No matter how precious the treasure, nothing is worth more than a man's life.
Kansas once sang "if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don't know." Master Keaton is the perfect embodiment of that truism. Taichi Keaton is unassuming, benign. His detached (apparently absent-minded) demeanor masks a keenly observant mind. He claims neither expertise nor skill, yet embodies both skill and expertise in his actions. Part Colombo, part Sherlock Holmes, and part Indiana Jones, Keaton evokes a familiar vibe of obfuscated cunning. But Keaton is a unique character, one of the most sophisticated anime heroes I've ever seen. Master Keaton—Excavation 1 takes us through five of his adventures.
Facts of the Case
Taichi Keaton is a frumpy and inconsistent school teacher who abruptly cancels class on a regular basis. The reason behind his frequent absenteeism is Keaton's more rewarding career as a freelance insurance adjuster for Lloyd's of London.
Lloyd's does not call on Keaton lightly. They call when life is on the line, when the situation is too dicey for normal men to accomplish the job. The Russian mob, the German Red Army, the mafia…all have been thwarted by Keaton's amiable nonchalance. He is unnoticeable; upon notice he is unimpressive. Yet Keaton has the training, instinct, and intellect to master almost any situation.
Master Keaton is undeniably mature while eschewing heavy sex and violence. The series aims high and delivers with satisfying wholesomeness. Wholesome doesn't mean politically correct sanitation, however: there is violence and profanity to spare. Master Keaton focuses on character and plot, with the violence integrated into the story. The result is a feeling that everything fits.
Master Keaton is the centerpiece to the story, a prosaic enigma. He speaks with delicate assurance that belies much experience and study. Keaton prefers anonymity to limelight, belonging to conflicting, going with the flow to striving against it. Everything has a place and time to him; he will not force understanding or pressure resolution. As the series progresses, we learn more about his life and how it informed his current demeanor. Each piece of new information is like a secret treasure.
The series' maturity stems from a modern realism imbued with forgotten sensibilities. Keaton is a teacher and insurance adjuster: how glamorous is that? The villains he encounters do not glow, morph, or inhabit secretive organizations bent on world domination. They are lowly thugs, manipulative grandparents, reformed terrorists, or scared little girls. People are people; Keaton reacts as the situation demands. His fascination with archaeology and hidden lore give Keaton a timeless persona.
The stories unfold cleverly. Master Keaton—Excavation 1 begins with a classic murder mystery. A man has been killed and left his estate to an unlikely benefactor. Somewhere along the way the episode morphs from a whodunit to a showdown. Afterward, we find that the whole thing was really a love story; it breaks your heart to realize the truth. Careful attention to detail weaves the tale with craftsmanship and elegance. Sophisticated human and historical themes elevate the plot to a level rarely seen in animated series.
Subsequent episodes follow surprisingly non-repetitive arcs, but all contain Keaton's signature equanimity and deadly cunning. Keaton would rather ignore you than confront you, confront you than maim you, maim you than kill you. In any case, he will bypass you if you are in the way.
Keaton's adventures are supplemented with spare, evocative music. Melancholy flutes pine above threatening bass drums. I particularly like the opening theme, which features bagpipes giving way to bamboo flutes. Mood and tone were carefully enhanced by the score. The stereo mix is not particularly dynamic, with most of the emphasis on dialogue. The English dub is serviceable but coarse in comparison to the richly textured Japanese vocal track. Western accents somehow bleed the delicate philosophical resonance of the native language track.
Great stories, finely cultivated mood and meaning, and intricately crafted characters carry Master Keaton beyond the realm of most anime. Ironically, this very rejection of the mainstream will likely earmark Master Keaton as a niche series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Conventional wisdom holds that animation has great picture quality. Sadly, that isn't always the case. This DVD transfer suffers from excessive edge enhancement that adds disturbing halos around most objects. Whether due to EE or another cause, the outlines have an indistinct, patchy look. Anti-aliasing erodes the stability of the image, giving pans a distracting flash. The image quality was bad enough to seriously detract from the enjoyment of the show. A shame, because the animation itself is enjoyable.
The extras leave much to be desired. First of all, is it a secret feature if you list it on the back of the DVD case as "Secret Feature: Production Photos"? Apparently there are photos hidden somewhere, but after a few minutes of searching I gave up. That leaves us with textless credit sequences and some trailers. Bleh. I will say this for the DVD: the menus are exquisitely animated, with an aurora borealis union jack.
Master Keaton is a show that many anime fans might overlook in favor of gleaming mecha and frill-covered, heaving bosoms. If you have ever been enthralled in stories of adventure and mystery, Master Keaton deserves a look from you. How often will you see cellophane tape used as a deadly weapon? In the hands of Master Keaton, anything is likely.
Taichi Keaton, you have cancelled class more often than taught it. You have killed at least six men, kidnapped a little girl, and interfered with bringing a known terrorist to justice. In light of these heroic exploits, you are free to go. But hand that tape to the bailiff on your way out!
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