Netflix’ Giri/Haji is a hybrid gem that defies categorization.  Even the creators have trouble pinpointing it. (read interviews with them here) The show is a noirish thriller that crosses two very different cultures, and like many noir films it revolves around a central relationship. But it also casts a wider net than noir, with the family issues, organized crime, and richly developed sub-plots. It is its own beast, and a compelling one at that.

The MacGuffin

The plot kicks off with a classic MacGuffin. Downtrodden detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira)  is asked by his boss to head to London to see if a gangland murder there was committed by his “dead” brother, Yuto (Yosuke Kobuzuka).  If so, he is to bring Yuto home to face the consequences with the Yakuza in order to prevent an escalating war of revenge in Tokyo. Kenzo’s cover in London will be that he is learning western policing techniques in a seminar taught by ostracized detective Sarah (Kelly MacDonald).

The Characters

Kenzo is a dutiful yet tormented man. He lives in a tiny Tokyo flat with his wife, bratty teen daughter and unappreciative elderly parents. He has spent his life worrying about his no good younger brother, Yuto. Where Kenzo is diligent, Yuto is carefree. But Yuto makes dumb decisions and gets into hotter and hotter water. Before he disappeared, Yuto was working for one of the main Yakuza families in Tokyo. We see in flashbacks that Kenzo has sold his soul to the devil to protect Yuto, and he has told himself that this time, he is done. He will bring Yuto back to Japan to face the consequences of his actions in London and restore honor to his family.

Meanwhile, in London, Sarah lives a miserable existence since she gassed on one of her fellow cops, who happened to be her boyfriend at the time. Because of this, she has been bumped down to teaching policing seminars instead of solving real crimes.  When Kenzo ends up in her class, she starts to fall for the melancholy man.  Needless to say, she gets wrapped up in Kenzo’s mission, tossing her righteous ethics right out the window, although she at least pauses long enough to wonder, “Are we bad people if we do bad things?”

The Sub Plots

That storyline is straightforward enough, but creator Joe Barton (Humans) throws a lot more into the stew. There is Rodney, the half-English, half-Japanese rent boy with a biting wit and an escalating drug problem, who can help Kenzo in his quest.  Then, Kenzo’s 16-year-old daughter, Taki (Aoi Okuyama) runs away from home in Tokyo and flies to London to be with her father. Together, Sarah, Kenzo, Rodney and Taki form a motley crew tasked with preventing a Yakuza bloodbath thousands of miles away. There is one more subplot with the London gangsters for whom Yuto now works, lead by the witty and fearsome Abbott (Charlie Creed-Miles who was Billy Kimber on Peaky Blinders). Part of that story is the hapless wanna-be American gangster Vickers, played by Justin Long doing his best work. But aside from comic relief and plot necessities, I’m not sure why they are there.

The bottom line

Giri/Haji takes some big risks, but they pay off. Somehow Joe Barton weaves together these disparate strands masterfully. The plot gets unbelievably complicated, but the 8-episode length can handle that. One thing that helps is that the show always circles back to the brothers and the grooves of their relationship formed in childhood. “Giri/Haji” means Duty/Shame, and we see the brothers struggle in different ways with those two emotions. But I see Duty/Shame more as a “Sense and Sensibility” metaphor, with one brother always towing the line and the other always creating havoc. Yuto, who will put anyone in jeopardy in order to get what he wants, isn’t really a likable character until you learn why he left Tokyo. Giri/Haji isn’t for everybody, but I really enjoyed its originality and depth. There are certainly some unbelievable moments, and the humor is dark but it’s there. On that note, I’ll just say that Yakuza gangsters got nothin’ on a melodramatic teen girl.

Fun Fact: This was the first western production that the Japanese actors have participated in, which lends some nice authenticity to the series.

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