This detective drama, with a couple of anime twists, is quite an interesting show. It's also got a broad appeal and is, I believe, pretty popular in Japan. Although because I saw it quite early it had to cope with a fairly minimal review for a long time.
We join the story as the brilliant high school detective Shinichi explains the intricacies of another case to the baffled police. As well as adding another incident to fuel his growing fame as one of the most brilliant detectives in the field. Originally inspired by such legendary, albeit fictional, detectives as Sherlock Holmes he has trained himself to a high level in a wide variety of skills. Knowledgeable, studious, observant, dedicated and physically capable he's a one man investigation team. Although his childhood female friend Ran wishes he were, at times, a touch more normal.
However the situation changes dramatically in the first episode of the series. Having just solved a murder Shinichi sees something else suspicious to investigate. He discovers more than he bargained for however, and finds himself at the mercy of some hardened killers. While it's too noisy at the time to kill him, they've got a powerful new poison that needs testing. Although no one suspected that not only would Shinichi survive it, but that as a side-effect he'd be shrunk to the size, and appearance, of a child. Whereas before he needed no help to ply his trade, and did it mostly for fun, now he has the quest of recovering the venom used on him and needs the help of his friends to do it. Yet he cannot tell them who he really is, as doing so would make them all a target for the killers when they realize their poison has failed.
It's a great start, but it's more a requirement of the show than the start of the story. The thing is that Shinichi was rather too competent to be really interesting, and too much of a loner. The shrunk version, who picked the name Conan, is actually rather more interesting. He's still got all his skills, but not all the opportunities. Thus he lives with Ran as a little brother in order to appear like a normal youth and to have access to her fathers run down detective agency. Mind you, it doesn't hurt that Ran is a karate monster whereas the now small Conan has lost a lot of his physical skills. And while he finds it hard to get adults to take him seriously he has found a group of children, the self proclaimed child detective team, who take him far more seriously than he would like.
It's neat because Conan is both a physical child and a mental adult. An adult not too thrilled about having to do elementary school again either. As a result it's fun watching what looks like a child acting like a brilliant detective and running circles around the various adults and criminals involved in the stories. Sometimes looking like a child is an advantage, but it often means that the situations become more complex and Conan must rely purely on his deductive skills. At the same time watching a mature mind cope with an enforced second childhood, and a quite different relationship with Ran, has some excellent moments. There's some nice interaction between the cast and some lovely touches of character and humor.
However the meat of the show is episodic `whodunit' stories. They're played pretty straight and they're generally clever and well written. And the crimes are generally serious with murder being a popular crime. In an episode we get to see how the characters of the show become involved with the crime, meet the people involved, and attempt to determine the truth of what happened. No doubt with many people in the audience watching along and trying to follow the clues themselves.
Although it is here that the main weaknesses of the show surface. There is a severe time pressure which is partly responsible for lots of co-incidence, logical weaknesses and a tendency towards formulas. For example in many cases Conan and crew find a perfectly normal activity, which gives some character drama and introduces new characters, leads to a crime investigation. Given the frequency you'd think that you can't have a cup of coffee in Japan without someone falling over dead in the immediate vicinity. Likewise the clues tend to come from nowhere and Conan is quickly able to weave them into a flawless case. Although the story generally relies on the culprit confessing both motive and method in order to confirm the rather dodgy logic behind the story.
This is not a flaw of the show per-se, the writing in the series is actually pretty good. It simply derives from the fact that telling a full detective story, plus setup and some character drama, in 20 minutes is pushing the boundary of what is possible. Although one imagines that multi-episode stories would have problems of their own, with people forgetting the `crime' and the sequence of clues. In essence there was always going to be an uneasy pressure between the `slow unfolding of mystery' and the time constraints that a weekly anime faces. And as such there is a great deal of logical leaps, overly obvious clues and outrageous conveniences that one must simply accept.
On the positive side the character drama is surprisingly good. There is a real feel to all the characters, some nice dialogue and interaction, and a real sense of warmth to it. This is supported with some varied stories that weave character elements, and developments, into the plot. It feels sort of strange to have character drama of such a pleasant nature in show with so many murders in it, but it does happen. The various characters, and story elements, are also stable enough to support a long run. Shinichi's quest can take as long as needed, his relationship with Ran remains but cannot move forward, it's all really balanced.
The animation itself is fairly decent TV quality animation. One of the interesting elements is that the character artwork has an interesting style. It's a little bit cartoony, against the generally sombre backgrounds, which actually works to give the characters a lot of personality. This is also expressed in the way they move and act. Indeed the show is surprisingly skilled with body language, and character expression, which also makes the action, although rare, both entertaining and varied. Conan also gets some `enhanced' high-tech gear, such as super-kick sneakers, which adds to both the action and stories. I'll also note that the crimes are often quite explicit, which will probably keep this from ever escaping Japan (in addition to its now sizable length). The voices are good and fit the characters well, the music is reasonable although the opening track can grow on you.