“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.
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!