Kia Asamiya’s Steam Detectives
by Travis Hedge Coke
When Kia Asamiya’s Steam Detectives (1994-00) was adapted to animation, in 1998, Asamiya complained of strict regulations preventing the child protagonist from firing his gun at anyone or anything, forbidding too much movement of skirts, any underwear or lingerie, sounds that may be considered erotic, including screams during danger, and even too much physical or verbal conflict. Trading on nostalgia in place of even light violence and sex, the television series came and went quietly, and the comic ended somewhat abruptly, with only two light novels illustrated by Asamiya later released. Steam Detectives was quickly shelved and forgotten.
At the beginning, Steam Detectives was aimed foremost at a young audience, skewing male, as Asamiya’s Collector Yui was aimed at preteen girls. After two years it moved to serializing in a more young adult-aimed magazine. Riffing on everything from Batman to Stephen King, the comic had its share of lightly erotic moments, harrowing but undetailed violence, and psychological content and allusions unlikely to be completely grasped by the ostensible target audience.
Steam Detectives remains a comic I would love to recommend, but to whom? Even for the cultural norms of the time, some of the content was a bit much for younger readers, while the child friendly nature of some of the villain’s clues and riddles could turn off older teens, and adults were faced with a to each their own/pick and mix scenario.
The transition between magazines and arguable target demographic does not really change the content of the comic from one volume to the next. What you get in Case One, in essence, you also getting Case Seven or Eight.
Part of the trouble comes from the expectation of parental bonus, and that the comic’s resonances grow with the reader. Adults pay for their children’s entertainment, they often have to sit through it or read it to their kids, and so they expect something for their troubles that is aimed at them.
Parental bonus goes over the heads a children, or is noticeable but not contextually understandable, and therefore not considered a social or psychological risk.
The animated adaptation of Steam Detectives reduced the violence to an extreme cozy mystery level. No shooting anyone. No on-screen murder. No psychological torture. No post-traumatic stress.
The eroticism is never too graphic in ant version of Steam Detectives, but in the comic, it is enough it would cause some parents concern. Not necessarily the same parents who would be concerned about guns or on-panel murder.
Narutaki’s criminal foil, the boy, Le Bred (or is that Le Bled?), is his fair-haired double down to Ling Ling’s sister, the morally-backwards killer, Hsui Lang Lang, as an assistant.
While comedy comes from Narutaki being too young, and too involved in his hobbies, to respond to the small crush the slightly older, but still teenaged Ling Ling harbors, Lang Lang has a perverse caring relationship with Le Bred. She wears lingerie for him. She sexualizes his being a child.
Ling Ling’s crush is less physically engaged and treated as more innocent, but we see in both the comic and anime, her jealousy if he does look erotically at another woman/girl or if any pay special attention to him.
There is presumably incredible discomfort in reading these scenes, for most adults and kids, however there is also an element of forbidden fantasy. A dangerous game for an entertainer to indulge in.
Many of the romantic relationships, including Ling Ling falling for a mentally ill horror novelist, are treated with an adult subtlety and veracity, presumably both exciting for younger readers, but also beyond their interpretation.
So, we have characters whose dynamics and judgments of one another are rooted in their age differences. Ling Ling would sometimes like Narutaki to look on her as an older boy might. Some local police dislike Narutaki having an adult job and adult tastes in drink and food. Lang Lang’s attraction to Le Bred and Narutaki carries a pedophilic tone.
And, within the audience and the purchasers for the audience, we have the question of age appropriateness, both for the content of the comics, and the dynamics betwixt characters.
One mystery sitting quietly in the background of all the Steam Detectives stories, is the possibility that Narutaki is not the child of a famous detective and his wife, and that he is not exactly as brilliant and capable as he seems.
Narutaki may be a foundling, or he might be the child of a criminal, raised to be a great boy detective in a fixed system. The city and world of advanced machinery fueled by coal and steam could be an artifice, a laboratory maze. Narutaki may be an experiment in nurture versus nature.
It is impossible for us to know what Narutaki is capable of handling. A fiction in a fictional world, he may be, in that fiction, a protected element of a staged production.
Whether or not Narutaki is, every reader is.
Kia Asamiya’s Steam Detectives
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