A pair of puzzles for puzzlers: Critical reviews of “ID: INVADED” and “In/Spectre”

Somehow, despite my busy social schedule, I have been able to successfully watch more anime. Fancy that. Even better news for this blog, there’s been a healthy amount of “weird detective” shows lately. Two of them, “ID: INVADED” and “In/Spectre,” wrapped recently, the former mixing mystery with sci fi and the latter mystery with fantasy.

Intriguingly, both shows appear to ask questions about why we solve mysteries anyway. Every good whodunit is a whydunit as well, with some insight into human nature. “ID: INVADED” is the more straightforward show, and it attempts to have tidier answers. On the other hand, “In/Spectre” takes a more impressionistic approach, and it makes an interesting case for why metaphysical philosophers might not make the most satisfying detectives.

In the not too distant future of “ID: INVADED,” an elite team of detectives dive into the reconstructed minds of active serial killers to search for clues to the murders’ identities and locations. However, one of the prerequisites for diving into a killer’s psyche is that the divers be killers themselves, leading to some strange bedfellows. Combined with the mysterious background of the diving machine itself, and it becomes clear that there is more going on than catching a killer a week.

Where “INVADED” really shines is its set pieces. The reconstructed minds of the killers are diverse, often more interesting than the killers themselves, and they each follow a logic unique to themselves. They range from dissected rooms and houses that float in a void, to a white picket fenced property where gravity is reversed as it falls through space, to a train that appears to loop on an eternal track.

The mysteries themselves are at their best when they tie into the logic of their related world. The mechanics of the diving machine are kind of interesting. The detectives who dive into the worlds lose all memories of their lives outside, but they take on the identity of a “brilliant detective” tasked with solving the death of a young woman named Kaeru, who is less a character and more a catalyst to spark the investigation.

Sometimes the mysteries require leaps of logic that seem a little like cheating to this audience member, but, I dunno. I’m not the brilliant detective. I do recognize that the show is not very interested in its own science, and there’s a lot of hand waving going on. In truth, “INVADED” is really nothing you haven’t seen before, assuming you’ve seen brain layer busting thrillers like “Inception” and “The Cell.” If you want to stick to something more anime, then imagine something shooting for a “Ghost in the Shell” vibe, only with less style and control. Or maybe too much control.

“INVADED” is predictable, sometimes painfully. There is a character who eventually double-crosses everyone else, but it seems like most people in the audience figured that out in the first episode just because that was the character most likely to betray everyone. All the brilliant detectives are going to fit your stereotypes of anime heroes: a guy with weird hair who has a tragic backstory; another guy with weirder hair who used to be a villain; a young woman looks like a 12-year-old boy.

In fact, the characters in general don’t act like people. They act like players in a production, everyone reading familiar lines clearly defining the roles of detective and killer. If there’s some suggestion that there’s not much difference between the two, that’s just because they’re both barreling toward the same goal.

Coupled with Kaeru-as-catalyst, there is a sense of determinism hovering around the show. If “ID: INVADED” wonders why we solve mysteries, it seems to decide it’s because we have to. We can call it justice or destiny or the fate of a “brilliant detective,” but in the end, we seek solutions because it is the natural, even correct, thing to do.

That might leave the show feeling a little stiff, you can always console yourself with its solid production values. It’s well paced, the animation is well done, the J-rock score is appropriate, even if it’s all a little expected. Oddly enough, there is a more flexible emotional center of the series, although you don’t realize until the end that it’s…but that would be telling. The show with more heart is “In/Spectre,” although that heart comes with some quirks.

As a girl, Kotoko Iwanaga was kidnapped by supernatural creatures and held captive for days before being released, minus an eye and a leg. Now a young woman, she acts as their goddess of wisdom, presiding over what passes for legal disputes in the realm of aging snake gods, fire elementals and souls, modern and ancient, who haven’t moved on. Eventually she crosses paths with Kuro Sakuragawa, a young man who seems a little too unfazed by her supernatural companions. As the two of them grow begrudgingly intertwined, his connection to the mystic will be revealed.

“In/Spectre” is offbeat, and not just because its heroine is a girl with a glass eye and a wooden leg. It’s offbeat in its mashup of mystery, fantasy and slice-of-life. It mostly pays off because the central characters feel well-rounded and right. They don’t act like people–again, they’re pretty anime, with Kuro acting standoffish and Kotoko self-conscious about her petite frame–but they act like how people want to act, saying all the cute and clever things lovers imagine themselves to say on their best days.

In a way, its mashup of folklore and psychoanalysis recalls the underrated anime “Mononoke,” only less psychologically unsettling and far less stylish (that’s an essay for another day). Which is not to say the show is totally straight. While “In/Spectre” plays it pretty safe with its animation, there is just a hint of style, almost enough to get it started on looks alone. It also isn’t afraid to sport some pleasantly eccentric flourishes in its soundtrack, with a dorky metal intro and swinging closing theme.

But the real treat of “In/Spectre” comes from the way its heroine solves mysteries. Rather than locked room murders, Kotoko treats them like ciphers or puzzles. She resolves them by talking them out, using logic to arrive at a solution that is psychologically satisfying.

As a result, the biggest issue with “In/Spectre” is that its pacing is all over the place. It starts quickly, acting like it’s going to be a monster-of-the-week show, but the series suddenly grows dense and dialogue heavy. Rather than being quietly built up over the course of the series, the narrative of the big bad spans 10 episodes, and Kotoko uses about three of them to resolve its mystery.

For less patient viewers–or anyone who really just wants a genuine horror anime–this probably won’t be rewarding. However, if you’re into that kind of thing, it can be a lot of fun to watch. I guess I am into it, because I found myself have fun tracing her logic, and I even surprised myself by how well I kept up as I played along at home.

Given Kotoko’s thought process, the question of why we solve mysteries is presented like a problem, one that is resolved with: because it’s fun. Finding a solution to a puzzle is fun, more fun than the solution itself, and the best solution is not necessarily the correct one but the one with the most engaging and elegant chain of logic. That might not be an answer that would please a detective, but for a philosopher, it rings true.

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