21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Sherlock Hound and the Transnational


Iain Robert Smith


On 26th November 1984 the anime series Meitantei Holmes (“Famous Detective Holmes,” 1984-1985), known in English as Sherlock Hound, began broadcasting on the Japanese TV channel Asahi. Almost a century after Arthur Conan Doyle’s character was first introduced in A Study in Scarlet (1897), this co-production between the Japanese TMS Entertainment and the Italian public broadcaster RAI was designed to follow the success of other animated literary adaptations such as the Franco-Japanese series Ulysses 31 (1981-1982) and the Spanish-Japanese series Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (1981-1982). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Kyōsuke Mikuriya, the series ran for twenty six episodes and mixed relatively straight adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories such as ‘The Speckled Band’ with non-canonical steampunk style adventures such as ‘Disturbance, The World Flight Championship.’

In recent years, the study of adaptations has shifted away from stale conceptions of textual fidelity to consider more productive models such as intertextuality and translation. Building on this work, Linda Hutcheon has proposed that we should move away from comparative studies to instead consider adaptations as ‘memes,’ units of culture which evolve and mutate to fit new times and different places. In a parallel with biological adaptation, Hutcheon argues that 'evolving by natural selection, travelling stories adapt to local cultures, just as populations of organisms adapt to local environments' (Hutcheon 176). Given the cross-cultural nature of this analogy, I would like to use this article to consider how useful Hutcheon's notion of the meme is for understanding Meitantei HolmesIn other words, how far can we understand this series as being an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes which has been adapted for a local culture?


Meitantei Holmes (Sherlock Hound): a rich text for exploring the cultural politics of transnational adaptation [Source]

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]


As we can see in the above cover image from the Japanese anime magazine Out in 1985, Meitantei Holmes was a significant release for Asahi and it was given prominence in local trade magazines and fan publications. Yet I will argue that this series is not only illustrative of what Susan Pointon has described as the 'constant cross-pollination and popular cultural borrowing that complicate and enrich anime texts' (Pointon 44), but that it is also a particularly rich case study for exploring the cultural politics of transnational adaptation. Attempting to move beyond the national as a framework for understanding either Sherlock Holmes or anime, this article will position the series in relation to debates around cultural discount and globalisation in order to demonstrate the importance of attending to the transnational dimensions of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

While Sherlock Holmes is a character generally perceived as 'quintessentially English' (Döring 73), there has been a long history of Japanese adaptations and reworkings of the character going as far back as Chizo no Kabe (The Bloodstained Wall, 1899) which reworked A Study in Scarlet, replacing Holmes with a Japanese detective named Homma. Indeed, in his book Sherlock Holmes in Japan (1998), Keith E. Webb collects together information on a wide range of reworkings of Sherlock Holmes in which the character is Japanese. 


Japanese Sherlockiana: is Sherlock Holmes a quintessentially English character? 

[Image by Special Collections Toronto Public Library under a CC BY-SA license]


What is interesting about the Sherlock Hound adaptation, however, is that this is not a case of Japanese producers attempting to ‘localise’ the character for domestic audiences but rather signifies an attempt to produce a series in tandem with the Italian broadcaster RAI which would reach an international audience. As Rayna Denison has observed, historically 'anime have had an important cultural presence in mainland Europe' (Denison 223) with interactions of European and Japanese studios producing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1980), Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (1981), Around the World with Willy Fog (1981), Ulysses 31 (1981) and Sherlock Hound in 1984, which María Lorenzo Hernández describes as 'the end firecracker of this Golden Age' (Hernández 40). This attempt to produce anime which would reach an international market has led some commentators to suggest that a 'characteristic of anime is that it usually does not seem Japanese' (Lu 169).

Reflecting upon this, I would argue that the decision to produce an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes featuring anthropomorphic dogs was not only due to technical considerations (animators often argue that it's easier to animate animal rather than human characters) but also due to the ease with which animals could be localised in other countries given that animals are not seen to be racially distinctive. Drawing on the iconography of Holmes familiar from the illustrations of Sidney Paget and the various film adaptations, if not the novels themselves (Leitch, 2009: 208), the character Meitantei Holmes is presented as an anthropomorphised dog wearing a deerstalker and inverness cape and with a calabash between his lips.


Japanese author Natsume Sōseki features in Sherlock Hound. But does the series raise the question of the absence of Japaneseness in anime?

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]


Furthermore, it is significant that the series is set in the Victorian England of the novels and that the only recognisable Japanese character in Sherlock Hound appears in episode nineteen ‘The Rosetta Stone’ when Holmes seeks the help of the Japanese author Natsume Sōseki, best known in Japan for his novel I Am a Cat (1905). As Jonathan Clements has outlined in his production history of the series, even this inclusion was opposed by the Italian producer Luciano Scafa until the Japanese producer Keishi Yamazaki suggested that he was only objecting 'because Holmes sought the help of an Asian' (Yamazaki 314). While there is not the space here to outline the larger cultural debate on the absence of Japaneseness in anime, I would agree with Amy Shirong Lu that there has been a 'clear trend of incorporating "Nihonjinbanare," or non-Japanese cultural elements, into anime' (Lu 171).

In the rest of this article, therefore, I would like to position Sherlock Hound in relation to two key debates within globalisation and adaptation theory. Firstly, I would like to consider Sherlock Holmes in relation to the notion of ‘cultural discount’. Outlined by Hoskins and Mirus, this notion suggests that programmes which are rooted in a particular culture have diminished appeal elsewhere as 'viewers find it difficult to identify with the style, values, beliefs, institutions and behavioural patterns of the material in question' (Hoskins and Mirus 500). While this argument risks cultural essentialism, and would not be able to account for the global popularity of a character like Sherlock Holmes, it has been usefully developed by Koichi Iwabuchi who utilises the notion of 'cultural odour' to understand the associations between a particular product and 'the cultural features of a country of origin and images or ideas of its national… way of life' (Iwabuchi 27). Using case studies such as the anime series Pokemon (1997-2002), Iwabuchi argues that the 'bodily, racial and ethnic characteristics are erased or softened' (Iwabuchi 28) in much of the anime that is exported around the world. In other words, the ‘cultural odour’ of these texts has been reduced as part of an internationalisation strategy to produce works which will be accepted outside of the Japanese market. As he argues, such a strategy has led a number of critics to position anime with the word ‘mukokuseki’ (stateless) to suggest that these are works without a national identity. It should be noted, however, that 'mukokuseki is used in Japan in two different, though not mutually exclusive ways: to suggest the mixing of elements of multiple cultural origins, and to imply the erasure of visible ethnic and cultural characteristics’ (Iwabuchi 71).


Is Japan's fascination with a particular Victorian imaginary part of "positive occidentalism"? 

[Image by Jeremy Stemberg under a CC BY-NC license]


Following the recent work of Rayna Denison, I would like to focus less on the second definition, which is the one most commonly used within scholarship on anime, and instead use the first definition to consider what this tells us about the mixing of elements of multiple cultural origins. In other words, using the case study of Sherlock Hound, I would like to frame this less as a series which lacks national identity and instead as an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes which is culturally hybrid. This co-production between a Japanese anime studio and an Italian public broadcaster relies heavily on a particular brand of Victorian Englishness. Representing Victorian England as part of a broader phenomenon of what Denison refers to as 'positive occidentalism' (Denison 226), the series depicts England through a number of recognised landmarks in episodes such as ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, ‘The Bell of Big Ben’ and ‘The Adventure of the Thames Monster.’ Even the episode ‘The Rosetta Stone’ which is one of the most international episodes given that it features French, Egyptian and Greek characters in addition to the Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki, is largely set within the British Museum. The amorphous culture of anime represented by Sherlock Hound is therefore neither intrinsically Japanese nor intrinsically stateless, but rather draws on and utilises signifiers from a range of national contexts.

To conclude, I would like to return to Linda Hutcheon's conception of the meme. Moving adaptation studies away from reductive textual comparisons between novels and films, Hutcheon uses a biological analogy to propose that we instead study how 'travelling stories adapt to local cultures, just as populations of organisms adapt to local environments' (Hutcheon 176). In the case of Sherlock Hound, however, we need to consider whether this analogy adequately describes the transnational dynamics at play. Does it make sense to position this as the story of Sherlock Holmes adapting to the local culture of Japan? As I hope to have demonstrated in this short article, the situation is more complex than this metaphor of localisation would suggest.



CITATION: Iain Robert Smith, "Sherlock Hound and the Transnational," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 August 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.3.04.


Dr Iain Robert Smith is Lecturer in Film at the University of Roehampton. He is author of The Hollywood Meme: Global Adaptations of American Film and Television (Edinburgh UP, 2013) and editor of Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation (2009). 



Works Cited:

Clements, Jonathan. ‘The Curious Case of The Dog in Prime Time’ in Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy, ed. byJosef Steiff (Chicago: Carus Publishing, 2011), pp. 307-315.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. A Study in Scarlet (London: Ward Lock and Co., 1887).

Denison, Rayna. ‘Transcultural creativity in anime: Hybrid identities in the production, distribution, texts and fandom of Japanese anime’ in Creative Industries 3:3 (2010): 221-235, http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/cij.3.3.221_1.

Döring, Tobias. ‘Sherlock Holmes – He Dead: Disenchanting the English Detective in Kazao Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans’ in Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective, ed. by Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2006), pp. 59-86.

Hernández, María Lorenzo. ‘Visions of a Future Past: Ulysses 31, a Televised Re-interpretation of Homer’s Classic Myth’, Animation Studies 3 (2008): 33-41

Hoskins, Colin and Rolf Mirus. ‘Reasons for the US dominance of the international trade in television programs’, Media, Culture and Society 10 (1988): 499-504, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/016344388010004006.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation (London: Routledge, 2006).

Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002).

Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

Lu, Amy Shirong. ‘The Many Faces of Internationalization in Japanese Anime’, Animation 3:2 (2008): 169-187, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1746847708091893

Pointon, Susan. ‘Transcultural Orgasm as Apocalypse’, Wide Angle 19:3 (1997): 41-63, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/wan.1997.0013



Please feel free to comment.


  1. Dennis /

    I really enjoyed this article, especially as my daughter has been <i>obsessed</i> with <i>Dogtanian</i> for the last two years! It reminds me of another wonderful article called 'Sherlock Holmes in the Interculture' by Şehnaz Tahir-Gürçağlar about how early-C20 Turkish readers went nuts for Sherlock and started adding to the canon, making Holmes more like a tough Turkish folk hero (not to mention a bit of womanising), but claiming on the jackets to be "Translated from the English" to give themselves some all-important authenticity.

  2. Becca /

    Interestings thoughts, my brain is contemplating, really you just make me want to go off and read and  research (then agree or debate) all these people and thoughts. Of course, I've always been interested in the euro-japanese co-production process, both because of watching them as a child, then reading about the processes as an adult (such as the mysterious cities of gold – still revered in france, hard to find for years in the uk, unloved in japan at the time of release.)

  3. This is a really interesting discussion of anime and cultural hybridity. I was especially struck by the idea that "authentic" Japanese culture is not a particularly key concern for Japanese animation, which has its eye on international markets. I was left with a question about how much of a "free market" this kind of hybridity really is? Or is that actually a sort of late capitalist illusion with which adaptation studies is complicit. If we argue that modern global culture is free to borrow from whatever sources it likes, does that create a sort of cultural amnesia for historical systems of inequality and oppression. This is particularly a key concern if one holds to the idea of a "positive occidentalism" in Japanese culture. Might this lead us to forget that after the Dutch lost their position of influence in Japan in the nineteenth century, the "japanese market" was "opened up" again to Western trade by the American gunships of Commodore Perry? Or that after the global recession that produced the Second World War it took a nuclear bomb, followed by many years of American occupation to "open it up" once more to global capitalist markets? 

  4. Thanks for your comments! 
    Dennis, thanks for the link. I hadn't come across that article by Şehnaz Tahir-Gürçağlar before and her argument about pseudo-translation is really fascinating. I've done a bit of research on unlicensed adaptation in Turkish cinema (e.g. Turkish remakes of Star Trek, The Exorcist) and the question of authenticity certainly resonates with them. 
    Becca, thanks for reminding me about Mysterious Cities of Gold, another Euro-Japanese co-production that is worth considering in this context. Glad to hear that this has inspired you to go off and research some of these debates — I look forward to reading your thoughts when you've had a chance to read some of this work. I'd certainly recommend reading Koichi Iwabuchi's book if you haven't read it before.
    And Mike, I am really pleased to have elicited such a thoughtful series of questions. If I have understood you correctly, I think this relates to a number of debates within globalisation studies around the shift within academia from discussions of cultural imperialism which are often framed by structural factors of power and dominance, towards discussions of hybridisation which are usually more micro-level and have been critiqued for offering a politically benign vision of diversity. My position is that we need to pay close attention to the hybridising nature of cultural exchange while still retaining some of the broader concerns surrounding those historical systems of inequality and oppression that you mention.

    • Iain – Yes. That's right. How do you imagine balancing these concerns? Out of date as is it is, cultural imperialism still holds some water as an idea. As an outsider to this discipline (and a Victorianist at heart), I wonder if globalisation studies might be more than a little too optimistic about the world. At the same time, I accept that postmodernism offers avenues of opportunity for non-Western cultures to flourish. A comparison can be made with Martin Eve's essay in this issue about metanarrative. How can we be ludic in our culture, whilst also being engaged and sincere in our awareness of history?

      • As you suggest, I think it can be a challenge to balance a concern with these larger power dynamics and the need to pay close attention to how these processes of hybridisation play out in specific case studies. While I didn't really get into it here, my larger position is that it is not enough any more to simply claim that "everything is hybrid" (a position that had value in challenging essentialist thinking) but that we need to investigate the different conditions and forms of hybridisation and how they relate to a broader field of power relations. Iwabuchi's work is useful here precisely because he pays close attention to the globalising processes in Japanese popular culture and yet positions this within an explicitly political account of Japan's cultural power.

  5. Daniel Martin /

    Interesting piece, Iain, I really enjoyed reading it. Your discussion of cultural odour and the conclusions you draw made me think of one of the big ironies of anime audiences in general, and the release of Sherlock Hound in particualr: in the UK, the DVD of this series was received with disappointment by anime fans because it failed to include the original Japanese-language audio track as an option, offering the American English dub only. In this context, then, and for this audience, the Japaneseness of the text is what is most appealing, and what is most threatened.

    • Becca /

      I'll chime in and say I'm guilty of this – I bought two copies, the Japanese version, firstly because I wanted the "original" version and secondly (and mainly) because at the time the English language one hadn't been released and there weren't plans for it. Then I bought the English language one for nostalgia's sake when it came out years later.
      (I'm also one who prefers to consume my anime in Japanese with subtitles, I'd like to claim it's to do with access to fansubs and newer material with better translations and cultural side notes, but no, I'm just an anime snob who prefers the Japanese voice actors.)

    • Thanks Dan, that is a great point. While I agree with Lu that one of the interesting characteristics of anime is that it often does not seem Japanese, there is a considerable part of the fandom who find the Japanesness of anime to be what is most appealing. Many parallels with the debates around Asia Extreme (as I know you are aware). In other words, one aspect of this pop cosmopolitanism is a desire for some form of cultural "authenticity" even when the texts themselves exemplify cultural adaptation and hybridity. 

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