If there is any mistake in this write-up, do not hesitate to correct me. I wanted to do something different for a change, instead of my usual posts I’ve decided to start an in-depth (read: actual analysis) look at some topics that I feel deserves to get more recognition, which I’ve called the “Monthly In-Depth Corner”. Unlike my other posts which were all written within an hour, this took about a few days to write up. My first post is looking deeply at the show UN-GO, which aired in Fall of 2011 on the acclaimed noitaminA block and produced by the animation studio Bones. The show focuses on Yuuki Shinjuurou, a man who has devoted himself to revealing the truth amidst a country that had experienced tumultuous wars and his partner Inga, a mysterious being who can force a person to answer one question with complete honesty and in turn eat their soul. Along their way of solving various mysteries, they come across a charismatic man named Kaishou , the chairman of the company that holds the monopoly on Tokyo’s communication infrastructure named JJ Systems. Kaishou uses the system to his advantage: This in stark contrast to our hero Shinjuurou, a self-proclaimed seeker of truth whose insistence on uncovering shady practices earns him the hatred of officials and the people alike. The series uses the backdrop of post-war Japan as a means of making the above question much harder to answer.
Acclaimed director Seiji Mizushima (Fullmetal Alchemist, Gundam 00) revealed at last year’s Anime Expo convention that he was working on a new series but at the time couldn’t say more. Weeks pass until the official website of the adapation of Ango Sakaguchi’s novel series UN-GO revealed that he along with fellow Fullmetal Alchemist scriptwriter Shou Aikawa were to work on adapting Sakaguchi’s long running series, along with the animation studio Bones (again, Fullmetal Alchemist). Though these three had worked on the acclaimed series by Hiromu Arakawa, that is where the similarities end. To be brief, the title of the show is a direct reference to Sakaguchi (Ango sounds similar to Un-Go) and the series is based on his collections of essays and short stories, which at the end of the show’s opening sequence reveals the episode name and where the story came from “As inspired by Ango Sakaguchi’s…”. UN-GO’s focuses on a simple question “Do you prefer the truth, as gruesome and heartbreaking as it is, or will you take comfort in whatever ‘the man’ says?”. It’s my view that UN-GO really does a great job in showing both sides to this question, coupled with the fact that the show takes place after Japan had been in a massive war which only makes this question even more important to look at. Recently, the prequel to UN-GO titled “Inga-ron” was released and really cleared a lot of questions that the first series had but also presented the viewer with even more questions once this movie showed how Shinjuurou had met Inga. I won’t talk about the movie in detail (as it focuses on how Shinjuurou met Inga and not the focus of this post), but I highly recommend watching this if you’ve seen the show.
- Yuuki Shinjuurou – He symbolizes the plight of those who have dedicated their lives to exposing lies and revealing truths. Unlike any other historical person, however, Shinjuurou has otherworldly means of obtaining said truths in the form of Inga: a mysterious figure who can ask a single question that the person on the receiving end must answer truthfully. Of course like anyone who wishes to expose lies and reveal truths, he is looked down upon by mostly everyone.
- Inga – The mysterious figure who symbolizes the ‘fork in the road’ perspective: Inga’s powers can be used for both good (as Shinjuurou has used it for) by exposing lies and also to use the power by taking what someone says as truth and mold it into something completely different – this is exactly what the government of China does quite frequently to quash dissent and it is something that Kaishou has started to do in the series.
- Kaishou Rinroku – He symbolizes the status quo, someone who benefited from the continuous wars that Japan had faced and will seek to preserve his monopoly on Tokyo’s communication infrastructure. As such, he uses outside help from time to time but mainly relies on his own deductions to stop any outside influence, namely Shinjuurou and Inga, from trying to break the status quo.
- Bettenou – The mysterious deity who’s power is a direct opposite to Inga’s. While Inga’s powers reveal the truth in one person, Bettenou can turn any false statement into reality, i.e “There’s a burning building that the terrorists had planned on attacking!” – but in reality, there is no burning building and no terrorism to be found. Such a power is only sought out by those wishing to use it for their own personal gain.
Truth in UN-GO
Truth, as portrayed in UN-GO, relies on the efforts of Yuuki Shinjuurou and his assistant Inga as they solve various mysteries. In fact, that is the first real lie that this show presents: while solving mysteries are indeed a part of the series, it isn’t the main focus. Already UN-GO presents truth versus fiction in a blurred perspective, leaving the viewer to figure out which side is telling the truth. This is an example of one of the pinnacles of the mystery genre – letting the viewer figure out the clues laid in front of them. Only the clues aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. Indeed and ironically so, the mysteries in UN-GO are a bit shallow (The first episode was one of the weakest episodes of the series) but the real mystery is, who’s telling the truth? Is Kaishou really this evil, charismatic figurehead with a really good knack of solving cases or is it a facade for something deeper? UN-GO continually poses these types of questions, again not in the way we’re used to seeing, but this is a show that truly understands what a mystery is.
Which leads us to Inga’s power: the power to ask a single question and the person must reply with an honest answer. But is it really the truth? For the 11 episode series, this was the way to solving the mysteries. A bit contrived, but it got the job done for the most part. The movie, however, presents a rebuttal to the notion that everything in the above can actually be false. Pictures below are from the movie, and as such contain spoilers.
The newly introduced character Yuuko Kurata utters these words as she commits suicide to prevent Shinjuurou (being controlled by Inga) from reading her deepest thoughts. Yuuko is part of a band who travels war-torn countries and sings for those (mainly children) who have been displaced by these wars. Whether or not she is right with the above statement, it does raise questions as to whether or not the truths that Inga has forced out of people have been the real truth and thus blurs the truth/fiction line once more, again UN-GO is definitely not a traditional mystery series and it does play with the word ‘mystery’ quite a bit, but this show at heart is a mystery series, using war and politics to make an emotional connection to the viewer. But that leads me to my next part..
War and Politics of UN-GO
Introduced on the very first episode, Japan is currently in a post-war state after many repeated armed interventions. Most of the episodes in the series relate directly to this:
-Episodes 03 and 04 focused on the death of a scientist being targeted by the national government and the actions of Kaishou’s daughter, Rie having her own doubts about her father’s validity in his deductions. Definitely the best in terms of comedy, drama, smart and of course mysterious.
-Episode 05 focuses on the reputation of a charismatic politician when people around him start to die mysteriously and evidence points to him. But the real takeaway is the dialogues between the politician and Shinjuurou, a very fascinating conversation on the topic of war and sacrifice.
-Episode 06’s mystery is about a man, imprisoned for the New Information Privacy and Protection Act (shades of Ishihara here), surrounding his wife’s death and the very first appearance of Bettenou. An anime original episode that worked really well and didn’t have to resort to Inga’s question-ex-machina.
-Episodes 07 and 08 are surreal in nature but a major point is that three ‘actresses’ debate the meaning of war.
-The final three episodes are a mix of political deceit and commentary and the ‘whodunit’ scenario.
Virtually every episode of UN-GO devotes a small amount of time to use real life events (episode 09 Kaishou mentioning 9/11 and the Tohoku earthquake were surprising) and relates it back to the overall meaning of the series, which is basically trying to unravel the deepest truths and expose the lies. It reads like a political slogan, and indeed every election year we see the ‘law and order’ candidates promise this and unsurprisingly not follow through, but with an anime it’s more than possible to get this message through. In short, while the topic of truth versus fiction is at times a tricky question to answer, by using Japan in a post-war setting, the staff behind UN-GO essentially gave it more of a reason to resonate with viewers and I humbly appreciate that.
Fiction in UN-GO
Finally, while Inga was the focus of the Truth segment above it is here that I should dive deeper towards his other counterpart, Bettenou. She is a full-on deity, unlike Inga which means her powers are much more powerful. Indeed, her power is unlimited: she can repeatedly make different lies into reality while Inga’s questions are limited to one question for one person and that’s it.
We first see her alongside a man named “The Novelist” in episode 6, but it isn’t until episode 8 that we really understand how frightening her power is. It is unknown how she comes into contact with him but it is seen in the movie that a drop of blood on a statue triggered the release of both Bettenou and Inga. Bettenou does not seem to act of her own will and merely does whatever she is told to do. Standalone, she seems harmless but in the control of someone with a massive ego this could be a dangerous situation. While Inga’s powers can be used for both good and evil, the same cannot be said here as it is inherently impossible to use fiction in a positive light.
Next is Kaishou, who’s deductions are revered by the great majority of Tokyo’s citizens. Yet it is up for debate whether his deductions have proven true or used as a political agenda. Some of his actions, particularly episode 06, have real meaning and validity to them but other times (like episodes 03 and 04), it is questionable. The movie shows Kaishou in a more confrontational light, as Shinjuurou and Inga find out what really happened that caused Japan to be in war. Again, I’d rather you check out the movie as it does a much better job in explaining it than I could.
My view is that while UN-GO has its flaws, it does a marvelous job in making us the viewers start to think deeply about what’s being presented to us. I really don’t understand why so many people dismissed this show because it is apparently a bad mystery series. The mysteries themselves, yes, aren’t the best. But it’s the debate between truth and fiction and how war and politics plays a role in it that makes it the real ‘mystery’. This is a show that I’d like to see more of, and while that may not happen and while this post sounded more like a defense of the series, I do hope some people appreciate this kind of storytelling. Is it truth or is it fiction? It’s your answer, not mine.
Truth or fiction, which is it that really wins out in UN-GO?
Sidenote: If this post doesn’t make it perfectly clear, I really enjoyed UN-GO. It has its flaws, but really it’s the first show in a very long time that actually got me thinking like this. I appreciate these kinds of series being made because they’re:
A) not going to sell well, and the main purpose of anime is to make a profit
B)Full of intriguing commentary that most anime will simply avoid
C)Definitely mature and seek to establish a greater storytelling narrative than other series.
This is a series which will focus on similar subjects on a monthly basis. Feedback?