A trend I've found myself fascinated with is the honoring of classic Japanese authors by way of adapting their works into anime, often with the end result as removed from the original as a Caesar salad is from anything once rendered unto Caesar. Sometimes you get a classic to complement a classic (Night On The Galactic Railroad); sometimes you get unexpected delights (the various installments in the Aoi Bungaku series); sometimes you get meandering junk (the Edogawa Rampo riff Trickster). Here the author honored is Ango Sakaguchi — Un-Go, get it? — whose detective stories have been read and reread across decades. What they have been adapted into here is one part old-school detective story, one part cyberpunk, and one part nonsense. Unfortunately, the nonsense wins.
The underbelly of society and the bottom of the human heart
Un-Go is set in a "twenty minutes into the future" version of Japan, where a failed war on terror has left the country partly in ruins and entirely in the grip of an autocratic regime. Censorship of thought and deed are strong, if also defied routinely. Ties between business and government are more powerful than ever, especially when the former promise the latter tools for reconstruction, albeit at a price that isn't always monetary.
Picking his way through this postmodern wreckage is private eye Shinjūrō Yūki — the "Defeated Detective", as he's called, in big part because while he does correctly deduce the identities of the killers he sets out to trap, the truth is often buried from above. And not even by the authorities, but by his corporate patron, Rinroku Kaishō, who sits in his high-tech eyrie and watches Shinjūrō at work by remote connection. Without Kaishō, Shinjūrō wouldn't have a career, let alone an existence in this Japan at all (something explained in better detail in the prequel movie).
Shinjūrō has one other ally — Inga, who looks like a cross between a grade-schooler and a rave attendee. "He" is actually a supernatural being with a hunger for the secrets that lie concealed in human hearts; whenever Shinjūrō needs an answer to a key question from a suspect, Inga transforms into a voluptuous woman and tears the secret in question out of them. No wonder s/he hangs around with Shinjūrō; the modern world, with all its corruption and iniquity, is rife with people who have something to hide. And so together they become embroiled in one remarkably knotty mystery after another, each one cutting a little closer to the dark heart of the times.
It's not hard to draw connecting lines between the original stories and their adaptations, as they tend to have common plot elements and characters. What I am less confident about is whether the near-future setting is just set dressing, or is meant to map to other themes in Sakaguchi's work. One likely point of connection is by way of Sakaguchi's other famed pieces of work — not fiction, but an essay named "Discourse on Decadence", where he preferred the honestly decadent postwar Japan to the superficially noble but dishonest imperial state that preceded it. Many of the episodes in the show revolve in some form or another around honest albeit wormy truths vs. agreeable but dishonest lies — e.g., when a family discovers their son has been replaced by an artificial intelligence (and isn't the only such one in that clan, either), or when an attempt to unmask a Yukio Mishima-esque ultranationalist as a hypocrite ends up unmasking more than one manner of liar.
Two flavors that grate together
It's not the fidelity of the adaptations that's a problem, because any source material is just a starting point. It's that what they've ended up with isn't coherent even on its own hybrid terms.
The first warning sign about what's most wrong with Un-Go comes early enough: Inga and his/her powers. Originally, I was going to give that a pass under the "one transgression of genre per story" rule, something that's used often in anime and sometimes to unexpectedly good effect. Sometimes you can mix flavors that have nothing to do with each other — in this case, cyberpunk/dystopia and mystic fantasy — and produce something truly new. What doesn't work, though, is when such a mix is used to just duck tough questions about how the story is supposed to function. You can't bring a machine gun into Arthurian times without altering the rules of its milieu, and you can't bring magic into a modern setting unless your story is about the way a modern setting would be changed by magic.
This problem become most acute in the second half of the show, as more explicitly supernatural elements get shoved into the mix — e.g., an author who can allegedly "write his will on reality". That there are ostensibly rules associated with this doesn't help; the whole thing still feels like it crashed in from a completely different kind of story, with no regard for coherency or consequences. What's worse is how the show tries to tackle some good ideas by way of its bad ones — e.g., how a political entity, like a government, attempts to create its own reality, something we have had a dismaying around of real-world experience with lately ("truth isn't truth"). But there's more to doing justice to an idea than just tossing it into the pot. It has to be integrated elegantly, or at least intelligently, into the story that uses it.
The prequel "episode 0", which purports to explain some of this, doesn't help much. We don't need to know how Shinjūrō and Inga met; that's trivia. The big unanswered question is, what are beings of supernatural power doing in a story that is ostensibly about the power technology and social institutions have over us? It's not like there's ideas aplenty to mine from such a dichotomy — the ancient and the eldritch (the words of that incantation that become material) vs. the modern and the technocratic (again, the "official story" that becomes consensus reality). But again, we don't get a good answer; instead we get a subplot involving a cult, a version of one of the "new religions" dotting Japan today, and what amounts to more mystical mumbo-jumbo.
What's weird is that other anime, and other works of Japanese fantastic fiction, have mixed mystical and modern worldviews before without it leaving a bad taste in the mouth. I suspect that's because in those stories, there wasn't as much of an unintended intellectual clash between those two aspects. The real story was always somewhere else anyway. Here, they try to be the real story, but everything else is not so much enriched by those two aspects as it is crushed between them.
Some things do work. Any anime that is about something other than teenagers in giant robots is automatically that much more interesting to me by default. I liked the dogged, unremitting sense of cynicism about the show's world as transmitted to us through Shinjūrō — the idea that even if the truth reaches only one set of ears, his alone, it's still worth pursuing for its own sake. And the ending theme music is an unexpected earworm. But ultimately, I felt like the biggest takeaway with Un-Go was not the thing itself but how people with good pedigrees were involved with this production, and how other work by them is more worth seeking out.
Director Seiji Mizushima is a veteran: Neon Genesis Evangelion, the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV series, the glorious Oh! Edo Rocket, Mobile Suit Gundam 00, and Expelled from Paradise. Actually, the one title of Mizushima's that this seems most spiritually linked to is a later work I've already written about, and another one he worked on with the writer of this show, Shō Aikawa: Concrete Revolutio. Many of the half-grappled-with or ineptly-framed ideas in this show are brought to fuller fruition in that one. Start there, and if you want to see what a distant spiritual cousin to that story feels like, watch this. But only if you really want to.