We all have to start somewhere. My first encounter with Japanese detective fiction was through the Japanese animated movie Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target. It changed my life. I started to read through all of the Detective Conan comics. Through the comics, I started to learn about other Japanese writers and series. I changed my major (and university!) to study Japanese studies, getting more into Japanese detective fiction and now I’m here, blogging about it. The ways life can change.
The same holds for the protagonist of Detective Conan. High-school student detective Shinichi Kudō had it all: by the age of 16, he had already acquired the nickname “savior of the Japanese police,” as he assisted with one strange case after another. He was bit too smart for his own good though. One day while on a date with his childhood friend Ran in an amusement park, Shinichi witnesses a shady deal by some men dressed completely in black, but he is discovered and is forced to take an experimental drug meant to kill him.
Miraculously, the drug does not kill him, but…. gives him the body of a six-year old! Afraid that the men in black are coming back to kill him for sure if they find out he is still alive, Shinichi takes up the alias of Conan Edogawa (of course referencing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Rampo) and lies his way into the household of Ran and her father Kogorō. Ran and her father don’t know that Conan is actually Shinichi, but Conan is determined to use Kogorō, who is a private detective, to find out about the men in black in order to turn himself back to his real age. Kogorō is an exceptionally bad private eye though, so it’s up to Conan to solve every case Kogorō handles, without blowing his cover to Ran and Kogorō.
I certainly hope that people are still reading this after the plot-twist with age-changing. Because I know this series has some hard-to-overcome hurdles for some readers. It’s a comic. It features some cute character designs. It has a supernatural twist with a boy changing from a 16 year-old to a six year-old! The series is, at this moment, 71 volumes long in Japan, and still running, so it’s not short either. But I beg, I implore, do try this series! Because if you manage to get over these hurdles, you’re treated to one of the best modern detective series in existence.
From locked rooms to alibi tricks, from murders in airplanes to dying messages, from snowy fields without footprints to code-cracking, writer-artist Gōshō Aoyama knows his classics and more importantly, is an excellent plotter who comes up with fantastic stories every time. While the stories do start out a bit weak, somewhere along volume 7, the stories really pick up, featuring ingenious tricks that you only see amongst the best of writers. It is actually a shame that Aoyama is seldom seen as a detective writer, but only as a comic artist, because he is both and good at his work, too.
While the above has been written from the eyes of a crime reader, I have to say that even as a student of Japanese studies, Detective Conan is an amazingly interesting series. Set in modern Japan, the series shows different sides of Japanese society, from schools to businesses, from Japanese pop-culture to classical literature, from modern technology to traditional arts. Detective Conan is actually a treasure trove of information. While some readers might complain that some of the hints might be too Japanese, i.e. it would be impossible to solve the crimes without extensive knowledge of the culture or the language, I would argue that this is the beauty of Detective Conan. The series is what it is, because it is set in modern Japanese society, because the writer is Japanese, and, thus, naturally incorporates all of his knowledge into his writings.
The popularity of the series in Japan, and actually most of East Asia, is almost astounding. It has been more than 15 years since the start of the series. And yet, Aoyama is still drawing amazing stories week after week (it has actually become better and better every year), the cartoon version holds a prime-time slot, and the annual Detective Conan movies attract huge audiences every year. Everyone watches or reads this series, from kids to adults. One of the more vivid memories I have of Japan was when I visited the movie theater to see a Detective Conan movie. It was almost sold out, and the audience was very diverse, from groups of kids to dating students to elderly people. Detective Conan is such a monument in Japanese pop-culture, it’s almost impossible not to know about it. I’ll go out on a limb here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not too off claiming that Detective Conan is the best known detective series in Asia at the moment, beating even names like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
While Detective Conan is the official international title for the series, it’s enigmatically branded as Case Closed in the United States, with the animated version being released by FUNimation and the comics by Viz Media. Some characters’ names have been localised (i.e. Shinichi is known as Jimmy), but there are no edits made whatsoever, so it is still the same Conan.
My personal tip: try out the movie I started with, Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target. The movie is mostly a stand-alone story, and the things you do need to know are all introduced at the beginning of the movie. It features precisely what I like about the series: a classic murder plot set in Japan, intertwined with some action. And maybe, you’ll be as impressed as I was, many moons ago.