Un-Go ~ final thoughts
December 22, 2011
This is a brief spoiler-free review of Un-go, a Noitamina show from Fall 2011. Un-go is a short series (12 episodes, including an unaired “Episode 0” that was shown in theaters) produced by Bones. Before the series aired it was commonly believed to be in the Mystery genre, as it was “inspired by” various stories written about a Meiji-era detective by Ango Sakaguchi, who died at age 48 in 1955. But Un-Go is NOT a Mystery series. Un-Go is an excellent example of a genre called Speculative Fiction, that came to the forefront as the New Wave of Science Fiction, during the 1960s.
Speculative Fiction, seeks to use the imaginative power of story-telling to explore various aspects of the human condition. The space operas that preceded New Wave had an orderly, uncomplicated view of the human experience, both internally and externally. Reason was king, and humans were masters of themselves as a matter of course. They fit together in orderly social structures that didn’t need to be questioned, and used the power of Science to extend their reach to distant stars. The New Wave authors dismissed this view. Authors such as Thomas Disch, Philip K. Dick, and others often wrote dystopic, philosophical stories that explored social problems and/or plumbed human psychiatry.
How in the HELL stories written in the 1940s to mid-50s about a character in the late 1800s became a futuristic Speculative Fiction anime is a bit beyond me. Nevertheless I’ll take a moment to guess. The Meiji period, in which the regional stories were set, is often thought of positively as the period of the “opening” or modernization of Japan, however it was also a period of recovery after a brutal civil war that ended society as it had been known for centuries. Sakaguchi wrote about that period from the perspective of Post-WWII Japan, another time of peace and hope after a terrible war had destroyed the old order. In Un-Go, social order is maintained at the price of freedom and truth. The justification for the oppressive tactics is the fragility of social order.
During the war, writers were prohibited from telling love stories about widowed wives. Military and political leaders feared that such stories would only lead to moral degeneracy among widows. They wanted these women to spend the rest of their lives as exemplars of fidelity.
– Ango Sakaguchi, On Decadence (1946)
Having not read the original Meiji-era Detective Stories, I’m unsure what liberties the producers of the anime took with the source material. I can say that the detective is the perfect foil for a critique of the naive pre-New Wave view of rationality. The detective was practically invented as a mechanism for naively singing the praises of rationality, since his tool of trade is (in Edgar Allen Poe’s phrase) ratiocination (methodical reasoning). In Un-Go, the main character, Yuuki Shinjurou, is a detective, driven to find the Truth, even though that puts him at odds with the forces of social stability.
I wrote in one of my episodic posts about how the role of the detective is subverted in Un-Go. At first Shinjurou’s quest to find the Truth sets him outside of society. In a set up perfect for exploring the themes of Speculative Fiction, Shinjurou is a critical observer of the way those in power manipulate the social record of facts that is often confused with Truth. Shinjurou uncovers the real truth, but at the cost of being marginalized as the “Defeated Detective”, since his discoveries cannot be allowed to pass into the public record. The brilliance of the series is that Un-Go goes beyond this. After all, leaving matters here merely offers a Romantic version of the naive myth of rationality. The heroic detective, using the power of ratiocination, uncovers the Truth despite the personal cost. Instead Un-Go’s imaginative gaze pierces not only the secrets of society, but of the protagonist himself. Instead of a heroic quest, Shinjurou’s quest for the truth is itself the official lie from which we, the audience, must be disabused.
I heartily recommend giving Un-Go a watch. It is NOT a Mystery series, even if it seems to be pretending that it is at times. It is screwing with your expectations. It is actually a philosophical contemplation of problems present in the human condition, both our inner, psychological failings, and societal ills.
Before I go, I just want to say that there were several fascinating references in Un-Go. One is showed in the screen shot above. This is a very recent solar plant design. Some might not have noticed it, but there was mention of a Solar thermal technology in episode 11, that actually is quite real. Another surprising reference was to Vocaloids (episode 2). There was also a FASCINATING reference to a bizarre Internet hoax in episode 10. For those who don’t know rumors have been circulated that America has been attacking Japan and other countries with our mythical earthquake generator (HAARP). These contemporary references keep the presentation fresh, and without knowing otherwise, I doubt one could possibly guess this show was based on a story written over a half century ago.