The history of both literature and television are filled with stories which revolve around great detectives, and anime is not particularly different in that regard - however, recent years have perhaps seen less focus on crime-solving geniuses (with a few exceptions, such as Gosick's Victorique), leaving plenty of room to bring some impressive mystery-resolving exploits to our screens in animated form.
Enter Un-Go, a series airing in Japan as part of Fuji Television's noitaminA programming block, and an outing based loosely upon stories from a novel by Ango Sakaguchi animated by Studio BONES. Un-Go propels us forward into a future Japan that has been torn apart by conflict and terrorism, leaving its cities in ruin and a government in power happy to use whatever means at its disposal to keep the fragile peace currently in place.
Despite this slightly futuristic setting, the core of Un-Go's largely episodic stories are very much those of normal, universal human foibles, be they greed, jealousy or family rivalries. Into this world are thrown our unlikely duo of protagonists - the quiet, unassuming detective Yuuki Shinjurou (who has a Doctor Who-like ability of just happening to find himself embroiled in murder mysteries) and his child-like, excitable and decidedly oddly dressed partner in crime-solving Inga. This pair aren't the only detectives on the block however, as they constantly find themselves locking horns with the government's own legend in the realm of solving mysteries, Rinroku Kaishou, who happily solves cases from the confines of his own home using the technology available to him.
The rivalry between Shinjurou and Kaishou is just one of the twists deployed by Un-Go, with the real reason behind the two individual's particular reputations unveiled in the first episode as a spring-board to the progress and payload of subsequent investigations, while Inga also proves to be far more than simply comic relief and/or cuteness as he goes on to play a pivotal role in each case. In short, Inga has a couple of decidedly interesting abilities, neither of which I'll spoil for you here but one of which is incredibly important to Shinjurou's investigative potential - it's a gimmick which occasionally threatens to destabilise the flow and mystery-building of the series, but in the episodes aired so far it just about manages to get away with its trickery without ruining anything.
As for the show's murder mysteries themselves, these opening instalments of Un-Go have delivered a mixed bag - the first episode's story of a major political figure at the centre of a scandal which ultimately costs him his life plays out in a rather predictable fashion, saved only by its aforementioned twists, while episode two takes on a story which makes far better use of its near-future setting in a tale of censorship, Vocaloid-esque virtual divas and a real-life singer with a desperate desire for her voice to be heard. As of episode three, the series deviates from its episodic structure by serving up a mystery which will run into episode four, giving Shinjurou and Inga's investigation a little more time to breathe while delighting in a revelation at the end of the instalment that amuses as much as it surprises.
Un-Go's handling of each episode is quite impressive in some ways - it manages to cram a lot of characters and plot into each episode, simply naming and labelling individuals on-screen as it goes (which can prove tricky when matched with English subtitles!) rather than working introductions into the dialogue. The busy nature of each story threatens to create an information over-load for the viewer but largely handles its scenarios well enough to avoid too much confusion. Each story wraps up nicely and makes good use of the particulars of its socio-political setting to create arguably the biggest strength of the series to date.
On the other hand, this break-neck presentation may frustrate fans of traditional murder-mystery stories - there's little room for the viewer to watch proceedings and try and deduce the killer for themselves, as we're never presented with sufficient information or a wide enough view of what has gone on to put the pieces together, leaving us simply as passengers until Shinjurou comes along and explains it all for us. The series is clearly not targeting itself as a "whodunnit" series, so this is more of a warning to those hoping for such an anime rather than an outright criticism.
In general, Un-Go's opening gambits are an intriguing blend of elements that succeed more often than they fail - the implications of its setting are woven wonderfully into its tales to add an all-important extra layer of depth to the series, while its pitting of detectives with very different objectives in mind similarly ensures that the series offers more than just mysteries followed by their resolutions. All of this is wrapped up in a package that stands out quite nicely visually, accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack right the way through to its opening and ending themes.
The only real question mark hanging over the series is whether it can continue to offer up suitably strong mysteries at its core - there's a danger of pursuing overly formulaic stories here to detract from its more innovative elements, but provided it can avoid those pitfalls we'll be looking forward to seeing how Un-Go develops, especially now that a physical release in the UK has been confirmed for the future.
You can currently watch Un-Go in streaming form via Anime on Demand.