BBC Two’s Giri / Haji, available in the U.S. via Netflix, is already one of the year’s best surprises. The international thriller starts when a Tokyo detective, Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), is tasked by a prominent Yakuza crime family—in conjunction with the police force—to secretly go to London in search of his brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka ), who he thought died a year ago. The hope is that bringing Yuto back will stop a sprawling war that he helped kickstart among the Yakuza factions. But like Kenzo’s investigation into Yuto’s disappearance and faked death, Giri / Haji is full of unexpected twists, not just in its narrative but in its form. It’s dark and violent at times, but also funny and full of heart. At the center of the story is the tale of two brothers, yet it’s also about forged family and discovering the truth about one’s self. The gang war is the framework for the story, which plays out in many ways like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (as far as a variety of different crime bosses all marching towards one another); and yet, one of its most moving scenes takes place during a quiet, makeshift Yom Kippur dinner regarding atonement.
Giri / Haji translates into Duty / Shame, which sums up almost every struggle its characters face. Yuto is in trouble with the Fukuhara family, but Kenzo also has complicated feelings towards his younger, wayward brother and his recent Yakuza connection—and not just because Kenzo helped him cover up a murder. This is just one of a myriad of complicated dynamics and secrets revealed throughout the series’ eight unique and masterful episodes, which intriguingly come to a natural conclusion in the fourth hour and then continue in a kind of extended coda that includes a black and white interpretive dance sequence, mirroring the deep emotions and entanglements of its characters, that will absolutely make you weep.
If all of this sounds horribly pretentious I promise you it’s not, it’s just frankly stunning. And, crucially, funny. This blended show is grounded by its very real characters put into very unreal situations, best embodied by a London teacher, Sarah (Kelly Macdonald), who gets accidentally embroiled in this international web of deceit and death. “Who is this?” she asks Kenzo in his student housing dorm room (his undercover persona is a detective in an exchange program taking Sarah’s class). “He’s a male prostitute who helped me with a task and then got injured, so I’m letting him stay here,” Kenzo replies nonchalantly, talking about the young druggie Rodney, who is writhing half-naked on his bed. “At any point when those words were coming out of your mouth did you think they sounded like a satisfactory explanation?” Sarah asks in disbelief, but also with a smile.
The British characters are also the comic relief in the series, from Sarah’s astonished Scotswoman to an eloquent crime boss (Charlie Creed-Miles) and most especially the haunted, glib, half-Japanese rent boy Rodney (Will Sharpe, in a standout role). Kenzo’s difficult journey to London is also lightened, and complicated, by the arrival of his teenage daughter Taki (Aoi Okuyama), who was recently expelled from school for stabbing a boy in the leg. She said he was trying to grope her, no one is really sure, but it’s clear that both Kenzo and Taki needed to escape home and be thrown into something new.
Refreshingly, though, Kenzo’s long-suffering wife back in Tokyo, Rei (Yuko Nakamura), is not forgotten in this narrative while she dutifully cares for Kenzo’s aged parents. As Kenzo starts to have feelings for Sarah, Rei is taking charge of her life, willingly throwing herself into a scheme by Yuto from afar that includes kidnapping and going on the run with Kenzo’s mother and a baby. Giri / Haji often pauses throughout the series by breaking episodes up into chapters, taking us back in time to the eighteen or so months leading up to the series’ current events, further exploring the lives of each of its main characters and giving us important insights that illuminate both what we already seen and what is still to come. The series also uses a variety of different stylistic approaches to tell its tale: Flashbacks are in a different aspect ratio, stories recounted (or imagined) are animated, and episode recaps are presented in watercolor.
Ultimately, Giri / Haji explores the ripple effects of our actions, weaving what seem like disparate stories into a single narrative with an astonishing number of very organic but still very surprising twists. (One, in the final episode, even made me stand up and cheer when it was revealed). It’s a character-driven series that deeply understands both cultures it has set itself within, and never loses sight of the crime that put it into motion—one that asks what you are willing to do for family and for duty, and at what cost. Make no mistake, there is still a lot of violence, a number of high-stakes shootouts, and murder-by-sword. But nothing ever feels gratuitous, and the series never lingers on these moments. They are consequences, but never the point.
It’s also worth noting that this is a series that requires your close attention, not least of which because it’s half in Japanese. Often characters will flip back and forth between English and Japanese, leading to some funny scenes of purposefully wrong translations or people complaining they don’t speak one or the other. But there are also wonderful scenes like that one where Kenzo replies to both his daughter and a police superintendent at once with a single, thoughtful “yes” (in English to both of their parallel conversations)—to one he admits a sad family truth, and to the other he acknowledges he worked with the Yakuza in Tokyo. Giri / Haji is a smart series that rewards your attention (and a bit of a slow start as it builds) as a deeply satisfying story. Its ambiguous ending also somehow feels complete, because the shame part of the narrative has been addressed for everyone. Though it would be wonderful to spend more time in this world with a second season, there is a palpable and beautiful sense of healing that has ended this one.
Giri / Haji premieres Friday, January 10th on Netflix
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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