Case File nº221: Kabukicho

2 out of 5

Directed by: Ai Yoshimura

covers season 1

Despite there being 101 different “updates” to Sherlock Holmes available at any given time – including, surely, other anime variants – I’m down for another one, ’cause why not: it’s a formula that works, and when it’s smartly applied to new locales and fun mysteries, it’s likely at least amusing.

Case File nº221: Kabukicho does its riff modernized, and sets it, as the title may suggest, in Kabukicho. It quirkily pieces together its Sherlock regulars – the detective, Watson, Moriarty, the Baxter Street Irregulars – around a pop-up agency in the back of a bar to which clients can submit mysteries for the various detectives (Sherlock included) to solve. While this arrangement can seem unnecessarily complex – a term which can certainly be applied to the show overall – it’s a good, shorthand way to bring a bunch of oddballs together, which makes this particular rakugo-obsessed Holmes variant the straight man amidst a lot of loud characters, which further stresses his skills at casually solving cases in minutes the other detectives are still discussing. Production I.G.’s big, flowing character design allows our ensemble cast a lot of room to add in personality, and we tick through some enjoyable mystery fare – the mysteries and solves of moderate quality, but presented entertainingly – while a background story about a serial killer churns along.

…Kind of. I’d mentioned the unnecessary complexity, and the serial killer stuff becomes part of that: the writing on Kabukicho is of the school that purposefully leaves out details in order to create tension, but in actuality just makes for poor storytelling. Our first episode focuses on the killer, in a slew of exposition, but then it seems like a lot of this is dropped since the first case is a copycat, and thereafter, episodes try to occasionally back their way into an unearned “it’s all connected” plotting that runs opposed (topically and tonally) to whatever episodic mystery we were trying to solve.

I’d say the general quirkiness of the show helps keep it afloat, and a second viewing does help to smooth out some of the “clues” regarding the serial killer that were forced in along the way, but there’s another big problem cropping up in the meantime that turns into a vile problem at the end of this plotline. The aforementioned bar in which the detectives gather – Pipe Cat – is one that caters to transgender performers. The host – Mrs. Hudson – is bearded, and muscular; this isn’t a new character type in manga / anime, but for a 2020 series, mining humor out of a male-voiced, female transgender character who enjoys making presumably cisgender white males uncomfortable by rubbing up against them and referring to periods and whatnot feels… woefully outdated. Add into this the other patrons, some also male-voiced but female, who are only-in-it-for-the-money prostitutes, and you’ve got some great stereotypes going on. Just to date things even further, let’s add in an entire subplot about one of the detectives developing a crush on one of those patrons, and the other detectives making wink-wink-that’s-not-a-woman jokes, and despite the other, more refreshing moments when these characters are just treated like characters and not freaks or punchlines, one’s ability to enjoy the remainder of the show is tanked anytime this stuff shows up, which is pretty often.

But let’s assume you’re of the school to wave all that off, and that it’s just cultural, or the humor is somehow “innocent…” Sure. I’d see that statement and raise you the first cour’s conclusions, which is one of the most poorly scripted things I’ve viewed, just in terms of character consistency alone, not to mention logic. Even if it was, say, 30 decades ago, this doesn’t come close to passing muster. Factoring in that it’s not 30 years ago, it is firstly wholly offensive – to a degree that it’s laughable, if the show wasn’t trying to pull of what it does as some intense twist – and then secondly, it’s incredibly dumb, making that overwrought complexity even more of a waste of time.

And the show simply can’t recover thereafter, for its second mystery. Its perhaps earned some valid character development with its core cast by then, which helps make the flow between the cross-episode plot and bottle plots better, but at the same time, the show bends over backwards to make everything feel justified and fit together, and with any bids at cleverness worn down by what we’ve previously seen, those narrative gymnastics are all the more apparent, and quite tiresome. The “gap” between the first and second cours in terms of tone – they push Sherlock to be much goofier at the outset – suggests a somewhat conscious course correction, and by the time we get around to what it’s all about, the inevitability of it further frustrates: I can guess this is why the first half is so brutal and shallow, as a distraction from the obvious, and that just makes it worse. That said, if you had picked up the show just for this second part, it does highlight all of the things it does well, and, sadly, obvious or not, if they had stuck to just that storyline, it probably could’ve succeeded with those highlights.