This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.
“And thus, did my dizzying tale of adventure with Siesta begin….
Until death did us part.”
It may be difficult now, but try to think back to the opening week of this anime season. Alongside a number of rightly-hyped premiers by anime everyone kinda expected to be good, there was the comparatively obscure The Detective is Already Dead. Tantei wa mou, Shindeiru, as it’s known in its native Japanese, had, alongside heavyweights like Sonny Boy and the second season of Magia Record, one of the most promising premieres of the season. Said premiere, “Attention Passengers: Is There a Detective On Board?”, combined witty dialogue, a gonzo, very capital-A Anime set of central conceits, a truly impressive fight sequence, and one of the season’s best and, let’s be honest, simply coolest characters, the titular detective, into an entertaining stew that had a lot of potential. (Full disclosure; I may have a soft spot for “basically Sherlock Holmes, but an anime girl” as a character idea.)
The episode ran through the need-to-knows with the lightning speed and self-confidence of a pulp novel. The secret organization SPES and their army of cyborgs are threatening the world! It’s up to our hero, the legendary detective Siesta, and her straight-laced assistant Kimihiko “Kimi” Kimizuka to stop them! It opens a mile in the air during a plane hijacking and ends in a high school, our leads pulling a drug bust on a dealer in a bunny costume. Capping it all off was a wildly romantic sequence at the episode’s tail end, followed by the header quote in the closing narration to hit us with the emotional coup de grace. Our hero’s been dead the entire time! How will her heartbroken assistant carry on without her? It remains one of the year’s single best episodes, and nothing else I am about to say can or is trying to change that. Episode directors Shin’ichi Fukumoto and Marina Maki should be proud.
I bring all this up not to belabor a point, but to make it clear that, yes, there was a period of time–however brief–when people thought this might be, at the very least, one of the season’s better anime. Twelve weeks on, where its reputation is somewhere between “trainwreck” and “widely-dropped laughingstock” that can seem hard to believe, but it’s true. On one level, the answer to the question “what went wrong?” is extremely simple; none of those strengths remained present for the remainder of the series, and some dropped off earlier than others. But on another, Detective is a downright fascinating case of a show almost systematically undercutting itself at every turn. Detective started falling apart as early as its second episode, and despite some intermittent highlights throughout, it never really recovered either.
We can start by making one thing very clear. Detective‘s problems do not stem from its premise. They’re certainly not helped by it, but it is very possible to tell the story of a life in the past tense. To focus on what the bygone has left behind, to examine how the people around them move on or how they fail to move on. Detective doesn’t entirely fumble this, but it misses more often than it hits. In fact, its handling of this premise reminds me of nothing less than the largely-forgotten Blast of Tempest, which had many of the same issues for some of the same reasons. The core problem is simple; if the central character of your show is dead or otherwise MIA in the present day, she needs a very strong supporting cast. And Siesta, like that show’s Fuwa Aika, simply does not have one. She is a compelling character in search of a compelling anime. It is largely her who renders the show watchable at all, as all the other characters are so underdeveloped that she appears deep as the ocean by contrast.
Instead, she gets Kimi, who to his limited credit, does work out an entertaining straight man / weird girl dynamic with Siesta. They form a fun duo much like their archetypal ancestors (say, Kyon and Haruhi) did.
Yes that’s still Siesta in the top image. Listen, just roll with it.
There is also Nagisa, Siesta’s replacement, who is in almost every sense a much less engaging character, but who has the benefit of being the recipient of a heart transplant from none other than the late detective herself to at least arouse some mystery. The remaining characters are so thin that they are barely worth mentioning. There’s a chuuni-ish idol complete with an eyepatch (Yui Saikawa), an ambiguous foreigner with some ill-defined relationship to Siesta (Charlotte Anderson), and a mysterious child (Alicia) who turns out to secretly be the evil mastermind (Hel) in disguise / assuming another personality / something, it doesn’t really matter.
The fact that the episode where an idol pulls a revolver on the main character is one of the less interesting ones is not a great sign.
This lopsidedness of the cast ends up directly informing the episodes. As a general rule of thumb, those that center on Siesta and Kimi tend to be either genuinely good, even if only in a cheesy sort of way, or at least bad in a funny way. Those that focus on other characters are much less interesting. Sometimes they’re flat-out boring, which is a far worse crime than being ridiculous.
Beyond that, on a narrative level the show makes very little sense. The actual story is very simple, cataloging Siesta and Kimi’s attempts to take down SPES. And later, Kimi’s retirement from ‘detective’ work and eventual resumption of that same goal again, this time with Nagisa. But the show’s structure is so bizarre that it can be difficult to follow any of this. Why, for example, if the show’s central conceit is that Siesta is dead, does a huge chunk of it take place as flashback to when she was alive? These stories being told in this fashion adds nothing to the show. It makes it marginally more confusing to follow, but deliberate obfuscation is not the same as actually being interesting.
Something like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Princess Principal is aired non-chronologically because in those cases, the approach helps develop the sort of story they’re trying to tell. (In the former case, Kyon and Haruhi’s emotional arc takes precedence over the literal events of the series. In the latter case, it is to build up mystery and selectively feed the audience information.) No such thing is true of Detective‘s clumsy halfway flashback deep-dive. And the fact that they are some of the show’s better episodes feels more like a happy accident than anything deliberate. It’d feel like course correction given the widespread but misguided criticism of the premise if that were how anime production worked. But it isn’t, so what gives?
And what to make of the show’s utterly baffling organ transplant motif? Organs, namely hearts, transferring ownership comes up some three times over the course of the series, which is too often in a show this short to simply be happenstance. And let me make an aside here, folks, I’m not professionally trained as a critic, so I’m certainly guilty of occasionally missing things more properly literate sorts would pick up on. But I am a thinking human being, and it’s rare that I just come up completely empty when rattling a metaphor around in my brain. I have no idea what it could possibly mean. None of the possibilities I’ve come up with–the perseverance of love? Specifically the strength of Siesta and Kimi’s relationship? Some hamfisted ‘people close to each other should help each other’ thing? A religious symbol?–hold up to scrutiny. I am left to conclude that it is either a very malformed metaphor or it simply isn’t one at all. In the latter case, why is it in the show at all?
That may seem like a minor point, but the same lack of purpose applies to many decisions made throughout the series. Elements like Yui’s job as an idol, the very fact that the antagonists are shapeshifting cyborgs, a weird micro-plot about priceless jewelry and another about a serial killer, the entire character of Hel, the fact that Siesta has a mecha(?!) at one point, even the series’ gratuitous Spanish subtitle, and the anticipated-and-then-quickly-forgotten cameo by Hololive virtual talents Matsuri Natsuiro and Fubuki Shirakami, seem like they were made less for any real reason and more simply because, well, they’re Cool. Or they’re the sorts of things that are “supposed” to be in light novels.
English-language info is sparse, but the case appears to be that Detective is the first-ever published novel by its author, Nigojuu, which may explain some of the amateurishness here. Or, maybe it’s the other way around! Studio ENGI are not exactly a powerhouse, perhaps they butchered the material. Maybe the light novel’s defenders are right and all this somehow does make more sense in book form. Hell, maybe it’s somehow both at once.
All this said, even with its frankly many flaws in mind, I can’t really hate or even actively dislike Detective. It has too many actually-solid moments and too many bad-in-a-funny way moments to have burned its goodwill from that first episode away entirely. A harsher viewer may write such things off, but I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy a decent chunk of the show, even in spite of all its problems.
That, and there is that Detective does get one thing right. Especially towards its end. Sometimes, people we’ve known all our lives can disappear like a dream at sunrise. Sometimes too, we do not even get the chance to say goodbye. This is the sole emotional string the anime manages to play correctly, and even then it’s oddly stingy about it. But aside from Siesta’s strength as a character, it is this that saves the show from being a total loss.
As an even mildly adventurous anime watcher, you expect to take a gamble on some amount of shows that end up not exactly being amazing. Detective is, by any reasonable metric, middling, rather than outright awful. But that doesn’t make it good. Which puts it in a strange nowhere-zone, both in terms of relevance and in terms of simple quality. This is another of this year’s anime that will absolutely not survive the march of history, mentioned as it will be only as a curio or a “hey, do you remember that show with….?” answer. At best, perhaps some of the staff will go on to bigger and better things. In which case it will be an amusing trivial footnote. Call it a victim of the production bubble, call it just poorly-conceived. It is impossible to imagine Detective outside of this present time and place; mid-to-late 2021 specifically. It’s a born relic.
Yet, strangely, from a certain (and I’ll admit, uncommon) point of view, that gives it its own kind of hopeless underdog charm. The show itself only just barely manages to scrap together something out of its primary theme of transience (and all else it attempts falls resoundingly flat, make no mistake), but in a meta sort of way, Detective is an ode to its own transience. Here for twelve weeks and then forgotten, as though it simply scattered into light the moment it ended. Like it was never there at all.
It’s one of the great mysteries of popular art. Sometimes something that is utterly mediocre will, just for a moment, capture the public imagination or make visible an inner light, only for that light to be snuffed out almost immediately. Such is the case with Detective‘s few true highlights. It is one of the great enigmas of our species’ collective creativity. As such, one would be tempted to ask a great problem-solver, perhaps one like Siesta herself, what to make of it.
But of course, such a thing is impossible. After all, the detective is already dead.
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