Television detectives can be loosely categorised into two camps. The first is the gruff, “too old for this shit” type drowning their sorrows in stiff liquor. The other is the kooky wunderkind, sporting an intimidating intellect and usually sitting somewhere on the spectrum. While the former often prioritises immediate action and brute force, the latter draws on deduction and a meticulous attention to the minutiae of criminality. Anime and manga are awash with gifted detectives – from Conan to L – but where do their origins lie, and what is it about mysteries that keeps audiences captivated?
Most historical sources point to Edgar Allan Poe as the father of the literary detective, laying much of the groundwork for other authors to follow. It took Poe all of three stories to cement staple tropes such as the locked-room mystery and the amateur detective, as well as the portraying the procedures of interrogation and interviewing witnesses, solving unsolved murders, planting false clues… and the list goes on. These narrative conceits remained genre mainstays for centuries, and still circle the primordial soup of storytelling with the locked room mystery memorably played out in A-1 Pictures’ adaption of the 1996 novel The Perfect Insider. It’s difficult picking any one of Poe’s contributions as greater than the other, but perhaps it’s his talented-but-eccentric sleuth trope which has had one of the greatest impacts.
Among Poe’s most celebrated successors was Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for his belief in faeries and for creating the world’s most famous private consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. As well adding that distinct sense of Britishness, Conan Doyle expanded on the eccentric troubled genius as detective character, and Holmes seemed to operate on an entirely different level to us dullards. Without having Watson as a narrator, we’d have little hope of keeping up.
Of the generation of writers that followed in Conan Doyle’s wake, none were as important to anime and manga as Japan’s own Edogawa Ranpo. Born in 1894, Ranpo (whose real name was Taro Hirai) was a key driving force not only in popularising mystery fiction in Japan, but in developing and morphing it to fit a different cultural palate. He was a staunch devotee of Western mystery authors, even taking his pseudonym from the Engrish pronunciation of the father of the detective story himself. However, it is a coming together of Conan Doyle and his fellow Japanese author Ruiko Kuroiwa that provided the springboard for Ranpo’s mystery stories to flourish.
For anime and manga fans, the name Ranpo might ring a bell for other reasons, with his oeuvre providing ample fodder for works inspired by or directly adapted from. Recent years have bought such titles as Trickster, based on his flagship Boy Detectives Club series, and Rampo Kitan: Game of Laplace, which commemorated five decades since his passing. Then there’s Detective Conan, with its main character, Edogawa Conan (but more on that later).
Yet it’s Bungo Stray Dogs, first published in manga form in 2012 and adapted into an anime four years later, which is the best series of late to tackle the great author. It does so in an especially meta way, with a super detective called Edogawa Ranpo who aides the police in solving crimes with an ability he calls ‘Super Deduction’, though it’s revealed he’s just a regular guy. The rest of the main players in the series are all named after famous mystery and crime writers, even our own Agatha Christie gets a look in. Alas, no Conan Doyle. For a deeper dive into Ranpo’s works, check out this great piece from John Spencer Reviews.
In our amnesia editorial, we explored that some of anime’s greatest detectives are endowed with eidetic memories, something Holmes possessed as part of his powers of deduction. As a literary tool, this allows a character to collate all of the evidence thus far and reference it whenever needed, as well as demonstrating their cognitive abilities. Anime and manga’s most famous use of this uber-memory is with its most eminent sleuth, Detective Conan, a character born less out of Holmes, per se, and more from the wave of mystery fever that gripped Japan in the early nineties.
The publication of the Kindaichi Case Files manga, concerning the crime solving antics of high schooler Hajime Kindaichi, sparked an interest in crime and mystery stories when it began serialisation in 1992. As one of the very earliest examples of mystery manga, certainly one concerned with terrestrial whodunits, it was leading by example and opened the floodgates for a new generation of mangaka. Among these was Gosho Aoyama who, at the height of Kindaichi Case Files’ popularity, was busy beavering away on Detective Conan. Aoyama couldn’t have predicted just how successful his teenage gumshoe was going to be when the first chapter appeared in Weekly Shonen Sunday in early 1994.
Although he was undoubtedly steeping in the success and influence of Kindaichi Case Files, Aoyama places his inspiration for Conan on Arsène Lupin, Kurosawa’s samurai epics and, unsurprisingly, Sherlock Holmes. Though their differences are myriad – Conan was transformed into a kid after being poisoned etc – ensuring that the character was more than a simple localisation of Conan Doyle’s detective extraordinaire, there are plenty of similarities in their approach to solving cases, their abilities of observation and capacity for recollection.
While only time will tell whether Detective Conan has the longevity of its inspirations, it’s clear that the series went above and beyond the mystery craze and has since become one of Japan’s longest-running manga series. Although the genre would ebb and flow, it wasn’t until the new millennium and with a modern reading of Holmes that the zeitgeist would once again be fixed on detectives.
Part of the power of Death Note is that it combines the hard-boiled quality of film noir, both American and its Japanese riposte, with the supernatural. It also offered a departure in that its principal narrator was not the detective, but rather his rival. It was as if Conan Doyle decided to set his stories from Moriarty’s point of view. Like Holmes’ arch nemesis, Light Yagami has a formidable mind, a prodigy in every conceivable aptitude. Many bloggers have argued that Light was emboldened to become Kira via the Death Note, but the note is only an instrument, it doesn’t have an agenda. Light was the pragmatic manipulator drunk on his own ego long before the macabre tome was dropped into the human realm. Gifted though he is, Light goes head to head with his equal, one L. Lawliet.
L is a distinctly modern detective, a departure from Conan, and going beyond the Victorian context of Conan Doyle. The audience is first introduced to him via a laptop where his cypher – a stylised letter ‘L’ – is emblazoned on screen. Early on we get the sense of him being so utterly engrossed in his investigations that precautions such as these must be made. L is no mere amateur, he lives entirely to serve the next case: he won’t even sit normally, as it diminishes his reasoning ability by 40 per cent, and his iconic sweet teeth serves to give the brain more calories.
While Light is able to exploit the rules of the note to leverage his own godhood, L is limited to his human intellect and methodology, superior though it is. This side of Detective Conan, L is the closest embodiment of Sherlock Holmes in his approach, namely meticulously collecting and collating the evidence and using deduction. As Holmes is wont to say, “when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth”. Here, L comes to suspect supernatural forces might be at play. Their origins bear some similarity too, in that they both demonstrated heightened reasoning and intelligence from an early age, before being discovered and ushered into detecting via another.
Conan Doyle provided scant facts about Holmes’ backstory, but what we can gather from the novels is that when Holmes was 21, he went on holiday with a college friend whose father was so impressed by his deduction skills that he suggested he become a detective. L’s background is a little darker. As a child he was found by Watari and taken to Wammy’s House, an orphanage for gifted children. L’s immense intellect was quickly apparent and he became a detective from a young, albeit unspecified age. Watari even assisted in his cases, acting as his public front.
His methodology bears more than a passing similarity to Holmes, both of whom operate outside of the law, and pursue illegal means in order to gain knowledge or to further their investigation. Both will often use whatever means necessary in order to catch the villain, be that manipulation or other questionable means. L also plays fast and loose with the truth, keeping his cards close to his chest, and largely distrusting of others. Holmes too has this quality of being among but not one of us, something that often perplexes dear Watson. If Watson has a counterpart in Death Note, it’s probably Ryuk, to whom Light explains his schemes and grand plan while the death god, like the audience, watches passively but never participates. And like us, he gets a thrill out of seeing the mystery unravel.
Mystery stories retain a special place in the Japanese consciousness, offering a repeating theme through manga and anime and capturing the public imagination. There’s no end in sight for Detective Conan, that cultural mainstay which continues to win the hearts and minds of readers. He’s even helping people in real life too, with the Japanese government using the character in 2006 to help boost crime awareness among children. And while Edgar Allan Poe inspired an impressionable Arthur Conan Doyle, who himself captivated Edogawa Ranpo and the Japanese mystery mangakas that followed, so too now is Conan inspiring the next generation of authors and possibly even detectives.