Friday, February 14, 2014

C.M.B. volume 17 review

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C.M.B., vol. 17, by Katou Motohiro. Grade: B

(East Berlin during the Cold War.)

Puriniusu no Hakubutsushi (The Natural History of G. Plinius Secundus, Monthly Shonen Magajin, 2011).
1980's, Germany. During the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., East Berlin is a terrible place to live, what with the beatings of citizens by the secret police and food shortages. Attempts by citizens to tunnel out under the Berlin wall usually result in capture and death. One couple, Roje and Mary Mendel, are willing to take the risks in order to get themselves and their son, Erik, to the other side. Their "savior" is Jan Buckle, a West German truck driver with papers that let him get past the border guards. He has an empty space between the bed and back axel large enough to hold all three people. The Mendels have an original copy of the Natural History by Pliny the Elder, which they hope to sell and use the money to open a restaurant. Unfortunately, Buckle seems to look at the book too greedily. Matters are further complicated when he tries to sedate the 5-year-old Erik prior to loading them into the truck. Mary objects, and Buckle states that he can't trust the boy to stay quiet while hidden. Mary and Roje are adamant so Buckle is forced to let Erik ride up front with him, disguised as his younger brother. Later, Buckle drives the truck to the checkpoint and the guards do a thorough inspection of the exterior. They don't find anything and wave the truck through. Suddenly, though, one of the guards yells for Buckle to stop. Jan shouts that everything he said was a lie, and hits the gas, causing Roje and Mary to bang their heads against the enclosure. When they regain consciousness, the truck is parked in the woods somewhere, and Jan, Erik and the book are missing. A couple days later, they receive a copy of the East Berlin newspaper with an article stating that their son had been shot dead while trying to run back into East Berlin, and the book wasn't found.

(Pliny's Natural History is filled with made-up creatures.)

30 years later, Shinra is called to Berlin by a journalist named Rome Werner. Rome had discovered the whereabouts of the Natural History volume and asks Shinra to appraise it for him. As part of his investigations, Shinra talks to the Mendels, who are living in a nice apartment in the city. They bitterly despise Buckle for betraying them and getting their son killed. Shinra then tracks down Buckle, who is living a miserable existence out of a bar. Buckle confirms the accounts of both Mendels and refuses to be of any further help to the boy. Questions: Why does Shinra think that Pliny's fabrications within his "Natural History" (descriptions of monsters that never existed) is relevant to the case? What does he mean when saying "that even lies have some kind of value"? What actually happened at the checkpoint and why did Buckle say that Erik ran towards East Berlin? How did Rome Werner come by the book himself?

The science revolves around descriptions of the creatures in the Natural History, and that the book is valuable despite the fact that everyone knows that it contains a lot of untruths. There's also a brief history of East Berlin, and lots of good artwork.

(The old man on the hill. I think that he's there still.)

Kakure Zato (The Secret Village, Monthly Shonen Magajin, 2011).
On Jan. 6, Yokoyari, the glasses-wearing member of Tatsuki's class, comments on the supposed health benefits of growing your own herbs and vegetables and talks the others into joining him in picking the ingredents for "nanakusa gayu" (7 herb soup), which is traditionally eaten on Jan. 7. While everyone but Yokoyari finds things like parsley, shepherd's purse and chickweed, they're still missing turnips and daikon (Japanese radish). Yokoyari wants to explore the area further, but is told that there's a local legend of the "secret village". There are several variants of the legend, which has travellers getting lost in the mountains, coming across inns that they can never find again later, coming out of the mountains and learning that three months had passed in the outside world, and even that the people in the village were mourning that person's own death. Giving up, the group decides to buy some turnips and daikon from a nearby roadside stand. A sign next to the table says that if you want to buy something, follow the path leading into the trees next to the table. The kids do so, and after about 10-15 minutes come out on the other side of the hill, facing an expensive-looking estate with two high-priced foreign cars in the garage. Thing is, there's no one in the house or on the grounds, and there's no road leading from the garage out to the main street. Heading back the way they came, the kids reach the top of the hill, where a familiar-looking old man is sitting on a log. He tells them a variant on the secret village story and adds that when you feel trapped in the village, you need to stop and take a rest before trying to exit again. The kids ignore him, continue down the path, and end up back at the house. They try leaving the hill several times, and keep on returning to the house anyway. In a panic, they take naps in the open space at the top of the hill (the old man can't be found now), and when they finally set off again, they succeed at locating the field that they'd started from.

(Eating 7 Herb soup.)

The next day, the group makes the Nanakusa Gayu in Shinra's museum, and they ask about the "secret village" and the old man. Questions: What is the "secret" of the secret village? Who was the old man and why did he look so familiar to the kids? Why did the house have two cars, but no road? Is the sign at the bottom of the hill "road construction aborted" relevant to the case? There was a wheelbarrow (called a "cat car" in Japanese) along the trail in the woods that the kids used as a landmark when they were lost; was that put on the trail for a specific reason?

No science or history. Just a conversation regarding the preparation of Nanakusa Gayu, and the relating of the different versions of the "secret village" legend.

(Yasuo showing off his new house to a TV crew.)

Mozaiku (Mosaic, Monthly Shonen Magajin, 2011).
A TV crew is filming an interview with famed architect Yasuo Nanjou in his house. As Yasuo is talking about the mosaic artwork on one wall of the central pillar of his house, some guy bursts in with a sledgehammer, claiming that Yasuo had killed someone and the body is in the pillar behind the mosiac. The guy tries to tear down the wall, but is restrained by the film crew and detained by the police. Det. Kujirazaki interviews the guy, Fujio Kitami, a former member of Yasuo's company. According to Fujio, the company's star architect was a man named Nishioka, and that Yasou would steal Nishioka's ideas. Nishioka liked disappearing on long vacation trips to research building designs and artwork in other countries, which is why no one is suspicious that he's gone now. Kitami says that he saw something that implies that Yasuo killed Nishioka and buried him in the pillar of the house, but he's got no proof. Later, Kujirazaki is at Shinra's musuem, complaining about the case. He sees Shinra trying to draw an oni (demon) mask for Tatsuki's father to wear at the sento for Setsubun on Feb. 3. The detective draws a traditional Japanese demon face, which makes the boy happy and puts him in Kujirazaki's debt. Now, Shinra has to solve the case for him in exchange for the drawing, so he and Tatsuki join in on the investigations. In visiting Nishioka's apartment, they do learn that he'd been working on a mosiac very similar to that in Yasuo's house, but it's not enough evidence to get a warrant to tear down the pillar. Later, Kujirazaki gets a call saying that Nishioka never went through customs to exit the country, so his body probably is in the concrete pillar. But, the detective can't think of an excuse for a warrant.

(Nishioka in Afghanistan, then working the artifact he bought into his design for a mosaic.)

Shinra interjects that mosaics date back 4,500 years to the middle east, in Mesopotamia, where they were made with shiny rocks and bits of sea shells. The key to this hint is that Nishioka had visited Afghanistan, where he'd purchased part of a mosaic that was actually stolen property. As stolen art, Shinra has the power to have the full mosaic confiscated from Yasuo's house, and in doing so, reveals that Nishioka's body really is hidden in the pillar. Questions: Does Yasuo go to jail for murder? If not, why not? Is there something else "mosaic-like" going on behind the scenes in this case?

No real science, just the mention of the earliest versions of mosaics and the theft of art properties during the recent conflicts in Afghanistan. Note: Each of the major characters here have the words for "east" (Azuma), "west" (Nishi), "north" (Kita) and "south" (Nan) in their names. Azuma is the owner of the company and isn't directly related to the mystery in the story.)

(Shinra gets to see a nice shiny.)

Maboroshi no Kuruma (Phantom Car, Monthly Shonen Magajin, 2011).
Shinra is at a car parts flea market to see what's up for sale, and he has to explain to Tatsuki who the customers are for old, busted-up parts. He reaches the table run by Hiroshi Kojima, who greets the boy by showing off his latest acquisition - a dragonfly hood ornament crafted by Rene Lalique. Shinra immediately offers to buy it, but Hiroshi is willing to hand it over for free if the boy helps him with a different problem. Hiroshi was recently contacted by restaurant chain owner Kenzou Nakano about an old car that was found in an abandoned garage. It's a Tsukuba sedan, developed prior to WW II, around 1931, by the conglomerate formed by Meiji-era magnate Eiichi Shibusawa. There were only 130 made during the 3 years before the company stopped producing them, and only one was known to still be in existence. This would be #2. It's in restorable condition, but is missing the steering wheel. Hiroshi thinks that having an intact Tsukuba would be well worth the price of the Lalique hood ornament.

(A father and son chat.)

Shinra starts by talking to Kenzou Nakano. The old man had a childhood friend, Ryuuichi Endou. Endou had died three years earlier and the paperwork for the garage and car had fallen into Nakano's hands in the last few days. Since he can't drive, he contacted Hiroshi about hauling off the old car. Kenzou and Ryuuichi had both fought together during the War, and after it was over, they scavenged supplies left behind by American soldiers and made a fair amount of money selling what they found, as well as opening a small food cart. Kenzou succeeded in building this up into a massive empire of family restaurants and movie theaters. Ryuuichi, on the other hand, spent his money buying the Tsukuba car, and then chasing after various get-rich schemes, such as buying the rights to uranium mines or supporting the war efforts in Korea. Ryuuichi had come to Kenzou a few times to borrow cash, but supposedly disappeared one day after stealing his son's university tuition funds. Shinra then visits the home of Tadanori Endou, Ryuuichi's son. Tadanori angrily talks about his old man in the past tense, saying that his father hadn't stolen the money he'd saved from his part-time job - instead, Ryuuichi took Tadanori's savings and lost it in another venture. The guy had also kept a pistol and some bullets in the workbench drawer in the garage, and Tadanori had found the gun and tried playing with it as a kid. When Tadanori demanded his savings back, his father shot the gun at the wall, telling him to shut up. Then, he ran away. Questions: Where did Ryuuichi go after disappearing? Why do the stories from Tadanori and Kenzou not match? Just how horrible a person was Ryuuichi? Where is the Tsukuba's steering wheel? Do the burned rubber marks on the garage floor mean something? The garage has several tools for keeping the car in tune; why would someone that obviously loved the car just abandon it? And, why did the company only make 130 vehicles before discontinuing the line, and why are so few still in existence?

=== Spoilers ===

The reason the Tsukuba was remarkable for its time is that it was the first Japanese automobile with front-wheel drive. It was created for the race circuit, but there were technical issues, with the body being too heavy for the engine, and the front-wheel drive performing poorly on the old-style dirt roads in Tokyo. Being front-wheel, the rubber burn marks on the floor at the back of the garage indicate that it had been parked nose-first in the garage, contradicting Tadanori's story about how his father was at the driver's side door, shooting towards the garage window. In fact, Tadanori had the gun and was pointing it at his father when demanding his money back, and Ryuuichi had been so devastated at the failure of his last venture that he'd grabbed the barrel of the pistol and begged his son to shoot him in the head. Tadanori was shocked, the old man didn't look anything like his father anymore. After that, Ryuuichi disappeared. Kenzou adds that it was about this time that Ryuuichi approached him with the wheel from the Tsukuba, saying that it was in exchange for all the money he'd borrowed in the past. Ryuuichi got a regular job and slowly payed off the loans, but he'd forgotten about the box from his friend until now. Kenzou hands over the case with the steering wheel still inside. Hiroshi gives the hood ornament to the boy, and it looks like Hiroshi is going to restore the Tsukuba so that Tadanori can relive the happier times when he'd gone for rides with his father.

(Back cover.)

Comments: There's some good artwork this time, especially the drawings of the Tsukuba, the Lalique ornament and the Afghan mosaic. The Natural History of G. Plinius Secundus was kind of predictable, and I figured that one out on my own, although I liked the discussions of Pliny's "history". The motive for Mosaic was weak, and there's no motive at all for Secret Village. Then again, Village does touch on the economics of the "bridges to nowhere" projects of pre-bubble Japan, and looks at what happens when politicans resign in disgrace. Overall, what I like about C.M.B. and Q.E.D. is when Motohiro teaches me something new about Japanese folktales, science or natural history. The mysteries are secondary. Recommended.

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