Master Keaton

June 12, 2005 on 3:31 pm | In Master Keaton | Comments Off on Master Keaton

Archaeologist. Hostage Negotiator. Insurance Investigator. Culinary expert. Master of Life.
Hiraga-Keaton Taichi is all of these things over the course of the 39 episodes of the Eurocentric series Master Keaton.

Keaton, in between university jobs, works for Lloyd’s of London. They pay him to travel Europe to assess insurance claims on behalf of his business partner Daniel. Using his training as an SAS officer, he never goes wrong. Infrequently Keaton returns to Japan to visit his Yuriko, his daughter, and father Tahei. Yuriko is endlessly enthusiastic and is frequently more of a parent to Keaton than he is to her; Tahei and Keaton have their own quiet bond but in some ways are too similar for comfort.

The tone of each episode is different, so one never knows what they might get: investigation, archaeological oddity, tale of Keaton’s childhood, meditation of fatherhood (be it Tahei’s bond with Keaton, or Keaton’s with Yuriko), or occasionally all of the above. The episodes can definitely be categorised, but there is very little chance of repetition; Keaton does something once and once only.

Keaton is the product of a union that must have been quite an issue at the time; his mother is English, yet his father is Japanese. Apparently Keaton looks more English than Japanese, but as this is anime it is very difficult to tell what constitutes this opinion; the character designers do not stereotype (save for Pai Lin in her cheongsam), so no one in Europe really looks all that different to anyone else. Of course there’s a psychotic fake suicider who looks exactly like Anthony Hopkins, but that’s what we call a “coincidence” (so that Anthony Hopkins does not come down our chimneys to eat us).

In almost every situation in Keaton’s childhood, he was an outsider; first in his relationship with Charlie Chapman, who was bigger than him, and second in his visits to Cornwall where he was viewed as an “outsider” because he was on holiday. Keaton likes to carry this badge into his modern life, and as such is full of surprises. The reason for this is expressed in one of the best quotes of the series, from the final episode. Of course, it’s best to wait 39 episodes to find precisely why Keaton is a “master” (he did not bestow the title upon himself), so I won’t spoil it.

Keaton is quiet and unassuming, and oddly one never tires of him surprising his overconfident foes and associates. It is funny when he works with people who he has met in the past, because they are really just “yeah, work your magic, you bastard.” The episodes set in the past are vitally important because to see Keaton perform so effortlessly in the present one needs context or they will not appreciate the life journey that the man has been on.
The point is Keaton is a refreshing hero: thirty five, and not gifted with his talents by some higher power. Everything that Keaton does, he has worked to achieve.

One of the recurring themes that one might notice in watching Master Keaton is “communism is bad”. There are at least three stories about the fall of the Wall and the people that had to rebuild their lives because of East Germany; there is another about Soviets whose childhood idealism could not withstand the corruption of adulthood. The actual idea of communism is never explicitly stated, and every issue is on a human level and how the characters have been influenced by circumstance. Yet the writers’ underlying message is there: look what communism does to people!

Communism leads to the series’ biggest confusion: when the heckfire is it set? Master Keaton was broadcast in 1998-1999. One episode is set three years after the fall of the Wall, placing it in 1992 . Another, later, episode is set in 1989. Another, later still, features an Englishman and a Japanese woman who met “fifty years ago”, but World War II broke out and tore them apart, which would make the events take place around ’87-’89 (depending on when you say the war broke out). The only dated episode that features Yuriko is the ’87 edition, so we can assume that the episodes featuring her are from around that time and she has grown up in the “199X” episodes.
Urasawa Naoki’s manga debuted in 1988 so it is wholly possible that the writers drew from their favourite stories and didn’t pay any attention to the order – just the revelations of Keaton’s character and ability. It doesn’t really matter as chronology does not have that much to do with overall enjoyment of the series, but it is an odd pursuit.
(Man, I put too much work into this section.)

Director Masayuki Kojima and Art Director Ikeda Yuji, indeed several of the same crew, got together recently for Urasawa’s Monster which has a small but devoted following. It looks very similar, at least on an aesthetic level, so fans of either should definitely check out the other.
The series looks very nice, if oddly dated for the time – DVDs based on 1999 anime and authored in 2003 should not have such poorly defined lines – and is handled from time to time by more than competent people.
It’s nice to see an episode written and directed by Kawajiri Yoshiaki, but even better than that is the episode storyboarded by Rintaro. “Blue Friday”, the tale of Daniel’s retirement from the world of bachelorhood, is wonderful to look at: washed hues of blue and red, camera angles, and even some fake fourth wall make an already excellently written episode shine completely.

About the only thing that confirms that the series was made in 1999 is that it features Kuwashima Houko as Yuriko. Keaton is played personably by Inoue Norihiro, and many of the guest characters are voiced by superstars of the late eighties and nineties: people like Inoue Kikuko, Tsuru Hiromi and Hisakawa Aya. Even Shimamoto Sumi (debut 1979!) shows up. Haishima Kuniashi scores the series with his delightful “celtic” beats (appropriate for only one episode, but they work well enough as European entertainment, to general success. However, his third ED leaves something to be desired; the first two were songs by bands of the genre “L’arc but not L’arc”, so Haishima’s work can simply not stand up to it.

As with Yakitate!! Japan, Master Keaton educates the viewer about things that they never thought they would know. Both of these programs are so good that you simply want to know. With thirty-eight different stories, this series is not short on variety. Master Keaton is scarcely six years old, but it has a much older worlde feel to it. it won’t find a home with the anime mainstream, but it deserves to be a secret gem.

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