Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 24th 2011
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Some time in the near future, in a Japan still bearing the scars of war, Shinjurou Yuuki is making his living as the last of the old-school detectives. He has earned the nickname "the Defeated Detective" for being consistently outfoxed by his sedentary rival Rinroku Kaishou. Kaishou uses the country's vast computer network, including its omnipresent surveillance cameras, to solve crimes from the comfort of home. Shinjurou drags his assistant, a bizarre boy-child named Inga, to the scene of the crime and seemingly never gets anywhere. Or at least, that's the official line. The truth is that Shinjurou and Inga always get their man, often with the help of Inga's freaky powers, but Kaishou always smothers their triumph in government-backed lies. Back-stabbed financiers, dead music producers, crispy-fried industrialists, exsanguinated thieves, neglectful mothers—no case can confound him for long, but will he ever get the acclaim due him as Japan's last Master Detective?
Despite being a series about detectives, Un-Go isn't really good at mysteries. At its core a mystery is a match of wits between the show and the viewer, and to be good the match has to be as close as possible. If it's too easy for the viewer, it's not satisfying; and if it's too hard, it's frustrating. Un-Go trends towards the too-easy side, but the problem isn't that it gets the balance wrong; it's more that it isn't interested in playing in the first place. There are no red herring, no trickery or playing with expectations: just a series of unexplained events, an accumulation of information and a denouement. That's in part because the stories are too compressed (usually into a single episode) to include much else, but there's also apathy at play here. The show takes no joy in forging the links in Shinjurou's chain of logic, and indeed often skips over the forging altogether to reveal the chain fully-formed in the denouement. It also likes to use Inga's supernatural powers as a shortcut, something that would make any self-respecting mystery writer blanch in horror.
To be fair, it's possible, even likely, that Un-Go doesn't play the mystery game because the original stories (written in the years after World War II) didn't, or perhaps because they're well enough known that it's useless to obfuscate. And also to be fair, the mysteries might be pretty interesting if they weren't so blasé in their treatment or weren't crammed into a single episode. The crimes themselves are spectacular and sometimes go in truly odd directions, especially in the two-episode case involving the immolation of a masked businessman. They also have a strong emotional component, often hinging on family ties and occasionally bordering on genuine tragedy. It's hard not to wonder what might have been had they been given some room to breathe or been handled by someone with more emotional sensitivity and an appreciation for the art of fictional deduction.
But they weren't. So it's fortunate that the series doesn't rely purely on deduction for its appeal. It has a solid recurring cast and a complicated future setting, the two of which intertwine in interesting ways. The series' best mysteries may simply be the pasts and goals of its characters, eternally shrouded in either deception or reticence. Of particular interest is Kaishou, whose aw-shucks demeanor stands in stark contrast to his function as the treacherous government's go-to cover-up artist. He's a great antagonist—smart, unreadable, and subtly creepy. Shinjurou, for his part, is mostly just asked to be stoic and infallibly brilliant, but what he lacks in pizzazz he makes up for in guarded mysteriousness. His past is a big empty hole into which only the smallest of lights is shined, mostly to reveal a lot of psychic damage.
And then there's Inga. In some ways Inga is Un-Go's biggest strength and its biggest weakness. Her power is the deductive equivalent of a Get Out of Jail Free card, and her compulsion to use it allows the series to force a denouement whenever it wants. She quickly becomes a structural device: the episode reaches its climax, Inga transforms, Shinjurou tells her what to ask, and bingo, case closed. On the other hand, she's also the series' best invention: an inexplicable monster with inexplicable appetites who worms her way into human crimes fueled by human appetites. The way the series randomly tosses out facts about her is one of its more consistent delights, with Inga only growing more unknowable the more we know about her: her ability to compel answers turns out to be a side-effect of her feeding and her form proves eerily amorphous, among other oddities. Perhaps the most interesting thing about her, though, is her partnership with Shinjurou, which seems less and less voluntary the more one learns about it.
Don't take that to mean that we get particularly attached to their partnership; the interest is strictly intellectual, not emotional. Director Seiji Mizushima has never been the warm and cuddly type, and while an odd entry in his increasingly odd filmography, this is no exception. Thanks to Inga's capering and some straight-faced humor from the supporting cast, the series is lighter in tone than many of its mystery peers, but it's never warm. Events have emotional consequences, but they very rarely affect us.
What Mizushima does bring to the table is a polished cinematic sensibility. Despite its relatively sedentary nature, the series never feels static or stage-bound. Top-notch animation from BONES helps, bringing subtle life even to something as simple as a tossed teddy bear (an artificially intelligent teddy bear, of course). There's always something moving, something happening in background or foreground. And when it isn't what's in the frame, it's the frame itself: tracking a security guard down the hall or moving in on someone's face. Unusually mobile characters help keep things lively, while dated clothing, old-fashioned touches (masked evildoers anyone?), and a detailed mixture of dystopian and modern settings lend the series a strong sense of place and time. Elongated character designs add a distinctive visual flavor while the score adds forbidding atmosphere, creeping unobtrusively into the silence that usually rules the soundtrack. It's a very well put-together show; well enough in fact that it rarely feels rushed, despite being in a perpetual hurry. And well enough that it's plenty easy to enjoy—so long as you aren't in it for the sleuthing.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Enjoyable cast with plenty of secrets; interesting detective rivalry; well produced; Inga.
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