Trying to genre-fy Giri/Haji (2019) is futile. The eight-episode series manages to be a neo-noir, a coming-of-age, a yakuza thriller, a violent cop-drama, and a character study––all at once. Set in two metropolises, Tokyo and London, the show skips from place to place and time to time. With a maximalist spirit, Giri/Haji designs these jumps with ease, making for a visually and structurally ambitious ride that excites and emotes.
Even the plot is hard to encapsulate for it takes so many dips and turns, though it could be described as a drama centered around one family. Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is a detective living in Tokyo with his wife Rei (Yūko Nakamura), sixteen year-old daughter Taki (Aoi Okuyama), and parents Natsuko (Mitsuko Oka) and Hotaka (Togo Igawa). The murder of a yakuza boss’ nephew spirals into the imminent threat of a full-blown gang war in Tokyo.
Kenzo discovers that his brother Yuto (Yōsuke Kubozuka), ex-yakuza presumed dead, is still alive––and is likely responsible for the murder. Traveling to London on his trail, Kenzo navigates the conflicts between his sense of duty and his shame, re-evaluating his brotherhood and embarking on new relationships with Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly Macdonald) and Rodney Yamaguchi (Will Sharpe).
Though Kenzo could be perceived as the “main character”, the women of the show shine through. Taki flees Japan to join her father in London, where she experiences self-discovery. Back in Japan, on the flee from yakuza, her mother Rei, grandmother Natsuko and newly rescued Eiko, Yuto’s partner and mother of their child, enter a road trip full of emotional revelation.
Giri/Haji’s character driven narrative delights, but what is most exciting are the visual strategies it uses to tell the story. Among the shows’ jumps in time and space are a variety of shifts in aspect ratio, cutting from the standard television 16:9 to a rare 29:11 or a classic TV ratio of 4:3. Flashback scenes often take on these non-standard framings, the show building its own unique filmic language. Other visual interludes play with color, using black-and-white, or with speed, using slo-motion with rapid camera movement for a step-printing-like effect.
The show adapts other visual arts, namely animation and even modern dance, solidifying its experimentality. A man tells Kenzo the tale of a yakuza (likely his brother Yuto), narrating moving watercolor-like paintings, with soft-edges and sepia-undertones. Every episode that succeeds the pilot begins with an animated recap: previously shown images are rendered into drawings and accompanied with dramatic narration, resulting in what feels like a reading of a short picture book. Towards the end of the series is a three-minute dance sequence in black-and-white, classical music as a soundtrack. While it may seem unusual, the sequence works seamlessly, as its very ethos is in tune with the series’ close attention to its characters’ emotional development. These creative measures, much more common to film, flourish in this mini-series format.
* Giri/Haji is available to stream on Netflix.
Cremona, Patrick. “BBC Two crime thriller Giri/Haji has been a breath of fresh air – and one of the best shows of the year.” RadioTimes, 10 January 2020, https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2020-01-10/giri-haji-review/. Accessed 12 November 2020.
Philipps, Brian. “Netflix’s ‘Giri/Haji’ Is a Genre-Bending Thriller With Wildly Elaborate Plans.” The Ringer, 13 February 2020, https://www.theringer.com/tv/2020/2/13/21135881/giri-haji-netflix. Accessed 12 November 2020.
Powers, John. “’Giri/Haji’ Is A Story Of Cultural Cross Pollination Unlike Anything Else On TV.” NPR, 31 January 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/31/801563128/giri-haji-is-a-story-of-cultural-cross-pollination-unlike-anything-else-on-tv. Accessed 12 November 2020.