Right Stuf introduced the Lucky Penny label in 2012 as a way for the company to license & release anime that they felt didn't quite meet the criteria for the Nozomi label that was introduced in 2007. Right Stuf wanted Nozomi to be more for beloved titles that the company can put out in with things like boxsets, not to mention expect to simply sell more than other titles. In turn, Lucky Penny would be simpler releases for anime that either just wouldn't have enough art assets to warrant boxset production, or simply would have been too risky or niche for even the Nozomi label. While it started slow, the LP label has brought us titles like Ristorante Paradiso, Hyakko, & re-releases of Princess Nine & Ah! My Buddha. At Anime Expo last year, however, "Dark Lord" Shawne Kleckner announced that one of the new LP releases would be for a show that no one, & I mean NO ONE, would have ever expected getting licensed. As someone who loves seeing stuff like this happen, I can't ignore it when the DVD set is now out (plus, I had planned on watching & reviewing this show one day, so might as well do it now).
In 2006, writer Meito Manjo & artist Seiji Wakayama debuted Suteki Tantei/Fantastic Detective Labyrinth in Kodansha's Magazine Special, home of manga like Gacha Gacha, Pastel, & School Rumble Z, & ran until 2008 (totaling eight volumes). A little over a year after the manga debuted, a TV anime adaptation by Studio DEEN started up & ran for 25 episodes. As was the usual thing of the time, it was fully fansubbed in English while it aired in Japan, before becoming outright forgotten almost immediately after it ended. In the years since it never came up in any real conversation & more or less simply became one of those anime that just came & went. That's what made Kleckner's announcement at AX last year such a surprise, but it was the reason why he & his company picked it up that rekindled my interest in checking it out: It was simply a show that he & his people came across recently, found very enjoyable, & felt that it deserved a chance over here. Upon being released, however, reviews more or less put it down, calling it disappointing & lackluster. So was Labyrinth a show that was meant to be buried under the sands of time, or did the reviewers simply miss what Kleckner & his army of minions saw in it? Well I can't quite answer that definitively, but I can at least toss my hat into the ring.
It's been 30 years since a giant earthquake ravaged Tokyo like none before; it was later deemed The Great Fall. Afterwards, a new city called Shinto was made around the outskirts of Tokyo, and when Shinto was made the new capital after most of the populace moved there, the ravaged old capital was renamed Kyuto. Since then, Kyuto has become home to many "phantom cases", crimes that look to have no discernible culprit, motive, or even evidence. The Shinto police force is technically in charge of protecting Kyuto, but don't really care to do their job, except for two detectives: Ryusuke Inogami & Miyako Tomaru. Lately, they've been able to solve some phantom cases by way of a series of mysteriously helpful phone calls by someone who can explain everything. Tracking the phone call leads them to a European-styled mansion in the middle of the forest, and inside they meet Mayuki Hyuga, the 12 year old boy who has been calling them. Turns out Mayuki has a power unknown to him that allows him to locate the "exits of the labyrinths" & solve cases put before him. While helping out the detectives, Mayuki will also try to solve the mystery behind his power & family lineage, especially when a mastermind named Seiju starts challenging Mayuki with mysteries.
Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is what I would call an anime about personalities. While it does seem like it would be a mystery anime just by going off of the title, it's really more about the characters themselves & not so much about figuring out the crimes. Every character has some sort of memorable personality quirk behind him or her, whether it's Mayuki's love of tea, his maid Hatsumi's impressive array of means to fall down spectacularly, Inogami's general semi-aloof demeanor, etc. I'll talk about the mysteries in a bit, but the story of Labyrinth is truly more about characters & the sense of family than it is about playing detective. The characters are quick to understand & fast to enjoy, and the show isn't afraid to poke fun at itself. The best example of what I mean by embracing personalities is in every single next episode preview. Absolutely none of them actually talk about what the next episode is about, but rather involve some combination of characters conversing with each other & generally acting silly or playing around with how they interact. For example, Mayuki is usually shown as being an accidental playboy simply by being cute & adorable, so every female child or teen is quick to be with & snuggle him. In turn, one or two preview bits act like Hatsumi or Sanae (another friend of Mayuki's) might just be shotacons, or even joking that butler Seiran is so protective & loving of Mayuki that he might be gay; nothing mean-spirited, but instead humurously awkward. While there are plenty of serious moments in the story, it's the personality-based lightheartedness that makes the show what it is.
In fact, the focus on personalities is so strong that I would argue that the title is almost a lie. To be fair, there are mysteries in the show & there is a focus on solving them, but whereas in a series like Detective Conan or Kindaichi Case Files, where it's first & foremost about figuring out who did it, Labyrinth focuses more of the motives & how it was done. It's never really a question about who commits each of these crimes for the viewer, so instead the focus is on figuring out why the person did what he or she did & how it was done, all while seeing the characters figure out who committed the crime. To some that's probably going to come off as outright blasphemous for a mystery series, but that's where I say that the title is almost a lie. While the mysteries do have that feeling of "You can figure out how it was done, too!", it really is more about seeing how the characters react to & solve the crimes, i.e. it's about seeing the personalities in action. Granted, I'm not exactly the best at solving these kinds of mysteries, so I usually end up experiencing them in action than trying to actively solve them (though I try), but I think it is a neat way to mix the mystery genre in with other elements instead of simply being focused mostly on that. I bring this up because, if I have to give a guesstimate as to how much of one genre this show is compared to the other, Labyrinth is 60% mystery & 40% supernatural... At least in the first half.
You see, the real underlying thread throughout the entire story is the real mystery of the show, which is the lineage of the Hyuga Clan & Mayuki's psychic-style power, which is called Shinchi/The Knowledge of the Gods. Essentially, Mayuki can subconsciously use Shinchi to figure out the entire crime, or "find the exit to the labyrinth" (as he puts it), once he comes across all of the necessary evidence & clues, which is what the mystery solving aspect really focuses on. There's also the mystery of the Hyuga lineage & how it relates to a large portion of the cast. For example, Seiran isn't just the butler, as he also acts as a protector for Mayuki from behind the shadows, utilizing Hatsumi & Sanae as Aya, which are essentially human "dolls" that Seiran can command. As the story goes on more major characters are shown to have some relation to the Hyuga, though Mayuki's school friends are more or less exempt from direct relation to the mystery. This is all slowly built up & revealed in small bits during the first half, with the various crimes being the major focus. If you've focused on the mystery aspect while watching this show, however, then the second half may turn you sour, and I think that's the direction where most of the recent reviews came from.
Half-way in, the main villain Seiju reveals himself to Mayuki, and at this point the show's focus changes somewhat. After a couple more episodes, the crime solving mystery aspect is more or less dropped (with Detectives Inogami & Tomaru even being shown less), and the show focuses almost exclusively on the mystery of Mayuki, Shinchi, & the Hyuga Clan. The supernatural aspect gets more focus, but it's not like it stops being a mystery series, per se. Instead, it becomes more about developing characters & explaining more of the past. You find out how Sanae & Hatsumi first met Mayuki, why they were chosen by Seiran to become Aya, & how Seiju is involved with the past of the Hyuga. In fact, the second half kind of promotes Seiran to a full-on lead character, as he winds up seeing more of his past & story revealed, while Mayuki tries to figure things out himself, as he knows nothing of his importance & relevance to the grand scheme of things. Another important character is introduced in the form of Shien, Seiran's older brother who's presence forces Seiran to actually advance against Seiju rather than react to his actions. Since the manga was still running while the anime aired, though, it makes sense that the anime winds up diverging from the original story, and from what I can find out (i.e. Wikipedia Japan) the second half is where it moves away; whether it's the entire second half or somewhere in it I can't verify, though. In the last stretch the show becomes a bit more action-focused, but by then the story has built everything up & it feels like the only natural result, honestly. Even then, the action is from the Aya, Seiran, & Seiju; it's not like Mayuki can fight.
Throughout all of it, though, the biggest theme of all is that of family, and I mean that in many ways. There's the direct idea that the story, & a number of characters' backstories, revolves around the Hyuga Clan. There's also the obvious lesson that "family" doesn't have to be through blood, but simply through bonds that are strong enough between people. This is pretty much the best aspect of the show, too, simply because it's executed very nicely. Sure, it can be seen as a bit of a tired thematic & idea in many fictional stories, and you call me hackneyed if you want, but I really enjoyed seeing all of the characters strengthening their bonds & reassuring each other, especially Mayuki as the story goes on, that family is what you make of it. That being said, the show also flips the coin & showcases the downside of family by way of the backstory of Seiran's lineage, the Shinano Clan. The Shinano have acted as guardians of the Hyuga for generations, but that dedication, use of people as Aya, and the dedication to the traditions of the Hyuga showcase the times when family can be strained & hurtful. Sure, it's a well-traveled & maybe even trite plot device, but it's one that I can never get tired of, much like how I always welcome action. This, along with the semi-deceitful mystery concept & personality-based storytelling, is where the show will either keep a hold of you or lose you completely.
Considering that Labyrinth was animated by Studio DEEN, which is notorious for not breaking the bank when it comes to animation, the show is relatively simple visually, but stylistically looks great. It's a cool mix of traditional Japanese & distinctly European, with the environments being obviously Japanese in look, but the characters all tend to dress in a more European-influenced style, especially those who are involved directly with the Hyuga Clan; it helps give the show a distinct feel. Director Hiroshi Watanabe (The Law of Ueki, creator of Hell Girl) does a fine job here, with the show never dragging along or looking terrible by any means; the usual tricks of limiting animation are used, but at least they're done well. A big reason why the characters worked so well for me, though, is because of the dialogue, which just felt natural & overall well written, so credit is given to series composer Natsuko Takahashi (Moyashimon, My Love Story!!). Admittedly, the plot relies on some easy to notice conveniences near the end, when it diverges from the manga, but the positives more than outweigh the negatives here. The character designs by Yukiko Akiyama (Isuca, Black Cat; also the chief animation director) adapt Seiji Wakayama's original artwork nicely (at least, from what I can deduce from manga covers) and are another part of the interesting, European-influenced look.
Finally, the music by Kei Haneoka (Hana & Tsukimonogatari, Pani Poni Dash!) is also a nice highlight, doing a great job at establishing the proper mood of each scene & moment, not to mention having a couple of fondly memorable tunes in general. The opening theme, "Monochrome" by Kannivalism, is simply exquisite. Written to match the themes of the manga, I'll readily admit that this was the only thing I knew of the show until I finally saw it, and that's because it's simply a very well produced song. Whether it's the general beat, the ephemeral sensation it gives off, or the fitting lyrics, "Monochrome" is not just one of my favorite anime OPs of all time, but also a sadly unknown one due to the fact that few really have seen the show before the DVD release over here. The ending theme for the show's first half, "Dakishimete" by Ө/Theta, is a nice slow song that works well to finish off each episode it's used in, but one that I couldn't quite attach to like the opening; Haneoka's BGM version is very nice, though. The second ending theme, "Lover's tone" by me_ho, originally felt like the first ending in that same regard, except it was a faster song with some autotune used in the chorus. As I kept listening to it with the episodes, however, it slowly grew on me; the upbeat execution just sticks in my head after I hear it. It's not a top ED for me, like the OP is, but I was surprised by how much I ended up liking it.
The voice cast is another highlight, with each seiyuu helping add to the personalities of their respective characters. Leading them all is Miyuki Sawashiro (Mint in Galaxy Angel, Fujiko Mine in recent Lupin the 3rd productions), whose Mayuki is a big part of why the character can indeed be considered absolutely adorable. Seiran is voiced by Junichi Suwabe (Archer in Fate/stay Night, Aomine in Kuroko's Basketball), who more or less stays very stoic in his performance until the last few episodes, adding some nice raw emotion to the character. Possibly the best performance from the most major characters, though, is that of Sho Hayami (Sea Horse Baian in Saint Seiya, Max Jenius in Macross), who is really why Seiju works as well as he does; Hayami more or less just performs Seiju like he was Aizen from Bleach, which is perfect. Shien is voiced by Showtaro Morikubo (Goro in Major), who brings about a consistent amount of appropriate wackiness in the latter half of the show, which slowly moves towards serious. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the likes of Sayaka Ohara (Tomaru), Kana Ueda (Hatsumi), Ryoka Yuzuki (Sanae), Yui Horie (Byakko, Seiju's Aya), Romi Park (Kota, one of Mayuki's friends), & Katsuyuki Konishi (Inogami), among a good number of other very good performances.
While I wouldn't go as far as to call Fantastic Detective Labyrinth a "Love it or Hate it" anime, it's definitely one that marks a notable line between either enjoying it or finding it poor. The writers behind the recent reviews seemed to put their hopes more on stuff like the mystery aspect of the first half or the belief that the post-quake environment of Kyuto would be built upon & more established (instead, it's more or less a backdrop with some minor world building). Looking at it from that perspective, the non-traditional way the first half handles its mysteries & the change in focus in the second half, can definitely be looked at as negatives. Also, the show isn't exactly breaking any new ground & can be seen as "playing it safe". That being said, the biggest appeal in Labyrinth is in its characters, and if you end up really liking them above everything else then there's a fair chance you'll end up enjoying this show a good bit. It may not be a title that tries to challenge you, but at the same time you can never really fault a show for doing what it does really well, at least from a certain point of view. I think I wound up enjoying this show for, more or less, the same reasons that the people at Right Stuf likely did & why they felt that it was worth bringing over. This won't go down in history as an iconic anime of its time, but I'd say Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is still worthy of being called a hidden gem.