Ta-daa-daaaah, you bunch of weirdos! You feelin’ bored right now? Then look no further! This time, I’ve got a disastrous world of wonders for you!
Yoshio Kobayashi is bored with this world. As your not-so-run-of-the-mill student in a run-of-the-mill student life, he makes it through a grey everyday cycle of passing time. To him, his life equals boredom and other people are just fleeting silhouettes. However, one day, he wakes up in his classroom with a saw in his hand – and his teacher’s severely dismembered corpse in front of him. For the first time in life, he is no longer bored. And alongside teenage genius detective Akechi and his exemplarily ordinary friend Hayashi, he is about to uncover a world of naked horror that lies within human nature as well as many more intriguing things.
Ranpo Kitan is a passion project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Edogawa Ranpo’s passing on the noitaminA block. It’s also one of the last few experimental original works to have aired there ever since. It takes stories from Edogawa Ranpo and uses these not as sources for adaptation but inspiration – carries over themes and character names but not so much the stories and characters itself. It does its own thing while adhering to the core of Edogawa Ranpo. You won’t find a straight adaptation here and that much is obvious even to the untrained eye when teenagers solve crime in modern Japan and things happen beyond what’s humanly possible.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Ranpo Kitan is a mystery story, following Akechi as he solves crimes. At the same time, however, that doesn’t give you the full picture as it’s also Kobayashi’s character journey into the unventured. That makes it not the traditional Western mystery wherein a detective gathers all the evidence but much rather a whydunnit story that has a lot to say not only about its individual culprits but also society at large. Conclusively, it shouldn’t be approached as the former. Ranpo Kitan never cared about formulaic Sherlock Holmes expectations. It’s 2015’s UN-GO in a way or two. At this point, I’ve heard “why can’t Japan ever do mystery right?” way too many times to count and it’s just kinda saddening.
So instead of doing what we’ve come to expect from detective fiction, Ranpo Kitan places a lot of emphasis on what those who murder are capable of and why these people did what they did. The motive matters at least as much as the crime solving process. Yet while Ranpo Kitan tells you about human extremes and lows, it doesn’t display all of society as such. It just points at those who possess these distinctions and tells you “There. Look. These people exist.”
Nobody exemplifies the spirit of Ranpo Kitan more than its protagonist: Kobayashi falls into otoko no ko/trap allure and differs from the norm of such characters mentally to quite the degree. For instance, he doesn’t mind to put on a female summer dress – especially not if he’s meant to catch a child abuser with it. That’s the part he does it for. That’s the part that excites him. Because it’s interesting.
And much like him, almost all of Ranpo Kitan’s characters have a thing in common: They have a screw loose or two. Sometimes even three. Welcome to sociopaths and psychopaths as they roam around freely in our mundane society. Some of them commit the most horrendous crimes. Here’s a work that is utterly perverted and tasteless on purpose and oftentimes, there isn’t a single sane soul on screen. And the craziness doesn’t just end at the characters.
That this is the anime’s intention becomes quite obvious from the very beginning on: Just take the autopsy segments – instead of delivering information through the dry means of verbal exposition, Ranpo Kitan opts for a screechy, utterly unprofessional girl telling you in comedic clips how the victim was killed by performing the murders on her talking doll Corpsey, several times even addressing for which episode she’ll make a return. Once again, forget about what you know in regards to traditional mystery fiction.
All this happens in the veins of the source materials’ eroguro roots. But Ranpo Kitan does well in merely appealing to those roots instead of faithfully copying the many original stories. I’m sure they could have adapted those stories faithfully but purposely decided not to do so. What was shocking back then from the stories of Edogawa Ranpo turned out to be a revolutionary concept in Japanese literature but here we are in 2015’s anime landscape, times have changed and conclusively, there wouldn’t have been much of a point to adapt these stories faithfully. Old shock has been transcended and is well-trodden ground so we need something new that doesn’t fail to disturb today’s audiences. So here we are, with a modern setting and teenagers. Even Kishi himself stated in an interview that they wanted to shock the audience. And what better way to do so than point at society’s misfits?
Ranpo Kitan also never really attempts to be realistic, down-to-earth and sometimes doesn’t take itself too seriously. And with the aforementioned autopsy bits, slapstick segments like a lolita teacher with cat ears jumping out of a closed window or random mooks falling from the sky much like in a side-scrolling Beat ‘Em Up, that should be fairly obvious.
Elevating the overall experience by leaps and bounds, the direction supports the craziness. Surprisingly stylistic, at times utterly sublime, occasionally abstract, sometimes loaded with symbolism and generally speaking quite nice to look at, taking inspirations from stage plays, this one no doubt sticks with you. Yet why Ranpo Kitan ended up being well-directed is utterly beyond me. Kishi isn’t exactly regarded as a capable director by many outside of his comedy anime repertoire. Apart from that, the general notion tends to be that he did best with his Romeo Tanaka adaptations (AURA/JinTai) where he did “an okay job”. Yuuki Yuuna: Yuusha no Shou’s finale comes to mind with how aesthetically brilliant it turned out to be. But apart from that? I’m clueless. Bonus points on the weirdness scale here go to how he didn’t even touch a single episode of Ranpo Kitan. Maybe that’s the trick? All I can guess is that the stars aligned right and the material at hand brought forth enough inspiration to regard it as competency. Like how Shigofumi or Boogiepop Phantom have amazing directing and neither of their directors ever even managed to be anywhere as good again.
In short, Ranpo Kitan is quite a transformative effort dedicated not to the many but the few. This is reflected in its reception, specifically in the West, although that comes with a lack of knowledge from people. I have seen far too many comments that Ranpo Kitan is a disgrace as a mystery story and the original author would be ashamed of the freakshow going on here, spoken by people who have never read any of his stories. And would you look at that, in actuality, plenty of his tales aren’t detective mysteries either and very much do feature all of the tasteless things Ranpo Kitan has to offer.
Admittedly, I have only read a short story collection of his so by all means and purposes, I’m not going to declare myself an authority figure on the subject matter but two of the stories featured in Ranpo Kitan were present for that one. To give you a better idea of how these adaptations diverge in plot but not in spirit, let me give you an example: The original version of The Human Chair tells a story of a letter written to an author from a very unsociable chairmaker in ardent love with her books. At one point, he starts building a chair he fits into and takes great pleasure in literally becoming a human chair. He goes to great lengths and excruciating detail to describe his relationship with the people sitting in his chair and the lust and desires he felt as a result. As it turns out, it’s the chair of said author reading this very letter. Until another letter arrives anyway, telling the author it was all just a short story he wanted to impress her with. Ranpo Kitan, meanwhile, turns this into a two-parter wherein a teacher ends up as a dismembered human chair, a passion both the culprit and victim share and the act of turning people into chairs is recognized as an expression of love. There was no murder case in the original and the anime certainly didn’t add the perversion to it. This is inhowfar Ranpo Kitan is “inspired by, yet not adapted from”.
However, while lots of the complaints launched against Ranpo Kitan are utter bogus, it’s not like the show is without its numerous faults: Its more gimmicky characters are vastly underused, the comedy episode was horrendous and I can’t say I took a lot away from Hikaru Sakurai’s (of Steampunk fame and would you look at that, Kerneter is apparently still in production) island two-parter. I also wouldn’t call most of the characters above functional tools for the plot. They largely represent certain concepts and that’s the extent of them. And while I do believe that this anime has things to say, at times in quite the visionary manner, it’s admittedly also quite intellectually lazy and one-sided in its portrayal of things at times. When it intentionally goes for the low, it doesn’t always succeed in doing it smartly.
The show also only really demonstrates its true colors starting from episode 9 onwards. Without the context of what the anime is going for, many of the individual episodes lack both punch and cleverness.
But I very much do love what this anime does and so I can begrudgingly come to terms with the aforementioned since this is a show that offers me plenty of the unorthodox: A very intriguing question in Ranpo Kitan boils down to “How do you see others? What do they look like to you?” – and Kobayashi sees others as silhouettes. Only when he notices the cutting marks on his teacher’s wrists does the silhouette overlaying her appearance disappear and he starts to take an interest in her – and deems her a human being. This is the kind of anime we’re talking here.
In its last few episodes, Ranpo Kitan sets out to cover a really intriguing topic: The discrimination against the weak. If you’ve seen Shigofumi’s fantastic episode on bullying, let’s just say that it goes there and beyond. Namikoshi, the antagonist, starts to mobilize the victims of society. Since for too long, the weak have endured and this has been established as a situation that just can’t be fixed.
The weak, however, will uprise. And society won’t see it coming, nor know how to deal with it. And as it turns out, the weak are everywhere. The central antagonist therefore gives a voice to those who were never heard before. And these voices are fuming.
And suddenly, those normal people oppressed on a regular basis who we take for granted suddenly become very capable of committing crimes themselves. In its last few episodes, Ranpo Kitan’s lunatics are no longer the ones who were never quite sane to begin with but your common man with a grudge kept far too long, ready to unleash it all and society’s repressed voices turn into an uproar.
I don’t intend to write about this in detail as it’s the last and easily best part of the show, the one where it all comes together but it left a lasting impression on me. The point is that Ranpo Kitan, until the very end, weaves its tales about those who do not fit into society – deviants so to speak. It’s grotesque and crude, offensive and repulsive on purpose, it’s a provocateur anime if you will. And so much better at it than the similar Nanika Mochigattemasu ka.
So to say that Ranpo Kitan isn’t an anime for everyone is an understatement; it’s an anime barely made for anyone. It’s largely considered as one of the worst anime in recent years in Western fandom.
Which brings me to my conclusion that, the end of the day, most folks will still never come to appreciate Ranpo Kitan. Only very, very few will. So all I can say is that if you like Ranpo Kitan, much like with its characters, there’s probably something wrong with you. So welcome to a statistical minority of wackos. As it turns out, we’re here to stay.
Final Verdict: Good.