Joe Barton

Giri/Haji

15/04/20

Netflix

The lockdown continues and we’re scratching around for new sources of entertainment. We don’t usually review television series, but a vague tip-off via Facebook alerts us to this strange hybrid, a compelling blend of Tokyo/London crime-thriller/character drama. It failed to connect with large audiences on its initial release, but is now available to watch on Netflix.

Maybe the title doesn’t help. Giri/Haji (which translates as the dull-sounding Duty/Shame) also boasts subtitles for much of its content and, as we all know, that can be enough to frighten off large sections of the viewing public. But here’s the rub. Giri/Haji is one of the best TV series we’ve seen in a very long time, and we’re soon hooked, bingeing on all eight episodes in just a few days.

The action begins in Tokyo, where world-weary Detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is horrified to learn that a recent Yakuza-style killing in London may have been perpetrated by his younger brother, Yuto (Yōsuke Kubozuka), missing-presumed-dead after some misadventures in his home city. The murder victim is the nephew of a powerful Yakuza leader and the ensuing fallout threatens to cause a war between the different factions of Tokyo’s organised crime network.

Kenzo is dispatched to London to find his brother, but soon falls into the orbit of lonely detective, Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly McDonald), who is ostracised from her colleagues. Then Kenzo’s troubled teenage daughter, Taki (Aoi Okuyama), follows him to London and… you know what? It’s pointless to say much more about the plot because it’s very complicated and will probably put off as many people as it entices. But let me assure you, over eight episodes, everything ties together beautifully.

What Giri/Haji has to offer in abundance is a whole bunch of surprises, incidents you really won’t see coming. Writer Joe Barton clearly delights in pulling the rug from under his viewers’ feet, something he does with considerable skill. You thought the details on a  character were a bit sketchy? Well, hang on, in a later episode, there’ll be a deep dive that will take you back for a more in-depth look at him/her. You thought you had that other character well and truly nailed? Think again!

The other unexpected delight is how funny much of this is. Take Soho-based rent boy, Rodney (Will Sharpe), for instance, who can’t seem to open his mouth without unleashing an onslaught of invective-littered hilarity. Likewise, hardened criminal Abbot (Charlie Creed Miles) somehow manages to generate genuine threat whilst effortlessly dispensing corking one-liners. Even minor characters, people we only see once, for goodness sake, are gifted with fabulous lines of dialogue. And don’t go thinking that this is just a chuckle-fest, because the next thing you know, a Yakuza is being made to chop off one of his own fingers in unflinching detail.

There’s much more to commend this series: the animated introductions, the clever allusions to the way in which seemingly unconnected events can impact on each other, even when they happen thousands of miles apart and, in the final episode, a high action shoot-out that eerily metamorphoses into a Frantic Assembly-style dance number without pausing to take a breath. It’s a dangerous, audacious gambit that probably shouldn’t work – but absolutely does, big time.

For whatever reason it first failed to find its audience, Giri/Haji is right there, right now, ready to be explored at the touch of a button. If you’re too late for iPlayer, it will be on Netflix from Friday. Let’s face it, in the current situation, we can’t really argue that we haven’t got time…can we?

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ritual

07/04/19

We missed this at the cinema – not difficult to do, since it had a blink-and-miss-it release – but we saw the trailer and thought it looked promising. But The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner and based on a novel by Joe Barton and Adam Neville, is now happily located on Netflix. It starts well enough, exerting a steadily mounting Blair Witch-style sense of dread, but eventually loses its way.

At the film’s opening, Luke (Rafe Spall) is out with his mates on the town. They are Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton) and Robert (Paul Reid). Luke’s mates are all showing troubling signs of growing up. They don’t want to stay out on the lash and are discussing plans for their upcoming holiday together, which – instead of the usual booze up in a hot climate – is shaping up to be a hiking trip in a remote part of Sweden. Luke persuades Robert to go into a off-licence with him to purchase a bottle of vodka and the two of them chance upon an armed robbery in progress. Luke ducks behind some shelves and Robert winds up bloodily murdered.

Six months later, Luke and the rest of the band find themselves embarking on the long hike that Robert was so keen to do – but Luke is haunted by the fact that he failed to help his friend and is also aware that the others think less of him for not stepping up when push came to shove. The group soon become lost in dense forests and, when a violent rain storm hits them, they take refuge in an old shack for the night, where things turn decidedly scary.

Now they have to continue their trek, horribly aware that they are being pursued by something unseen, something that has a nasty habit of leaving dead animals hanging in trees…

The first two thirds of the film are really rather effective. The edgy interplay between the characters is convincingly written and the terrifying foe is a powerful concept as long as it remains pretty much unseen, which it does for about an hour. But the final section squanders all of that hard-earned suspense by offering a convoluted explanation that feels distinctly risible. It’s not helped that the effect sequences that finally show the marauding beast are rather less than convincing.

Also, there’s something strangely skewed about the logic of this tale. Luke badly needs some redemption but, as it stands, he doesn’t really get any; he just finds himself plunged into a desperate struggle for survival. And I’m desperately struggling to care.

A shame, because this could be a decent little chiller. Instead it feels more like a great big missed opportunity.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney