Monday, June 11, 2018

Animondo: Detective Conan (Case Closed)

Welcome back to Animondo. After a couple reviews of shows that used detectives and mysteries as framing devices but turned out to be very different shows, I thought I'd take a look at one of anime's more mystery-focused detective shows, Detective Conan (known in the United States as Case Closed).

Detective Conan has an odd setup. High school detective Kudo Shinichi, famed around Japan for the help he regularly provides to the police solving difficult crimes, gets in over his head when he investigates a couple suspicious characters he ran into at a fair (while investigating another crime, natch) and is knocked out and poisoned for his troubles. Rather than killing him, the experimental poison turns out to rejuvenate him, taking him physically from high schooler to first grader, but leaving his mind intact.

Not knowing just what he's gotten himself into, Shinichi decides the best course of action is to disappear - as Shinichi, anyway - and thereby prevent the people who transformed him from coming after his friends and family. With the aid of his friend Professor Agasa, an inventor, he fabricates an identity for his newly youthful form - Edogawa Conan, a name taken from two of famous mystery writers (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Ranpo). Allowing his other friends to believe Shinichi has gone away to investigate a big case out of the country, he starts investigating to try figure out who it was that attacked him, and what they were trying to accomplish.

Of course, he looks like a six-year-old now, and without blowing his cover there's no real way he can investigate anything on his own...which is where Mōri Kogoro comes in. Kogoro is a less-than-competent detective who tends to miss the small details that can turn a difficult case around. All the same, he's useful - he can get work solving cases, and Conan hopes that eventually he might run into a case that gives him a clue to his attackers' identities. With Conan accompanying him and providing subtle hints, Kogoro can become a much better detective.

Making Kogoro a worthwhile detective...and a good a bit of an uphill battle, though.
Together with Kogoro and his daughter Ran - Shinichi's love interest when he was older, though obviously that's on pause for the moment - Conan investigates crime after crime, seeking a connection to his own case.

It's an odd setup...but it works. Famously, Aoyama Gosho, creator of Detective Conan, believed he'd be working on the series for 3 months. It has gone on for, thus far, twenty-two years, consisting of twenty-seven seasons, and is nearing a thousand episodes (around nine hundred standard at this time, more with specials and films mixed in). There are also anime movies, video games, audio CDs, live action films, and crossover specials with other anime. At time of writing, it is the sixteenth longest-running anime series by episode count. To put it in perspective, there are more episodes of Detective Conan than there are episodes of the entire widely recognized Dragon Ball franchise - and that's including Kai - the redone Dragon Ball Z - along with the original Z.

So as you can imagine, there's no way to review the entire show in detail - instead, I'm covering the overall facts about Detective Conan.

It's worth noting as well at this point that Detective Conan is not really a show you need to watch in sequence, or watch completely, to enjoy. While there's a bit of a running plotline that sometimes gets highlighted (I'll get to that later), you can largely enjoy most episodes independently. It's an easy show to get into wherever you decide to step into it (which is good, because quite a bit of the show doesn't appear to actually be available dubbed or subtitled).

I'm getting to it, man! It takes time to cover a show this long!
Detective Conan is a strong show, no question - you kind of have to have a strong show to go as long as it has. The cases are a particular strength. I reviewed a couple shows previously - Trickster and Fantastic Detective Labyrinth - that both focused on the detective adventure rather than the detective mystery. Detective Conan definitely goes the other way. Almost every episode of the show features Conan and company delving into a case, solving a crime...and those crimes can be complex. Most cases use a classic mystery show setup - a mysterious crime, sometimes one that at first seems impossible, with a number of suspects who all have a motive and who are all only too happy to point out the motives the others have. The murder plots are creative, often utilizing strange tricks to disguise evidence, establish alibis, or hide motives, and solving the cases is never straightforward.

Each episode, Conan searches the scene for evidence, tries to figure out the flaws in witness accounts, and finds his way to the truth behind the lies. He's usually alongside Kogoro, but sometimes with others like Agasa, or a group of schoolkids that befriend Conan who call themselves the Detective Boys (in a reference to Edogawa Ranpo's stories that served as inspiration for Trickster). The focus of each episode is the case itself - the evidence, the witnesses, the facts that lead to the truth. There are some episodes of the show that go another way, with a suspense plot or a chase forming the focus, but by and large, it's about solving crimes, not preventing or avenging them.

The show is frequently - not always, but frequently - fair, important thing in mystery shows and something that's quite hard to get right. You have a fair shot in many episodes of figuring out who committed the crime. I don't think it hits this right every time, and there are times that it does feel like Conan gets to see a piece of evidence the viewer doesn't, but by and large, on rewatching an episode, I've found the points where what I missed was either directly shown or at least significantly hinted towards. It feels like the show truly does its best to lay out the facts for you while its telling its story, and while it doesn't always succeed at both, it makes a good effort.

Though Conan is definitely portrayed as the smartest person in the room in this show, and tends to be more than capable of figuring out the cases by himself, his friends still provide an important support network for him and frequently give him the inspiration he needs to have a realization critical to the case. There's more of a Holmes and Watson relation here than with, say, Fantastic Detective Labyrinth, though - Conan is unquestionably the great detective, and the other characters are his sounding boards and occasional sources of unknowing inspiration.

The relationship between Conan and the other characters, though, is still a massive positive for the show. Ran and Kogoro in particular are a lot of fun, and together, Conan, Ran, and Kogoro provide a lot of the show's comedy as an odd investigative team of sorts. Ran serves as the long-suffering daughter of something of a deadbeat detective and long-suffering female friend of a high school genius who can be clueless about things outside of mystery-solving, and she's frequently the person to put things in perspective and bring order to things when they start getting too out of control. Kogoro, for his part, tends to antagonize and be antagonized by Conan, and his self-absorbed and careless nature serves as a contrast to Conan's brilliance...but at the same time, the show gradually lets him be more than he originally was, and showcase genuine bravery and the ability to, given a few prods in the right direction, truly be the detective he wants to be.

This in particular is something that really develops as the show goes on. While at the beginning, Conan is clearly the singular star of the show, later episodes let other characters - Kogoro in particular - start to pull their own weight in solving cases. It's still Conan who brings them to a close, but it's gratifying that the show is happy to let Kogoro figure out increasing amounts of a case. After experiencing a load of cases, he definitely should be getting better as a detective, so it's good the show does let him improve. In the beginning, he's written as just plain missing most things. Later on, he tends more to be written as just too quick to come to conclusions and too certain of himself - while he's still a big source of comedy and still plays second fiddle to Conan, the show treats Kogoro with much more respect later on in its run.

The actual art and animation are more part because, again, this show has been going for more than twenty years. The art style in the early episodes isn't great (in particular, Conan himself frequently doesn't seem to have a neck), and the color choices are far too dark - setting a mysterious tone, sure, but it can be hard to see at all at times. The animation feels basic in those early episodes, too, and there's a lot that just makes the show feel low-budget (in particular, the title sequences are sure a lot less polished than they end up being). But as the show goes on, the production improves a great deal. Current episodes are as polished as most other anime you'll find. The art style now is fitting and a developed form of what the show started with, and is nicely visually distinct from other anime - you can immediately recognize Detective Conan characters as opposed to those from other shows, and it really helps give the show its own identity. Similarly, the show's soundtrack improves over the years - in early episodes, the music cues can be jarring or intrusive, but later on, they blend into the episode perfectly well, and the whole package just starts to work together better.

One of the more awesome things about the show is its respect for its history. For instance, various versions of this "opening heavy doors" animation have been used to transition from the opening credits to the episode, and to and from commercial breaks, since the very beginning of the show. It's the little things.
Detective Conan is strong, but not without flaws. One of the big ones for me is gadgets...for complex reasons.

The gadgets in Detective Conan are whimsical and fun, true. A rocket-powered skateboard, a shoe that enhances kicking power, glasses with lenses that can display a map and link to tracking bugs, a bowtie that changes your voice, a watch that shoots tranquilizer darts, a belt that produces and inflates a soccer ball (because those are definitely the best thing to use to take down criminals)...all of these, and more, are used by the show...and they're all fun ideas. The problem isn't really the gadgets, the problem is what the gadgets mean.

One of Conan's few flaws, considering his brilliance as a detective, is the simple fact that he's physically six years old. He's small, weak, not taken seriously, can't get to faraway places by himself, and generally isn't a physical threat to any criminals he might encounter. To be frank, if you're going to do a plot where your main character gets turned into a kid or some other disadvantageous form, that's...kind of the reason to do it. To give a character disadvantages.

The problem is that the gadgets allow Conan to get around those disadvantages on a regular basis. With the dartgun watch, kick shoes, and soccer ball belt, he can stand up to criminals and knock them out. With the rocket-powered skateboard and the tracking glasses, he can get from place to place with ease and give chase to criminals. With the dartgun watch and the voice changing bowtie, he can appropriate Kogoro and use his voice to explain the case and get people to take him seriously.

Some of those uses are frequent, others not so much...but all do weaken the show. They take limits away from Conan and make it easier for him to solve crimes - for instance, he doesn't have to get Kogoro to actually solve the case most of the time. Conan just has to work with Kogoro until Conan has the case solved...then he can put him to sleep and speak with his voice to reveal the truth. Similarly, Conan doesn't have to find a criminal and then run and get Ran or Kogoro to help - he just inflates a soccer ball and kicks it into the guy's head hard enough that I'm not sure he should still be alive.

It's variable how bad this is. The Kogoro voice impersonation thing starts off irritating, but it actually turns into a decent part of the show in its own right - spawning the "Sleeping Kogoro" legendary detective that the show uses to great humor over its run. It takes a bit of getting used to, but honestly, once you've watched the show for a bit, you end up okay with it. It'd be nice if the show more regularly used the episodes where Conan lets Kogoro solve the case himself...but at the same time, using those less frequently makes them more special when they come up, I guess. Overall, I think I'd rather the show not use the knockout darts on Kogoro, and let him be tricked into solving cases - in part because the parts where Conan tricks him into finding a clue tend to be some of the most fun moments in the show - but I can deal with it for the sake of a good mystery show and some fun humor.

It's harder to deal with the ways the show lets Conan be a physical part because it removes a notable weakness from Conan, but in part because it is absolutely, totally unnecessary.

Conan is surrounded by martial arts experts. Ran is a karate master. Kogoro knows judo and is (variably) a good shot. Later addition Heiji, a rival high school detective, is good at kendo. And once the organization plot kicks into high gear and more people related to that get involved, there are folks from the FBI and CIA and their relatives who variously are good with weapons or martial arts. There's even some that use Jeet Kune Do. When you have multiple people on your show that use Bruce Lee's style of martial arts, they should be the focus of your fight scenes!

There are plenty of people who can take down the bad guys.

There is absolutely no need for Conan to regularly do so himself.

It's not even like these are rare characters. Some only show up once in a while, sure, but Ran and Kogoro are present almost every episode!

See, even the other kids know you should go report to an adult if you find a criminal!
To be fair to the show, this is actually not that frequent of a flaw as the show goes on. Most cases don't involve any kind of physical confrontation, taking place as they do after the crime has been committed. Sometimes one of the physical gadgets will be used to set up a case (like in one where Conan uses the soccer ball belt and kick shoes to redirect a guy's fall), but oftentimes even once that happens it's kind of forgotten afterwards (which simultaneously renders the initial act pointless and prevents it from interfering with the rest of the episode). And frequently, these days, Kogoro or Ran do get to throw or kick somebody for the brief moment of action in the episode.

It's only in the more action-heavy episodes that this rears its ugly head...but those are precisely when the various combat-capable characters should have a chance to shine, and they don't generally get much of a chance because little tiny Conan is kicking people's heads in with soccer balls.

This is most prevalent in what's ironically the show's weakest part...the shadow organization plots. I don't want to make it sound like these are bad, really. The shadow organization stuff is pretty involved and intricate, and there's an honestly interesting mystery there and a lot of good suspense plots mixed in. Some of the confrontations around it have the feel of a chess game, with Conan and his allies trying to box in one of the organization agents or get at a piece of information before they can remove it. And there's some interesting characters mixed up in it, most notably a skilled master of disguise in the organization who seems to understand at least part of Conan's secret but not share it with her allies.

But these segments tend to be where the show gets most off the rails, and goes away from the strong mysteries that it specializes in. They feel the least grounded of all the episodes, and they're the ones in which Conan's actions and abilities feel the least plausible. I don't have a problem with him having an amazing intellect and being able to guide people, necessarily...but Conan's a detective, not a covert operative, and these episodes have him working in that sphere. Again, these episodes would be an excellent chance for someone else to take the lead in planning and such, and just have Conan's insights help them realize a flaw in their plan or find a trick or something. Instead, Conan frequently seems to take the lead entirely, and even directly confront the villains, which not only feels like it's granting him more skills than he'd even have as a genius high school detective but also feels entirely at odds with his plan to work from behind the scenes so his family and friends didn't get hurt.

The Conan identity was one he set up to avoid exposure to the's kind of a problem when he actually openly talks to organization agents in that identity.

Here, Kogoro shows us the one thing Conan should never actually use to confront the evil organization he's fighting.
So...while the organization plot is the Burn Notice-esque focus of the show, the plot that is always in the background and occasionally comes to the foreground, I feel like it's by far the weakest part of the show. Not because it is actively bad...but because it stretches things far more than the rest of the tales, and that's just always going to bug me even in the midst of some honestly good suspense and intrigue.

It's also worth noting that the show's twenty-plus year run is kind of a negative with respect to this plot. I feel like Conan's progress towards solving the mystery is just far too slow. You keep seeing him get closer, only to find that progress ripped away or find he needs something else, and while it provides an effective driving force for his investigations as a result, you can't help but feel at certain points that the organization case is only still going because if it didn't, too much of the show would change.

Similarly, other things are affected the same way: Conan and Ran's relationship, for instance. Ran has about as much luck figuring out Conan's connection to Shinichi, despite being quite intelligent, as Lois Lane had figuring out Superman's secret identity for a long time. If she does figure it out, the show will drastically she can't. The secret keeps being hidden, time and time again, no matter how close she gets.

Much like a lot of American comics - which I love too - there's not really much change in the story. Things tend to revert to normal after a while if there's any alterations...Steve Rogers comes back to being Captain America, Ran goes back to treating Conan as a smart little kid. Not quite the same thing, but you get the idea. We're clearly using comic book reversion to the mean here.

...and comic book sliding origin times, too, considering that twenty years later he's still six.
Now...I do have faith that both of these things will eventually change (in fact, I understand the manga version of Detective Conan may have finally revealed the boss of the organization, though I'll believe that when it sticks). Detective Conan is ultimately a show about solving mysteries, not perpetuating them. All the same, though, you can't help but feel like both of these plots, among other things, remain ongoing so long just to keep the show's storytelling engine intact - that the show's perhaps afraid of what happens if Ran finds out Conan is Shinichi, or if Conan finds the truth about the organization and takes it down. What happens then?

After twenty-odd years, maybe it's about time to find out. That's all I've got to say on that.

Overall, though, despite its flaws, Detective Conan is one of Japan's longest-enduring shows and a testament to what a strong mystery writer with some good character concepts can do. It does have problems, but it has a lasting appeal and well deserves its place as one of the longest running anime ever. If you are a fan of mystery shows, it is an easy recommendation. Recognize that there are parts of the show you may just have to put up with...but they'll be worth it for the intricate mysteries and the fun character moments that make this show great.

Dubbed or Subbed?: Subbed. It isn't an actively bad dub, but I find the dubbed version of the show kind of irritating. The voice actors work for the most part, but there's some over-exaggerated voices, and not a lot of particularly strong performances. Worse, the show is localized to the extreme, with lots of character names changed all over the place, among lots of other details. I don't mind some localization most of the time, and if there's a good reason, you can even do quite a lot of changes - I mean, one of my favorite game series is Ace Attorney, and that localizes darn near everything...but that's in part due to the fact that 90% of the names are jokes, and need to be changed up to still have humor to an English-speaking audience. But Detective there any real reason Shinichi has to go by Jimmy? And Kogoro and Ran have to be Richard and Rachel Moore?

...I might have forgiven you guys for that one if you'd used the same spelling.

It's also noteworthy that there's quite a lot of the show that depends on things like specific character names, Japanese traditions, and a whole host of others stuff that sometimes doesn't work if the show is localized. It feels like the show has to reach to make those moments still function, and honestly, I think that the over-localization may ironically be one of the reasons the show didn't get as much attention over here as it might have.

I'm normally pretty pro-dubbing...I don't mind it at all in most cases, I think the English voice actors in many anime series are fine, and I appreciate that honestly, not everybody can read the subtitles and still get into a show - for a lot of people, that interferes with their enjoyment, and people should be able to watch a show in a way that they're able to enjoy it.

But the Case Closed dub is an exception, and if you're going to watch this show, I highly advise watching it in subtitled Detective Conan form. It's a much stronger show that way.

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