Danger. Do not mix.
As always, I only started watching the 2015-2016 season of Aibou after the 2016-2017 season started. I really always forget about this series until a new season starts...
Aibou ("Partners") series
The long-running series Aibou ("Partners") has been the police procedural on Japanese television for over a decade now. The series started in 2000 and details the adventures of Sugishita Ukyou, an eccentric, but brilliant police inspector in charge of the Special Order Unit within the Metropolitan Police Department. This might sound like an important function within the police organization, but Sugishita has in fact been put there because the higher-ups deem him too troublesome: while everyone knows Sugishita is in possession of an amazing mind, they also know his sense of justice is unbendable, and that he will never play along with the political games going on within the police organization. The SOU exists solely to keep Sugishita close by in case they do need him. Management also sends troublesome officers to the SOU: the combination of the peculiar Sugishita, and the fact that the unit has no investigative authority whatsover and is very seldom given an assignment (usually in the spirit of 'Return evidence to next of kin'), is usually enough to make those unwanted officers quit the force on themselves. But once in a while, Sugishita finds an understanding partner (hence the title Partners). The official purpose of the Special Order Unit is to undertake special tasks, but Sugishita interprets the meaning of his two-man unit as 'Unless there is a special order not to, they're free to do whatever they want', and so Sugishita often invites himself, together with his partner, to investigations of interesting cases.
In the finale of the thirteenth season of Aibou, Sugishita's third partner Kaito had to leave the SOU, and Sugishita was forced to take extended time off. Aibou 14, which ran from October 2015 until March 2016, starts off with Sugishita's return to Japan. He's surprised to find a guest has been using the SOU office during his long absence: Kaburagi Wataru is a young bureaucrat in the Ministry of Justice, and protégé of the Administrative Vice-Minister of Justice. Kaburagi has chosen to pass some time at the Metropolitan Police Department as a step in his career. Police management sees Kaburagi as simply a guest from the Ministry of Justice (or even a spy), and as Kaburagi does not participate with police investigations in general, he usually spends his free time in the SOU office. While the two realize they have very little in common in terms of personality and habits, Sugishita and Kaburagi do work together to solve a murder case that happened within a prison, and as expected from this series, the reaction of the mix between these two men leads to surprising results.
This is the fourth time I've written an Aibou review, and I have to admit, it's getting more difficult. At the core, the series seldom really surprises in term of structure. As always, the series is a fairly diverse police procedural with a distinct social school background. Crimes in this series are almost always a result of some social injustice either happening in the 'normal' society, or in the society at the level of government organzations and the politics that drive them. Often, an Aibou episode has two 'levels': one is a personal crime, which is a result of some bigger social problem. While crimes of the first part are of course always solved (it is a police procedural), often episodes end with a darker tone as we see how underlying social and political problems still go on as always. That said though, Aibou can definitely do a lot with this formula. Some episodes will focus more on the human drama, while others are pure puzzle plot mysteries. Episodes with old-fashioned locked room murders are followed by episodes providing sharp commentary on the status of the foreign labor force. Every week is basically a surprise, as you never really know what's coming.
I am not going to discuss each of the twenty episodes in this season (of which three are feature-length specials), so like with the previous season reviews, I'll just briefly address some of the highlights. What stood out was that this season had quite a number of episodes with a supernatural hook. The first episode, Frankenstein's Confession, is about an urban legend going in a prison: a guard is killed by a prisoner, who claims he was told to do so by the voice of an infamous, but deceased previous inhabitant of the facility. Episode 7, A Strange Tale of a Kimono, is about a spooky message found written inside a second-hand kimono. While the mystery is rather easy, it's a good example of the type of mystery Aibou can also do, as it's not really a story about a crime (even though this is a police procedural). Episode 8, The Miracle of the Last Installment, starts with the murder on a publisher. However, at the same time the murder happened, a comic artist working for the publisher was working on the last installment of her series, and the panels she drew were exactly like the crime scene. Sugishita and Kaburagi investigation in this premonition comic is one of the more entertaining episodes. Other episodes with supernatural touch include the two-parter The Mountain That Spirits People Away. Episode 5, 2045, strangely enough deals with the opposite of the supernatural, as it's about a complex AI which can analyze crime scene data to arrive at a conclusion on its own.
The social school background of the series can be found in its portrayal of the theme of a current topic like terrorism in both the mid-season special (Heroes ~ Those With Sins) and the final episode (Last Case). The mid-season special focuses on a bomb terrorist who made a deal with the Ministry of Justice in the past, but has now started activities again, while the finale starts off with a class of cops-in-training being brutally shot by a fellow student during their shooting range at the academy, revealing himself to be part of a terrorist group targeting not the common people, but the authorities, specifically the ministers. The plot mixes up grand scale terrorism with a pretty neat puzzle plot.
The standout episode of this season is episode 17: A Physicist and his Cat. The episode starts simple enough, when Sugishita and Kaburagi visit a university to return the personal belongings of a professor who died during an experiment gone wrong, but the way the story develops is really a fantastic surprise.I'd say that the use of Schrödinger's cat in this episode was brilliant, resulting in a unique story that might not be overly complex in terms of a mystery plot, but incredibly memorable nonetheless.
Like in each season, regular and semi-regular characters also get a couple of character-focused episodes. Jinkawa, a police officer who has the habit of falling really easily in love with persons who usually turns out to be the murderer, for example usually shows up once every season. His episode was a very human-drama based episode and can be quite surprising. The forensic investigator Yonezawa on the other hand, a regular who was popular enough to get his own spin-off film, says goodbye in the final episode of this season, as he leaves the crime scene to educate a new generation at the police academy.
Overall though, I have to admit this season on the whole did not feel as strong as previous series. It fet like there were fewer traditional puzzle plot episodes this season, and the couple episodes that were featured, were not especially strong.
I did like the new partner Kaburagi though. Unlike the previous three partners, Kaburagi is not a policeman, so he falls outside the usual line of command. In fact, he is often very critical of how the police, and as a high-ranking beaurocrat, he actually has a fair amount of pull here and there through his many acquaintances. He might be the partner with the most authority until now. He is also portrayed as the opposite of Sugishita in many ways (Sugishita is a tea-drinker, while Kaburagi is a coffee expert. Both hate being passengers in the other's car, etc.) What makes Kaburagi especially interesting as a partner is that he visibly enjoys seeing Sugishita solving crimes in his own unique way, and even obstructs police investigation in order to clear the way for Sugishita.
But in short, Aibou 14 is basically same old, same old. The new partner does bring a new dynamic to the series (this season also featured more dealings with the Ministry of Justice than previous seasons), but at the core, Aibou remains an amusing police procedural that can surprise the reader each time by taking on a different form. This particular season does feel a bit weak in terms of really impressive episodes, but taken on the whole, I thought it was an entertaining series. Season 15 started last week by the way, which has Kaburagi joining the police force officially, so that could shake things up again. And it's very likely I'll be reviewing that series in about a year, when Aibou 16 starts.
Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒14』