Kindaichi Case Files

It occurred to me that I’ve been missing the boat. What’s the point of being a manga columnist if I’m not going to abuse my awesome power by shamelessly plugging books I love? So here’s the first installment in an intermittent series:

Ten Things I Love About Kindaichi Case Files (Tokyopop):

By way of introduction, KCF is a mystery manga by writer Yozaburo Kanari and artist Fumiya Sato. Hajime Kindaichi is a teen-aged deductive prodigy, grandson of the famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Hajime has a genius-level IQ, but he’s an utterly indifferent student. The only time he applies his massive intellect with any enthusiasm is when a crime has been committed. He’s usually accompanied on his adventures by childhood friend Nanase Miyuki, a sweet, studious over-achiever who baffles her Type-A classmates with her loyalty to such a slacker. Another regular is Isamu Kenmochi, a detective from the Metropolitan Police Homicide Unit. Kenmochi initially bristles at Kindaichi’s interference, but the young sleuth wins him over with his amazing powers of observation and deduction.

1. Kindaichi is a terrific protagonist. Beyond his amazing investigative abilities, Kindaichi is a very believable and relatable character. His imperfections are the key, I think, and he’s got plenty. He’s lazy, a smart aleck, and given to hormonal diversions. In other words, he’s a very recognizable kind of adolescent male. At the same time, he has a keen sense of responsibility when people are in danger. In a nice reversal, Kindaichi often demonstrates more appropriate priorities than some of the professional detectives he encounters. While they get distracted by the prospect of being shown-up by a high-school kid, Kindaichi never loses track of the urgency of his investigations. He’s surprisingly compassionate, too, even trying to extend kindness and understanding to the violent and ruthless culprits he exposes.

2. The mysteries are dense, well-crafted, and suspenseful. Each story (told in individual volumes up to the tenth, and then broken down over two in the most recent) is as satisfying as a novel or movie. Kanari and Sato stack the stories with nicely developed supporting characters, offering distinct and interesting suspects (who often turn into victims). There’s great variety in the set-ups, and the creators find clever ways to create the illusion of insolubility, even as they lay down the foundations for the ultimate answer. Their ability to keep the frequently used locked-room elements fresh is particularly impressive.

3. For the thrills-and-chills voyeur, there’s plenty of gore. As a child, I spent many a Saturday morning watching episodes of Scooby Doo plagued by a recurring thought: “This would be so much better if there were some beheadings.” There’s no shortage of eye-popping grisliness in KCF, and while it’s thrilling in its inventiveness, it functions just as much to give weight to the mysteries. It ups the stakes, even as it gives the comic some lurid jolts.

4. The art is splendid. Sato is an outstanding storyteller, and he has a varied set of skills. His characters are expressive in distinct ways that suit them individually as they help build suspense. He has a fine hand for creating a sense of place and mood, from isolated country estates to shadowy high-school hallways. Best of all, he’s devilish in his ability to drop subtle visual clues (and red herrings) into his pages. Sometimes, he repeats a composition, inviting the reader to compare panels for subtle, potentially revealing differences. And he’s got range, handling the aforementioned gore and a sprinkling of lighter scenes with equal ease.

5. Miyuki is more than just “the girl.” In some manga with a young male protagonist, “the girl” isn’t much more than a schoolmarm, tailing in his wake and scolding him for his lack of focus or his irresponsibility. While Miyuki has a very clear view of her gifted-but-slack classmate, she likes him for who he is, even if he sometimes frustrates her. She’s also bright and resourceful in her own right, and she makes valuable contributions to Kindaichi’s deductions. It would be easy to overlook her contributions, but the title would be missing something special without Miyuki and Kindaichi’s sweet, supportive dynamic.

6. Kanari and Sato have a way with a reveal. If there’s a point where many mysteries stumble, it’s the scene where the sleuth explains everything. It’s a tricky thing to make an essentially expository sequence exciting, particularly when the mystery that’s preceded it is dense and complex. KCF’s creative team manages to make these scenes as exciting and involving as everything that’s come before. Part of it is the fun of flipping back and tracking the moments of revelation, spotting the evidence and chain of events as Kindaichi lays them out. It’s an advantage of the comic form, and it adds to the pleasure.

7. The killers’ motives pass muster. Have you ever been reading a mystery, following along as the clues unfold all the way to the revelation of who did it and why, only to sputter, “Well that’s not a very good reason to bash in someone’s skull!” That never happens in KCF. These murderers are driven by guilt, passion, fear, shame, revenge, and a number of other primal emotions. As elaborate as the murderous scenarios are, it’s important that their architects have some pretty weighty justification (at least in their own twisted minds).

8. They can be read in any order (with the exception of “Kindaichi the Killer,” which plays out over two volumes). I love the sprawling, multi-volume epic form that manga can offer. And I hate it when I can’t find the next chapter of those epics when you I want it. KCF’s mysteries don’t need to be read in any particular order, so you can jump around in the series. Instant gratification can be a beautiful thing.

9. You can play along. Like Encyclopedia Brown, the mysteries in KCF are “fair play.” All of the clues are there for the alert reader, and anyone can put themselves in the sleuth’s shoes.

10. But you don’t have to. Unlike Encyclopedia Brown, the stories are compelling and dramatic enough that they don’t require the puzzles to make them worth reading. Armchair detectives can test their brain-power, but people just looking for an exciting and grisly thriller will be more than satisfied. The manga invites readers to be as active or passive as you like, rewarding them no matter what their approach.