"One more last thing. A box of chocolate..."
'And there she went."
"I should ask the things I want to ask first, not last"
One of the biggest surprises I came across while playing Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer (Nintendo 3DS) was an office that was decorated as the set of the TV-series Aibou. It was a brilliant reproduction of the Special Order Unit office and the office of forensics, complete with room for the cameras to actually shoot a scene. Happy Home Designer is great fun, by the way.
Aibou ("Partners") series
Tucked away in the corner of the Organized Crime Department of the Metropolitan Police Department, is the tiny office of the Special Order Unit, with room for two. The head of the Special Order Unit is Sugishita Ukyou, a gifted police inspector with a great sense of justice, but deemed dangerous by the people in the upper ranks because he doesn't play the political game along. Yet, they recognize his brain and talent to turn poltical bureaucracy to his own advantage, which is why they decided to put him close by in the SOU, but still faraway from the everyday goings of the MPO. The Special Order Unit has no investigative authority and it is rare for special orders to come, so Sugishita has now defined his unit as follows: if there is a special order, they will follow it. And unless there is a special order, the unit is free to do whatever it wants. The adventures of Sugishita and his subordinate have been a favorite on Japanese television ever since the TV series Aibou ("Partners") started in 2000, and by now it has become a big franchise that consists of 13 seasons (the 14th is being broadcast right now), three theatrical films and a lot of spin-off material like mini-series, novels and games.
I started watching the series with Aibou Eleven, the eleventh season which introduced Sugishita's third partner in the history of the series: Kai Tooru, estranged son of the current Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency. Like with Doctor Who, I figured it'd be best to jump in with a change in the main cast and I enjoyed the series a lot. Today's review is about Aibou 13, the 13th season of the series and also the last season to feature Kai Tooru (the currently running Aibou 14 features a new partner). And yes, I know I'm about a half year late with this review. The same thing happened with Aibou 12 actually: I forget to watch the series and just when a new season starts, I remember I have to watch the previous season. Anyway, Aibou 13 ran from October 2014 until March 2015 and consists of 19 episodes, three of them being film-length TV specials.
It's always difficult to think of what to write with reviews for a whole Aibou season. It's not really practical, nor interesting if I write something short on all 19 episodes, but there's also little I can say about the series in general I haven't done already. Looking at the series broadly, one should classify it as a police procedural in the social school of mystery fiction. Many of the episodes are socially conscious and focus on problems in both 'the normal' society as well in large (government) organizations and the underlying politics. Season 13 is definitely a bit tamer than the previous two seasons, which featured stories on the international implications of a hostage situation in an embassy, protocol in hostage situations in general, and a story asking why Japan has no real witness protection program. But despite being a bit 'lighter' than the previous two seasons, the series is still firmly based on the social school. Side Story (episode 9) for example looks at the influence of mass media in portraying people: a nurse has been killed and the mass media basically attack her for working in the "entertainment" sector to pay for her studies and imply she had it coming. The Last Confession (episode 5) in turn looks at the deals police/prosecution are allowed to make with suspects.
Yet, Aibou also has enough room for other types of mystery. The 'beauty' of the concept of the Special Order Unit is that Sugishita and Tooru can appear in different kinds of story each episode. Those Who Can't Be Forgiven (episode 3) definitely has a social school angle, but is also a kind of a locked room mystery, as no camera managed to capture the murderer entering the victim's apartment building. Best Day of My Life (episode 13) has Sugishita meet with a suspicious woman completely coincidentally and the episode brings a heartwarming, and often hilarious story in the spirit of an everyday life mystery, something a real, serious police drama could never present. There are also episodes that focus on the extended main cast, like Yonezawa Mamoru's Final Farewell (episode 11), that focuses on the forensic investigator who appears in pretty much every episode.
A lot of Aibou episodes consist of two interrelated 'levels' in crime. Usually there is a big, social problem that lies at the heart of the mystery which involves 'big' organizations or other groups. And this is usually tied to a smaller story: partly to make the 'large' problem more accessible, partly because at the end of the story, Sugishita needs to arrest somebody to end the episode and while he is a gifted policeman, he can't solve a large scale social problem in one episode, only a smaller-scale crime that is born from the bigger problem.
It's a bit of a shame Aibou seasons aren't conceived with some sort of running storyline or theme, because often a season feels like a random collection of stories. I have a feeling that season 13 does feature a lot of stories about the parent-child bond: I already mentioned The Last Confession (episode 5), Side Story (episode 9) and Yonezawa Mamoru's Final Farewell (episode 11), but Learning Class (episode 12, about a murder on a professor), Thistle (episode 14, on a murder in the past and present) and Professor Ayukawa's Final Lesson (episodes 15-16, on an old professor of Sugishita's who wants to know why it's wrong to murder) all also focus a lot on parent-child relations. I don't remember the specifics of the episodes in earlier episodes, but I wonder if it's been like that ever since Kai Tooru became Sugishita's partner, as the series also looks a lot at Toorus' relation with his father.
Aibou 13 ends with Dark Knight, which is also the end of the cooperation between Sugishita and Kai Tooru as the titular partners, which lasted for three years / seasons. I have to say I was kinda surprised when I heard the news that the character would leave the series, but I gather that even the production team was surprised by the news. I'm pretty sure that it was only decided at a very late stage of filming the season that the character of Kai Tooru would be written out of the series, because this episode came out of nowhere. I won't go into details, but it basically portrays Kai Tooru quite differently from how he's acted in all the episodes before, all to justify his character leaving Sugishita's side. The concept of the episode might've worked if they had at least used the entire season to build to this conclusion, but now I could do was wondering why nobody noticed how out of character Tooru was compared to everything up to this point.
The series ends with Sugishita leaving Japan for a forced vacation, and it's kinda weird to see him alone. The series isn't titled "partners" for nothing. As a character, Sugishita is basically the great detective merged with the perfect policeman. Like Sherlock Holmes, Sugishita has a great mind that can uncover the most vile of machinations, but unlike Holmes, Sugishita will always work within the law and while he knows the law, and the bureaucracy needed to uphold the law, isn't perfect, he will do everything to keep justice in a lawful manner. But like many great detectives, he does need a 'normal' partner with him to really shine. As a character on his own, he's just too far away for the 'normal' viewer.
Overall, I think Aibou 13 was a fairly okay season, though it lacks the politically heavy stories that were (surprisingly) the highlights in the previous two seasons I watched. And as I usually prefer 'simple' puzzle plots, that says a lot about the quality of that sort of stories in Aibou. I do have the feeling that the latter half of the series was a bit weaker (Professor Ayukawa's Final Lesson and especially Dark Knight) and it results in a bad aftertaste of the series. Of the three seasons starring Kai Tooru as the partner, this may be the least impressive overall. And I have no idea when/if I'll review Aibou 14. I'll probably forget about watching the series and now binge-watch it next year, when Aibou 15 has started
Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒１３』