The driver drives. That's all he wants from his work: to pick up a fare, take them somewhere else in Tokyo, drop them off, get paid, do it over again. No commitments, no connections, because commitments and connections are how problems start, and he doesn't want any problems. Then one night along comes one problem, and another, and another, all connected, and before he knows it the driver has to make not just one commitment but a whole passel of them.

This is, in the broadest outlines, the setup for ODDTAXI, although the details of the story are far gnarlier than that. It uses anime imagery to deliver a story akin to the "hyperlink filmmaking" of movies like 2 Days In The Valley or Babel, where many lives wend through the night and touch each other, not always kindly. The quasi-cute imagery is, I think, not arbitrary. Render a story like this with watercolor-like backgrounds and anthropomorphic characters, and you disarm the audience in ways mere plot or setting can't accomplish — yes, even when they have experience with shows in that vein (Aggretsuko, BEASTARS).

https://www.ganriki.org/media/2022/oddtaxi-075.jpg https://www.ganriki.org/media/2022/oddtaxi-081.jpg
© P.I.C.S./小戸川交通パートナーズ
Odokawa's third-shift life is a cause of concern for Shirakawa.

The freaks come out at night

It's hard not to think of Odokawa, the walrus taxi driver at the center of ODDTAXI, as being inspired by Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. They don't just share a vocation; they're both prickly loners who are too quick to speak exactly what's on their mind, and who deal with their chronic insomnia by working third shift and encountering all manner of oddballs of the night. But there are as many differences as there are similarities: Odokawa is just reserved, not latently sociopathic. Also, unlike Bickle, Odokawa has people who care sincerely about him. His doctor, the gorilla Gouriki, and their nurse, the alpaca Shirakawa, know him slightly better than casually, and are spurred to dig into the earlier trauma that shaped him, one Odokawa never talks about.

At first the story doesn't seem to be going in any particular direction. Various fares come and go, like Kabasawa, the hippo, who snaps selfies with Odokawa and is trying to turn himself (without much success) into a viral sensation. An apparently dirty (meerkat) cop shakes down Odokawa for the SD card from his dashcam, allegedly looking for a (baboon) criminal named Dobu. Then Dobu shows up in Odokawa's cab with a gun to the back of his head. He's looking for everything he can find about a girl who went missing a couple of days ago, and who may have been in Odokawa's cab right before she vanished.

Odokawa is one of those people role-playing games call a Weirdness Magnet. Aside from Dobu and the corrupt cops (well, half-corrupt), he also crosses paths with a comedy duo struggling to break into the bigtime; an obsessive fan of an idol group; the idol group's own members, dealing with a horrible secret in their ranks; a disturbed video-game developer turned game addict; and the rest of Dobu's gang, one of them a porcupine (my favorite) who raps all of his dialogue and hates being thrown off his flow. And then there's everyone who gets bound up with them, adding a secondary layer of complexity.

And no, Odokawa doesn't want to get involved in any of this. He dislikes interacting with other people to begin with, especially criminals of any stripe. But he hates trouble more, and so he manages to choke down his distaste long enough to figure out how to navigate the startlingly complex web of connections, intrigues, shady characters, and ways to get killed that has now ensnared him. All the while Odokawa navigates his tentatively blossoming relationship with Shirakawa, and tries to ignore the nightmare traumas still bubbling within him, all stemming from a mystery Gouriki slowly unravels over the course of the action.

https://www.ganriki.org/media/2022/oddtaxi-077.jpg https://www.ganriki.org/media/2022/oddtaxi-080.jpg
© P.I.C.S./小戸川交通パートナーズ
Corruption and intrigues from all walks of society enter Odokawa's backseat.

Tangled web, unweaved

This is a lot of plot to keep track of, and one sign of ODDTAXI's excellence is how it juggles all this material and keeps it laid out for us in ways we can grasp intuitively. There were times when I was aware that a lot was going on, if not always immediately to what end, but the show kept me close to the significance of everyone in the cast, and habitually connected it all back with Odokawa's struggles. The length of the show (thirteen episodes) actually helps here: sometimes it devotes most of an episode to the backstory of a given character — as it does with Tanaka, the video-game addict — and then circles back and connects that character's circumstances back up to the rest of the plot. The last few episodes braid everything firmly back together, and the climax unfolds with the elegance of a chess endgame. Many individual moment of storytelling genius pop up; one of my favorites involves an overheard phone conversation in a bath-house that both characters and audience freely take out of context.

I always like it when a show has an idiosyncractic style that reflects other things about it. Here, the choice of animal for each character seems more about expressing personality or attitude than anything racial (especially in a society as heavily homogenous as Japan). It makes sense for the reticent, prickly Odokawa to be some lugubrious creature like a walrus. Unlike BEASTARS, though, the show does not seem interested in making anthropomorphism into an outward plot point: people just refer to this character or the other as "the alpaca" or "the raccoon", and that's it. It means far more to us than it ever does to them, which ought to be telling. But then, in the show's home stretch, we learn there's an even greater significance to why the show was told this way — one that exploits magnificently that a show can be told this way without ever needing to specifically say why. Once we find out why, it upends absolutely everything. (I am being cagy because what this is, and how it is revealed, is one of the show's great surprises, and anyone who ruins it for you is not your friend.)

I mentioned earlier how ODDTAXI seemed in the vein of the "hyperlink film", where the network of connections between a slew of people — maybe criminal, maybe not — is explored. This sort of story works best, I think, when it is relatively unsentimental, as that proves a better way to ruthlessly explore the implications of such an idea. (If we are all connected, if all is one, does that mean I can use your credit card?) ODDTAXI is not nearly as dark as it could have been: many people are redeemed, and much justice is served, but there's just enough darkness to remind us that not all redemption is absolute, and some crimes do roll away unrevenged. And then there's that last pulling-back of the curtain, where all we've seen is given a new context, and makes us appreciate all the more how character and storytelling can be enhanced by a stylized presentation. For a great many reasons, this was one of last year's best anime shows, and one of the best in a long time.

https://www.ganriki.org/media/2022/oddtaxi-086.jpg https://www.ganriki.org/media/2022/oddtaxi-087.jpg
© P.I.C.S./小戸川交通パートナーズ
A wildly tangled plot that untangles itself fascinatingly.
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.


About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.