Screenshot from Odd Taxi that depicts Odokawa, a walrus, half-lit by the lights of passing cars, letting a heavy shadow loom over his left side.

Niche

How The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Influenced Odd Taxi


Warning: Contains spoilers for Odd Taxi

Introduction

If you have ever considered Odd Taxi to be a brilliant entry in the neo-noir genre of storytelling, you wouldn’t be alone. With morally ambiguous characters, an increasingly intertwined crime story, and a focused, slow-burning emergence of violence, intrigue, and a (sort of) femme fatale, writer Kazuya Konomoto pays stunning homage to one of the most popular cinematic genres to emerge in the late 1950s and 60s. He incorporates the key thematic elements of beloved film-noir titles such as Odds Against Tomorrow, The Naked Kiss, and the critically acclaimed Taxi Driver. While his potential influences range from Martin Scorsese to Samuel Fuller, and from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler, one influence that increasingly stands out is that of the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

Screenshot from Oddtaxi that depicts Kakihana, a gibbon in a suit, sitting next to Yano, a porcupine. Kakihana is beaten and bruised, as Yano squats, calmly reading his smartphone.

Timeless Influences

 Odd Taxi’s story features profound character portraits, socio-critical themes, and dialogues reminiscent of that which can be found in several other neo-noir masterpieces—such as those in the Coen brothers’ work (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men). In particular, Odd Taxi’s plot design impresses with its sensible and well-thought-out progression, where seemingly insignificant details fit into the overall picture like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Whether in regard to maintaining the mystery for the audience, or prolonging the story’s tension, the viewer’s impression is that nothing has been left to chance.

On closer inspection, this impression bears out, and certain time-honored mechanisms made it happen. And what makes them time-honored? Genre greats such as Hitchcock himself used many of them to make sense of ostensibly complex plots.

Screenshot from Odd Taxi that depicts a newscast, in which a black cat is leaving a convenience store.

Subtitle: "A security camera captured her entering a taxi after leaving the convenience store."

The MacGuffin

One of the most prominent narrative devices used by the film and neo-noir genres is called the MacGuffin. While the term was originally coined by English screenwriter Angus MacPhail, it was above all legendary director Alfred Hitchcock who made it famous. In the 1930s, he adapted the device for himself and proceeded to make it familiar to the world. In summary, a MacGuffin symbolizes the mysterious attraction that an unknown—and often irrelevant to the plot—object triggers in the audience. After being hooked, the audience closely follows the revelations surrounding this object and stays with it, even if the MacGuffin turns out to be useless to the actual plot in the end. A MacGuffin is therefore an object, an event, or even a character, in a film that drives the plot forward without being particularly important in and of itself. What is particularly important, however, is firstly that this object creates fascination or suspense, and secondly that it returns at the end and its mystery is resolved. In Hitchock’s work, some of the most famous MacGuffins could be described as the character Rebecca in the 1940 feature film of the same name, or the dubious government secrets in North by Northwest; the McKittrick Hotel in Vertigo, or the engraved cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train; or even the 40,000 dollars in Psycho.

The latter MacGuffin made good use of the audience’s tendency to assign more interest to objects that are only of value to a certain group of people—a group which they, not to mention the protagonists, are frequently excluded from.  

Odd Taxi’s largest MacGuffin follows suit. 

While the series uses the disappearance of Yuki Mitsuya as its initial suspense, Odd Taxi almost immediately moves away from this central plot to explore broader social issues and challenges within Japanese society. Using character studies, the story highlights concerns such as gambling, idol culture, mental health issues, social media and drug abuse—and then it switches focus until the finale, when the threads magically come together to complete the weave. In good MacGuffin fashion, it is only towards the end that Mistuya’s story reappears. When looking at the plots that make up the majority of Odd Taxi, her disappearance plays a role in the emotional states of some of the characters, but it has no particular impact on their motivations or storylines.

Screenshot from Odd Taxi that depicts Odokawa's closet.

Subtitle: "You chose to stay here."

Another example of Konomoto’s mastery of the Hitchcock-style MacGuffin is the enigmatic occupant of Odokawa’s closet. After their being introduced almost immediately in the most dubious manner, the viewer inevitably wonders who exactly this resident could be, and how important this information will be to the story. Is it the missing Yuki Mitsuya? Is it, based on Odakawa’s suspicious behavior while Koshiro was visiting, something illegal? The fact that the mysterious stranger turns out to be nothing more than a house cat provides all sorts of amusing mind games—such as whether Odokawa, who sees people as animals, had actually perceived his house cat as a human being. But these uncertainties are completely irrelevant to the plot, and they only serve to create suspense throughout the series. 

The Knot In The Yarn

The interweaving of a multitude of storylines with their own characters, motivations, and conflicts in just thirteen episodes challenges not only the viewer’s concentration, but also Konomoto’s writerly ability. How can these seemingly unrelated characters be woven into a coherent story without relying excessively on coincidence? Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling aptly state: ”Coincidence to get characters in trouble is great; coincidence to get them out of it is cheating.” But this is only one viewpoint. Coincidence is a widely used device in film, television, and literature. It is often used as a shorthand to create complexity and suspense—or, in some cases, to reflect on the random and nonsensical nature of the universe, as seen in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But romances, thrillers, and crime fiction in particular seem to rely on this device, and sometimes plausibility suffers as a result. So how did Odd Taxi, which has a little of everything in it, manage to tie it all together in a satisfying way? Again, the answer lies with one of Hitchcock’s favorite tricks.

Screenshot from Odd Taxi that depicts Dobu, a baboon dressed in a bomber jacket, polishing a gun in front of an open window as light filters in from the city behind him.

In this device, characters and objects are used as points of connection to create coincidences that feel more like fate than chance—and the smaller or more insignificant the object, the greater the sense of fate. Examples from Odd Taxi include the monkey eraser, the surveillance camera memory card, or the gun found in the gutter: things that connect a multitude of characters and storylines without feeling rushed or artificially placed. 

A similar principle can apply to the characters. Hitchcock’s Rebecca is at the center of almost every decision made by the characters in that film, yet all we ever know about her (until the very end) is that she’s absent and the suspicion that there might be some horrific scenario at its core. Like Rebecca, Dobu serves as a unifying figure. He is not only at the heart of many of the events in Odd Taxi, but also their origin. He becomes a hidden protagonist of the show—perhaps not its emotional or even narrative center, but a distinct driving force. 

Outro

It surprised me that, with the plethora of styles that emerged within the noir genre, Odd Taxi made such specific use of those that were central to Alfred Hitchcock’s. Other devices—such as the femme fatale, the depiction of a world using an unreliable narrator (who perceives humans as animals), were present and appreciated, but none stood out quite as much as those that were favored by the Master of Suspense.  

At its core, Odd Taxi is an ultra-classic, retro-suspense screenplay that perfectly emulates Hitchcock’s scenarios. It has time jumps, a glamorized villain, morally ambiguous judgments, and all the audience blindfolds a viewer could want. It is no doubt due to his overarching influence in the genre that hardly any entry can evade his influence. 

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