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10 Greatest Anime Detectives
The best sleuths in anime
By Joseph Dexter
March 23, 2010
In the world of comics, Batman is considered the ultimate detective who can figure out anything by using every detail available to him. His return to DC Comics after being out of the picture for a bit is a big event, but we want to highlight some other detectives from the manga and anime world who may give the world’s greatest detective a run for his money. The detective and mystery genre has had a fair amount of representation stateside, but has been relatively unappreciated. This is a shame, because a lot of excellent work has been done in the vein of the old-fashioned whodunit and its more recent offshoots. Anime and manga have produced quite a few super sleuth heroes--and antagonists--of a high caliber. Here are 10 we think are worth some investigating of your own.
10. Spica - Zodiac P.I.
By day, she's Lili, a normal (albeit hyperactive) high-school student: by night, she's Spica, a mysterious detective who solves crimes through the power of the stars. Zodiac P.I. is a spunky blend of mystery and astrological fortune-telling from the artist behind the popular Kitchen Princess manga. In addition to the usual roster of detective skills, Spica calls spirits of the Zodiac out of her starring to turn up clues vital to her investigations. The fun of this is that each of the star spirits has the personality traits associated with that sign, so Spica has to treat each one differently to get the information out of them. Then she has to put all of the pieces together. Her cases are fast-moving and often have a good twist or two somewhere inside them. Spica is one of the best detectives out there for the times you want a lighter-weight mystery story spiced up with comedic and supernatural elements.
9. Inspector Zenigata - Lupin III
Lupin is the world's greatest thief. Inspector Zenigata is... not quite great enough to arrest him. But hey, the guy deserves some credit. He may not have the pure analytical ability of one of the legendary crime-solvers; he does, however, possess a bloodhound instinct for telling when a heist will occur, and the dogged persistence to pursue his quarry to the bitter end, no matter what, no matter where. He never has achieved his greatest aim. Time after time Lupin has slipped out of his grasp to strike again elsewhere. Time after time Zenigata goes after him again, this time to lock him away for good. Then again, Lupin IS the world's greatest thief--you've got to admit that. So to have come so close to catching him, and so often, must be proof that Zenigata of Interpol is very good at what he does. Besides, look at all the bad guys--far more dangerous ones than Lupin--that he's put behind bars during the chase. In short, Zenigata deserves a break. And today he's going to get one.
8. Batman - Batman: Death Mask
Batman may be an American hero, but he's had a fairly long and storied history in the land of the rising sun as well. In the ’60, Japan had its own series of Batman comics (collected by Chip Kidd and published in English not long ago as The Bat-Manga), and the past decade has brought us translated versions of Kia Asamiya's Child of Dreams and, most recently, Yoshinori Natsume's Death Mask. The latter features a Batman ingeniously faced with an ancient, occult, Japanese version of his own mask. The story forces Batman to be as much a martial artist as a crime-fighter. In fact, Batman's crime-fighting largely consists of, well, fighting. Natsume is able to pack a lot into a single volume. The book is too short to really be called "densely plotted,"but I sure came close to saying that. After hours of soul-searching and painstaking analysis, I have come to the conclusion that, as far as detectives go, Batman can give Batman a run for his money.
7. Mustachio (AKA Shunsaku Ban) - Astro Boy, Metropolis
No list of great detectives could be complete without a mention of one of the founding fathers of detectives in manga. Mustachio (I will refer to him by his most widely know English moniker) was one of the "stock" characters of the great Osamu Tezuka, and as such appeared in many of the great man's works. He is probably most identified with Astro Boy, where he works as Astro's teacher during the day and moonlights as a private detective. His rotund build and enormous walrus mustache mask a keen deductive mind that is often called upon to help Astro find out where the bad guys are headquartered, or to sniff out whatever mischief Skunk has been up to lately. Modern fans may know him best from the more recent Metropolis film, which finds him on a search for a missing person that leads to the discovery of a deadly conspiracy that lies at the heart of the world's greatest city. Regardless of where you met him, Mustachio is deserving of all the respect due to a pioneer.
6. Daisuke Aurora - Heat Guy J
Being a special agent in the city state of Judoh isn't all it's cracked up to be. The hours are long, the paperwork is a chore, and you've got to take care of rogue androids, terrorists, gangsters, illegal aliens, even the city's own corrupt politicians; and you've got to do it all on three bullets a day. Fortunately for the people of Judoh, Daisuke Aurora is more than up to the task. He's got the street smarts, the sharp mind, the personal connections, and the combat training to deal with whatever comes his way. For an agent like Daisuke, it's not enough to just solve the crime: you've got to bring down the criminal. He fights crime more like a western marshal than a detective. He uses his fists, his gun, and his robot partner (what Bat Masterson wouldn't have given for one of those!). You can tell from the start of Heat Guy J that Daisuke is good at defending the peace. But when you see him match wits with an underworld mastermind bent on manipulating the commodities market, or uncover a conspiracy to overthrow the city government and then find a way to stop it, you know he's got a good head on his shoulders.
5. Inspector Lunge - Monster
There are a lot of brilliant detectives in fiction, but none of them have curdled my blood quite as much as Inspector Lunge of the BKA. Lunge isn't a bad man, according to his lights; he's just a very, very cold one. But that doesn't make him any less scary to the pursued. The pursued in this case is Dr. Tenma, an innocent man drawn into a web of Hitchcockian intrigue and suspense. On the one hand Tenma is faced with a diabolical menace behind a rash of serial killings in Germany. On the other he is wanted by the police for his supposed connection with the said killings. Lunge is the man who wants him and is determined to get him. His frighteningly perfect memory, his unnerving habit of tapping his fingers while others talk--"typing data onto his hard drive," he says--and his ruthless analysis of evidence make him an antagonist to be feared.
4. L - Death Note
A man without a name. A voice without a face. This is the mysterious mastermind known by no one, and the few that know of him call him only by a single letter: L. He is a criminologist of dazzling intellect, the last resort of every police force in the world. There isn't a criminal he hasn't hunted down, or a case he hasn't solved. But when a killer arises who can take life from whatever distance he pleases and leave no trace on or around the body, even a genius like L has his work cut out for him. What awaits is a deadly game of cat and mouse,but which is hunter and which is hunted? Death Note is the stage on which brilliant move and countermove are exchanged between opponents that are equally, terrifyingly intelligent. And it all begins when L locates his quarry, identifies his unique murderous ability, and issues a challenge all at the same time. It's one of the best "the game is afoot!" moments you'll ever see.
3. Conan Edogawa - Case Closed
The boy detective has been a popular type throughout the twentieth century, and if you grew up on Nate the Great, Encyclopedia Brown and/or the Hardy Boys, then Case Closed will be right up your alley. It's a new wrinkle on that old standby. But this time, the boy detective isn't a boy, exactly: he's an older teen trapped in a boy's body by the unintended effects of a powerful experimental drug. As if he's going to let a little thing like that stop him from solving cases just like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. (He got his first name from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.) And there are cases aplenty. Conan follows the same old-fashioned, time-tested approach of his idol: fine-toothed comb investigation of the crime scene, interrogation of witnesses, perfect recall of seemingly irrelevant details, and a close knowledge of the criminal mind. At the same time, he makes use of decidedly new-fashioned gadgets cooked up for him by the local eccentric genius inventor. Just like its hero, everything about Case Closed seems to have two sides to it that somehow are just right for each other. There's an initially odd yet somewhat fitting contrast in the cartoony visual style of the art and the gruesomeness of the murders, or the situational comedy woven into perfectly (I could almost say classically) serious detective procedural. If your looking for a dependable source of whodunits in the traditional style, but with a modern flair, then Conan is the man or boy to give it to you.
2. Sherlock Holmes - Sherlock Hound
A character as renowned as Sherlock Holmes needs no introduction. But we still have 190 words to go in this entry, so he gets one anyway. The world-famous detective and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson are, like all of the other inhabitants of this Victorian London, anthropomorphized canines. A wolfish, top-hatted Moriarty runs amok through the city, committing despicable crimes and dastardly deeds, and it's up to the (literally) foxy detective and his partner to put a stop to them. Okay, faithful to the source it isn't. But boy, is it loads of fun. The episodes are action-packed as well as ingeniously plotted mysteries, and steampunk vehicles provide an excuse for inventive and sometime hilarious chase sequences. Holmes zips around the city and countryside in an early steam-powered automobile, and you'll see a good-sized assortment of early flying machines by the time all's said and done. This was the last TV series that Hayao Miyazaki worked on before going into features full time. It's a wonderful farewell gift: warm, funny, exciting, and clever all at once.
(P. S. TMS has graciously made the show freely available on its YouTube channel. If you haven't seen this gem yet, now's the time to stop putting it off.)
1. Taichi Hiraga Keaton - Master Keaton
Mr. Keaton is unique among the characters on this list in more ways than we could cram into a single paragraph. (Not that that will stop us from trying.) In the first place he's neither a gifted amateur sleuth nor, in a strict sense, a police detective. Instead he's an elite insurance investigator for the internationally respected Lloyd's of London. As such he's sent all over the world, looking into assorted murders, suspect suicides, and kidnappings; and bringing the perpetrators to justice wherever they might be found. Keaton is unmatched as an investigator: whenever a "real" detective is assigned to the same case Keaton is working on, he'll invariably wind up looking like a cub scout with a toy magnifying glass in comparison to the master. But crime-solving is just one small sliver of Keaton the man. He can also survive in the desert, take down assassins, disarm bombs, and stop bulldozers with nothing more than soap and water. The array of skills and knowledge he brings to the table is unparalleled. Sure, Batman can solve crimes and put super-villains behind bars (at least until the next issue comes out). But can he catalog the artifacts from an archaeological dig, or come up with a groundbreaking new theory about the origins of civilization in Europe? Keaton is without question Anime's greatest detective and he's so much more besides.
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