Have to admit, I had a bit of misconception going into this show. I thought it was going to be an episodic whoddunit murder mystery, based on the works of one of the most decorated Japanese mystery novelists ever. Well, technically that’s not really wrong, but Game of Laplace production team isn’t content to be a straightforward mystery show or a direct adaptation. Instead, it executed an impressive range of stuff during the course of its mere 11 episodes; murder mystery, yes, but it also wanted to be a genre satire, a contemporary social commentary on crime and justice, an outright absurd comedy, and an overarching suspense melodrama revolving around radical re-invention and modern updates on Ranpo Edogawa’s iconic characters and plot devices. Complemented with a bevvy of visual metaphors and heavy themes, the show has ambition and reach that extended beyond my expectation.
Too bad the writing’s a complete trainwreck.
The tone, or the lack of its balance, is the first of Laplace’s many problems. The first thing that came to mind when I see Laplace’s narrative style is the video games series Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney and Danganronpa, comedic murder mystery narratives that successfully combined inherently ridiculous premise, zany humor, and larger than life characters with compelling mystery puzzles and genuine emotional gravitas. Ace Attorney in particular is an exemplary work of the sub-genre, with series helmer Shu Takumi displaying an obvious talent at tonal mixture; but Laplace’s own Seiji Kishi (director), Makoto Uezu (writer), and Hikaru Sakurai (writer) are no Takumi, and it shows. Despite Kishi and Uezu having previously helmed an anime adaptation of Danganronpa, Laplace is an absolute tonal mess in comparison to that, let alone Ace Attorney: the comedic parts are never funny, the dramatic parts are near impossible to be taken seriously, and there are jarring mood whiplash all over the place.
Case in point: maybe, just maybe, after your murderer character had revealed her deeply disturbing backstory, don’t follow it up with one of your kookier characters (who looked like she belonged in anthropomorphic harem type of show to boot) executing a ridiculous slapstick routine. Also, don’t try to portray the tragedy and horrors of little girls being butchered while simultaneously painting a creepy stalker as an endearing supporting character and making pedophile jokes on top of that, for god’s sake.
Then, there’s the mystery. One may argue that Laplace isn’t ‘really’ a mystery show and shouldn’t be assessed on that merit, which frankly sounds disingenious to me. ‘A significant part of this is mystery, but it’s done in awfully slapdash and half-arsed manner, so let’s just ignore that part!’ Nope. A big part of Laplace’s struggle with its mystery presentation, besides the aforementioned tonal mess, lies with the series composition: there’s barely enough time to develop the episodic mysteries effectively, with the two traditional whoddunit arcs (Episode 1-2 and 7-8) in particular practically gasping for at least one more episode to flesh things out. As it is, we’re mostly just seeing the detective characters solving things nonchalantly, while the show made very little attempt to make their thought process believable (the ‘deduction’ felt more like insane jump to conclusion most of the time) or significantly immerse the audience into the investigation.
It wouldn’t be that bad if the bits with character development and dramatic arcs are significantly better than the mystery, but sadly they’re just about as damn bad. I couldn’t care any less about the principal characters’ individual arcs and their increasingly tiresome interplay, whether it’s Edogawa’s iconic detective Kogorou Akechi, who had been de-aged and remodeled into edgy pill-popping teenager, his sidekick Kobayashi, who in this version alternates between being a cheerful crossdessing genius and a disaffected pseudo sociopath, and Kobayashi’s friend Hashiba, who spent most of his screen time freaking out at Kobayashi’s antics and/or blushing furiously at his effeminate physique. The supporting cast ranged from underdeveloped to cringe-inducing (the kookier they are, the worse they tend to be; e.g. Black Lizard and Shadow Man), with most of them not meshing well with each other, the story, and the driving themes. The two recurring policemen characters, Kagami and Nakamura, are the only ones I can even begin to take seriously, and it’s no coincidence that the show’s best arc by far (the only good arc it has really, and even then it’s still plenty formulaic) featured them in major roles.
At times, Laplace fared better when it’s speaking through its visual presentation alone. There’s some good imagery work (with the first mutilated corpse being a particularly striking example of deranged beauty that’s often invoked in Ranpo’s horror prose), and I also like the occasional satirical self-aware touch in the mystery segments. The butterfly motif, while perhaps a tad overused in general media, is at least utilized well in signifying Kobayashi’s character arc. Finally, while the show’s attempt at social commentary is clumsy at best, I admire how the visual and lyrical composition in the OP and ED conveyed its primary themes far more effectively than the actual plot and writing ever did (the ED song itself, Mikazuki by Sayuri, is a great addicting tune to boot).
Actually, for those with at least a passing interest in seeing this, just watch the OP and ED a couple of times, and then go track down Ranpo’s works (The Boy Detectives Club, The Early Cases of Kogoro Akechi, and Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination have all been published in English and seem like good places to start) instead. As for the actual show of Game of Laplace, I simply can’t vouch for it, except for maybe Ranpo readers morbidly curious of the show’s re-imaginings of the author’s characters, setting, and plot devices. Very, very, morbidly curious.