In murder as well as mystery, execution is key.
In keeping with this season’s trends, I’m going to start another post by saying that X genre can be a hard sell for me. The genre this time is mystery. I love a good mystery integrated into my stories, mind you—who’s this strange person, what’s the relationship between these two characters, why’s all this weird stuff happening in town, and so on—but your straight “whodunit” stories? Not so much. The question “who committed this crime?” simply isn’t enough of a draw.
So, if you want to hook me with a mystery, you need to accomplish at least one of two things: Compelling character drama, or an atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fortunately for the rather sparse fall season, The Perfect Insider is two for two in that regard.
In summary form, Perfect Insider doesn’t sound all that new or compelling: A brilliant professor and an equally bright student go to a private island to visit a genius (this one with a criminal record) and stumble across an intricately posed dead body. Locked rooms, powerful computers, possible past grudges, and complicated family histories are all present, and none are exactly new territory for a murder mystery. Yet where PI may not dazzle with its premise, it more than makes up for it in its execution.
The narrative is tightly controlled and polished, establishing its characters through key scenes and dialogue before moving us into the central plot, and those characters continue to form the crux of the story even after the corpse turns up. Memories and journal entries tease out new details about individuals both living and dead, as well as draw some curious parallels between the protagonist—19-year-old Moe, bright in every sense of the word and harboring feelings for the cynical professor Saikawa—and the prodigy scientist Magata, who may have been in a relationship with her own doctor as a young teen.
As a result, the mystery is as much about (a) murder(s?) as it is about figuring out what makes our characters tick, and what events led them to this moment in their lives. I’m a little concerned about how the series intends to deal with the potential statutory story line that’s developing via flashbacks, as the young Magata is being credited (by a highly subjective and unreliable narrator, mind you) with a lot of power and agency in a situation where she really doesn’t have any. Still, while it’s worth mentioning for content warning’s sake, it’s thus far been handled with a steady blend of tasteful and unsettling, which bodes well for the story as a whole.
As deftly as it handles its well-written cast, all of whom are at least a little self-contradictory and struggle to communicate or interact with one another, Perfect Insider‘s greatest strength is the atmosphere it’s building a little stronger with each episode. Elements of the production seem to be carefully crafted to contrast with other elements to lend an air of eeriness, a sense that everything is just a little “off,” to pretty much every interaction, even the seemingly benign ones in the first episode.
The character designs and animation are more restrained than in a lot of anime, leaning towards realistic expressions and movement. Yet the color palette is muted and washed out as if under the sterile white lights of a morgue or interrogation room, making those “realistic” characters pale and ghostly, corpse-like. Add to this the camera’s propensity for straight-on shots, which feel intimate at first and then become intrusive, like we’re constantly staring at people, scrutinizing every change in their body language, and it lends the story an air of the surreal, an unreality painted over the real one.
Touches of strangeness and absurdity sprinkle the canvas at increasing frequency. Characters who initially seemed warm and open react to a dead body with almost emotionless calm. People shout at a helicopter pilot over the sound of whirring blades and the pilot acts as if he can hear them. A corpse stands in a hallway with a sheet draped over it. And computer monitors and television screens take over the scene at skewed angles, looming large over others.
The story itself is fairly quiet—more discussion and deduction than blood splatters and chase scenes—but that encroaching sense of wrongness soaks each scene with increasing unease, and encourages the audience to keep their eyes open for clues about both the murder(s) and the characters. We’re early into what’s looking to be a fairly complex story, so I couldn’t tell you where it’s going at this point, but I’m buckled in for the rest of the trip, that’s for sure.