Understand that literally anything that gets compared to Death Note has an uphill battle with me. Fortunately, Moriarty The Patriot isn’t like Death Note, in that it’s a fun anime about an interesting character. It doesn’t rely on a lengthy sequence of connected cat-and-mouse ploys to hook you in or arbitary ambiguated rules that make for world-affecting crime wizards in a society that cares an inexplicable amount about their impact. On the other hand it’s good that it doesn’t have to compare to Death Note because the alternative is comparing it to Sherlock Holmes and the character there of Professor James Moriarty, with whom this anime has nothing in common.
Moriarty The Patriot is an ongoing 2016 manga that was given an anime season in 2020, which takes the classic story of Sherlock Holmes, but imagines it in a new, fresh, and interesting way, of what if Sherlock Holmes was a total prick. Wait, no, that’s literally almost every rendition of Holmes except for basically the Basil Rathbone stuff. But in this case rather than just that twist, it imagines what if Moriarty was the good guy, because he was doing murders to end class inequality in Britain, a thing that definitely happened so you can guess how well his plan went.
It’s very much an anime for Fans Of Hot Men of a particular genre, with a lot of fanservice of that particular type. It’s your standard Beautiful Boys Doing Things Well, just in this case they’re doing (Crimes). And the boys are pretty and the outfits are fancy and the backgrounds are elaborate and you get to see a whole host of top hats, if that’s your thing.
It’s a pretty fun time, where you follow a criminal mastermind who’s always getting away with it, which is a byproduct of being a noble in a society that lets nobles do whatever they want as long as they’re not actually challenging the idea of nobility itself. Since the eventual aim is to challenge nobility, a system about Special People being Chosen Before Birth because they’re Better At Things, they need to organise themselves into a proper position to deal with Nobles – you know, the source and cause of all the problems in British society.
Moriarty in the two Holmes stories he shows up is a gaunt, balding, high-cheekboned man, rude and surly, bitter and nasty and happy to gloat and taunt while always keeping himself heavily removed from crimes himself. The whole point was that he didn’t do the crimes, he provided other people with the plans or information to do the crimes and claimed a cut of the profits. He didn’t show up at the drawing room with the noble to murder someone with jam or watch as a sniper shot them into a river. The point of being a consultant is that you’re not there to do the thing you’re consulting on.
We know what he looks like, too, because Doyle had a drawing made to accompany the story, and the anime shows that in the opening few minutes. It then happily throws that the hell out of the window to go off and do its own thing.
It’s not like Moriarty has a consistent backstory in the actual books after all. It’s not terribly likely-seeming that a dude has three brothers all named James, but hey, Victorian England. One thing that is a touch of a bummer is that this Moriarty loses being Irish? But then the dub of this anime uses American actors to try and depict Britain, which on the one hand, it’s not like British is a protected class, but on the other hand, they don’t do a good job of it, so, y’know. I dunno, is it worth getting into a huff about America (an empire) marginalising British culture (another, dying, empire)?
It’s not like this story is an actual narrative about poor people. Poor people are window dressing to the much more developed rich people, who exist so we can see what bastards they are, and how our rich, powerful and beloved protagonist can ruin their lives. Which is fine! It’s just I wouldn’t expect some grand praxis here beyond ‘The entire British class system is bad,’ which it is. I’m not seeing tons of nuance here – it’s just ‘hey, when we give people legal impunity to be total monsters, they kill a lot of people.’ And yeah, that’s true, but it does kind of undersell how many people in London were being killed by things like poverty and policing and air conditions and starvation and poisons in the food and being overworked to death at the age of nine.
Instead, Moriarty The Patriot ‘s default formula gives you a Heartbreaking Story about a Poors who suffers because of A Nobles, and then shows one individual noble suffering for it. And that’s fine. I mean that’s a lot of how Leverage worked, though Leverage is set in a world where if you steal a million dollars you can give it to five hundred people, and had the luxury of being able to attack villains who were absolutely convinced they weren’t Doing Anything That Bad (because the legal system made it okay). The villains of Leverage were murdering people by degrees, denying insurance claims, they turned people into numbers on a page, and then in the process, some of those numbers got deleted.
None of this is to say that Moriarty the Patriot isn’t a good time! Everyone who tells stories about Holmes-a-likes is bringing their own spin on things, because we can’t help but leave our fingerprints on everything we pick up. We start with the stories we’ve seen because that’s what we have to make sense of the world, and we change them because of how they don’t work for us or because we can make them work better. It’s just how this story has been changed, to fit a different set of fingerprints inside a different set of gloves.
Moriarty isn’t Moriarty. Moriarty in this is a wholly original character, an Anime Hotboy who has a bunch of Elaborate Parlor Room reveals about the murders he is currently doing and it’s all very immediate and personal and directly connected to what he’s doing. This Moriarty’s story is incompatible with Sherlock Holmes’ story, but also… so what?
Moriarty forwards the idea that by making dramatic unfairness and wrongness in society clear to the population, finally they will be awoken and act on it. That’s a cute fantasy! It also relies on Noble Thinking: The idea that The People don’t realise how bad things are, and it will take the orchestration of a small, chosen, special group (with a pile of money and privilege) to Make Them Aware. It’s the same kind of thinking that tries to Tweet Harder until a revolution happens.
In the 1880s when the first Sherlock story is set, the infant mortality rate in Britain, was 250 per 1000. One in four babies died before they reached the age of five. Everyone in the poor classes knew multiple people who had lost a child to poverty, had lost someone to starvation, had lost someone to preventable diseases and to overwork. The system was not bad because nobles hunted people for sport, the system was so bad nobles hunting people for sport weren’t the worst offenders.
Ultimately, Moriarty thinks that Britain is okay, but organised wrong, and should be organised better. He believes in Britain. The British Empire, the largest, most vile human crime until the next one, an engine of a billion deaths and thousands of genocides, with a crown at the top, is not so bad, so vile, that it is worth killing.
After all, he’s a patriot.