Psychic Detective Yakumo Episode 1 – Seen It All Before
Ok, stop me if you’ve heard this one: a guy with a glowing red eye he hides with a contact has the ability to see in the spirits, and teams with a younger girl who doesn’t necessarily like him to solve mysteries which delve into the supernatural? Well, if you’re new to anime maybe you haven’t heard this one before, but trust me that I could double or triple those links with a little more effort.
Of course, novelty isn’t the only thing in the world, as solid execution and strong characters can make even a common premise interesting and engaging. The problem with Psychic Detective Yakumo isn’t that I can link to three other shows currently offered streaming that have similar plot elements; it’s that that each of those linked shows had a far better first episode. That Psychic Detective Yakumo had a middling first episode at best doesn’t guarantee it will be a bad show. But lacking both originality and quality straight off doesn’t inspire confidence.
So what is this show about? Well, Haruka Ozawa foolishly agrees to join a bunch of friends on a “test of courage” by entering the abandoned and supposedly haunted building on the outskirts of her university campus. One of her friends who took the test with her gets possessed and another, also seeming possessed, later commits suicide. Uncertain what else to do, she turns to Yakumo Saitou, an older student who supposedly can see ghosts.
After a rocky first meeting, Yakumo decides to take on the case, and from talking to the ghosts possessing Haruka’s friend, learns that the are the victims of a serial killer who has been keeping their bodies in the building. After the apparent suicide of another of the students who took on the test of courage, Haruka and Yakuma meet up with concerned Professor Takaoka, whom both the audience and Yakumo can instantly figure out is the killer. Yakumo locates the right evidence and passes if off to the authorities, but Takaoka kidnaps Haruka in the meantime to kill her off too, for defiling his personal sanctuary.
Yakumo of course rescues Haruka, Takaoka is arrested, and Yakumo helps Haruka reconcile with her long dead twin sister, showing that she doesn’t consider Haruka at fault for her death. We get a final scene of what is likely the show’s main villain, who seems to have the same powers Yakumo does, only at a stronger level, and appears to somehow be able to make ghosts visible to other people. So there’s some hint early on of an actual metaplot, which is always a plus.
The problem is that all of this is rather perfunctory. There aren’t any surprises about the villain, we don’t doubt that Yakumo has actual powers even when Haruka catches him faking some others, and—although it’s not clear from the end of this episode—we know that Haruka and Yakumo will be working together in the future. The open-and-shut nature of the case removed any sense of mystery; there’s no real whodunit aspect to the crime or attempt to misdirect the viewer. One wonders why the police even needed help.
I don’t want to make it sound like this show doesn’t do anything different. Aside from the fact that the show is set in college rather than in high school (the default setting for all anime), which is a welcome change, Yakumo’s powers are extremely low-key. He relies on them to determine the basic nature of what is going on, but after that simple observation is all that leads him to the culprit. This is a show with supernatural elements, but it is not enslaved to its gimmick.
Since Haruka doesn’t seem to be lacking much in the observation category either, it’s possible she’ll be able to take an active role fairly early on. While she didn’t have much going for her this episode, aside from being an appropriately cute kidnapping victim, she does figure out how Yakumo uses simple magicians tricks to bolster his reputation (and wallet). She’s obviously not just a damsel to be distressed, however much she gets pigeonholed into that role here. But with her dead little sister released of her burden and now having moved on, she loses the only interesting part of her backstory. And her normal interactions with Yakumo are just too much in cliche “I dislike you but think you’re cute” territory to be that interesting.
It’s really hard not to compare this series unfavorably with Fuyumi Ono’s Ghost Hunt, which I linked to at the top of the review. While the latter had the misfortune to be set in high school, it managed to have stronger chemistry between the leads, a better sense of mystery about its proceedings, and a more interesting cast of secondary characters. (The opening for Psychic Detective Yakumo indicates that we haven’t seen the full cast of heroes yet, but the two introduced this episode weren’t promising.) Nearly all of that can be attributed to the quality of Ono’s writing, which I’ve had cause to praise in my Shiki reviews. I’ve never heard of the writer of Psychic Detective Yakumo, but he’s not on the same level.
I should give this show some praise for being willing to at least kill off incidental characters to prove the situation is serious, and show some genuinely disturbing imagery in the form of the possessed woman, but for the most part this show seemed as bloodless in the literal sense as it is in the figurative. Of course, Ghost Hunt waited for a full story arc before it started delving into full-out horror territory, but it managed to be engaging from the beginning. Psychic Detective Yakumo starts off with a serial killer, and still can’t properly generate a sense of menace. That takes a certain type of skill, and it’s not the good kind.
Look, maybe this simply had a rocky start; I’ve seen shows like that. Maybe in another episode or two after it’s finished introducing the full cast it will get into the meat of the series and we’ll have genuine mystery and horror. But I think, if that’s what strikes your interest, you’re better off sticking to Ono’s work. (Is it another week before they start releasing Shiki episodes again? It can’t come soon enough.)