As the esteemed readers of this blog (all 3 of you) may remember, back in 2020 I took a look back at a beloved series of mine, Cowboy Bebop. Following this revisit, I found myself taking baby steps back into fandom, which included listening to the excellent Bebop Beatpodcast. In the 32nd installment, the gang invited on distinguished anime analyst and critic Mike Toole to discuss the penultimate episode of the series. In Mike’s commentary of The Real Folk Blues Part I, he mentioned how Spike was partially modeled after a prolific Japanese actor by the name of Matsuda Yusaku. Coincidentally, it was at around this time that I happened upon a video of Matsuda wrecking shit matched to Bebop’s distinctive background music. Meanwhile, talk of the live-action Cowboy Bebop was starting to bubble up, resulting in an urge to see the “original” Spike Spiegel in action.
The tipping point came when one of the many Showa-themed Twitter accounts I follow posted a clip from a TV show which featured Matsuda stumbling around, bathed in the neon lights of 1979 Tokyo. Between the grungy beauty of the pre-bubble cityscape and Matsuda’s swagger, I was immediately drawn in. The account was kind enough to include the title of the show in question, which led me to an immediate Google search. While work kept me busy, I managed to find time over one fateful winter break to fire up my Japanese Hulu account and embark on the classic TV series Tantei Monogatari.
To the uninitiated, Tantei Monogatari (Detective Story) is a 27-episode live-action TV series that ran from 1979 to 1980 starring Matsuda Yusaku as the main character, Kudo Shunsaku. Kudo is a scruffy private detective whose job often gets him wrapped up with local organized crime, petty thugs, corrupt high-society, and the cops. Being a PI, one of the key draws of the show is the myriad of weirdo clients that come to him for help. Kudo-chan–as he is affectionately referred to by the cops (and fans in real life)–occupies a gray area in society, many times (reluctantly) taking on jobs that his clients feel uncomfortable approaching the police with. While at times the job is as simple as looking for a missing lover, or someone’s lost pet, nothing is ever as it seems. Episodes are extremely punchy, with many twists and turns, typically reaching either a shockingly tragic or extremely comedic ending.
One can definitely see the Cowboy Bebop DNA in Tantei Monogatari. While not at all a space western, the episodic structure, numerous guest characters, and tonal shifts certainly seem like a blueprint for Bebop. Then there’s Kudo-chan himself–it’s clear that his appearance and a portion of his character shine through in Spike Spiegel, but they are in no way the same. In fact, both Spike and Jet can probably be distilled from Kudo-chan: While Spike is a lone wolf and arrogant like Kudo-chan, Jet is anal-retentive and has a strict personal code of conduct, also like Kudo-chan. It’s only in the last episode that the audience gets a slight indication as to the sort of past Kudo-chan has endured, and how his outlook on life is clearly based on tragic events, much like Spike. Similarities can be found in the career choices of the Bebop crew and Kudo-chan as well, with both being freelancers who take on any job for the right price–that said, judging by his lifestyle, I think Kudo-chan probably has better cash flow.
Anyway, Tantei Monogatari is great. As alluded to earlier, each episode is done-in-one, typically covering a job that Kudo-chan agrees to take on… or some incident he finds himself caught up in. The creative staff features a ferocious murderers’ row of writers who each have a handful of episodes to their names, crafting stories with many unique styles and perspectives. As a result, Tantei Monogatari is an interesting lineup of exciting, sorrowful and wacky outings–with some episodes featuring all of the above.
A look through the writers’ resumes reveals that some of them worked on anime, with many of them having experience on Lupin III. It makes sense–Kudo-chan’s style of dress is very similar to that of everyone’s favorite lecherous thief, and he’s even compared to the iconic character in the very first episode. Among these writers is one Yamatoya Atsushi–the writer of Mystery of Mamo and chief script editor for most of Lupin III Part II. He lends his hand to Diamond Panic, one of the wackiest episodes of the show–a complete package containing comical amounts of death, explosions, and some cartoonish one-off characters who look like they walked straight out of a Lupin episode. Meanwhile, Miyata Kiyoshi, who wrote the shocking finale of the series, Downtown BluesI need to talk about this last episode, but that will be for another post, was also quite heavily involved in Lupin, writing some classic episodes from the first and second series.
Breathing life into Tantei Monogatari‘s eclectic stories is the show’s crack-team of directors. Murakawa Toru, prolific hardboiled director and frequent collaborator with Matsuda, directs a large selection of episodes, and from what I can tell supervised the entirety of the show. A quick examination of the credits reveals that other directors on the show may be part of a Murakawa posse, having worked with him on a lot of other hardboiled dramas, with some later going on to direct V Cinema. One of the directors, Kato Akira, had an illustrious career in Nikkatsu Roman Porno films–and it shows in his contributions to the series, as they contain a lot of sexual humor and women in various states of undress. Suffice to say, each director brings their own tastes to the series in their contributions–while sometimes this results in experiments that fall a bit short, a majority of the episodes hit hard, and the wide range of styles keeps each installment different from the last.
Strong efforts made on the production side would be naught if not for an excellent cast. Luckily a juggernaut like Matsuda Yusaku is the star, carrying the show with his charisma and nuanced portrayal of the idiosyncratic detective. Among his many qualities, Kudo-chan demonstrates strong empathy towards Tokyo’s many social outcasts. While we never learn anything detailed about Kudo-chan’s past Materials released after the show’s broadcast claim he is from Yokohama and worked as a cop in San Francisco, but this is never mentioned in the series it is clear from his approach to life that he likely had a rough go at it coming up, and as a result, he is very friendly with the working class of 1970s Tokyo. Many of Kudo-chan’s acquaintances engage in professions that are typically not well looked upon, with prostitution, black-market arms dealing, and low-level yakuza thuggery just being a few examples.
There are several times in the series where Kudo-chan reprimands people–specifically, his clients–for talking down to those involved in either blue-collar or underworld work. He will also clash with the police, jeering at them with remarks such as “without my tax money, you guys can’t put food on the table!” Intentionally or not, Kudo-chan can be viewed as a champion for the underprivileged, deliberately rejecting social norms in the interest of equality. This aspect of his character is reinforced by the many times in the series where it’s clear that the community in which he has embedded himself looks to him as a leadership figure.
This counter-cultural depiction of Kudo-chan also works to paint him as a compelling and wild antithesis the stereotypical salaryman–a class of people still viewed as elites when Tantei Monogatari was made. In complete opposition to the “client is king” mindset that drives the classic salaryman, Kudo-chan has specific rules that govern his work: he does not take on jobs outside of standard working hours, does not talk about work while enjoying a meal, does not get involved in family matters, and is not persuaded by money. Of course, these rules are meant to be broken–but his outspoken desire to at least try and adhere to a code of conduct that rejects unreasonable social norms towards work is endearingly badass. Out of all of these rules, the one he typically breaks is “not being persuaded by money,” but in most cases he never sees the cash due to his own foibles.
Kudo-chan’s goofiness and weaknesses are what make him such an endearing and lovable character. While he tries his best to put on a badass façade, he has a lot of weird quirks: To name a few, he sleeps in amazingly hot pink pajamas, gets noticeably tilted when people mess with anything in his office, and has an extremely nerdy fascination with coffee–something which is played for laughs in the excellent opening credits. There is also a curious gap between the arrogant nature to which he engages with his friends, and a distinct meekness he takes on when meeting clients (for the first time, anyway). Along with these quirks, the show takes time to paint Kudo-chan as someone who has an appreciation for culture–he often enjoys luxurious steaks and western liquor at dinner, and is shown listening to jazz at piano bars during his off-hours. We get peeks into many sides of Kudo-chan throughout Tantei Monogatari, and each look at his daily life works to paint him as an extremely multi-faceted and engaging character.
Matsuda’s contribution to the quality of the show is mammoth, as the instances where he only has minor appearances distinctly suffer. Yes, despite being the main character, there are a handful of episodes of Tantei Monogatari where Kudo-chan has very little screen time. This is likely a ramification of Matsuda’s busy schedule during this time In the fourth-wall breaking next-episode previews that show up later on in the series, Matsuda does allude to his busy schedule impeding him from appearing in the show for certain episodes. While I have no insight into the production schedules of his various projects, when Tantei Monogatari was on the air, Matsuda appeared in five films as the lead, and guest-starred in two other movies. Needless to say, the dude was busy.
That’s not to say that the show doesn’t have a great supporting cast–because it does. Top of the list among these fun side characters are Detectives Hattori and Matsumoto, a dumb-and-dumber combo who either try to suck information out Kudo for their own gain, or scheme to pin him as the culprit for whatever case they are working on in order to fuck off of work early. Hattori, portrayed by Narita Mikio, is an always-worn-out, sleazy cop with pasty white skin who cannot talk without constantly clearing his throat, and has an incredibly stiff neck that can only be loosened up with a hammer (that he keeps with him at all times). He typically plays the good cop in the equation, whereas Matsumoto–portrayed by Yamanishi Michihiro of Abunai Deka fame–is the dim-witted and short-tempered bad cop, who will take whatever chance he has to rough-up Kudo-chan. The dynamic between Kudo-chan and the cops changes as the series progresses, and while they try to eventually get on Kudo-chan’s good side (to ultimately make their jobs easier), Kudo-chan never sees them as anything more than slaves to the system him and his friends are suffering under.
As expected from any pulpy series from the 70s, Tantei Monogatari has a revolving door of sexy female guest stars, but the evergreen female supporting cast is made up of Takeda Kaori and Nancy Cheney–who from what I can tell play themselves, as their names in the show are simply “Kaori” and “Nancy.” They seem to be engaged in a weirdly amorous-yet-platonic relationship with Kudo-chan, often exchanging light kisses with him–but at the same time Kudo-chan does make unwanted ass-grabs and other creepy gropes, which are appropriately met with retaliatory violence. Living in the same building in which Kudo-chan houses his office, Kaori is an aspiring actress and Nancy is an up-and-coming model. They are of course unsuccessful in their endeavors, and the joke is that they typically have to resort to taking on jobs assisting Kudo-chan in order to get by–but at the same time, Kudo-chan frequently owes them money as well. Between Kaori’s cynical attitude and Nancy’s stereotypical “American” directness I would like to offer props for Cheney’s incredibly fluent Japanese–pretty sure she’s putting on her gaijin accent a lot of time, their casual and frank interactions with Kudo-chan and his clients keeps the proceedings light when they need to be. There is also Masako–affectionately called “Boin-chan” for obvious reasons–a female lawyer who makes appearances in the first half of the show. She is at times a sidekick for Kudo-chan, and their weirdly flirtatious interactions mixed with petty bickering makes for amusing interplay. Her legal knowledge gives her the edge when dealing with the two corrupt detectives, making for amusing shenanigans.
Rounding off the side cast is a group of characters who form the community around Kudo-chan in the comfy 1970s Tokyo ghetto. These colorful friends make minor appearances, but often times provide Kudo-chan with either the tools (mostly firearms) or information he needs to solve his cases, adding another layer of flavor to enrich the show’s worldview. Some of the more prominent characters in the gang include Dandy, a large bearded man in full Italian mafia attire who works as an informant; Iizuka, a film buff who runs an antique shop that is a front for the sale of guns; and Tattoo Guy (Irezumi Mono), a character who goes through a mysterious casting change mid-series In which he is referred to as “Tattoo Guy Part 2”. Tattoo Guy probably sticks out the most among these minor characters, noticeably becoming more active upon the casting change. Early on in the series, Tattoo Guy is a shirtless dude who walks around with the words “Tattoo Guy” written on his back in magic marker, and is essentially a running gag. After the casting change, he is still absent of any real tattoos, but starts wearing a shirt that has a yakuza tattoo pattern on it. In his new form, he is portrayed as a small-time thug who makes multiple trips to the local jail for hilariously minor infractions. Affectionately referring to Kudo-chan as “sensei,” he at times helps with cases by providing information on the movements of local gangs.
With this rich cast of outcast characters mixed with stories that focus either on petty crime or high-level corruption, the show paints a stark picture of 1970s Japan. Being a very pulpy director, I’m not sure how much actual commentary Murakawa and crew were trying to get into the show–but seeing as a majority of the production staff had lived through both the war and Japan’s revival, it makes sense that they would focus on the inherent inequality in society and shine a light on the people who are just trying to get by.
Vice and indulgence play a big part in this: Many scenes are set in period-appropriate discos or amid the red light district, with brothels, known as “Turkish Baths,” These establishments would later become known as “Soaplands” in the 1980s after a protest led by a Turkish exchange student and the women who work at them making regular appearances. The show also likes to linger on moments with Kudo-chan and friends getting drunk at bars and izakaya, or chowing down in grungy mess halls. As a millennial who came up through The Great Recession, using what little money you have to engage in hedonism in the form of food, booze and sex just to make the most of your meager existence really strikes a chord. Furthermore, the manner in which the show constantly depicts both law enforcement and government as inherently corrupt continues to ring true today.
To step back from the social commentary, on a visual level show is a beautiful time capsule of old Tokyo, showcasing the vivid neon lights of old city centers, rundown shitamachi alleys, and old western-style buildings. Seeing as most of the buildings and establishments in Tantei Monogatari no longer exist, having the chance to experience them throughout the show’s 27 episodes is an extremely valuable experience for a junior Showa-Era-appreciator such as myself. One of the best examples of a classic run-down locale is Kudo-chan’s office, which is a large and convoluted early-Showa brick building that is “western style” but still has a lot of characteristic Japanese influence. In reality it was an old pre-war hospital, and had to be torn down in 1998 due to extreme deterioration. The ending sequence also features a location that has changed greatly in the four decades since Tantei Monogatari’s run, and that is Shibuya Koen Doori. The closing credits show Kudo-chan leaning up against an electrical box while eating ice cream, and behind him is an expansive mural made up of reproductions of The Mona Lisa, The Gleaners, along with some original paintings. Of course, this area is now a row of random chain establishments with very little flare or character.
Underpinning the proceedings of Tantei Monogatari is an excellent soundtrack by SHOGUN, who perform both the background music along with the opening and closing themes. The show is bathed in funky 70s jazz, driven by punchy bass, slick electric guitars and rich horns, borrowing sounds from western dramas of the time like Charlie’s Angels, CHiPs or Columbo. The opening and ending numbers are both sung and written entirely in English by SHOGUN vocalist Casey Rankin. I would like to imagine that he was asked to dumb down the lyrics for the opening to appeal to Japanese viewers, with the both the title of the song and its refrain being the simple phrase Bad City. The opening is a fun piece that starts off with a moody blues harp and shifts quickly into an aggressive bassline and imposing horns. The more mellow and jazzy Lonely Man serves as the ending theme, and has slightly more nuanced lyric writing. Despite both being kind of goofy songs, they highlight some of the show’s main themes quite well. “Bad City” is clearly about the inherent corruption within the show’s setting of Tokyo, and “Lonely Man” highlights how Kudo-chan ultimately operates as a lone wolf when things get tough.
I would love to direct you lovely readers to a streaming service where one can partake of Tantei Monogatari in English, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available outside of Japan, and from what I can tell there are no fansubs of the show either. If you know Japanese and have the means, the show can be watched on Japan’s HuluAs of August 2022 or via an expensive Blu-ray boxset. You will be rewarded for your efforts, because if you couldn’t tell from the multitude of paragraphs preceding this one, I think Tantei Monogatari totally owns. While it primarily entertains through its pulpy nature and retro aesthetic, the critical social viewpoint (either intentional or otherwise) elevates the material by leaps and bounds. And with a legendary actor like Matsuda as the lead, Tantei Monogatari a classic from start to finish.