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Finding Miss Mystery

By Janet Houck     September 06, 2006


CASE CLOSED: Covering Up
© Funimation
Mystery and suspense. Such simple words for such a wide-ranging genre, one that contains some of the strangest yet most rewarding anime out there, as well as timeless. Detective novels, psychological thrillers, and just plain old weird animation that will challenge your ability to follow a story, these are the anime I seek when I want to try something that will make me pay attention to the screen (or the page) and think. These are also the titles that will make you reflect upon yourself, completing the cycle of writer and reader.



DETECTIVE CONAN, also known as CASE CLOSED (FUNimation; manga from VIZ Media) in the US and elsewhere, is perhaps the first name associated with detective mystery anime and manga.

The story of a young high school detective who is poisoned and turned into a boy, and who must now hide his identity from his enemies, as well as from his friends, DETECTIVE CONAN has spawned a long-running TV series, ten movies, and a live-action TV drama airing in the fall, not to mention the fifty-plus volumes of the on-going manga series that started the title.

The stories follow the classic crime fiction format of arriving at the scene, doing some investigative work, and wrapping up the case just in the nick of time. The twist in this title is the problems that Conan must deal with while cracking the case. As a child, no one pays him any attention, thus he can work and ask questions more freely than as a teenager. However, he must use his girlfriend's father, Detective Mori as his mouth. (Literally. Conan uses a voice changer disguised as a bow tie.) DETECTIVE CONAN is a good stand-by title, and great for showing publicly at anime clubs, where content can be a concern.

SPIRAL (FUNimation; manga licensed by TOKYOPOP) runs like your typical detective show on TV: Ayumu comes across a mystery, either by accident or through his persistent friend, school journalist Hiyono. At the end of the episode, he solves the case by using logic. However, there is an overarching plot involving the disappearance of Ayumu's older brother, Kiyotaka, who is incredibly brilliant and talented with the piano. Kiyotaka was investigating the Blade Children when he went missing... and they are the only clue that Ayumu has in finding him again. SPIRAL is a good solid title, although I found the last few episodes somewhat lacking in characterization and slowing down the momentum of the show. Coming out in a box set in October, now is a great time to check it out.

Rounding out the detective mystery section is AGATHA CHRISTIE'S GREAT DETECTIVES POIROT AND MARPLE, which is exactly what it advertises itself as: an anime adaptation of Agatha Christie stories featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, two of Christie's famous detective characters. The anime connects the two detectives through the original character, Mabel West, an aspiring detective who happens to be Miss Marple's great-niece and Poirot's assistant in London. The adaptation does remove some of the darker elements in the books (this show ran on NHK; think Japanese PBS) for a younger audience. It also uses a more Western style of animation, with simple features and bright colors. Clocking in at 39 episodes, this is a great hidden gem for fans of Agatha Christie and anime, although the mysteries won't seem very mysterious to you.

MONSTER (manga from VIZ Media), a fan-favorite title of 2006, blends mystery with horror. An eighteen volume manga and seventy-four episode anime series, it centers around Dr. Kenzo Tenma as he pursues Johan, a young psychopath whose life was saved by the good doctor years ago. As Tenma rushes throughout Eastern Europe to prevent Johan from murdering, he must struggle with a painful ethical dilemma: should he have let Johan die back then to save the lives of those this monster has killed? As the story continues, issues of eugenics and psychological experiments in Communist East Germany arise as Tenma uncovers the motivation behind Johan's actions. The anime remains unlicensed. New Line Cinema has the rights to an English adaptation film version, so this tale of murder and secret government programs may be coming to a theatre near you in 2009.

Following in the wake of MONSTER is DEATH NOTE (manga from VIZ Media). Comprising of twelve volumes, a two-part live-action film, and an upcoming anime series, DEATH NOTE is another favorite among US fans, its fame spread mostly through word of mouth on the Internet (as did MONSTER). Light Yagami is the top student in Japan, who lives a rather mundane life otherwise. One day, he finds a notebook with the title "Death Note." As it turns out, Death Note has the ability to kill whoever's name is written inside its page. Meant to be a tool for shinigami (death gods; think Grim Reaper), Light decides to use Death Note to cleanse the world of evil, and as we all know from fiction, that's never a good thing.

The mysterious sudden deaths of many known criminals gets the attention of the police, as well as the world's top detective, L, who figures out that Light can kill by only knowing a name and a face. Light realizes that L may be his match, and thus begins the cat-and-mouse chase to discover the other's identity. However, the waters become muddied as to who is the true hero of the story. Is it the detective, stopping a psychopath from continuing his killing spree from afar? Or is it the young man stamping out crime, one criminal at a time, seeking to create a utopia?

Let's jump over to take a look at Satoshi Kon, whose work includes some of the most thought-provoking anime titles in recent history. As the screenwriter for the "Magnetic Rose" segment of MEMORIES (Sony Pictures), adapted from a manga by Otomo Katsuhiro (known best in the US for AKIRA, METROPOLIS and STEAMBOY), Kon created a frightening world of art and fantasy, where the mind's memories create reality upon a derelict space station. As the crew of a freighter investigates the distress signal, the mystery deepens as the danger grows. MEMORIES may be over ten years old, but it's still a great collection of stories, with "Magnetic Rose" as the star of the show.

PERFECT BLUE (Manga Entertainment) marks Kon's debut as a director. This psychological thriller, often compared to Hitchcock and Philip K. Dick, revolves around Mima, a member of the highly successful idol group CHAM! She leaves the group, deciding to break into acting, and that's where things start to unwind. Stalked by unhappy fans who want their Mima back, the line between fantasy and reality blurs to the point where as a viewer, you don't know what's actually happening and what's merely in Mima's mind. It's a trip that will leave you glued to the screen the entire time, trying to figure out the identity of the stalker, the killer, the false diarist of the "Mima's Room" website, and how sane is Mima, and if we can trust what she sees. Later works by Kon include MILLENNIUM ACTRESS, TOKYO GODFATHERS, and PARANOIA AGENT. All of these films revolve around a mystery, from a baby found in a dumpster to an inline skater boy with a baseball bat and a habit of slugging people. Not much is known yet about his latest project, PAPRIKA, due out in 2007.

Finally, three titles that define suspense in anime; all three titles will leave you with a general first impression of "What the hell?!" LE PORTRAIT DE PETITE COSSETTE (Geneon; manga from TOKYOPOP) tells the story of art student, Eiri who works in an antique shop. One day, he discovers a glass goblet where the life of an 18th century aristocratic blonde girl seems to play out constantly. At midnight, Eiri learns her name (Cossette) and how she was trapped in the glass by her betrothed murderer. The only way to break the curse is for a man to take upon himself the sins of the murderer, and Eiri just happens to be the reincarnation of the murderer. Cossette tortures him, demanding Eiri to prove his love for her, as she falls in love herself with Eiri. In the background, Eiri's friends and family try to save him from this self-destructive path of madness. Don't go into this story intending to understand it; just go along for the ride.

Now a classic title, SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (Geneon) is the story of Lain, a schoolgirl who blends into a grey society and bland family until she discovers the Wired, an international computer network that encompasses the Internet and more. As she drifts deeper and deeper into the Wired, reality becomes more mutable, bending to Lain's thoughts as she becomes a digital goddess with absolute power and responsibility. Uncomfortable in the physical world and in the Wired, Lain erases herself from the memories of people, becoming a protective ghost, watching over the people she loves. As LAIN probes the very nature of reality and we are subjected to Lain's interpretation of events, even writing a plot synopsis is difficult. Even almost ten years later, this anime is hotly debated and still as mysterious as to what really happened and what was Lain's imagination.

Often mentioned with LAIN as the only anime comparable to it, BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM (The Right Stuf) consists of twelve episodes in no linear order. Each episode centers around a different character, who is a background or secondary character in another episode. Thus the viewer will see the same scene repeatedly, but from a different perspective. All the episodes (and characters) share an event in common, a mysterious bright bar of light shooting up into the night sky. Based on the Boogiepop series of novels, this anime includes many of the recurring characters in the books, as well as Boogiepop, a story among high school girls of a shinigami who dresses in black with a tall hat and who kills girls at their most beautiful. BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM looks at human evolution and the evolution of human consciousness, and that is perhaps the only solid theme that links the episode. This is a great show, coming out in October in thinpak format.

I hope that I have given you many titles, both new and old that will let you explore the darker side of the street, as well as settle in for a classic whodunit. Until next week, this is the American Otaku, signing out. Cue the soft tones of the weeping saxophone and let the red curtain fall.

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