Stop me if you've heard this one before: A grizzled police detective works in a town where the dangers of a new age run rampant, due in part to an influx of outsiders. He loses his partner in a shootout, but gains a new one, a member of that new population, and the two of them form an uneasy alliance against the crimes of the future.
This isn't necessarily a science-fiction/fantasy storyline; it's half the cop stories out there with some pretense towards social relevance. But it's been explored as SF&F in projects like Alien Nation (far better in its lively TV version than its dreary original movie) and the lamentable live-action movie Bright. Cop Craft, originally a series of light novels by Shoji Gatoh (Fullmetal Panic), is an anime incarnation of the concept. I had high hopes for this project because I thought the disinhibitive qualities of anime would inject some fresh life into the idea. It's far from the worst of these kinds of reverse-isekai properties, but everything really interesting about it is off in the margins and down in the footnotes.
They fight crime
The setup: Outsiders come from an alternate-dimension fantasy world intruding into ours, where they enroll in our schools, work at our convenience stores, and become criminals in our underworld. One human cop tasked with dealing with said underworld is Kei Matoba, a detective in the city of San Theresa (essentially, L.A.), where countless fantasyland emigres made their home after a hyperspace gate opened over the Pacific Ocean some years ago. Matoba loses his partner when investigating an illegal fairy-running operation, which involved an otherworldly VIP, and is then paired with an elfin, paladin-like woman with the name (yes, I am cutting and pasting this) Tilarna Barsh Mirvor Lyata Imsedalya Iyeh Tebreina Devol Nelano Seiya Nel Exedilica. Tilarna knew the VIP in question, and so these mismatched two — the scruffy, grouchy cop and the high-horsed but as-yet-untested knight — are paired up to crack the case.
The fairy-trafficking case turns out to be, as you might guess, only the tip of a far larger plot iceberg, one that conveniently involves shadowy figures from both Matoba and Tilarna's pasts. They end up sharing an apartment (where Tilarna is able to do things like magically cure Matoba's pet dander allergies) and over time developing a grudging admiration for each other. All of this is of course interleaved with fish-out-of-water comedy on Tilarna's part — e.g., her learning to drive so that Matoba won't see her as being so helpless in Earth society — and ominous indications of how Earthly technology and magic are being combined in unethical and downright criminal ways.
Here and there the show has flashes of something more under the surface, of how the way Matoba and Tilarna come from such different backgrounds can be fruitful and insightful. A mayoral election in San Theresa prompts Tilarna to note that everyone involved is terrible for one reason for another. Matoba's reply is that it isn't always about who's best, but about who's better — that is, sometimes you have to vote defensively instead of affirmatively, and that spurs further talk about how their respective societies are constituted. And I also liked the budding (but brutally abbreviated) relationship Tilarna forms with another Earth woman, a photographer — someone who embodies how Earth's technological focus can be a tool for the good. I imagined another version of this story where this material wasn't just in it, but the full substance of it — that they were things that actually drove the story instead of just dressing it up.
A familiar beat
But the biggest problem with the show is how the buddy-cop part of it ends up being its alpha and omega. All the old formulas get trotted out — the angry boss who can never be placated, the Big Bad who's intimately involved with the existing power structure, etc. Jokes about Tilarna confronting things like pornography for the first time get old fast, although the show spends mercifully little time dwelling on such things. And then there's the really dumb stuff, like the episode where Tilarna swaps bodies with a cat, about which the less said the better. The most interesting elements revolve around how elites in both human and otherworldly societies are of one mind in that they both fear change, and will do anything to prevent it. I wish more of the story had been directly about that material, instead of having it reduced to a token bad guy post-facto motivation-dump speech.
I'm always amazed at how some projects start with a burst of creativity and then just stop, as if they've either used up their quota or fulfilled their duty, just so they can get on to the dreary business of pandering to the audience's lowest common denominator. A really imaginative piece of work isn't just about dropping an idea on the audience's toes (portal brings fantasy characters!), but about exploring the full range of implications for the idea. Cop Craft actually gets about half of that right: there's a good share of attention devoted to how both human and nonhuman worlds have been transformed. But it all ends up as background, not foreground. All of the ways it matters in the story get subsumed in favor of its stock police-thriller plot, and the odd-couple partners who eventually become not-so-odd. At the end of the day, the whole project comes down to a log-line: Isekai Lethal Weapon.
A final note. When Gatoh's light novel series first appeared, it did so under the name Dragnet Mirage, and with illustrations by Rokuro Shinofusa that depicted Tilarna as a six-foot-something Valkyrie-esque figure. After Gatoh changed publishers, the series was reissued under the title Cop Craft: Dragnet Mirage Reloaded, with the far more famous and talented Range Murata providing artwork; his character designs were also used for the anime. But Murata abandoned the original look for Tilarna, instead rendering her with one of his signature waifish female designs. It feels like only one of the many ways this project put marketing before creativity.