When it comes to crime drama, it’s been a pretty stellar autumn for the BBC. We’ve been treated to the creeping paranoia of Ben Chanan’s The Capture, the eerie gothic mystery of Sarah Phelps’ Dublin Murders, and the playful Hitchcockian suspense of Neil Forsyth’s Guilt – the first foray into original drama for the new BBC Scotland channel.
And though all of these shows undoubtedly have their own merits, for me none of them can claim top prize as the BBC’s best crime thriller of the season. No, that accolade is reserved for Giri/Haji (translated as Duty/Shame), a masterful and sprawling thriller set between London and Tokyo, which ended this week and is now available to view in its entirety on BBC iPlayer.
Joe Barton’s series, a co-production with Netflix, primarily concerns a Japanese detective by the name of Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) who travels to London in an attempt to track down his missing brother Yuto, a member of Japanese crime syndicate the Yakuza. Whilst in the UK, he forms an alliance of sorts with Kelly Macdonald’s Sarah, a detective constable, and Will Sharpe’s Rodney, a charismatic sex worker and drug addict who is of half-Japanese descent.
Rodney (Will Sharpe) – (C) Sister Pictures – Photographer: Luke Varley
This unlikely surrogate family is bolstered further when Taki, Kenzo’s daughter, suddenly arrives from Tokyo, much to the dismay of her mother Rei – who remains in Japan tasked with looking after Kenzo’s ailing father. Meanwhile a dispute between rival Yakuza bosses in Tokyo, in which Yuto is irreparably tied up, threatens to spill over into London, compromising the safety of everyone involved.
That’s about as detailed a plot summary as can be given without giving too much away, but suffice to say there are twists and surprises aplenty in store, while beyond the central storyline a number of side plots give the show a rich sense of depth.
In more ways than one, Giri/Haji feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s a crime drama of a sort we’re not used to seeing on prime-time BBC, both unafraid to play around with its narrative format (the fourth episode, one of the series’ best, is comprised entirely of flashbacks) and more than happy to add a range of stylistic flourishes (split screen in particular is utilised to good effect.)
It’s also very refreshing to see something on a major BBC channel which contains so much dialogue in a language other than English. With the notable exception of a handful of highly successful Scandi-noir shows, it’s hard to shake the feeling that sections of the viewing public are still resistant to subtitled drama – but there’s no shortage of Japanese dialogue on show in Giri/Haji, which unquestionably adds a certain authenticity to proceedings.
And that authenticity is not just in the language; you can feel the Japanese influence in Giri/Haji in other ways, whether that be through the beautiful animated sequences that serve as recaps at the beginning of each episode or the excellent and often wonderfully camp confrontation scenes that frequently punctuate the action.
Perhaps the thing that makes Giri/Haji really stand out, however, is not the suspenseful plot, the stylistic flourishes nor even the Japanese influence. It’s the simple fact that over the course of eight episodes you’re bound to find yourselves falling in love with so many of these characters – or at the very least passionately calling for Rodney and Taki to be given their own spin-off series.
Rodney (Will Sharpe) and Taki (Aoi Okuyama) – (C) Sister Pictures – Photographer: Luke Varley
The stoic Kenzo, troubled Yuto and heartbroken Sarah are all nuanced, complex and ultimately likeable characters, owing much to the performances of Japanese stars Takehiro Hira and Yōsuke Kubozuka and the ever-reliable Kelly Macdonald – all of whom are terrific. A scene stealing turn from Charlie Creed-Miles as a London mobster is also well worth a mention, while Aoi Okuyama is a revelation in her on-screen debut as Taki.
The real star of the show, though, is Will Sharpe, and if he’s not up for awards for his portrayal of Rodney then it should be seen as a major snub. At times, especially towards the beginning of the series, Sharpe is an absolute riot – and his every appearance on screen is almost guaranteed to bring a dash of outrageous humour to proceedings. But as the show progresses there’s tremendous sadness too, and Sharpe imbues his character with such an overwhelming sense of pathos that even if we doubt some of his decisions we can’t help but root for him.
It remains to be seen whether we can expect to see more of Giri/Haji in the future – although the way the story ends doesn’t exactly hint at further series. But as a standalone mini-series, the show has ambition, style and a sheer likeability that marks it out as a real triumph for BBC Two. The more shows like this, the better.
All episodes of Giri/Haji are available to view on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Netflix in the US