Review: Giri/Haji Season 1 – What a Mess!

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Last October, the UK’s BBC Two television channel began airing an eight-episode Anglo-Japanese thriller called Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame). The story centres around a Japanese detective based in Tokyo who is sent to London to discover who killed the nephew of an ex-yakusa boss, and to do so before rival yakusa gangs in Tokyo create a bloodbath. The aim of the detective is to find out if his yakusa-assassin brother is still alive and, if so, whether he committed the murder. Along the way, the detective is helped by a British female detective, at odds with her Metropolitan Police colleagues, and a half-Japanese, half-British rent boy. The series was highly rated by most critics and has just been re-released on Netflix.

I was recommended to watch the series and, so far, I’ve watched the first three episodes. It’s been a painful experience and I’m about to abandon the remaining episodes. Here’s why.

The storyline is highly improbable. I’ve watched many yakusa movies of Japanese and American origin (Zatoichi, Black Rain, Brother, Sonatine, Outrage, Ichi the Killer, Kill Bill Vol 1, and so on) and I’ve never yet seen one where the yakusa bosses rely on a lone sad-looking non-charismatic Tokyo policeman to solve their internal squabbles. Okay, I can make an exception but the series would need a macho actor to play the part and Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is anything but. He comes across as a weak rookie policeman who, so far, has seen no action other than, in a back story, rig the death of someone who could have incriminated his brother Yuto in a robbery that went bad. Can Kenzo fight with his fists? Is he good with a sword, a knife or even a pair of nunchucks? Does he carry a secret weapon somewhere? He’s the male star of the series and, as yet, has done nothing other than argue with his wife in Tokyo and then wander around London looking very bewildered. I’ve not heard of the actor Takehiro Hira before but he is dreadfully miscast as the main male protagonist. Oh, where is Jackie Chan or Takishi Kitano when you need him?

Unfortunately, many other members of the cast are also miscast. Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly Macdonald, the seductive under-age schoolgirl temptress in Trainspotting way back in 1996) is also wishy-washy. She plays a Metropolitan Police detective constable with no backbone. She comes across as a doe-eyed looking-for-love 40-something who doesn’t have the guts to retaliate to her colleagues’ animosity towards her. Okay, she may have shopped a colleague in the past for some misdemeanour we don’t yet know about but you’d expect her to show some resilience and fight back when she is blatantly ostracised by all the others in the office. She’s a detective fer chrissakes.

And then we come to rent-boy Rodney (Will Sharpe). He is so over the top as the token gay character that I can’t take him seriously. I understand the need for ethnic and role type diversity in modern television series and movies but why make Rodney so stereotypically gay? And was it really necessary to show him naked in bed servicing a client?

Similarly with the casting of the two yakusa bosses, Fukahara (Masahiro Motoki) and Shin Endo (Katsuya Kobayashi). They are almost comical in the way they present their threats of rival gang warfare. Yakusa bosses are ruthless, prone to violent action even if someone accidentally sneezes in their presence, not the bland-faced portrayals presented in Giri/Haji. I mean to say; we haven’t even seen a pinkie cut off yet!

The embedded storyline involving the Japanese detective’s 16-year-old rebellious daughter, Taki Mori (Aoi Okuyama), is so contrived as to become laughable. How could a 16-year-old walk out of her home in Tokyo after a minor disagreement with her mother, travel unhindered to London’s Heathrow airport, and then just wait to be collected by her father? Kenzo decides not to send her back and the following day, instructs her to stay all day in the rather bleak student accommodation he’s staying in while he goes about his business adding further to the implausibility.  The storyline finally descends into farce when she disobeys her father and goes off to a gay club with rent-boy Rodney. It beggars belief that she would just follow him, a person she’s never met before, and that he would take her to such a club.

To continue. The London crime boss, Connor Abbot (Charlie Creed-Miles), inspires no fear in anyone. He comes across as someone who can speak with a London Cockney accent and who would be better placed in Only Fools and Horses as a lovable rogue, or selling fruit and veg down East London’s Brick Lane Market. Jeez, even Grouty (Peter Vaughn) in Porridge had more menace than Connor Abbot has shown so far. Similarly, the two assassins, Abbot’s Donna Clark (Sophia Brown – the token coloured actress), and Kenzo’s enigmatic brother Yuto Mori (Yosuke Kubozuka). They both look as if they wouldn’t hurt a fly and, so far, haven’t demonstrated that they would if so challenged. And what about the exchange English policeman Roy (Tony Way)? What is he doing in the Tokyo police office? He looks as if he would be better placed presenting a Punch and Judy show on Brighton beach. And, I still don’t understand why the American Ellis Vickers (Justin Long – the token American) is in the series other than to have arguments about money with Connor Abbot now and again so that Connor can shout at him in a seemingly menacing way.

Other than a somewhat mediocre massacre in a Tokyo restaurant at the start of episode 1, there’s been no action to speak of. I’m almost halfway through the series and nothing has really happened other than the laying down of multiple confusing storylines that, to be honest, have not whetted my appetite to see how they will all unfold and link up. Episode 3 finishes with a cliff-hanger, an about-to-happen violent confrontation in a London bar between two bunches of gun-toting heavies who have been spotted, somewhat fortuitously, by a gosh-golly-gosh wide-eyed bobby (another token coloured person) buying chewing gum, or similar, in a store across the road. Will I have the strength to watch the start of episode 4 or will I give up? We’ll see.

Last month, I was at odds with the critics over the reviews of the two Hollywood blockbusters Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Joker. And, here I am again – in disagreement with the critics.  Rotten Tomatoes awards Giri/Haji Season 1 a Critics’ Consensus of 100% rating based on seventeen Fresh tomato reviews and summarises the series thus: Smart, suspenseful, and superbly shot, Giri/Haji is a near-perfect crime thriller with a surprisingly sharp sense of humor. The BBC’s Radio Times hails it as BBC Two crime thriller Giri/Haji has been a breath of fresh air – and one of the best shows of the year. Gerard Gilbert of the Independent comments Why Giri/Haji is the most underrated television drama of 2019. Joe Barton’s Anglo-Japanese fusion thriller flew under the radar like a stealth bomber aiming straight at the hearts of us happy few who stumbled upon it. Really?

Lucy Mangan, the Guardian’s television critic, is the only negative reviewer I could find. Her article is headlined Giri/Haji review – Kelly Macdonald crime show is all killer and no thriller. From mob murders to snakes in letterboxes, this journey through the underbellies of London and Tokyo should be a smash. How have the BBC and Netflix managed to make it such a bore?

I’m with Lucy.

(^_^)