DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new British TV series "Giri/Haji," which is streaming on Netflix, centers on a Tokyo policeman who goes to London to bring home a murderer. While this may sound like a familiar storyline, our critic-at-large John Powers says the show is an offbeat original that kept him hooked from beginning to end.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the salad days of cable TV, Bruce Springsteen wrote an uncharacteristically flippant song called "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)." Three decades later, we're all singing a different tune. There's so much on TV that it's overwhelming. I sigh each time a friend tells me that I just got to watch some show that I've never even heard of. Feel free to start sighing because I'm about to do that to you. You've just got to watch "Giri/Haji," an entertaining BBC series that's been available on Netflix for a few weeks now but hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves.
Created and written by Joe Barton, "Giri/Haji" is a story of cultural cross-pollination. The show is in both English and subtitled Japanese that also cross-pollinates genres - mixing cop show, yakuza thriller, love story, anime and hokey family melodrama, all spiked with bits of offbeat comedy. "Giri/Haji" is unlike anything else on TV.
Takehiro Hira starts as Kenzo Mori, a Tokyo police detective who gets sent to London to bring back his brother Yuto, a Yakuza gang member played by ultra-handsome Yosuke Kubozuka from the Martin Scorsese film "Silence." Yuto murdered a rival yakuza boss' nephew in London, and if he's not returned to Japan, there will be a gang war. To hide his real mission in London, Kenzo pretends to take a criminology course taught by Sarah Weitzmann - that's Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald - a neurotically garrulous London cop. To penetrate the London underworld, Kenzo enlists the aid of Rodney Yamaguchi, a drug-addicted, half-Japanese rent boy, played with fast-talking panache by Will Sharpe. Kenzo's soon dealing with a slew of other characters, from an Afro-British female assassin to a wannabe yakuza thug who seems to have parachuted in from a Guy Ritchie movie.
Meanwhile, Kenzo's rebellious teenage daughter, Taki, has run away from home and flown to join her dad in London. As if that weren't enough, the show's teeming with other characters back in Tokyo. There's Kenzo's super-competent wife Rei, his withholding mom and dying father, his trustworthy partner, his slippery boss, a gangster's beautiful daughter, plus assorted yakuza who are preparing for war. They're all waiting for Kenzo to catch up with Yuto before he's arrested by the British cops, who have a CCTV photo of him at the murder scene.
Here, Sarah finds Kenzo napping in the corridor outside Rodney's flat and suggests that he knows more about the murder than he's letting on.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRI/HAJI")
KELLY MACDONALD: (As Sarah Weitzmann) So here's what I think. I think you know the man in the mug shot. I think you're looking for him. And I think he killed Saburo.
TAKEHIRO HIRA: (As Kenzo Mori) His name is Yuto. He's my brother.
MACDONALD: (As Sarah Weitzmann) You're close with your brother?
HIRA: (As Kenzo Mori) We were long ago, when we were not fighting. What are you going to do, Mrs. Weitzmann?
MACDONALD: (As Sarah Weitzmann) Sarah.
HIRA: (As Kenzo Mori) Sarah, what are you going to do about Yuto?
MACDONALD: (As Sarah Weitzmann) If we find Yuto, he'll be arrested. And if you try to obstruct that, you'll be arrested too.
HIRA: (As Kenzo Mori) And the fact that you know I'm his brother now?
MACDONALD: (As Sarah Weitzmann) I don't know.
POWERS: Often, when a TV show has scads of plot, what gets lost is our feeling for the characters, who feel like mere ciphers - not so here. Weirdly enough, given the show's weirdness, you find yourself caring about even secondary figures, actively hoping, for instance, that Kenzo's loyal partner won't get killed by the yakuza back in Tokyo. And you worry for Rodney, who, in Sharpe's terrific performance, goes from being an amusingly shallow street cynic to a young man floored by emotional pain.
In English, the words Giri and Haji mean duty and shame, respectively. These concepts are the poles between which all the show's characters move and which often seem to ensnare them, as Rei is trapped by her wifely dutifulness to Kenzo, who ignores her, or Yuto must deal with the shame he's brought on both his own family and his crime family. The characters most caught in this duty-shame thicket turn out to be our heroes. Kenzo seems crushed by the weight of constantly trying to fulfill his duty as a cop, a husband, a father and a brother when many of his deepest desires pull him in directions that he knows he should find shameful. As for the likable Sarah, she discovers that her sense of herself as a good, duty-obeying person may not be as true as she'd like to think.
Now, nobody would ever accuse "Giri/Haji" of Marie Kondo minimalism, and, in truth, its excesses can get a bit silly. But I didn't care, and I suspect you won't either. For as it leapfrogs in time and cuts between London and Tokyo, this is a show positively bursting with compelling scenes. Surprise deaths and illicit trysts, lopped-off fingers and snakes in mailboxes, yakuza gun battles, heartfelt confessions and a stunning rooftop finale that you will not be expecting - I guarantee it. Why, there's even a Yom Kippur dinner. Unabashedly overstuffed, "Giri/Haji" is one show that couldn't care less about the life-changing magic of tidying up.
BIANCULLI: Critic-at-large John Powers reviewed "Giri/Haji," now streaming on Netflix.
On Monday's show, our guests will be filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. Their Oscar-nominated documentary "American Factory" follows what happens when a Chinese glass manufacturer reopens a shuttered GM plant in Ohio. It's the first film distributed by the Obamas' new production company, Higher Ground. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOGGY CATS' "HAPPY DOG")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOGGY CATS' "HAPPY DOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.