speaking. Unless there’s a good reason for it, it shouldn’t be that difficult to tell who is talking.

      • I couldn’t help but think that the fact that Nisioisin translated the book himself was part of the problem. Another translator wouldn’t have missed that confusion, unless it was that way in the original and was supposed to be like that, but for someone who doesn’t protest when others label him a genius, intentionally confusing dialogue (due to poor structure and not content) is a little hard to swallow.

        • He translated the book himself? Interesting, I didn’t know that. I wonder if anyone approached him and said, “Hey, this is confusing — is there a compelling literary reason why it has to be this way?” I’d like to hear the answer to that.

          • Trying to figure out where I read that… I swear I didn’t just make that up.

          • …. Looks like I may have mis-remembered something I read on Beta-Waffle about the lack of an editing credit. Greg Moore is credited in places as the translator, though I don’t remember seeing that on the book itself. My copy is in my desk at work, so I can’t confirm that at the moment. This is what I get for trusting my senile brain while making comments sitting in traffic. Your point is still valid and I wonder if the text was formatted differently in the original to make it understandable. If not, then I’m curious as to the reason as well.

            /so totally embarrassed

  3. b0mb3r Says:

    Hi I am just a avid fan of Nisioisin’s work. I am just re-reading his 1st book since I just finished his 2nd. I stumble upon this great article and I have a few questions. Excuse my idiocy since there some things I don’t quite get what you wrote:

    I understand Ii-chan lack empathy for others but how does that affect his detective work? The “guts” feeling he ignores is that essential? How was that portrayed in the novel? Maybe I am a poor observer but how does this effect how he view the mystery and later got screwed over by Jun? Is it really consider narrow?

    Off a de-railing note how are these genius not considered genius at the end? I still think they are. Can you explain that to me?

    I could be blinded since I can relate to the narrator a little too much.

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