The Tragic Phantom Thief
I admit it: I’ve always liked Kaitou Kid, not only because his heists added a welcome variety to the Meitantei Conan case format where new people are being introduced, at least one of them dies, Conan investigates, and once he voices his deductions, the culprit suffers a mental breakdown. Case closed. There was also something quite alluring about seeing Shinichi “lose” without any dramatic consequences. It makes him seem less infallible, more human. Heist are about having fun, about wits without any lives being endangered. Furthermore, Kaitou Kid is one of the most engaging characters in Aoyama’s universe – and the latest anime sure strengthened this impression.
But why is he so popular? After all, he isn’t a person out of their time like Sherlock (BBC Sherlock), nor a bad-ass like Sarah Manning (Orphan Black) or a straight-forward type like Daikichi (Usagi Drop).
Of course, Kuroba Kaito is a cheerful person, and such characters often attract readers. It is easy to engage with them, and many shounen manga depict childish protagonists (Naruto, Ao no Exorcist, etc.) to allow teens to identify with their favourites. Kaito’s obsession with magic symbolises his curiosity and joy of living. He loves being able to DO things, be it tricking people or creating objects, repairing his gear, etc. His happiness is closely connected to his ability to act independently, without pressure. Becoming Kid sure appealed to him, because it is the ultimate magic act: Instead of transforming objects, his own body becomes a canvas to dazzle the audience. He literally turns himself into a magic trick. That is the premise of Magic Kaitou.
However, this transformation of his own self has a huge downside: Kaito loses himself. He becomes detached from those that he holds dear, because the secrets he keeps are like an invisible wall between him and those around him. Unlike Shinichi, he CHOSE this destiny when he picked up Kid’s mantle, and he has to gradually come to terms with the ramifications of his decision. That is the real tragedy behind Kuroba Kaito, the psychological aspect that frame his entire existence in Magic Kaitou. With each heist, Kid becomes more real, and Kuroba Kaito turns into a façade. An empty shell that at one point, he will no longer be able to uphold.
Instead of giving in to these dark thoughts, though, Kaito comes to channel his own sadness into his performance, turning Kaitou Kid into his ultimate light side. Kid is dazzling, generous, kind, (and cocky!). Kid is not somebody that allows others to be worried about him; he is somebody they can depend on, but he will not be dependent of others. Everything he does is meant to please, because he is performing for his audience, not himself. Does he enjoy heists? Maybe. But overall, he only comes to really enjoy the challenge Conan poses, not his own magic acts. Those only benefit the audience. Kid is void of all that is Kuroba Kaito. Until that one rare moment or two when his other identity and all of its baggage breaks through. To me, Kid is at his most vulnerable, at his most approachable, when he smiles sadly to himself in the moonlight.
Many claim that Kid is a harmless thief, and therefore he is a character they can respect. But that is blatantly untrue: In fact, with each heist, Kid actually hurts himself. His own identity is twisted beyond repair, turning him into a character that belongs nowhere. Magic Kaito is the story of a childish, joyful boy turning into a person who is lonely whilst being surrounded by friends. The remarkable thing is: He channels these feelings into his desire to make others happy. The only victim of his heists is himself.