Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace is a strange creation. Based off the work of famous Japanese author Edogawa Rampo (Yes, that is how Americans spell his last name. It goes against the title of the show, I know) and airing on the high profile Noitamina block on Fuji TV, this show’s concept and ideas seem to scream out that it’s a passion project. After all, that’s what most Noitamina shows are: high concept works made by experimental creators. However, one look at the staff and that image will be immediately wiped from your mind. Seiji Kishi as director? Makoto Uezu on series composition? Now, while I think these two get a lot more flack than they deserve, I think it’s still pretty safe to say their output has been mixed in quality (Humanity has Declined, Danganronpa). Still, I kept my hopes up and went in optimistic, and came out pretty torn on what to think. Ranpo Kitan may not be the trainwreck I was dreading it to be, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a few very crippling flaws.
Now, I’m going to be honest, Ranpo Kitan is mostly noteworthy for just how much missed potential it has. At it’s core, the story follows Kobayashi, a feminine high school boy who one day gets his life turned upside down when he wakes up in front of his teacher’s dead body. Instead of being frightened or traumatized though, Kobayashi decides to solve the case himself, dragging along his loyal friend Hashiba with him. Soon they end up in the lair of Akechi, the mastermind detective present in almost all of Edogawa Rampo’s stories (Though in this version he’s a high school student), and Akechi agrees to accept Kobayashi’s help in future cases if he can solve this case entirely on his own.
Admittedly speaking, that premise probably doesn’t sound too interesting, but in execution there are a lot of little touches in the presentation and writing that make Kobayashi’s attitude and surroundings very suspicious. For one thing he seems completely unaffected by his teacher’s death. The first thing he does when he wakes up is think, “Finally, my days of boredom are over,” which is something no normal student would ever think in that kind of situation. He’s made even more creepy by the fact that everyone around him is a mass of color until they become important to the case. Even when Kobayashi is directly speaking to someone, their character design won’t show up in full detail until they mention something about the murder. One could argue that this is merely an aesthetic choice, but I think that it’s something deeper.
Just take a look at the scene where Kobayashi confronts Hoshino, the true culprit in the teacher murder case. Not only is he still seemingly unaffected by the fact she tried to frame the murder on him, but he also mentions how he never noticed how pretty Hoshino was until this confrontation, implying that she too was nothing more than a voice in the crowd before this incident. It’s clear from these and many other moments that there is something very much wrong with Kobayashi. He may not have committed any of the murders in the two cases covered so far, but his vast intellect and upbeat demeanor suggest that he’s a sociopath on the brink of self destruction. Said idea is made even more literal by the ending animation, which shows Kobayashi falling over like a domino, only to be stopped by Hashiba. At this point, only those around him are keeping him grounded in reality.
That isn’t too say the other characters are much better. Akechi is constantly popping pills to stop his massive headaches, and in episode 3 we meet the Shadow Man, a guy who hides identity under a paper bag and worships little girls. And even those who are stable, seem utterly dismissive of Kobayashi’s disturbing behavior. It’s this dynamic tightrope act of character psychology that makes up the best parts of Ranpo Kitan. Watching Kobayashi fall further and further into the world of crime, while the others around him stand around in shock is extremely intriguing and suspenseful. It’s just too bad the show’s so tonally awkward and unfocused!
Both the writing and direction here are extremely messy, sometimes clashing tonally, and other times working very well together. Most of the time though the show clunkily shifts the focus of the narrative, occasionally zeroing in on Kobayashi and other times trying to hook you with the episode’s main mystery plotline. Now this would be fine in theory, but the big problem is that the detective cases here are delivered terribly. Not because they have bad concepts, no I think the concepts are great on paper, they’re bad because there is simply no mystery to any of these investigations. By the end of every case Kobayashi explains everything, with no buildup, no suspense, just an over the top exposition scene. Sure, it follows the typical mystery story structure well enough, but when your main character somehow seems to know the answers to every question you have, it’s hard to enjoy these plotlines.
This would be fine if the show was more of a focused character study of Kobayashi and the criminals, but it isn’t. It wants the mysteries to be a core part of the series, and it doesn’t gel. Technically speaking, this show does have some rather good direction here, using a lot of campy spotlight effects and dramatic flare to make these Kobayashi exposition scenes a lot easier to like than they should be. But that still doesn’t really make these sections of the story any more interesting. Another thing that makes these scenes even worse is the terribly inserted comedy; like when Akechi telling Kagami that he has a sister complex, or the over the top anime homeroom teacher who wears cat ears.
In spite of these issues though, I find it kind of hard to hate Ranpo Kitan. Sure, it’s focus and tone are pretty messy at points, but I can’t help but be intrigued by some of its characters. The exploration of Shadow Man’s motives in episode three is very watchable, and seeing Kobayashi collaborate with him by dressing up as a little girl is creepy and shows just how far both will go to capture the episode’s culprit. There are moments like this scattered throughout these episodes, but for every good moment there’s usually a poorly executed one. Like any other kind of bad Noitamina show though, I’ll stick to it until the end. It may be a mess, but it’s an enjoyable and interesting one nonetheless.