Monday, May 14, 2018

Animondo: Fantastic Detective Labyrinth

Too much Fantastic, not enough Detective.

...I guess...uh...about the right amount of Labyrinth?

Welcome back to Animondo.

Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is a weird little show. Set in a version of Tokyo mostly destroyed by a massive earthquake, and since renamed Kyuto, it focuses on the adventures of a genius boy named Mayuki, alongside his butler and maid, his schoolmates, and his contacts on the police force, as he helps the police solve unsolvable crimes.

That sounds like the setup for a quirky sort of detective show, right? A show about a genius kid who goes around solving crimes, just with a kind of weird setting? That’s what it sounds like this should be. And it is. It is. But it also isn’t.

Because the show spends an inordinate amount of its time not on any sort of detective work, but on a whole load of “what the hell is going on here” in the form of strange supernatural battles between Mayuki’s butler Seiran (with associated fighters) and the servant of the person responsible for setting up a lot of the strange crimes Mayuki is solving. Almost every episode features at least one bizarre little half-martial arts, half-supernatural powers fight scene that just feels strange in context of everything else going on and the tone of the rest of the show. One moment we’re in the middle of a kind of weird detective show, with the gathering of clues, the confronting of the suspect, and the appeal to the suspect’s better nature, the next moment, boom, we’re in a something you’d more expect to see in a battle anime.

Sorry, busy. Got a review to write.

What makes the sequences stand out so much, I think, is how little they actually relate to the story of each case. Mayuki usually has everything all wrapped up, and the story of the case is complete. Then, he’ll get knocked out or something when the suspect goes nuts, and the butler and his transforming fighters will come into play. Sometimes they’ll fight the episode’s villain, but other times they’ll engage in a fight with the series’ villain’s servant. In neither case does it really work. It just feels disconnected - the story feels done, and then, whoops, there’s a little bit more and the only way it relates to what’s going on is that either the suspect suddenly went nuts because hypnosis, that’s why, or because we’re watching a fight with someone that is secretly behind everything but who has been barely involved in the episode so far.

There are cases, to be fair, where things tie together more properly. In particular, there’s a mid-series case that actually focuses on these villains as opposed to just saying they were behind the crime someone else committed, and thus justifies the big fight (and also actually involves Mayuki in the confrontation...kind of...rather than having him just be knocked out without even getting to see the real bad guy - kind of difficult to build drama around your hero and your villain when the hero keeps, y’know, not getting to actually recognize the villain’s even there despite being portrayed as an awesome detective).

So that's where Light got all his ideas.

Also, to be fair, the action isn’t bad. It’s not going to blow you away like some of the better action anime out there, but there’s some decent fight scenes across the series. Their biggest flaw, aside from how little they seem to relate to the rest of the show in the early going, is that they’re fairly repetitive - the show doesn’t really have enough ideas to use with them, and saves all its better ones for the end (which, to be fair, you probably should - your ending episodes should be your best - but it just features so much of this stuff across the board that it probably should’ve used some of the better stuff up front, or just done less of these to begin with).

It’s also fairly notable that in the large majority of action scenes across the show, the heroes do not look spectacularly capable. Most of the time, in fact, they go in with a two-on-one advantage and, at best, really struggle to succeed. I think this is another artifact of how the show sets up its action scenes - because they’re generally focused on the heroes versus the main or secondary villain of the show, rather than minor henchmen or the like, the heroes don’t really get a lot of “hero moments” (some, but not many) where they can show off how good they are. It still feels fine that they develop and improve later on, and they end up in a better place than they started, ability-wise, but early on it feels like they’re honestly too weak.

The cases vary in quality, and none are up to par with, say, Detective Conan or a Kindaichi series, but they can be fun. They tend to be low on actual detail, though - this is a show about the adventure of being a detective, not a show about the actual cases and evidence as such. It’s about encounters with criminals and the great detective vs. criminal mastermind concept, and not about putting together a solid proof. Similar to Trickster, this uses the detective concept more as a framing device than an actual’s just that Trickster feels like it does a better job of that.

It’s also progressively less about detective work at all as the show goes on. After about the halfway point of the show, Fantastic Detective Labyrinth starts to concern itself far more with the secrets of Mayuki and Seiran’s families than with any cases - indeed, it almost completely drops the case concepts for the latter half of the show. While there are still episode plots, they tend to be more concerned with Mayuki’s relationship with his friends and the mystery behind why the main villain of the show wants what he wants...there simply are no “controlled criminals” anymore. There are still some minor “cases” in a couple of the episodes, but they’re simpler things and generally more incidental to what’s actually going on.

Ironically, these are actually the show’s strongest episodes. Freed of the case structure that it never managed particularly well, the show’s able to do much more with the cast of characters that it has and to start making their interactions more detailed. We start finding out much more about Mayuki, his friends, and especially Seiran and his family during this latter half of the show, and there’s a few more comedy-focused episodes that have more fun with the characters. The show becomes something different, a more modern fantasy adventure show with just a slight nod towards the detective side, and I’d rather it have gone the other way...but at least it finally picks a focus and sticks with it, and that does make the show better.

Kind of. There is the weird bit with the sandworms.

Darn it, sleeper, quit awakening!

It’s just strange...for all that it’s set in a world with overt supernatural powers and where Tokyo’s a wreck of a city after a giant earthquake and all, the introduction of gigantic sandworms still feels like it comes out of nowhere. It feels pretty spectacularly unnecessary, too...the show proves quite capable in its final couple of episodes (and a few early on) of using reasonable environmental dangers to build tension, so it really didn’t need giant worms that spat out smaller worms. It feels like a joke, which isn’t what you want when it’s coming alongside one of the moments the show really wants to be dramatic.

I don’t want it to sound like I hate Fantastic Detective Labyrinth. It’s actually a fun little show at times, just a very flawed one. While I’ll criticize its pacing, cases, and weird grafting of supernatural battles onto the end of mystery and suspense plots, I have to complement it on its cast of characters, who are mostly complex and interesting, and generally easy to like and want to watch.

Take Mayuki, for instance - it’d be easy for him to fall purely into the perfect genius trope, always correct and always knowing and doing the right thing, but he really doesn’t. He knows much more than you’d expect a boy his age to know, and he’s good at putting things together, and he’s got some sort of supernatural insight ability going on, but there are still holes in his knowledge and in his ability to sort through information. He misses things sometimes and often needs some help from another character to get him looking at things the right way - he’s clearly the smartest character in the show, but not in a way that makes the other characters look stupid. Besides that, he’s prone to trying to prove himself in ways that can get him into trouble, and is particularly vulnerable to peer pressure. He badly wants to be liked and to prove he’s as good as the other kids, and in the manner of a lot of us growing up, he discounts his good qualities and focuses on how he’s different, and how he sees that as a negative. More than once, these tendencies put him in harm’s way. The late-series episodes in particular do a strong job with showing off Mayuki’s flaws and vulnerabilities, and how his friends help him through despite himself. In the end, when we get to see whether Mayuki finally can truly stand on his own in the most critical moment, it does feel earned.

Similarly, Mayuki’s butler and guardian Seiran started out feeling like the confident, never-failing, ever-present guard and mentor...but as the show goes on, a lot of cracks in Seiran’s armor show up, and it becomes clear that he has doubts and fears about how he’s handling things and doesn’t really feel like he knows what he’s doing, but puts on a brave face for Mayuki. He ends up being very interesting by the show’s midpoint, as he’s increasingly shown struggling and looking for other people to help Mayuki due to his doubts about his own suitability for the job. I don’t think his story is as strong as Mayuki’s, for reasons I’ll get into later, but he’s an interesting character all the same.

Unfortunately, while characters are one of the show’s strongest points, they aren’t perfect either. There’s a lot of characters on the show, and while they’re explored decently enough, some just aren’t involved as fully as it feels like it should be.

Mayuki’s friends on the police force, for instance, spend a lot of time not fully involved in the plot. Midway through the show, they have a couple of their strongest episodes, showing their commitment to helping Mayuki find out what is behind the mysteries in his life and supporting him like he’s supported them.

...then they virtually disappear from the show for multiple episodes in a row.

There are smaller moments, too...during the first real confrontation where Mayuki and Seiran face off with the show’s primary antagonist, the detectives are shown searching for Mayuki, and there’s a good amount of drama to whether they’ll figure out where he is or not.

Then they get there after everything’s already happened and just get to hear the wrap-up.

Don't worry. Whatever it is, no matter how interesting, it won't end up mattering to the show.

It just tends to feel like they should be more involved than they are. The show kind of tries to keep them separate from the supernatural, which is fine at first, but it goes on too long - at a certain point, as involved with Mayuki as they’ve been, they really need to end up getting more intertwined with his life than they are. There are a few moments in the later episodes where they really help out (one of them, sadly, being the bit with the sandworms), but by and large, they’re there just to provide a way out of a supernatural situation for the non-supernatural characters, and they don’t really accomplish much - which is sad, because they’re really fun characters that I wanted to see more involved.

Even Seiran is also at the heart of a somewhat underexplored moral quandary in the show. His particular fighting style involves using some kind of supernatural power and/or hypnotic suggestion to change two other people’s personalities and bring out hidden fighting abilities (one of them is Mayuki’s normally-klutzy maid, the other the older sister of one of his classmates), making them able to take on Byakko, the supernaturally-powerful servant of the show’s behind-the-scenes antagonist. Such transformed fighters are called “Aya.” These two fighters of Seiran’s don’t appear to be aware of anything that happened while they were “transformed,” and don’t appear to be aware that they can transform at all, in fact - while this isn’t entirely clear in the early going, an episode late in the series makes this pretty explicitly clear.

The show does show how they were chosen, but it only pays lip service to the moral questions. Seiran himself expresses doubts at his training and the morality of the method he has to use, and the two girls do agree to help him protect Mayuki during a moment of crisis...but at the same time, it’s not like he explains to them that he’s going to transform them into supernaturally powerful martial artists with magical hair and nail-claws, respectively, and continue doing so for years to come. (Admittedly, it’s not like he has time to explain in the situation, but still, it doesn’t seem like he ever told them later, either.)

It’s a moral quandary that could be quite interesting - Seiran’s power is, based on the above, pretty questionable morally...but it’s definitely being used in the service of good. It enables him to save Mayuki time after time...but only by putting innocent civilians in harm's way after powering them up and hypnotizing them? What does it mean, ethically?

To be fair to the show, it does introduce another character who served as one of these “Aya” in the past and appears to have memory of that time and reminisce about it fondly....but that appears to be in contrast to how Seiran’s particular Aya concept works, and the show doesn’t really seem to address why. It’s odd - all the other Aya on the show, past and present, appear to be aware of their nature. Only Seiran’s two Aya appear to be unaware of what they are, and he’s the good guy! Kind of seems like something you should talk to people about, dude.

Also, please give them some clothes. Seriously.

Similarly, the show does a pretty poor job of explaining Mayuki’s powers for a large portion of it. In part, this is to preserve the mystery, but during a couple of (otherwise pretty strong) episodes in the middle of the series, Mayuki’s abilities more fully awaken. Everybody looks pretty impressed and sort of stops what they’re doing, and acts like this is the most important thing in the series, but...for the most part, it isn’t entirely clear what Mayuki actually accomplishes in these moments other than glowing brightly for a bit, briefly stopping a fight in unclear manner, and then passing out.

His powers are insight-related, so it really seems they could’ve done this more strongly - say, have him shout insights to Seiran and company that help them in battle? Instead, he just kind of glows and looks important and everyone just kind of focuses on that...then usually he passes out and the villains just decide to leave, even though now they’re in the exact same situation they were in before.

Suffice to say...Mayuki’s “awakening” moments, which should be highlights of the series, tend to actually be among the weakest moments...with one major exception, which is thankfully in the final episode - if you’re going to get it right only once, I guess the ending is a good point to do it!

Without going further into spoiler territory, the final confrontation is genuinely interesting and has a very different focus than I was expecting it to have judging from the way the rest of the series went. It has a neat concept, and while it certainly doesn’t lack standard anime glowy power auras, it isn’t a fight in the traditional sense, which was a nice change.

Overall, Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is just uneven. It has a lot of good and interesting concepts, a lot of fun characters, and a lot of possible focuses for episodes and the overall show concept, but it doesn’t honestly do the best job of using any of that. It’s a detective show...but with pretty basic cases that end abruptly. It’s a fantasy show...but it doesn’t really explore its fantastic concepts. It’s a character-driven show...but it often leaves its characters aside.

It is not, overall, a bad’s just one that struggles to reach its full potential.

Dubbed or Subbed?: To the best of my knowledge, Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is only available subtitled, and this is done perfectly well.

No comments:

Post a Comment