Thursday, December 8, 2016

Thou Art the Man

It is probably no exaggeration if I claim that perhaps the most revered character in mystery fiction is the detective. Indeed, the genre is often also called detective fiction, and as the genre (ideally) revolves around the unraveling of a mystery (regardless of form and degree of criminality), the character burdened with the task of solving it is naturally seen as the pivotal archetype in this genre. The victim, if present, is ostensisbly a focal figure in the mystery, as their situation (often quite dead) is what drives the plot of a mystery story, yet all things considered, their character is not really of consequence to the present of any mystery story. Victims belong to the past and may well be part of the history leading up to the mystery, but are often nothing more but part of the furniture by the time a story is running. Roger Ackroyd may be mentioned prominently on the cover, but it's not really a story about him.

The culprit (often a murderer) is often a close second to the detective. There have been famous murderers in crime fiction. Obviously, the culprits from inverted series like Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburou come to mind right away. You follow these criminals (who can be portrayed both sympathetical or despicable) from the start to the end of the tale and they are thus at the center of things. But there are also memorable murderers in conventional whodunits and other stories. Think of Murder on the Orient Express for example. Often, the criminal will reveal their true colors when exposed as the culprit and go out with a bang, if not literal, often figurative by desperately denying defeat.

These culprits however are people with a name and a face. These are culprits with a history, with ties to other people, with feelings and memories. In today's post however, I want to put a different kind of culprit center stage. A culprit without a face, without a name. A culprit who, by destiny, can never make it to the end of a tale in their original form. An ode to the unknown criminal. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Dark Shadow.

Who the Dark Shadow is? Nobody knows. They are known under various names, including the Dark Person, the Culprit and of course, the Person In The Black Tights. They appear in various series, committing various crimes, but are never caught by the detective in this form. They are the connective tissue of the visual mystery genre, a legend transcending time, space and most importantly, the borders between various creative works from different publishers.

People not familiar with visual mystery media might not know the Dark Shadow, as their appearance is mostly (but not exclusively) confined to those forms. It is the figure on the screen that commits the crimes before the viewer is allowed to know the identity of the culprit. In visual mystery media, including animation and comics, the culprit is often depicted as a dark shadow, something that is made possible because of the freedom of the respective mediums (it is rather difficult to cast a shadow on one single person in a brightly lit room in a live action mystery production). Using this visual device, authors can actually show their culprits committing their deeds and doing other things, without giving away who they actually are, not even gender or other characteristics. The shadows are not meant to be an actual depiction of the culprit, but a visual substitute.

This visual expression was first invented for mystery comics in Japan by mangaka (comic artist) Satou Fumiya, of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") series, which started in 1992. While the comic was written by someone else, Satou was the person who drew the comic and one day, she was given a rather surprising plot to work from. The screenplay asked for her to show what the culprit was doing, but obviously, she could not actually give the identity away of the murderer. In a novel, there are plenty of ways to describing the culprit without giving away a name or any characteristics (for example, use words like 'culprit', 'someone' or 'the murderer' as a description), but that method is difficult to use in a visual medium. The solution she ended up with was the Dark Shadow: a nondescript figure who they could show in the comic panels without any fear of spoiling the story. The idea might've come from kuroko, stagehands in Japanese theatre. Kuroko (or kurogo) are often dressed completely in black and are basically running crew: they move props and help with scene changes and the viewer is supposed to think of them as 'invisible'.

The interesting thing is that while the Dark Shadow originated from Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, the series often has no need for them. In this particular series, especially early on, the murderers often made use of local legends and ghost stories to commit their murders, and therefore often dressed up as monsters and ghosts. In the first story in the series for example, you see the murderer more often dressed as the Phantom, than in the form of a shadow. It was therefore not this series that actually made the Dark Shadow into an actual hit.

That only happened with Detective Conan, which started in 1994. Mangaka Aoyama obviously faced the same problem as Satou and therefore resorted to the same solution as her. But as culprits in Detective Conan don't dress up nearly as often as the ones in Kindaichi Shounen, the number of appearances of the Dark Shadow are actually much higher in Detective Conan. When Detective Conan became an animated series, use of this trope became even more prominent and in the twenty years since then, the Dark Figure has grown out to become one of the most recognizable characters of Japanese mystery fiction, even though they are not actually "a character" at all!

Part of the charm is that the whole idea of the Dark Shadow is actually quite ridiculous. In comic-form, it works remarkably well most of the time. There are the rare cases where the Dark Shadow, first seen as a nondescript, medium-sized person committing a crime, is revealed to be the fat midget hunchback, even though their shapes don't match up at all, but in general, the device of the Dark Shadow does its job admirably. In animation however, things can become rather hilarious. Often, you'll see the culprit standing together with the victim in a bright room, where only the culprit is depicted as a Dark Shadow, even though both people are clearly illuminated by the same light source. Scenes where the Dark Shadow makes their way through a crowd, even though every single person in the crowd is clearly recognizable, are laugh-inducing. The Dark Shadow is also capable of showing emotions, ranging from anger to despair and sadness, but it does look a bit strange to see a completely dark figure cry.

This scene from the theatrical release Detective Conan: Crossroad in the Ancient Capital, seventh in the film series, is a good example of the rather unique way the light must bend to make this happen. This is obviously not realistic, but the public is well aware of the trope, and suspension of disbelief is upheld. Another example from the Detective Conan film series is in the fourth film: Captured in Her Eyes, where the protagonists are chased through half an entertainment park by the culprit. The culprit remains in their form as the Dark Shadow even as they chase after the couple in a motor boat. 

In the quarter-century since the Dark Shadow's first appearance, they have become a widely recognized form of visual expression in Japanese media and is thus often used in other outings of the mystery genre in visual form. Besides the many mystery manga / anime released after Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan, you'll also see the familiar figure appear in other media like video games. The mystery Danganronpa franchise (2010) also depicts its murderers as a Dark Shadows until it's time to reveal who the murderer is.

And even in live-action productions you occassionally see them, even if it's a bit weird. The devilish complex Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") for example makes extensive use of the Dark Figure during the Exposition Episodes, when they go through various reconstructions and hypotheses of how the murder was committed. The live-action series of Detective Conan also had a few appearances of a similar figure.

There are even posable action figures of the Dark Shadow! This one is part of Detective Conan merchandise, and there are many more pieces of merchandise available with your friendly neighborhood murderer.

The tragic part of the life of the Dark Shadow however is that they generally do not make it to the end of the story. Their fate is sealed by the fact they are in a detective story: once the identity of the culprit is revealed, the culprit changes from the Dark Shadow to the actual character with a name and a face who did it, and the Dark Shadow ceases to be. No matter how much physical and mental feats they have shown to commit their crimes, no matter how long they have appeared on the screen or on the pages, no matter how much trouble they might've given the detective, in the end, their destiny is always the same. They are revealed, and disappear.

But let us, the people who have been witnesses to all of their exploits, remember them. As the saying goes, it's not about who you are, it's about what you do. Dark Shadow, I salute you, oh king of the culprits.


  1. Thanks for the exposition on the 'dark shawod': I didn't know 'he' was first invented for use in manga for the Kindaichi series. :) Another typical use in the Kindaichi series occurs during the early stages of the showdown scene, to reflect the culprit's mounting anxiety in the face of Kindaichi's revelation prior to the uncovering of his or her identity.

    1. Satou and Aoyama talked about the shadow in an interview for the Conan/Kindaichi Shounen crossover project a couple of years ago, and I think it was mentioned there how Satou came up with it.

      The moments when the Shadow shows emotions can be pretty weird to look at. Anxiety is still okay, but the crying Shadow usually just has me laughing.

    2. Is there a joint Kindaichi and Conan manga project? Sounds exciting! :D

    3. There is no crossover manga, but they did have several other crossover projects several years back, with a (pretty cool) DS game as the highlight. Other projects included a magazine named after the two series, which reprinted old serials, a Game-of-Life version and. Conan & Kindaichi branded coffee. And while there is no manga, Satou and Aoyama did make a drawing of each other's characters in their own style (Conan and Hajime).

  2. This was a fun post and love both the live-action Dark Shadow and its action figure!

    There is, sort of, a Western equivalent of the Dark Shadow: the Gloved Hands. Before the murderer's revelation, in such series as Midsomer Murders, you would sometimes see some of the murderous activity through the eyes of the killer. And the only thing you would see of the murderer were his/her gloved hands.

    1. The figure is already out of print, sadly enough :/

      Oh yeah, The Gloved Hands are indeed something quite similar. I guess the difference here is the degree of personification of the concept of "the culprit".

      And you can't make very cool action figures of just gloves. Obviously.

  3. the dark shadow culprit was also used in Sket Dance

    1. Yeah, the figure is really a popular trope in Japanese popular culture.