It’s difficult to review some films based solely on their individual merits. And when you consider the fact that a film like Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare is part of a film franchise inspired by a 22-year-old Japanese manga series, it makes matters even more complicated. The truth is that when you watch The Darkest Nightmare, it’s most likely you’re not watching one film, but all 20 films in the franchise at once. In your mind, you’re comparing the most recent installment with its predecessors, both the critically acclaimed and the universally panned. In your mind, you’re hoping it won’t be as disastrous as last year’s Sunflowers of Inferno. If you’re an optimistic fan who has managed to remain undeterred despite the franchise’s unevenness, you might even hope that this one might be the next The Phantom of Baker Street (2002), a film that for many symbolizes the golden age of the early Detective Conan films.
Nostalgia is often a double-edged blade for films that boast a history as long and fruitful (and as lucrative) as the Detective Conan series (also known as Case Closed). For people in East Asia who grew up in the 1990s, Detective Conan was a formative experience in their childhoods, a publication that steadfastly offered the frisson of murders and crime solving with the trappings of PG-13 fun. Pre-teenagers identified with the protagonist, Conan Edogawa, a high-school detective turned primary schooler because of a mysterious drug, and his ragtag band of friends, all of whom were more or less the age of their readers. But while the characters of the manga and the films have remained in the same age range despite all these years of serialisation, the manga series, which began in 1994, is now entering early adulthood, and the issue of growing pains has become more apparent.
Adapted from the manga series, the Detective Conan films have occupied a strangely peculiar relationship with its originating material. While the films have provided a platform to realize large-scale spectacles rarely rendered in the manga series, the manga is still conventionally regarded as canon. Audiences often take issue with the Detective Conan films when they feel the cinematic counterparts of their favourite characters are behaving out-of-character. And not every one is thrilled that over the course of two decades, the Detective Conan films have become decidedly less detective procedural and more action blockbuster.
The Darkest Nightmare starts with an all-out action sequence, complete with quick getaways and highway car chases, à la the Matrix and Fast and Furious franchises. The narrative of The Darkest Nightmare, however, is more of a mixture of the two Jasons (Bourne and Bond), with its focus on spy agencies, intelligence leaks, and the aftereffects of amnesia. At the very beginning, the film introduces Curaçao, a new character and a Black Organization member who has succeeded in hacking into classified files from Japan’s police headquarters. The notoriety of the Black Organization, the main antagonist of the whole series, has led many intelligence agencies around the world to plant their own spies in the organization in the hopes of infiltrating and destroying this criminal syndicate. The identities and true loyalties of those spies, however, face the danger of being leaked when Curaçao accesses the classified files. Although soon discovered by the police, Curaçao manages to escape. Trauma from a severe car crash, however, leaves her memory impaired. She is found by Conan Edogawa and his friends, the Detective Boys, at a newly-opened aquarium the next day and they befriend her, offering to help her restore her memory. Meanwhile, the manhunt of Curaçao by both the police and the Black Organization rages on and each are desperate to use Curaçao for their own means.
The choice to have an amnesiac Curaçao, who was supposedly an antagonist at the beginning of the film, become friends with the Detective Boys proves to be a winning storytelling strategy. The audience’s emotional investment in the character and her plight increases as Curaçao shows a warmer and more humane side in her interactions with the children. For viewers familiar with the Detective Conan universe, their concern for the character is probably further compounded by the fact that it’s unlikely that Curaçao will survive at the end of the film, for any character of importance must be introduced by the manga, not the film franchise. Perhaps our enjoyment of the character is even accentuated by the fact that the issue of her mortality is never far from our minds.
The Darkest Nightmare is definitely one of the more engaging installments in recent years, thanks to the creation of Curaçao as a character and its choice to focus on its protagonist’s battle of wits (alright, not so much wits these days as the ability to use paraphernalia that defy the laws of physics) against the Black Organization. While Conan’s warfare against the Black Organization is the underlying story arc in the manga series, it is a storyline that is frequently teased yet only sporadically portrayed. Full-scale action sequences and high-stakes confrontations are rare, and so when they do occur, it’s always a titillating experience for devoted fans who have been invested in the series for a long time. And from the perspective of a longtime fan, many parts of the The Darkest Nightmare would seem especially rewarding. Not only is there an allusion in the film to Jinpei Matsuda, a deceased character and a fan favorite, but there are also direct confrontations between the two characters Shuichi Akai and Tooru Amuro, something which manga readers have longed to see, yet which has eluded them for so long.
Some viewers might still find fault with The Darkest Nightmare, but their grievances towards it might be more emblematic of larger issues surrounding the gradual evolution of a film franchise over the course of twenty years and how fans process and approve of (or in many cases, oppose to) the transformations and re-interpretations of a cultural text. Many fans have taken issue with the fact that the films’ crime-solving elements have become progressively weaker over the years and that the films have been reduced to cheesy action films filled with clichéd plots, loud spectacles, and beloved characters behaving out-of-character. But like the manga itself, the Detective Conan films have gone through a few transmutations in terms of style and genre affinity, and each new film seems to promise another tentative direction that could soon be solidified as a trend. For me personally, the Detective Conan films have come to resemble holiday family reunions in that they are big, festive occasions that rally up characters rarely seen together as an ensemble. And like family reunions, there are many things about the recent Detective Conan films that might exasperate you, but somewhere down the road you learn to roll your eyes and enjoy their company, for better or worse.