His real name was Hirao Taro, but Japan knew him as Edogawa Rampo, his pen name a phonetic homage to the Edgar Allan Poe whose work he admired. Like another Japanese author with a morbid and surreal bent, Yumeno Kyūsaku, Rampo's work has been filmed many times before as live-action. (Check out the morbidly fascinating anthology production Rampo Noir, starring Japanese alt-heartthrob Tadanobu Asano, or the Walter Mitty-esque The Mystery of Rampo.) But Rampo's work hasn't been adapted into animation much at all — a strange omission, since Rampo's nervy, dreamy, uneasy storytelling seems a natural for a medium that so freely leverages the viewer's suspension of disbelief.
Rampo Kitan: Game of Laplace, created to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Rampo's death, plays like one of those greatest-hits anthologies where the songs appear in truncated forms or are sequenced together into a continuous mix, but are still recognizable to some degree. Japanese audiences are far more likely to know the material; for them, "The Strange Tale of Panorama Island" — source material for one segment here, also adapted into a manga — is as passably familiar to them as Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" or Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is to Western audiences.
This puts Western viewers at even more of a cultural disadvantage with this show, even if — and maybe especially if — they're already anime fans. Such folks are likely to enjoy the show for its flamboyant and cheeky attitude (and its psychedelic, surreal visuals), since the references will fly over their heads. I don't think there's any crime in savoring the show as straight entertainment, but anyone who has their curiosity piqued about Rampo shouldn't stop here. After a crash course in the source material, now available in English, they might well come back to pick up on everything they missed the first time.
Most every mystery or thriller writer has a standard character. Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot, Georges Simenon had Inspector Maigret, Jo Nesbø has Harry Hole. With Rampo, it was Kogoro Akechi, his take on Sherlock Holmes — eccentric, gifted, knows kung fu, with a cadre of underage Baker Street Irregulars in tow (the "Boy Detectives Club") who help him crack cases. Every Holmes also needs his Moriarty, and in Akechi's case, it was the "Fiend with Twenty Faces", whose mastery of disguise and criminal genius leave the police perpetually baffled. The story that introduced the Fiend to the public consciousness pitted the leader of the Boy Detectives Club, Yoshio Kobayashi, against the Fiend in Akechi's absence.
Rampo Kitan moves all this material to a modern-day setting, and casts it in a kind of Batman Begins storyline, with the show using the extended Rampo mythos as a source of open-ended inspiration instead of a lockstep template. It opens not with Akechi himself, but Kobayashi, now the prime suspect in the savage murder of his homeroom teacher. Kobayashi's only ally is his classmate and friend Hashiba, as down-to-earth and henpecked as Kobayashi is dreamy and flighty. Who else to seek out for aid but the famed young genius detective, Kogoro Akechi?
Not that this Akechi seems all that willing to help. He's a grouchy recluse living in a ratty under-the-eaves office, surrounded by skyscrapers of books, computer screens, and a jukebox that apparently only has one song. Kobayashi thinks this is all the coolest thing since, well, cool things, and before long he's asking Akechi if he can be an apprentice. This Akechi allows — but only grudgingly, and only on the condition that the kid find the real killer. Talk about a take-home assignment from hell. But Kobayashi brings back an A grade by clearing his own name and unmasking the culprit(s). (That Kobayashi did some impressive detective work of his own to find Akechi in the first place also helps.)
This first adventure unfolds by way of a riff on one of Rampo's most (in)famous tales, "The Human Chair", the details of which are best discovered by the viewer. It sets both the tone and the format for the rest of the show. In the case of the format, each episode or pair of episodes takes cues from one of Rampo's tales — "Daydream", the aforementioned "The Mystery of Panorama Island", "Caterpillar", and of course "The Man With Twenty Faces" — and spins together a freak-of-the-week plot (although sometimes more than that) using Rampo's original ideas as loose inspiration.
Rampo's rogues gallery
With its tone, though, the show further expands its attempt to win an audience that isn't necessarily made of Rampo fans, or is even familiar with the name. Some of this is by way of the goofy, jokey attitude common to even some of the most ambitious anime, although I find it's not the presence of such a thing but the deployment of it that makes the difference. In Rampo Kitan, the show occasionally stops the action for gag interludes involving a female forensic examiner, Minami, who demonstrates the manner of death du jour on a mock cadaver nicknamed "Corpsey" (Shitai-kun / 死体君). Cute — until Minami becomes an actual character involved in the goings-on, and her, uh, enthusiasm for her work becomes more than comic relief. Some episodes are unapologetically silly — as when Shadow Man, another sort-of comic-relief character (he impersonates others flawlessly, but spends most of his time wearing a paper bag over his head), shows up at Akechi's office with a bomb strapped to his chest, and that's just the beginning of Akechi's problems.
Where the really dark stuff enters this show is sidelong, by degrees, and in some of the less likely places you might hunt for it. For one, it doesn't come by way of the show's rogues' gallery of bad guys and villainous weirdos. Even if they are based heavily on Rampo's own characters, more often than not it's for flavor than anything else. When Rampo femme fatale Black Lizard shows up, in full fetish gear no less, she seems inspired at least as much by a opera buffa take on Hannibal Lecter than anything else; they've got her penned up in a cell, restrained by wires that make her look like a Quay Brothers marionette.
When the "real" bad guys show up, it's again in such a way that we are forced to choose between a number of possible definitions of "bad". After Twenty Faces is caught and arrested — early on, in episode four — he turns out to be a disillusioned cop, taking Punisher-style revenge on all those whom the system allows to slip through its fingers. The real criminal, in his eyes, is the system that will not take responsibility for its own mistakes, a system that is rebuilt anew every single day by all those who live inside it, and for that reason can never be held accountable. And even now, there are others willing to don the mask of Twenty Faces and pick up where he left off, in the same way V of V for Vendetta, or the Laughing Man of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex was ultimately a persona anyone could assume as need demanded.
The question of where responsibility really lies expands even further by way of what is, in the abstract, a fairly easy plot twist: Akechi knows who the "original" Twenty Faces was, and for that reason alone has to take responsibility for stopping him. What complicates things further is that the culprit in question was someone he stuck up for and did right by when no one else would. He was a childhood friend of Akechi's, Namikoshi, a shy fellow who endured abuse both at home and in school, and who produced a real work of creative genius, a sociological quasi-Theory of Everything (shades of Hari Seldon's psychohistory from Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories) in spite of all that. Akechi didn't just feel for Namikoshi, but wanted to believe his work could be used to make the world a better place. He's still struggling with it, even when Namikoshi orchestrates a public mass suicide a la the Individual Eleven of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GiG, and even as a veritable army of Twenty Faces are running riot in the streets, Fight Club style.
The devil in plain sight
There's yet another potential candidate for villainy in Rampo Kitan, and it's someone who is hidden in plain sight: Kobayashi. How this is accomplished is another example of the way the show uses tone to fake us out. When Kobayashi's blamed for the murder of his own teacher, his reaction is not one of shock or horror, but inquisitive curiosity. Puzzling through the weirdness, and ugliness, that Akechi steeps himself in is fun for Kobayashi. It beats schoolwork, and in fact it turns out to be the profoundest thrill of all. It's exactly the kind of innocuousness you don't think twice about when it's first presented, since it feels like nothing more than a part of the show's overall flavor. Then you find out it's intended to mislead you, that Kobayashi's boyish enthusiasm for dark places is a vulnerability and not just an asset, and that it isn't Akechi, but someone as square as Kobayashi's classmate Hashiba, that is needed to pull him back.
What Rampo Kitan gets right is not that it follows any of Rampo's stories to the letter; that isn't the goal. Its purpose is to take moods and themes from Rampo's work, bring them up to date in a modern setting, and perhaps also use anime-style humor and exaggeration to make them palatable to an audience that is walking in cold. It takes a freer hand with specific characters — I mentioned the way Black Lizard had been so grandly mutated — and while I was less thrilled with that degree of infidelity, it made sense in the context they were establishing. More specifically faithful adaptations of Rampo's work exist anyway, like the live-action movies I mentioned, and with them the surprises mostly consist of seeing how Rampo's imagery and conceits are adapted to the big screen.
The most obvious reason Rampo's works lend themselves to being animated, and not just filmed, is the imagery. Animation lets you pre-emptively suspend disbelief, lets you treat people, places, space, and time as abstractions and concepts, rather than concrete things. One way Rampo Kitan leverages this, from the beginning, is to hint at how its heroes (and villains) see themselves as standing apart from the lesser masses around them — e.g., when Kobayashi's classmates are depicted as mere silhouettes. The trick itself is common enough in anime as a budget-saving measure, but here it's thematic, too. Another way is just by sheer lurid style, where all the decadence and madness that Rampo loved to pack his stories with come to life here in wild colors and florid designs. The animation studio, Lerche, has also produced a number of other mystery/thriller/horror series with a stylized bent: Persona 4: The Animation, Danganronpa: The Animation, and Assassination Classroom (although for my money that last one hews closer to comedy than a thriller).
One of the oldest and most consistent (and consistently incorrect) cultural criticisms is that we live in a decadent era, that things were better or at least less morally repugnant once upon a time. That wasn't any more true in Edogawa Rampo's era than it is now, and much of Rampo's work arose from his period's fascination with the intersection between the erotic and the grotesque — an aesthetic that even had its own name, ero-guro. Brought up to date, and surrounded with the trappings of modernity, both technologically and sociology, it's still a heady brew. Rampo Kitan works because many of the modern ideas it brings in — the danger of the anonymous mob in the information age, for instance — are further enhanced by Rampo's aesthetics. It also bodes well for how the rest of Rampo's work could be animated, and for how it wouldn't necessarily have to be forensically faithful to its source material to still work.