Review by David Cirone
Hanzawa Naoki‘s opening shot, a slowly-zooming close-up of the title character’s confession of beliefs, instantly brings to mind comparisons to The Godfather. Like Michael Corleone, mild-mannered banker Hanzawa is a man who transforms because of a duty to family, a dedication to his father, and ultimately, a singular focus to right the wrongs that have been done to him. Like Michael, Hanzawa is also capable of lying to those closest to him, even to himself, and his desire for revenge brings out his strength at the same time it brings out darker sides of his nature.
We’re rooting for Hanzawa from the start because he’s a little man who’s underestimated — we can all identify with that — but we’re accomplices, too, because right from this opening scene, Hanzawa Naoki is lying, and we know it.
Starting with the 1991 flashback to Hanzawa’s job interview, we see his determination to do things his way. “Surely there are other banks,” his interviewer prods, but Hanzawa insists. “It has to be this bank.” At the new hire orientation, he makes a veiled statement to the two men who will become his lifelong friends, Kondo (Kenichi Takito), his university kendo partner, and the management-minded Tomari (Mitsuhiro Oikawa): “I’m going to make it to the top,” Hanzawa proclaims, “and then there’s something I have to do.”
Masato Sakai expertly portrays the salaryman balancing a good heart with dark desires. When he reaches his signature phrase “Juu ba gaeshi! (Ten times payback!)”, it’s equally exciting and scary. He’s got good reason to be upset. After years of working for the very bank which brought about his father’s demise, Hanzawa’s promotion-greedy manager forces Hanzawa to approve a fishy loan that costs the company 500 million Yen (appx. $5 million US dollars), and then pins the blame on Hanzawa when the company defaults on the loan. Hanzawa refuses to toe the company line and cover up for his superior, instead taking matters into his own hands by trying to recover the loan himself by tracking down the company’s owner.
In the 90-minute first episode, all the chess pieces for this masterful drama are placed in motion. Behind-the-scenes company politics put Hanzawa’s job and reputation at risk, and a sudden Tax Bureau investigation by led by the cunning and sadistic Kurosaki (Ainosuke Kataoka) ties one hand behind his back, sucking up his precious time and resources as the clock winds down on his disciplinary hearing. Higashida (Takashi Ukaji), the guilty owner of Nishi Osaka Steel, is hiding with his attractive mistress, Miki (Mitsu Dan), until things blow over, and has started his own secret manipulations to get in Hanzawa’s way. When Hanzawa tracks him down at Miki’s condo, it looks like a physical conflict might end this story all too quickly. Hanzawa bests Higashida in an improvised kendo match with golf clubs, but a surprise blow by Miki’s designer purse allows for Higashida’s quick getaway.
Empty-handed, Hanzawa faces the rigged disciplinary committee, but ignores Tomari’s advise and defiantly tells them to shut up and stay out of his way. He’s not the only one to blame, but he’ll fix it his way. Marching out to continue his pursuit, he symbolically switches his dark, company standard necktie for his bright blue “fighting necktie”, a gift from his spunky wife, Hana (Aya Ueto).
This first episode of Hanzawa Naoki moves with incredible momentum, and it’s amazing that such dramatic power can come from a story set in the not-so-dramatic world of banking and finance. Under the surface, Hanzawa Naoki is about power — the little man vs the big banks, the lone righteous man vs the pack of liars — and it’s also about masks, revealing the true nature of its characters, hidden by motivations or revealed by pressure. Outstanding acting performances and Katsuo Fukuzawa’s superbly sharp and varied direction got me hooked, and you’ll find yourself rushing to the next episode.
ONE BAD-ASS BANKER
Hanzawa still regularly practices kendo, and besides bonding with his buddy Kondo and releasing all that banking stress, it sets up a physicality to the main character that makes him more than just a talking head. The scene where Higashida is foolish enough to charge at Hanzawa in combat is a pleasure to re-watch, especially as Sakai barely holds back his anger. It’s that restraint earlier in the episode that pays off when the fury is unleashed at the episode’s end with the knuckleheads at the disciplinary hearing, This is not a guy I’d want to pick a fight with.
THE WAR AT HOME
Episode 1 also sets up the treacherous, gossip-filled lives of the bankers’ wives, where the polite gatherings in company housing apartments are home to equally treacherous power games. Hana’s a straight shooter like her husband, but she’s got to wear a mask all the same. The smallest can make or break a potential promotion, and the glares and whispers she endures once the scandal hits make it instantly clear she’s in a den of snakes. Ueto is great at sending a double message with her smile and knowing eyes.