“The series is not simply about capturing criminals and righting injustice, but about resolving conflict and negotiating a complex web of social relationships to bring about harmonious resolutions – even if this sometimes involves letting someone who is criminally or morally culpable go free or, more likely, allowing them to commit suicide rather than face capture.”

- Ian MacDonald, “Introduction” (from The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi)

Un-Go is in a strange place as a detective show.  Western observers are dissatisfied – the mysteries are flimsy, they’re predictable, and worst of all, there’s a character who always solves some important question through magic!  How infuriating!  And rightfully so, if you’ve been raised on the deductive Holmesian school of tantei shosetsu.

But listen up, gumshoes.  There’s more to be uncovered.

This show is remarkably cosplay/merchandise-friendly.


Un-Go is a loose adaptation of a collection of stories by Sakaguchi Ango, called Meiji Kaika Ango Torimonocho, or Tales of Crime in the Meiji Era (more accurately, “Ango’s (Criminal) Case Files of Meiji Civilization” – but that’s horrid).  By writing historical crime fiction, Ango followed a tradition that traces back to Japan in the 1910s and 1920s, when readers were enthralled by Okamoto Kido’s stories of the “Japanese Sherlock Holmes,” Inspector Hanshichi.

Hanshichi mysteries are… different.  The author took heavy inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle, but Kido’s great detective is no deductive mastermind: He solves cases through social connections and hard footwork, and he isn’t shy about using rough methods.  (In one tale, he threatens to beat a kid with his police truncheon.)  At first read, these cases don’t have the same primal, left-brain satisfaction of western mystery fiction.  Culprits come out of nowhere.  People confess to their crimes out of pressure, long before the evidence is stacked against them.

But it isn’t that the stories are inferior.  Rather, I’d say that The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi – and the Japanese mystery fiction that it inspired, like Ango’s – isn’t so much about solving cases than it is about illuminating human nature through crime.  The detective, then, is a societal magnifying glass.


Western fiction does this too, of course (especially since the heyday of “hard-boiled” detective stories in the 1950s).  But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the very crux of Un-Go is Inga: a creature who has the power to literally force out the truth, who says outright that she exists in this world because she wants to know what stuff we’re made of.  She destroys mystery, yes, but it’s in pursuit of the elusive human spirit.

The mysteries may be weak, but Un-Go has hit the ground running with its character dynamics since the first episode.  And judging by the complex social webs that are now in place, this is where the show will shine.  This is why we should be watching.  I find it quite a thrill!

I look deep into your heart and soul
Make your wildest dreams come true
I got voodoo, I got hoodoo, I got things I ain’t even tried
And I’ve got friends on the other side
- Dr. Facilier, “Friends on the Other Side”

If there’s anything to learn from Dr. Faustus, it’s that sorcery is one big con job.

A confidence man isolates a mark.  He makes them feel like they’re committing a crime, or at least doing something that they can’t tell anyone about.  Then he tricks them out of something precious.  A conman could, for example, pretend that he’s been hit by someone’s car and demand a few hundred dollars “just to cover hospital fees,” which they’ll gladly pay over facing the risk of penalty.  Or how about the Nigerian Letter?

In the very best con games, the mark doesn’t even realize they’re being conned.  They think in some small way that their prayers have been answered.  At least for a while.

In the world of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, magical girls become what they are by contracting with a supernatural patron, who bestows upon them a jewel containing their powers.  To maintain these jewels, magical girls must periodically sacrifice enemies called witches and use their “grief seeds.”  Combined with the many onscreen Goethe quotes, the devil’s deal theme is fairly explicit here.

But I’m also noticing that this system is an economy in miniature, with grief seeds as the resource and magical girls as the consumers.  Mami, the mentor figure, has already stated that this relationship between their power and their prey causes competition among magical girls.

So why go out of one’s way to recruit more?  Mami is making this too easy.  She says that this is dangerous work, but she neatly shields the girls from danger when they go on their practice run.  And in any case, all that the girls can think about is the wish that comes with their contract.  Become a magical girl, and you can make any dream come true!  How amazing!

It distracts them.  But of course it does.

Here’s what I think: The tea-sipping, ever-confident Mami is going to use her initial kindness and “you’re making this choice for yourself” sales pitch to lure Madoka into… something.  The girls are rubes, and the other shoe will eventually drop, but how badly off they will be depends on what’s really at stake.  That is, the real resource in this struggle may not be energy as such, but the information about where exactly that energy comes from.


She's got friends on the other side.

To put it another way, we need to keep asking: What are grief seeds made of? Because if the answer is “the broken dreams of magical girls,” then this affair takes on a whole new dimension of wrongness.

Further reading

Ten of the most famous confidence games, for your reading pleasure.

A thoughtful post from THAT Anime Blog about how lonely it all is.


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