Matsuri Akino is pretty much entirely known for her shoujo horror classic Petshop of Horrors. What people might not be aware of is that she did other series, ones that weren't horror-themed, and today's review covers what may be the most underrated manga of hers that came out here.
KAMEN TANTEI (Masked Detective), by Matsuri Akino. First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2006.
Haruka and Masato are seemingly just a couple of high-school kids who hang out in a manga club, but in truth they spend their club time working together on mystery novels. It's a good thing that they have some experience with mysteries, as soon enough a series of mysterious deaths and suspicious plots start taking place all around them. The two are determined to solve every case they discover, including that of the identity of the masked man who keeps showing up to give them hints.
Once again, Akino has created another anthology-style work, although this time it's a mystery series instead of a horror manga, as well as one target towards a slightly younger audience to boot. I was understandably wary about this manga, but to my great surprise, it was genuinely entertaining. She basically took the same formula she used for Petshop and applied to a Hardy Boys-style mystery, and the result is kind of brilliant.
A big part of Kamen Tantei's appeal is in its leads. It would have been all too easy for Akino to just make teenaged expys of Leon and Count D and call it a day. While the dynamic between Haruka and Masato is somewhat similar, they are two very different characters (and I'm not just talking about the differences in age and/or gender). Haruka is the active partner, the one who is assertive, empathetic, and observant. Masato is the passive partner, being fretful and superstitious. He does have good cause to be, considering he can see ghosts as well. Together they make for a well-balanced pair, and even more amazingly, they aren't being set up as a romantic pairing. They make a perfect platonic pair and you could see how these two could actually be friends, even if Haruka tends to drag Masato along whenever she's got an idea.
One quality I always liked about Petshop was Akino's ability to interweave the personal narratives of Leon and D alongside all the morality tales. That same quality can be found here, and best of all Akino uses those secondary plot threats as the starting places for new chapters. As such, one story can bleed into schmoozing at a publisher's party or the two of them having to deal with their yaoi-loving Manga Club president. As such, this story feels more like a complete story and less like installments of a series like Encylopedia Brown. Really, if there's anything here that doesn't work, it's the titular man of mystery. Akino gives him this franticness which lies in contrast to his smooth and elegant appearance, but he is and always remains a blatant plot device. Whenever Haruka and Misato get stuck on a clue, he pops out of nowhere to steer them in the right direction. Still, the rest of the story is firing on all cylinders, with a great pair of leads and mysteries that intrigue without getting too convoluted or gruesome.
I've made it plain before that I really dig Akino's art style. The characters are handsome and rounded with pretty, jewel-like eyes. I do like how Haruka's larger-than-life personality stands in contrast to her tiny stature and feminine, pixie-like fashion sense. She clearly had a blast drawn Kamen Tantei himself, savoring every opportunity to swish his cape, move about theatrically, and perform all sorts of quick costume changes. The world of Kamen Tantei is not as dramatic and fanciful as that of Petshop, so she has to work more with dramatic lighting and the odd bit of ghoulishness to get any sense of atmosphere. Sometimes she gets a little over-the-top with dramatic poses and other sorts of shoujo-styled flourishes, but overall it's a good looking book.
Kamen Tantei is a true hidden gem of the Tokyopop library. It's a mystery anthology that simply works because Akino knows how to write great characters and how to stitch their stories together in a way that hides the seams of the anthology structure in a subtle and elegant way.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available. All 4 were published and all are currently out of print.