Case File nº221: Kabukicho – Episode 1

By: Caitlin Moore October 15, 20190 Comments

What’s it about? In the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku, Tokyo, there’s a particular club where detectives gather. There, they are presented with murder cases they compete to solve. John Watson, a young doctor, enters this club in search of the detective known as Sherlock Holmes. He ends up as an observer as Holmes and his rivals race to solve the murder of a young female sex worker, apparently at the hands of the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.

Content Warning: Queerphobia, transphobic stereotypes, sexual assault, and graphic violence against women.

Kabukicho came so close to being one of my picks for the season. It’s bizarre and wild and unpredictable with glossy animation and style to spare… all steeped, unfortunately, in absolutely hideous levels of queerphobia.

A drag queen on stage sings "I love hot men! Girls can get lost! Don't even joke about that!"

The show is, if not wildly experimental, totally unafraid of its own weirdness. The cast is made up mostly of Sherlock Holmes characters, except they’re living and working and functioning in Japan’s most infamous red-light district.

It’s not just Holmes and Watson. Inspector Lestrade and others are there too, and Mrs. Hudson has been reimagined as the lead performer at the drag bar where they all meet. There’s no real explanation for why they’re all there, or discussion of foreign-ness, or anything like that. They just are, and that’s great. I love a show that doesn’t feel the need to over-explain.

And how could anyone not enjoy a mystery show that replaces the classic parlor scene with poorly performed rakugo to explain the mystery and its solution? This kind of strange, out-of-the-box thinking livens up what could have easily been a stale rehash of a story that’s been done over and over (and over and over).

Sherlock on a rakugo stage, bowing to the room.

Unfortunately, you know what else the staff seems to think is weird? Anyone who’s not cis or straight.

The real Kabukicho, as one of the nightlife districts of one of the busiest wards of Tokyo, has a lot of colorful as well as dangerous characters. It’s loaded with cabarets, strip clubs, and host bars. Despite ongoing efforts by the government to clean up the area and the increasing numbers of tourists, it’s still famous for its glowing neon grit.

Case File nº221: Kabukicho makes use of that reputation not by focusing on seedy characters, but on drag performers and trans sex workers. Mrs. Hudson croons on a stage for a tiny, mostly empty bar, wearing a spangly blue dress offset by burly arms, a full beard, and moustache. She makes unwelcome advances on the detectives, ignoring their boundaries by grabbing their asses and flirting as they grimace and squirm.

Every single trans woman or drag queen—the show doesn’t bother to distinguish—has stereotypically masculine bodies, with thick muscular arms and low hip-to-waist ratios, and uses campy gay speech patterns.

A burly drag queen with a full beard wearing a bunny-girl outfit.

With one or two bad stereotypes, I could push through it to get to the good stuff, toss on a content warning, and still try to enjoy the fun parts. But it just. Keeps. Happening. Queer people are repeatedly used as punchlines, and every time it’s mean-spirited as fuck. It’s cruel, it’s hurtful, and it leaves a bitter taste that lingers even in the parts that should be fun.

Given all that, maybe it’s unsurprising that the cis women in the episode are pretty badly off as well. Jack the Ripper’s MO is particularly brutal—he cuts out his victims’ reproductive organs and uses the blood to paint huge angel wings around them.

The female characters who are still alive are sex workers Holmes talks to in his characteristically blunt manner, analyzing any cosmetic procedures they’ve had to make themselves more marketable. Would it be so much to ask to have a female detective? Irene Adler? Someone?

There’s so much to like about Case File nº221: Kabukicho, but there’s an equal amount to despise. Unfortunately the queerphobia and misogyny completely cancel out everything joyful and fun about it, making this a hard pass for me.

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