I’ve written more words about Tantei Opera Milky Holmes than just about anyone. The creators of the show know exactly what they’re doing, and while the four voice actresses may be promoting the show like nobody’s business, they’re promoting something that’s worth it. The show’s got a world that can introduce the most bizarre elements without warning and still fit them into the larger scheme of detective homage, a set of quirky characters with varying degrees of insanity, and a genuinely captivating villain. It’s even developing something of an arc with Mori Arty, as the second season gave just as many questions as it answered about the Azusa to the group’s Houkago Tea Time. It’s also absoloutely nothing like its source material.
Faithfulness to the source material is considered a good trait in nearly all fandoms, but in just as many cases, it’s fine for the anime to strike out on its own. Maybe there are things that need to be condensed or shuffled around in order to fit within a 22-minute time frame and not be boring. Maybe it’s to make each medium stand out compared to the others. If it comes across as wrong, it’s far more likely incompetence than malice, but in the case of Milky Holmes, that brand new identity was formed with a really tight production team, a set of animators willing to use every comedy trick in the book, and one simple conceit that changes the world dramatically.
Make that two conceits.
The first is that the girls don’t have their Toys, the superpowers that form the backbone of the Milky Holmes verse. The reason why they lost them, and the reason why they spontaneously get them back, are left intentionally vague. Perhaps it has something to do with willpower? They always get them back in time for the season finale, but lose them again shortly thereafter, with short bursts of power throughout the season when a joke demands it. Only about half of the time do they even remember they’re supposed to be detectives, and they’re not very good at anything else they try. Except, strangely, gardening. Milky Holmes is one set of heroes for whom retiring to the farm life would be both voluntary and welcomed.
The other conceit is that Opera Kobayashi, the girls’ mentor figure (kind of like Minamoto in Zettai Karen Children) has been all but removed from the TV anime, given only brief cameos and briefer mentions. If he were around, the girls would probably be more focused on their mission, and given the possibility of romance. The opportunities for humor, however, would probably be a little less free form. Romantic tension has its own set of stock jokes, but with Kobayashi out of the picture, the sky’s the limit.
This can all be demonstrated by comparing the recently aired Tantei Opera Milky Holmes Alternative ONE with the main series. The girls take a trip to London to help Kobayashi with a case, likely explaining where he’s been the whole time in the show. Is it any coincidence that my first two articles involve London in some way? Yes. It’s entirely a coincidence.
Milky Holmes has been in the detective genre since its inception. Nearly everything in the show, from names to episode titles to stock plots has been lifted from the detective genre, making it cuter and brighter, while completely reshuffling the stakes. The premise of any detective story is simple. There’s a case that’s laid down, the detective hunts for clues to solve it, often while dealing with their own personal problems, and the culprit is arrested or, depending on their popularity, runs off and lives to create another mystery. It’s a very flexible framework that can tell a variety of stories.
Detective stories are naturally prone to having “characters of the week”. The one who commits the crime, the one who requests the crime and, in certain instances, the one who was murdered. The TV series has a large stable of one-shot characters and culprits, some of whom are hiding things that only become apparent later. The best point of comparison for Milky Holmes and Alternative is in two characters that draw from the same source. Irene Adler, one of Holmes’ greatest rivals and allies. The appearances of the two characters are even similar.
The TV series has Irene Doala. Her last name, in Japanese, is an anagram of “Adler”. She’s younger, and has black hair. Her defining trait is her obsession with Kokoro, even going so far as to kidnap her and take her to her idol cuddle dungeon. Irene isn’t presented as a bad person, just a little crazy, in a universe where everyone is crazy. Her dad is always trying get-rich-quick schemes, which might influence her behavior. Her interaction with Sherlock mostly involves treating Sherlock and Kokoro as her juniors, despite being younger than both of them. The role she’s meant to play is fulfilling a specific running gag, and she does so with great gusto.
Alternative introduces Lily Adler. This version of Adler has red hair, is about the same age as the girls, and most importantly, has Toys. Namely, Ice Toys. She can freeze any liquid in an instant. Her role is small in the episode, but from the way she hangs around with Milky Holmes, one gets the impression that she’s a candidate for the fifth member of their group. (If only that role wasn’t already to be filled in the upcoming sequel PSP game, but that’s for another topic.) She’s also quieter, and timider. Her role is meant to be a character of the week, and she provides a good unifying force for Milky Holmes.
Since Kokoro didn’t make an appearance, finding a metric to compare them along is difficult. They’re completely different characters, the only common thread being the person they were based on. Irene doesn’t play as central a role in Milky Holmes’ lives (she impacts Genius 4 a little more), but Lily lacks the dynamic personality of her comedic counterpart. As I said above, part of detective fiction is seeing how it impacts the lives of the characters – how much this part is weighed may determine which incarnation of Milky Holmes you find the most interesting.
Genius 4 is competent. They’re probably the most competent characters in the show. Hirano can throw down men twice her size, all while wearing a gothic lolita dress. Saku is a technological wiz (though she does have a bit of a lollipop addiction), and Tsugiko lives an ordinary life, her seniority bringing life experience to the fold. If Milky Holmes is a group of egotists held together by a naive girl, then Genius 4 is a group that would otherwise get along well, if not for an equally naive girl in their midst. Kokoro Akechi, she of the ever expanding IQ, provides an important foil to Milky Holmes.
Detectives and police have always been closely intertwined. Even the original Holmes dealt with Scotland Yard once in a while. The police don’t have Toys, but as this universe has made clear, they also don’t really need them. Their skills lie in other areas. Like Milky Holmes, Genius 4 had a mentor figure in the game – Rei Kamitsu. Like Kobayashi, he’s been excised, but I don’t think this has any effect on G4’s skill level. Three fourths of them get along just fine, it’s Kokoro that continues screwing everything up.
If Sherlock is the series’ ultimate altruist, then Kokoro is the one who’s the most selfish. She thinks the detective pavilion she’s been assigned to guard should be hers in the first place. Having everything in life come easy to her thanks to her fluctuating IQ has notably given her a bit of an ego complex. Unlike Milky Holmes, where everyone is so wrapped up in their own private worlds to notice the flaws that are keeping the group down (except maybe Elly), Genius 4’s experience makes them exactly aware that Kokoro is keeping them down. Rather than try and work with her, they ignore her and appease only her basest interests.
In the game, they’re at about the same level of competence, with Kokoro being held slightly more in check. In Alternative One, Hartley Queen is the only officer we see, and she would fit right in with G4, as a replacement Kokoro. She even looks like an older Kokoro, and has a similar haughty attitude. She plays her role in the detective drama, but once again, lacks the bombastic, larger than life personality of Kokoro herself. The characters of Alternative One, at times, seem like replacements for characters that originated in the game, even if Alternative is supposedly based on said game. It gives things an odd texture.
“We’re Already Failures”
Before they lost their Toys, Milky Holmes was successful. They started their series at the top of their game, school idols getting pampered with posh private bedrooms, a personal eating area and the goodwill of the student council president on their side. Then they lost it all. The TV series has “failure” as an overriding theme, up to the point that Milky Holmes’ sheer ineptitude becomes a weapon against some of the stronger Toys thrown against them. I find this interesting for one reason that lies at the heart of storytelling.
Having it all is boring. It’s said that those who succeed are simply those who have failed the most times and learned from it. Milky Holmes only achieves brief, fleeting moments of success (that save the entire world, granted), but any victory they obtain is short lived. I find this interesting. They can laugh in the face of failure and continue onward, even when they’re living in conditions that make North Korea look welcoming. It’s not a life anyone personally wants to live, but it makes for an interesting story, and that’s what all anime are. Stories designed to entertain.
As the series progresses, we even get reasons why that failure may have happened in the first place. Once people have had even a taste of success, they want to taste more of it. Milky Holmes, for all their naivety, want that success back, and each of them seems to believe they were the one who made it possible. Hercule wants the peace and stability it provides so she can work on her poetry; this is the most practical reason. Nero, especially in the second season, had the ambition of wanting to become rich added to her personality. Cordelia is simply all about aesthetics and nature, and it’s much easier to be beautiful when the world supports you – her main problem is that she’s deluded enough to believe she has it already.
About the only one who sincerely wants to become a detective again, so she can actually become a detective, is Sherlock Shellinford. She fills the role of heroine, with a personality of caring about their friends as much as, if not more, than themselves, coupled with a steely resolve that won’t give up, no matter how dire things get. When I speak of Sherlock’s friends, I include Henriette/Arsene among them. To be embraced in the warmth of Henriette’s ample bosom and told “Good job” is one of Sherlock’s main reasons for doing what she does. It’s a very human motivation, selfish, but she wants her friends to be there with her. It wouldn’t feel right otherwise.
“Failure” may be the overriding theme of the series, but Milky Holmes manages to fail even when they succeed. The Colon episode is notable in this case. Now with their will to be a detective rekindled, the girls are looking for a flasher around the school, a pervert. A fellow detective, Colon, who they encounter early on turns out to have been the flasher the whole time. The trench coat she was wearing kind of gave it away. Yet they trust her, and as it turns out, their trust is not misplaced. Colon wasn’t the flasher – it was her split personality, Po, who, thanks to being raised in a strict household, wanted to expose herself from time to time. That’s the kind of logic the show works on.
The closing scene of the episode had Milky Holmes introducing Colon/Po to a public bath house, giving her a place where she can expose herself freely. All’s well that ends well, right? Not quite. In the course of the night’s events, they get another person in a trench coat arrested, and their plan falls apart before it even begins. Hercule’s the only one who actually remembers to not wear anything under her coat. Sherlock’s the most passionate about it, but in her passion forgets what the plan is supposed to be. This all ends with Elly being thought of as a sexual degenerate by Stone River, giving the Phantom Thief Empire one further reason to get revenge on Milky Holmes,
You can get a clearer picture of someone when you see them at their best and their worst, at their highest and their lowest. How people react to moments of joy and moments of despair. The lower someone falls, the greater the sensation of them standing back up is again in contrast. It’s all part of Joseph Campbell’s momomyth, the skeleton of every hero’s story. The Colon incident doesn’t even compare to Milky Holmes’ greatest failure, when they tick off Arsene so much that, after one and a half seasons of putting up with them, she blows up their school. In contrast, they later to get to save the world from the God of Lard run wild. The emotional rush, the struggle to see them rebuild themselves over the last half of the season is executed in a way that has genuine dramatic tension, while still making every scene a punchline.
Alternative One takes place over a much shorter period of time, and the team is competent. They use their Toys exactly when they need to, infighting is kept to a minimum, and they know exactly what a detective is supposed to do. It’s well made, but it feels very perfunctory. They go to London to accomplish their mission, and get it accomplished. A detective does, and should, but without the stakes of the TV series, it ends up being a pleasant diversion, but nothing more. Perhaps if they had more time to dive into their backstories, like in the game and various tie-in media, I might have a higher opinion of it, but I’ll take the TV series’ constant struggles over the OVA’s clean routine.