The Kindaichi Case Files: The Headless Samurai by Yozaburo Kanari and Fumiya Sato

Previously, I looked at a landmark novel of the Japanese detective story, Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951) by Seishi Yokomizo and the detective on that case, Kosuke Kindaichi, is as iconic a figure in Japan as Sherlock Holmes is in the West – referred to some as the Columbo of the East. Yokomizo's famous detective has a well-known grandson, Hajime Kindaichi, who debuted in 1992 in Weekly Shōnen Magazine. A serialized mystery manga that has since spawned numerous manga-and anime series, light novels, video games, live action movies-and TV series and even had a crossover with Conan Edogawa from Detective Conan.

Originally, The Kindaichi Case Files was written by Yozaburo Kanari and my opinion of him, as a mystery writer, is somewhere at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Kanari would probably crack my top 3 of least favorite mystery writers and his hackwork has negatively colored my perception of the series.

Initially, I abandoned the series after only three (or so) volumes of the original series, which began with the uninspired The Opera House Murders that heavily leaned on ideas from Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) and Le fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910) – fluffed up with an impossible crime trick cribbed from a G.K. Chesterton story. The Mummy's Curse is a poorly abridged version of Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsujinjinken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) bordering on plagiarism. I don't exactly remember my third one, but it could have been No Noose is Good Noose or The Legend of Lake Hiren, but they were both equally poor in plot and execution.

I abandoned The Kindaichi Case Files with no intention of ever returning, but than I ran across Ho-Ling Wong and he insisted there were quality detective stories in the series. So I reluctantly returned with varying degrees of success. The Graveyard Isle was incredibly weak and don't remember thinking too much of Treasure Isle either, but Death TV, The Magical Express and The Undying Butterfly were generally excellent. House of Wax was even superb and still my favorite entry in this series.

There are, however, a few holes in my reading of the English edition that were published in the West, because TokyoPop folded in 2011. One of these titles, The Headless Samurai, had been recommended to me by a commenter, Jonathan, on my review of The Prison Prep School Murder Case, a multi-part episode of the latest Kindaichi anime – claiming that the story was even better than The Magical Express and House of Wax. Naturally, I was skeptical and had a very good reason to be, which has to do with my reason for picking The Headless Samurai as my follow up to The Inugami Clan.

You see, what I read about the plot of The Headless Samurai made me suspect Kanari had been "borrowing" from Yokomizo's celebrated detective novel and was ready to tar-and-feather him for it. I even hired an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. I was fully prepared for a good, old-fashioned verbal lynching, but, as much as it pains me to say, I turned out to be wrong. Again. The Headless Samurai turned out to stand toe-to-toe with House of Wax and kind of liked what Kanari did with the plot and (visual) clueing. Don't get me wrong. Kanari is still a hack of the first water, but you have to give credit where credit's due, you know.

The Headless Samurai has Inspector Kenmochi traveling to the remote mountain village of Kuchinasi in the Gifu Prefecture to visit a childhood friend, Shino Tatsumi, who had married into a wealthy family, as the second wife of Kuranosuke Tatsumi, but after he passed away she started to receive threatening letters – all of them signed by "The Cursed Warrior." Kenmochi is accompanied by two familiar faces, Hajime Kindaichi and Nanase Miyuki.

There are a few superficial resemblances to The Inugami Clan in the opening stages of the story. One of these is a masked man, Saburo Akanuma, who they spot on the bus to the village and turns up again at the Tatsumi home as a guest of Shino. A second resemblance is the reading of the will, appointing Seimaru Tatsumi as the head of the family and "the heir to all its wealth," but the problem is that Seimaru is Shino's son who was adopted by her husband and an outsider – which means that his appointment comes at the expensive Ryunosuke, Moegi and Hayato. The three children from Kuranosuke's first marriage.

However, The Headless Samurai goes its own way after the setup and the plot is draped in a legend that has hung, like a dark cloud, over the village for centuries.

Over 400 years ago, the village was visited by an army general, Kaneharu Hiiragi, who was badly defeated during the time of the battle of Sekigahara and came to Kuchinasi to seek refuge with his men. Upon his arrival, the general crowned himself leader of the village and attempted to drive out the village chief, but General Kaneharu was betrayed by his soldiers. They killed their master, presented the severed head as peace offering to the chief and settled down in the village. Only General Kaneharu placed a curse on them with his dying breath, "my spirit will wander the earth" and "you will never be free," which was followed by a series of decapitations of his former men.

So the frightened villages began to appease his spirit by erecting a shrine dedicated to him and headless statues were placed representing the victims. And the opening of the story showed that the suit of armor of General Kaneharu has disappeared.

The Cursed Warrior makes an entrance like a Scooby Doo villain, when he slashes through a paper screen with a katana, before disappearing and only an impossibly vanishing trail of sandal-prints on the veranda. However, this side-puzzle is quickly solved by Kindaichi, but the problem is that this reveals the person wearing the armor came from inside of the house. Ah, yes, detective stories are the thinking man's Scream.

This is followed by the impossible murder of the masked man, Saburo Akanuma, who is housed in the only available room at the time. A vault-like room hidden behind a hidden, revolving door that looks like a blank wall. The room itself has an iron door with a lock made in Germany, which comes with a unique, custom-made key that can't be duplicated and the only window is a narrow square with iron bars – looking out over a wide, steep cliff with a river below. One evening, Kindaichi gets a phone-call from Saburo asking to ask him if he really is "the grandson of the famous detective," because he wants to tells him the identity of the katana-wielding samurai.

Kindaichi and Shino go to the Saburo's room to have a word with him, but when they arrive in the passage they hear him scream out, "IT'S THE CURSED WARRIOR." Kindaichi tells Shino to fetch the keys and when they can finally open the door they're greeted by his headless corpse sitting in the silent, moonlit room.

A well-presented locked room problem with a good false solution by Kenmoichi, which fitted only one suspect, who promptly dies, but the actual explanation is practical, simple and believable. Clever and original enough to avoid being disappointing. And nicely contrasts with Kenmochi's solution.

However, the locked room mystery and its false solution are not the gemstones of the plot. An experienced mystery reader with a passing familiarity of the Japanese detective story will immediately suspect a classic, Eastern-style corpse-trick is being placed right under their nose, but not one you can easily unravel and the plot cleverly plays with the cast-iron certainties given by modern forensics and results in a beautiful piece of misdirection – which was nonetheless prominently foreshadowed in the artwork. This also gave the murderer an acceptable motive for all of the theatrics, because they were necessary to answer that age-old question. What to do with the body?

The Headless Samurai was surprisingly strong on motives, which is normally a weak aspect of the series, because the plot tend to be written around the eternal avenger-from-the-past theme. The murderer here had an entirely different motivation. A motive showing that old sins can cast long shadows, the cussedness of all things general and that blood will out. What drives the murderer also gives the story some nice clues and made for a dark, tragic conclusion.

So, all in all, The Headless Samurai was a pleasant surprise and, if I come across as overly enthusiastic, it's because I was determined to hate it going in. But I was proven wrong. I don't mind it at all when that happens. Kanari is still a hack though.


  1. I'm glad you remembered the recommendation, and I was somewhat nervous halfway through your review, especially when you professed being "ready to tar-and-feather him for it. I even hired an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. I was fully prepared for a good, old-fashioned verbal lynching..."

    For a moment, I feared being stoned alongside Yozaburo Kanari... Who said reading and commenting on blogs reviewing mystery writing was a safe recreation? >.<

    Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed 'Headless Samurai', which I found to be my favourite entry in the Kanari oeuvre. I thought the locked room puzzle was clever yet simple, and I found the characterisation and atmosphere commendable.

    I guess I liked "Headless Samurai' more than 'Magical Express" in part because I only read "Magical Express" after I had encountered the Puppeteer in the subsequent works. So there was no real surprise by the time I read "Magical Express". And I thought the human drama in "Headless Samurai" was poignant - which made it the stronger work in comparison to "House of Wax". "Graveyard Isle" I liked, with a clue brandished right under the nose of the reader - but the puzzle required specialist knowledge.

    Are you aware that the Kindaichi manga has undergone an update? The manga story currently being serialised features Kindaichi as a 37-year-old man.

    1. You sure were in the firing line there for a brief moment! :)

      The Headless Samurai is indeed very poignant when it comes to human drama, which noticeably strengthened the pleasantly original motive of the murderer. Combine that with the corpse-trick, the false locked room solution and a cleverly simple impossible crime and you've got yourself a (minor) classic. I like to take shots at Kanari, but genuinely wish he had written more of these.

      "Graveyard Isle I liked, with a clue brandished right under the nose of the reader - but the puzzle required specialist knowledge."

      No, no, no! You can't possibly have liked that clue! I assume you're referring to the clue that was given when the group was camping inside those slits in the mountainside, which were used as bunkers during WWII. And the next morning, one of them is found impossibly stabbed inside his sleeping bag. That clue gave the whole game away.

      Years ago, I actually wrote a (short) rewrite of that part of the plot and used information given earlier in the story as clues for an alternative solution to that specific murder. The idea was not a knockout classic, but it kept the murderer from acting out-of-character and spoiling the game. I'll see if I can find it and perhaps work it into a blog-post.

      "Are you aware that the Kindaichi manga has undergone an update? The manga story currently being serialised features Kindaichi as a 37-year-old man."

      Yes, I'm aware they updated the series and suppose an adult Kindaichi has story-telling potential, but, from what I glanced, the character hasn't really evolved. Or even looks all that different. So a time-skip of two decades seems pointless. They might as well have done a "Kindaichi, the College Years" series.

    2. Character development is a foreign word to the series but it does have hints of character progression I would say.

    3. "No, no, no! You can't possibly have liked that clue! I assume you're referring to the clue that was given when the group was camping inside those slits in the mountainside, which were used as bunkers during WWII. And the next morning, one of them is found impossibly stabbed inside his sleeping bag. That clue gave the whole game away."

      [Spoilers for 'Graveyard Isle']

      Are you referring to the overhearing of the exchange between Kindaichi and another character? If so, I wasn’t overly bothered by this clue – but I wasn’t referring to it either. The clue I quite enjoyed pertained to some knowledge betrayed by one character during food and drink. The specialist knowledge I was referring to was that of the morse code. Also, I don’t know if it worked that well in English translation.

    4. SPOILER (Graveyard Isle)

      Yes, I was referring to that exchange. Up until then, the murderer's character was established as silent character who was not inclined to small talk. Suddenly, he was verbally needling Kindaichi. This was very out-of-character and immediately drew attention to him.

      I can't quite remember the clue you're referring to, but I do remember the code. However, I have no idea whether it had to be altered for the English translation.

  2. I actually remember this probably due to how good the atmosphere used to be in some of these older stories.
    The newer ones felt like the series is just going through the motions and then the series just ends and new ones begin.
    Maybe they can somehow manage to revitalize the series with the next parts. Only time will tell.

    1. Going through the motions is an inevitable side-effect of following a formula, but who knows, maybe the adult incarnation of Kindaichi can revitalize the series. Let's wait and see.

  3. The cover you used for Tokyopop's edition is not the actual cover. I think I remember this picture, but it was only used when the title was first listed in the release schedules. The actual cover for The Headless Samurai uses an illustration from the story itself (the one you showed, uses an illustration from the story Tokypop titled Playing the Fool IIRC).

    Can't say I remember very much of this story though, save for the moment Hajime figures out how the locked room was done. The backstory of the samurai etc. isn't based on The Inugami Clan by the way, but Yokomizo's Yatsu Haka Mura (The Village of Eight Graves), where a family is believed to be cursed as centuries ago, their ancestor was one of the villagers who murdered a group of 8 samurai on the run who were hiding in the village after losing a battle.

    Wing Hong at my blog had posted in a comment he enjoyed the manga Minzoku Gakusha Yakumo Itsuki (The Folklorist YAKUMO Itsuki) a lot, which was also penned by Kanari. I remember that in The Encyclopedia of 21st Century Honkaku Mystery Video I reviewed a while back, it received a very positive entry too. The manga is only available as e-book in Japan at the moment however, so I can't easily get my hands on it at the moment :/

    1. Wait, that's not a tarot card. Yeah, so I have no idea where the illustration in the cover you used came from originally, but it's not the correct one at any rate :P

    2. I know that's not the official cover of the TokyoPop release, but didn't like the original one and, somehow, the best quality images of the official cover have the title of Kindaichi the Killer on it. So I decided to pick this one.

      "The backstory of the samurai etc. isn't based on The Inugami Clan by the way, but Yokomizo's Yatsu Haka Mura (The Village of Eight Graves)"

      Goddammit, Kanari! Someone get me a drum of tar and a sack of feathers. The lynching is back on!

    3. Yeah and he made Yakumo Itsuki sound very interesting, but I looked around and only the first chapter has been translated. The artwork is a bit weird, but the "impossible murders based on folklore" is my favourite. Even the jdrama is impossible to find...

      As for this story, I remember really liking it when I watched it. I was a bit of a novice when I watched it and totally did not consider THAT situation!

      Since you mentioned it, Kindaichi The Killer is another good one I think. The trick used there is actually quite cunning and surprising...

    4. I suppose I'd better defend Kanari, for fear of being lynched alongside him. :P

      This opens up a wider discussion of “borrowing”, as it seems to me that a certain amount of rehashing of tropes is prevalent within the Golden Age genre itself. In the case of ‘Headless Samurai’, I'm sure there are many more Japanese novels, apart from ‘Village of Eight Graves’ and ‘Inugami Clan’, featuring families wrecked by violence, located within villages haunted by samurais. Likewise, there are countless GA novels are essentially about a fractious patriarch murdered in his very own country manor, upon which his money-grubbing relatives fall under suspicion. But reviewers are generally happy to recommend one such novel, as long as there is sufficient merit to, say, the characterisation or the solution to the mystery.

      I do agree that some lines are crossed when the actual solution is lifted wholesale from preceding mystery writing. Then again, even the stalwarts of the GA genre, including Agatha Christie, can be accused on rehashing a handful of solutions across multiple novels – and, in some instances, much more obviously than others. I suppose what allows a work to stand on its own two feet would be whether or not the whole is greater than the mere sum of its parts.

      Going back to ‘Headless Samurai’ – we certainly see mythical samurais, creepy villages and dysfunctional families elsewhere in Japanese literature, but these tropes are sufficiently generic for ‘Headless Samurai’ to be “overly-conventional” rather than “plagiaristic”. Admittedly, "Headless Samurai" does not offer much, if anything, by way of adapting these traditional elements. Nonetheless, its characterisation, its poignant human drama, as well as its clever but simple solution to the locked room, suggest to me that the whole is greater than the mere sum of its parts.

      I hope this post isn't seen as rude; just making a case for some credit to be given to Headless Samurai. :)

    5. I think there's a clear difference between reworking ideas, which is indeed very prevalent in the genre, and simply lifting them wholesale.

      My first encounters with Kanari was when he blatantly crossed that line. Repeatedly. See my comments (above) on The Opera House Murders and The Mummy's Curse. This introduction to Kanari has given me a very negative and inexpungible impression of him as a mystery writer.

      Compare his work (for example) with the iconic story his colleague, Seimaru Amagi, penned for Detective Academy Q.

      The premise of The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case was obviously taken from Herbert Brean's Wilders Walks Away (right down to where the bodies were hidden), but Amagi wrote an entirely, grand-style detective story around that premise. And eventually improved on all the ideas found in Brean's mystery novel. It was thoroughly transformative. Amagi also injected entirely new impossible situations and solutions into the story.

      This is something Kanari is incapable of doing. He simply takes ideas and places them in a different setting or situation. Admittedly, he can be really good at this (The Headless Samurai), but, at his worst (The Mummy's Curse), he's merely a human copying machine. And nothing more. Kanari is a mystery writer who needs a pre-existing templates to write and plot a decent mystery around, which doesn't always result in the best detective stories. Since I encountered him at his worst, he easily annoys me whenever I become aware of him having borrowed certain plot-elements.

      So, long story short, I'm a little bit prejudiced against Kanari. However, you have to admit that, in spite of my personal dislike, I'm still pretty fair when it comes to judging his work.

    6. I haven’t read “Tokyo Zodiac Murders”, but from what I’ve read online, “Mummy’s Curse” seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to it. :(

      I was primarily defending “Headless Samurai” - so as long as I escape being stoned for recommending it, I’m happy. :P

      [Spoiler for Graveyard Isle]

      I had in mind the clue caught on camera: where one character knew how much sugar another character liked with his tea.

    7. The Mummy's Curse is, plot-wise, an abridged version of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. And not a very good one either. I don't remember that specific clue from Graveyard Isle.

      Oh, you're officially pardoned, Jonathan.

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  5. Dear TomCat,you have a complete misconception on the Kindaichi series.It was written by both Seimaru Amagi & Yozaburo Kanari.Kanari withdrew later from the series so Amagi took over as chief writer.As far as I know,they collaborated together to create plots & storyline.So if you blame Kanari alone,its unfair.Either blame both of them or dont.By the way,you must read the Devil's Artifacts Murder Case & The Amakusa Legendary Treasure Murder Case written by the duo of Amagi & Kanari.Its Brilliant.Often you complain about motive being weak in Kindaichi Series but after reading these novels,I hope you will change your opinion.Dont blame Kanari alone,all japanese writers copy some tricks from queen novels,dickson carr novels & many other novels.

    1. I'm very well aware that the series was co-created by Amagi and Kanari.

      I mentioned in a previous comment that they were colleagues, but, as I understand it, Kanari took on the writing duties during the early stages of the series, because Amagi was engaged on another project. You can see a clear difference, in quality and originality, between both writers in the stories they wrote and plotted by themselves. So my opinion on Kanari still stands.

    2. But The legend Of Lake Hiren Murders & The Mummy's Curse was penned by Amagi.He mentioned it in a interview & said that in the beginning phase those were his favourite novels.Many people think Kanari wrote alone for some time,but that is not true.Kanari always co wrote with Amagi.In fact, Amagi used to write by himself & Amagi devised the plotline for each case with artist sato & Kanari.Amagi changed his writing approach in detective academy Q,whereas Kanari retired from writing.Blaming Kanari alone is wrong.

  6. Here is a link of that interview (or afterword maybe )

    Read it & see if you can complain about Kanari anymore.

    1. You have to give me a little more than a vaguely worded trans(scan)lation, because every source I could find confirmed what I remembered. Amagi and Kanari co-created the series, but Kanari wrote the first series and Amagi took over once he had finished his other project, which I think was Detective Academy Q. Kanari is also the only name that appears on the cover of the TokyoPop editions.

      Can you clear this for us up, Ho-Ling? I'm sure you know the answer.

      These are clearest sources I could find that addressed the authorship:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Kindaichi_Case_Files_chapters ("...is a Japanese mystery manga authored by Yōzaburō Kanari (earlier series) and Seimaru Amagi (later series) ...").

      https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/manga.php?id=2799 (lists Kanari as author and Amagi as the one of who created the series concept).

    2. The translated page was from the The legendary Vampire Murders novel.Maybe Ho Ling has that book in japanese & he can verify if that afterword is present there or not.For quite a long time,there has been a confusion regarding this matter.I too thought Kanari wrote the first 27 novels but after reading that particular afterword,I wastn't quite sure who actually wrote them.And Internet articles cant be trusted.They are made up.Someone who has a copy of the japanese books can verify it for us.

    3. That Amagi=Kibayashi worked even on the earliest Kindaichi Shounen titles was never a secret, so him mentioning that in the afterword to that volume is no secret. The muddy thing about Kindaichi Shounen's creatorship is that, ON PAPER, Amagi was only involved with the early series as an editor. Before he became the freelance writer he is now, Amagi was known as a legendary multi-tasking editor at Kodansha, with an extremely hands-on editing style in regards to story. Manga editors can have extreme influence on the story, as you might know from the stories about how series like Dragon Ball developed, and Kibayashi was known as somehow who really bit his teeth on the stories of series he commanded. Even with a series like Detective Conan, of which the creation is credited to one single person, the existence of editors is vital, as loads of important elements, like tricks or story themes, are suggested by editors (in fact, the most important part of their job as a Conan editor to bring in new tricks etc.). But these people are obviously never credited for story creation.

      That is why Amagi was originally not credited for anything in Kindaichi Shounen (see older prints of the series, or even TokyoPop's releases) as OFFICIALLY, he was "just" an editor helping out the original creators Kanari and Satou. Amagi later became main story writer of the series, and he gained creator copyright even for the older series, which is EXCEPTIONAL, suggesting he did quite more than usually expected from an editor, but still, his crediting for the old series is still distintly different from Kanari's crediting (current releases of the old series have Amagi credited as 原案 (original concept), vs Kanari's 原作 (original story).

      So yes, Amagi did work on the original series on story element as an editor, and from the way he gained "original concept" credits for those stories in subsequent releases, we may surmise he might've done more than what a normal editor would, but in the end, we don't know the extent to which he is responsible for the stories. In the end, it's still Kanari who is credited for original story in those early stories. Like with the Detective Conan example I mentioned: tricks, dialogue lines or whole scenes might be thought of by editors, but in the end, it's still Aoyama and only he who is credited and judged upon the work.

    4. Thanks for your lengthy comment, Ho-Ling! I'm afraid this won't settle the disagreement between me and Silent Angel, but I'm satisfied with it. Amagi was involved with the earlier series, but did not co-wrote (some of) those stories, which was my point. Once again, I always found that there was a clear and noticeable difference in quality between the Kindaichi cases written by Amagi and Kanari.

      A difference that struck me when I read my first Amagi-Kindaichi story, The Phantom of the Silver Screen, which managed to even make the series formula feel fresh and original.

    5. Thanks to Ho ling for clearing this doubt.TomCat,so you wont blame Kanari alone anymore?Right?Because now we know Amagi was the one who came up with concepts & ideas.

    6. I think you're giving too much weight to Amagi's role in the original series.

      This was not an Ellery Queen-like partnership with Amagi plotting the stories and Kanari writing them. Amagi worked as an editor and, as Ho-Ling pointed out, probably did more than his position warranted and likely provided some story/plot ideas, which would explain why the original series has enormousness gaps of quality between volumes – compare the excellent House of Wax and The Headless Samurai with the very poorly done No Noose is Good Noose and The Mummy's Curse. I would not be surprised if the better volumes of the original series were (partially) guided by Amagi.

      So, as of now, my opinion on Kanari still stands. Sorry, SA. But I need something more substantial to change my opinion on this issue.