John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Multifaceted 'Giri/Haji' is a crime series — and much more

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 'GIRI/HAJI' (NETFLIX)

On its surface, "Giri/Haji" could be described as a crime series, but to leave it there would be doing it a huge disservice. A lot of the events have to do with crime, since, after all, it is about a Tokyo police detective, who follows his Yakuza brother to London, but that's only partially the concern of series creator and writer Joe Barton. The crime isn't just a conceit, but Barton is skilled enough to use his main thread to introduce numerous other strands throughout the eight parts that take his story deeper in conceptual and philosophical terms, as well as in the beautiful regions of basic human drama.

One of Barton's concerns is cause and effect, and one of the effects he portrays as developing from the initial crime is the fates of various people becoming intertwined. Some of the people are family, others develop connections so quickly that they feel like family to each other. Still, others never even meet, although their fates are linked. And some, like members of the Yakuza, affect a code that pulls from the idea of family with strict and dire consequences.

Igniting the flame is the murder of a Yakuza boss' nephew in London. In an effort between the reigning Yakuza boss and a police official, Detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is sent to London to bring back the culprit — his brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), who was believed to be dead. Arriving undercover as a mild-mannered police detective attending a class taught by British police detective Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly Macdonald), Mori attempts to juggle his roles in an alien setting, including that of family man despite having to leave his troubled teenage daughter Taki (Aoi Okuyama), unhappy wife Rei (Yuko Nakamura), and brow-beating mother Natsuko (Mitsuko Oka) to deal with his dying father.

One thing Kenzo requires in London is someone to help him make contact with the underworld there and he enlists drug-addicted rent boy Rodney (Will Sharpe) for that purpose. Rodney's able to give him the access he seeks, but Kenzo soon discovers that you don't just pass in and out of Rodney's life casually. As Rodney becomes a reoccurring fixture in Kenzo's plans, numerous others become wrapped around Kenzo's central mission as well, some hesitant, some unexpected and all building connections between them, even as events in Japan begin to directly affect his mission in London, bouncing back and forth, and even pushing Kenzo's family closer to the outer edges of the predicament.

The most consistent aspect of "Giri/Haji" is its refusal to be one thing for too long, and its tones are as varied as the cast of characters it stirs into its plot — one moment a tense action thriller, the next a heart-wrenching family drama, then morphing into a hilarious caper comedy and onto a mob-focused suspense tale, with each character finding their way in these moments to reveal different parts of themselves. It's masterful fiction writing with an element of orchestration that isn't gimmicky at all — instead it enriches the experience and especially the characters, who quickly transcend their assigned roles as television characters and becoming something more full and alive, people with whom you experience these events alongside.

"Giri/Haji" is partly a meditation on what defines a family and it doesn't skirt away from the failures of family. In fact, it places a direct connection between that failure and the destructive ways in which humans seek to replace it through other means. But it refuses to be an indictment of these relationships, only the destructive aspects of them, and advocates for some kind of kindness and understanding across the lines where typically there would only be animosity.

"Giri/Haji" captures the richness of the human experience without being precious, without ignoring the dark parts, and without pretending that horrible and funny cannot co-exist. It's both a roller coaster ride and a contemplative quiet moment, with each aspect strengthening the impact of the other.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me

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