After seeing this blend of steampunk science-fiction, giant robot anime, and the detective drama, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart decided the Law & Order shows would be much better with battling megamatons.
"Just you wait, Little Boy! I'm going to make you squirm next time we meet again."—the villainous Crimson Scorpion, taunting the detective Narutaki
The teenaged detective Narutaki prowls the streets of Steam City in his gold-buttoned trenchcoat, seeking out evildoers hidden amid the city's permanent steam clouds. He's assisted by Ling Ling, a pretty registered nurse who never seems to be at the hospital except when it's in jeopardy or when she's recovering from wounds inflicted by some villain; Kawakubo, his faithful butler who's handy at robot repair; Goriki, a "megamaton" or steam-powered giant robot, and Steam City cops Chief Inspector Yagami and Detective Onigawara, who seek Narutaki's help on tough cases (and vice versa).
Set in an alternate-universe city with some resemblance to Victorian London, the adventures of Narutaki mix steampunk science-fiction with elements of mysteries and, of course, Japanese giant robot shows. This set includes all 26 episodes of the series:
I noticed the episodes getting better as Steam Detectives goes along. Part of that could have been my initial unfamiliarity with the series, but it seemed like the series took a few more chances with its storyline once it introduced the major players, good and bad. The first five episodes, for example, wrapped up their plot with Goriki coming to the rescue and wrestling with a bad guy's evil megamaton. Yawn! After a few episodes, the plots show a bit more variety and the writing delves deeper into characters' motivations. Even Goriki shows his friendly personality by Episode Seven, putting up with kids who use him as monkey bars. Like many a TV detective or sci-fi show, Steam Detectives episodes start out with a strange teaser, with the detective usually spending the episode trying to piece together the unlikely answer to the question, "What did we just see here?"
The better episodes in the series include:
"Machine Baron's Abnormal Love?!": Viewers can see that the metal-encased Machine Baron is human, thanks to the eye that peers out from a gap in his shiny covering, but it turns out that he's no longer human where it counts—in his mind, since his obsession with Goriki, Narutaki's robot, could be considered romantic. This time, he's pulling off a caper at the great exposition with the target unknown until the end; it tickled my funnybone when I saw what he was trying to steal.
"The Seven Changes of the Crimson Scorpion": This funny episode has a multitude of endings, with the Crimson Scorpion finding that she's not the only one in disguise as she tries to figure which of the necklaces in the possession of a princess is real and which ones are Narutaki's fakes. A good comic scene has Scorpion explaining her plot to two underlings, who are much more concerned with the mushrooms on their plates.
"Steam Fantasy": "If the five holy beasts that protect this city really existed, I'd like to meet them," Ling Ling says at the Dragon Festival, not knowing she may soon get her wish. Soon, a dragon really does appear from the city's perpetual mist. Wouldn't you know it? The dragon has a habit of breaking into jewelry stores. This one has Narutaki seeing visions of a city guardian and thinking out the way he works and the value of the friends he works with.
"The Machine Baron's Fatal Error": There's some funny business with the opener as the Machine Baron steals Ling Ling's opening line. The Machine Baron's got a blimp and a new, powerful Megatonman. If they actually worked, he'd be able to terrorize Steam City. Trouble is, the Mobility Control Device from his giant robot is missing, and Ling Ling has mistaken it for a sauna. Watching Machine Baron and his minions track the sauna, er, Mobility Control Device, through Steam City is a scream.
"The Target is Onigawara": Onigawara, the Lt. Randall Disher of Steam City, is guarding valuable toy bears in the Paddington building, with the most valuable guarded by a combination safe only he can open. How long will it take him to figure out that his new neighbor and romantic interest is the Crimson Scorpion?
"Tears of a Black Angel": "I want to go to the beach," is the plaintive message a girl awaiting a kidney transplant writes on a paper airplane she tosses out of the hospital window. The paper airplane winds up in the hands of Lang Lang, Ling Ling's evil twin and partner of the Phantom Thief Le Bled. This one takes on an odd twist, with Ling Ling and her sister both on moral grounds as they spar, since Lang Lang believes the upcoming surgery will fail.
"Goodbye Young Detective": "For once, see what it feels like to be the hunted," the claw-handed villain Justice tells Narutaki. Justice has been targeting private detectives, and Narutaki is next on the list. With Steam City's populace concerned, Yagami feels he has to put a guard on Narutaki. Since it's anime, he's got one of his prettiest female detectives assigned to the task. This one was a personal favorite because it plays like the answer to jokes about danger following a Jack Bauer or a Jessica Fletcher around.
"Le Bled's Invitation": As the story opens, Le Bled and Lang Lang are getting away, but not so easily, since Le Bled stumbles and seems to be having trouble steering his megamaton. He's also dropped some medicine packets, which could reveal the motivation for his criminal sprees. There's a problem, though. The Phantom Thief has taken an interest in the opera, and the rivalry between two producers.
Although every episode has the ominous "To Be Continued" label at the end, most of the episodes play well individually. However, episodes 10 and 21 end with actual cliffhangers, and all of the stories lead to the final three-part conclusion. That conclusion is hinted at from the first episode, when the Phantom Knight appears, vowing his revenge on Narutaki and Steam City for reasons unknown, and promising to do away with everyone Narutaki cares about. The ending isn't totally satisfactory, because it leaves a loose end that paves the way for a second series of Steam Detectives—which, as far as I know, never materialized.
On the minus side, I'll point out a couple of episodes that didn't work for me: "Narutaki vs. Ling Ling: A Tiny Battle," a slapstick battle, set to pop music, between the two regulars didn't generate as many laughs as intended, and "36 Pages from a Detective's Notebook," a flashback episode, is padding to complete a 26-episode order, just like those Lost explainers. Come on!
There's a backstory here that Japanese viewers may have been more familiar with from the manga of Kia Asamiya. If you're curious about why this kid Narutaki became a detective instead of spending his days building model blimps, or why Ling Ling is always on hand, fan sites have some of this scoop. Hints of the characters' pasts work their way into the series gradually, though, and if you're familiar with detective shows, you'll get the picture here quickly.
There aren't any extras in this set, not a total crime because you do get 26 episodes here, but some background info on the characters would have been helpful, especially when some villains—such as the Knight Phantom and the evil pair of Le Bred and Lang Lang (Ling Ling's sister)—make the cases personal. If you want to sing along with the theme song (and someone, somewhere must if it has this feature), the episodes alternate between English and Japanese subtitles with the intro, so you can do "Theme Song Karaoke" in two languages.
Asamiya is known for his love of Batman and Star Wars, according to Wikipedia, and the similarities to Batman in Steam Detectives cited on Shades of Nemesis (and a few other fan sites) are obvious—the orphaned detective whose parents were murdered, the butler who takes care of him, wealth and a wealth of gadgets (although Batman doesn't have a giant robot), and Narutaki's close relationship with the police. Asamiya has done some work with the characters in both of his favorites, by the way, penning Batman: Child of Dreams and a manga version of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
The animation here is simple, with limited movement in a lot of scenes, though the background art isn't shabby. I had no problems with the transfer or the sound, watching mostly in Japanese with subtitles to get the nuances. The English dubbing wasn't bad, but it mixes British and American accents rather than choosing one or the other.
The odd thing I found is that the series seems to bounce around as far as its idea of a target audience. While a number of these episodes would be suitable for children, others have profanity and sexual dialogue inappropriate for all-ages viewing—most notably involving the human Machine Baron's "love" for the robotic Goriki, though there are also some risqué lines in the romantic sparring between Onigawara and the Crimson Scorpion. The box gives this one a rating of PG-V, but I'd have given a few of these a PG-D for dialogue as well.
If you've already bought this series, there's no reason to double-dip. But if you're an anime fan who hasn't yet boarded the Steam Detectives train, the way this one builds up steam, so to speak, will make you want to have the whole series on hand at once, rather than buying them piecemeal.
Not guilty. I must admit that having a giant megamaton pal would be nice, though.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.