Warning: this article contains spoilers for Giri/Haji episode one
The first thing which is notable about the new BBC series Giri/Haji is that the first 25 minutes is entirely in Japanese. The unexpected success of shows such as The Bridge, The Tunnel and Narcos with UK audiences has shown that subtitled works can attract large audiences – and with Giri/Haji the BBC is offering the first bilingual Japanese-English show on UK television.
While the show opens in a Japanese export company based in London, a sudden and brutal murder quickly transports us to Tokyo and to a burgeoning Yakuza gang war. The show’s main protagonist is Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), a seemingly mild-mannered police detective who lives with his wife, troubled daughter and two ageing parents.
Of course, this being a crime thriller, Kenzo has a dark past: a missing brother and some uncomfortable links to organised crime. Very quickly he heads off to London under the pretence of attending a criminal forensics course to investigate the murder and capture his wayward brother and return him to Japan to face Yakuza justice.
Along the way, he meets a cast of characters including fellow detective DC Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly McDonald) who is struggling with her own abusive past, and the charismatic Rodney (Will Sharpe), a half-Japanese, half-British rent boy with problems of his own – although an abusive pimp and a drug problem don’t stop him having some of the best put-down lines on television.
The show was created and written by Joe Barton – who is best-known for Channel 4’s Humans – and created by Sister Pictures who are obviously hoping to duplicate the worldwide success of Chernobyl with this latest release.
To its credit, Giri/Haji has clearly sought to avoid the main stereotypes we see presented about Japan on UK television. While there are still areas which raise some issues (the random animation sequence for one, which reminded me too much of Kill Bill), the show does manage to avoid the most obvious stereotypes of Anglo-Japanese culture clash (anyone remember the horror of Rising Sun or Black Rain?). And for once – and yes, Sue Perkins I am looking at you – we are treated to a Tokyo that is more than a land of geishas, sumo suits and odd sexual practices.
This is a crime thriller so one can expect a certain amount of exaggeration and drama – including death by swords, dramatic gun battles and tattooed hoodlums – but overall this is a show which has attempted to bring the two cultures and languages together in a natural way.
The cast is the show’s biggest strength. McDonald provides the right mixture of toughness and vulnerability, and newcomer Aoi Okuyama is a real revelation as Kenzo’s daughter. Supporting members Sophia Brown, Justin Long and Charlie Creed-Miles are also credible as the London-based gangsters with whom gets Kenzo gets involved. Hira offers a nuanced performance as Kenzo.
Those who are perhaps more acquainted with Japanese film will recognise Hira from Takashi Miike’s Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai as well as Sion Sono’sLesson of the Evil and the controversial Japanese box-office smash The External Zero.
Yōsuke Kubozuka and Masahiro Motoki (who respectively play Kenzo’s brother, Yuto, and Yakuza boss, Fukuhara) are also well-known faces from Japanese film and television and fortunately both avoid the over-the-top dramatic style which is common in Japanese television.
Collaboration is the key
Giri/Haji is one of a number of successful collaborations between Netflix and the BBC which have included Troy: Fall of a City, The Last Kingdom and Watership Down. The spiralling costs of producing high-quality television mean working with bigger players such as Netflix is a must for the BBC.
If Giri/Haji becomes the big hit the BBC is clearly hoping for we may see a rise in Japanese dramas as they hope to recreate the “Scandi-noir” fandom which proved so successful for audience figures. There are various Netflix shows that UK audiences could be drawn towards and I would imagine the company is hoping Giri/Haji will spark the interest of the UK audience in their Japanese language content.
Since its Japanese launch in 2015, Netflix has continued its trend of co-production as a method of boosting audiences both in Japan and internationally. Netflix has worked with some big Japanese media names in order to attract audiences with Sion Sono’s The Forest of Love and Ninagawa Mika’s Followers, which are both due to be released soon on both Netflix Japan and beyond.
Japanese shows have also proven popular with Netflix audiences in the UK. Terrace House, now in its fifth season, remains a firm favourite with students and The Naked Director has been renewed for a second series. The success of Giri/Haji remains to be seen, but I think a lot of expectations are resting on it.
The first episode of Giri/Haji was screened on BBC Two on Thursday October 17 at 9pm and will premiere globally on Netflix in 2020.