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Crime, Mystery and Letters: Higashino Keigo Onscreen

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It seems like not a year goes by without a Higashino Keigo mystery making its way onto screen. One of Asia's most popular and followed novelists, the best-selling Japanese suspense writer has published over 80 novels and short story collections, and his books have been translated into a multitude of languages. Besides the prolific production and wide readership that are every publisher's dream come true, the author's works are also highly sought after for film and television.

Even if one has never read a single Higashino Keigo novel, anyone with an interest in Japanese television or cinema would likely come across his name. His books are constantly picked up for live-action adaptations, and not just in his native Japan. In recent years, his stories have also been adapted by Korean and Chinese production companies. "Intellectual property" titles are hot commodities in the film and television industry these days, and there are few authors with as much IP value across Asia as Higashino Keigo.

Originally an engineer, Higashino won the Edogawa Rampo Prize in 1985 for his first novel, After School, which was adapted into a TV drama the following year. He wisely changed professions to writing. Though the early years of Higashino's writing career weren't all smooth sailing – the top literary prizes famously eluded him for many years – he has since firmly established a reputation for lauded mystery novels that sell in the millions, many of which have made their way to screen.

Detective Galileo and Suspect X

While the majority of Higashino's works are standalone novels, he has created several mystery fiction series around recurring characters, and the most well-known among them is Detective Galileo. First introduced in the 1998 Tantei Galileo short story collection, Detective Galileo refers to eccentric physics professor Yukawa Manabu, who aids the police in cracking difficult cases with his analytical skills and experiments. Detective Galileo's ongoing mysteries span several books published over a decade's time.

Detective Galileo has inspired a significant live-action franchise in Japan with Fukuyama Masaharu in the title role. Since 2007, the popular singer-actor has played the character in two television seasons and two feature films, Suspect X (2008) and Midsummer's Equation (2013). The TV series tackles mysteries by the episode and places emphasis on Yukawa's sitcom-esque bickering rapport with detective Utsumi Kaoru, played by Shibasaki Kou, as they solve cases together. The two feature films focus primarily on Yukawa as he unravels single complicated mysteries.

Directed by the TV series' director Nishitani Hiroshi, Suspect X and Midsummer's Equation were both blockbusters, with the former also being a critical hit that garnered nominations for Best Film, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress at the 32nd Japan Academy Prize. Suspect X is based on the 2005 novel The Devotion of Suspect X, the crown jewel of the Galileo series that finally won Higashino the prestigious Naoki Prize as well as the Honkaku Mystery Award. The novel's English version was also shortlisted for the Edgar Award in the U.S. in 2012. In the story, Yukawa meets his match in an old friend and fellow math genius (played by Tsutsumi Shinich in the film) who orchestrates a complex plan to cover up a murder committed by his neighbor.

Besides the Japanese adaptation, The Devotion of Suspect X has also been adapted into films in Korea and China. Perfect Number, the 2012 Korean version directed by Bang Eun Jin, removes the Detective Galileo premise altogether in favor of a standard crime detective (Jo Jin Woong). The film shifts the focus more towards the genius suspect (Ryoo Seung Bum) and how he sacrifices himself to pull off the perfect cover-up.

Taiwan actor-turned-director Alec Su follows the source material more closely while adding some thriller flourishes into his 2017 version of Suspect X, the first Chinese adaptation of a Higashino novel. This telling retains the duel between math geniuses, with Wang Kai and Zhang Luyi cast to type as the smart-talking, mystery-solving professor and the despondent, inscrutable math teacher.

Detective Kaga

While Detective Galileo has traveled farther and yielded Higashino's most representative work, his longest-running detective character is stern police detective Kaga Kyoichiro, who uses deductive reasoning to solve mysteries. Detective Kaga first appeared in 1986 in Higashino's second novel Sotsugyo ("Graduation") as a university student investigating a campus serial murder case. In 1989's Nemuri no Mori ("Sleeping Forest") about the deadly competition within a ballet troupe, Kaga became a detective in the First Investigation Division of the Criminal Affairs Bureau.

He would continue to solve strange and difficult murder cases in eight more books, the last of which, Inori no Maku ga Orirutoki ("When the Curtain of Prayer Descends"), was published in 2013. Stories in the Detective Kaga series have been adapted for television multiples times, including Asahi TV's 1993 series Nemuri no Mori no Bijo Satsujin Jiken starring Yamashita Shinji and NHK's 2001 Higashino Keigo Mysteries: Akui, which changed the Kaga role to one named Nishihara, played by Hazama Kanpei.

The actor most associated with Detective Kaga, however, is Abe Hiroshi who played the character in the TV dramas Shinzanmono (2010) and Akai Yubi (2011), the TV special Nemuri no Mori (2014) and the feature film The Wings of the Kirin (2012). He will return as Detective Kaga again in 2018 in the feature film adaptation of Inori no Maku ga Orirutoki. Abe also recently starred as a harried medical researcher trying to piece together clues to recover a stolen biological weapon in Yoshida Teruyuki's film adaptation of Shippu Rondo, which is part of Higashino's series of ski resort-set mysteries.

Another moderately well-known Higashino detective series is Naniwa Shonen Detective, for which he published two novels in 1988 and 1993. The series about the mystery-solving adventures of a group of grade schoolers and their homeroom teacher inspired a 2000 NHK series starring Yamada Mariya and a 2012 TBS series starring Tabe Mikako.

Journey Under the Midnight Sun

After The Devotion of Suspect X, the 1999 novel Byakuyako, or Journey Under the Midnight Sun, is among Higashino's most famous works. Spanning two decades' time, the story revolves around childhood sweethearts whose worlds seemingly diverge after a murder case in their youth changes their lives. However, it's gradually revealed that they are inexorably bounded by the terrible secret that continues to haunt them into adulthood, driving one to great heights and the other into the shadows.

In 2006, TBS adapted the wrenching story into an 11-episode series starring Yamada Takayuki as Kirihara Ryoji and Ayase Haruka as Karasawa Yukiho, the love for whom he descends into crime to protect. The production notably reunited the stars, writer and producer of the hit 2004 tearjerker Crying out Love, in the Center of the World for a far darker exploration of the unbreakable bond of young love that connects past and present.

It was Korea that first adapted Byakuyako for the silver screen in the 2009 film White Night directed by Park Shin Woo. Produced by blockbuster filmmaker Kang Woo Suk, Korea's first Higashino adaptation spared no expense with the A-list lineup of Son Ye Jin, Ko Su and Han Suk Kyu. The tense and stylish thriller cast Son Ye Jin in a new light as the rich and icy femme fatale with skeletons in her closet, though it's Han Suk Kyu who steals the show with a commanding performance as the determined detective who can't let go of the case or his inner demons.

In comparison, the 2011 Japanese film adaptation Into the White Night by Fukagawa Yoshihiro offers a more sedate and straightforward telling of the complex tale that patiently develops the three protagonists. Clocking in at 149 minutes, the ambitious yarn sees Horikita Maki stretching to play against type as a dangerously soft-spoken Karasawa Yukiho, while Kora Kengo co-stars as her mysterious anguished protector and Funakoshi Eichiro as the obsessed detective.

Considered a sister title to Byakuyako, Higashino's 2004 novel Genya presents a similar premise of two seemingly unrelated characters, a successful businesswoman and a factory worker, who share a secret connection dating back to the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. Fukada Kyoko and Tsukamoto Takashi starred in WOWOW's 2012 TV adaptation of Genya.

The Hovering Blade

Published in 2004, Samayou Yaiba, about a devastated father seeking revenge against the young men who raped and murdered his teenaged daughter, has also been adapted for the silver screen in both Japan and Korea. After receiving an anonymous tip of the two culprits' identities, protagonist Nagamine Shigeki realizes that as minors, the offenders will not be adequately punished by law, and sets out to kill them himself. Like many of Higashino's novels, Samayou Yaiba involves a murder case and unpredictable turns, but the story's greatest question is not one that can be easily solved: Where does justice lie for the victims?

Like Byakuyako and Suspect X, Samayou Yaiba has been adapted into both Japanese and Korean films with markedly different tones. Directed by Mashiko Shoichi, the 2009 film The Hovering Blade is a somber, soul-searching affair that follows the tired footsteps of veteran Terao Akira as he calmly but determinedly searches for the remaining culprit, cutting a tragic lone figure against sweeping snowscapes. Takenouchi Yutaka does just as much brooding as the conflicted detective who increasingly questions his duty to stop Nagamine and protect his daughter's remorseless killer.

Meanwhile, Bestseller director Lee Jeong Ho's 2014 adaptation, titled Broken, fits right in with Korean cinema's plethora of revenge thrillers and message-driven films about the shortcomings of the justice system. Where The Hovering Blade rues, Broken rages against the brutal killers and flawed systems that drive a father to the edge with no recourse. Jung Jae Young is very much at home in the role of the tormented protagonist who takes matters into his own hands.

The Secret Told Thrice

Higashino's 1998 novel Himitsu ("The Secret"), which won Best Novel at the 52nd Mystery Writers of Japan Awards, was his first work to be transported to the silver screen. Also known as Naoko in English, the story revolves around a man who loses his wife Naoko to an accident. His young daughter Monami, who was injured in the same accident, wakes up with Naoko's mind and memories.

A teenaged Hirosue Ryoko juggles the dual personas of a loving wife and an increasingly independent daughter in the 1999 film directed by Takita Yojiro. Though not without its twists, the film is more human and family drama than suspense, maintaining an affecting tone while pondering the dilemma of a wife and daughter occupying the same body, and the conflicted heart of a woman deciding her future and identity. Underlined by the pairing of a luminous Hirosue with the reliable Kobayashi Kaoru, measured direction by Takita, and Japan's general affinity for the pure love genre, Himitsu performed well with both critics and audiences.

Over a decade after the film, TV Asahi adapted the novel again for a nine-episode series. Like the film, the 2010 television adaptation discreetly raises the age of Monami to that of a teenage high schooler, played by Shida Mirai, while Sasaki Kuranosuke plays her father/husband.

Himitsu is also Higashino's only work to date to be adapted outside of Asia, though Vincent Perez's English-language remake didn't get very far, opening in French theaters in 2007 before going straight to video in the U.S. Starring The X-Files' David Duchovny as the bereaved husband and Olivia Thirlby as the daughter who swaps souls with his wife, The Secret magnifies the adolescent angst and sexual frustration for an intermittently tenser but less focused take on the supernatural romance.

Mysteries of Science

Though best known for detective yarns and murder mysteries, Higashino actually covers a wide range of genres in his writing. In particular, he often integrates sci-fi and technology elements into suspense. As early as 1991, he published Henshin, about a man who senses himself changing into someone else after receiving a partial brain transplant. The novel was adapted into a film starring Tamaki Hiroshi in 2005 and into a WOWOW TV drama starring Kamiki Ryunosuke in 2014.

Higashino continued to explore medical and biotechnology ideas in 1993's Bunshin, which presents the curious case of two young women of different backgrounds and upbringing who discover they look exactly alike. WOWOW also adapted Bunshin into a drama series in 2012 with Nagasawa Masami in the dual roles.

His 2010 novel Platina Data looks into the (near) future of technology and crime-solving through the premise of an advanced DNA profiling system that can analyze crime scene evidence to construct a criminal profile and follow the DNA trail back to the culprit. Protagonist Kagura Ryuhei believes the system he created is 100% foolproof until he gets framed for a series of mysterious murders.

Ninomiya Kazunari plays the troubled DNA expert-turned-fugitive trying to clear his name, while Toyokawa Etsushi is the pavement-hitting officer on his tail in director Otomo Keishi's blockbuster 2013 film Platinum Data. Though the film cuts out some characters and details from the novel, the ambitious sci-fi thriller still densely packs Hollywood-style action, police-state conspiracy and psychological drama into a complicated crime mystery.

Letters for Tears

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons Higashino Keigo's works are so popular and lend so readily to live-action adaptation is that his mysteries are often filled with gray characters and heartrending human drama elements that leave a deep impression. In stories like The Devotion of Suspect X, Byakuyako and Ryusei no Kizuna, which was adapted into a hit TBS drama in 2012, the reveals feel less like solving a mystery and more like a punch in the gut over the distressing motives and fallouts of crime.

Sometimes Higashino sets aside the mystery altogether and just hands over the tissue box. His 2003 novel Tegami explores the struggles and stigma experienced by the relatives of criminals. The novel's 2006 film adaptation stars Yamada Takayuki as the younger brother of a convicted murderer and robber, sympathetically portrayed by Tamayama Tetsuji. Battered by constant discrimination and setbacks, Naoki retreats into himself and cuts off communication with his imprisoned brother, but his regretful brother continues to write to him. Helmed by noted television director Shono Jiro, the film steadily tugs at the heartstrings with its grave themes of personal struggle, family love and reconciliation.

Higashino adds a fantasy element to the letter writing in his 2012 Chuo Koron Literary Prize-winning novel Miracles of the Namiya General Store, which was turned into a live-action film this year. The story connects characters of different time periods through the Namiya General Store, whose kind proprietor answers Dear Abby-like letters in the sixties and seventies. In 2012, three orphaned youths take refuge in the abandoned General Store one night after committing a crime. A letter from the past comes in through the mail slot, and the boys write a reply that gets delivered back via the store's milk box. The correspondence gradually uncovers the troubles of the three delinquent boys, Namiya and the various characters whose lives and fates are changed over time by the letters and the subsequent actions of the recipients.

Film marketing copy baldly describes Miracles of the Namiya General Store as Higashino's most touching novel that makes all generations cry, so it's not surprising that Hiroki Ryuichi's adaptation goes with the moving and magical route. Starring Nishida Toshiyuki as Namiya and Hey! Say! JUMP member Yamada Ryosuke as the leader of the youth trio, the film simplifies the original themes, characters and connecting puzzle, but ably structures the time-jumping threads to visualize the story's small town environment over different time periods and how they cross over.

Miracles of the Namiya General Store has sold over eight million copies worldwide, including over two million in China. Chinese production companies Emperor Motion Pictures and Wanda Media have licensed the novel for a film adaptation that began shooting earlier this year with director Han Jie at the helm and the announced cast of Dong Zijian, TFBOYS member Karry Wang and Dilraba Dilmurat.

The Chinese version of Miracles of Namiya General Store is just one of many greenlit Higashino Keigo adaptations greeting audiences in the near future. Besides the aforementioned Inori no Maku ga Orirutoki, Miike Takashi's LaPlace's Witch, starring Sakurai Sho as a professor investigating a series of hot springs deaths by hydrogen sulfide poisoning, completed filming this year and will open in 2018. Meanwhile, Suzuki Masayuki's Masquerade Hotel, a hotel-set murder mystery starring Kimura Takuya as a detective, was recently announced for 2019. For those who can't wait that long, WOWOW TV's Kataomoi adaptation, starring Nakatani Miki as a transgender who confesses to friends that he has murdered someone, is airing in Japan in autumn 2017.


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Published November 3, 2017


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