4 September 2004 | BrianDanaCamp
An anime hero with intellect, compassion and a global view
"Master Keaton" is a Japanese animated TV series that offers serious storytelling, mature characters, and events and settings based firmly in the real world. As such, it should satisfy not only fans seeking a change of pace from the more popular anime fare of space opera, short-skirted HS girls, and dueling monsters, but also non-fans looking for well-told stories about a resourceful hero who uses his wits and extensive knowledge to solve a succession of genuinely intriguing cases. The half-English, half-Japanese Taichi Keaton is, by day, an insurance investigator for Lloyd's of London, but also an archaeology professor, and his diverse interests send him on cases all over the globe. A decorated army veteran who's occasionally compelled to use non-lethal force, Keaton tries his best to handle every problem with brains, not brawn. Each story is self-contained and the range of stories is designed to show the man's command of esoteric knowledge and the high degree of empathy required for dealing effectively with all sorts of people.
The stories frequently require the hero to use his archaeological skills to peel away layers of information and history to get at the truth. Tastes, smells, sounds, and individual objects evoke memories which bring forth lost knowledge or provoke changes of heart in antagonists. In the end, it's all about rediscovering something lost, making something whole again and reuniting people who've been separated. A businessman in Germany seeks to locate the daughter he'd lost when he fled from East to West Germany 18 years earlier. In Soho's Chinatown, a young Englishman learns the art of Chinese cuisine from the lost recipes of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen. A celebrated composer suffers writer's block when his hated father falls on hard times and only a particular melody can set things right for both of them. The aroma of a mint plant helps Keaton himself to understand his mother's return to England from Japan (and break-up with his father) when he was five.
Nature plays an important part in many of these stories. A mountainous region of Japan is where a father searches for the son who ran away to free a pet hawk. The harvesting of grapes in the midst of a World War II battle is the key to making a French vineyard's only batch of perfect wine. A rose garden and a new breed of rose figure prominently in a murder mystery. Keaton's ability to survive in a harsh Chinese desert region saves a group of archaeologists who've run afoul of local muslims.
Some stories are basic thrillers involving planted bombs, kidnapped businessmen, hostage crises, and the transport of a "Robin Hood"-type prisoner, with no police help, through the prisoner's home turf. There are even a few murder mysteries among the 25 or so episodes seen for review.
However, the best stories in the series invariably involve family and history and digging through the past to understand the present, such as the one about the German father searching for his daughter and the one about Keaton probing his own family history. (Keaton's father and high school-age daughter make regular appearances.) One of the most fascinating tales in the series is told in "The Thistle Emblem," in which Keaton goes to Edinburgh to research a coat-of-arms insignia found in Japan and learns the story of a 17th century Scotsman who started a still-thriving distillery, but was then run out of the country by the English. Most of the endings are happy, although sometimes the past is no match for an unsympathetic, unstoppable future. The vineyard which created the perfect wine of 1944 will soon be transformed to make a more commercial mass-market wine.
The far-flung settings provide opportunity for the background artists to recreate, in admirable detail, a wide range of picturesque settings from England to Japan to different nations of Europe and back to England (where a large number of the stories are set). The music has a European folk feel to it, with some nice Celtic flavor on occasion. Some episodes are better watched with the English dub track, others with the Japanese track. The English dubbing could be better (particularly that of the actor who voices Keaton), although the British accents for many of the characters are generally well handled.