‘Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet’ A Solid Entry in a Stellar Series

‘Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet’ A Solid Entry in a Stellar Series
Photo Credit: 'Detective Conan' Film Poster

What you need to know

‘Scarlet Bullet’ is the latest in the Detective Conan crime manga film series. Its action, humor, and formulaic plot are the main draws.

If you ask almost anyone in the film industry about the movie that topped the box office in the spring of 2019, their answer would be Avengers: Endgame. But in Japan, Endgame was dethroned for a time in early May by a film you’ve probably never heard of: Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire. This is necessary context to understand the significance of Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet (名探偵コナン 緋色の弾丸), the current installment of this blockbuster film series.

Aside from box office dominance, Endgame and Sapphire have other points in common. They’re both action-packed cameo-filled exercises in fan service. They’re respectively the 22nd and 23rd entries in franchises originating in illustrated literature. And a more cynical film critic would add that both are animated films, one a mostly post-produced CGI-fest, the other anime.

But in terms of characters, conventions, and tone, the two series couldn’t be further apart.

The Detective Conan saga (called Case Closed in Anglophone markets because the Conan the Barbarian people are apparently quite litigious) started out, as its name suggests, as a Sherlock Holmes-style crime manga series. 17-year-old high schooler detective Kudo Shinichi (voiced by Yamaguchi Kappei), on a date with girlfriend-in-all-but-name Mori Ran (Yamazaki Wakana), is beaten and drugged for witnessing a shady exchange. Kudo’s attackers had meant to kill him, but the pill they gave him instead de-ages his body to five years old (voiced by Takayama Minami). He finds himself moving into Ran’s home and using her incompetent detective father as a mouthpiece for his own solutions to cases. Questioned about his improbable powers of deduction, he takes the name of two crime fiction authors: Edogawa and Conan.

The overarching narrative arc of the currently 98-volume manga is Conan’s investigation of the people who drugged him. In the process, he continually stumbles across creative and grisly murders (there’s a running joke that Conan has killed more people than any baddie simply by showing up). He assembles allies from the people in his life, including three of his new elementary school classmates, some old friends who’ve guessed his secret, and even a young lady who was similarly de-aged. At the same time, he keeps Ran in the dark about his true identity via cellphone and voice-modulator.

And he’s got Inspector Gadget-type gadgets created by a Doc Brown-type neighbor (Ogata Kenichi). It’s these gizmos that have gradually turned an above-average series of standalone anime films into the nerdy Japanese version of the Fast and Furious franchise. From the early plots revolving around things like witness amnesia and homicidal use of classical Japanese cultural symbols, the films’ current iterations feature a falling artificial satellite, two crashing Ferris wheels (Sapphire), and, in the film under review, a runaway maglev hyperloop, the titular Scarlet Bullet.

To give you a sense of just how insane these things are, I remember with perfect clarity the moment I realized the series went off the deep end: At the climax of Quarter of Silence (the 15th film, from 2011), Conan successfully diverts the waters of a blown-up dam to save a valley village by starting an avalanche with his solar-powered snowboard, which runs out of power before he can outrun the snow. He’s buried for a solid 30 seconds before sticking a hand out of the white, like Shan Yu in Mulan (1998). Those were simpler times.

Scarlet Bullet, released as always in mid-April though a year late due to the pandemic, rigidly adheres to the formula: A cold open in which someone dies; the opening titles; a highly compressed recap of the premise set to the iconic theme song; some highly compressed plot exposition highlighting everything that will explode, derail, or otherwise go wrong in the last act; Conan and the gang getting involved in yet another criminal incident; a humorous pun-based riddle; Conan doing some first-rate detection; a twist ending; the action-packed climax; the end credits and real-life pictures of animated settings, set to pop-rock; a jokey post-credits scene; and the inevitable announcement that the next installment will appear on time the following year.

This formula can make it a blast to view the film with a large crowd. Like Taylor Swift’s rereleased music, it’s new but we know every beat. The option of campy farce is just a few tweaks away, as The Lost Ship in the Sky (14th, 2010) and Sapphire attest. But director Nagaoka Chika and writer Sakurai Takeharu do things straight, opting for a lighter, alcohol-fueled form of comic relief.

The real humor lies in the action climax itself. Conan’s methods of escaping death grow more ludicrous by the year, but I never thought I’d see an actual homage to Spider-Man 2 (2004). And the way he subdues the villain is essentially miraculous, no matter how much science the script throws at us. Unlike the MCU films, the primary draw of the modern Detective Conan film is precisely the opportunity to laugh at how silly it all is.

The only way to screw one of these films up is to take too serious a tone (19th, Sunflowers of Inferno, 2015). The tone here is solid, so my objections are more like quibbles, however damning they’d be for a typical film. The plot, always hit or miss, is a miss this time: The series of brief and benign kidnappings that start off the film and turn out to disguise a murder attempt make about as much sense as the plot of Endgame. Relegating most of the comedy to the subplot is a mistake, as the subplot feels improbably shoehorned into the already improbable climax. That climax unfolds in three places at once, so there’s a lot of shouting into phones, even though two of those places have a video link. One extremely interesting and mysterious character is criminally underused and kept mysterious, possibly for franchise-related reasons. And there’s way, way too much exposition.

On the other hand, the highlights: Conan’s deductive epiphanies take place in an acid-drop space of reasons reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The recently reunited rock band Tokyo Jihen (東京事変) play on the end credits. And there’s an extended car chase that’s prosecuted according to the strategy of a Japanese chess (将棋) grandmaster who happens to be in the back of the FBI muscle car with his drunk traffic cop girlfriend.

They say that a good film review is supposed to convey the feel of the film without the reader having to actually see the thing. And there’s good reason for many people not to go to the cinema yet. But if you can, and you’re willing, and it’s playing, then I have to say — nothing beats the real theatrical experience. See for yourself.

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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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