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The Irreverent Joys of a Japanese Sherlock Holmes

HBO's new take on Arthur Conan Doyle's detective sees two young women solving crimes in present-day Japan.

Courtesy HBO Asia

A man in Tokyo has exploded. But why? He died mid-conversation with his mentee Wato Tachibana, a sweet-faced young surgeon. The violence seems to be without cause; the explosion has no clear mechanism. Stumped, the cops call in a mysterious young woman. She wears high, cruel stilettos and her affect is a little creepy. Tachibana is not sure what to make of this newcomer, but she tags along to help solve the strange case of the exploding man, since she wants to see justice done.

The young woman is neither police nor medical examiner. Who is she, and how does she know as if by magic that Tachibana has just come home from volunteering as a doctor in Syria? The pair work to solve the mystery, eventually retiring together to the odd consultant’s address: 221B.

Miss Sherlock is a new adaptation of a much-reprised tale. You might recognize Tachibana’s Syria story as an update to Dr. Watson’s return from the Second Anglo-Afghan War. 221B is, of course, an address in Baker Street, in London. The strange young woman’s name is Sherlock. A great deal more is recognizable as original Arthur Conan Doyle material, but tweaked: Sherlock, played by Yūko Takeuchi, is slender and eerie and brilliant, but unmistakably female. She plays the cello, instead of the traditional violin. Tachibana (Shihori Kanjiya) is the straight man in the relationship. Listen closely, and you’ll hear her referred to as Wato-san—her first name, plus an honorific.

So, we have our Sherlock and our Watson, two attractive young women solving crimes in contemporary Tokyo. In these facts alone Miss Sherlock injects Holmes’s old white corpse with new energy. Shows like Elementary and Sherlock have brought Conan Doyle’s hero back to our screens over the past few years. Elementary even had one woman in a starring role. But two? Miss Sherlock has crossed a rubicon.

Of these two recent comparisons, the closest analogue to Miss Sherlock is undoubtedly the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. As with Sherlock, the new show takes cues from Conan Doyle stories but changes the twists. The first episode picks up the theme of pills and blackmail from A Study in Scarlet (1887), which we saw done a little differently in Sherlock’s “A Study in Pink.” The second plays on the motif of Stradivarius, whom we learn in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1893) made the very violin that Holmes owns.

The comparison with Sherlock is a little unfair, since that program only ran to three episodes per season, and the BBC produced it with all the power it had at its disposal: the best screenwriters, the most inventive editing, the finest actors. Miss Sherlock is a slighter series. Takeuchi’s Sherlock is a light dance, a gavotte to Cumberbatch’s mournful waltz. She’s more quirky than disturbed. In that lightness, however, Takeuchi finds a lovely new take on the role. If Sherlock’s mind is supposed to fizz and zip, why not let her smile and wear great outfits?

And Takeuchi and Kanjiya are both not only very well-dressed, but gorgeous. Sherlock played a coy game around the question of the pair’s relationship: Cumberbatch’s landlady assumes they are gay, for example. But in Miss Sherlock we see some actual chemistry. Conan Doyle’s protagonist is supposed to be stylish, even effete. Miss Sherlock lacks the emotional depth of the BBC’s adaptation, but its lead actors interpret their crime-solving duties with a feminine flourish that actually makes a great deal of sense. Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes as a man with no respect for authority and an odd interest in fun. Stiletto heels seem to help.

Courtesy of HBO Asia

Conan Doyle’s stories first came to Japan in 1894, when The Man with the Twisted Lip appeared in a magazine in translation. A Study in Scarlet and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were both translated in newspapers five years later. The stories became popular upon the publication of a dedicated Sherlock Holmes Japanese volume in 1907, but the full canon was only published in Japan in 1955.

You can read about this history at sites like that of the Japan Sherlock Holmes Fan Club, founded in 1977 by Tsukasa Kobayashi. These are fairly marginal societies, nothing like the enormous fan clubs in the English-speaking world, such as the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. But that very marginality has opened up his stories for more various interpretation.

Japanese adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre have a richness that we don’t see in English-language TV versions. In the mid-’80s, for example, an Italian-Japanese cartoon called Sherlock Hound, partly directed by Hayao Miyazaki, placed the famous cap on the head of a detective dog. The still-popular manga and anime series Case Closed stars a child version of Holmes. One of the most idiosyncratic Japanese interpretations of the Holmes canon must be Puppet Entertainment Sherlock Holmes, a puppeteered version set in a London boarding school.

In 2016, Titan Comics began publishing a manga series based on the BBC’s Sherlock. This is one of a number of projects by Japanese authors that derive from that series, many of which are pastiches. In an article by the scholar Lori Morimoto on Holmes pastiche, she writes that enthusiasts in Japan have always approached the detective via translators and literary interpreters. For example, the 1894 translation of The Man with the Twisted Lip found its way into a reworked version by the critic Yasunari Sadao, but he read the story in a version by the French detective novelist Maurice Leblanc. So, Morimoto writes, “Japanese Holmesian writing began with the blurred figure of a man who was simultaneously a fan, a professional writer, and a literary critic.”

Morimoto’s core argument is that Holmes was from the early 20th century a popular figure in Japan, and therefore Japanese adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works are marked by the creative impulse we now call “fandom.” In the U.K. and to some extent in the U.S., Sherlock Holmes signifies a kind of stuffy high-class taste in his fans, almost a self-conscious fetishization of masculine reason and Victorian aesthetics.

Miss Sherlock is the product of Japan’s abundant and various culture of adaptation. In Japan we get Sherlock Holmes as a puppet. In America, we get Lucy Liu as Watson and call it a revolution. Comparing Miss Sherlock to English-language adaptations is a lesson in how literary history can stick us with boring television. The BBC’s Sherlock is a fine piece of television, a contribution to rival the old Jeremy Brett series. But Cumberbatch has defined Sherlock Holmes with a performance that is, at base, a little dull; troubled, cynical, male. Miss Sherlock reminds us how much fresher stories become when they are filtered anew. Puppets it may not be, but we’re a high-heeled step closer.