I discovered, and become a huge fan of, Sherlock Holmes at an early age — somewhere in grade school. Too long ago to remember, so it feels like I’ve “always” been a fan. (Conversely, I can remember watching the first episode of Star Trek in 1966, so reading A.C. Doyle for the first time must be many years earlier.)
Per Doyle’s stories, Holmes has a well-defined center, but as adapted, extended, reimaged, even satirized, by others, his boundaries are extremely fuzzy [see The Real Sherlock Holmes].
There is even a Japanese anime version of Holmes: Case File nº221: Kabukicho.
With very few exceptions (cough, Downey, Jr., cough), I’ve enjoyed all the various instances of Holmes. Some of his analogues, Hercule Poirot and Nero Wolfe, for instance, are among my favorites [see these posts and these other posts]. That said (exception aside), I especially enjoy the more-or-less straight adaptations, such as Sherlock and Elementary (the latter of which I’ve been slowly re-watching the past few months).
Part of the fun of the analogues and adaptations is how they riff on the stories and, most especially, the characters. The core is Sherlock Holmes and Dr, John Watson, of course; the canonical ace detective and lesser documenter companion (a stand in for the audience). Elementary, breaks the mold by casting Lucy Liu as (former surgeon, and therefore doctor) Joan Watson, and has her, not as a documenting Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), but as following in his footsteps to become a detective in her own right.
In addition to Holmes and Watson, the canon includes their landlady, Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and the usually befuddled Inspector Lestrade. There are also the two key nemeses, Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty. Think of all this as movements in a symphony that other musicians use to create new, but familiar, music. Both Sherlock and Elementary include them all (mild spoiler: Elementary combining Moriarty and Irene Adler into one role delightfully played by Natalie Dormer).
Other musical motifs are important to the canon. A key one is Holmes’s deductive abilities — which Doyle extended from his former university teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was famous for his visual deductions about patients. There is also that Holmes lives at 221-B Baker Street. And while somewhat understated in the original stories, Holmes’s drug use (cocaine injections) is another important characteristic (it’s a key aspect of Elementary).
Another favorite of mine, the TV show House, M.D., where Holmes becomes Dr. Greg House, who detects exotic diseases (and is addicted to Vicodin). His companion is Dr. James Wilson [see House is a Holmes]. The first episode of that series featured a patient named Irene Adler. The x-ray of her skull is part of the show’s title sequence, suggestive of the enduring memory. (Imaging Holmes as a doctor brings the canon full circle. Tying the knot, a friend gifts Greg House with the (real) book (the real) Joseph Bell wrote.
Which brings me to Case File nº221: Kabukicho, a Japanese anime series with 24 episodes telling what turns out to be a single story (although that isn’t immediately apparent). The show originally aired from 2019 through 2020. As is often the case with anime, there are also six OVA, a manga, a novel, and even a web radio show associated with the series. I watched the series on Hulu.
The show sits somewhere between a straight adaptation and the jazzier versions. All the key characters mentioned above exist in some form by name in the show, although in some cases in rather different form. (For instance, the 221 address becomes a case file number in the title.)
As seen in the image above, Moriarty is a child who, when we first meet him, is the head of a group of irregulars. (Canonically, Holmes had a group of irregulars who were mostly the dregs of the city but assisted him from time to time. Here they’re more a gang of thieves and pickpockets.) Moriarty seems like Sherlock’s very good friend at first, but anyone familiar with the canon knows better. (And there are some teases to notice suggesting all is not as it seems. The show does try to keep you guessing about Moriarty, but those teases are giveaways.)
Mrs. Hudson (a transvestite) owns and operates the Pipe Cat, a club and “row house” (tenement) where she houses seven (once Watson joins) detectives. She also acts as their agent. People in need of detective work come to her, and she options out the job to one or more of the crew (they usually work in competition, the winner getting the fee).
This instance of Sherlock Holmes is one of the wackier ones. He comes from wealth but has decided he prefers the street life and environs of Kabukicho, the red-light district of Shinjuku, Tokyo. He is withdrawn and difficult, and although he has superior deductive powers, his quirks often interfere with his success.
One of those quirks is that he is seriously into Rakugo, a Japanese performance art involving a single actor sitting on a dais using only a fan and small cloth as props. A performance is as if two characters are in dialog, the actor using vocal changes to make clear which is speaking. Sherlock had originally stumbled on the art and tried to study it but was ultimately dismissed as not creative. He could emulate other performers flawlessly but could not bring anything new into his performance.
The friendship between Moriarty and Sherlock begins when the former encounters the latter giving a Rakugo performance to an empty park. Moriarty identifies the performer Sherlock is flawlessly emulating and indicates a love of Rakugo. This creates an instant bond. Later, Moriarty suggests Sherlock become a detective and do “mystery solving Rakugo.” After Sherlock solves a mystery, he does an impromptu Rakugo performance explaining how he solved it.
John Watson is a doctor on the west side (the good part of town). Something he notices, and reports, about a murder victim brought into the hospital seems to trigger incidents threatening his life. He goes to the east side seeking the Pipe Cat and detective help. He latches onto Sherlock, who initially wants nothing to do with him. But Watson won’t leave Sherlock alone until he takes his case.
They’re brought together when Sherlock’s car won’t start when Sherlock is in hot pursuit of a lead. Sherlock goes futilely running after the lead, but Watson pauses to fix the car (loose spark plug) and catches up driving it. Sherlock decides Watson has value, and generally makes him his domestic servant from that point.
As it turns out (of course), Watson’s case is part of the main arc, which starts off as a Jack-the-Ripper type case and evolves into something much deeper and darker.
An interesting twist to this version is that we learn Moriarty’s backstory and see him evolve into the monster he becomes. Here he is something of a tragic figure, not the shadowy criminal mastermind of the canon.
There is also an instance of Irene Adler, initially as a client, though she becomes Sherlock’s friend.
Sherlock doesn’t use drugs in this (although he does put sweet peaches over his rice!) but he has deep enough mental issues that it wouldn’t add anything. One might say he’s addicted to Rakugo.
The overall story has elements of humor but is generally dramatic and, at times, dark and bloody (although I wouldn’t say extremely so). In some ways, it’s one of the goofier — but still seriously motivated — versions of Sherlock Holmes I’ve seen. For all its goofiness it remains grounded, in part, I think, because it focuses on Watson (the outsider to the group).
It’s notable for its differences, some of which Holmes purists might not enjoy. One reviewer found Watson to be a damp rag, which I can see, but which isn’t really that far off canon. A bit more off-canon is Irene Adler (who was classic Holmes’s one fail, and he never forgot her). Canonically, she is Holmes’s equal mentally (something both the Sherlock and Elementary series got right). Here, she’s just another character.
Mycroft Holmes appears as Sherlock’s brother but is otherwise both off-canon and insignificant as a character. Canonically, and in most versions, he too, is Sherlock’s equal (or better).
The whole thing is rather off-canon in many ways. But I’m no purist and I don’t feel the show was intended to be hugely canonical. In fact, I rather enjoyed the variation. It was fun, and the people who made this clearly were familiar with, and probably loved, the source material.
I would recommend it for Sherlock Holmes fans. For others, I’d say it wasn’t my favorite anime by a long stretch, but I enjoyed it okay. It’s a nice change from the mecha and prolonged fights typical of anime. With only 24 “half-hour” episodes, it’s a small enough investment.
Stay deducting, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.