A tradition of detective fiction, the locked room mystery requires very little at its core. There are no exotic locales required, nor are many props or even people required. At its essence, a locked room mystery can thrive in simplicity– a standard crime scene, limited access, and an ultimately solvable situation for the detective, if not the audience as well.
This same simplicity is accompanied by many pitfalls. If the mystery is solvable for the audience, it cannot be too difficult or too easy, lest they come away disappointed. When the mystery revolves more around the characters themselves, said characters must be interesting or emotionally resonant. A simple setup makes both poor characterization or the lack of a compelling mystery all the more apparent.
In anime, the presentation of a locked room mystery is compounded by the difficulty of showing the mystery – often accompanied by large swaths of expository dialogue – visually, without giving too much away and all while captivating the viewer.
No stranger to verbosity, Owarimonogatari – the latest in the Monogatari series to air – begins with its own locked room mystery for lead Koyomi Araragi and his right-hand woman of convenience, Ougi Oshino. This conundrum is far more interested in answering questions about Araragi himself and his past, rather than involving the audience in coming to a conclusion. Any audience of Owarimonogatari is likely familiar with Araragi – also Ougi to some extent – and the series uses this to its advantage.
Owarimonogatari‘s locked room in question is introduced in a series of shots establishing the room as a classroom with no escape. An eerie green geometric pattern occupies the walls and floor of the room, hinting at the fact that this room is isolated due to an oddity or supernatural occurance – which Araragi later confirms.
Next, there is a wider shot of the room in its entirety, emphasizing a generic classroom setting and both Ougi and Araragi’s positions. Ougi notably takes her spot at the head of the class, a position later occupied by Araragi and, in flashbacks, Sodachi Oikura.
The room’s decor shifts several times, all while remaining a standard and recognizable classroom. Monogatari the anime consistently uses quirky interior and exterior design as an ever-changing art installation that characters happen to inhabit, so this is not something new that was introduced for the locked room mystery. Additionally, because the mystery is located within Araragi himself, the background deviations hint at Araragi’s mood or thought process, keeping the viewer entertained while Ougi probes Araragi’s memories.
Other mystery series like Hyouka have relied on icons, objects, and visual shortcuts to guide the viewer through the deductive process. As mentioned previously, Monogatari already uses these tools to provide insight on a particular character’s mental or emotional state. When presenting the locked room mystery, not only do the backgrounds shift, but students are represented by desks. When said students need further definition, they are given a floating name or icon – like a dustpan – leaving Araragi and Oikura as the only two students given actual human form.
An entirely separate post could be written on how Ougi is framed as a shadow of Araragi throughout Owarimonogatari. Most importantly in Ougi Formula, she is visibly presented as both a part of him, and additionally as someone who makes him extremely uncomfortable. Unlike previous Monogatari installments where a female character is subjected to specific leering camera angles in Araragi’s proximity, Ougi exhibits a similar interest and closeness, all while putting him ill at ease. At the end of Ougi Formula, the mystery of what happened in Araragi’s past is solved, but the mystery of Ougi’s relationship with Araragi is introduced and given further weight through the series’ visuals.
In contrast, The Perfect Insider offers a much more straightforward locked room mystery setting. Dr. Shiki Magata is found dead while Moe Nishinosono and Souhei Saikawa are visiting her laboratory. It’s a so-called “impossible” murder, with seemingly no way for the killer to enter or exit her room, where she was kept isolated from the world. There are a set number of individuals present, and viewers are invited by the visuals to become detectives themselves alongside Nishinosono and Saikawa.
Immediately establishing that there is only one door into Dr. Magata’s room, the door – to the left in the screenshot above – is shown frequently throughout, emphasizing the close quarters of the laboratory as well as the entrance itself.
The close quarters of the laboratory are also a visual focus. Not only is the one door a focal point, but the proximity of each character to one another is also emphasized, often by framing individuals with other characters located in the foreground but out-of-focus. This gives the entire laboratory, in spite of its sleek and modern appearance, a worn and cramped feeling.
This also draws the audience’s attention to both the foreground and the focal point. For example, the last shot shows Nishinosono and Saikawa’s reaction to the director’s murder, while presenting the director in the foreground with a knife in his back. The arrival of Shiki Magata’s sister, Miki, by helicopter is framed by both Nishinosono and Yukihiro Yamane. Both figures seem to envelop her, capturing Miki into the same locked crime scene that has already trapped the others.
Additionally, even in wider or larger spaces of the laboratory – including an exterior look from the helicopter pad – space is crowded and movement restricted by doors, fences, glass, or even a security camera lens. All of this further highlights the locked room aspect of this mystery.
Owarimonogatari stressed the awkward relationship between Araragi and Ougi, while The Perfect Insider reiterates its limited landscape and the closed nature of the laboratory. Due to the inclusion of the audience in solving the mystery, details are continuously highlighted and presented for the viewer to digest. The deduction is not aided by icons or stand-ins, as The Perfect Insider also wishes to trap the viewer within a similar landscape and continuously prod them into solving the mystery themselves.