I admit that I love a good mystery, especially when they're reminiscent of creations by Conan-Doyle and Christie. The suspense, dama and tension in those stories is sometimes breathtaking, however their on-screen adaptations are often a little more lacklustre.
Enter then, Nijuu Mensou no Musume or, to give it a snappier title, "The Daughter of Twenty Faces" (I should point out that the show also has the unfortunate title "Chiko, Heiress of the Phantom Thief" for some odd reason - I prefer the middle title as it has a certain grandstanding, operatic quality about it which is more in keeping with the series).
The story is loosely based on the detective novels by Edogawa Rampo (the author's pen-name), in which the lead characters were often an eccentric but skilled detective named Kogoro Akechi, and his arch nemesis Kajin Nijuu Mensou (the Fiend with Twenty Faces). The anime version is an adaptation of the manga that was released in 2002.
Where the anime version deviates from the works of Edogawa is in making the main character a girl who gets caught up in the exploits of the famous thief known as Twenty Faces. She views her "kidnapping" by Twenty Faces and his gang as a gift, and rapidly warms up to her new "family" - the reasons for this being made obvious in the first few episodes.
The plot is very well paced throughout the series and, whilst the main story is split into two very clearly defined arcs, the method in which the story is handled is very subtly different in the second arc. The first arc is dramatic and mysterious, especially when Chizuko (Chiko for short), considers the mysterious man known as Twenty Faces. The second arc has an added sense of adventure which is brought about by the introduction of Shunka Koito. Although the second arc tries to maintain some of the same suspense as the first, it never quite matches up to it as the audience by then is well aware of Chiko's capabilities, and knows that she will find a way to come out on top.
The animation is, for want of a better word, excellent. The characters move with a natural surety and sense of rythm that's wonderful to see, and this is not only prominent in action sequences, but in the quieter moments as well. Each of the characters is also very well designed, with a sense of individuality to them. One thing that I liked was the sometimes subtle changes made to each of the characters to show the passage of years.
The backgrounds and backdrops are very well made, with an exceptional amount of detail in them. These make a very atmospheric and realistic setting upon which the action can take place. CG has been used to great effect in the series, and is sometimes almost indistinguishable from the normal animation.
As far as the music goes, the show has a very atmospheric soundtrack that is reflective of it's post-war setting (i.e. 1950's). The OP is a very nice track called "Kasumi" that has a certain tragic yet hopeful quality to it, whilst the ED, called "Unnamed World", is a very upbeat ditty sung by Hirano Aya (who also plays the role of Chiko). One nice thing about the two theme songs is how reflective they are of the two story arcs without actually giving anything away.
The effects are extremely well used in the show, and actually have a greater impact on the viewer than one would expect. The sounds are very atmospheric, and when added to the music, gives a scene a certain "completeness".
As I've already mentioned, Hirano Aya plays the role of Chiko, but this is no Suzumiya Haruhi typecast, oh no. Chiko is calm, capable, and very, very clever, and it's nice to see Hirano displaying a wider range of talents here than she is normally able to. The other characters are equally as well portrayed, however the main focus of the show is Chiko, which is one of the downsides to the series (not a big one though).
It should go without saying by now that Chiko is an extremely well realised character in the series, and her growth and development is well handled in both the scipt and Hirano's acting abilities. Unfortunately, the series has a wealth of characters who I would have liked to have known more about. The original members of Twenty Face's gang for example, and the reasons why they joined him were things that could have been included. That said, I found it both surprising and pleasing to find that the mysterious Twenty Faces is actually rounded out very well come the end of the series, mainly through the use of flashbacks.
I found that I enjoyed this series a lot. Whilst it does suffer from a certain transparency at times, it does have a lot of action and mysteryto keep you interested. The sub-plot in the second arc was actually more interesting for me as it went into more detail about the "Great War" that Twenty Faces alludes to in the first arc, and not even the antics of the "Detective Girls" could stop me from wondering what would happen next.
What I found nice about the series as a whole was that it is clearly an homage to Japan's first mystery series featuring a recurring detective and nemesis, and the flavour one gets from the story is very Conan-Doyle, a fitting tribute since Edogawa was heavily influenced by him. The fact that Kogoro Akechi appears in the series, and is on the trail of Twenty Faces is great to see, however there are more homages to Edogawa's novels than just the obvious, one in particular appearing in the final episode (see if you can spot it, and if not, then just ask).
This is a good series that just misses the mark of being great, primarily because of it's focus on Chiko. The lack of attention to the other characters (in comparison to Chiko that is), gives the whole series a slightly unfinished feel come the end. Whilst it does have the feeling of a classic detective story, it lacks that certain polish that comes with a cast of characters you actually care about.
On the whole though, it's a very good homage to Japan's first great detective novelist, and it would be nice to see more mysteries of this kind.