Whisked Away by Twenty Faces

The cover of the first volume of Niju Menso no Musume.

The cover of the first volume of Niju Menso no Musume.

How is it fictional, suave knaves are able to attract so many people of the opposite sex? Just look at the likes of Lupin the Third, Saint Tail, and Niju Menso. I should study their mannerisms to figure out what they have that I don’t.

Part of what makes literature interesting is how over many generations we readapt stories and the characters that populate them. No finer example exists today than the film industry, which now, more than ever, seems to be adapting many intellectual properties and reviving older works. I generally have no opinion on this, but suffice it to say, the stories that live on in cultures are the ones told and retold the most often. For example, many Westerners are familiar with Robin Hood and people in East Asia with the Journey to the West. Even with modern heroes, such as Superman, new life is breathed into them on a regular basis. And, there are many more examples strewn across every culture.

In Japan, one of the most famous stories is from the late Edo Period. I am of course referring to Chushingura, or the story of the forty-seven ronin and their mission to avenge their master. As Japan modernized, though, so did the stories authors wrote about. Thus, in twentieth century Japan, I can think of no better characters than Edogawa Rampo’s gentleman thief Niju Menso and his rival, detective Kogoro Akechi, as having gained so much prominence in popular culture. While the characters have been reworked in film, anime, and manga, among other mediums, I feel one of the most original adaptations of the characters comes from the 2003 manga series Niju Menso no Musume (二十面相の娘).

Although many classic traits of the character Niju Menso are prevalent in the series, the story opts to, as the title—roughly translated as The Daughter of Twenty-Faces—suggests, follow Chiduko Mikamo as opposed to Niju Menso. It’s a good narrative choice, as it keeps Niju Menso shrouded in mystery for much of the series. The art styling of the author, Shinji Owara, also give the series the perfect atmosphere for the setting and time period, making Niju Menso no Musume not only interesting to read, but wonderful to look at as well.

A good robbery or heist story always seems to make our imaginations run wild, and I can understand why this may be. We have the chance to solve a puzzle with logic and reasoning if we are observing the story from the perspective of the police or detective, or the chance to see a thief work through the obstacles set before him or her. These stories are often engaging as well, with a good amount of tension interspersed throughout the story to keep us wondering about the next plot point. While the novels by Edogawa Rampo may have been heavy on this sort of puzzle solving, Niju Menso no Musume centers more around the narrative of who Niju Menso is from Chiduko “Chiko” Mikamo’s perspective. This is perhaps not what fans of Rampo’s work may have expected, but it establishes a different tone for Niju Menso as compared to Edogawa’s original vision for the character.

That different tone is established in two ways. First, by shifting the focus of the story onto Chiko we get a very distinct view of the character Niju Menso. To Chiko, Niju Menso is very much like a father figure who can do no wrong, despite the fact he steals art. Second, it keeps Niju Menso’s past, a plot point that is heavily discussed, well concealed. Thus, this makes Chiko the protagonist of the series, and as such we have the opportunity to see her work through the details of who this man, Niju Menso, is. What we receive in return is rather disturbing, too. I don’t want to delve too deeply into this subject; however, I will say as his history is revealed it becomes clearer Niju Menso is not only brilliant, but at one point in his past, almost cruel in his actions. Yet, even the accounts that we receive are clouded by how Chiko perceives Niju Menso because her opinion of him is so high.   Thus, as Chiko’s opinion about Niju Menso is almost all we have to go on, we too are sucked into the mystery of who this man is.

The very dapper Twenty Faces.

The very dapper Twenty Faces.

What makes this even better, while the first volume of Niju Menso no Musume deals with Chiko traveling the world with him and his band of thieves, the story takes an abrupt turn, removing Niju Menso from her life. While shrouding the character in even more mystery, it also gives us the opportunity to see Chiko enact agency in her own life. What I mean by this is, she has the option to return to her life as an heiress to her biological father’s company, or find out what happened to her surrogate father. However, as with many of the best narratives, things are far more complicated than they seem. Searching for Niju Menso would ultimately mean she is leaving a life of luxury behind, but that life poses its own risks as well. Unfortunately, the latter option is eventually pushed aside in Niju Menso no Musume despite it having played out well in the first four volumes of the series.

It’s a great shame, too, as reading about Chiko’s aunt and guardian trying to murder her and claim her fortune is interesting. It’s part of the reason why Chiko places so much trust in Niju Menso and what he taught her. There’s no reason why both plot elements—Chiko’s home life and the search for Niju Menso—couldn’t have taken place at the same time, and the second volume exemplifies this. Here we see Chiko, her aunt, and her maid, Tome, travel to an island where a movie is being filmed, and as these mystery stories go, murder most foul brings down the producer and lead actress. Early on we know the aunt is using this as an excuse to dispose of Chiko, yet as the plot develops we find Niju Menso may have had a hand in the mystery. Nevertheless, after around the fifth volume of the series, there is a stronger focus on the mystery surrounding Niju Menso, despite some interesting turn of events with the aunt’s plans.

As fascinating as the plot of Niju Menso no Musume was, the artistic styling of Shinji Owara made the series much more enjoyable. It’s rather difficult to explain, but the series has an older feel to it, as if it had been drawn in the 1950s. Yes, many of the backgrounds, vehicles, and clothing styles represent a postwar Japan—though it’s never explicitly stated which war the series takes place after—but something about that ambiguity gives the story almost an authentic quality. If instead the story had been presented in just plain text, I doubt the narrative would have been as effective in conveying the time period, but the artwork in the manga is almost perfect for the setting.

The character designs were, however, somewhat disappointing. Admittedly, each character has a unique appearance, but problems arise when there is a close-up profile frame of them. It’s a very minor issue I know, but it can cause some confusion as to who is speaking. For example, in the sixth volume, on one page Chiko and her friend, Shunka Koito, are speaking together and there is a close-up profile frame of the latter. Three pages later, when Chiko, Shunka, and the maid Tome are having tea together, I had to remind myself who the person in one of the panels was. Instances like this are very rare, but because Shinji Owara uses very similar facial designs for different individuals, a handful of the characters’ faces at certain angles can cause some confusion at times.

While the series didn’t breath new life into the character of Niju Menso, Niju Menso no Musume does an adequate job of reminding people of Edogawa Rampo’s character, and as adaptations of older properties and characters go, it’s well done. From the well-thought-out characters, the artistic style that makes you feel as though you are in the appropriate time period, and the mystery, the series is exceptional. I feel compelled to point out, there are two spinoff series to Niju Menso no Musume as well, and in time I may take a look at them. However, with this series I will say it may not be as thrilling as other mystery series, but the slow yet exciting burn makes Niju Menso no Musume a good read.

Work Info
Title:
Niju Menso no Musume (二十面相の娘)
By: Shinji Owara
Under: Media Factory, Comic Flapper
Official Site: N/A
More Info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nijū_Mensō_no_Musume

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