There must be something compelling about the Sherlock Holmes canon that has spawned what is, by now, its own sub-genre — a billion retellings, as it were, seemingly as prevalent as (if not more) than retellings of Grimm’s fairytales. I’ve never been particularly interested, and anyway procedurals and mysteries aren’t my kind of thing.
Miss Sherlock stands out not just because this time around both Sherlock Holmes and Watson are Japanese women, but by how they’re handled. Modern incarnations of Sherlock Holmes tend toward the antisocial, asshole genius and that’s all well and good, but what if the antisocial, asshole genius is a woman? Probably she was traumatized; probably she will be threatened with rape at least once during the cause of the show, if not some sort of suggestively filmed violence.
Not this one.
Tachibana Wato — Wato-san, you see, a bilingual pun so bad it’s good— is a volunteer medic who’s just returned from Syria; at the airport, she meets her mentor, whose stomach promptly explodes (fridged men casualty count: 1) and demonstrates that the show doesn’t shy away from gore. Enter Sherlock (who has a real name but which goes unmentioned in the show), a consulting detective the police call in when they encounter unsolvable cases. You know the drill. The hotel at which Wato stays goes up in fire by the end of episode one, forcing her to co-habit with the gorgeous, impeccably dressed detective, and if you’ve read that fanfiction before…
Unfortunately, as fun as it is to read the two as homoromantic, the show lacks the conviction to see that through. But it just so happens that all of Wato’s heterosexual pursuits end in tears, blood, and botched dates thanks to Sherlock. They’re usually understandable, but it does leave Wato feeling upset and romantically unfulfilled, of which more later. The dynamics between them are kept carefully platonic, though they grow very close (protesting ‘We’re not friends!’ all the while) and become each other’s most important person. Not that Sherlock is good at showing it because, in a word, she’s a pretty horrible person. Does she like children? No, she hates them because they’re ‘incapable of logical thinking’ (in the ‘did this kid seriously inject poison into his infant sister?’ episode). Did she have friends as a kid? No. Does she have friends now? Also no, and she likes it that way, fuck you very much, etc. She subjects Wato to unreasonable requests, demeans Wato, and frequently calls her useless.
In fairness, she does this to everybody. It does come back to bite her later, but on the other hand seeing a woman do this onscreen — slapping a man in the mouth to shut him up, calling him too emotional to be involved with the case, grabbing men by their lanyards — is oddly satisfying. Her body language is aggressive, she constantly does and says things that are completely socially unacceptable… like male genius asshole do, and get away with it too.
More than that, Sherlock is never subjected to misogyny either by the show’s narrative choices or by the show’s other characters. She boasts a wonderful fashion sense but doesn’t dress to impress, and especially not to impress men. She has cut-glass cheekbones and the most amazing shoes, but her presentation is never softened or sexualized for male consumption; her body language is confident and often outright aggressive. Men never tower or loom over her, and present no physical threat to her at all - you’d be hard-pressed to locate a single man in the show who’s taller than Sherlock (many are shorter, the actress being on the taller side and wearing decent heels). She is neurotic but not vulnerable, arrogant but not required to get her ‘comeuppance’ as female characters usually are, and she is pleased to be an antisocial asshole, that suits her just fine.
In some ways watching her is almost like watching near-future science fiction where women are no longer touched or shaped by patriarchy: Sherlock, as a character, feels post-sexism. Stylish, effortlessly sophisticated, and defined solely by her intellect.
The show itself starts off as low-stakes and episodic; the first three or so episodes are fairly loose and to all appearances the cases are unrelated. These episodes walk you through establishing the status quo — Sherlock’s personality, Wato’s dynamics with her, Wato’s own personal life and so on — and it’s only by episode four that the show hits its stride: Wato experiencing PTSD flashbacks from being in a war zone. This begins the arc that would eventually culminate in the reveal that the seemingly unconnected cases Sherlock has been solving are orchestrated by a mastermind (whose surname is, incredibly, a bilingual pun of Moriarty). It’s around this point that the show turns from a fairly typical procedural to a psychological thriller, and the stakes rise from small-time homicide to a bioweapon that could wipe out all of Tokyo.
The transition from one to the other isn’t entirely smooth, and most likely you can tell who the Moriarty figure is from pretty early on, and you can also most likely tell that one of Wato’s heterosexual prospects would end up being not quite what he seems. But on the whole the acting, excellent all around, keeps the show very engaging, and just a real pleasure to watch. There’s not a single actor in the recurring cast who’s bad; even Sherlock’s and Wato’s mutual landlady is wonderful at being the warm presence and mother figure to both.
The way the show concludes is a little odd, possibly unnecessary, though it still sets things up for a second season if these eight episodes have been successful (which, by all accounts, it has been in Asia; even western viewers have been hyping it up). Ideally I’d have liked actual lesbian relations, but what I got was still pretty good — a show that’s sometimes understated, always elegant, and ultimately a lot of fun.