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by Rebecca Silverman,

Holmes of Kyoto

Novel 1

Holmes of Kyoto Novel 1
Seventeen-year-old Aoi Mashiro didn't want to move to Kyoto with her family, but she didn't have much choice. She was just starting to settle in when she got texts from her best friend and boyfriend back in Saitama telling her that the two of them had started dating in her absence. To say that it was a blow is an understatement, and Aoi desperately tries to sell some of her late grandfather's antiques at Kura, an antiques store she found, in order to afford the train fare back. But entering into Kura turns out to be much more than she bargained for, and instead of selling, Aoi ends up working at Kura, where she becomes fascinated not just by the antiques, but also by the young man who works there, the so-called Holmes of the Teramachi-Sanjo district.

While an adaptation's quality is not always the best indicator of what the source material is like, such is the case of Mai Mochizuki's light novel series Holmes of Kyoto and its anime version. The 2018 anime adaptation has proven to have hewed very close to its source by J-Novel Club's release of the first novel, and that makes for a very easy statement on my part: if you enjoyed the anime for reasons beyond the vocal cast, you'll definitely like its original novel.

Of course, the flip side is also true. Mochizuki says in her afterword that her motivating factor in writing the series was to combine her long-held desire to write a “light mystery” with her reactions upon moving to Kyoto, and that's precisely what she's done – the book reads like a combination between a love letter and a tourist guide to Kyoto (with a focus on everyday sights) with some very mild mystery elements. It wouldn't be strictly correct to call the novel a cozy, because quite frankly most of those have stronger mystery plots than those explored in the various chapters of this book. It's better to frame this as a novel about Kyoto that happens to have a few mystery subplots that pop up across its chapters. Therefore, if you're coming to this hoping for a Sherlock Holmes-style character solving mysteries in Kyoto and environs, you're probably going to walk away disappointed.

The story follows Aoi Mashiro, a seventeen-year-old high school girl whose family has just moved to Kyoto to help out her widowed grandmother. The family would have moved two years prior, before Aoi started high school, but because of her father's work, the move had to be pushed off. Now Aoi comes to Kyoto missing her friends and her boyfriend, who has promised to make a long-distance relationship work. One day, however, she gets a text saying that he's breaking up with her and is now dating her (former) best friend. Already having a hard time adjusting, Aoi is understandably both furious and panicked, and like many people experiencing those emotions, she makes the reckless decision to sell some of her late grandfather's antiques to get the money to go back to see them. Fortunately for her, Aoi chooses the antiques store called Kura for her transaction, where she meets a young grad student who dissuades her from her course. His name is Kiyotaka Yagashira, and he suggests that instead of doing something of dubious morality, she should just work at Kura and earn the money herself. That will also, he points out, give her time to process her emotions before doing something rash.

This is only the first of many times that Kiyotaka proves to be wiser than his age would suggest, something probably brought on by the fact that his grandfather, a renowned antiques appraiser, raised him for the most part. But Kiyotaka is also preternaturally perceptive, like the legendary creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and this has led to his nickname “Holmes,” although he insists that it's instead based on the characters that make up “Yagashira.” (He's fooling no one, I should mention.) Between his intelligence and expertise, Kiyotaka has become the go-to person for almost all problems involving antiques or more day-to-day issues, and Aoi finds herself playing Watson to his Holmes.

In a loose sense, anyway. That's not to suggest that the two don't form a partnership, because they do. But it's more based on Kiyotaka teaching Aoi about appraising antiques and the history of Kyoto and environs than it is on solving mysteries, and even when they are out on a case, such as the burned scrolls in the book's longest chapter or the question of who is harassing a local beauty queen, Aoi's role is simply to be there to narrate Kiyotaka's experiences. To a degree she does learn to see her own issues in a different light, but mostly she's taken up with admiring both Kyoto and Kiyotaka, and while it isn't fawning by any means, it also isn't particularly thrilling. It's just that Aoi's admiration of Kiyotaka isn't driving enough to really move the plot along, so it feels like we're just constantly seeing her thrown into situations that allow her to see him being amazing without any true stakes for either of them – or even for the characters whose problems he solves.

There are, of course, exceptions, and if subsequent books in the series play them up a bit more, things could take a turn for the more exciting. When Kiyotaka and Aoi allow themselves to be more honest and personal with each other, the story takes on a more interesting, engaged tone, feeling more like an actual story in a way that benefits the text quite a bit. The moments aren't necessarily romantic – although the one in the last chapter, where Aoi's old friends come to Kyoto on a school trip, could be construed as such – but they are humanizing, for both characters. Kiyotaka's admission of his own heartbreak and subsequent behavior makes him much more of a person than he was for most of the rest of the book, and that makes Aoi's infatuation with him (either romantically or aspirationally) feel more natural. But for the most part, she just seems to see him as more than human, a pinnacle to be reached rather than a person to be known.

While the novel is on the shorter side (170 pages), the interconnected short story format doesn't give the impression of it being truncated in any way. Oddly, Mochizuki mentions illustrations in her afterword when none are present in the Kindle version I purchased from J-Novel Club; it seems more likely that there was a glitch or something similar than that they were deliberately removed. The translation reads well and does a better job of conveying the Kyoto accent than many other works, which err on the side of “American Southern,” while this one strives for “slightly old-fashioned.”

Holmes of Kyoto isn't the book for mystery fans or even necessarily slice-of-life readers. It's a pleasant meander through Kyoto with a dollop of information about classic Japanese antiques that risks feeling dull if neither of those are your particular interests. It isn't devoid of enjoyment, but if you're looking for action of any kind, I'd suggest picking up a different series.

Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : N/A

+ Solid translation, glimpses of humanity and emotional growth are well done.
Very little action, either physical or emotional. No mystery, light or otherwise.

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Production Info:
Story: Mai Mochizuki

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