Sunday, April 1, 2018

Mask of the Phantasm

「明るい日差しを感じてモーニン!恋も事件も土曜がスタート!今日はスペシャルミステリー。笑う仮面の鳥肌トリック。たった一つの真実を見抜く、見た目は子供頭脳は大人。その名は、名探偵コナン!」
『名探偵コナン』

"Feel the bright sunlight, good morning! The Saturday starts for both your love and work! Today brings a special mystery. A chilling trick with the laughing masks. Perceiving the one single truth. The appearance of a child, but with the intellect of an adult. His name: Detective Conan!"
"Detective Conan"

A little warning: it might take a while for my next Detective Conan review. Usually a new volume is released in April to coincide with the newest film (this year it's Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer), but author Aoyama Goushou has been on an extended hiatus for his health since the previous volume in December. Serialization will resume in two weeks, but as there's not enough material published yet for a new volume, it will still take several months before volume 95 of Detective Conan will be released.

The animated TV series based on Detective Conan started in 1996, two years after the original comic began its serialization. While the time slot alloted to Conan has moved around since its television debut (at the moment, it airs on Saturday afternoon), the show has been running more-or-less non-stop on Japanese television. More-or-less I say, as the show does skip a few weeks every year due to special programming, a short break or other circumstances. Usually, television shows are scheduled in cour (11~13 weeks) in Japan, but Conan is one of the few rare animated shows in Japan that isn't scheduled in cour, but runs indefinitely across the year, so it's quite usual for it to skip a week once in a while.

While the animated series is based on the original comics, the Detective Conan anime also features a great number of anime original episodes. The reason is quite obvious of course: if they'd stick to source material exclusely, they'd catch up to the original comic too soon, leaving nothing to animate. A story of three chapters in the comics usually translates to one single episode in the anime, so that means that on average, the anime only needs one episode (one week) for every story that takes three weeks to get published in the comics. The anime original episodes are written by a varied team of writers: some are specialized screenplay writers for Detective Conan, some are freelance screenplay writers who write for a variety of shows (not only mystery shows) with no fixed attachment to Conan, and then there's the odd one occassionally, like mystery author Ookura Takahiro writing a few episodes because he was also the original script writer for the 21st Detective Conan film The Crimson Love-Letter. I have seen only a few of the anime originals (mostly from the very beginning of the series, so those from the first hundred episodes or so), but the quality of the anime original episodes can vary greatly, though most will agree that that they often fall a bit behind to the stories from the original comic. This is partly because of the restrictions of course, as the anime original episodes are only meant to 'fill the time', and can't introduce important story elements that impact the further flow of the series.

Episode 184 Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") however has not only long been lauded as one of the best anime original episodes ever, it's often also seen as one of the best episodes of Detective Conan, period. It was originally broadcast on March 13, 2000 as a one-hour special (double the length of a normal episode) and quickly gathered a reputation as a fantastic episode. There was a re-run of the episode in 2004, and on March 31, 2018, Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau was broadcast for the third time. As the older episodes of Detective Conan were obviously originally produced with traditional cel animation at a 4:3 standard, the last few years these re-runs of classic Detective Conan episodes also go through the process of digital remastering, and yesterday's broadcast was therefore also the first time viewers were able to see Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau in high definition.

Mouri Kogorou, Ran and Conan have been invited to stay one night at Suou Beniko's manor out in the woods. Suou Beniko is a former singer known as the Canary of the East and head of the Kurenai Promotion agency, who has also been organizing charity events for the children of victims of traffic accidents for the last decade or so. "Sleeping Detective" Kogorou will appear next week at such an charity event, as are a few other celebrities like the "Home-Run King" baseball player Matsudaira and Nagara Haruka, a popular tarot fortune teller, and they have all been invited by Beniko for the evening as her thanks for their appearance. Beniko's manor has a curious design, consisting of an East and West wing that each have their own entrance. A gallery-like chamber provides the only connection between the two wings and the two doors leading to this room, one at each wing, are locked every night at midnight. This room is called the Chamber of Masks, as Beniko's also a collector of masks from all over the world, with most of them displayed in the Chamber of Masks. The stand-out objects in this room are the two-hundred "Cursed Masks" made by the artist Gonzalez: after being betrayed by his own brother, Gonzalez committed suicide, and when he was found in his bedroom, the two-hundred masks were all spread across his bed and room, covered in Gonzalez' blood. Since then, the masks are believed to crave for blood, and previous owners of the masks have all died violently. Conan's curiosity is immediately piqued by this tale, as on their way to the manor, Kogorou found a warning telling him not to go to Beniko's manor, signed by the Herald of the Cursed Masks.


That night, Kogorou, Conan and Ran are awakened from their slumber by a phone call from the Herald of the Cursed Masks. When the group enters the Chamber of Masks, they discover that the two-hunderd Cursed Masks are gone, and after unlocking the door to the opposite wing and making their way to Beniko's bedroom, they find she has been murdered in the most terrifying manner: she was stabbed in her throat, and the two-hunderd Cursed Masks were all spread across her bed and room, their mouths covered in her blood. What makes the murder even more mystifying is the fact that Beniko was murdered inside a locked room: the door to the hallway was locked twice from the inside, the other door to the neighboring bedroom has been sealed for years and the window can't be opened in the first place. So if a murderer couldn't have entered or exited the room in the first place, does this mean it was the curse of the masks which killed Beniko?


I had long heard about the reputation of this one-hour special, but this was the first time I actually saw this episode, and man, this was really one of the best Conan original episodes! First of all, the trick behind the locked room murder is brilliant. The concept is extremely original and I don't think I myself have even seen other variations on this idea before to be honest. It is also an idea that works much better presented in a visual format rather just reading a description (novel) or hearing an explanation (audio drama), so this is also the best medium to portray this trick, for some extra bonus points. The decisive clue is also devilishly subtle: if you're already on the way, it will probably give you that last little push to the solution, but it's not one of those 'afterthought' clues some authors sometimes come up with that give away everything. If I have to complain, I'd say the whodunnit is rather obvious, but that point's moot if you can't figure out how the locked room murder was committed. As a howdunnit locked room murder, episode 184 is fantastic, showing daring originality and very competent storytelling through proper clewing.


Many people who saw the original broadcast of the episode also remember Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau as one of the scariest episodes of the series, and that's true also. The atmosphere of this story is excellent (with many scary masks placed throughout the manor and creepy twin maids!), but the kicker is that the atmosphere also works as a perfect smokescreen to how the murder was committed. As a crash course in how to do a good mystery story in a visual format, making use of the medium's strong points to strenthen the core mystery plot, this one-hour special is a masterpiece. The episode is quite lengthy with its nearly fifty minutes of runtime (it's one hour with commercials), but it reserves the necessary time to not only create atmosphere, but also to clearly explain the mystery to the viewer through handy diagrams projected on the screen and other little, but helpful visual aids. I think I might've perhaps even prefered an extra five minutes to explore the suspects a bit more: like I said the identity of the culprit is rather obvious, which is also because the episode spends little time to the various suspects, but that's a minor complaint.

So I'm glad I finally got to see Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, as its reputation was more than deserved. While I'm the first to admit that the anime original episodes usually don't really interest me, this one-hour special shows that there are some real gems among them too, that can match the best of the stories from the comic. The digitally remastered episode re-runs of Detective Conan usually focus on the episodes based on the stories from the comic, for obvious reasons, but it's great that they also have room to revisit these anime originals. I really should look up which anime original episodes are worth watching too....

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン』184話「呪いの仮面は冷たく笑う」

4 comments :

  1. Very memorial episode; I could still recall that trick and the general atmosphere of the episode even after all these years (I think watched this ep some time during high school, what a trip down the memory lane).

    I wonder if anyone compiled a list of TV original episodes that are worth watching....I did try a few here and there some time ago, but like you said, because of the different writers and writing constraints, I really had yet to come across another TV original that was near this one's quality. But if you do run into a list of TV original-must-watch, do let us know :D

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    1. I think I'll start out with some of the other episodes by the same scriptwriter (OCHI Hirohito/current name: OCHI Koujin), as he's credited for a couple more scripts for Conan (he's apparently a multi-talent, as he's also n episode director and storyboarder besides screenplay writer...)

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  2. I watched the episode and wrote a review, which will be posted on the 7th. I'm a little ahead with my posts. Anyway, thanks for alerting me to this episode. The locked room was a ghoul of a gem!

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    1. I was really surprised how good it was, as my expectation level was "everyone says it's a good episode, but they mean that in comparison to other anime originals, right?". Looking forward to what you have to say in detail about the episode!

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