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 will be the second time Kindaichi is played by Yamada Ryosuke-kun. The first time, the 2013 special, was . . . not so good. The plot was sloppy and incredible, the method of the crime unworkable, and Kindaichi was often goofy at inappropriate times. I think, though, that all of those complaints and more were probably heard by the producers, so hopefully this time we won’t see any of those flaws.

I also look forward to seeing the three leads – Yamada-kun, Arioka Daiki-kun as Saki Ryuji, and Kawaguchi Haruna-san as Nanase Miyuki settling down into their roles. Kawaguchi-san in particular didn’t get much of a chance in the 2013 special, and last year both Yamada-kun and Arioka-kun handled an overabundance of comic relief but were underwhelming when it came to conveying the gravitas of a murder mystery.

It’s taken me a while to get to this special because subtitles have not been forthcoming and, to this point, I still haven’t found any English subtitles. I hope that’s just an internet searching fail on my part. Anyway, what I did have was the YYeTs version with the Japanese subtitles, and since I had some faith that this would be a decent show, I decided to jot down the words I didn’t know and look them up. On the bright side, this drama has introduced me to over three hundred new Japanese phrases, some of which I’ll share with you during the course of this article. The downside is that it took me about the time I usually take to review at least five drama episodes to get through it. Oh, and my Japanese is still horrible. So, was it worth the effort?

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I have to say that seeing Kindaichi pretending that his head had been severed and placed on a desk . . . actually, I didn’t take much away from that. It was the sort of silly thing that often begins a Kindaichi episode. It’s only when people start dying that I want to see a bit more seriousness.

There’s a lot of exposition up-front from Saki and Miyuki. Miyuki is telling Kindaichi’s severed head about the Prison Gate Prep School (獄門予備校 – gokumon yobikou), and Kindaichi is basically making fun of the name of the school by pretending that he’s been beheaded and his head is about to be mounted on a pike in front of the prison (打ち首獄門 – uchikubi gokumon – a standard practice in the Edo period). Miyuki is totally unperturbed and drones on, reading from a pamphlet about how the main school is based in Taiwan and how the past results are excellent. Saki joins in, saying that he attended the previous year, and that the Taiwan school and Japan school have a combined summer boarding house/training camp (合同夏合宿 – goudou natsu gasshuku). Miyuki reads from the pamphlet that the camp guarantees a boost to participant’s test scores (偏差値 – hensachi – literally standard deviation score) or your money back!

If you haven’t already gotten the picture, Miyuki and Saki are plotting to drag Kindaichi to this summer camp because his scores . . . well, they need a boost. I really like Miyuki and Saki in this scene.

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They visit the prep school, but what they find there is much more up Kindaichi’s alley than academics. Outside the building, they discover posters for the summer camp in Malaysia, but inside they hear a girl scream and discover a dead body up the stairs from her.

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The dead young man triggered the fire alarm with the last of his energy. It’s someone Saki knew from his time at the school the previous year.

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In response to the alarm, the everyone in the school evacuates their rooms, and we get the first glimpse of most of our cast – the students and the teachers who will be involved in this drama. We don’t get detailed introductions yet, though.

The police arrive and the detective (Hida Yasuhito-san, most recently seen in Hanzawa Naoki), does an admirable job with attempting to untangle the situation. We find out that the victim had left school (退校 – taikou) two months before, but had returned to take a mock exam. The detective reveals that the cause of death was poison administered through tiny spikes on a booklet which pricked the victim’s fingertips.

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The detective asks teacher Ujiie Takayuki (Kitamura Kazuki) if he happened to know anything about the booklet, and I think he answers that it’s a sample solution booklet. However, on closer inspection, the notes that it’s not the real thing – it’s an imitation (偽物 – nisemono).

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When he died, the victim was also clutching a note in his hand that directed him to consultation room 306 after the mock exam. The detective believes the invitation to room 306 was a lure to trap the victim. The problem with that theory is that the note had to be placed on the victim’s desk before the test, but the students each got to pick their own seats. From that, the cop concludes that it was an indiscriminate murder (無差別殺人 – musabetsu satsujin).

And that’s where Kindaichi has to step in. Because, you see, it’s not indiscriminate at all, but merely made to look that way. He references the way magicians give the illusion of choice when asking people to choose a card, but I don’t really follow the application of that particular example to this case.

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What Kindaichi outlines is a situation in which all the students got similar notes except that the room number was different. In that case, all the killer had to do was remember which room number corresponded to which desk, note where the intended victim sat, and then head for that room afterward. It sort of requires that the killer could at least peek into the testing room, though, making the probability that it was a student or a teacher pretty high.

And at that point, the students all say they want to return to their classes because this has nothing to do with them – it’s just an annoyance (迷惑 – meiwaku). Now, if I was the detective, I’d hold them all for questioning, but apparently that’s not how things are done.

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And with that, apparently everyone gets to leave or go back to their classes.

As Kindaichi, Miyuki, and Saki depart (with all three looking properly somber and critical of the student behavior they just witnessed), they are suddenly abducted and shoved into the back of a truck. I . . . have trouble imagining what the van could be used for. It has benches and windows, so it can’t be for cargo, but the benches don’t have seat belts, so it can’t be for people (not unless the driver wants a lawsuit from said people).

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Well, the driver in this case is Li Bai Long (Wu Chun), an old friend of Kindaichi’s from the 2013 special who is apparently relying on Kindaichi’s goodwill. He wants to talk to Kindaichi about a villain who calls himself Hell’s Puppeteer (地獄の傀儡師 – jigoku no kairaishi). From a name like that, it’s pretty clear we’re talking about someone who manipulates others to commit the crimes – an evil mastermind. I have a love-hate relationship with evil masterminds. Some of them are positively delightful, but often they take the fun out of the proceedings because they don’t make good-faith attempts to conceal the crimes.

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The real name of the puppeteer is Takato Yoichi, a fugitive at large who bills himself as a crime artist (犯罪芸術家 – hanzai geijutsuka – they make it sound like a legit occupation!). He’s on the run and wanted by Interpol.

But why bother Kindaichi with all this? Well, Li received a package, and Kindaichi opens it to find a dilapidated puppet and a note addressed to him, basically inviting him to the Gokumon Yobikou Training Camp Death Game. See what I mean about evil masterminds not making good-faith attempts to conceal the crimes? Inviting the detective! I bet he didn’t tell his puppet that he was going to do that!

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Li thinks that Takato was pulling the strings behind the Hong Kong adventure in the 2013 episode, too, though even though this occurs to both him and Kindaichi, there doesn’t seem to be a reason behind the suspicion. Do all crimes have to be Takato’s fault? Well, that’s one thing about evil masterminds – it seems ludicrous that regular people driven to commit murders can come up with methods that would stump the cops, but if they got the method from a crime specialist like Takato, that makes more sense.

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Oh, and just to taunt Kindaichi further, the puppeteer actually makes an appearance . . . and a disappearance . . .

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. . . leaving behind another puppet. At this point, Kindaichi wonders why Miyuki was pushing him to attend the Gokumon Yobikou camp – something that was already part of Takato’s plan days ago based on Li getting that package. Miyuki says that she got a call from Kindaichi’s mother about his grades, asking Miyuki to convince him to attend the camp because he’s more likely to listen to her. Kindaichi notes, though, that his mother doesn’t know Miyuki’s cell phone number so . . . yeah, that was probably Takato or someone working for him.

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Well, the gauntlet has been thrown and Kindaichi and his buddies are headed to Malaysia.

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And when I say Malaysia, I actually mean Miscellaneous Dangerous Wilderness X, because unlike with Hong Kong, I don’t see anything sufficiently distinctive about the location that marks it out as Malaysia as opposed to another tropical area.

That’s because they’re basically in the backwoods – getting to their camp by canoe. While Miyuki and Kindaichi are messing around, Saki looks worried. It’s not the wilderness that concerns him – he seems to be looking back at their fellow camp-mates (you know, the guys who basically shrugged in response to the death of that guy back in Japan). But if Saki was in this the previous year, shouldn’t he be telling Kindaichi about all these guys if he knows them?

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The students in the humanities department are going to be in the Taiyou (Sun) Lodge with teachers Tojima (Kasahara Hideyuki) and the masked teacher Akao (Narimiya Hiroki), while the science track students will be in the Gekkou (Moonlight) Lodge with Ujiie and Li, who is acting as a temp teacher. Wait a minute, did I say ‘masked teacher’?! And he’s being played by Narimiya-san, who’s always playing crazy bad guys? Umm . . . isn’t that a bit too obvious?

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Actually, no effort is made to hide the fact that Akao is, in fact, Takato. The real question is who his puppets are.

The scene where Kindaichi is reluctant to give up his cell phone is a bit obvious . . .

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. . . and as they go through the cavern, tiptoe their way around scorpions and tarantula . . .

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. . . and onto the rope bridge . . .

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. . . and I wonder why anyone would need to concoct a special plan to kill anyone here.

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Love the decor, though. When they say Prison Gate Prep School, they mean it.

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Miyuki is with the science side – Li and Ujiie in charge – while Saki and Kindaichi are in the liberal arts with Akao and Tojima in charge. Li gives Kindaichi a walkie-talkie set to communicate with either himself or Miyuki. You know, just in case something happens.

For a little while, things look pretty legit – they’ve got very strict schedules, strange rules, and awful surroundings, yes, but hey . . . maybe that works for some people. I always found sanitary surroundings essential to my ability to learn and . . . well, survive . . . but that’s just me.

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Honestly, though, if anything happens to these kids, shouldn’t we blame the parents? Who sends their kids to a place like this, anyway?

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Things start to get strange when Nakayashiki Manabu (Maeda Goki) is sent to a private study room – basically a prison cell – because he has previously cheated (カンニング – cunning – totally didn’t realize that cunning means cheating in Japanese).

To my horror, Akao is their English teacher, and he says they’ll start off learning the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs – something I still have trouble with. They definitely need to rethink the way they teach English in Japan, especially when it comes to hiring masked teachers.

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At night, the kids at the Moonlight Lodge go for a nighttime stroll. I smell something integral to the mystery here. And when Miyuki says “kirei” (キレイ – pretty) seeing the sign in front of the lodge lit up, I know that the writers are drawing our attention to the sign because it’s not pretty at all. It’s plain and somewhat depressing.

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Oh, and Ujiie-sensei seems unaccountably nervous.

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We see a bit of bullying and other tension between the students (including some probable clues, but I’m going to start leaving out the ones that Kindaichi himself draws attention to) . . .

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. . . but despite everything, the first night seems to pass uneventfully.

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Crazy creepy, though. Oh, and we see Takato/Akao in his own room talking over the phone to someone he calls sparrow – probably his puppet. I found these scenes completely unnecessary.

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The next day, though, students start dropping like flies. I’ve used that cliche about other mysteries, but here it is totally shocking how quickly we lose them. One gets poked with the poison needle while grabbing some chalk for Ujiie, and Li notices he’s been gone too long and investigates but finds he’s disappeared.

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Then Kirizawa (Kurihara Rui) seems to be getting the shakes and asks to be excused to the restroom.

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He gets his dose of poison while there.

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Dojima (or Tojima?) continues to conduct class, but Kindaichi eventually insists on investigating.

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They find that Kirizawa has also disappeared even though the whole place is locked down tight.

In Akao’s class, Akao is taunting Kindaichi (again) by having them study the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” – a title he can’t even pronounce.

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In biology with Ujiie, it’s just Miyuki and Mei (Ginnie Han), and Mei gets released first after finishing a quiz extraordinarily quickly. Even Li is surprised by how quick she is.

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Of course, Mei then disappears, presumed dead by the audience but not by the teachers of the camp.

At this point, I’m finding this a bit ludicrous. Three students have disappeared in the space of eight minutes and the teachers are spectacularly unconcerned even though they have the building under severe lockdown specifically to prevent students from being truant (already somewhat like trying to escape Alcatraz).

Kindaichi ponders “Who Killed Cock Robin?” . . .

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. . . then gets interrupted by Saki and a student who is accusing everyone of stealing his textbook.

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Kindaichi challenges Akao to take off his mask, doubting that Akao really has the burn he’s supposed to have. That’s a silly move, since Kindaichi already saw that Takato was into make-up and putting a fake burn on is trivial. Rather an embarrassing moment for the young detective.

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In the next class, the students have a test . . .

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. . . and the kid who had lost his textbook, Chen (Liu Yi Hao), suddenly finds it in his desk. But the teacher finds a page from it torn out and on the floor, so accuses him of cheating. I’m not actually sure how Chen could have cheated with the paper folded on the floor the way it was – not without the teacher noticing, anyway – but the point is that Chen is outraged by the accusation and storms off, only to be stabbed by a needle. That’s four students, for those keeping count.

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Still plenty of students left. The trick, though, is that everyone in each lodge except for the victim was in class during the time of the crime, and the lodges are quite far apart (Kindaichi will examine the timing of the crimes later on).

The teachers remain calm on the assumption that the four students are just cutting class.

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Kindaichi and Akao keep going at it, though.

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Then the bodies start to show up, and they’re all found in a way matching the class during which they died. One was in flames, having been in chemistry . . .

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. . . and another was impaled on bamboo – the class had been studying the Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter (竹取物語 – taketori monogatari). The girl from biology was bound in vinyl tape twisted to imitate a double-helix. Finally, Chen’s class was studying a Dostoyevsky story that involved a hanging, so they found him like that.

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This is a bit too artsy, isn’t it? It shakes up Saki, who has been holding back all this time, but now reveals that all the deceased had been part of the same gang that bullied other students – especially Hama (Haru) and a student who died last year of natural causes named Ma Taichi (Nichkhun).

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Kindaichi gets all this from Saki during a dramatic bridge scene hampered by really horrible music.

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There’s one member of that gang left – Nakayashiki, who had been sent to the private study room after being accused of cheating. Did Nakayashiki suspect that his own gang members had snitched on him? Had he chosen this rather extreme method of revenge for their betrayal?

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Nope – he’s dead, too. Well, he probably did suspect his gang, but he isn’t the murderer. Oh, they find a suicide note in which he said he did it, sure, but that’s so obviously bogus it’s amazing anyone went to the trouble to try to pin it on him. After all, there’s inadequate motive, and it’s also out of character for him to commit suicide. It’s also silly that all the clues that they could ask for are sitting in his room, all nice and neat.

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That still leaves a lot of suspects. Can Kindaichi find any real clues in the midst of the planted clues in Nakayashiki’s room?

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Can he figure everything out before they’re all transported? (I really don’t know how the law works in this show, but usually if five students die, the authorities clamp down on things pretty tight to figure out what’s been going on. Here, it’s like they’re all going to be allowed to go home if Kindaichi doesn’t find the answer quickly.)

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Who catches Miyuki by surprise as she does some chalk-related investigative work on her own?

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They’re about to leave when Kindaichi finally puts all the pieces together.

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The revelation takes the latter forty minutes of the show, and really does require all of that time. I’ll leave it for your enjoyment – they do a pretty good job of showing what Kindaichi is talking about, making it clear even for viewers who don’t speak Japanese.

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Standard operating procedure – get all the suspects in a room in order to reveal the solution and hope the culprit doesn’t bring a gun.

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First things first – it was a lot better than the 2013 special. The characterizations of Kindaichi, Saki, and Miyuki were all clearer. Kindaichi was more serious when people died. Saki had a full backstory to work off of, and he had a major constructive part in this. Miyuki also had a fully fleshed-out role as Kindaichi’s liaison in the other lodge. The other characters were acceptable, though Takato/Akao was tough to swallow at times.

The mystery was solid, and we definitely got all the relevant clues to figure it out before Kindaichi revealed the answer. Putting the pieces together was doable for a sufficiently brilliant mind. The motive was a good one, and the explanation of events leading up to this mystery was exemplary. It is in this respect that this special far outdid the last special.

In terms of acting, we got the expected performance from Yamada-kun, whose acting range is well established. There were a couple of scenes when he looked odd when interacting with Saki – a bit condescending – but maybe that was just a senpai-glancing-at-kouhai look. We saw a lot more from Arioka-kun, who was confined to a funny sidekick role last time, but was able to play a more serious part this time and carried it off, albeit barely. I still hope that he gets more parts in the future, if only for the practice – three specials in six years is a bumpy acting career. Kawaguchi-san has seen much more difficult roles than this, and handled this part easily.

Wu Chun was great as Li Bai Long. I especially liked how he handled his intro scene, but he also did well as being the most concerned individual in the Moonlight Lodge. Maeda Goki-kun played a very similar role to the one he had in Kamen Teacher, so I hope to see him in a different role next time. The biggest surprise for me was Nichkhun, who didn’t get much screen time because his characters was already dead, but in the time he had, managed to make Ma Taichi a likeable and engaging character.

Was it all good? Well, no. The worst thing about the episode by far was the music, which was horrendously cheesy at key moments. Some of the director’s choices in trying to increase tension with . . . I hesitate to call it cinematography . . . were inadvisable and also cheesy.

At least the pacing of the special was reasonable. I didn’t feel like anything was unduly slow or dragged out. The exotic setting also kept things interesting – we had a lot of details to look at in every scene.

So, if we get subs on this one or you feel you can enjoy this without them, then I think it’s fair to give this Kindaichi special a try. A lot could be improved, and I wish they had done a regular season with this cast before launching into these big-budget high-stakes specials, but at least this is a significant step up from the last attempt.