Matt Kamen on the futuristic investigations of Un-Go
In the wake of a devastating war, Japan rebuilds. Yet there are still heinous crimes that go unsolved. Luckily, Un-Go offers up a private detective with very specialised talents!
There’s no shortage of detective stories in anime – be it the likes of long-time favourite Shinichi Kudo in Detective Conan, an anthropomorphised Sherlock Holmes in Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Sherlock Hound or more recent fare such as Gosick. Fictional heroes Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot even got animated, in the decidedly odd 2004 series, Agatha Christie's Great Detectives Poirot and Marple!
However, the genre does tend to repeat itself, much the same as British or American crime procedural shows do. Un-Go subtly addresses this by setting its largely episodic tales in a Japan that’s only a scant few years removed from a serious war. Although the government has reformed and society is on the mend, the tensions that lead to the civil conflict are never far from the surface. Indeed, many of the crimes we see are committed by people formerly or presently involved with one of the factions
Whatever the mystery, you can be sure to find Shinjurou Yuuki and his bizarre assistant Inga investigating it afterwards. Known as the ‘Defeated Detective’, Shinjurou is an unassuming figure, often blending into the background of any scene as he quietly pieces together clues. Inga, in comparison, is persistently bouncy and excitable. Dressing as if he’s on his way to a convention, wearing what looks like a panda bear cosplay, Inga has a few strange tricks up her sleeve. And no, describing Inga as both male and female isn’t a mistake, but we won’t spoil exactly how that plays out!
At its heart, Un-Go is a series that asks whether it’s better to be right or be recognised. A rival detective, Kaishou, has the favour of the government (though exactly why is a mystery in and of itself, as is the reason behind Kaishou investigating crimes from afar using technological proxies), with his version of events being presented to the public as the official story. Even though Shinjurou invariably finds the truth of the matter, he remains unrecognised, disrespected and ignored – the defeated detective.
The series is loosely based on the works of early 20th century author, Ango Sakaguchi – the series even takes its name from his first name, with ‘Ango’ and Un-Go’ being phonetically similar in Japanese. Born in 1906 in Niigata, Sakaguchi lived through both world wars, coming to prominence as an essayist after Japan’s defeat in World War II. His 1946 work ‘On Decadence’ remains one of his best known. A serious piece, it explored Ango’s – birth name Heigo – views on Japanese society and how the myths surrounding Bushido had played into nationalistic propaganda during the conflict. His mystery and detective novels remain widely read and regularly lauded to this day.
Adapting those stories for a more modern audience fell to Studio BONES, and it reunited many of the creators from the original Fullmetal Alchemist to do so. Directed by Seiji Mizushima and scripted by Shou Aikawa, each episode of Un-Go takes inspiration from one of Sakaguchi’s stories, wrapping the events around Shinjurou and Inga. While largely a collection of ‘done in one’ tales, a richer narrative is clearly building through each investigation, one relating to Shinjurou’s background, Inga’s true nature and the origins of the feud between our leads and Kaishou – and as you’d expect from BONES, it looks fantastic while doing so.
Each of the eleven episodes offers a mind-bending case for Shinjurou and his growing team of allies to solve, linked by a greater mystery running throughout. With a mix of politics, conspiracies and mysticism, the short-but-punchy series offers a mature and cerebral addition to Japan’s collection of detectives.
Un-go the Complete Collection is out now on UK DVD through Manga Entertainment.