Woodpecker Detective’s Office

3 out of 5

Directed by: Tomoe Makino

covers season 1

An incredibly appealing concept that never quite gets going – it’s not a straight forward detective series, or a straight forward drama, or a straight forward character piece – Woodpecker Detective’s Office is sustained by Liden’s charming low key animation style and endearing vocal performances.  The bit by bit plot/s that emerge string a viewer along effectively enough, there’s just always the sensation that we’re waiting to turn a corner for things to click into place, and they never do.

The novel on which the series is based, according to wiki, seems to offer the high level setup – “fictionalized versions of the poet Takuboku Ishikawa and the linguist Kyōsuke Kindaichi… investigate a supposed ghost haunting” – but if that’s truly the extent of the book, Woodpecker Detective’s Office the show does some cheeky workarounds to allow for episodic investigations (one of which is that ghost haunting), plus a vague seasonal arc, and extending the detectiving to a rather unofficial office that includes the duo’s friends who gather at the local teahouse and trade poems and barbs and ideas.  Having a mystery series set during the Meiji era is fun, and Ishikawa’s and Kindaichi’s odd couple pairing is both endearing and relatable – voice actors Shintarō Asanuma (Ishikawa) and Takahiro Sakurai (Kindaichi) bring to life the former’s beguiling, scamplike behavior that’s nonetheless backed up by moments of brusque sincerity, and the latter’s wholehearted upstanding morality and kindness, leveled out by a general naivety.

The way the series captures the solving of each mystery (murders, thefts, for which Ishikawa either inserts himself into the police investigation or actually manages to get hired to attend to as a detective) is initially fascinating – we spend time discussing the different clues, only to have the solution completely backgrounded or sometimes even skipped! – but it too quickly becomes a symptom of the way the show never quite makes its agenda clear.  The lighthearted way Ishikawa begs money off of his friend and then pays it back only to borrow again is, at one point, twisted into non-lightheartedness when we’re temporarily brought to view Ishikawa as a potentially horrible person, only to reverse this in a way that admittedly respects viewers’ intelligence, but also skimps out on actually using it as a developmental character point for the series.  There are other incidents of well-presented moral greys that, like the mysteries, are nonetheless tossed into the background as something else is cycled into the foreground, like the larger mystery of who’s writing notes to accuse some big business folk of ill deeds, or a later concern with Ishikawa’s growing signs of illness.

The patient pacing and appealingly grounded set of characters – plus smart moment by moment scripting, even if the whole things doesn’t always seem to align – kept me returning to the show, although it likely could’ve been even stronger and more enjoyable if one format of drama, or comedy, or mystery was chosen and refined.