Imagine if you’d written some fanfiction about two of your favorite writers solving mysteries and being cute together. Then, what if an anime studio showed up and offered to turn it into a show for you? It’d be any fanboy’s dream! Well that’s exactly what happened to Kei Ii and his 1999 mystery novel Woodpecker Detective’s Office.
Set in late Meiji-era Tokyo, Woodpecker Detective’s Office follows fictionalized versions of linguist Kosuke Kindaichi and famous poet Takuboku Ishikawa. Ishikawa runs a small detective agency, and Kindaichi assists him in solving cases. The two were apparently close in real life, and in this series Ii and Liden Films create an idealized version of their relationship.
Always curious about new series, I decided to check out the pilot after it aired this Monday. Here’s a brief summary for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet:
Kindaichi is first shown visiting his old apartment, touching the shelves and reminiscing about his old friend Ishikawa. We can infer that Ishikawa is dead at this point, reinforced by the fact that the real Ishikawa died young at age 26. This acts as a frame story, as the scene cuts to a memory of Ishikawa knocking at Kindaichi’s door, hoping to mooch some cigarettes off of him. Ishikawa looks so embarrassed to be asking this, and frankly it’s adorable. Ishikawa is established as a greatly talented poet, and recognizing his own lack of talent, Kindaichi wishes to cheer him on. As Ishikawa takes Kindaichi for a walk through the teahouse district (the equivalent of a red light district), they bump into a man fleeing one of the rooms. They discover a male corpse inside, the police arrive, and then Ishikawa has the opportunity to flex his powers of deduction and observation.
At this point the episode launches into a (somewhat) typical detective narrative, where Kindaichi’s and the audience’s initial beliefs are proven wrong. Ishikawa proves the man fleeing the scene was framed for the murder, but interestingly enough never finds the real culprit! This is an incredibly bold choice for the series to make, and one that might put off some hardcore mystery fans. After the duo doesn’t solve the mystery they talk about poetry, walk by the river, and go on a cute dinner date. The scene then cuts to a few days later, when Kindaichi discovers Ishikawa is being evicted for failing to pay his rent. Kindaichi panics for his friend, and immediately pawns his entire book collection to pay Ishikawa’s bills. The last thing we see is Ishikawa hanging the detective agency sign, needing a source of income so as not to burden his friend.
The first thing I noticed about the series was how much detail Liden Films put into authentically representing Meiji-era Tokyo. Between the clothing, architecture and even the cigarette packaging, everything felt painstakingly crafted in the service of an effective period piece. Woodpecker Detective’s Office creates a believable other world that I could fall into, but unlike most anime settings this one actually existed!
Of course there are a number of anime that take place in historical Japan (Samurai Champloo, Demon Slayer, InuYasha, etc.), but all of these simply use the past as a unique setting for a supernatural or action story. Woodpecker Detective’s Office stands alone in trying to depict what people’s lives may have really looked like in its historical setting. Rather than using the historical setting as a backdrop for a mystery story, this series manages to use mystery stories as a backdrop for its historical setting! Letting the murder mystery go unanswered allows the true focus of the show, Ishikawa and Kindaichi’s relationship, to shine.
While the actual detective plot (at least in the first episode) is a bit weak, Woodpecker Detective’s Office shines in the little, mundane moments that Kindaichi and Ishikawa spend together. Although I haven’t read any of it before I love how the writers work Ishikawa’s actual poetry into his dialogue, appearing as if he composes it in response to the events of the anime. Being about two poets, Woodpecker Detective’s Office is also heavily concerned with aesthetics and atmosphere. Characters are outlined in blue instead of black to make them appear softer. Clouds, strangers, empty streets, and flowers on the river all see more screen time than the murder plot, all serving to paint a serene picture of Tokyo’s past.
One problem I often have with anime as a form is its reluctance to portray irresponsible or socially deviant people in a positive/sympathetic light, or as protagonists. Ishikawa checks all of these boxes: he smokes, mooches cigarettes off his friend, forgets about his obligations, even forgets to pay rent! It’s also assumed that Ishikawa and Kindaichi are lovers, or at least closer than friends. For some reason the anime industry is still uncomfortable openly portraying homosexual relationships, so the viewer is forced to use their own powers of observation to read between the lines. But make no mistake, the signs are there. The two share plenty of tender moments in Woodpecker Detective’s Office’s first episode, and these moments are what will keep me coming back for more.