A reclusive and allegedly dangerous programming prodigy. A brilliant but closed off assistant professor. A young college student who wants to be validated by the man she looks up to. Subete ga F ni Naru: The Perfect Insider is about the intertwining circumstances and psyches of these three (seprate, but equally important) figures.
These are their stories. When Professor Shouhei Saikawa and Moe Nishinosono, the daughter of his late mentor, travel to an island where the lab of infamous genius Dr. Shiki Magata is located, they become wrapped up in a seemingly impossible murder case.
When I finished the first episode of The Perfect Insider, I knew I had found “my” show for the season - not necessarily my favorite show, but the one I would be attached to. Even from its promotional materials, it was clear that this adaption of a 1996 novel was a bit outside of the box. I have a soft spot for anime that aims high, but does The Perfect Insider accomplish what it sets out to do?
The Perfect Insider is a murder mystery, so the biggest question potential viewers probably have about the show is “is the mystery any good?” Thankfully, yes! The landscape of mystery anime 2015 was pretty barren, but Perfect Insider pulled off something very solid and competent. With the exception of a few threads that are brought together in the 11th hour, most of the story’s mystery is neatly setup and resolved. Although it’s a locked room mystery - a locked room that no one has entered or left for 15 years at that, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic as the answers the questions lie in both the present and past. It makes for a rewarding close-watching experience, because viewers have the tools to figure out what’s really going on from an early point if they pay attention. It’s a show that lends itself to discussion and theories, so it’s double the fun if you have someone to talk to about it!
Mostly successful mystery aside, Perfect Insider often shown more as a character study. Some of the best individual episodes weren’t the ones that made big strides in Moe and Saikawa solving the murder, but were made up of character moments that explore the strain that arises from the pair’s differing outlooks. The setting of the lab throws their opposing feelings about isolation, loneliness, family, and more into the spotlight. Flasbacks to Shiki’s childhood, narrated by the Director of Magata Labs and her uncle, are also among the most fascinating (and uncomfortable) scenes in the series. The show as a whole is made up of talking, but the talking shines when it knows how to explore and develop its characters.
Something that really stood out in the art and animation was how true to life the characters behaved in their posturing, gestures, and mannerisms. This isn’t something that’s done so well it’s worth bringing up often, so though it may seem small, the body language of the characters made a big impression! They move like real people, from everyday tasks like putting in eye drops or lighting a cigarette to the nuances of body language as they relate to emotions. This shines the most in scenes focusing on Moe and Saikawa’s relationship. They carry themselves, tense up, and motion in ways that really speak to their strained but close connection. I found myself thinking at one point, “yep, that is exactly how a girl who is dwelling on her crush but trying to act casual would stand.”
While not always likable (join the club), Moe Nishinosono was my breakout character from the show. She has not-insignificant problems, not only in her past, but in relating to others. In contrast to Saikawa and Shiki, she expresses herself with over-the-top emotion. Her way of dealing with the world can be as fractured as the other characters, but she comes across as the most alive, real, and fully fleshed out of the main cast. She’s also the only one to call Saikawa on his bullshit and navel gazing.
The Perfect Insider is not visually striking in the way of say, Monogatari or Gatchaman, but its art and direction did some very neat things. The character designs have the impressive pedigree of being done by award-winning manga author Inio Asana of Oyasumi Punpun fame. Beyond that, the anime uses a subdued color palette and general feeling of restraint that becomes beautiful in its own way. From the barrenness of the lab to the island’s washed out sunlight, the settings seem very real and are not “overstaged,” letting the framing of the characters be the focus. When the story provides reasons for more experimental imagery - flashbacks, introspection, or virtual reality - it’s carried of quite nicely.
One of the niftiest pieces of animation this season was in The Perfect Insider’s opening, the appropriately named “Talking” by Kana-Boom. The loose, sketch-like designs and movements manage to be beautifully fluid and capture the main characters’ personalities. There’s also some imagery that hints at a major plot twist in there...
Musically, neither “Talking” or Scenarioart’s ending “Nana Hitsuji” are slouches, and they’re two of my favorites not just from the season, but all of 2015.
As I mentioned, Shiki herself - who she is, what happened in her past, what makes her tick, etc. - is at the heart of the show’s mystery, so a lot rides or dies on how fully realized she is as a character. We get to know her mostly through the words and feelings of others. As such, her character comes through with the biases of the rest of the cast. For Moe, she is a point of interest who turns into an unwelcome reminder of her own past and personal demons. For the Director (the voice of the flashbacks of her pre-lab life), she takes a Lolitaesque role as an obsession and downfall of an unreliable narrator. For Saikawa, she is an ideal. He, who is pretty clearly less of a misanthrope than he believes himself to be, idolizes her self-isolation and what he thinks to be her perfect worldview. That’s all a lot for one character to live up to.
Part of the reason Moe was the standout character of The Perfect Insider to me is that she’s basically the only person who doesn’t end up falling into the trap of thinking of Dr. Magata as an elevated being. It’s tempting to do that, too, and Shiki looms over the entire world of the show, always beautiful and enigmatic, speaking in a self-assured but musical voice. Although she is a compelling linchpin to the central mystery, the woman behind all the secrets and praise ends up ringing rather hollow as a character. I was hoping that The Perfect Insider would be in part about pointing out the folly of putting Shiki on a pedestal, but instead it seems to buy into the same mythos Saikawa and the Director fall prey to. For that, some points were lost with me.
Saikawa is a hard character to like. There are a lot of people like him, particular in academia: myopic, an overblown sense of their own intellect, and nursed in the bubble that is the ivory tower. Moe clearly is in love with him, but until we get context into their past, it’s hard to see what she sees. His insufferable factor doesn’t improve much until the last few episodes, and he still has a long way to go to get out of himself a bit, and to bridge the gap he puts between himself and others.
No matter how riveting a mystery is in its premise and buildup, it can fall apart if the resolution isn’t up to snuff. The Perfect Insider’s mystery, again, is neatly wrapped up, but it is a crazy ride. Underneath the high-tech dressing, the plot twists actually employ a lot of tropes of Gothic fiction, with some ghost in the machine and mathematics mixed in. It’s not that the mechanics of the mystery require TOO much suspension of disbelief for the show’s universe, but it’s a lot of rather fantastic things happening at once. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing - some of my favorite mystery anime involve a lot more crazy shit than Perfect Insider - but your mileage may vary. The big reveal, when it’s all said out loud, also manages to be a bit weak. Since the mystery hinges on Shiki herself, the failure to really cement her philosophies also bleeds into how satisfying the plot’s resolution is.
The trouble with geniuses
There is a common issue with being told (and often not shown) that characters are geniuses. A genius is a fairly rare thing in people, so the creators who write genius characters are likely not geniuses themselves. I’m getting tired of typing the word genius here. It’s hard to write convincing characters who are above and beyond the norm and truly convey that difference. The Perfect Insider has it especially tricky because although the allegedly unparalleled intelligence of Shiki and Saikawa is offered to us as a matter of fact pretty often, it’s shown mostly through philosophically-driven conversation. How does this philosophy hold up? Eeeehhh. This is the sticking point that almost sent this show into Proceed With Caution territory. Saikawa and Shiki have a lot of words to say about the nature of life, freedom, and humans, and it can look and sound pretty. Ultimately, it’s mostly empty. When their philosophy sticks the landing, it tends to be on basic existential things that are common to the human condition.
And that’s a good thing! My main guiding rule for whether an anime (or any fiction really) is worth watching is to see if successfully hits on something true about being a human. The Perfect Insider does this, eventually, but in the middle of a lot of drivel and under the not-really-necessary trapping of “genius.” You don’t need to be a genius to mull over life’s big questions, which is really all the characters are doing, albeit in a roundabout way.
If you are expecting a thrill-a-minute mystery, you won’t find it in The Perfect Insider. If you are expecting life-altering profundity, you won’t find that either. The series ends much in the same way it starts, with Saikawa and Moe, simply talking. Yes, a larger than life murder caper happened in the meantime, but the heart of the show is really these character interactions. The novel the anime is based on is actually the first in a series starring the Saikawa and Moe. While we probably won’t get any more adaptions, it helps explain why the growth the characters experience seems to only be the beginning. For all its flaws, I’m glad a show like Perfect Insider was around and I wouldn’t mind solving another case or two with its characters.
But until then...
Stunning header and review card by Tim C. This is one of my favorites of his :D