Monday, April 16, 2018

Animondo: Trickster

Welcome back to Animondo, my very occasional look at anime. Today, we’re taking a look at Trickster.

Fair warning that some pretty disturbing topics will be discussed in this article, including suicide, mental manipulation, and murder.

Trickster - or more fully, Trickster: From Edogawa Ranpo’s “The Boy Detectives Club” - is, as that extended title suggests, based on the works of Edogawa Ranpo, the author of a number of works focused on a detective Akechi Kogoro. Among the tales are those dealing with the “Boy Detectives Club” - basically Akechi’s version of the Baker Street Irregulars. Not having read the original tales, I’m not entirely sure precisely how much Trickster follows them, but I suspect the connection is fairly loose.

Not that that stops Trickster from being an exceptional show.

Trickster primarily focuses on the...not sure I can call it a friendship. Alliance? Grudging tolerance? Let’s say “relationship,” that’s easier. Trickster primarily focuses on the relationship between Kobayashi Yoshio, a boy living on the streets, and Hanasaki Kensuke, a member of Detective Akechi’s “Boy Detectives Club.”

Hanasaki is your basic anime hero: carefree and cheerful, with a thirst for adventure and excitement and a strong sense of justice.

Kobayashi is depressed, disinterested, unmotivated, and suicidal.

Also, he’s immortal.

Though not in the traditional sense - he could still be killed, technically, if anything could get to him. He has a kind of amazing shielding power that prevents things from getting close to him (often, whether or not they’re harmful), and that can also do things like preventing injury from falls from a great height or even force-feeding him if he’s refusing to eat. Basically, no matter what he tries, his powers force him to stay alive.

This leads to Trickster’s spectacularly odd primary focus: Kobayashi’s wish to get around his powers and find a way to die, and Hanasaki’s attempts to help him while also trying to get him to want to live instead. After an early incident in which Kobayashi helps Hanasaki with one of his cases and actually suffers a minor scratch in the process, Hanasaki theorizes that something about helping with the case made Kobayashi vulnerable - therefore, if Kobayashi joins the Boy Detectives Club and helps out with more cases, he might eventually find out how to die.

If there's an evil way to pour a drink, this is definitely it.

That’s the primary plotline. The other focuses on Akechi Kogoro and his rival, the criminal known only as the Fiend with Twenty Faces, starting out just showing them as established rivals - the great detective and his greatest foe - before going back to show how their relationship started out. Not going to spoil anything here, but suffice to say there’s deeper ties than it at first appears and things get pretty darn screwed up here.

Other characters are members of the Boy Detectives Club, the police that they sometimes work with, and a few notable family members, friends, or more minor criminals that get involved in the cases. The show starts out with a slight tendency towards episodic cases - the case of the week, basically - but moves quickly into lengthier plots, especially once it hits about the halfway mark of its run.

Trickster is an excellent show, albeit with some missteps that I’ll get to later on. First, though, I’d like to talk about some things that it does particularly well.

The character work on the show is exceptional - particularly in how it plays with some reliable anime tropes. Most notably, Hanasaki’s standard anime hero personality is seriously subverted and broken over the course of the show. I don’t want to spoil how, but suffice to say he does not end up as anywhere near the character he was at the start of things, and there’s a really, really fascinating progression in the relationship between Hanasaki and Kobayashi over the course of the show. It isn’t even just something as simple as an inversion, which would be fine in and of itself - the characters don’t just trade places or anything. They remain true to who they’ve been, but the nature of how they relate to each other and how they see the world and issues of life, death, and justice drastically alters over the course of the show.

I think it's a good thing for the show, myself, but what do I know? I'm not an owl.

Similarly, the show ends up heavily playing with concepts of the “great detective” and the “master criminal,” though not to the developed extent that it plays with the “anime hero” with Hanasaki. Akechi and Twenty Faces have a pretty deep shared past that goes beyond the detective and the criminal, and while I can’t say it’s purely original, it is used pretty well over the course of the show.

Aside from its handling of tropes, its basic character work is good overall as well. Kobayashi in particular is surprisingly fun as a character - a rare case of a disinterested and disengaged character who actually works. I watched the subtitled version, and in that, I have to give a ton of credit to Kobayashi’s voice actor, Daiki Yamashita. He just gets a perfect tone for the character. Other characters are also well done - I’ve already mentioned Hanasaki’s excellent character plot, and his general portrayal really emphasizes that with subtle and not-so-subtle personality tweaks as the show goes on. Inoue and Katsuta, two other Boy Detectives Club members, are also very strongly portrayed and have a good subplot about guilt and overcoming the consequences of past failures.

I have to compliment the show on its various episode plots, too - the situations it sets up are interesting by and large and put the heroes in some tight situations - as well as those that force them to think about their principles and ideals. While much of this sort of thing focuses on Hanasaki and Kobayashi, several of the other Boy Detectives Club members have their own philosophical struggles over the course of the show on a smaller scale.

It bears noting, quickly, that this is much more of an action and suspense show than a mystery show. Despite the term “detectives,” the members of the club and Akechi himself tend to act more as crime stoppers than crime solvers. There’s a few nods to finding clues or cracking a case in some of the plots, but things are much more about stopping a crime than any kind of whodunit - not universally, mind, but often. I’m not sure of my opinion on that, honestly - I like how the show generally goes about things, but I do kind of feel like a show that involves characters said to be detectives should maybe involve a little more actual sleuthing. That said, I’m not sure what cases you do differently...a lot of the cases that are most action-heavy and the least like normal detective work are also the ones that really do a great job of progressing the character plots, and the action goes a long way towards benefiting that goal.

I also have to compliment the show on how it handles Kobayashi’s powers. Yes, in early episodes it can kind of feel like he’s a “win button” for the group, but those are early episodes, and the whole point of them is to build up how unsurpassable (mostly) his powers are, because that fact is as much a problem for him as an aid to the group. As tied in to his personal plot as his powers are, I didn’t have as big of a problem with how often they’re used to resolve things early on as I was expecting.

The show kind of makes a deal with you from the get-go...we’re going to show how these powers are a problem as we go on, and we’re going to focus on glitches with them and weaken their impact in ways later, so for these early episodes, just accept them. And it works. I think it helps that even from the first involvement between Hanasaki and Kobayashi we’re shown that something can get past Kobayashi’s powers, and we just don’t know what. Knowing that he does have a weakness helps make his powers seem less certain even as they’re treated as pretty certain early on, especially since we don’t know if that weakness is something rare or something he’s going to encounter often.

I’m torn somewhat on the nature of Kobayashi’s powers. I don’t want to spoil things here so I can’t critique in detail, but I simultaneously found the explanation for them and their weaknesses...appropriate and totally suited for the plot, and unsatisfying as an explanation. It’s weird. The explanation and the weakness are suitable and used very well, and fit the show’s philosophical themes, but they’re hard to square as an actual explanation and they raise a lot of “but what about…” questions. The resolution of the show actually does a great job with them regardless, and links them into the show’s philosophies and Kobayashi’s character arc really well, but the actual nature of the powers was just odd enough that it always bugged me. There’s just never enough of a “but why is it like that?” to satisfy, I think.

Another variable element of the show is its action. By and large, it’s pretty reasonable, and there’s some pretty creative elements to it in the form of some fun with gadgets like Hanasaki’s grappling cable. Kobayashi’s powers, as mentioned before, are always good for some fun too. But there’s some serious missteps with it as well over the course of the show, particularly, unfortunately, in the final few episodes. The show just doesn’t always seem to have a strong portrayal of placement in its action sequences. There are times where characters seem to be surrounded one moment, and then the next second, they’ll defeat only a couple of the enemies near them and suddenly be free and clear enough to calmly stand there talking for longer than it feels like they should be able to given the situation. This problem really comes to bear, as I said, in the final few episodes - there are quite a number of moments like that as the show is trying to raise tension towards its conclusion, and while it doesn’t spoil things, it does rob the show of tension over the possible fates of its secondary cast at times. The show seems to generally do a better job when focused on Hanasaki, Kobayashi, Akechi, and Twenty Faces than otherwise in this regard, and it does hurt it.

I also have to spend a bit of time talking about mind control here. I again don’t want to spoil much, but there’s some uncomfortable stuff that happens in the later episodes of the series involving brainwashing and what appears to be some kind of mental power. I don’t see that as a negative in and of itself, myself, but what I do see as a negative is that one of the really major plots around it just doesn’t actually feel like it gets resolved in any kind of satisfactory manner. It builds really well to a particular point and then just kind of...stops. I think the creators of the show really, truly believed they had a resolution there that fit their concepts - they didn’t just forget or anything - but it just feels like we leave off and never show what happened to the character involved or how things worked out. It may be just that I wanted things to be a bit more sunshine and roses than they ended up, and less that it isn’t developed, but it feels like we don’t get a complete ending for it - like we should know more about where the character involved ends up than we do.

All told, Trickster is a great show, though one that deals with some very uncomfortable subject matter. If the above has you interested, I recommend it - it is well done and thoughtful, and the flaws that it has don’t do anything to ruin the show. Just be aware that it does involve some topics that can be pretty rough.

Dubbed or Subbed?: I watched the subtitled version and found it to be of high quality, with excellent voice actors all around. A dubbed version is also available - I have not watched the entire show dubbed, but the parts that I have viewed have similarly been of high quality. Based on this, whichever way you choose to view Trickster, you should get good performances.

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