Comforting lies or a bitter truth. Which is better?
Enter UN-GO: an 11-episode anime series by Studio BONES which tackles this theme by pouring it in the format of a buddy-detective show, following cynical detective Shinjuurou Yuuki and his quirky assistant Inga as they tackle cases in a Japan that's recovering in the aftermath of a devastating war. The end result is something that thematically feels less like the typical mystery anime and more like a sci-fi spin on the British crime-drama Foyle's War.
Let's get one thing clear: UN-GO isn't very good when taken as a pure detective story. Most of the cases involve genre staples such as blackmail or crimes of passion. Worse yet is that it seldom feels like the main characters are running an investigation. Whenever a crime occurs, the main duo briefly scans the scene and talks with (read: introduces) the people involved, this is followed by some brief speculating after which Shinjuurou will deduce the big picture, only to have Inga swoop in with a magical power that literally forces people to spill the beans. And seeing as the majority of the cases last only one episode, it all ends up feeling very rushed. By rights, UN-GO should be a complete disaster, yet it ends up worthwhile by being a show about detectives solving mysteries that isn't really about the mysteries.
This is where the contrast between sweet lies and bitter truth comes into play.
The story, as previously mentioned, takes place in a Japan that's licking its wounds in the aftermath of a war. The government has restricted people's freedoms and control the flow of information as much as possible. In-story avatar of these policies is Rinroku Kaishou, the chairman of the company that holds the monopoly on Tokyo's communication infrastructure. A charismatic, intelligent man who uses the system to his advantage. This in stark contrast to our hero Shinjuurou, a self-proclaimed seeker of truth whose insistence on uncovering shady practices earns him the hatred of officials and the people alike.
The contrast between these two is the thematic driving point of UN-GO as well as one of its greatest strengths. What seems like a derivative tale of the well-respected villain vs a misunderstood hero becomes a n of how people will shape events in ways that best suits them. Terrorism, blind patriotism and greed are among the themes that come by throughout the episodes, and the show consistently surprises in how it ties them into its truth-vs-lies dichotomy. Interesting to note is that the show doesn't really pick a side between Shinjuurou and Rinroku. While the former's desire to uncover the truth is presented as an admirable quality, his complete lack of tact and almost suffocating cynicism are presented not as harmless quirks but as defense mechanisms born out of desperation. Rinroku's shady practices are in no way glossed over, but the narrative also makes it clear that he views himself as a lesser evil rather than a greater good.
It's a shame then, that other characters don't fare as well. Recurring and one-shot characters alike usually fall into easily recognizable archetypes who play their roles as puppets of the plot competently. Standard detective fiction fare. A bigger shame is that the dynamic between Shinjuurou and Inga isn't fleshed out. It would've been interesting to see the more sinister undertones in their relationship elaborated upon, particularly the part where Inga feeds on truths as a substitute for souls. The dynamic as it is feels interesting if underdeveloped. Though it doesn't hurt the story proper in any significant manner.
The visuals are what you'd expect of a competently produced TV-anime. The animation is nothing remarkable across the board, though key scenes are brilliantly animated. The music is nothing memorable in and of itself but always does an excellent job enhancing the mood of scenes. On the voice-acting side of things some praise is in order for Aki Toyosaki, who showcases surprising range in her role as the quirky yet mysterious Inga. Director Seiji Mizishima (Fullmetal Alchemist '03, Dai-Guard) once again proves himself to be highly capable, turning several aspects – many of which vary in quality and aren't always compatible - into a compelling whole. And it would be no exaggeration to say that UN-GO might not have turned out so well had someone else been at the helm.
Ultimately, UN-GO is the best kind of bait-and-switch, providing the tale of a man seeking truth in a sea of deceit, under the guise of a detective story. Anyone intrigued by the premise and willing to be surprised would do well to give it a look.