Fans of crime films and television shows will find a lot of buried gems in HBOmax’s archives, from the truly classic (Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï) to the obscure (Martin Campbell’s Cast a Deadly Spell) to the indescribable (Scott Sanger’s Black Dynamite). One standout is Miss Sherlock, a Japanese show from 2018 set in present-day Tokyo featuring two women as modern distaff versions of Holmes and Watson. It sounds like something completely removed from its Victorian source material, like putting Beowulf in 19th-century India—how ‘Sherlock’ can this Sherlock be?
The larger question is, can you take Sherlock Holmes out of the Victorian era and still have the story work? The answer is a solid yes; Basil Rathbone’s Holmes jumped from Arthur Conan Doyle’s era to London during WWII, and more recently, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller gave us Holmes in modern times–Miller’s adventures in Robert Doherty’s television series Elementary were set in New York. Something about Holmes translates just fine to different times and settings, so a Japanese version was probably inevitable. The thinking machine confronted with intricate enigmas, and unraveling them with the help of a not-quite-as-perceptive sidekick, is the foundation for all of these varied Sherlocks. Over the past century-plus, the variations on the formula have piled up.
Since the 1980s, Holmes’ conventionality has been rethought; Doyle made it clear that Holmes was sloppy, fired a gun indoors, had an obsessive interest in things like cigarette ash and the shape of ears, and otherwise displayed traits that surely would have raised the eyebrows of his fellow Victorians. Oh yes, and he was a drug addict. In light of everything, it becomes reasonable to portray Holmes as a social disaster or, at least, someone a bit removed from the norm.
When Jeremy Brett took the part of Holmes in the 1980s Grenada television series, John Hawkesworth’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, he leaned into the detective’s strangeness, showing him fidgeting, laughing at jokes no one else heard, and shouting impatiently even at people who wanted his help. This started an intriguing trajectory:
- Brett’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proposed: What if Sherlock, instead of being a Victorian gentleman, was an oddball?
- Cumberbatch’s Sherlock took it further: What if Sherlock wasn’t just odd but was caustic, rude, and unbearable?
- Miss Sherlock takes the question as far as it can go: What if Sherlock was not only extremely abrasive and infuriating but also a woman? Women, let’s face it, are tolerated far less than men when they’re abrasive and infuriating, and in popular culture, they almost never get away with it.
The main character of Miss Sherlock (played by Yûko Takeuchi) tramples everyone who tells her to behave or stay put. She even strides through police tape like she was finishing a race, grabs evidence with ungloved hands, and tosses aside any theories the police offer. She doesn’t care at all for the vast majority of Japanese rules of civility, or for any police procedures for that matter. Nor does she care for expectations for how Japanese women should behave. One of the pleasures of Miss Sherlock is watching bystanders and police stammer as Sherlock cuts a swatch through a crime scene.
Make no mistake, this is Sherlock Holmes. References to the original Holmes stories abound from the beginning, with an episode titled “The First Case”. Dr. Wato Tachibana (Shihori Kanjiya) meets Sherlock at an autopsy, and Sherlock right away perceives that Wato has been in Syria (in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes looks Watson over and can tell right away that he’s back from Afghanistan). Sherlock and Wato are brought together when two victims’ stomachs explode thanks to something called The Devil’s Foot, the name of an original Conan Doyle story. Inspector Reimon (Kenichi Takito), corresponding to Inspector Lestrade, puts up with Sherlock because this case is an absolute puzzle, and he’s out of his depth. Wato ends up moving in with Sherlock, who does indeed live at number 221B (though probably not Baker Street). In the best joke of the series, Sherlock’s brother Kento Futaba (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), in a Mycroft role, addresses Wato as “Wato-san”, which is what she’s called for the rest of the series.
Miss Sherlock is more than fanservice for mystery readers. It’s also a Japanese show, one that mentions the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The many variations of the ojigi, the Japanese bow, are in abundance, as is the two-handed business-card reception (I especially like the deep bow that some guilty parties use when forced to confess their schemes). In one scene, Sherlock rushes into a suspect’s apartment while a horrified Wato shrieks, “Your shoes!”, because not taking off your shoes upon entering a Japanese domicile is a faux pas akin to sticking your chewing gum on the underside of your host’s coffee table.
The first episode is a tad gory—but anyone who enjoyed the BBC’s Sherlock will get into this immediately. The camera swooshes then freeze-frames, the soundtrack dives into spidery synths, and we are propelled down the streets of Tokyo, fueled by the story’s needs and a kinetic visual sense informed by video games and social media. Then we get to the second episode, “Sachicko’s Mustache”, and we are drawn into a mystery so good that this episode may be the high point of the series.
“Sachiko’s Mustache” opens when Sherlock is hired to discover who defaced a famous modern Japanese painting and why. The crime seems inconsequential (especially after a case in which several people exploded from the inside), but in short order, bodies pile up, and Sherlock and Wato realized that vandalizing a painting was just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike several of the other episodes in the series, “Sachiko’s Mustache” doesn’t involve 21st-century tech or multinational conspiracies—and, even better, the clues are all front-loaded. It’s a nice little fair-play mystery and one that seems perfect for Tokyo, though I suppose the setting could be Europe or the US.
So, on one hand, we have a show that puts the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Sherlock’s personality, into a Japanese framework. On the other, Miss Sherlock bends and twists the conventional Japanese character into something that fills the world of Sherlock Holmes. None of this would work—the relocation of Holmes to Japan and the reformulation of Japan to a setting for the Holmes stories—if not for Takeuchi, the remarkable actress playing Sara Shelly “Sherlock” Futaba (“Holmes” never comes up). With her expressive face half-veiled by her dramatic side-part haircut, her fashion sense which is very expensive and also somewhat androgynous, and her clear homages to previous Sherlocks, definitely Cumberbatch and I would suspect Jeremy Brett as well (the way she perches on chairs with her feet on the seat and her knees in front of her face seem like a Brett move), she is a singular and memorable version of the Great Detective–a lot of fun to watch and also a little jarring.
I’m not as crazy about Kanjiya’s Wato-san; she always seems one step behind Sherlock as they race to solve their latest mystery and is frequently pulled along on these cases, having never prepared herself for being a detective. Also, with her bangs-and-ponytail haircut, backpack, and Keds, Kanjiya’s Wato-san looks ridiculously young. She comes dangerously close to being the kind of Watson that Nigel Bruce portrayed in a series of films and the 1939-50 radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—the bumbling comic relief. Indeed, Kanjiya’s Wato-son is not the combat veteran/person of action seen in the original stories, the Grenada television series, and BBC’s Sherlock. I suspect that part of the reason Wato is so conventional and mild in Miss Sherlock is that the show can only handle one unconventional character. Also, by placing a ‘girly’ character alongside Takeuchi’s Sherlock, the show highlights how defiant and groundbreaking Takeuchi’s character is.
If we needed an example of conventional Japanese femininity, there is the wonderful Ran Itô as Sherlock’s landlord Kimie Hatano, analog to Doyle’s Mrs. Hudson. Like Reimon, Hatano tolerates and even likes Sherlock, seeing decency through rudeness. Thanks to Hatano, we get several scenes where Sherlock, Wato, and their landlord all energetically ponder clues and piece together solutions, turning the crime stories into stories of a crime-solving sisterhood. (Reimon is never useful in solving these mysteries—as in the original stories.)
Before we’re even halfway into this eight-episode series, we learn of an international conspiracy, and the last few episodes pit Sherlock and Wato against a Moriarty-like foe who wants to wipe out most of Tokyo. All of that’s fine—this show never promised us several seasons of Granada television-style mysteries, and even the original Holmes found himself going hand-to-hand against an international criminal gang—but I was hoping for more elegantly constructed mysteries as we had seen in “Sachiko’s Mustache”. The clues are all there in that episode, and the delight is knowing that Sherlock—be the character played by Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch, or Takeuchi—sees them all and is fitting everything together as we watch.
We will never get a second season of this unique series, even though episode eight ends on a cliffhanger. Tragically, actor Yuko Takeuchi took her own life in 2020 after proving in eight shows that no one could portray the Sherlock character as memorably as she. We can only imagine what the post-Reichenbach Falls case file of Sara Shelly “Sherlock” Futaba would have been like, and miss the only actor who could have shown us. We can hope there are more international variations of Sherlock Holmes out there, ready to take us to lands we might not know much about but where, reassuringly, its television watchers love a good mystery as much as anyone, anywhere.