So there are occasionally shows that seem to float around the Otakusphere like poorly kept secrets and creep up every time someone mentions a latent desire for a particular brand of program that isn’t widely represented in anime.
Master Keaton is one of those shows.
Now, I’ll admit that I’d heard about Master Keaton well before someone else told me about it, mostly because I have a tendency to watch the previews on anime disks (I actually watch them on movies too. The sad thing is that I do it more than once sometimes if I really like it.) But I had heard it mentioned right alongside the likes of Monster by the folks over at Anime World Order. I do like Monster. In fact, I like Monster a lot.
And on the surface, the two shows do have some things in common. In particular, Naoki Urasawa drew the manga for both shows, so they have similar character designs. They both feature a fairly realistic story (arguably more realistic in Keaton’s case.) They were both directed by Masayuki Kojima. Last but not least, they both have a central theme which ties the episodes together.
That’s where the similarities end. While Monster follows a larger overall arc, while separately investigating the nature of the monster, Master Keaton examines culture clashes in a rigidly episodic formula. Don’t get me wrong, they are both good shows, but comparing the two would be like trying to compare MacGyver to The Saint – an interesting diversion, but largely a fool’s errand.
Like I said prior to this, I had heard about the show years prior to actually deciding to watch it. What had turned me off from buying it was the promo, which made Keaton sound like some sort of Japanese version of Wesley Crusher. The entire promo was capped off with the line, “He will find out that he is all of those things and more. He is a jack-of-all-trades and master of them all. He is Master Keaton.” And if that isn’t a cornball line, I don’t know what is.
The funny thing is that Keaton is easily the most interesting character in the show. In fact, contrary to the promo he isn’t really a jack-of-all-trades. For the most part, he’s an insurance investigator, who really wants to be an archeologist. He is a divorcee, who doesn’t seem to get to spend a lot of time with his daughter (we never see his ex-wife or his mother who also divorced his father.) He’s half-Japanese and half-English, but he doesn’t really fit into either culture fully. He gets clubbed over the head, dropped into a well, has his leg broken and gets left in the desert to die (all in different episodes.) So while, he might be good at what he does, he certainly doesn’t seem to have the Deus Ex Machina luck that Wesley Crusher has.
In fact, his character is best summed up in the last episode when he’s fencing with one of his former trainers in the SAS, “… you’re fighting style is unique, but the problem is that it’s too unique. That’s why you’ll never be a Professor, just a Master.”
And if anything is true about Keaton it’s that he is certainly unique. In fact, he sits as a kind of half-blood prince who doesn’t really have a homeland. And this tension between cultures permeates the series. You have the poor against the riches. The young against the old. Refugees and nationalists. It’s a show (much like Monster) that circles around these themes from every possible angle and as soon as you think you have the message figured out it switches on you. It is definitely a unique show for that.
But I’m not sure if it’s really good.
The problem with the show is that it’s episodic. And like most episodic shows, there are some truly stellar episodes and there are a bunch of decent episodes and there are some hackneyed cobbled together trash episodes that have no business being in the show. I mean it’ll have a tense desert escape episode right next to an episode about growing flowers. It has episodes like “Blue Friday” which is a clever homage to Casablanca. And then it has an episode about saving an endangered Malay tiger from the Tong. This leads to something that Monster never seems to have – tonal inconsistency. This isn’t helped by the horrible, horrible dub.
Both of those things work to undermine what could otherwise be a truly remarkable show. But instead leaves it as a show with some brilliant episodes that is largely forgettable.