Clearly you’ve always heard of that one anime Naoki Urasawa was involved with but haven’t actually seen it. Because nobody else has. But is it actually worth the ticket or just a trip to the disappointing attraction of nothing but a big name behind it? Let’s find out!
Master Keaton is an oddball anime for sure: The name-giving protagonist is a half-Japanese half-British who aspired to become an archaeologist, didn’t quite make it there yet still strives to make a huge discovery in his field of interest, has taught at university and now acts as an agent of Lloyd’s, a somewhat unique insurance firm. Also, wouldn’t you know it, he just so happened to be a member of the SAS back in the days. Currently a single parent, still carrying affection for his wife, now he travels around the world (mostly Europe) as part of his job and, for the lack of a better description, fixes every mess he encounters. And luckily for the audience, his adventures are as varied as his biography is.
And since there are a lot of people for Keaton to meet as part of his job as an insurance agent with a big heart and just as big of a curiosity, you really do get the entire spectrum covered: Disarming bombs. Helping out a lying German woman. Bringing an art tool to a knife fight with a terrorist. Reuniting a man with his family. Solving crimes. Teaching the elderly and driving home the value of education. All of that while traveling around the world through villages and towns.
The opening reflects that quite well as it’s a sincere portrayal of the anime itself:
Needless to say, Keaton gets into a lot of trouble as both the nature of his job and that of human beings demand it but thank goodness he’s Keaton and that’s what matters the most: Keaton is your OP character. He will get you through the desert if he has to. In fact, that’s what he did at one point. If Keaton is locked up, he’ll find a way to get out with the tools available to him. He turns art utensils into bombs. Speaking of which, he also knows how to defuse them. And if you ever get poisoned by any sort of rare, completely outlandish plant, his Wikipedia brain for sure knows the cure and how to get to it. As long as you’re with Keaton, you’re set. He’s not just a jack of all trades – he’s the master. Keaton is the person most fit for any challenge thrown at him in an adventure anime that doesn’t focus on one single big adventure where the hero sets out on a journey and then makes it through but a composition of 38 (the last one is a two-parter) smaller ones.
At this point, it should be very obvious that this anime isn’t for everyone. Entirely episodic and essentially a one-man show. And it’s true – and quite a shame – that several episodes are downright dumb, predictable, childish and clichéd. When “Your mother beat the nazis by making the ground really slippery so the tanks would slide away” is the big selling point in the obligatory “Women can be strong too, you know!” episode, I just don’t even know anymore. Quite frankly, your mileage may vary in general. You might think of Keaton as a bland Mr. Perfect and deem his success stories as banal. And I could kind of see where you are coming from.
So what’s the appeal? Simply put, the things that are good. Which would be the majority of the episodes to be blunt.
So much hinges on the protagonist and he’s interesting. Not even once does he become annoying, boring or a bother to his own show and he always wants to be part of it, qualities that most anime refuse to uphold. It feels good to watch something that has a protagonist you like to follow. What adds to the experience is that we never really get to entirely know who Keaton is – his backstory consists of very few lines of exposition and bits of characterization but for instance, you’ll only get to see snippets from his SAS days in the last episode. You get a very good grasp of Keaton’s character already quite early on and he stays incredibly consistent within his personality but there will always remain a shred of mystery around him which probably makes the people he encounters a bit more relatable. When they are impressed and baffled, you will most likely also raise an eyebrow. The big takeaway here is that Keaton comes, sees, wins. And while that makes me think of him as a bit of a phenomenon, he always remains human to his very core. I feel that after 39 episodes, you have a very good understanding of Keaton but there would always be more things you could get to know about him. And I appreciate that kind of character writing very much.
But quite frankly, Keaton himself is only half of the appeal of the show. It’s not so much Keaton who changes in his encounters (he remains rather static) but invariably, the lives of the people Keaton engages will change. And each episode has one of those stories to tell.
It might be a story of how a terrorist changed his attitude towards life thanks to a mere bar of chocolate.
It might be a story of a little girl trying to run away from a broken family.
It might be a story of how the Berlin wall separated people even when it was long since gone.
Whether these are up to your taste isn’t a simple question to answer but generally speaking, if you liked Monster’s countless episodic stories, you’ll probably also like this. I’m not saying it’s as good as that one but it feels a lot like the spiritual predecessor.
And the culturally rich, incredibly varied locations add to the experience like in hardly any other anime: England, Poland, Germany, Scotland, France, Italy, you name it. Through valleys, along seas, into villages, out of towns, around a suburban corner, inside a moorfield, at archaeological sights or decaying buildings, people can be found and so can be Keaton.
At the end of the day, Master Keaton feels a lot like a family-friendly anime that you could also show to your kids so they could take a life lesson or two away from it. It has so much pathos and mostly gets it right that it’s just my kind of thing. A rarity, I’m sure of it.
And speaking of pathos, I should probably also mention that the narration for the episode previews is fantastic and the best I’ve seen in anime. It never fails to sell you on an episode. For better or worse, several times I have wished for episodes to be as good as the previews were.
And since I’m already digressing with this entire thing anyway, I feel compelled to mention that there also was a part where a British thief took a Pepsi to the face. That, in return, made me buy a Pepsi. I’m not even kidding. Finally some good fucking anime, mates.
With all that said and done, overall, I wouldn’t call Master Keaton’s stories the most well-written ones but they are certainly among the most atmospheric out there. I don’t use the ever-so-abusable “comfy” word lightly but this is a show that’s either super thrilling or your new favorite iyashikei anime. With so many episodes and so many stories that differ a lot, as a result, things barely ever get boring.
And while it’s not exactly the visually prettiest show around outside of a Rintaro episode, it doesn’t need to be as I’m quite content with how much love goes into the background art portraying all the different showplaces this world has to offer and the really nice adventure-esque OST helps out so much. I mean, just listen to this stuff.
Keaton’s Journey Master Keaton is a good anime but also a really flawed one. Not always quite there, not always satisfying, oftentimes with a rushed conclusion. And it certainly adds insult to injury that its last two episodes don’t even make an attempt at trying to bring the anime to a close. Will Keaton be able to fulfill his dream? Will he ever rebuild his family? Your heart knows the answer as the anime surely doesn’t. You might as well give the manga a try for that but considering how that one lends 24 pages to stories the anime takes 21 minutes to take, is bloated with text to no ends to cram everything into a single chapter and lacks the anime’s audiovisual strengths, I, for one, am not particularly compelled to give it a shot.
So on one hand, it’s the roadtrip show you never knew you wanted that gives you many great moments along the way. On the other hand, however, it’s a journey without much of a destination. If you don’t mind that, go ahead and give it a try, if you do mind, however – you might still wanna check this out but be prepared for a rather sour aftertaste.
Final Verdict: Good.