A new anime adaptation of a series of novels that’s been out for two decades and change, Ikebukuro West Gate Park makes an earnest effort to be an accessible new version of the story. It’s been glossily updated to take place in the current era, it’s mostly a sequence of isolated, episodic cases to follow, and the stories almost all incorporate some analysis of growing social issues faced in These Modern Times. By all accounts, the ingredients for a simple but effective crime thriller are here, which may make you wonder why you have heard so little about this late 2020 show until now. The reasoning becomes apparent: the execution of its components leaves Ikebukuro West Gate Park as far less than the sum of its parts.
The most obvious problem with IWGP is the main character that’s supposed to be holding its interconnected world of intrigue together. Makoto Majima is the man who brings us into the cases of the show as they happen, providing someone for the situations to be exposited to at first, then taking us through the rest of the mystery as it’s solved. However, an odd confluence of choices regarding Makoto and how he’s written conspire to undercut how effectively he keeps the stories rooted. For one thing, we’re given barely any information on his past or previous interactions with all the people in the town he relies on beyond “He knew them growing up”. Barely any elaboration is given on how Makoto got to know everyone from the chief of police, to the boss of Ikebukuro’s biggest street gang, to a major player in the actual Yakuza beyond a base acknowledgement of the friendly familiarity he apparently already enjoys with them.
That’s a visible symptom of the overall issue with the IWGP anime’s presentation of Makoto: The way the other characters constantly extoll his charisma and powers of insight despite him not demonstrating that as often as they lead you to believe (or indeed, as much as you’d think a deduction-based thriller would rely on). A majority of the cases in the show are instigated simply by the situation falling into Makoto’s lap seemingly based on his status as the main character, only for us to watch him just drift alongside the story as it unfolds, contributing nought but talking to a couple of people or just being around when information comes to light for the relevant players. It all makes Makoto come off way less invested and involved in the situations he’s asked to troubleshoot, and never makes an effective case for why he gets involved in these mix-ups without pay anyway, beyond some general allusions to his sense of justice. It’s worth noting that the Makoto of the original novels does have a backstory that explains what in his past this fixation grew out of, to say nothing of laying more groundwork for how he worked his way up to be so interconnected with the various threads of the Ikebukuro underworld. But as-is in this anime version, Makoto comes off like a cipher of a viewpoint character to deliver the plot, who necessitates nominal importance espoused by the rest of the cast that he doesn’t actually embody.
When your central character feels disposable to the narrative, that easily leaves your entire show feeling unmoored, adrift in attempts to find anything else to actually be about. To this end, most of IWGP’s episodes essentially work as a kind of ‘crime procedural’, sussing out mysteries in the town’s gang underworld to see right done by its people. But here too the series runs into some identity crises. The first episode, with its oddly unilateral drug-degrading message, doesn’t make a great first impression, but it’s far from the only offender. The fourth episode is an embarrassingly stupid shaggy-dog story that fits squarely into the “Makoto stands around observing while a situation just kind of resolves itself” structure ending on a series of depressing revelations the writing still tries to spin as heartwarming. The eighth episode similarly has a story that aggressively escalates a sequence of distraught, depressing revelations about the hardships of a single mother and her child, constantly trying to wring more pathos out of a situation it doesn’t need to work so hard to convince us sucks. Beyond those examples you even have places where the show’s actual plotting undercuts its attempt at social commentary, like the ninth episode which admonishes a xenophobic hate group for being easily manipulated by their fear of outsiders, only to end with the revelation that all of the issues we’ve witnessed in Ikebukuro so far occurred at the behest of a villainous outside group!
In the middle of the series and at its end are a pair of two-part episodes focused on the ostensible overall ‘plot’ of IWGP, delving into the politics of the potential gang war that could consume the town, and theoretically being stronger on account of properly integrating these characters it’s otherwise so focused on selling us. These stories tend to work better from a mechanical angle if only because moving all the pieces means the show gets less distracted with heaping sob stories or misguided social rumination on us, but it’s a barely even trade. They still continue the issue of the mischaracterized Makoto, the supposed insightful investigator who, on several occasions in these arcs, grossly misjudges the way groups of opposed people will act in scenarios. And the writing of these plots doesn’t make for particularly effective thrills either, particularly the final storyline which hinges on a twist that’s telegraphed so blindingly obviously early on as to be distracting. Frustratingly, this also becomes the place where Makoto finally feels most densely integrated with the actual story, except his interaction still mostly consists of stumbling through plot setpieces while smarter characters explain the story he should have figured out on his own by now, if he were really so clever.
Even I feel like I’m excessively dumping on IWGP at this point, but I will admit that it’s not all bad. There are a couple effectively interesting one-off stories mixed into the episodes, like the second one about the gangs coming together to protect their members from exploitative labor practices. The third episode offers some interesting commentary on that most modern of entertainment mediums, YouTubers, while the tenth episode has plenty of the melodrama and pathos dialed up as others, but actually manages to end on the feeling of catharsis I think it’s shooting for. Several of these still have their issues with the integration of Makoto or the actual writing of some of their plot twists, but they offer an opportunity to speculate that IWGP might not have had to go so wrong overall if just the little bit of extra effort these episodes were told with were applied to the whole series. And as a package, the production looks solid enough. The town of Ikebukuro feels imbued with a lot of the personality of its signature locales, and props to the writing here at least for integrating several of its buildings and areas into its plots. I do feel like the characters themselves lack a lot of the distinguishing acting and body language I’ve come to expect from Doga Kobo save for when any fighting breaks out, and you actually get a good sense of who the combatants are from how they move and counter each other.
Even at its high points though, Ikebukuro West Gate Park can’t seem to muster being anything better than ‘fine’. Some of the plotting is functional, and there are some interesting elements in there if you’re specifically looking for them. But for the most part it’s saddled with that most lethal of quantifications: A thriller that isn’t smart, isn’t interesting, and thus, isn’t thrilling. You almost feel bad for it in places, trying to be this new arm launched of a long-running successful franchise, but it’s just not nearly as clever as it seems to think it is. It’s abundantly clear to me now why this thing didn’t make a splash when it first premiered, and it’s definitely not worth going back and giving a second chance now.