Friday, January 24, 2020

Don't miss the year's first great streaming series, Netflix's BBC-produced GIRI/HAJI (Duty/Shame)

Created and written by Joe Barton (of the Humans series and the Brit indie Ritual), the BBC-produced GIRI/HAJI (Duty/Shame), now streaming via Netflix, is so different and so exceptional in so many ways that TrustMovies won't even begin to try to cover them all here.

Mr. Barton (shown at left), however, has gifted us with something so unusual that I am going to try to communicate his accomplishment without indulging in spoilers.

Just know that if you appreciate fine writing, solid storytelling, and the ability to not simply conceive something original but bring it to pulsating life, to bite off enormous chunks (and chew them all), and take the kind of chances that Hollywood and network tv has either long forgotten how to affect (or simply doesn't care to try), then here is the show for you.

Set simultaneously in Japan and London, Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame), hereafter to be referred to as GHDS, tracks the activities of both the Japanese Yakuza criminal gangs and one of London police divisions: specifically Japanese brothers, the policeman Kenzo and the criminal Yuto (played respectively by Takehiro Hira, above, and Yôsuke Kubozuka, below)

and, in London, disgraced (for snitching on a fellow officer) a detective named Sarah (the always great Kelly Macdonald, below), who happened to be in love with the officer she snitched on, who was two-timing her with a new girl in the office. Yes, you're beginning to understand the mixed motives on display and perhaps how the title of this series comes into consideration.

That title, by the way, is also redolent of Japanese culture and mores, some of which we begin to understand as the series progresses. In fact, when a would-be Brit crime lord (played with a near-perfect combination of wit, idiocy and hilarity by Charlie Creed-Miles, below) is told rather pompously by the head of one Yakuza family that he cannot come to Japan because he does not understand Japanese culture and so would not fit in, we also get a good dose of Japanese holier-than-thou insularity.

Stylistically, the series -- directed by Ben Chessell (four episodes) and Julian Farino (the other four) -- jumps around back and forth in time. Initially flashbacks seem to be shown in widescreen, and then we get scenes that change to black-and-white (as below) and which seem to represent not flashbacks but perhaps what the characters would have liked to have seen or done. All this is not merely effective; it also keeps you on your toes.

And in the final episode, when we move to black-and-white, it is to achieve something I have never seen done in any series (or maybe even in a movie). Here, one art form of storytelling gradually morphs into another, totally different art form and knocks your socks off in the process -- so surprising-but-effective, not to mention hugely moving and utterly beautiful, is the amazing transition and result.

I don't know if this particular scene was Barton's idea of that of the director. Either way, it is one of the more memorable you'll have seen. The various plot strands, all of them quite appealing and pertinent to the themes at hand, coalesce nicely, and the supporting characters -- each one written and acted to a fare-thee-well -- deserve mention and applause. There's Kenzo's beautiful coming-of-age daughter Taki (newcomer Aoi Okuyama, above) and British-Japanese rent-boy, Rodney (the amazing Will Sharpe, below), who is by turns delightful, annoying, wise and self-destructive.

Also a surprise among the supporting cast is that fine and versatile American actor Justin Long, here playing the sadly incompetent son of a criminal scion who can't live up to his daddy's wishes. His character, initially annoying as hell, has one marvellous scene in which he finally tries to come to terms with himself -- and almost makes it. All of the characters here are in some kind of crisis/transit, and all exhibit as many negative and positive aspects, and yet we come to love them and identify with them full on.

All, that is, except the Yakuza crime lords. Barton understands that, like the Mafia, the Yakuza are despicable leeches upon every society they touch, and not to be "glamorized" in any way. Sure, they wear nice suits: big fucking deal. (That's Masahiro Motoko, above, as one of those "lords.")  The violence, too, while necessary is never paramount nor overly gory and gratuitous. Instead it often comes as a shock, jolting us into the awareness of how precious life is.

GHDS is full of not simply smart but truly wise dialog that pulls us up short and makes us think again. But don't expect the series to provide any answers to life's conundrum. Its ending is quite as it should be, leaving those of its characters remaining alive still in their individual predicaments. And yet they have indeed accomplished so much. They're heroes of sorts, but, boy, do they (and we) have a long way still to go.

A sequel? Not necessary, but if the series is as huge a hit as it deserves to be -- it won't be, though, because it is simply too good and too intelligent and too risky for that -- of course a sequel will come along. Meanwhile, catch GHDS while you can. Streaming now on Netflix, it represents everything to which popular entertainment can, but so rarely does, aspire.

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