Friday, January 24, 2014

Skinnydipping in Anime: Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea

Let’s get it out of the way that Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea fails as a mystery, fails at telling a satisfactory, cohesive story, and badly needs some subtlety—any subtlety! All of which are side effects, I suppose, of being a fan service and propaganda delivery vehicle.

Mission number one of this movie: getting everyone you know some screen time, goddammit, no matter how tacked on these lumps of narrative have to be. Sonoko and the 1B detectives are the most egregious, because they don’t even contribute anything to the “plot,” but the way in which the movie insinuates Heiji and Kazuha into the story is more annoying. Yes, they do catch a bad guy—but it’s in a movie that has not one, not two, but three bad guys, at least two of which are totally unnecessary. The Heiji and Kazuha subplot is emblematic of how this kind of fan service destroys coherency: because everyone has to do something, the movie becomes convoluted, diluting any focus on any character. The emotional through line—in which Shinichi promises that he would be able to find Ran anywhere, and lo and behold, she ends up needing him to rescue her—is introduced half way through in a half-hearted attempt to lend the movie emotional gravitas. It doesn’t tie to the central mystery or any kind of theme, and kind of insults viewers’ intelligence in suggesting that Ran can possibly die and trying to wring some drama out of that tension. Another case of “you didn’t earn this” is Kazuha crying at the end. Crying is catharsis. Traipsing through Osaka solving puzzles and dodging bullets doesn’t earn catharsis.

For much of the same reason, Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea is not an effective mystery. Look, the best Gosho Aoyama mysteries all have a hook and are clearly laid out. A favorite story I go back to every time is when seven detectives are gathered to solve a riddle inside a castle—traditional to be sure, but man, the atmosphere in it is incredible. It’s the closest Detective Conan has come to a thriller. In an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None kind of way, the seven detectives are all suspects, distrust each other, and kill off each other as the culprit watches, only better than Agatha because there’s dried blood between the playing cards, a car explosion, and a family crest that’s a cross between a crooked nosed man and a bird. Aaanyway, other Detective Conan stories all define their suspects and have a central conceit—locked room murder is a perennial favorite. Ones that feature a red herring, as this movie does, always revolve around a small and insignificant detail that the obvious solution doesn’t necessarily explain. The mysteries may seem complicated, but the goal is often very well defined: explain this thing, using details that we may not have drawn attention to. A lot of what makes up mysteries is misdirection.
Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea isn't complicated; it’s convoluted and painfully straightforward, not understanding that mysteries are about misdirection. It draws attention to every little detail and they always come back like this intricate interlocking puzzle, and it’s convoluted not because every piece works together toward some nebulous conclusion—they don’t—it’s convoluted because there are so many mini-puzzles that do not cohere to a unifying theme. It lacks a good hook. It lacks a clear goal. The mini-puzzles are superfluous and purposeless. The culprit isn't even introduced in the first act.

I can’t deny, though, that the movie has some pretty entertaining moments, all of which, of course, are completely unintentional. Part of it is my having seen the movie on a Japan Airline flight in English subtitle; part of it is the dumb-as-a-box-of-oceanic-rocks terrorist plot, in which a “foreign country” tries to steal military secret from a top security vessel. I don’t know whether China or the US was in the original Japanese script or what, but have some backbone, dude. Speaking of, this movie immediately shoots up on the Top Ten Hilariously Pro-Military Propaganda Movies of All Time. It features the police and the Self Defense Force working together like a big happy family. It lavishes on dorky technical specs of the Aegis—which, I guess my mentioning the ship by name means that it works. I watched slack-jawed as credits rolled over cheesy, loving, live-action shots of the ship out at sea, with pelicans flying and everything. It’s an atrocity to subtlety. It’s great.

Also, for those who care which I know are depressingly not a whole lot, Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea is kind of weirdly sexist. In the first act, Conan becomes suspicious of a female SDF officer because women don’t make up a ton of the SDF, so the chances of seeing one in the wild are not great. Look, fucker, even if women make up only one percent of the SDF or something, the chances of no one seeing a female SDF officer are still zero.

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