AniTAY, I have a problem. I am constantly getting attached to sub-types of fiction that are either rare, rarely well done, or both. One of these is what I’m going to call “cerebral detective.” A cerebral detective show doesn’t necessarily focus on solving the mystery or the procedural aspects, but uses a detective figure as a voice for exploring Big Concepts. The ne plus ultra of this would be Moryo no Hako for me, but I digress. When I first heard about Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace, things looked promising. A dark mystery anime that’s based on the work of an author who enjoyed kooky undertones, and includes black comedy elements and traditional death iconography? Sign me the fuck up.

Ranpo Kitan is loosely based on the stories of famed mystery author Edogawa Ranpo (who I will refer to as Edogawa to separate him from the anime title) and commemorates the 50th anniversary of his death. The story primarily follows two characters directly inspired by Edogawa: Akechi (from Kogoro Akechi), a 17-year old detective prodigy, and Kobayashi (from Yoshio Kobayashi), a jaded middle school student who is thrust into the world of crime solving when he is framed for a grisly murder. The anime is not a mystery in the purest sense. The private investigator hook is merely a platform on which to attempt to build a discussion of Big Concepts like justice and morality. Ranpo Kitan somewhat succeeds at it, too!

A warped hyperbole

Establishing a setting and atmosphere is one of Ranpo’s strong points. The Japan of the show is a familiar but twisted version of reality. Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of sensational, gruesome crimes happen in Ranpo Kitan. Japan’s rate of violent crime is much lower, and crimes on the level of what happens in the story are extremely rare and remain infamous for decades. Part of this warped society is lifted from Edogawa Ranpo’s stories, which are dark and pulpy (on that note, if you have complaints about the human chair thing, blame the late author). You’re going to need to suspend your disbelief about how grim the world is. Of course, crime, isolation, unemployment, et al. are real issues, but Ranpo Kitan amplifies them to an oppressive pall cast over its entire fictional world. Even when the show indulges in more lighthearted moments, the bleakness doesn’t lift. To update Edogawa’s stories, the crimes do seem to be inspired in part by hot-button Japanese issues of the last 20 years or so - panic over otaku culture and the dangers of overwork, to name a few.

“What makes children turn to crime?” This anime news guy blames video games! Sound familiar?

Ranpo Kitan also manages to be thoroughly modern by using the internet and mass media as a recurring framing device for the story’s events. A case is often accompanied by a news montage of all too familiar punditry. Since the show comes back again and again to themes like mob mentality and what influences/is influenced by the public, internet forums are also used to show the development of capital S Society, which is kind of its own character. The main antagonist, Twenty Faces, also uses a contemporary channel of communication:

Coping with injustice

It’s a mad world in Ranpo Kitan, but our characters still have to live in it. The diverse cast explores a many common ways people react to the unfairness of the life, from idealism and vigilantism to resignation and apathy.

Akechi and Kobayashi solve mysteries, but morally they tend to stay on the side of objective observing. Kobayashi’s classmate and best friend, Hashiba, represents the law-abiding citizen who does what is right because he can’t fathom anything else. On the police force, the middle-aged Nakamura (above) accepts that he’s mostly powerless to fight societal evil, but does his job nonetheless. The younger, more idealistic investigator Kagami still struggles with whether or not he can carry out true justice.

Then, there’s Twenty Faces. Twenty Faces is, for lack of a better word, the villain of Ranpo Kitan. “He” is a vigilante serial killer who targets criminals that have evaded the justice system. Though the origins of Twenty Faces are revealed later in the story, the figure is a concept. Anyone can be Twenty Faces if they choose to take up the mantle. This is something that makes “him” both a disturbing and sympathetic villain. Pare it down, and there isn’t much difference between Twenty Faces and a hero, and a faction of Ranpo’s population certainly doesn’t distinguish between the two. I’m sure most of us have fantasized about lashing out at injustice, whether on a large or personal scale, and Ranpo Kitan doesn’t shy away from addressing that.

that’s some Eva shit

Connectivity, Morality, and You

A major, recurring idea in the show is how we lie to ourselves about what and who is “good,” and how often people don’t truly see one another. Akechi, Kobayashi, and a third main character all suffer from a degree of isolation and inability to connect with others. One of the more clever things Ranpo Kitan does is to incorporate this idea into its visuals. Akechi sees most people as dummies, and those who hold no interest to Kobayashi are shown as simply featureless shadows. Hashiba, being the straight man again, is the only protagonist who sees people as, well, people. Akechi and Kobayashi may be loners more so than most, but only seeing what’s of direct interest to us is another hard truth we like to forget - that Ranpo brings to the surface. If we often can’t get outside of ourselves, how many of us truly care about the greater good?

Point taken but...puppies. And yes, cars and buildings are being represented by the kanji for car and building because someone went to the Ikuhara School of Anime Direction.

One thing I may be giving Ranpo too much credit for is that there may be thought behind teasing the struggles of minor characters, or the more minor struggles of major characters, and leaving it at that. For example, Kobayashi and Hashiba’s homeroom teacher has self-harm scars, and...that’s it. We don’t find out why, or really anything about her character. At first, I was annoyed by the seeming loose ends, but the more I thought on it, I wondered if it wasn’t just fitting with the show’s message that the world is unjust and people’s hurt often goes ignored. In reality, there are plenty of people walking among us with literal or figurative scars. It’s up to us whether we really see or care about them.

Art direction

The one area Ranpo Kitan pulls off completely is style. I hope you like immersion-breaking! To compound Akechi and co.’s preferred role of observer, the details and theories behind the crimes are often played out on a stage. That’s a good term the artistic flair of the show - it’s staged. Now, that isn’t a bad thing for me because I tend to love that auteur quality. Even when the story isn’t cohesive, Ranpo still manages to be stylistically well-composed and consistent. As you may have noticed, it keeps a generally dark palette that fits the atmosphere. Often, it’s quite a stunning anime to look at.

Some classic symbolism is also liberally employed, like the butterfly and spider-lily. Both are symbols related to death in Japanese tradition, but the butterfly is the show’s big, overwhelming motif. Butterflies represent the soul, whether that means the soul of a living person or the departing spirit of the dead. As such, they can be both a good and bad omen. In the anime, butterflies are often used to represent a death, but if you consider the idea that souls can communicate even when living - “heart to heart,” telepathy, pick your phrase - then Ranpo’s butterfly is also a sort of collective conscious.

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It also represents growth and freedom. Maelwys pointed out to me a while ago that Twenty Face’s skull mask is often portrayed with a pupa (sorry everyone) attached to it. Akechi records closed Twenty Faces incidents in his “butterfly notebook,” and this usually accompanied by an actual butterfly flying away. The idea here is rather sympathetic to the troubled souls who become Twenty Faces - they aren’t truly free until they find closure through revenge.

Music

Ranpo is my season pick for best OP/ED combo. “Speed to Masatsu” by Amazarashi (above) and “Mikazuki” by Sayuri (below) are both great standalone songs. The pounding, buzzing “Speed to Masatsu” has lyrics that fit the broken and decaying nature of Ranpo’s world, and it’s one of those cases where the OP’s visuals make more sense as you get further into the story. “Mikazuki,” possibly the best song of the season, is full of pleading melancholy. Although the (very neat) visuals mainly use Kobayashi’s silhouette, it’s easy to see the lyrics applying to most of the characters.

Main Characters

Although Kobayashi and Akechi are about equal in main character standing, it’s Kobayashi we meet first and from whose point of view we see the story unfold most. He’s supposed to be an unmotivated yet brilliant kid, but as his character fails to be truly compelling, his boredom is irritating and falls flat. In the last third or so of the story, he does show more depth and we’re given reasons to care about him, but it comes too little too late.

Akechi fares a bit better in the character development department, but I do think the creators were spending too much energy making him cool when they could have been giving him more depth and making him more real. Ranpo Kitan already has a lot of material to work with. The original Kogoro Akechi has become an iconic character, with references to him appearing in Detective Conan, Lupin III, and others. He isn’t completely unlikable in this adaption, and it is made clear that he’s suppressing a lot of baggage of pain. I just hope that if there’s another season - which the finale did hint at - we see more of the human side of the detective.

First world problems

I, for one, liked Hashiba. He may be the most normal of the main characters, but he’s the most genuinely good-natured and his stick-in-the-mud ways provide some actual comic relief (along with Shadow Man).

Shallowness masquerading as depth

The Laplace in the show’s title is a reference to Laplace’s Demon, which was described by Pierre-Simon Laplace as the idea that “in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” So, an omniscient being. The second half of the show deals with a young Akechi writing a formula to create Laplace’s Demon with society as a whole as its vessel. It’s some bullshit, and not very well written and integrated into the story. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the writers could have followed the same story line on a less insane route.

Bad taste

Ranpo Kitan is sometimes disturbing, and it should be considering its focus on societal rot. The show often veers, however, into disturbing territory that doesn’t add to anything. Rather, it’s just kind of distasteful. The prime example of this is Black Lizard. Black Lizard is a female convict and leader of the criminal underworld. She’s actually one of Edogawa Ranpo’s iconic characters, and appears in his stories and adaptions thereof as a master criminal and femme fatale who has a sexually-charged rivalry with Detective Kogoro Akechi. Her role in Ranpo Kitan is sidelined, partly because the source material the anime draws on most is The Fiend with Twenty Faces/Boys Detective Club (her big moment is in, wait for it...The Black Lizard). What you get with Black Lizard is a bit of attempted BDSM-tinged humor? fanservice? that doesn’t add to the plot or character development of Akechi. To be frank, her scenes are gross and added some discomfort that took away from the overall experience.

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I think this is a case of the creative team trying to fill their plates with too many references to Edogawa Ranpo’s various stories. They are already dealing with turning Twenty Faces into an entirely different and ambitious concept, combining part of the Twenty Faces lore with the title of a different Edogawa story, Shadow-Man, to create a new character, and more. Since there wasn’t enough time to devote to making Black Lizard a dynamic character and fleshing our her interactions with Akechi, it would have been best to omit her from the story.

This issue also arises with the “trap” thing Kobayashi’s got going on. Just for the record, I hate that term. Anyway. Edogawa’s Kobayashi is a young boy who can pass for a girl if it behooves the case, and that happens once in the anime, but Kobayashi’s looks are mostly used as a weird point of titillation. He is cute, and Hashiba thinks so too, but the problem is that the show doesn’t do anything above the low-hanging fruit with this. Hashiba seems pretty in love with his best friend, and that’s even touchingly developed by the end (even though Hashiba still just calls Kobayashi his friend), but instead of just writing a male character who happens to have feelings for his male friend, the oooh a trap factor is played for cheap and uncomfortable laughs. It’s just all around a bit weird and, at worst, homophobic. In short:

I really wanted Ranpo Kitan to be a great show. The worst thing is - it could have been. Its director and writer, Seiji Kishi and Makoto Uezu, both worked on Humanity Has Declined, and Uezu also wrote for Katanagatari. They certainly have the brains for dark comedy, social commentary, and Big Concepts, but perhaps they tried to do too much in Ranpo Kitan. When they were on, this was a show that delighted with its artistic eye and wasn’t afraid afraid to explore difficult questions. I’d go so far as to say parts of it reminded me of my favorite black comedy, Suicide Club. However, character problems, inconsistent writing quality, and some truly puzzling inclusions keep this one from being an wholehearted recommendation.

Header and review card by Tim C.