Three women are driving in a car. The first two are a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, ordinary-seeming members of an ordinary middle-class family. The third is the daughter of the most powerful yakuza boss in Japan. Until recently, the yakuza boss’s daughter has been locked in a safe house, imprisoned by her own father to keep her out of danger during the gang war now raging in the Tokyo underworld. The other two women, the ordinary ones, have just helped her escape.
Suddenly the daughter-in-law turns to her mother-in-law. “Why don’t you like me?” she says.
The older woman brushes off the question. It’s a stupid thing to ask, she says. But the younger woman presses, and after a minute the mother-in-law sourly confesses that the daughter-in-law reminds her too much of herself. They’re both perpetually unsatisfied, unkind to the ones they love, the sort of people who’ve felt let down by the world since the moment they were born.
The yakuza boss’s daughter sits there and listens.
“You didn’t think I was good enough for your son,” the daughter-in-law says. “Admit it.”
“Of course you were good enough for him,” the older woman snaps. “You just weren’t right for him. And he wasn’t right for you.”
The younger woman takes this in. It’s true: Her marriage has been cold and distant for some time. “We were happy for a while,” she says softly.
The old woman snorts. “Everyone’s happy for a while,” she says.
What genre is this? A few minutes ago, we were in the middle of a Japanese crime drama, full of yakuza in dark suits, tense escapes, blood spatter fanning across translucent shoji screens. Now, almost without warning, we seem to be in a family road trip dramedy, with stinging domestic revelations flying back and forth as the highway rolls by. The yakuza boss’s daughter, who by the rules of the crime drama should be the most important character in the scene, has somehow become a bystander in her own escape narrative. What does she know about the griefs and resentments her rescuers have buried during their 20-year relationship?
Giri/Haji, the Japan-centric, BBC-produced crime series that’s newly available to stream on Netflix, loves these kinds of sudden narrative shifts. “Loves” might even be understating it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that wanted to be more shows at once than Giri/Haji, or a show that largely succeeded at being more shows at once, or a show that failed more interestingly to become several kinds of shows it had no business attempting to be in the first place. This is an ultraviolent action series that also fits in a lesbian coming-of-age drama. A preening Cockney crime boss out of an early Guy Ritchie comedy shares screen time with moody animated flashbacks that evoke Netflix’s recent devotion to anime. The bones of the show are those of a hard-boiled noir procedural; the climax of the show—I’d put “spoiler alert” here, but you’ll think I’m lying until you’ve seen it—is a long interpretive dance.
The story of Giri/Haji revolves around two brothers. One is a police detective. The other is a gangster. Kenzo, the detective, is played with a wonderful combination of bewilderment and suppressed anger by Takehiro Hira; he tries to do what others expect of him and doesn’t understand why this doesn’t win him love and happiness. Yuto, the crook, played with a sort of frayed roguish brilliance by the great Yosuke Kubozuka, is a schemer whose clever plans have a way of going wrong. The show’s title, which means “duty/shame,” most overtly refers to the contrast between the brothers, but the conceptual dichotomy is played with and complicated in various ways throughout the eight episodes—for instance, the brothers’ parents, who live with Kenzo in his tiny family apartment, prefer the quicksilver Yuto to his plodding and unhappy brother.
Yuto has an affair with his boss’s daughter, incurring the wrath of the yakuza gang. (That’s her in the car I told you about, along with Kenzo’s wife and the brothers’ mother.) Yuto’s car washes up in the ocean. Everyone, including Kenzo, thinks he’s dead. Then he turns up in London, part of a gang plot that threatens to destabilize the fragile peace among the rival yakuza families in Tokyo. The Tokyo police, keen to avoid bloodshed, send Kenzo to London to retrieve his brother.
So far, so utterly generic, right? But Kenzo’s cover in London involves taking a crime-scene procedural class, which turns out to be taught by Sarah Weitzmann, a Scottish detective constable played by Kelly Macdonald. Before long, we find ourselves following Sarah through a bit of Prime Suspect–ish Metropolitan Police workplace drama. We start picking up hints of trouble in her past. She’s survived an abusive boyfriend, maybe, we think? (Not that simple, it turns out.) Then we follow her home, where she finds a snake slithering inside her mailbox. Things only get weirder after that.
Needing to wrangle his way in to what he thinks is a private members’ club, Kenzo enlists the help of a half-Japanese, half-British male prostitute named Rodney (Will Sharpe, a Roman candle of arch charisma) whom he meets through chance circumstance. And because Giri/Haji cannot introduce a character without wanting to incorporate an entire TV series about that character, we’re soon following Rodney into pulsing nightclubs, watching him give blowjobs to strangers in cars, and looking on while he copes with the death of his ex-boyfriend Tiff, who killed himself after Rodney pushed him away. Rodney keeps taking too many drugs, and he also keeps seeing Tiff’s ghost. (So add “ghost story” to Giri/Haji’s genre tally.) Kenzo’s troubled teen daughter Taki shows up in London unannounced. Taki and Rodney become friends. Their friendship is given its share of time and space, even though it barely grazes the main plot of the series—except that maybe it is the main plot of the series, which is maybe a buddy comedy, because who even knows at this point?
Oh, and also, a lot of this is told out of chronological order. Did I forget to mention that? We’re guided along through time via frequent brassy intertitles that say, for example, “18 MONTHS AGO,” or “PART TWO,” or “5 MINUTES AGO,” or at one memorable moment, not long before the interpretive dance breaks out, simply “ROY.” This chronological skipping around is never the least bit hard to follow, in part because the show marks major shifts in the timeline by changing aspect ratios (did you ever wish there were a series partly filmed at 29:11? Buckle up) and occasionally by becoming a cartoon.
Not everything here works well. How could it? Eight hours of television is simply too few to hold 15 or 16 full seasons of five or six different series, and as Giri/Haji races through its rococo narrative set list, it inevitably starts to accumulate plot holes and miss beats. Why would an embattled yakuza boss whose top lieutenants have been assassinated send his toughest remaining henchmen to London to find a man who’s no longer essential to his survival? More crushingly, why would Rodney’s friend Annie suddenly not want to hang out with Taki after they had such a nice date? Kelly Macdonald is an unfailingly delightful screen presence who should be given 15 or 16 shows all to herself, but her whole quadrant of this particular story never quite comes into focus. Giri/Haji does many disparate things brilliantly—there’s a perfectly executed plot twist in almost every episode, and the whole thing looks gorgeous—but it’s a Yuto rather than a Kenzo; it makes wildly elaborate plans but can’t quite see them through.
I really liked it, though. At a moment when most streaming seasons are at least 30 percent too long, there’s something exhilarating about a show that has more ideas than it can safely contain. What saves the whole thing from feeling like a mess—or worse, like an exercise—is its genuine, unironic interest in its characters, each of whom it wants to know and honor as a human being. As is the case with, say, later Wong Kar-wai movies, the show’s swerves into surrealism and hyperstylization are grounded in psychological study. We needed all these genres, it seems to say, to tell you who these people are. It’s the people, not the genres, that the series is ultimately interested in. And it’s interested in everyone; even a character so throwaway that his throwaway-ness is played for laughs in an early episode yet turns out to play a crucial role in the story. (Roy hive, activate.)
This makes Giri/Haji one of the more fascinating hybrids to appear on TV lately. It’s absolutely dripping with cliché—rain falling in slow motion, portentous speeches about stones and ripples, yakuza cutting their fingers off, etc.—yet also full of subtle character insight. And the clichés and the insights aren’t disconnected; more often than not, the clichés are the instruments through which the insights announce themselves, the hackneyed signposts of a lyric significance. Or else the clichés are a way of rushing through several miles of plot to get to the leisurely, intimate conversation in which the show is really interested.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether pop culture’s ever-deepening obsession with genre would open a back door for psychological realism. When you become deeply enough steeped in genre, the parts of a story that delight you the most tend to be the parts that depart from the rules, or that humanize the characters outside them. Not the Avengers beating the bad guy, that is, but the Avengers getting drunk and trying to hoist Thor’s hammer. The Avengers going out to dinner. These moments are often described by critics, not inaccurately, as “postmodern” or “self-conscious,” but it’s never been clear to me that their primary appeal to the audience was as a send-up of genre conventions. I’ve always thought their primary appeal, for an audience that’s become complexly alienated from realism in the past four decades, might be the chance to see characters acting like people.
So what if some ambitious TV show said: shawarma, but make it Anna Karenina? Might that not lead to a story in which an old woman’s long-repressed feelings about her son’s troubled marriage spill out during an escape from a yakuza compound? Giri/Haji is not as slick as the Avengers, much less as incisive as Tolstoy. But then, everything is so backward these days. Allegory—a form of storytelling that reduces its elements to moral or political symbols, and that until recently seemed about as suited to contemporary life as witch-burning—now seems, thanks to Get Out and Parasite, like the most prestigious narrative form. In this context, there’s something fascinating, and to me kind of heartening, about the idea of old-fashioned character studies starting to demand avant-garde formal complexity from shows that might otherwise have been just some more by-the-numbers genre fare.