An elementary lesson in storytelling
It’s tough to find a character as recognized, quoted, and adapted as the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. First featured in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in 1887, Holmes would go on to appear in a total of 56 of Doyle’s novels and short stories writing a total of 56 short stories and four novels starring Sherlock Holmes. The detective grew to be so popular that when Doyle attempted to kill Holmes off in The Adventure of the Final Problem, his audience was apoplectic. And so, Doyle reluctantly reintroduced the character eight years later in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
As of 2018, Sherlock Holmes and his trusted friend/life partner John Watson have appeared in over 254 TV shows and films. In 2012 Holmes earned the Guinness World record for “Most Portrayed Literary Human Character in Film and TV,” with 48 more adaptations than William Shakespeare’s Hamlet—including recent series and films like BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary.
In April 2018, HBO Asia released its own take on Sherlock Holmes in the form of a series called Miss Sherlock. Though each adaptation tries to bring something new to the character, Miss Sherlock made the simple, yet radical change of depicting Sherlock, Watson, and their nemesis Moriarty—here Moriwaki—as women.
The series follows consulting detective Sara Shelly “Sherlock” Futaba (Yûko Takeuchi), and the army veteran doctor she takes on as a roommate, Wato Tachibana (Shihori Kanjiya). Together, they solve a series of original cases set in modern Tokyo from missing brides to exploding health trackers. Sherlock soon realizes there’s a mysterious figure behind many of these cases, and so she and Wato begin working to to uncover the machinations of Moriwaki.
The Original Odd Couple
Like many adaptations before it, Miss Sherlock devotes much of its plot to the developing friendship between Wato and Sherlock. There’s friction between the two at first due to their clashing personalities—Sherlock tends to be analytical, distant, and unreceptive to change, while Wato insists on making changes to the daily routine within the apartment and treats cases with more empathy. But as the series progresses they learn to trust and depend on each other, thus forging an enduring bond that becomes the focus of the show.
Wato initially comes to live with Sherlock after working with her on a case involving Wato’s mentor. From then on, we see moments of the two of them sharing meals, discussing cases, and growing closer with each episode despite Sherlock’s constant protests to the contrary, e.g. “She’s not my friend!” We see Sherlock fixing Wato’s plate at dinner, Wato buying Sherlock her favorite tea, and Sherlock making lotion to soothe Wato’s army scars. There are even several moments in the show where Sherlock panics when Wato is in mortal danger.
Sherlock and Wato’s friendship is at the forefront of the show, and the series highlights how both characters benefit from their odd couple dynamic. Their friendship boosts Wato’s confidence and helps her reassimilate into civilian life. And Sherlock gets a confidante out of the bargain, easing her loneliness and teaching her that it’s okay to reach out for help when she needs it. Wato is unafraid to call Sherlock out on her nonsense, and Sherlock often trusts Wato’s opinions during the cases.
For Sherlock, Wato is a valuable ally and companion, and for Wato, Sherlock is a grounding tie to civilian life that allows her to help people as she struggles with her PTSD. Their friendship is one that elevates them and makes them better people, much as the friendships between their male counterparts do in other adaptations.
By contrast, Wato’s romantic relationship with a photographer named Moriya proves to be a source of conflict and pain that endangers both her and Sherlock. After Moriya attempts to spread a deadly virus in an attempted act of bioterrorism, Sherlock kills him in front of Wato, who doesn’t realize Moriya has been acting on Moriwaki’s orders. Moriwaki then manipulates Wato’s grief over her boyfriend’s death and Sherlock’s perceived betrayal in order to turn her against Sherlock as the detective flees the police. This leads to a rooftop confrontation on the Reichenbach building where a brainwashed Wato attempts to kill Sherlock on Moriwaki’s orders.
The scene is the climax of the series, in which Sherlock at last admits that Wato is her first ever friend—and that if she has to die, she’s glad it will be at her hands. This heartfelt confession breaks through Moriwaki’s hold on Wato long enough to give Sherlock the opportunity to execute her plan—grabbing Moriwaki and plunging over the side of the building, saving both her and Wato’s lives.
Friends and Lovers
Through its focus on the relationship between its female leads, Miss Sherlock asserts that friendship between women is of vital importance. While the friendship between leads is a recurring theme in many male-led stories—and almost every Sherlock Holmes adaptation—it’s such a central part of the story for Sherlock and Wato that it makes apparent how rare the dynamic is in popular media.
That’s because the most iconic movies and shows centered on female friendships tend to abandon the focus on these relationships midway through in order to center a male love interest. For instance, the 2004 film Mean Girls begins by focusing on Cady’s tentative friendship with the titular group of girls and attempts to explore the sometimes difficult friendship dynamics between women. However, a large portion of the story is focused on the two female leads competing over the male love interest—a formulaic, lazy narrative that Miss Sherlock side-steps by casting Moriya as an antagonist to be defeated by Sherlock. Wato and Sherlock are never in competition over Moriya, and the climax of the series makes it clear that what hurt Wato most deeply and led to her becoming Moriwaki’s pawn was Sherlock’s perceived betrayal.
It’s easy to find shows and movies pushing the sexist message that women are only mothers, wives, sisters, and love interests to the men leading the stories, with their own friendships and inner lives given second billing or none at all. This is true of a number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, such as in Guy Ritchie’s first film, where Irene Adler is written as Sherlock’s love interest—a relationship that modern audiences might not know isn’t in the original texts, where the detective simply admires her for her skill and insight. In the sequel, Adler is killed off twenty minutes in to make way for Sherlock’s next love interest. The other prominent female character in the first film, Mary Morstan, is known only as Watson’s fiancé and wife. Sadly, this isn’t unique—many contemporary adaptations of Holmes stories handle their female characters in ways frequently more regressive that Doyle’s original works.
Placed alongside these adaptations, Miss Sherlock stands out through its exploration of the close relationship dynamics between Wato and Sherlock—putting a new twist on the source material through a simple change that invites the audience to consider the Sherlock/Watson relationship from a different angle. It also provides a compelling story in its own right about the necessity and power of friendship between women.
In Miss Sherlock, Wato’s romantic relationship with Moriya distracts from her friendship with Sherlock, is emotionally harmful, and ultimately endangers both her and Sherlock. In contrast, Wato’s friendship with Sherlock frees her from Moriwaki’s manipulations and grants Sherlock the social and emotional growth that allows her to ask for help during the key final confrontation. Depictions like this are important, because they counter patriarchal messaging that other women are only competition for male interest, one of the main ways in which misogyny is ingrained in women. And while friendship between women in real life might not involve dramatic rooftop confessions at gunpoint, it undoubtedly saves many women’s lives—just like it does for Sherlock and Wato.