Odd Taxi

4 out of 5

Directed by: Baku Kinoshita

covers season 1

What one can suspect up front about Odd Taxi: anthropomorphic characters; a wide cast. The promotional poster – showing a grid of all these various-animaled characters – is pretty sedate stuff, showing people in cars (including our presumable lead, taxi driver Odokawa, a walrus); people in phones; people in profile. These aren’t outlandish designs are stylized with heavy shadows – these are like sitcom casting cards, except no one’s really posed for the camera, and the character models are rather rounded and friendly. The addition of some graffiti tagging on the borders gives the thing some ” ‘tude,” all suggestive of this being more on the comedic side of things.

What we can add to those suspicions as we get started: some quirk. Odokawa drives, picks up passengers who are having their own relative adventures which we hear about through dry but intelligent repartee, and the silences inbetween are filled with radio chatter from a comedy duo called Homosapiens. For visible intents and purposes, this is the show: lots of talk; jokes stuffed into an ongoing stream of chatter; the setting is primarily the taxi; and a rather mundane and humble tone that’s juxtaposed against the funny animal design and a pleasantly poppy opening theme. It all syncs up with expectations.

…And then it doesn’t; and then it doesn’t again. All of the above remains essentially true throughout, but somehow Odd Taxi has morphed in to an insanely complex mystery along the way, concerning a missing child, an obsessive mobile trading card game player, a bank robber, rapping gangsters, and crooked cops. You can say that the top-down formula is intact, with Odokawa (and the audience) consuming much of the related information regarding this mystery via those taxicab convos, but that’s misleading, as the scope – while handled in the same charmingly humble fashion, which makes it all feel rather localized and intimate – is actually pretty massive, stretching across several key areas around Odokawa’s route, and stepping through important moments in and interactions between our key players’ lives. Just as the humor is somewhat underplayed but absolutely there – and quite hilarious, once you’re in tune to the dry delivery – so are the thrills, and the danger. People do die; shootings and stabbings happen. Odokawa’s blank-faced, patient reactions to the events in which he’s inadvertently become involved – and then also slowly involving himself – belies the ticking clock behind a lot of these things. It’s a really brave combo, in a way, allowing the viewer to find the urgency in the script but not placing an actual focus on it, but also makes for incredibly rewarding – and rewatchable – viewing.

The flipside of this is that those opening impressions lend themselves to watching the show somewhat passively, and also encourage writer Kazuya Konomoto and director Baku Kinoshita to lean in to the aforementioned quirk, which definitely creates atmosphere, but can also be said to be somewhat tangential to things. The desire to make all of the seemingly “random” happenstances have links is either then really smart and satisfying, or maybe a little cutesy; did we need to hear Homosapiens’ shticks during down beats?; did that mobster need to rap? But once you’ve consumed the totality of the show, circling back around on it can make these aspects much more fun – they are the requisite oddball details of a cult series.

As a side note to both of those aspects, I think they also stick out more for those of us viewing Odd Taxi with subtitles: the rapper, Yano, surely seems more fluid and humorous if you’re not trying to parse the oddly-formatted and translated rhymes (and lordy, do I feel sorry for the translator who had to try to reconfigure this stuff into logical English phrases with meter); and the Homosapiens’ patter I sense has strong cultural ties – you get a feel for the back-and-forth of the duo, but it’s delivered so quickly and without typical punchlines that it’s place in the narrative is occasionally hard to follow.

But again: quirk. One thing I really appreciated about Odd Taxi is that I don’t think it’s the kind of show to tell people to ‘just make it to episode X.’ While it’s true that it gets much more story-complex and emotionally layered than expected, the tone of the thing is 100% consistent throughout – if you’re turned off by the dry and monotone-ish pacing of the first ep, the next one isn’t going to instantly sell you. On the other hand, if you’re pleasantly amused by the “odd” vibe, you’re only in for adding to that pleasantry with one of the best written series in quite some time.