Kabukichou Sherlock [Case File nº221: Kabukicho (歌舞伎町シャーロック Kabukichō Syarokku)]
Anime, Studio I.G., Fall 2019 –
Of course I will greedily watch all of the ongoing Kabukichou Sherlock anime that is streaming this fall season. That doesn’t mean that I have to gush about it or conversely drag it’s obvious exploitation. On second thought, dragging it could be useful but I insist that any such dragging get the context firmly set down first. Too easy to just hit it with a blanket dismissal, even if disambiguation runs a strong risk of at first smelling like apologia.
Apologia: Beware the cultural essentialist trick that all too many western-rightist-otaku pull when they go off to defend the glaring objectification and misogyny that pops up all too often in some Japanese vernacular narratives. Underage-appearing waifuus, jiggle-some cartoon mammalian excess, bikini armor clad Beautiful Fighting Girls who will magically call you master, exploitation, sexualized violence, the entire ugly mess. Little wonder that for decades, Japanese consumers of these properties were dismissed as rabid fans of low-resolution pornography. Note as well Dr Tamaki and the hornet’s nest he poked when he declared that libidinised content might well be a healthy adaptive strategy for life in a mass culture’s over-saturated media scape.
At no point did he issue a blanket pardon for IRL exploitation, violence and misogyny or the shadow of these in anime and manga, under the guise of “cultural practice”. Those who try this trick probably have other “cultural practices” of their own hiding in the wings that they are looking to rehabilitate.
LGBTQ vs QUEER themes: This gets extra complicated if one is of a certain age and/or steeped in the UK tradition of the word “queer”. Less loaded as a pejorative in North America, it was easier to reclaim via queer theory and scrub the term of it’s epithet status. Gott Straffe England, they left us a similar mess with fag and UK boarding-school etymologies involving underclassmen lackies, bundles of kindling and cigarettes. UK upper-class boarding schools… That gottem Brexit, so maybe they’ll smarten up.
For the purposes of Kabukichou Sherlock (Kabulock?) it is more useful to start from the original, neutral “not-normal” meaning of queer, and thence veer towards non-conforming personal expression, as this tracks closer to the Japanese hentai (again; original neutral not normal, strange). This later will be useful in contextualising the fantastic Kabukichou setting,
IRL minority sexuality and gender expression Japanese folks are closer to LGBTQ (IA or + or IA+) usage. Boring, respectable sociology. For example, academic fieldwork suggests most Japanese guys who like other guys don’t have a lot of time for extremes of gender and sexuality non-conformity. Like the protrags in high-school harem romcoms, they seem to want average, no hassle, don’t make a fuss, “normal” lives, some of which to be enjoyed with other average, no hassle, don’t make a fuss, “normal” guys who happen to like them. Very bourgie, very human, very normal.
What’s wrong with that?
Meanwhile Japanese vernacular fictions keep trying to set them up with (or turn them into) Kabulock‘s Mrs. Hudson. Mrs. Hudson the Okama (venerable/ well used old rice-pot) crossdressing gay/ female impersonator-performer/ proto-non-binary character is a staple of Japanese manga/anime/game demi-monde settings (Tokyo Godfathers, Darker than Black, etc.) inherited from lurid pulp true-crime-sex-perversion pulp magazine stories that enjoyed wide popularity from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. The term itself is loaded with crude, nasty double meanings; suggesting someplace a guy (or dick-haver) would be ill-advised to visit, due to past over-use and rice residue.
Some activists in Japan have strongly argued that the okama stereotype is overdue for re-claiming/ rehabilitation. After all, the spaces that these venerable queer icons ran, like the lurid pulps that often featured them and their clubs as characters and settings, served as “autonomous zones”/ quasi-safe spaces where important discussions and cross-class/ sexualities/ interests interactions took place, far from the prying eyes of censors and militarist politicians.
Lost amidst all of this discursive clutter is how much of this queer is queer, that is queer- derived and produced and how much of it are well-worn shadows-of-queer pulled off the shelves and paraded about by and for a straight audience hungry for a unique tourism experience™.
Sex, lies and deductive reasoning: Sherlock Holmes is reason over passion; cold-blooded clear-eyed observation and deductive reasoning! There be nooooooooo un-manly melodrama in any of the original stories… Much, errrr… nevermind. Fer pity sake. If not for the deduction drag, all the Conan-Doyle tales are lurid pulp pot-boilers with wagon-loads of gothic romance, slum crawling adventurism, secret society plots, inheritance swindles, misogyny, classist bootlicking and casual, colonial racism. Little wonder when Tarō Hirai took up his pen as Edogawa Ranpo [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edogawa_Ranpo ALSO: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/edogawa_ranpo] and set out to create a modern(ist?) Japanese Detective Fiction with his Kogoro Akechi character, he borrowed not only from Conan-Doyle but Edgar Allen Poe as well.
“Although many of his first stories were primarily about sleuthing and the processes used in solving seemingly insolvable crimes, during the 1930s, he began to turn increasingly to stories that involved a combination of sensibilities often called “ero guro nansensu”, from the three words “eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical”. The presence of these sensibilities helped him sell his stories to the public, which was increasingly eager to read his work. One finds in these stories a frequent tendency to incorporate elements of what the Japanese at that time called “abnormal sexuality” (変態性欲 hentai seiyoku). For instance, a major portion of the plot of the novel The Demon of the Lonely Isle (孤島の鬼 Kotō no oni), serialized from January 1929 to February 1930 in the journal Morning Sun (朝日 Asahi), involves a homosexual doctor and his infatuation for another main character.”
— Ibid Wiki Edogawa Rampo
As I noted in a previous TLDR essay on Rampo, the floating world/ water trade settings and the role of sexploitation pulp fiction magazines in Japanese sexuality studies [https://heartsoffuriousfancies.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/your-own-private-game-of-laplace/], if you have a Japanese master detective, you gotta have the seedy, sex-trade district and a background of over-the-top “Black Lizard” queer. If you gonna do a Japanese Sherlock Holmes, you do not drop him and Watson into a koban next to a shopping district on the outskirts of Saitama Prefecture. You gotta Rampo-ize the setting and the gang and that means the forbidden back alleys of an exaggerated skeevy urban red-light district. Kabulock‘s East Shinjuku even has police checkpoints keeping the weirdlings contained, so that their poverty and messy lives don’t seep out and cause social unrest.
The entire Kabukichou setting and cast may be nothing more than a quick and dirty kludge to give the Western Sherlock Holmes experience™ a Rampo look-and-feel.
And at this point, the Isekai gets ugly.
Fox-eared demi-human slave girls rescued for the fighting girl harem of the “civilized” MC re-incarnated/ magically summoned into the very European Medieval-looking fantasy Dungeon-Quest game inspired “other world” are one thing — Curious how the ritual dragging of these stinkers routinely elides the glaring simulated Olde Euro-Medieval-ness of their settings (expect barbarians to do barbarism…). It is a whole other other-world/demimonde when the high-ranked “courtesan” is resurrected in a barred mansion in Saga Prefecture to work in an indentured-servitude-of-the-dead girl idol group.
Caution is advised when romanticising the sex-trade and sex-trade districts.
Fucking Hell! She was most probably originally sold to a brothel as a child, by her starving parents some 200 years ago. After she died, her nameless corpse would have been dumped behind the main temple in the Yoshiwara district, left for the monks to burn, with a few perfunctory prayers on the mud flats at low tide. Indentured debt-bond sex slavery was theoretically abolished by the post war constitution of 1945, with prostitution (and therefore contractual arrangements surrounding it) completely outlawed in Japan in 1958. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoshiwara]
more horror here:
” In her audio guide, which visitors can access on Soundcloud, the artist reveals that most of the women in the entertainment districts were sold into prostitution by their families as teenagers and were bound to restrictive indentured contracts for up to a decade in order to pay back the money their parents received up-front from the brothel owners.
Conditions were horrendous, and prostitutes endured unthinkable cruelty. The women were frequently beaten by brothel owners, malnourished, and often suffered from debilitating sexually-transmitted diseases. There are even records of women being housed in cages or boxes when they weren’t seeing customers.”
— [ https://news.artnet.com/art-world/alternate-art-guide-art-institute-of-chicago-1446262]
See also; “The Other Audio Tour -The Truth Behind The Floating World” by Michelle Hartney https://soundcloud.com/user-471450445/
Quaint cultural practices warning remains in effect.
Not that we do anything so barbaric over here in the enlightened West, neh? I mean, our days of slavery, abuse, the sale of young women, state-condoned female servitude are long since passed, right?
Cough -Epstein- cough. Holy shit, a billionaire who most likely made his billions through pimping, trafficking in girls under the cover of “the fashion industry”, blackmail and insider stock manipulation.
In this light, a tiny bit of tourism in back alley bars where you can hire a motley assortment of private detectives from mama-san Hudson might well end up being the most enlightened, revolutionary, transgressive and -safe- locale in the entire demimonde. We have yet to encounter any Jake Adelstein levels of coerced heterosexual pimping, nine-fingered yakuza thugs and trafficked women from poorer countries locked in rooms above rub-and-tug parlors threatened with graphic murder when they seek to escape to an underfunded NGO, only to be quickly deported back to their home countries to deal with the loan sharks who fronted them a plane ticket for their “nanny job” in Tokyo…
Hard to make a Sherlock tribute from something like that.
When ep4 deals with a murder in a rock band, it is between members of an indie band, not between members of a recruited from farm towns and paid less than minimum wage and contracted into hock by shady talento agencies exploitation band. Sherlock, Watson and young Moria(r)ty bumble around in an upscale public bath. The Great Detective does nekkid rakugo and then faints in the steam room.
If queer representation in Kabulock is to be dragged for any reason, it should be dragged for its Disneyland-ifaction of “the queer” and queer spaces. The “mainstream media” in Japan has long ago adopted a strategy for dealing with the potentially disruptive, potentially dangerous outsider: “the other”; be they the poor, the queer, foreign or otherwise non-conforming to the monolithic ideal of the peasant-merchant turned post-industrial wage serf and HIS nuclear family. Isolate and contain them and then habituate the public to them by trotting them out as harmless, monetizable “entertainment”.
At least, that’s how it is supposed to work…
Must hysterically preserve the fiction of a uniform, monolithic, well-ordered and benevolently directed (by your favorite political party and its backers) society.
Similarly, when a right-wing politician goes on right-wing funded Youtube “talk” shows and condemns contaminating western activist ideas of homosexuality, she is careful to draw a distinction between the dangerous foreign ideas – undoubtedly advanced by an international communist conspiracy (I shit you not, she says this!) and “natural” historic instances of Japanese same-sex attraction, that even she once experienced at an all-girl’s school but of course, grew out of…
The regard of the acolyte for his master, the wandering 12th century monk = Authentic Japanese culture.
The warlord’s retainer warming the master’s sandals on his body =
Authentic Japanese culture.
The famous novelist’s Boy Militarist death cult = Oh those crazy authors, they always overdo it, still Authentic Japanese culture.
The faded female impersonator who runs a bar in the red-light district =
a committee of cultural experts are assessing these.
My Brother’s Husband = Filthy outsider commie subversion. Could even be a Korean and/or Chinese plot. Kill it with fire!
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One can indulge in ero-guro story plottings and as your hobby, compile bibliographies of historical incidences of the love between men with your good friend (finally ensuring that Jun’ichi Iwata‘s massive compiled research was published after his passing) as long as you marry and raise and support a family.
Be a productive member of society
To go further with this, the reader would have to wade through chapter 6; [Pleasures of the Perverse. Male-male sexuality in Twentieth Century Popular Discourse] of Gregory M. Pflugfelder’s “Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600–1950“. Google Books will, as usual, chop huge sections out of what is freely available.
See also: Brad Borevitz, “The discourse on “love between men” in interwar japan: Iwata’s history of homosexuality” https://onetwothree.net/writing/discourse-%E2%80%9Clove-between-men%E2%80%9D-interwar-japan-iwata%E2%80%99s-history-homo
TLDR: Slumming is your best tourism value.
Along with sensationalism and burlesque, we have erasure. The girl detective duo, Mary and Lucy at first look like a tight couple — then the writers go out of their way to disambiguate them into a sister act. Tall, athletic and striking Lucy (be still my heart…) is turned into a possessive, over-protective siscon. At least they remain formidable opponents in Mrs. Hudson’s winner-take-all case solving contests, although Mary’s methods cast doubt on her core “detection” abilities. Girls cheat.
This essay-post is going on far too much over what is shaping up to be a one-off concept, a time-slot filler – satisfying enough as it airs but unlikely to end up on anyone’s ‘best of the decade” or even “of the year” lists. If out for a serious Holmes-jones it might have been better to venture an in-depth deconstruction of Tantei Opera Milky Holmes — which at least has enjoyed a decade-long run as a franchise.
[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantei_Opera_Milky_Holmes ]
And sexier (if still burlesqued) criminal masterminds…
Face it: Kabukichou‘s Sherlock Holmes – the man himself as character – is a grouchy bore. His frustrated rakugo urges are nowhere near the levels of eccentric, manic narcissism that we have come to expect from the great detective. The writers should have had HIM crossdress, wander East Shinjuku and draw ero-guro BL doujins in his spare time. And Watson is a brick.
The last charge to level against Kabulock is the most subtle, but to my mind, the most damming; The Dalgleish Reversal:
The mysteries written by UK author P.D.James [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Dalgliesh] were adapted into a string of BBC live-action dramas. Alternatively moody and fast-paced, they soon paled for me when I realised that it ALWAYS WAS THE GAY ARTIST WHO DID IT, because, uh… some gay trauma-ish whatever motive plus natural gay duplicity, blah blah blah. P.D.James is a real nasty bit of work for this – they should consider themselves fortunate that most of that shit was done pre-Twitter.
Edogawa Rampo was prone to this kind of cheap exploitation bullshit as well — which was par for the course for the magazines he wrote for. The ‘unsolvable” murder mystery is always easily understood once it is revealed that the victim was a pervert who would squeeze himself into a huge, overstuffed chair so that he could thrill to people sitting on him. He was murdered for related pervert motives. The dude in the other story murdered because of hidden, unresolved homo-lust. Taken to extremes, the habit of explaining the motives of incomprehensible crimes with ever-more-elaborately contrived fetishes and paraphilias quickly turns into “A wizard Did It!” (It’s effing magic) Even with the pervy frisson, the stories become absurd.
Kabulock inverts this: when one drops a murder mystery into a Tokyo red-light district and populates the cast of hunters and suspects with freaks, is it polite writing mechanics not to have any of the “freak” characters end up as the perpetrators – no matter how much the toupeed Inspector Lestrade would wish them so?
Or is something else at work here?
Kabulock‘s murders and/or crimes must inevitably turn out to have been committed by the most mundane, straight suspects, for the most mundane reasons. The settings are “queer”; the crimes, as exemplary of the dynamics of power within the greater society, remain “straight”.
An accessible, useful research paper was recommended on Twitter:
“Queer desire in Japanese TV series” — Jasmin Rückert
Open access; published online: 21 Oct 2019 in advance of publication in the Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies
While it only mentions anime and manga genres in passing, it examines a number of noteworthy Japanese live-action television dramas from 1992-2016 and discusses treatment of characters, common themes and issues surrounding “visibility”.
I suspect that more then a few of the plot elements from these popular television dramas have “migrated” to anime and manga narratives.