An anime show from studio BONES by director Seiji Mizushima and writer Shou Aikawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame...how could that possibly disappoint? And yet, Un-Go seems to fall short of the slam dunk that it ought to be. This 2011 series is chock full of promise with plenty of positive elements on its side. In fact, that's part of the problem. This show has so much going on that it doesn't know how to coordinate all of its moving parts into a working whole.
The setting is a near future post-war Japan that has turned into a bit of a police state thanks to the constant threat of terrorism. Our protagonist is Shinjurou Yuuki who goes by the moniker of the Defeated Detective. Besides being quite deflating, the nickname is also patently false because Shinjurou isn't defeated as much as he is ignored, on top of which he barely qualifies as a detective. Don't get me wrong; he's tenacious and certainly cares about uncovering the truth but it hardly seems fair to burden him with uncommon deductive skills when he's got a secret weapon named Inga.
Inga is a strange little creature that usually appears as a little boy but transforms into a voluptuous woman when the occasion calls for it. While Inga the little boy provides plenty of comic relief, Inga the busty lady has a much more direct impact on Shinjurou's cases. You see, when Inga assumes her female form and asks someone a question, that person has no choice but to answer it truthfully. Now, of course Shinjurou has to help narrow down what the question should be but you have to admit Inga's Deus Ex Machina power is a nice one to have in his back pocket. In exchange for services rendered, Inga gets to consume parts of the person's soul (yum).
Butting heads with Shinjurou throughout the show is Chairman Rinroku Kaishou, a reclusive government consultant who likes to play amateur detective even though he often knows more than he's letting on. This leads to a number of confrontations where he will solve a case at the same time as Shinjurou but bury the truth in favor of maintaining appearances. Since Rinroku's cover story obfuscates the truth as discovered by Shinjurou, our lead is considered the defeated detective. At least Rinroku's daughter, Rie, usually knows what's going on and supports Shinjurou.
With the main rivalry of Shinjurou and Rinroku in place, we can turn our attention to the mysteries themselves. They range from ho-hum one-and-done stories to multi-episode arcs that can be quite complex (sometimes needlessly so). Of the 11 episodes, roughly a third of them are dedicated to Killer of the Week tales. While they do a good job of immersing us in the post war political terrain that our characters inhabit, the mysteries themselves aren't that riveting. Somebody dies, Shinjurou comes up with a theory, Inga asks the question that can't be denied, the Killer is found out...effective but hardly thrilling. Far more engaging are the stories that have the space to spread themselves out over 2-3 episodes.
The first multi-episode tale involves Shinjurou investigating the fiery death of a young man who may have been afflicted with a familial curse. Besides having a thorny mystery at its heart, this story pulls double-duty by introducing another key character, Kazamori, who ends up joining Shinjurou's crew. I don't want to describe Kazamori here for fear of spoiling the show's reveal of her identity but let's just say that she comes across as yet another ace up Shinjurou's sleeve. Any detective with Inga and Kazamori on their side who couldn't solve a case should probably just call it quits.
The next major arc is a slightly odd one that features Shinjurou wandering around a manufactured reality which gets sullied by a very real murder. Although a bit confusing at first, this mystery has the benefit of being anchored by a very strong villain. His demeanor is quite menacing but he lacks motive until one realizes that standing in his shadow is an even more malevolent entity, one that isn't quite human. This sets the show up nicely for the final trio of episodes that put Shinjurou on the spot as he is hired by Rie to prove Rinroku's innocence in an act of domestic terrorism. All the loose ends are tied up nicely (if a bit hastily) as even Inga gets in on the action in some unexpected ways.
If that sounds like a lot of characters inhabiting fairly dense material, it's because 11 episodes simply aren't enough to contain what the show has to offer. Mizushima and Aikawa have crammed a lot in here and it shows when episodes repeatedly feature on-screen text introducing the characters as if to say "you probably know who this is but who could blame you if you didn't". While demanding a great deal of attention from the viewer (not a negative itself), the overall effect is a bit exhausting and frustrating when the payoff doesn't seem commensurate. Since most of the mysteries are resolved without any effect on the status quo as Rinroku gets his way and Shinjurou lives to be defeated another day, the building tension never bubbles over.
Besides the rushed nature of the show, my other major complaint relates to the character of Shinjurou himself. I'm guessing Aikawa was going for dark and brooding but Shinjurou mostly comes across as emotionless and dull. If it weren't for Inga and Kazamori, he would be a real drag to follow around. Anchoring a show to a lead like that takes its toll on the emotional investment of viewers. Whenever the show works, it does so despite Shinjurou and hardly ever because of him. The same sentiment applies to the overall series. It is most engaging when Mizushima and Aikawa get out of their own way and just tell a solid whodunit. As it stands, the dense plotting overloads the show by often crossing the line between complex and confusing.
The show was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The 11 episodes of the show were split over 2 discs while the 3rd disc was reserved for extras. Even though the first 2 discs each carried 5-6 episodes, I didn't notice any compression artifacts. The image was clean and vividly conveyed the bright, vibrant colors of the show. The slender clean-line character designs also came through with clarity. I don't think viewers will find too much to complain about regarding the presentation.
The audio was presented in a choice of Japanese or English Dolby Digital Stereo tracks with optional English subtitles. I chose to view half the episodes with the Japanese 2.0 track and found it to be lively and clear. This is a dialogue-heavy show so it was good to see the character voices come through with clarity. I viewed the other half of the episodes with the English dub and found it to be equally capable. I often find dubs to be grating but here the voice acting was of admirably high quality. Of special note is the ending theme, "Fantasy" by LAMA, which has a glitchy haunting quality.
Fans of the show have a lot to look forward to as this release by Sentai Filmworks is loaded with extra features. First off, we have an entire 50 minute OVA titled Episode 0: Chapter of Inga which proves to be an origin story, laying out how Shinjurou and Inga first met and came to work together. It's a compelling tale with interesting supernatural elements. The longer run time also gives the material enough breathing room to develop quite naturally.
This is followed by Un-Go "All Night" Event (28:10) which offers up director Mizushima and writer Aikawa being interviewed by a group of fans. Both explore their working relationship and general process with mirth and candor. There is a great deal of discussion regarding specific episodes of the show so folks should probably hold off on watching this until they've viewed the entire series.
A Japanese Promotion Video "Retake" (3:21) simply puts still images to music while Chapter of Inga Alternate Opening (0:31) is exactly what is sounds like...short and inconsequential. Inga Nikki (3:43) is a series of playful 15 second shorts featuring cutesy versions of our lead and his sidekick. After you get past the jarring difference in animation style, these are actually quite fun.
A Conversation with Ango Sakaguchi (22:13) should be correctly called A Conversation about Ango Sakaguchi considering the famous Japanese novelist, whose mystery stories inspired the show, passed away in 1955. In any case, Shou Aikawa sits down for a Q&A that is quite literate and informative. He discusses the detective stories that he grew up with and the anti-establishment elements that were featured in Sakaguchi's work. He also covers how specific themes were translated and updated to be relevant in a modern anime.
We close things out with Japanese Spots (14:35) for the show in addition to Clean Opening and Closing Animation.
Un-Go has a great deal going on in its 11 episode run. It's a shame that the compressed runtime leaves it feeling rushed and overstuffed. Not helping matters is the uninteresting lead character who does little to earn our emotional investment. The fact that the show still manages to entertain despite these stumbling blocks is a testament to Seiji Mizushima and Shou Aikawa's ambition. Although the show isn't entirely successful, it certainly works in short bursts. Rent It.