I’ve never been a huge fan of the Detective Conan franchise—known in the west as Case Closed due to title copyright issues in the USA (perhaps too many folks would have thought the program was about a barbarian sleuth…). The wildly popular series has been going strong in Japan since 1994, starting as a manga, then blossoming into a multi-media empire. The anime has over 1000 episodes, and the movie series (with a new entry released like clockwork every year) is up to 26 entries with the subject of today’s film review. It’s comfort food for mystery lovers, but I’ve always been a bit blasé about the property. I don’t really like the simplistic and weirdly angular art style of manga artist Gosho Aoyama, nor the way the main character is both a know-it-all and a do-it-all; he can just do everything. And yet, as I watched director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine, my perspective began to change by degrees. The charms of the series shined through a bit more clearly for me, and it clicked together in my mind: people love this movie in much the same way I have long enjoyed James Bond. It’s just a good time seeing a familiar hero with an expected bag of tricks handling a new and crazy situation with his associates, facing dramatic twists and turns, and (in the case of Conan more than Bond) the usual amusement of nosing out the perp through strained clue-noodling and a flair for grandstanding. Somehow, Black Iron Submarine manages some legit thrills and intrigue in a nigh-parodic amped up spy-thriller-mystery setting with decent animation and a workable and interesting plot.

I am not sure why I looked down on this property so much. It’s light-hearted fun, with a twist of darkness.

It may be helpful to touch on the main gimmick of the series as a whole before going into a plot summary of this specific movie. Our hero is Shinichi Kudo, and he, in the first episode of the manga and anime, is a teen detective who helps the police on difficult cases—but when Kudo gets attacked by some goons, they force-feed him an experimental drug to kill him off. Unfortunately for them, Kudo does not die but rather is shrunk into the body of a child. Kudo changes his name to Conan Edogawa (a combination of the names of famous mystery writers in Japan and the West), and in his new guise, continues to fight crime, solve impossible mysteries, and generally accomplish the ridiculous by working with the talentless private eye Kogoro Mori (Kudo does all the real sleuthing) and his high-kicking daughter Ran Mori (who had a crush on Kudo when he was in a more mature body). Along with the main trio, a Junior Detectives group also helps out on the cases, using communicator badges and outsmarting the adults. There are a few other bits—a dorky professor, a recurring inspector character, an evil shadow group known as the Black Organization… the members of the latter have the names of alcoholic beverages, such as Gin, Rum, and Chianti. Over the years and the dozens of movies and multiple hundreds of episodes, the TV specials, and more, Conan has also faced off against Lupin the 3rd, met a digital version of Sherlock Holmes, and crossed over with several of Aoyama’s other creations. For whatever the ideas behind the manga may not be outstanding and original, the formula has worked out amazingly well, and I regularly have students recommending the series to me.

The plot from the latest film features a huge sea base called the Pacific Buoy where sophisticated experiments in AI have produced a program that can recognize individuals through surveillance cameras, even if the only reference photos to identify the person are from many years prior. Basically, it scans cranial structure and the like and can accurately simulate how people mature over time—and so it could be a huge benefit for detectives looking for missing persons or criminals on the run. The engineer behind the technology is kidnapped by the Black Organization—particularly through the dastardly actions of Gin and a new guy named Pinga. In the process, they also kidnap Ai Haibara (played by the amazing Megumi Hayashibara), who (like Conan) appears to be a child, but is really an adult shrunk down to child size through that experimental drug. The engineer and Haibara are kept on a black submarine, and Gin tries to torment the engineer into giving away her secrets. Meanwhile, Conan (Minami Takayama—who was married to the creator of the manga for a time) is on the trail of the sub. The ensuing struggle includes special agents infiltrating both sides, with murder, car chases, submarine assaults, wild sea escapes, and the safety of Japan and the world (and basic human privacy) on a knife’s edge!

Movie Review: Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine

The plot gets rather convoluted with all the massive cast (the ones listed above are just a small sampling)—I got so confused trying to keep them all straight, and since some of the dudes and dudettes who show up on screen have similar appearances, added to fake-out masks and costumes, and double-agents, my head was spinning before long. Naturally there are also some long explanations of particular mystery solutions and pseudo-science or schemes flying here and yon. Still, by the end I thought I mostly understood what I had watched, and I was largely entertained throughout. The layers of intrigue around Black Organization’s machinations, the attacks on Pacific Buoy, the technology being targeted, the back story behind the engineer and Haibara, and the criss-crosses and double-crosses keep the audience on their toes. The surprises generally aren’t massive shockers, but learning how the villains manage their schemes, or the knotted and melodramatic back stories, provides a lot of plot chewiness. If there is an area to be improved, I think clipping a few stray side characters and drop-kicking a scene or plot-point here and there may have opened up the movie to a pacier, more exciting rhythm than what it manages currently.

The AI and privacy concerns are very topical, too, with the recent emergence of tools like ChatGPT and worries surrounding AI prevalent in the media—and close parallels to fads and media touchstones has become a hallmark of the series, with past films capitalizing on pop-trends as soccer or pirates or Hokkaido. In this film, the AI concern manifests as deep fakes are used in a prominent plot element late in the plot—a minor twist on the old masks from Mission: Impossible films. The surveillance state tech introduced in the movie (similar to “the Machine” from the Person of Interest television drama) is potentially quite draconian, and the fact that it could be used to easily reveal Haibara’s and Conan’s true identities (which of course becomes a compelling plot element) shows the sinister possibilities in our teched-up and connected world. I wish this theme had been leaned into a little more, though, as the engineer never seems concerned about her invention and how it could be used for evil; the good guys don’t seem concerned about the privacy violations so much as long as it’s not the Black Organization doing the bad things. I got the impression that if it’s the heroes doing the privacy invasions, everything’s grand and dandy.

Character performances are strong across the board, with no truly annoying vocal characterizations ala Doraemon: Nobita’s Sky Utopia (2023). Minami Takayama as Conan has the character pegged, exerting drama and seriousness when need be, but completely switching tone when Conan begins faking the part of an innocent kid, or switching to a friendly voice with playful situations, back to a spy-thriller authoritative voice in action or confrontational situation. Takayama has impressive breadth that she brings to bear in this film. I have been a big fan of Megumi Hayashibara for years, as she played many iconic anime characters of yesteryear (Lina Inverse from the Slayers franchise being a particular favorite)—and I didn’t even realize Hayashibara was in this movie. She manages a credible little girl voice without being overly cute, and she makes the complicated age-switched girl tick with a subdued energy. Yukitoshi Hori (Crayon Shin-Chan, Dragonball Z) is menacing as Gin, and the prolific Wakana Yamazaki as Ran Mori is powerful and daring, but doesn’t have so much to work with. The only real performance that inspired a bit of negativity from me was the mysterious Pinga (the voice actor for whom seems to have been deliberately hidden on promotional materials) the character’s raspy enunciations proved distracting to me.

Movie Review: Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine

Action sequences are mixed, but when they hit, they really slap, with the best for me being an assassination attempt/escape in which karate girl Ran drops from a building right on top of a dangerous Black Organization member. The following martial arts fisticuffs are well-staged and frantic, and even though Conan ends up saving the day (as usual), the exchange of shots and kicks and strategic maneuvers is heart-pounding. Other thrilling sequences include chases on the Black Submarine, various escape attempts, assassination attempts—heck, there is a really emotional event around halfway that punched me in the gut. Even with the creaky huge cast, Black Steel Submarine manages a wide spray of thrills and gunplay and explosions and drama.

Animation is not always up to the ambitions of the more frantic battles and chases, but usually traditional animation elements and CGI enhancements mesh well—exceptions being perhaps the overly realistic water, or a particular dramatic chase aboard the Buoy where the 2D elements clash and strain against the fast-flying CGI backgrounds. As with most Japanese animated films (of which there are many, many every year), most of the animation won’t win over jaded Western audiences, and Conan also has comparatively sparse detail for characters—but most of the action is fluid, blur effects for swift attacks are implemented well, and some CGI models blend so smoothly as to barely stick out.

As mentioned above, one thing that bothered me quite a lot back when I watched Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet was just how overpowered the pint-sized detective hero was. Conan can annoy with epic Gary Stu qualities, given his absurd brain power and physical capability despite his tiny stature. Going in to The Black Iron Submarine, I was ready for the child Sherlock-Bond crossover feel, and I just let the silliness wash off my unperturbed backside as the hero skateboarded down cliffs, kicked balls through tidal waves, and electrocuted prowling villains with shock shoes. I can absolutely see his exaggerated antics prickling many an annoyed fan’s expectations, though—I wish mostly just that other characters got a bit more of the spotlight in general for the cool action scenes.

Movie Review: Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine

Underlying everything on screen, the aural qualities support the on-screen fights and feistiness well. I enjoyed the soundtrack from Yugo Kanno (Ajin: Demi-Human [2017], Batman Ninja [2018]), which had fast-movie rock and electronic stylings to ratchet up action sequences to higher levels of suspense, and more subdued sinister tunes add subtle mood for the more clue-finding and less overtly deadly scenes. But when the music jams, I was carried away with the wicked action and adventure on screen, and the chest-shaking sound mix (oh, that roaring submarine!) rocked my world.

As a spy-action film Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine has a tech-savvy, punchy script, and while the detective elements take a back seat, there are still mysteries and lurking baddies to enjoy from start to end. Cast bloat causes the plot to churn occasionally and produces some confusion, but performances are more than adequate with energetic and accomplished vocal actors bringing their A game. I liked the action, the music pounds and hits, the animation is uneven but usually strikes home—there is a lot to savor above and below water with this adventure. Conan snuck up on me this time and I had a fine time in the theater, even if the film isn’t especially groundbreaking nor plumbing new depths in mystery fiction and action, Black Iron Submarine is a good time for young and old adventure-loving cinema goers.

3 and a Half Stars

Reference: The Anime Encyclopedia, 3rd Revised Edition, by Jonathan Clements & Helen McCarthy