For the new year, I’m going to start doing whole series reviews of past series which I wouldn’t normally get to talk about otherwise. Since I generally have to re-watch the series to do one of these, though (unless it was just a season or two ago), they’ll be relatively infrequent.

For my first foray into this new format, I decided to do the third season of the Case Files of Young Kindaichi (金田一少年の事件簿), since we’re going to be getting a special on Saturday starring Yamada Ryosuke-kun updating the franchise (and hopefully that will turn into more than just a special). The third season of Kindaichi starred a precocious young fellow named Matsumoto Jun and aired in the summer season of 2001. This season, too, was preceded by a special in March of that year, but I won’t be reviewing that special because, frankly, I don’t have it.

As the title implies, the series follows a young detective, Kindaichi Hajime, and, as with so many other great dramas, is based on a manga (which was also turned into an anime). The main character is the grandson of a famous fictional detective and tries to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. For the first two seasons, Kindaichi was played by Domoto Tsuyoshi of Kinki Kids. Since then, there’s been a tradition of leading lights of the Johnny’s agency taking on the role.

While this is a review, there is a bit of selection bias involved. In other words, I wouldn’t have picked this series to review out of a decade of possibilities if I didn’t think it was great, and I’ll probably spend most of my time explaining why I think it’s great. Fair warning.

In the first case, which spans the first two episodes, it takes the writers no time at all to give us a sense of the main characters, as Kindaichi, good friend Nanase Miyuki (Suzuki Anne), and police associate (and uncle to Miyuki) Kenmochi Tsuyoshi (Naitou Takashi) ponder a vacation cruise. We’re picking up their relationship after a plenty of cases, so the interactions between them are very casual and easygoing.

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How do the writers give us a feel for the characters? Well, how about Kindaichi imagining himself duplicating a famous scene from “Titanic” with Miyuki, or Miyuki bursting that bubble and totally laughing at him.

On the cruise, Kindaichi continues to fantasize about every beautiful girl/woman he sees, and Miyuki continues to mock him . . .

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. . . but things quickly get serious as the Captain hasn’t appeared for duty and, when they go to his cabin, it looks like he just disappeared while having breakfast.

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The captain’s disappearance starts talk about the “Captain Ghost” and allusions to the Mary Celeste, on which everyone simply disappeared, but breakfast was laid out.

While the crew tries to dismiss this talk about a cursed ship by saying it was either an accident or a case of suicide, Kindaichi quickly demonstrates why it had to be murder.

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In spite of his silly behavior before, he gets absolutely serious when it is clear that a murder has occurred. That’s critical to the way his character remains light, but still gets the absolute respect of the viewer. There’s no unnecessary goofiness once a death has occurred (unlike in MONSTERS, for instance), giving allowance for the fact that he’s bad at waking up.

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More importantly, this first case demonstrates all the strong points of the mysteries in this series. There’s a whole ship of potential suspects, and we learn of all sorts of possible motives. Kindaichi certainly finds out that the crew has all sorts of malcontent.

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But even the passengers seem suspicious, including the guy who brought up the Mary Celeste. Doesn’t he seem too interested in supporting the idea that this is a ghost ship? Is that just because he gets excited by stories like that, or is it something more sinister?

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There’s no shortage of clues. The questioning of the crew is extremely thorough, with all sorts of cross-currents appearing through it. Unlike other police liaisons, Kenmochi is exceedingly competent at his work, with a talent for asking the right questions and getting people to talk. He simply lacks the ability to make the critical connections that makes Kindaichi special.

It’s a tough case, though. Everyone appears to have alibis, the captain is eventually not the only person to go missing, and as the first episode comes to a close, the ship itself is in danger of collision. Kindaichi and his friends are also in danger.

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How does Kindaichi save the ship? What twists occur in the second episode before he manages to solve the case? What is really going on with this ill-fated cruise ship?

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I can tell you that the resolution to this case is complex and mostly satisfying. It would have been virtually impossible for the viewer to put all the clues together and figure it out independently, but it all made sense once Kindaichi explained it. The only flaw was that there was no way to ascertain the motive ahead of time – Kenmochi found the evidence for that as Kindaichi was in the middle of the reveal.

Kindaichi himself has his life threatened more than once along the way, and there are some real surprises besides those situations, making the whole trip very exciting. The unraveling of the story was a real adventure, in other words.

The second case (and third episode) featured two other familiar actors for the first time – Yamada Yuu-san and Hasegawa Jun-kun – as friends of Kindaichi and Miyuki. In the first scene, they join the two leads, with the girls watching a wedding gown fashion show. They’re not going to play a major role in this case, though.

After we see Kindaichi daydream about a wedding and Miyuki recognizes the model on the screen – Masumi, we discover that Masumi is at the center of the real action.

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In fact, it looks right away that she’s committed a murder, and that while she things she’s buried the evidence at the bottom of a lake, someone was watching.

Well, that murder, at least, isn’t going to be a mystery. As Kindaichi and Miyuki meet up with Masumi to see her in the course of her modeling, they also meet the people in charge of the show . . .

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. . . and one of them is going to have to die, right?

The mysterious figure who saw Masumi dump the body contacts her with instructions:

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Aha! So that’s how it’s going to be, is it? Once again, we’re treated to a case with a full field of suspects, though it will be up to Kindaichi to find the real culprit, and not simply let Masumi go down for two murders rather than one.

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Kenmochi is in charge of the investigation, but he’s not too proud to ask for help, even when other members of the force are skeptical of Kindaichi’s abilities.

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While the last case was the one of “Captain Ghost”, this one had the “Coin of the Dead.” The suspects have a whole array of interesting traits (and excuses) – including a habit of sitting near fire exits and convenient allergies.

Kindaichi quickly demonstrates that the culprit has not escaped. It doesn’t take him long to suspect Masumi, and to confront her. By that time, though, another murder has occurred. He explains how it was accomplished – how she did it.

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Masumi doesn’t admit anything. Miyuki heard the conversation between them, and asks Kindaichi to help Masumi.

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By that time, she needs the help, because she not only gets framed for a murder she didn’t commit at all, but decided to shoot the person she thought was giving the instructions.

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Kindaichi gets to work, and we find out Miyuki is the tech leader of the trio:

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They wrap this one up in one episode, but that just meant the pace was quick.

The mystery was intriguing, especially since all but one crime was committed by Masumi. Unfortunately, the viewer was not given a chance on this one, but the solution was remarkable. The motive was solid.

This episode didn’t have the excitement of the first case, but since a friend was at the heart of the investigation, it was still tense.

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The third case (episode four and five) is about butterflies. Well, sort of. First, though, Kenmochi is enjoying himself taking pictures of beach beauties . . .

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. . . and Kindaichi has meticulously constructed a real sand castle, which inspires some martial daydreaming.Kindaichi Season 3 034

Then they encounter a teenaged boy, Ageha,  running away. He says he will only return home if they come with him. To encourage them, he says there’s going to be a party, but what about this party has him afraid.

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If Ageha’s behavior seems strange, it fits right in to that of his butterfly-obsessed family (living in Butterfly Manor), including patriarch with some extreme hair and a young girl with a green eye.

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Turns out that Ageha dresses up like a girl. When Kindaichi expresses surprise, Ageha points out that he doesn’t have a normal family. Too right.

This time, the case is instigated by the “Black Death Butterfly”, which is an omen of death. But we haven’t got a death,yet.

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For now, it’s just creepy stories about the curse of the black death butterfly:

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The girl with a green eye is convinced that the superstition is true, and that they’re all going to die.

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Well, sure enough, they discover the body of Ageha’s sister, strangled to death, and so the case begins.

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Kenmochi is not on his home turf, and has to deal with a local investigator:

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As usual (for this series – though it’s a quality lamentable lacking in others), we have a manor replete with suspects, and since there’s a whole family present, there are no doubt plenty of motives in the air.

The girl with the green eye is still adamant in her fears and panicked, so Kindaichi promises to protect her, establishing a rapport that shows us another side to his character. Is this a promise he’s going to be able to keep?

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There’s all sorts of weird stuff going on in this manor, and the clues don’t seem to be flowing as quickly as they usually do. Kindaichi has to face failure and prove himself resilient.

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There’s so much that is interesting about this case. First, the way Kindaichi relates to the girl is something you don’t often see in mystery series – the detectives are more often carefully aloof. The butterfly family itself is fascinating, especially the son who brought them into this situation, clearly fearing that precisely this sort of thing would happen.

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And it turns out that even the local detective is quite competent. This series adamantly avoids the trope of the bumbling police being easily outdone by the brilliant detective.

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By the end of the fourth episode, there had already been three murders, so you know Kindaichi had a monster of a mystery to figure out in the fifth, trying to prevent any further deaths. And with so many characters, many more could die while still leaving us with sufficient suspects.

In the end, the highlight of this mystery was the motive, which was unraveled more carefully this time. The backstory to this case was even more involved than that of the first two cases, and it really highlighted the kind of crazy plots that a family-centered mystery. The downside was that it eventually got a bit overdramatic.

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The fourth case/sixth episode was the weakest of the series in my opinion. That’s not to say that it was bad in general – I’d take it over the entire run of some other dramas – but not quite as good in comparison to the other mysteries in this season.

Kindaichi is dragged into making an appearance on a TV talk show, and makes a fool of himself. In the process, though, he meets the players in the next mystery.

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And suddenly two of those players find themselves kidnapped and tied up:

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The kidnapper sends e-mails with pictures to the police, asking for a ransom of 100 million yen and demanding that Kindaichi be the one to deliver the money.

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The director of the company doesn’t want to pay the ransom, though, and initially tries to fake the ransom money by cutting up newspapers. Kindaichi sees through that plan and, since it might result in the hostages and himself getting killed, opposes it.

This case is certainly not short on danger and excitement. And clearly, Kindaichi himself is risking his life this time. The thrill and suspense are the best aspects of this episode.

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The problem with it was the credibility of the resolution. A major clue to figuring out the culprit was a simple slip of the tongue. I also wasn’t entirely satisfied that the known facts really nailed the culprit. In terms of motive, while it was realistic to believe that someone would kill over the inciting incident in question, the incident itself was hard to credit.

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Camping fun turns into a flight from killer dogs in the fifth case of this season. But are the dogs really the killers?

Yamada Yuu-san guest stars in this episode, and plays a more prominent role than in her earlier appearance.

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In a situation that’s even more intense than the kidnapping episode, Kindaichi and Miyuki are once again in mortal danger themselves, trapped in a mysterious building they fled to in order to escape the dogs. Members of a club of medical students are also inside.

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Really, the setting of this episode shares a lot with a haunted house, if that haunted house was actually a lab where people were trying to create killer dogs.

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The light of morning might seem to make the building seem less creepy, but it’s in the morning that they discover their first body, and the demon dog that was apparently responsible. With a whole host of other dogs outside, they have to seal themselves in:

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But as viewers, of course, we know that they’ve sealed themselves in with a murderer.

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This was a good episode because the tension was so high and the premise was novel as far as mysteries go. A huge pitfall, though, was reliance on a dying message that was quite far-fetched. They tried to set it up, but it was still pretty incredible. The motive was a reasonable one, and quite poignant, but we didn’t get any hint of it ahead of time.

The final case spans episode eight and nine, and the situation is downright classic. A famous mystery writer dies and five people are invited as potential beneficiaries to his 5 billion yen fortune. But, to get the fortune, they have to play a game over the course of five days.

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One of those five individuals indicated in the will is Saki Ryuta (Hasegawa Jun), one of Kindaichi’s friends. Since each of the five can bring others along, Saki naturally asks Kindaichi, Miyuki, and Kenmochi to join him.

The other players also have supporters of their own.

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The person in charge of executing the will is the butler of the mansion. The butler did it! Well, he’s a suspect, anyway, but what’s the crime?

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The deceased mystery writer leaves video messages for them, giving them the clues to the mystery game.

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Saki has a good reason to play, even if it gets dangerous.

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And it definitely gets dangerous. For once, it doesn’t seem like Kindaichi is in personal perils, but he has to worry about his friend, who is definitely the target of any of the other four who might try to kill off their opposition.

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For this one, I won’t even tell you who dies first.

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This was a great case to end the series with, since the story was a tight one and there was a very clear motive right from the start.

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I think I’ve made it pretty clear how I feel about this series in the course of outlining the episodes. I consider it superior to any of the mystery dramas I’ve reviewed on this blog so far – Kagi no Kakatta Heya, Mikeneko Holmes, Naniwa Shounen Tanteidan, and MONSTERS. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the kinds of mysteries we got from Kindaichi Season 3 are exactly what I always look for and very rarely find.

I haven’t said it before in this review, but it’s worth emphasizing at the end that the characters were all very well crafted. Even though there was a limited amount of time for each case, we got dimension on most of the suspects, despite the fact that each mystery had a lot of them. The viewer also had a good feel for the characters of Kindaichi, Miyuki, and Kenmochi throughout the series, and they were all likeable characters. That made the situations where they were in danger all the more poignant.

The idea of putting the detective in danger and getting him emotionally attached to suspects and future victims was prominent in this series, and less so in other mystery dramas. I think this was the greatest strength of the cases featured.

Well, I hope that Yamada-kun’s special continues all the things I enjoyed about this classic season of Kindaichi, and perhaps even does some things better (especially in terms of hinting at motives).