Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Detective Three-fer for August: MOZU, SPEC, and Veronica Mars

As you may or may not have known, August was a very difficult month with the Filmi Girl clan. Three funerals for family and close family friends and both my father and grandfather were hospitalized. I haven’t particularly been in the mood to write or think about anything serious. The last person we lost has been the hardest. She was only 44 and always at the center of making plans for family to be together. Although one may think we “know” life can be random and unfair sometimes, it’s not always easy to process a loss. Perhaps that’s why detective stories can be so cathartic at times like this. Not so much the crime-and-punishment angle but the fantasy that everything has meaning, everything is a clue, everything is leading to some bigger picture.

In my funk during the last few weeks, without realizing it, I ended up watching three detective dramas: MOZU (2014), ケイゾク 2: SPEC (Keizoku 2: SPEC, 2010), and season 1 of Veronica Mars (2004-05). MOZU and SPEC are Japanese tv dramas, running respectively 14 and 10 episodes each. Season 1 of Veronica Mars is structured very similarly to a Japanese drama but runs the full American 22 episodes. Of the three, MOZU was the only one I hadn’t seen before. I’ve watched SPEC twice before and season 1 of Veronica Mars probably 4 or 5 times all the way through.

For those who haven’t seen it, and you should see it, season 1 of Veronica Mars tracks high school girl Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) as she tries to solve the mystery of her friend Lilly Kane’s (Amanda Seyfried) murder. As the series begins, we learn that Veronica’s private detective father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) used to be the town sheriff but was run out of office for accusing Lilly’s father Jake Kane (Kyle Secor) of being Lilly’s murderer. The whole town turned against the Mars family and Veronica is ostracized at school. Her boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn), Lilly’s brother, dumps her. Her mom runs off. Basically, when the first episode begins, it’s just Veronica and her dad against the world.

The catalyst that begins to open Veronica’s world again is her friendship with Wallace (Percy Daggs III). Veronica meets Wallace, a new kid at school, in the first episode when she cuts him down from the flagpole where he’d been strung up by some bullies. Wallace is an easy-going, open-hearted kind of guy and because he’s the new kid at school he can see Veronica exactly for who she is, unclouded by her reputation. As he puts it, would he rather hang with the kids who laughed at him up on the flagpole or the girl who cut him down? Through Wallace, Veronica begins to reconnect with the world around her. She makes friends, enemies, has a star-crossed romance with troubled bad boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)... but running underneath everything is this desire to know. What happened to her friend Lilly? Why did her mother run off? What made her ex-boyfriend dump her?

Veronica faces enormous obstacles. First of all, she a petite teenage girl and one who is painfully aware of the physical disadvantage that puts her in. She struggles to be taken seriously by those who would judge her by her perky blond looks. Veronica also has that innate, unwavering sense of fair and unfair that comes with youth. She frequently bumps up against the stupidities of the school bureaucracy, the cruelties of the police bureaucracy, as well as unspoken societal rules. Sometimes she wins and sometimes she loses but she never wavers in her quest for truth. She will find out what happened to Lilly Kane and when she does, everything will make sense, everything will be right in the world.

The main character of SPEC shares some similarities with Veronica Mars. Police Detective Toma Saya (Toda Erika) is a pretty, young woman who has been ostracized at work and by society for reasons still yet unclear as the series opens. Toma is working in the 未詳事件特別対策係 (Mishou Jiken Tokubetsu Taisaku Kei, the Unsolved Incident Special Countermeasures Division), a unit that consists of her and bumbling division chief Nomura (Ryu Raita). Much like Veronica, Toma has a sharp mind but no time or patience for the stupidities of bureaucracy or the rules of society. But Toma doesn’t have a father or a Wallace watching her back. She has an unwilling partner: Sebumi Takeru (Kase Ryo, you might have seen him in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima), an elite police special forces member who has been busted down to the Unsolved Incident Division after a mysterious incident on a high pressure crime scene sends one of his men into a coma.

When we first meet Toma, we see her through Sebumi’s eyes. She’s blunt to the point of rudeness, sloppily dressed, and smells like garlic thanks to her ravenous appetite for delicious gyoza. Her left arm is in a cast, an injury left over from a case that occurred before the series began. Sebumi, coming from the special forces, is painfully cleancut and earnest. His hair, his clothes, his attitude, his mind are kept militarily tidy. He finds Toma intolerable... until he realizes that she is just as passionate about solving crimes as he is.

The underlying story of SPEC involves a few different threads. There is the supernatural aspect to the “unsolved incidents” popping up. We learn there are people called “Spec Holders” who possess extraordinary powers. The power to read minds, to stop time, to tell the future. We meet the teenaged evil genius Ninomae (Kamiki Ryunosuke), who seems to bear a grudge against Toma for some reason. And Toma’s boyfriend-ish person Chi Satoshi (the slimy Shirota Yu), who she doesn’t even seem to like that much. What’s the deal with all these spec holders? Why does Ninomae hate Toma so much? What really happened to Toma’s arm? What happened that sent Sebumi’s man into a coma? Bit by bit, episode by episode, Toma and Sebumi piece the puzzle together and the conspiracy is both heartbreaking and horrific.

MOZU, the Japanese word for “shrike”, also known as butcher birds, has yet another quest for truth at its center. The series opens with a terrorist attack, a bombing at a shopping center that kills the wife of Public Security Bureau Agent Kuraki Naotake (Nishijima Hidetoshi). Obviously Kuraki cannot let this go unsolved, despite it not being under his jurisdiction, and he starts independently investigating the case. All very much to the chagrin of police detective Osugi Ryota (Kagawa Teruyuki), who has been assigned to the case. Both Osugi and Kuraki track down the icy Public Security Bureau Agent Akeboshi Miki (Maki Yoko), who just-so-happened to be on the scene of the bombing. Why? And why was Kuraki’s wife--who we discover was also a Public Security Bureau Agent--on the scene? How does sleazy businessman Higashi Kazuo (the fabulous Hasegawa Hiroki, you might remember him from Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell) fit in? Who is the mysterious amnesiac (Ikematsu Sosuke) discovered miles from the wreckage? And why is Dharma, a creepy bald-headed man, showing up in everyone’s nightmares?

Kuraki, Osugi, and Akeboshi, eventually begin to trust each other (somewhat) and form something of a rag-tag team of misfits, operating outside of police bureaucracy and societal constraint. Kuraki, formerly an elite cog in society, has had his family and status ripped from him. He’s forced outside. Osugi, much like Veronica’s father Keith, is a working class beat detective who is unable to compromise his sense of justice in exchange for an easy life. His personality drives him outside. And then there is Akeboshi. A 30-ish, single, career woman has long been on the outside the “normal” world simply because of her gender. Japan’s society, much like the United States and other countries with rigid gender roles, doesn’t quite know how to handle women who care more about truth and justice than romance and family.

Oddly enough, although the three form a team, it’s Osugi and Akeboshi who become friends as Kuraki, the former elite, spins more and more out of control in his pursuit of the truth.

Every mystery solved in MOZU leads to yet more questions. The truth is complicated and very rarely does it actually answer, “WHY.” The most we can ever really hope to learn is, “how.”

And, in the end, just like in life, “the truth,” is a red herring, a MacGuffin. The pleasure in any detective story isn’t the final answer but in the pleasure taken in the quest itself, in the relationships made along the way, in the humor and love found in dark situations.

What drew me into these three shows was the female leads. Veronica Mars, Toma Saya, and Akeboshi Miki. All three women are tough, smart, and willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe is right. All three women suffered a loss and are working day-by-day to get through it the best that they can. Despite the dark mysteries in play, what makes these detective stories so compelling are there are light moments.

There’s friendship. Veronica and Wallace watching boxing on pay-per-view. Toma and Sebumi scarfing down piles of gyoza at her favorite restaurant. Akeboshi taking Osugi’s daughter out for coffee and advice.

There’s absurdity. Veronica disguising herself as “Betty from Riverdale.” The weirdness of the spec holders, like a dreadlocked fortune teller whose powers are activated by eating lemons and reciting a string of nonsense syllables. And MOZU’s absurd plot (a mystery man haunting nightmares?!) is set off against delightful real life awkwardness. There’s a scene early on where Osugi is trying to get information out of Akeboshi and he just follows her into the women’s bathroom without really thinking about it. She blows him off by going into a stall to do her business and Osugi kind of backs out sheepishly but as he’s leaving another woman is about to enter and the camera catches her doing a doubletake at the sign on the door. Very subtle but still there. It was a wonderful beat.

Too often critics will focus on “plotting” or “originality” when looking at a show, especially a detective show. Tropes, tropes, tropes. Everything always seems to revolve around playing against tropes or playing with tropes or some other post-postmodern bullshit. But people engage with media for many, many different reasons. If we all thought like critics, we’d all be watching “comedies” that aren’t actually funny, “universal” dramas about upper middleclass white manboy problems and/or “thought provoking” dramas about non-upper middleclass white manboys, and care deeply about “originality” for originality’s sake. But we’re not all critics. Some of us turn to a show we’ve seen a billion times already in order to spend some time with characters we love. To take comfort in a storyline that we’ve already seen play out to its conclusion. To just relax and enjoy a little time away from our own lives in a story where there is an answer. Where there is an underlying truth to be found.

I don’t know if people will be able to find SPEC and MOZU but I do recommend both. The existing fan subtitles for SPEC are a little shaky at times but mostly serviceable. (The translator didn’t always get the slang, especially Osaka slang, and wordplay.) The existing fan subtitles for MOZU are pretty good though. There is a MOZU movie coming out later this year that will wrap up the series and it looks killer... pardon the pun.

And the trailer for the SPEC movie.

Honestly, I think both dramas would play great on Netflix. I’d love to see Netflix or some other platform pick up some of these Japanese dramas with English subtitles. There are some fantastic stories being made there but, alas, most of what makes it out to the international market is nerd-tastic anime and self-serious “world cinema.”

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