Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Scarlet Thread of Murder

忍ぶれど 色に出でにけり わが恋は
物や思ふと 人の問ふまで

Even though I hide it / my face betrays / my love 
So obviously that people ask me / what is on my mind
(Poem by Taira no Kanemori)
It's always such a long wait between the theatrical release of the annual Detective Conan film, and the release on home-video. Especially if friends from Japan and South Korea already start talking about it in the spring....

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~93 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19) and The Darkest Nightmare (20) in the library)

A prestigious nation-wide karuta competition for high schools will be held in a few days and a television program to promote the High School Satsuki Cup and the Satsuki Association behind the competition is being recorded at a television studio in Osaka. Both high-school-student-detective-turned-child Conan and high-school-student-detective-born-'n-raised-in-Osaka Hattori find themselves present in the studio: Conan is there because the Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou is invited as a guest for the program, while Hattori and his childhood friend Kazuha are there to cheer for their classmate Mikiko, who will also appear in the show as one of the participants in the competition. A bomb threat, and the detonation of said bombs however completely destroy the television studio, while the police also learns that one of the most talented karuta players of the Satsuki Association and organizer of the television program was murdered in his home. Mikiko was injured during the evacuation from the television station, preventing her from playing karuta, so Kazuha has to take her place at the High School Satsuki Cup, which is still going to be held even though it appears the bomber is after everything and everyone connected to the Satsuki Association. One of the possible targets is Oo'oka Momiji, a beautiful girl whom many believe to be the future karuta queen (champion), and who also claims she's Hattori's fiancée....

Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter (2017) is the twenty-first theatrical feature of Detective Conan. The first Conan film, The Time-Bombed Skyscraper was released in 1997 as a side-project to the animated television adaptation of Aoyama Goushou's hit mystery comic, intended to be the definite theatrical adaptation of the series. The enormous success however turned this into an annual event, and so every April, a new Detective Conan film is released in Japanese theaters. And now we have number twenty-one. That means that there are adults out there who have only known a world where there's a new Detective Conan film released every year. And even though this is the twenty-first film, it appears the audience still hasn't had enough of them: last year's The Darkest Nightmare became the highest grossing film in the franchise, but The Crimson Love Letter managed to break that record this year. Who knows what will happen next year?

Multiple directors have worked on the film series in those twenty-one years and each brought their own distinct taste. Kodama Kenji was responsible for the first seven films, and his films are perhaps best described as truly a "theatrical adaptation of Detective Conan", as these were fairly classic whodunnit mystery films, with usually about two big action set pieces per film to give it the necessary "theatrical feature" feeling. When Yamamoto Yasuichirou took over, the mystery plots were simplified in favor of longer and larger action scenes, with many of his films set at unique locations like flying airplanes or blimps, ships out on sea or a snowy mountain to support his panic-action film direction. The current director of the Detective Conan films is Shizuno Koubun, who really enjoys over-the-top action scenes, even more so than Yamamoto. The whodunnit mystery plots were also downplayed to suit Shizuno's focus on the action, with for example 2013's Private Eye in the Distant Sea basically being a political acton thriller, while 2016's The Darkest Nightmare didn't feature a mystery plot at all, but turned out to be a James Bond-esque spy thriller with grand action scenes. While I did enjoy most of Shizuno's Conan films, it should be noted his films were seldom really detective films: they were amusing action thrillers, but still very different from what Kodama did in the first seven films.

But then I heard that Ookura Takahiro would be writing the screenplay this time, which was certainly interesting. Most of the other Conan films were written by screenplay writers who also write for the television anime series (The Phantom of Baker Street's Nozawa Hisashi is a famous exception), but Ookura is a mystery author best known for his Lieutenant Fukuie novel series. Wouldn't this mean that we'd be getting a traditional mystery film now, I thought. And then the film was released in April, and slowly but surely I saw people comparing The Crimson Love Letter with the older Kodama films, and I knew I had to see it for myself. Ookura would also pen a few episodes for the Detective Conan animated series by the way, with one episode in particular serving as the prologue to The Crimson Love Letter.

So the home video release is finally here, and lo, The Crimson Love Letter is indeed a very entertaining mystery film. And more! But the overall atmosphere is indeed close to the earlier films directed by Kodama, with the murder investigation, and the ongoing investigation into the bombing and the link to the Satsuki Associatoin serving as the main plot. While the details of the mystery plot might be a bit easy to guess as there are awfully few suspects, I think this is one of the very few Conan films of the last few years of which I'm sure I'm going to remember the culprit. The Kodama films all had very memorable culprits with interesting motives, but with the focus shift to action, many Conan films of the last ten years tended to have rather nondescript murderers: their stories were often overshadowed by the true final act of their respective movies, which were more often than not gigantic action set pieces with a lot of explosions, things getting shot down or simply the force of nature being not very kind, and these events were often outside the control of the culprit, meaning the true "end" of each film was seldom a confrontation against a murderer, but one against circumstances. By the time the cast had survived that ordeal, you'd have forgotten about the culprit already. The Crimson Love Letter however features a memorable culprit, gives them the time to expand on their motive, which fits nicely with the mystery plot that also uses the karuta theme in a meaningful manner.

People not familiar with karuta might find it a bit hard to get into the film at first though, as very little is explained about the game. It's a competetive card game, based on an anthology of hundred poems from the Heian period. A reader will read the first part of one of those hundred poems aloud, and the two participants race to find the corresponding card with the second part of the poem. The cards are laid down between the two participants, and strategies involve placing the cards on your half of the field in certain formations and of course memorizing each poem and where each card is placed. The Crimson Love Letter spins an entertaining mystery tale using this theme, but I argue you could also watch this film not as a detective film, but as a sports film. Kazuha is drafted early in the tale to take Mikiko's place in the High School Satsuki Cup, and as she has a rivalry going on with the current karuta champion Momiji, you have all the makings for a classic sports film about a girl going against the odds in a competive sport competition (and we even have intense training scenes!). The film might be a bit brief on topics like strategies and more in-depth themes, so someone who knows absolutely nothing about karuta might feel a bit left behind, but I think this sports-competition-movie element works wonderfully as a secondary plotline, giving The Crimson Love Letter a natural climax to work towards to, instead of just towards more explosions (don't worry, there are plenty of explosions in this film).

The Crimson Love Letter was also heavily promoted as a romantic comedy featuring the Osaka-bred duo Hattori and Kazuha and the film was quite fun to watch as a rom-com too. We have often seen the two bicker and still have their sweet moments, and there are definitely a lot of comedic scenes with those two in the film, making The Crimson Love Letter an easy film to watch even for those unfamiliar with the series. The new major element for this film is of course Momiji, a rich girl and talent at karuta who claims Hattori is her fiancé, and who makes a bet with Kazuha about who will be allowed to marry him. Readers of the original comics will be vaguely aware of Momiji too: she was first introduced in a single panel in a story featured in volume 91 and has since then only made a few cryptic appearences, each barely one page long, in the original comic. This film is actually the first time her character is explored and explained in any way, but it appears she'll be appearing more often in the future too. 

The Conan films are by the way not written by series creator Aoyama Goushou, but he is a pretty hands-on supervisor on these annual productions: the basic premise of each movie is always suggested by him, he always draws several key animation frames himself and he often offers plot ideas for these films that are closely connected to his own manga storyline. For example, the reason why Ran's parents live seperately is never explored in detail in the comics, but it is explained in the second film The Fourteenth Target, and as said, the manga has told us very little about Momiji at this point, as it is considered to be explained within The Crimson Love Letter, even if the comics don't refer directly to the events of this film. The comic also featured a story about the karuta poems around the time of the film's release.

Many will be tempted to compare The Crimson Love Letter with the fan-favorite Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (2003) as both films feature both Heiji and Kazuha in starring roles and the setting in both Osaka and Kyoto (and Kuraki Mai doing the ending song for both films). I'd say they do feel similar, but Crossroad in the Ancient Capital is also clearly a Kodama film, with its emphasis on the murder investigation and Conan clearly in the leading role, while The Crimson Love Letter in turn is also clearly a Shizuno film, with its impressive action set pieces and the courage to give the spotlight and the more prominent exploits of the film not only to Conan, but other characters too (as seen earlier in earlier films like Dimensional Sniper and The Darkest Nightmare). In fact, Conan has some nice action scenes too in this film, but he is not even really the protagonist.

Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter in short feels like a return to the atmosphere of the earlier Conan films, with the emphasis on the mystery plot and the characters rather than just the action scenes. Mind you, there are still some fantastically over-the-top action scenes here that seems to prove these characters aren't human anymore, but with its focus on the main mystery plot, and the sports-competition and romantic comedy elements added, The Crimson Love Letter feels like the best balanced, and most complete Conan film of the last decade.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン から紅の恋歌(ラブレター)』


  1. I really liked this movie but you really have to know alot about the DC universe in order to keep up because of how it tangoes with all of the characters at such a high pace... Exactly like the manga. I was REALLY surprised how this movie felt like it was written directly by Gosho, so many character interactions, comedic scenes, serious scenes, and case scenes felt exactly like how Gosho would write it, in fact I'd say it's pretty much identical, somehow even more than Episode One (though that's because the series isn't done in the same format as it was in the first 8-10 volumes).

    Actually this movie is kind of different from the rest because of that, even from the earlier ones.

    1. I think Shizuno's previous films were 'worse' in that respect: The Darkest Nightmare is obviously really a nightmare to follow if you haven't kept up with who's who, but for example Dimensional Sniper has some complicated character relations at play too that are of importance.

      The Crimson Love Letter in comparison is fairly simple, as it's focused so much on the triangle between Hattori, Kazuha and Momoji in terms of character focus, with even Conan/Ran being pushed to the background most of the time. Even someone who doesn't know Conan, can understand that the dark guy and the girl like each other but daren't confess to each other and that both are confused by the appearence of new girl. This film might perhaps have even worked perfectly without Ran, the Detective Boys and gasp, Conan himself, as the basic premise is not counting on you to know who's an undercover agent for what organization and whether they're known to be alive or not etc.

      Episode One was troublesome as it wasn't an original story, it was literally just expanding the first episode/first two chapters with more character studies that had nothing to do with the mystery, while The Crimson Love Letter works because all three main elements (the mystery plot, the sports plot and the rom-com plot) all revolve around the same thing.

  2. Do you think this movie is canon ?

    1. I think Aoyama considers the film series as something like Schrödinger's cat, as while they never refer directly to the events from the films, certain elements and events do influence the manga storyline. So it's a yes and no.

      I already mentioned how The Fourteenth Target gives the explanation for why Ran's parent's live seperately and how The Crimson Love Letter explains Momiji's background instead of the manga, but for example Inspector Shiratori was also first introduced in the first film, and I'm pretty sure that Aoyama also considers Amuro's friendship with that certain person as revealed in the Darkest Nightmare as true in the manga. I think Aoyama isn't too fuzzy about canon/not canon, but simply accepts the things he likes from the other media adaptatoins.

      The same holds for the television series, I guess. I mean, Takagi was first named in the anime, only because voice actor Takagi Wataru ad-libbed his own name when his character was asked for a name. And we all know how big a character Takagi has become ever since then.

    2. It seems for me that Aoyama is becoming fradially more serious about involving the movies as the canon. I mean, back in the day we used to have weird non-canonical things like 'Kaitou Kid steals gems and never returns' or 'Kaitou knows Conan's identity' in Movie 3, while now we have characters invented by Aoyama, characters introduced in the manga before the movie was even released, and I won't be surprised if the backstory of Amuro will actually be revealed in Movie 22 INSTEAD of manga. I only wish they we not ignoring the paperback/anime-only audience: having _The Darkest Nightmare_ as a cold shower with its heavy spoiler before any inkling of the Scarlet Series is definitely not a good idea.

    3. But I don't think the actual events of the movies are treated as canon in the manga, only select elements, and that has basically always been the case. From characters like Inspector Shiratori and lately Inspector Ayanakouji who first appeared in the movies to smaller background stories (like Shinichi and Ran visiting the fountain in Tropical Land) and stuff. Interplay between the manga and movies has also been part of the game for a long time (a story that is thematically related to The Raven Chaser preceded the film for example). But the manga does not explicitly acknowledge big events like Ran suffering from amnesia or the killer VR game and stuff, so I don't think that it's all canon.

      The fact KID is aware of Conan's identity is also more-or-less canon in the manga, I think. In the Ryoma story from volume 70 Conan even tells KID about his mother...

      In regards to The Darkest Nightmare (and to some extent Dimensional Sniper), I think synching the movie timeline to the manga is necessary, but of course not always ideal. The Darkest Nightmare should of course only be seen after the Scarlet Return, but I also wouldn't like it if all the movies were to be set in some sort of safe area. I mean, The Crimson Love Letter does that more or less, but I also think there should be a place for more continuity-rooted stories like The Darkest Nightmare.

      With Momoji, my gripe is that her role in the manga otherwise has been mostly useless. I have read until volume 93, and there was only one story where she was actually needed, and all of her other appearences were just fairly random without any interactions with the other cast members. This is different from for example the direct cause why Ran's parents are living apart, or the link between Amuro and that other character, because these are little extra expositions to characters were already know, while basically nothing of interest has been done with Momiji yet. Her background story doesn't even need to be exlored in the manga, but at least make her more relevant in the cases where she makes an appearance.

  3. You know what, I think I'll return to the Detective Conan movies the moment I'm done with the Kindaichi series. I don't think any of the movies from the past decade have sank the same depth as the abysmal Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure.

    1. Jolly Roger would've been disappointing as a TV special, let alone as a theatrical feature, and while it's true none of the others that followed it are really bad, I think you could also easily skip a few of the others unless you really want to watch them.

      I'd say the best choices for you are 13. The Raven Chaser (features the Black Organization) 14. Lost Ship In The Sky (highly comical movie with KID behaving much more like he is in Magic Kaito), 17. Private Eye In The Distant Sea (more a spy thriller, but interesting as something different) and especially this year's movie, The Crimson Love Letter, as it's the film closest to the earlier films and it also won't spoil vital plot points for you.

      I enjoyed 18. Dimensional Sniper and 20. The Darkest Nightmare too, but you'll need to read until somewhere in the eighties before watching them because of story and character spoilers.

      You might wanna look for the first Kindaichi Shounen animated feature too (not sure if it's available subbed). It's an adaptation of one of the novels and depicts the second series of murders that happen in the Opera House from the very first story.

    2. Thanks for the recommendations! I tackle one of these movies before finishing Kindaichi after all. I've suddenly become very curious about The Raven Chaser and Lost Ship in the Sky.