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Cop Craft

Cop Craft

Written by Robert Frazer on 06 Oct 2020


Distributor Manga Entertainment • Certificate 15 • Price £19.99 (DVD) / £34.99 (Blu-Ray)


After marvelling at the googly eyes of the monsters in Cagaster of an Insect Cage I’ve had some time to reflect on the strange changes of perspective that arise from cultural differences. Those of you who remember when the new generation of modern Mini Coopers was first rolling onto British roads around the early 2000s may also recall how they were marketed with fun comedy advertisements. “New Mini goes in search of the lost city – finds it! The End!” (It’s a Mini Adventure. Clever, see?). It was a massively successful campaign and went a long way to making the Mini the coolest, hippest thing that all my contingent of 17-20 year-olds wanted as their first car. You’d think that successful marketing would be a simple example to show off elsewhere, but when I went to visit family in Australia around about the same time I was astonished to discover that their Mini advertisements were completely different, involving two dudes throwing a Mini with screaming burning-rubber tyres down a desert highway before they both ditched and started beating each other up on the roadside. Different cultures need different appeal, but even so it perplexed me when for the first half of the series Kei Matoba, the hero of Cop Craft and a tough hard-boiled detective not too far off the Dirty Harry model, drove around town in a new Mini. I mean, the Mini Cooper is a nice car and all and Michael Caine and all the other cheeky cockney chappy crooks made The Italian Job a jolly fun film, but still… a Mini. It isn't exactly Steve McQueen tearing up San Francisco in the Ford Mustang GT Fastback from Bullitt, is it? Cultural differences cut both ways – in Cop Craft Shoji Gatoh wants to relive thin-blue-line dramas through the medium of anime, and this show will be an investigation into whether a Japanese author can live up to an all-American genre.

Shoji Gatoh certainly had a huge earnest inspiration in his project – he is most famous as the author of the classic mecha/school mashup Full Metal Panic! and more recently he wrote the fanservicey comedy take on Rollercoaster Tycoon known as Amagi Brilliant Park, but he was so keen to break out of his mould and try something new with Cop Craft that he is reported to have gone to the extremity of writing the first volumes of the series on which this anime is based under a pseudonym, as he was risking being pilloried by angry otaku for taking attention away from his fan-favourite Full Metal Panic! His new series does have an appropriately murky past for a crime drama: Cop Craft’s subtitle “Dragnet Mirage Reloaded”, glimpsed in the opening credits, is actually a reference to an earlier version of the story. Shoji Gatoh wrote the first two volumes of the light novel for the publisher Takeshobo who released them under the Zeta Bunko imprint over 2006-7 as Dragnet Mirage, with illustrations by Rokoro Shinofusa (who’s never been featured in an English release up to now). After the “Zeta Bunko” imprint was discontinued, rights for the light novel were sold to Shogakukan who relaunched the series in 2009 under the new title Cop Craft, and Shoji Gatoh has extended it to six volumes with new illustrations by Range Murata – who is a lot more famous to Western audiences as the designer for well-known shows like Last Exile and Blue Submarine No. 6, and whose substantially altered designs have been used as a basis for the art of this anime. The original title of Dragnet Mirage shows the story’s inspiration, obviously a dreamlike magical reflection of the classic American police procedural Dragnet (you know, the one that goes “Daaaaaaaah-dah-dah, DAH”).

 

San Teresa is a city in an island territory of the United States of America, deep in the Pacific Ocean. Fifteen years ago, a mysterious portal to “Semania”, a weird realm of elves and goblins, opened just off the coast of San Teresa – and if the USA’s border problems weren’t already agonising enough now it has to contend with the island becoming a place that is not just a simple wall between countries but a liminal phasing mingling metaphysical continuum between whole planes of existence. Millions of Semanian fantasy beings have come through the portal to settle on the island, and San Teresa’s strained police department is run ragged trying to keep a lid on transdimensional smuggling. One of the department’s veteran detectives is Japanese-American Kei Matoba, and he’s chasing down leads on the latest vice to infest the dark alleyways of San Teresa – fairy dust, a drug which reduces its abusers to a mind-melted near-zombie state.

The thing is, “fairy dust” is not just some street slang for the latest batch of meth – it is literally fairy dust, derived from the rendered-down bodies of actual fairies – and as these fairies are fully sentient beings, this is a gross trade in murder. In the interests of cross-realm cooperation, orders from on high assign Matoba an unwanted partner – Tilarna, a pipsqueak of an elvish noble but nonetheless a haughty sword-wielding knight with a superiority complex all out of proportion to her diminutive size. Can Matoba and Tilarna, two radically different people from radically different worlds, overcome their animosity and mutual incomprehension to crack the case and bring the criminals to justice?

Before I delve deeper into Cop Craft as a show, I need to talk a little about the case the anime came in. Take a gander at the blurb on the back of the box here:

 

I was astonished at the roughness of the copy. Let’s break it down:

Plus point: “bring a knight to a gun fight” – decent pun, a good start.

Minus 1: “based on the popular light novel from Shoji Gatoh, the light novelist” – clumsy to mention light novels twice.

Minus 2: If you’re name-dropping famous creators, the failure to mention the Range Murata influence is a surprising omission.

Minus 3: Cop Craft is an urban fantasy buddy cop scenario where the contrasting counterparts are enhanced and exaggerated between fantasy and reality. Not only is “the knight Tilarna” yet another repetition, why would you not highlight that Tilarna is an elf princess to enhance the distinctiveness of the series’ key hook?

Grade: C, could do better.

It might seem unfair to fixate on the packaging rather than the show itself, but I would disagree. The blurb is still a key way to promote the show – even if you’re buying it online rather than browsing for it in HMV, the Amazon listing will still be based off of it – and a slipshod lack of care in the external presentation is also a tacit admission from the license company about the low quality of the show itself. If the company doesn’t care enough about its own product to show it in the best light then it suggests that it’s just something cheap and dirty that they’re shoving out of the door with the least effort with no expectation of a big return.

Circumstantial evidence? Maybe so, m’lud, but the prosecution must contend that in the case of Cop Craft there is more to bear that verdict out.

I can’t fault Shoji Gatoh for his ambition – Cop Craft comes across as the child of someone who loved imported buddy cop shows like Starsky & Hutch and Miami Vice and really wanted to make his own place among them. The basics are there – excitable “last time on Cop Craft!” recaps at the start of every episode like a network show designed for syndication; tropes that Last Action Hero was calling out decades ago like the ranting black police chief, here presented unironically as the writer wants to be true to the atmosphere; Matoba even attempts a Columbo-style “one last thing…” question at the end of an interview with a slimy politician. Cop Craft unfortunately fails to tie all of these together into a coherent whole.

Nearly thirty years ago Manga Entertainment released Mad Bull 34, one of its classic range of schlocky OVAs from the grindhouse era of Western anime in the early Nineties. Another Japanese pastiche of American buddy-cop shows, Mad Bull 34 was overstuffed with sex, violence, and sexual violence, but for all of its ludicrous departures from reality it had such a wildly anarchic spirit that the writers were completely bedazzled with the image of rootin’-tootin’ ten-four yeehaw Yankees that the title has endured as a guilty pleasure of anime veterans decades later. I really don’t see Cop Craft making such a mark in people’s memories.

For a start, the action in Cop Craft is simply atrocious. Cop Craft sounds like a show that, on paper, could be mentioned in the same breath as Cowboy Bebop with policing enhanced by fantasy the same way the latter had bounty hunting enhanced by sci-fi, but If you’re expecting tough streetwise brawls or slick cool kung-fu in Cop Craft then you’ll be sorely disappointed. Activity of any kind frequently slips back into panning across still frames – even something as simple as a car pulling out of a parking space is seen in slide-show. There are a few sword-fights when Tilarna faces off against Semanian crooks but these are nigh-unintelligible, just a hasty flick-book at juddering sketches of each character switching sides of the screen in place of any actual choreography. Some panning shots around Matoba’s car are only achieved by very obviously plasticky CGI (even the exhaust is just a flat filter pasted directly onto the screen), and his gunfights will be supplying plenty of ‘QUALITY’ for internet memes: one scene towards the end where a wrestling character tries to reach for a holstered gun could only be achieved by him growing a third arm, and another where he fights an assassin in the street has figures so disproportionate that the editor apparently forgot to insert the key-frames around the in-betweens.

Even when a scene starts off well, bad direction spoils it: when the crew are fighting a vampire, Tilarna cries that it is invulnerable but it’s nonetheless easily beaten when a SWAT team lets rip on full auto and riddles it with bullet holes. I liked this, it was clever – it reminds me of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Innocence” where the lore surrounding a monster agrees that it is invincible, but all those medieval accounts could only say that it was not harmed by swords and spears… it was never tested against rocket launchers! However, the smart up-ending of expectations is ruined when it’s followed-up by a ridiculous sight when the vampire is just held in place as it's being shot, standing up and juddering on the spot with its arms shaking out like one of those fan-operated dancing-noodle tube men.  It's the equivalent of a bored animator rattling his pencil on his desk.

This atmosphere-puncturing incident also indicates that the tone of Cop Craft is all over the place. For instance, in first scene of the first episode a drugs bust goes south when a druggie uses magic to break his cuffs and strangle a policeman to death with inhuman strength. There are no delicate discretion shots around it: distended neck, bulging eyes, swollen tongue, it’s full-frontal brutality. We see this horrific corpse laid out, staring in a silent sightless scream up at the viewer – and then we immediately cut to a jaunty, jazzy opening sequence full of smiling characters, fireworks and circus acrobatics. It’s tonal whiplash that’ll snap your neck as messily as that poor copper’s. 

If Cop Craft is bad at catching criminals, then it’s bad at finding them too. The anime may reference Dragnet in its title but whereas that show put great stock in its authenticity (to the extent that lead actor Jack Webb was considered a de facto member of the LAPD and he was buried with police honours in 1982) police work in Cop Craft is pretty ropey. Tilarna is allowed to take a whole crate of evidence off the scene and home with her, a bizarre practice apparently only done to set up a contrived bodyswap scenario when a magical artefact in the box malfunctions.  A politician has been arrested in a brothel but he can’t be prosecuted because “video evidence isn’t enough these days.” I understand that electronic evidence is getting easier to fake, but this john wasn’t just snapped on a grainy camera – he was cuffed by uniformed officers in flagrante delicto while straddling the undercover Tilarna inside the knocking shop. I think even Saul Goodman would have his work cut out trying to convince the court that he merely tripped over her. After the episode where Tilarna goes undercover at the brothel she subsequently strikes up a friendship with one of the other hookers there: Matoba warns her off from socialising but Tilarna refuses to stop. This is presented as a discussion between two alternative policing philosophies but it's flat wrong: Matoba is objectively correct and Tilarna is being unreasonable, childish and stupid. Not only are Tilarna’s antics potentially jeopardising the upcoming trial, with her sunny presumption that everything will be lovely between her and the workin’ girl Tilarna doesn’t seem to have twigged to the small but pertinent fact that SHE’S A NARC! How did she think this was going to end? Spoiler Alert: not well.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the plot being rushed? While the original Cop Craft light novels have not been translated, reportedly the storylines in this anime version are cherry-picked from across all six volumes and heavily compressed: the opening story arc stopping the ‘fairy dust’ drugs was originally a whole light novel, but Cop Craft cut down to just three-and-a-bit episodes a story that in another anime would have taken as much as a whole cour to relate. This has probably elided much of the investigative parts of each plot – when two members of the department get information from a witness and find her being beaten by an abusive boyfriend, they’re in such a hurry to chivvy the story along that they start interviewing the black-and-blue woman in the corridor while kneeling over the man they’ve just knocked out. However meatier these stories were in Japan, though, that’s no use to us here in the UK and they remain insubstantial on this disc.

Thin stories also extends into a thin setting – Cop Craft completely fails to take advantage of its modern urban fantasy background with a total dearth of imagination. It’s shocking to see how bland and pedestrian a place San Teresa is compared to the wondrous magical borderland of Jerusalem’s Lot in Blood Blockade Battlefront. The fairies are never even mentioned after the first story arc, and the only other Semanians we see throughout the whole series are these elves – who talk like humans, dress like humans, use human technologies and even their ears aren’t all that noticeable half the time. Even the series’ main villain, who makes a big deal about protecting Semanian culture from Earthling decadence, wears human clothes. Tilarna is literally the only character to look even remotely distinctive with her tribal-style outfit but barely anything else from her world of fantasy impacts upon the human world in which she’s arrived. There’s a fairly half-hearted comedy episode midway through which reveals that the most popular contraband to smuggle back through the gate into Semania are porn mags (Range Murata’s art is cameo'd on the cover of one, which feels a bit like a backhanded sort of compliment!) because camera technology doesn’t exist in Semania, but… don’t they have artists? Is Japan, the land of hentai, really trying to say that you can’t jerk off without photography? It seemed less funny and more weird.

The Semanians do have their own language and multiple dialogues are conducted in it, which is a nice touch, but trying to find other distinctive things peters out after the first couple of episodes: Cop Craft does make moderate effort on this at the start where Matoba has to research Semanian cultural references (such as finding out that Tilarna’s apparent mispronunciation of his name has been a deliberately insulting Semanian pun and she's been snickering behind his back the whole time), which are great little tidbits which engaged me - when Matoba is browsing a Wikipedia article on Semania it's written out in full rather than just being lorem ipsum. However, such attention to detail is soon lost - the story rapidly loses any interest in exploring this sort of cross-cultural comprehension and by the end of series the blue-blooded elvish knight Tilarna is such an uncomplicated citizen of the American Way that she’s outright quoting the US Constitution at people. If by cutting down on the fantasy Cop Craft was aiming for the gritty street-level atmosphere of disenfranchised communities in The Wire, it missed.

Cop Craft also commits a fatal sin of a buddy-cop show…. the cops aren’t great buddies. Tilarna and Matoba have zero chemistry and I got no sense that they had any real rapport beyond basic on-the-job obligation. Cop Craft does actually do one interesting thing with this set-up: in a buddy-cop formula, the buddies are contrasting counterparts, with one being the by-the-book straight man and the other being the off-the-wall rogue maverick. Matoba is the straight man of this duo, constantly upbraiding Tilarna on her disregard for proper police procedure, but there are layers to the maverick: not only is it unusual to have the near-loli sized anime girl be the Rico of the show but there’s a bit of nuance as well because Tilarna is a straight man in her own way (she is a sworn knight) just reading from a different book – however, again, it’s a dislocation which remains completely under-explored.

Problems with the ancillary material go beyond the bad blurb that I mentioned further up the review: the special features of this disc version of Cop Craft are, sadly, entirely dismal. There are no clean opening or ending sequences, which is a particular pity for Cop Craft as it has pretty good ones. The opening in particular has lively neon casino snazziness with diegetic credits that would have been good to see without the completely superfluous white supertitles being imposed over the top of them in the main episodes. Instead, all we get for a bonus is the episode “Beautiful Knight! Pursue the Captured Fairy!” which is no extra OVA or omake because it is the original broadcast Episode 9.5 and was shown as a straightforward recap of the plot of episodes 1-4 before going into the final story arc. Also, it's a load of rubbish.

Now, I have no fundamental objection to recap episodes as a concept – they’re a simple fact of life of television anime, and while they’re a symptom of behind-the-scenes production problems, being inserted to fill a gap when new episodes are falling behind their broadcast deadlines, this isn’t always the studio’s fault (“the earthquake smashed my hard drive” can be a reasonable excuse in Japan) and understanding the gruelling near-sweatshop conditions a lot of studios struggle under I find it hard to begrudge the beleaguered animators a bit of breathing space. A recap episode can be less embarrassing than broadcasting half-done episodes (Bakemonogatari and Psycho-Pass are two well-known series which came in for not a little derision when they literally showed rough and unfinished animation) and recap episodes themselves sometimes can be quite fun on their own merits, with new framing scenes recontextualising the action. Cop Craft’s recap episode however, is a recap of the laziest and most perfunctory sort, comprised entirely of episode clips you’ve already seen with no alterations or touch-ups. There’s barely even any additional commentary - Tilarna chips in a few times with extra lines but they’re just to link scenes and provide no insight, so as voice-overs go it ain’t exactly Double Indemnity. The only difference is a new ending song, but again it just plays over clips of previous episodes and there is no new ending animation.

The whole bonus episode is the emptiest filler and it baffles me that Manga Entertainment included it. Recaps do make sense when a series is still on television and you may have forgotten a detail from a couple of months ago, but for a home video release where the episodes themselves can be replayed any number of times at the touch of a button basic clipshow-only recaps of this style squander disc memory. The UK anime industry isn’t exactly flush with cash these days, and the BBFC charges by the minute to review footage before certification, so why on Earth did Manga tip preciously limited money down the drain paying for a perfectly redundant 24-minute episode instead of the much cheaper option of three minutes for a simple clean OP/ED pair? I'd prefer to have both recap and clean credits, even if only for completion's sake, but if it has to be a choice of only one or the other then settling for the recap was a waste.

(Editor's Note: This review is based off the DVD version of Cop Craft. The Blu-Ray version does include additional special features including an episode commentary and clean opening and ending sequences, but these were unavailable for review.)

Why is Cop Craft so underwhelming? I suspect that one of the problems is Shoji Gatoh himself. Not only was he closely involved in the production, credited with “series composition” – the original writer taking a too possessive and controlling interest can sound alarm bells for an anime, as Gunsliger Girl: Il Teatrino attests – but there are implications to Cop Craft originally being broadcast in Japan in 2019. The last Cop Craft light novel came out in 2016, so it seemed odd that an anime was being made three years late for a series that, while not officially cancelled, had nonetheless long been effectively wrapped up. Indications of more going on came early in 2019 when Range Murata posted new Cop Craft art on his Twitter account suggesting that it was the cover illustration for a seventh volume which was in the works: however, Shoji Gatoh failed to deliver on his end and the seventh book never came out. Cop Craft looks so cheap and rushed then because it was probably only ever intended to be a quick summary of the series, and not much effort was put into it as it was only a commercial to raise awareness for a new book… which never arrived. Maybe if Shoji hadn’t wasted time rewriting his own scripts for half the episodes he could have spent more effort on new material. Manga Entertainment really has lumbered us with the failed cast-offs with Cop Craft.

I wanted to like Cop Craft, I really did. The basic premise sounds right up my alley and it means well, it has ambitions and untapped potential for anime classic that’s both exciting and mature, but there are so many other shows that do it better. Blood Blockade Battlefront has more colour and imagination; Psycho-Pass has more investigation and reflection; Mad Bull 34 has more spirit and fun. Cop Craft is a disappointing, inadequate show that fails to reach its own high concept. It may be inspired by police dramas but it clearly doesn’t understand them.


Extras:

Audio: English 5.1 surround sound and stereo Japanese. English subtitles can be manually turned on or off for both audio tracks. DVD Special Feature: “Beautiful Knight! Pursue the Captured Fairy!” bonus episode. Blu-Ray Special Features: “Beautiful Knight! Pursue the Captured Fairy!” bonus episode; Episode 1 commentary track; clean opening and ending sequences.


4
Dragnet Mirage Misfired.

Robert Frazer
About Robert Frazer

Robert's life is one regularly on the move, but be it up hill or down dale giant robots and cute girls are a constant comfort - limited only by how many manga you can stuff into a bursting rucksack.


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