No doubt, this season is front-loaded, so I’m not going to let this heady start make me giddy. But there’s no two ways about the fact that in Gangsta and Ranpo Kitan, Summer 2015 is off to a terrific start. Here’s another unconventional and challenging series, quite different from Gangsta but equally as far removed from the fashions of the day in anime. It’s also the first NoitaminA shows in quite some time that feels connected to what NoitaminA used to be all about – giving a vehicle to series that would otherwise struggle to find a place on the schedule.
The genesis of Ranpo Kitan is certainly an odd one, but I can’t help but be reminded of UN-GO when I consider it. The series is based on the stories of Edogawa Ranpo (as a tribute on the 50th anniversary of his passing). Ranpo is an absolute legend in Japan, and his hero Akechi Kogoro an almost Holmesian figure in Japanese pop culture. Ranpo has been the loose inspiration for manga and anime before (most famously, the Edogawa in “Conan Edogawa” is a nod to him) but this adaptation – while still liberally modernizing – is probably the closest thing to a straight adaptation Edogawa’s works have seen in anime form.
There are nods to modern convention in this version of the story, no doubt. In the novels the clearly Holmes-inspired Akechi is a married, chain-smoking adult – here’s he’s a 17 year-old played by Sakurai Takahiro whom the government relies on to solve their toughest cases. Novel Akechi had his own take on the Baker Street Irregulars – the street children who acted as an information network for Sherlock Holmes – in the “Boys Detective Club”. Here, they consist (so far) of Kobayashi Yoshio (Takahashi Rie), the suspect in the series’ first case (based – very loosely – on Edogawa’s The Human Chair), and Hashiba (Yamashita Daiki, and it’s great to hear him in more leading roles), the class president who’s oddly protective of Kobayashi.
I don’t think there’s any question that in making Akechi a bishounen teenager and Kobayashi a strikingly effeminate “trap” protagonist, Lerche is trying to update the material for today’s anime audience. True, the Kobayashi in the original stories was adept at going undercover as a girl, and the circumstances surrounding why he lived with Akechi and his wife were intentionally left mysterious. But as unconventional as Game of Laplace is in most senses, there are distinctly conventional elements in the characters and premise as the series portrays them.
The director here is Kishi Seiji and the writer his usual collaborator Uezu Makoto (they’ve become almost the in-house showrunners for Lerche) and for my money, everything with this duo comes down to the fit with the material. They’re best with edgy (and not merely provocative , like Danganonpa), darkly comic stuff like Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita and Kamisama Dolls, and as such I think Game of Laplace is an excellent pairing. There’s a distinctly subversive and even deviant undercurrent running through this material, and one can almost sense Kishi and Uezu’s innate comfort with that.
More so than Akechi, it’s Kobayashi and Hashiba who dominate the narrative in the premiere. Kobayashi wakes up in his classroom of his Shinjuku middle school, his teacher grotesquely dismembered and displayed at the head of the class, the murder weapon in the boy’s hand. Hashiba assumes the role of Kobayashi’s protector, but that seemingly straightforward setup in only the barest surface layer of what’s going on here – subtext is practically flowing off the screen. Kobayashi is a very odd child indeed, his girlishly cute exterior (and voice – Takahashi makes no attempt to sound like a boy) belies a thoroughly disturbed psyche. He seems not at all frightened to be a suspect, or remotely squeamish about the brutal crime – indeed, he finds the experience “fun”, and declares it a welcome diversion from a boredom that has been his eternal companion in life.
As for Hashiba, his demeanor makes it clear that his feelings for Kobayashi are more than those of a responsible class leader. He’s apparently the scion of wealthy family (one which Akechi holds in great disdain), and certainly the audience proxy in that he’s the only main character who acts the way a sane person would behave as these events roll out. Akechi reveals little of himself here – he lives in a marvelously depicted former rooftop cafe, despises cell phones but loves “Sim City”, and sees all of this as a game. He lives a fantastical life, his genius leaving him exempt from schooling or employment and seemingly bereft of family, and Kobayashi immediately sees his life as some kind of Nirvana to aspire to. He issues a challenge to the younger boy – solve the current case, and he’ll admit Kobayashi “wins” and make him his assistant. But there’s a handicap – Akechi has notified the police of Kobayashi’s presence, and the latter is hauled into custody as a suspect in the murders his teacher committed before he was murdered himself.
This is really fascinating stuff – intellectually dense, twisted and emotionally opaque. And while I haven’t been a huge fan of Lerche’s previous work in terms of production, they’ve done a really nice job here. The background music by Yokoyama Masaru is excellent and perfectly suits the tone, and Kishi employs some very interesting visual tricks, such as depicting the secondary characters shrouded in shadow until they become directly relevant to the action. There’s also a stellar cast in a variety of supporting roles, including Kishi favorite Nakahara Mai as the nekomimi-wearing homeroom teacher. Ranpo Kitan is off to an intriguing start, and I’m very curious to see where this modern take on a Japanese cultural institution goes from here.
ED: “Mikazuki (ミカヅキ)” by Sayuri