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Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Something I saw on the Bad Signal mailing list the other day got me to thinking. Warren Ellis was asking after "straight detective fiction" in comics, and apparently the only responses he got back concerned Batman, Elongated Man, older series and supernaturally themed detective stories.
Which rather surprises me, because one of the most unexpected and underappreciated series Tokyopop has been putting out is Kindaichi Case Files. Volume 8 was recently released: "No Noose Is Good Noose" (I can only hope that the titles are the American editors attempts to translate the thematic meanings of the individual titles, rather than the literal). It makes me suspect that there may not be many people out there reading the title regularly, which is a shame as the series is quite good and entertaining.
The lead character is Hajime Kindaichi, a high-school student believed by most of his teachers and class-mates to be a lazy, foolish slacker. In reality, he is in possession of a deft and highly rational, logical and intuitive mind. Which makes sense, as he is the grandson of a legendary detective, Kosouke Kindaichi. And Kindaichi gets plenty of opprotunities to show his true nature behind his clownish pose, as he and his sometime girl-friend Miyuki Nanase keep finding themselves caught up in the middle of gruesome, and seemingly impossible, murder mysteries. He is occasionally aided in this by Detective Kenmochi who has learned to value the assitance Kindaichi can provide, but he is just as often frustrated by Superintendent Akechi, who sees Kindaichi as a competitor to the title of "greatest detective."
The art by Fumiya Sato is very cartoony, which perhaps lessens the impact of some of the truly horrific murders Kindaichi uncovers. Sato has a real talent, however, for creating very distinctive and expressive characters. Many manga artists have a tendency to draw the same face on all their characters, and differentiating them only by costume and hair-style, but Sato draws a wide variety of character types. The stories of Yozaburo Kanari are intriguing, and the common flaws of mysteries are avoided. All of the important clues are presented to the reader at the same time as they are presented to Kindaichi, so it's possible for the reader to come to the correct conclusion regarding "whodunnit" before Kindaichi figures it out.
If there is a weakness to the stories, it's that the motivations behind the murders tend to be repetitive. Out of the eight volumes released to date all but one of them, to my recollection, revealed the motive behind the slayings to be revenge for a crime the victims committed at some earlier point and escaped punishment for. It's not that it's an unbelievable motivation. Revenge is a powerful motive in mystery and thriller fiction. And from a thematic stand-point it does serve to make the killer more sympathetic to the reader, as they are meteing out poetic justice to people who they beleive deserve to die for their transgressions. But after eight volumes of it, it does feel a bit repetitive.
Volume 8 is an interesting example of the series style. Kindaichi and Miyuki enroll in a prestigious prep school which has a reputation of driving students to suicide because of the high standards and competition. Once there a math teacher asks for Kindaichi's help in finding the person responsible for a series of macabre pranks for which she is being framed. Once the pranks turn deadly, Kindaichi has to prove that the teacher is innocent and that the students committed suicide to make the teacher look like a killer. In a bit of departure from the usual structure, Kindaichi soon begins to suspect that he is being maniuplated by someone into letting the real guilty party get away with murder. It is perhaps not the best introduction to the series for a new reader, but it is a nice variation on the theme for those of us who have been reading along. Putting Kindaichi into a posistion where he seriously doubts himself is quite a difference from the usual thougtful and self-assured Kindaichi we generally see.