A mysterious figure in a mask and cape, who bears a striking resemblance to Tuxedo Mask, appears right when he’s needed in order to help solve any case. He is the Masked Detective, Taro Suzuki, and he is a fictional character within the world of this manga. Written by Matsuki Akino, who is probably best know as the creator of the series Pet Shop Of Horrors, Kamen Tantei is a surreal mix of elements from mystery, supernatural and horror stories, all blended together to form a meta narrative about writing and the relationship authors have with their characters.
Haruka (Haru) and Masato are the lone members of their high school mystery novel club and together they have written a story that’s won a writing contest and is scheduled to be published! While working through some changes suggested by their editor, one of their classmates dies in an apparent suicide, but Haru suspects this was actually a murder and is certain that, as mystery novel aficionados, they are the perfect people to crack the case. Despite her confidence, their investigation does not go well. They get kicked out of the scene of the suicide and Masato is shocked when the ghost of the dead girl appears before him, even though Haru insists that ghosts have no place in a mystery story. Things get even weirder when a mysterious masked detective, who seems suspiciously like the main character in the story they were writing, shows up and says he’s there to help them reveal the culprit.
Kamen Tantei is a series that blurs the line between fiction and reality, making it sometimes difficult to tell if a scene being depicted is something that is actually happening to the characters or if it is a representation of something metaphorical, something from a story the lead characters are writing or just something from a dream. The stories are all episodic, with each chapter introducing a new murder or crime for our heroes to solve. While this series is steeped in mystery novel tropes, such as isolated islands or snowed in cabins, most of the stories wouldn’t meet the criteria of a traditional murder mystery, as they often prominently feature ghosts or other supernatural phenomena, much to realist Haru’s constant annoyance. While it contains some creepy imagery, Kamen Tantei isn’t a very suspenseful series, as most of the death and mayhem isn’t actually happening. Instead the series is irreverent, parodying common mystery conventions and having Haruka lament over how Masato and Suzuki’s ability to sees ghosts causes the killers to be revealed before she has a chance to examine the clues and deduce the murderer herself.
Haru is excitable and loves the challenge of solving a puzzle and she will charge headfirst into every investigation, dragging the more timid Masato along with her. Masato is sensitive and brings the emotional component to their writing, balancing out Haru’s focus on logic and deduction. The two butt heads occasionally over their different approaches to writing, but together they make a strong team and they have Taro Suzuki to bail them out of any trouble that they manage to get into.
I don’t think I’m spoiling much when I reveal that Taro Suzuki isn’t a real person but actually a manifestation of the detective character Haru and Masato have created that has taken on a life of its own. There are multiple manifestations of fictional characters who appear in the story and who are treated as if they are real people by the other characters. Other authors are depicted interacting with their characters and they all have somewhat different relationships with their creations. Haru and Masato regard Suzuki as a helper of sorts, someone who always shows up to help them puzzle through a tricky plot point they’ve concocted. They keep giving him new abilities and skills whenever they run into trouble so that he can rescue them, and he winds up being something of a Mary Sue by the end of the series. On the flipside, a mystery writer who is featured in the first volume views his detective character with contempt. In what was likely a reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who famously came to hate writing his beloved character Sherlock Holmes, this writer had killed off his detective and then, when he caves to public pressure and decides to write a new story for the character, he tries to break the ultimate mystery novel taboo by making the detective the murderer. A sin that said detective couldn’t let go unpunished. Some of the other detective characters that we meet describe their authors as their rivals and someone that could betray them at any moment by deciding to kill them off or end their series. This combative take on the relationship between writer and creation is fitting for times when you’re struggling to write a scene or come up with a clever but realistic mystery plot, but there is a character who I feel does a better job of describing the relationship an author has with their work. The fantasy author Miyabi Takamagahara, who appears in a story in the second volume, describes her characters as her children; she may have brought them into the world, but they have an existence outside of her will. She will sometimes find her writing effected by what she thinks the characters would do or say in a given situation and will deviate from her original plans based on that, acknowledging that characters can have influence over the writer as well as the reverse. This story also addresses the fact that there is a third element that influences a character’s existence: the readers. Once a character is out in the world, it doesn’t belong entirely to the author anymore, but also partially belongs to the readers, who will add their own interpretations into the mix. An obsessed fan of Takamagahara’s books has such strong feelings regarding some of her characters and how she thinks the books should go, that Takamagahara is temporarily unable to write about those characters. The balance between writer and reader has been disrupted and the characters have stopped “appearing” for Takamagahara, at least until the situation is sorted out and the reader decides to create characters of her own. Even though in this story the readers expectations are shown to be getting in the authors way, the manga isn’t dismissive of readers importance and we are shown later in the series that they are what allow a character to continue to have life, even after their author has died or stopped writing about them. So long as there are readers out there who remember them, characters can live on forever.
Strange and often silly, Kamen Tantei is a fun examination of the creative process and what characters can mean to authors and to readers. I recommend this series to fans of mysteries, supernatural horror and especially to writers. Also, to anyone who’s a fan of wild 90’s fashion! Seriously, some of the outfits the kids in this manga wear are pretty out there!
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Let me know what you thought of this series, or of Pet Shop of Horrors, which I haven’t read. Do you prefer traditional mysteries like Haruka, or do you like supernatural stories, like Masato? Let me know in the comments!