There was a time that’s almost a distant memory now, when winter drama seasons boasted one of the best lineups and the networks still produced charming, feel good dramas, particularly romantic comedies like Koi no Chikara that captured the imagination and hearts of the audience with intriguing story lines, well-developed characters and great chemistry among the cast. Attempts at the romance genre have failed rather miserably in recent years, perhaps mirroring the funk that the Japanese increasingly feel, as some of my friends tell me. Will there be hope for warmhearted love stories or are we staring at its gradual demise?
Now, investigative dramas and continuing series fill a season in a reflection of the networks’ desperate desire to resurrect drama ratings. This winter there are 8 investigative dramas including 1 that is a continuing series, the long-running Aibou. With the exception of Aibou, which is in its ninth season now, none have come anywhere near 20%. In spring, the networks promise a return of Jin, Challenged, Boss and Hagane no Onna. Boss may have been popular, but the drama was, in so many ways, one of the worst detective dramas in recent memory. The potential of its cast was wasted and will probably suffer the same fate in the sequel.
It wouldn’t be so bad if these dramas had the same high production values and acting as WOWOW. This satellite broadcast TV channel has astutely made suspense, investigative and social dramas its niche, and has, in my opinion, certainly done well in its mission “to make Japanese television more interesting, moving and to have people cry and laugh”. It has had the occasional duds too, but watching dramas like Pandora, Soratobu Taiya and Marks no Yama is like a indulgent treat to spoil a child. I can never watch a drama by one of the networks again without wondering why they can’t do better. And then crave for my next WOWOW fix … … unfortunately their dramas are not always easily available. NHK has shown that it can deliver mesmerising dramas like Gaiji Keisatsu, Hagetaka and Chase but it is inconsistent. TV Asahi and NTV are more erratic but sometimes produce winners.
For a dose of decent investigative dramas this season, tune in to TV Asahi. The network has chosen ‘shibui otoko’ (men with masculine aura) like Takahashi Katsunori, Funakoshi Eiichiro and Tamura Masakazu as its leading men in the winter drama lineup. Tamura’s Kokuhatsu ~ Kokusen Bengonin looks the most promising. Give Fuji TV and TBS a miss.
Akuto ~ Juuhanzai Sousahan
Akuto (Villains) describes the four roguish detectives of the Fourth Section of Minato-cho Police Precinct’s Criminal Affairs Division. Led by Togashi Masayoshi (played by Takahashi Katsunori of Tadano Hitoshi fame) they think nothing of doing bad things to arrest criminals. That is, until Satonaka Keiichiro (Koizumi Kotaru cast in yet another role as the uptight, righteous guy) arrives at Minato-cho Police Precinct to be their new section chief. Their deeds run counter to his belief that police officers must be absolutely just … and then he nearly loses his life when they cunningly use him as bait to lure a criminal target into action. With the knowledge that their previous section chief had died under mysterious circumstances, Satonaka cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to the rumours that the Fourth Section had done their former section chief in.
Extorting confessions under duress, having cosy ties with crime syndicates and accepting bribes? Only hyenas can bring down hyenas and Satonaka, as the rabbit, is out of his league. There is nothing particularly villainous or sinister about the villains in Akuto. They aren’t vigilantes meting out punishment to those who evade the law, but renegades willing to push the line and bend the rules to bring criminals to justice where other detectives won’t. Some shared experience or conviction, yet to be disclosed, has banded them together, but how closely knit are they?
Expect subsequent episodes to feature more conflicts between the idealistic Satonaka and his subordinates and reveal the pasts of the characters. Did Togashi kill his wife? Why does Reiko let herself get beaten up by her good-for-nothing boyfriend? Hopefully these won’t be handled as clumsily and awkwardly as the introductions, setup and action scenes were in Ep1.
Lady ~ Saigo no Hanzai Profile
Lady opens with an over-the-top police profiling simulation exercise to prove the mettle of the newly established Criminal Profiling Support Team. But it is many minutes too long, ridiculously silly and gives little confidence in the competence of Japan’s first profiling team or the FBI-trained Katsuki Shoko (in an uninspiring portrayal by Kitagawa Keiko et al). Director Todo Yuichiro’s opposition to the CPS is obviously well-founded but playing off the two groups is cliche and tiresome.
With the running time of Ep1 coming in at close to 2 hours, Lady quickly wears thin without engaging characters, a gripping case and good pacing. Screen time is wasted on inconsequential aspects and what should have developed into an increasingly frantic, intense pursuit of a warped serial killer of abusive families never happens. Daigo, who plays a psychologically damaged, emotionally stunted man trying to exorcise the demons of his childhood, comes across more like a caricature than a real tormented person. So much so that a curious feeling of detachment and indifference develops as the episode labours on to the final confrontation.
Beneath the glitz and gadgetry, Ep1 is merely a simple case of whodunnit that self destructs in its own self absorption. Let’s not get started about the logic gaps and cast of characters … …
Honboshi ~ Shinri Tokuso Jikenbo
Honboshi (police slang for Real Criminal) opens with a knife attack on journalist Kazama Takanori, acclaimed for his book ‘The Fight for Freedom’. His attacker, Umino Yasuhiro, has to kill him by midnight to save his abducted daughter, Yumiko. But the attack is foiled, and Yumiko’s dead body is found two days later. Section leader Sanada Hidetoshi (played by Takashima Masahiro, older brother of Takashima Masanobu who is doing duties in Fuyu no Sakura) of the Kyoto Prefectural Police’s First Investigative Division is joined in the murder investigation by Kirishima Kosaku (Funakoshi Eiichiro in a delightful turn as a somewhat smarmy former psychologist), a man whose eccentric, unpredictable conduct annoys him to no end.
Assigned to the Special Investigation Support Unit from the Tokyo Crime Lab, Kirishima unsettles Kazama with odd remarks and behaviour that borders on rude. Then, another abduction occurs, and the same demand is made. “If Kazama isn’t killed by midnight tomorrow, a life will be claimed.” Disturbed by Kazama’s cool demeanour in the face of the death threats, Kirishima starts probing around him and discovers that Kazama had passed off the book ‘The Fight for Freedom’ as his writing when it had actually been that of his good friend, the late Shioyama Kenji, who had died in an accident a year ago …
Honboshi is 1 of 3 dramas this season which employs criminal profiling and / or psychology in police investigations. However, it is a big relief to find that Honboshi is a better production than Lady ~ Saigo no Hanzai Profile in so many ways that it makes the latter look like its playing make believe.
Ep1 is well executed and proceeds at a brisk pace that keeps the simple story interesting. At the outset, Funakoshi Eiichiro gives his character the appearance of an affable man who disarms his suspects with his ingratiating manner. On the other hand, he also unnerves them with unrestrained or familiar behaviour in the private space of their homes or offices. In truth, everything Kirishima does is with a purpose and nothing escapes his eyes. This tendency to do as he pleases sorely aggravates Takashima Masahiro’s Sanada Hidetoshi, who initially doubts Kirishima’s ability. Thankfully, the producers do not play this up for dramatic effect, and the two men instead settle into a sort of uneasy camaraderie by Ep2.
The weak link is Kiriyama Ren who looks like a misfit among the cast of veteran actors. Other grouses include the needless inclusion of the character Rokujo Mai, a clueless but curious clerk with the Special Investigation Support Unit who is probably meant to represent the viewer and make the explanation of psychology concepts easy to understand.
Control ~ Hanzai Shinri Sousa
Control, yet another one of the numerous criminal profiling dramas of this season, does not leave much of an impression but goes down better than Lady ~ Saigo no Hanzai Profile. There is Segawa Rio (Matsushita Nao in a rather lacklustre role that recalls her bland performance as Kusanagi Tsuyoshi’s love interest in Koi ni Ochitara), the loud-mouthed, reckless and stubborn new head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Violent Crimes Division Branch Office. She is tasked with babysitting Nagumo Jun (a rumpled looking Fujiki Naohito who gets away with eating jam buns), a straight-talking psychology professor whom the police has engaged to solve criminal cases that they find themselves ill-equipped to handle in exchange for access to criminal case files. But this is to be kept under wraps, and so, the opportunistic head of the division, Koitabashi Shoji, conveniently claims all credit for their work (more accurately Nagumo’s work since Rio’s best attribute seems to be being a persistent pain).
Ep1 spends a great deal of time on focusing our sleuthing pair and office politics, so the three random street attacks are given cursory treatment. It soon emerges that the third knife attack was murder in cold blood by a father weary of living in fear that his good-for-nothing son will ruin the family’s reputation, but the confession though horrifying is an anti-climax.
Fujiki and Nao are unconvincing in their roles and there’s also no chemistry between them to carry the drama. If they’re to be an interesting team there needs to be a better balance in their relationship than the current one which consists of Nagumo as the brains and Rio as the legs. Frequent references to Rio as an iron lady whom everyone finds annoying but something which the lady herself seems to take pride in, is tiresome. The audience is never allowed to forget that. And there’s a sense that Rio is just one of many other similar female characters that have graced the screens lately.
Kokuhatsu ~ Kokusen Bengonin
Kokuhatsu (Accusation) unfolds with Sahara Takukichi (played by veteran actor Tamura Masakazu, probably best known for his role as detective Furuhata Ninzaburo in the very popular self-titled drama) in search of a woman called Kishida Reiko (Shaku Yumiko in a cameo appearance). Sahara is a lawyer assigned by the court to defend suspects who can’t afford their own counsel. Contrary to the stereotype of such attorneys, he is conscientious and thorough, even though his wife was murdered by a man he once defended in a tragedy that has strained his relationship with his daughter, Tsuruko, who still blames him.
Six months ago, Reiko had accused Sahara’s good friend and fellow lawyer, Okabe Masaya, of rape while Okabe was in the midst of pursuing the illegal political donations made to Fujio, an influential Diet member. This was brought to trial, but Reiko fled during one of the sessions and disappeared, just as Sahara was about to expose her relationship with Fujio, leaving Okabe to suffer disgrace and expulsion from the bar association. Sahara vows to clear Okabe’s name, but can do nothing without Reiko …
Then, Okabe brings the case of Akahori Namiko (played by guest star Kimura Tae who delivers a better performance as a lonely, vulnerable trophy wife than the character of Yuki Akira in Lady ~ Saigo no Hanzai Profile) to him. Namiko has been charged with the murder of her husband, Yuzo, the president of a major construction company. Knowing Okabe wouldn’t have brought it to his attention without a reason, Sahara soon discovers that Yuzo was being secretly investigated by the Special Investigative Division of the Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office for his illegal donations to Fujio. Several days later, the dead body of Yamagata Nobuo, a public prosecutor who was formerly a member of the Special Investigative Division until he was transferred to the countryside of Kanazawa, is discovered … … Believing that these deaths are linked to Okabe’s case, Sahara decides to be Namiko’s court-appointed attorney and help Okabe to seek revenge.
However, at the end of Ep1, it is clear that the path will not be easy as Sahara must battle the Public Prosecutor’s Office and other government institutions to arrive at the truth, risk the possibility of being removed as a lawyer by the bar association, and overcome doubts about the motivations of his old friend.
Kokuhatsu is an unexpectedly intriguing and engrossing drama of Sahara’s crusade for his friend. If the dark atmosphere seems reminiscent of a Matsumoto Seicho work, it is because the protagonist, Sahara, is based on the main character in one of Matsumoto’s short stories, Giwaku (Suspicion). This was made into a drama special by TV Asahi in 2009. Tamura and Maya Miki reprise their roles in this drama series which will consist of self-contained episodes adapted from various short stories by Matsumoto instead of a main story arc interwoven with sub arcs.
The voiceover, delivered by Endo Kenichi, evokes the style in another TV Asahi drama, Yako no Kaidan, an adaptation of Matsumoto’s novel of the same name, and a quick check reveals that one of Kokuhatsu’s scriptwriters was behind Yako no Kaidan. Hopefully this is where the similarities with that disastrous drama end. While the narrative device worked against Yako no Kaidan, it appears to be effective in Kokuhatsu to fill in the gaps, introduce the participants and explain their actions and motives.
Though the case is two hours long and broken up into two episodes, it is a riveting, intricate tale helped by well-developed characters, solid acting and tight narrative which shows how a drama can be elevated when placed in the right hands.