Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
The Dynamics of an Asteroid
A few weeks back, the North American version of Fate/Grand Order added a new story chapter: Shinjuku. Shinjuku is the first of a series of "interlude" chapters spanning the time period between the end of the game's first story arc and the beginning of its second (which is currently underway in Japan). Shinjuku is generally regarded as the point at which FGO really steps up its narration -- the point where it goes from being a quirky mobile game modeled after a strong group of existing works to being, in essence, a serial visual novel. Shinjuku is, however, structured as a mystery, so although it's noticeably better than what comes before in terms of dialogue, it's not quite as readily-apparent how well-crafted it is as a whole. To that end, I'd like to focus on a discovery a friend of mine made yesterday.
It has to do with Isaac Asimov.
Shinjuku Spoilers from Here On
For this to make sense, I need to start with a very brief synopsis of Shinjuku's story. FGO is something of a time-travel narrative, and each chapter in part 1 and part 1.5 (the aforementioned interlude section) is, loosely speaking, built around the concept of going back to a pivotal moment in human history to make sure nothing falls apart. This story chapter opens with an alert that something strange is happening in Shinjuku -- in Tokyo -- in 1999, which seems strange because there should, in theory, be nothing particularly important happening at that moment.
The protagonist travels to Shinjuku and finds the city in a state of disarray. There are two versions of James Moriarty -- Sherlock Holmes's notorious archenemy -- running around. One is good, and sides with the protagonist to help fix things, and one is evil, supposedly working on a plot to physically destroy the earth (something we're told shouldn't be possible). After a significant bit of detective work and a cameo appearance from the Great Detective himself, we learn that in the context of Shinjuku, Moriarty is associated with a German opera called Der Freischutz, in which the devil gives the central character a gun that never misses. The first six bullets always hit their targets, while the seventh always hits someone dear to the shooter. We also learn that evil Moriarty plans to use this to fire an asteroid into the core of the earth to destroy it, and that this "Shinjuku" is a fictional place disconnected from the real world -- in other words, than nothing that happens in this chapter really matters to the world at large and the protagonist could just leave if she wanted to. She decides to stop evil Moriarty regardless, and things proceed apace.
In the chapter's climax, it is revealed that the "evil Moriarty" was in fact someone else in disguise, while "good Moriarty" was the true Moriarty. "Good Moriarty" is identified as the true culprit, and because Shinjuku is "fictional," it is bound by the rules of detective fiction, so his identification is synonymous with his defeat and he loses his ability to use the devil's gun. The meteor is stopped and all is well. This is a highly abridged summary, of course, but the important points for this post are there.
That's no Doyle!
Supernatural/sci-fi concepts aside, Shinjuku is ostensibly based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. The chapter ultimately revolves around a showdown between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, and it obeys all the typical rules of detective fiction. Fairly straightforward.
The thing is, though, Moriarty only appears briefly in Doyle's works. The image we now have of Moriarty as the Napoleon of Crime, the ultimate evil in the Sherlock Holmes universe, comes more from later adaptations than from the original works. A chapter that was truly an homage to Doyle would probably not include Moriarty at all, much less place him in a more prominent role than the Great Detective. So how do you explain that? Do you just assume Shinjuku's author wasn't really all that familiar with Sherlock's source material?
Turns out there's a concrete answer to this, and it's surprisingly clever. To get to it, though, a little background is needed. Each historical/literary/mythological hero who appears in Fate has what's called a Noble Phantasm, which is something like a special ability that's emblematic of their greatest moment or their most iconic item or something to that effect. King Arthur has Excalibur, for example, while Sherlock's is "Elementary, My Dear." These Noble Phantasm's usually have two names -- one written in Japanese, and one in the language of the character's origin. Moriarty's English-language Noble Phantasm name is "The Dynamics of an Asteroid."
This is an obscure reference to Doyle's works. It's mentioned at one point that Moriarty is a professor of mathematics by trade, and that he published a book on math that was so complex and so far beyond its time that no one else could understand it. The book is called "The Dynamics of an Asteroid." There's no indication beyond this of what the book contained, so it seems, in the context of FGO, to be a neat little nod to the original Sherlock Holmes works that was probably selected for use here mostly because its name sounds cool.
...But, again, there's another reason for this. The Noble Phantasm's Japanese name translates to "The Ultimate Crime." This happens to be the title of a different story -- not by Doyle, but by Isaac Asimov. The story centers around a group of men discussing "The Dynamics of an Asteroid" and trying to come up with a plausible theory as to what it might be about. The conclusion they come to is that it centered on a particular asteroid that long ago exploded into many smaller pieces that became what we now think of as the asteroid belt. They speculate that this fascinated Moriarty because he was intrigued by the idea of potentially doing the same to Earth.
Which, of course, is exactly his goal in FGO's Shinjuku chapter.
When Sherlock Holmes is a Red Herring
The end result of this is that Shinjuku leads us to believe its based on one of Doyle's stories, when in fact it is modeled after Isaac Asimov's. With the Asimov context, the science fiction elements present throughout Shinjuku also seem much more fitting -- Asimov is, after all, mostly known for being a sci-fi author. The true "mystery" of Shinjuku has nothing to do with the culprit or the crime, but rather with the story itself. There's a reference early in Shinjuku to "The Final Problem," the Doyle story in which Moriarty and Sherlock fight each other to the death, but Shinjuku is not "The Final Problem" -- it's "The Ultimate Crime."
This flip is hinted at even by Shinjuku's character concepts. Each of Shinjuku's unique characters is a hybrid of two literary sources. Moriarty is tied to Der Freischutz. Sherlock disguises himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow rides atop Lobo the King of Currumpaw. Yan Qing, from Water Margin, is also a doppelgänger. In the same way, the story itself is simultaneously Doyle and Asimov. Neat, huh?
This flip becomes a trend throughout all four of FGO's interlude chapters. There's one later, for example, that's set in Salem, during the witch trials. It's ostensibly based on Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but it's eventually revealed to be based off of Lovecraft's works. Shinjuku's "trick" in this regard is subtle, but it sets up for the later chapters perfectly, and it firmly establishes the two main themes for the entirety of part 1.5. The main, surface-level concept is "classic literature," while the secondary, underlying idea is "mystery."
Once you have this context, though, other things that seem odd in Shinjuku start to make more sense and -- in some cases -- become quite clever. Yan Qing, for example, is strangely out of place amidst the other characters who hail from mostly modern, mostly Western works, but his very presence is a play on Knox's Laws for detective fiction. Knox's fifth, the most-commonly-ignored of the ten, says literally that a "Chinaman" cannot be the culprit. Nowadays this is usually broadened to mean "the culprit must not be an out-group member" or is disregarded entirely. Due to Yan Qing's doppelgänger status, the reader might suspect the "good" Moriarty of being Yan in disguise. Knox's fifth is what tells us this can't be true, as Yan is quite literally a Chinaman, but given that the wording of the law is almost never taken literally, Shinjuku subverts it just by playing it straight. Shinjuku isn't an homage to detective fiction so much as it is a subversion of detective fiction. It plays upon the expectations of readers who are familiar with the genre and its tropes in order to accomplish clever or surprising effects.
The Ultimate Crime
Even beyond this, though, there's an extra bit of intriguing potential meaning that comes from Shinjuku's allusions to Asimov. While "The Ultimate Crime" is ostensibly about a group of people reasoning their way to a plausible reading of the purpose behind "The Dynamics of an Asteroid," that's not really what the story means. The true purpose of Asimov's story comes out in the back-and-forth between its characters, and specifically the ways in which they mock and praise fan culture and literary criticism.
There are multiple references in the story to The Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes fan club that writes analytical papers about Doyle's works, trying to make arguments about different points, resolve plot holes, et cetera. Asimov acknowledges in his story that Doyle's works were likely written in a slapdash manner, with only the loosest care for consistency and little thought to depth or hidden meaning. He mocks his own search for an argument very much unintended by the author even as he makes a compelling case, simultaneously glorifying our tendency to look for deeper meaning in works of fiction and laughing at the silliness of the endeavor. This is the "reason" for the story, beyond the conclusions about Moriarty.
It's interesting, then, that a story featuring Sherlock and Moriarty, which clearly holds detective fiction in very high regard, would be based on this story, which holds what almost reads as ambivalence towards Doyle's work. This idea, though, appears at times within Shinjuku as well, such as in the in-universe reveal that Shinjuku itself is fictional and nothing that happens in this chapter matters in the grand scheme of things. The game tells us outright that none of this matters and yet we still care and want to see how it resolves.
It reads to me -- and this is very much a matter of interpretation, but -- as if Shinjuku's author means this chapter as a defense of detective fiction, and a defense of Doyle, and a defense of looking deeper into a work of fiction than its creater may have intended. It accomplishes this on two fronts. For one, Shinjuku is layered as heck. If you look deeper into it you will find things you missed. It actively encourages and rewards that thought process, thereby reinforcing the idea that it's a good thing to do. Second -- and perhaps more importantly -- it says that meaning is not intrinsic to a work but rather is created by its reader. Shinjuku (the place) is not meaningful because of its connection to the world, but rather because the protagonist cares about it. In Shinjuku's climactic moment, a horde of less-memorable fictional detectives from the past century or so arrives to collectively strike down Moriarty with their truth. While their individual stories may have little grander meaning, the collective significance of all of it, and of the way other authors have interpreted them -- they're summoned to Shinjuku by Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare, after all -- does have meaning.
That last bit is especially important. We don't know for sure which of FGO's five writers wrote Shinjuku -- the question of which author wrote which part of 1.5 plays into the overall theme of mystery -- but compelling speculation holds it's Ban Madoi, an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and other such detectives. Shinjuku reads very much like the other segments of the game he's been confirmed to have written, and it also contains certain "calling cards" typical of Ban, like its use of Knox's Laws.
Ban's writing always feels to me as if it contains a deep respect and admiration for Nasu Kinoko (the author around whom FGO is built -- I've written about him multiple times before). Ban tends to emulate, in particular, the way Nasu likes to utilitize whatever medium he's writing in to create "tricks" that aren't possible in other media. Doing things like, for example, switching narrative perspective in unusual ways that aren't possible in film.
In the context of Fate, Hans is something of Nasu's authorial persona. Nasu himself is heavily influenced by detective fiction -- although his stories aren't mysteries, he often uses mystery techniques in his writing, and his first novel, Kara no Kyoukai, centers around a detective-type character and brushes up against several distinct murder cases, always just out of frame but influential regardless. In the same way, detective fiction is always just out of frame in Nasu's works, but regardless of the genre he's writing in you can feel the mystery influence. Nasu writes about more abstract themes and concepts than mysteries typically tackle, but he gets at his themes using tactics developed by mystery writers, misleading readers with perspective shifts and ambiguous phrasing and time jumps that only appear on a second, closer read. It's really good stuff.
So then you look again at Shinjuku's climax, which has Hans -- Nasu's self-insert -- standing alongside William Shakespeare and channeling the entire history of detective fiction to get at a world-altering truth.
It's, uh, just a little bit on-the-nose.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
In this context, Shinjuku's climactic image reminds me of a certain line from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
"I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality."
This is Shinjuku's point. Shinjuku says it's meaningless, and the works Shinjuku is drawing from are themselves meaningless, but occasionally, at the right angle, some part of them gets at a deeper truth. Shinjuku isn't trying to argue mysteries are inherently deep or meaningful, but it does argue that a good reader can extract meaning from anything, and even if the author didn't necessarily mean for it to be there, that learning can have value. It can, for example, fuel an author like Nasu to challenge the historically sharp divide between high lit and popular lit that existed in Japan until the 90's-ish.
As a reminder, this is all from a mobile game, and from a mobile game that historically did not have very good writing. It would be very difficult to write something this detailed about FGO's pre-Shinjuku chapters. This is where Shinjuku excels -- not only is it tightly-written, but it has a purpose beyond just telling a story that's an excuse to keep players playing. This attitude, which only gets better from here, is the reason FGO is as successful as it is. (It was the most talked-about game on Twitter last year, surpassing even Fortnite).
If there's a lesson to be learned from this, I think, it's that strong storytelling -- strong art -- can pop up in pretty much any context or medium. I'm glad I stuck with FGO past its rocky beginning, and I'm glad its writers decided to take the time to make FGO's writing legitimately good. It's always intriguing to see excellent narrative work appear in surprising contexts.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition