This special is the latest installment of the Case Files of Young Kindaichi (金田一少年の事件簿), a drama series based on a manga and anime with more than a decade of history and three other notable actors playing the lead role. This time, Kindaichi is played by Yamada Ryosuke-kun. How will he do?

Actually, I’m worried less about him and more about the writing. Will the mystery itself prove to be as brilliant in construction as previous iterations, or fall prey to the sloppier writing that we’ve seen of late?

The story begins, and will be entirely set in, Hong Kong. Twenty years ago, in the walled city section of Kowloon, the so-called “Dragon King” Wang Long who protects this neighborhood of around 50,000 residents is assaulted and dies in front of his son. We know that somebody with a tattoo is very important, and that supposedly the death of Wang Long would lead to a tragedy.

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Enter Kindaichi, now in the present, with buddies Saki Ryuji (Arioka Daiki) and Nanase Miyuki (Kawaguchi Haruna). While Kindaichi is always doing something absurd at the start of episodes, this really takes the cake. Usually, in the third season, it was just daydreaming. Here, he’s grossly immature in a crowded street.

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Well, at least Miyuki takes him to task for it. That’s why she’s here.

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When Miyuki gets accidentally splashed by a vendor, she has to find some dry clothing. Enter a man who speaks Japanese named Xin Li (Komatsu Takuya) who brings them to a clothing store . . .

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. . . and then calls up whoever paid him to do that to say that it was a success.

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Kindaichi and Saki get worried because Miyuki is taking too long to try her new clothes out. I’m afraid I’m going to have to let loose with some minor spoilers: she’s not there.

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Finding that there other side of the changing room has a secret door, Kindaichi spots Miyuki’s abductor, temporarily requisitions a skateboard, and gives chase.

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I’m sure people will love this chase sequence, and I did too at first glance before I thought about its effect on the narrative. It was a bit too comical considering something serious has happened – it seemed to diminish the anxiety of Miyuki’s abduction. I would have preferred it if they had played the panic seriously, trying to make it poignant, instead of undermining it with the antics in this chase. The way they did it, it seemed like Miyuki didn’t matter.

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Kindaichi leaves his phone on the van, and tries to track it via GPS . . .

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. . . but the bad guys notice and leave his phone with a pair of kids, with the usual message warning him not to contact the police if he wants to see Miyuki alive again.

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Saki meets Kindaichi at a monument to the Walled City, which had been torn down after Wang Long’s death. It used to stand where this park now does.

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Just as they were fretting over what to do about Miyuki’s kidnapping . . .

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. . . ah, but that’s not Miyuki. In fact, Miyuki was in Hong Kong to be in a fashion show because the original model had gone AWOL and they happened to look alike. This is that original model – Yang Lan (also played by Kawaguchi Haruna, of course).

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Kindaichi quickly comes to the obvious conclusion – Lan bowed out of the show because she was in some sort of trouble, and the people she was in trouble with mistook Miyuki for her. Oh, by the way, she has a tattoo, and her mother had the same tattoo. For some reason, the tattoo led her mother to commit suicide. You’ll have to watch for the details. I have to say, it seemed very unnatural for Lan to be giving all these details to two boys she had just met.

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Lan started getting phone calls after she appeared in a magazine with the tattoo visible. When Kindaichi asks her to pretend to be Miyuki and go to the show rehearsals, it was should have been suspicious that she so readily agreed. After all, it wouldn’t have taken long for the bad guys to figure out that Miyuki didn’t have the requisite tattoo (unless they had a sense of propriety rare for evildoers) and that they got the wrong girl. In that case, they would quickly realize that the Miyuki appearing in the place of Lan in the fashion show must be the real Lan. Why would Lan so quickly take the risk she had been trying to avoid, and now knew for sure was real?

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Well, she does, and at the fashion show rehearsal, we meet all sorts of characters – show manager Takigawa Ryuta (Kiritani Kenta) . . .

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. . . promoter Zhang Yong Fu (Yano Kouji), who’s afraid of butterflies . . .

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. . . temporary worker Kim Yong-Dong (Seung-Ri) . . .

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. . . the fashion designer Ivy Liu (Vivian Hsu) . . .

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. . . and last but not least, Taiwanese detective Li Bai Long (Wu Chun), who apparently here on a special mission.

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If this seems like a lot of people to meet in a couple of minutes, it was. I had some real trouble trying to figure out which name was attached to which character.

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I’m going to start leaving out details to avoid giving too much away, starting with who surprisingly shows up at this little fashion show preview.

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But, I suppose it’s fair game to at least mention the first death, since he can hardly be a suspect. It’s Zhang Yong Fu, the promoter. He’s poisoned . . .

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. . . somehow Li Bai Long, a Taiwanese investigator, takes charge (this had me totally confused – even if he had close ties to Hong Kong and knew people in powerful positions, why would they a foreign officer take control of a murder investigation?).

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Li Bai Long accuses the temporary worker Kim Yong-Dong of poisoning Zhang’s wine, but Kindaichi points out that Zhang was looking intently at the glass and there was no opportunity for Kim Yong-Dong – the poison must have been in the glass already. This is a pretty weak save, I must say.

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Saki whispers that they should tell about Miyuki, but Kindaichi resists.

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Then something happened that I really didn’t get – they were able to leave the hotel. Now, I’m pretty sure that Japanese and Hong Kong authorities alike would have kept them at the hotel at least overnight, since no one has been arrested for the murder, and there’s definitely a flight risk if the culprit is still present and allowed to leave. I guess their passports and wallets were confiscated to keep them from leaving the city, but we’re talking about a very densely populated city here – you don’t have to fly out to disappear. People get fired for having murderers in their grasp and letting them leave. So, I have no idea how Kim was able to treat Kindaichi and Saki to dinner, thanking them for saving him . . .

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. . . nor how they were able to invite Ivy and Lan to Kim’s room to watch a light show.

I had other trouble with these two scenes, as well. You see, normally once the murder happens, I prefer things to get serious and all the silliness should be set aside. Normally, Kindaichi gets right on it and goes into figure-it-out mode. Here . . . why doesn’t he seem interested in the murder that just happened?

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Ivy did offer some more information about the Dragon King Wang Long, saying that he was not some sort of tragic hero, but rather betrayed his people for his own gain. According to her, the Kowloon treasure he hid was a 99 carat diamond.

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Then, directly above Kim’s room, there’s another murder.

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That’s followed by tension between various pairs of characters:

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And then, finally, Kindaichi and Saki seem to get serious about the case, reviewing the videos Saki took.

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It’s all spoilers from here on, and I don’t want to ruin the surprises. So, after a few token screenshots . . .

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. . . let me assess the results.

The mystery itself was average. The motive was technically solid if extreme, and at least that aspect of this adventure was satisfying. There was one murder for which the method was a real puzzle because all the suspects had alibis – the one above Kim’s apartment. The ultimate explanation for that was impressive, but also difficult to believe. Could the culprit really have pulled off all they were supposed to have done? In the time they had? It was too much of a stretch.

Where the mystery really went weak was the failure to maintain a sense of tension and anxiety starting with the kidnapping of Miyuki. I was really shocked to see the lightness in Kindaichi’s face in the wake of that. And then, with the murder of Zhang, there was still an absence of urgency. Throughout the special, there was also a tendency for people to simply offer all sorts of sensitive information – spilling their beans – without even facing questions.

On the acting, I have to blame the director for not building up the tension properly. I think Yamada-kun could have played Kindaichi a little less cool and a little more fired up, though. Daiki-kun could have been less comical – especially when things got serious – but I generally found his anime-like personality engaging, and he pulled off that style of acting very well. As for Kawaguchi Haruna-san, it was a disappointing performance. She showed far too little emotion where emotion was warranted, and the character seemed flat. Again, too cool, not fired up enough.

On a technical point, I was surprised to hear so many people in Hong Kong speaking Mandarin, and almost no one (except the vendor in the opening scene, I think) speaking Cantonese. That was a shame, since I actually know a bit of Cantonese (even less than I know Japanese, but still, it would have been nice to hear some), but no Mandarin.

In the end, it was worth watching, and better than the average mystery drama than I’ve seen on Japanese TV this past year. Rather than thinking of it as a “special”, seeing it as a drama double episode helped put things into perspective, and in that case it’s a solid offering. I think any viewer will be struck by the flaws in the plot and atmosphere, but there are bright spots. After watching it a couple of times, I think my biggest take-away was actually Daiki-kun’s acting. We haven’t really seen him in such a prominent role, and I think casting directors would be silly not to consider him for comedic roles in the future, since he clearly has the right range of expressions for them.

Thanks to sweetypea on d-addicts for the subtitles.