Monday, July 9, 2018

Animondo: Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation (A Corpse is Buried Under Sakurako's Feet)

Welcome back to Animondo. It's time for another mystery anime!

Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation, also known as A Corpse is Buried Under Sakurako's Feet, largely concerns the exploits of Kujō Sakurako, an osteologist who spends her days hunting for bones, constructing skeletons for display, and finding human corpses. Accompanying her is Tatewaki Shōtarō, a high school boy who assists Sakurako in her work...though most of his time is spent preventing her from pilfering bones that they find and managing her interactions with living human beings. Sakurako does not have the most winning personality...or the best understanding of societal obligations.

Understatement of the year.
What she does have is a brilliant mind and a talent for getting to the bottom of mysteries. Frequently, Sakurako and Shōtarō will encounter a mystery associated with the bones they've encountered, and Sakurako uses her knowledge of bones, skeletal structures, deformities, and injuries - and sometimes just her general perceptiveness - to get to the truth of what has happened.

What's interesting about Beautiful Bones is that these actually aren't usually murder cases we're talking about. Some are, certainly, but not all or even most. The mysteries Sakurako solves sometimes have to do with criminal intent, but more frequently, they simply deal with, and life's various endings.

It makes Beautiful Bones a different sort of detective show. A lot of the elements you'd normally expect to see are missing. This isn't a show about witnesses, evidence, conflicting testimonies, and a confrontation with a suspect...but it also isn't a show about the adventure of being a detective.

It's a show about bones, and the stories they tell.

I came to really appreciate that. There are plenty of mystery anime out there, but Beautiful Bones feels different from all of them. Sometimes, Sakurako might be trying to find out how a corpse washed up on a beach, or why a child showed up somewhere with blood in her footprints and signs of an old arm injury...but other times, she's seeking to understand why a woman came to throw an envelope from a bridge but ended up leaving it there, or what the story is with some human bones that surfaced in the school's bone collection, or just what an elderly grandmother's final days were like.

Beautiful Bones, then, is about the mysteries of life as much as it is about the mysteries of death.

It's a very quiet sort of show most of the time. There are moments of danger spaced throughout, and there is a slow build to the revelation of a villain - more on that later - but the heart of the show is the understanding that we gain of the lives of those whose lives have ended, and in turn, the things that the search reveals to us about Sakurako and Shōtarō themselves.

Sakurako and Shōtarō are the main focus, and they're wonderful characters that play off each other quite well. Shōtarō finds Sakurako fascinating, even if he's disturbed by her interest in bones and her rather morbid lifestyle. Sakurako clearly finds Shōtarō endearing, a worthy companion, albeit one who tends to hold her back from what she'd actually like to be doing and gets annoyingly squeamish when they stumble upon something as beautiful and wondrous as a corpse.

The two are just plain fun to watch - they feel variously like friends, rivals, mentor and student, social recluse and manager, and loads of other things...most of all, they just feel real. They have a relationship that just works. They feel true to their characters, always, and it feels like you get to know where each is coming from at every moment.

The show isn't quite as good at using its side characters - there are a number of them, and some are explored much more than others. Kōgami Yuriko, Shōtarō's classmate, is developed well and gets a lot of screen time and some of the more powerful emotional moments of the series - in particular, my favorite episode actually focuses almost entirely on her, exploring what it means to make an effort to save someone, and what stresses it puts on you.

Gran, Sakurako's kindly old caretaker, is wonderful every time she appears, and serves well in keeping Shōtarō and Sakurako working together (she even gets to explain a case once, and amusingly imitates Sakurako in the process).  There's also Hector, who has to be one of the fluffiest and most huggable dogs in anime history.

Others aren't quite as strong. Isozaki Itsuki, the life sciences teacher at Shōtarō and Yuriko's school, is interesting but doesn't get quite enough time to fill the role it feels like he could fill - though he still gets some nice moments from time to time. Utsumi Hiroki, a police officer, is a fun character but more seems to fulfill the role of kindhearted cop than get a lot of development. Other characters show up repeatedly, but just in small moments in the start of an episode or during a break from the main plot of an episode, and don't really do much of consequence. This isn't a show with a large regular cast, and while it uses some of its regulars well, others just don't get that much time or development.

The art in Beautiful Bones is strong. It still has an anime style to it, but it feels like more of a grounded, somewhat more realistic style than others. It's rare to see particularly exaggerated expressions or cartoonish movements here - in part because of the show's generally calm and quiet mood, but in part just because it wouldn't fit its style. Much like Dusk Maiden of Amnesia, it makes excellent use of color to set the mood and add to the feeling of mystery. It also makes some nice use of a sort of painted look from time to time, which can give some striking visuals.

But Beautiful Bones doesn't always come together perfectly. Some episodes are more interesting than others, and some tales the bones tell just aren't developed as fully as you'd expect. There are cases where the show just spends too little time on a story and doesn't allow it as much room to grow as it needs, and others where it takes a little too much time with a story that isn't quite as interesting as it thinks. It never really hurts things much - Sakurako and company are always interesting enough to carry things - but there are points where it feels like a difference in focus or some work on pacing could help.

In some ways, though, this could be more personal preference than anything else. I found myself generally appreciating the show most when it strayed the most from crime it may be more that I simply appreciated the points where the show was at its most unique compared to other mystery anime.

There are a few points, as well, where a character just has a skill that we've not been shown before, and honestly, that we may not be shown again. It's not frequent and again, it's not very problematic for the overall plot, outside of one dramatic moment that's somewhat hurt by a "well, of course I know martial arts" kind of thing. It feels like the sort of thing that should've been mentioned considering how the show is structured - something the audience should know about, but doesn't - and honestly, it isn't necessary. There were other ways to accomplish the same moment, but without the problems this method brought to the table.

The biggest issue, though, is simply that the show isn't complete.

Hector's trying to convince people to make another season, but it's hard when so few executives speak doggy.
It's not that there's a cliffhanger ending or anything. The stories that Beautiful Bones sets out to tell in the season that it has received are told well and told to completion. But...there are other threads raised during the telling, threads about Sakurako's past and about a mysterious villain who may be behind some of the few actual crimes Sakurako encounters...and as of this writing, sadly, the show doesn't appear to be continuing on to get to explore those points. That said, it aired in 2015 originally, and I've seen anime make a sudden comeback even after more than ten years, so it's not outside of the realms of possibility that we could see more of this.

It also helps that for the most part, the episodes of the show can be watched independent of each other - there are character developments, but there's no feeling of a long-running plot in general. Each case is pretty separate from the others, and that means that you get a lot of satisfying conclusions to plots that help ease the blow of those hanging threads.

Beautiful Bones is a wonderful show with an interesting concept and a different sort of mystery tale than many others that you can find in anime. It tells quiet, reflective stories that express the beauty of life and the various sorrows and triumphs it - and its endings - contain. It is well worth your time...just be aware that it hasn't told its own story to completion yet. I still believe it's a satisfying watch, and it wraps up with at least a feeling of resolution...but just go in knowing that in the end, you're still going to have some questions. Like Sakurako, you're going to end up hoping to unearth more old bones, with more stories to tell.

Dubbed or Subbed?: To the best of my knowledge at time of writing, Beautiful Bones is only available subtitled. Characters come through strongly in the subtitles, and the show's easy pace tends to let you have time to read - there's not a lot of action scenes or even fast-paced arguments that might make it difficult. Even if you tend to prefer dubbing, if this show sounds interesting to you, I'd say to check it out.

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