Giri/Haji (“Duty”/”Shame”) is an ambitious, all-over-the-place crime thriller, as deeply conflicted about its identity as the series’ main character.
Tokyo police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) investigates a yakuza hit and learns his missing younger brother Yuto (Yousuke Kubozuka) might be connected. Urged by both the Chief Inspector (Kazuyuki Tsumura) and a local crime boss (Masahiro Motoki), Kenzo is sent to London to investigate a related murder and find Yuto, traveling under the pretext of a police exchange program taught by plucky Scottish detective Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly Macdonald).
Conceived by Joe Barton (Humans, The Ritual), Giri/Haji‘s bilingual storytelling format (with subtitled scenes in English and Japanese) might be a worthwhile move to get the attention of international audiences, but it ends up weighing down the execution of a rather straightforward plot as the Japanese actors struggle with unbelievably complex English dialogue.
Of all the Japanese characters who arrive in London, Hira as Kenzo is the only one who believably communicates in English with both ease and nuance. Kubozuka and young actress Aoi Okuyama (playing Kenzo’s daughter and Yuto’s adoring niece, who shows up for an extended tour of London in an extreme example of bad parenting) are stuck with simple English responses designed to indicate they could function in the British metropolis, but they ring false and lower the impact of their otherwise engaging Japanese performances. Barton’s decision to take the easy way around the language barrier robs these characters of the opportunity to grapple with the series’ cross-cultural premise.
The series’ sleek cinematography frames the characters’ travels in a dynamic, moody aesthetic, basking in the towering concrete and glass buildings and colorful street lights of its twin locales. But while Giri/Haji makes steps toward neo-noir realism, its many contrived (or at very least “convenient”) plot turns keep us from getting any thrill out of this thriller. The story’s slow pacing doesn’t help things either — without the superb performances of its lead and supporting cast, it would be easy to consider giving up on Giri/Haji halfway through.
Truth be told, you can skip a few episodes and really not miss very much (recommendation: keep episodes, 1, 4, and 7, and just delete Justin Long’s whiny useless character — the watercolor recaps at the opening of each episode will cover the gaps). A late-story subplot involving Kenzo’s mother, his estranged wife, and Fukuhara’s daughter on the run from the yakuza injects new life into the final chapters, and the underused female cast is begging for a series of their own.
Giri/Haji doesn’t know if it wants to be Black Rain, Broadchurch, True Detective, or Lost in Translation. It serves up equal measures of all of these, along with splashes of Snatch, Kill Bill, and a final episode W-T-F “Reservoir Dogs” reference that’s unintentionally comical. Heavy-handed music cues — loud taiko drums (in case you somehow forget the characters are from Japan) and an eclectic pop playlist to push dramatic moments — add further confusion.
Fragmented flashbacks, artfully framed black-and-white shots, 2D animation, and even interpretive dance get thrown into the blender. Thematic messages appear throughout the series in text form (written in English, oddly enough) to hammer home Kenzo’s subconscious thoughts. These are creative moves, but self-indulgent and a bit show-offy, revealing the series’ insecurity about keeping us invested in the story.
Plot and stylistic missteps aside, Giri/Haji boasts a stellar cast which elevates the material with depth, nuance, and empathy. Their contributions are worth the hours of patient investment.
Hira as Kenzo carries himself with gravitas and world-weariness that brings both intelligence and sadness to his performance. He’s the anchor that keeps the often flighty and contrived script from drifting too far off base. Kubozuka as Yuto displays the charisma and puppy-dog earnestness of the younger brother that compels the many women in his life to forgive his many screw-ups. There’s so much variety to his mostly wordless performance — he’s at times vain, needy, or overconfident — that you can just maybe consider giving his character a pass.
The supporting cast doesn’t get off quite as easy. Macdonald brings all the muster she can to Weitzmann’s online dating frenzy and her obligatory attraction to Kenzo, but she doesn’t get to do much detective work and her character is all but benched for the second half of the story. Will Sharpe’s gigolo Rodney is a truly grounded performance of a one-note character (“I’m so witty, so in pain” is the substance of nearly every line), and the actor brings sharp intelligence and rich emotion to a role that’s written with nowhere to go.
Motoki (Departures) is similarly boxed-in as yakuza boss Fukuhara, and Aoi Okuyama as Taki ends up shouldering some heavy-handed dialogue designed to assert social relevance into the series rather than reveal her character.
Anna Sawai as Eiko and Yuko Nakamura as Kenzo’s estranged wife Rei are afforded some of the series’ most human moments. Sawai shows just the right amount of measured vulnerability in Eiko’s romance with Yuto, and a devilish glee comes out when she deals with a local big mouth in a way only a yakuza-daughter-turned-mother would dare. Nakamura’s fearful urgency in escaping the gangsters and her unrestrained joy at the climax are some of the last lingering moments of the series.
For all its flaws, Giri/Haji is wants us to take the story seriously, but opts for cleverness where simple truth would have been so much more satisfying. Press interviews politely mention some cultural short-circuits in the script, and the imbalance shows. We needed a little less fascination with Japan and little more understanding.
Giri/Haji is now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80190519.