Sunday, September 15, 2013

Partners in Crime

Life is a game, so take your chance
And play your hand, you just might win
You never know

Reviews of novels will probably resume this week... as soon as I manage to finish the one I'm reading now. 

Aibou ("Partners") is a popular police TV drama which has been running for over ten years. What started as a series of special episodes in 2000, has now grown out to be multimedia franchise, with 11 seasons (the 12th season is to start in October), several films, videogames and spin-off series. And yet, to me it was for a long time just 'the series with the awesome theme song'. It was just too long and while I occassionally watched an episode, I never really felt the need to really follow the show because of its length. But last year's Aibou Eleven offered a nice entry point, so I finally got to see what made this show so popular.

Within the depths of the Metropolitan Police Department (Tokyo), situated in a little office, is the Special Order Unit (tokumeikakari), headed by police inspector Sugishita Ukyou. Sugishita is a highly intelligent and competent detective, but because he 'doesn't play the game right', the higher-ups have basically placed him somewhere away from the action. Management also uses the Special Order Unit as a place to banish unwanted police officers to: with Sugishita not always the easiest man to work with, and hardly anything to do for the Special Order Unit, they figure that anyone placed there will quit the job on their own. At the start of the series, six people have been known to have quit the force because they were placed in "The Lone Isle of the Police Department", with 'loose cannon' Kameyama Kaoru the first 'partner' to have been able to work with Sugishita for a long time (hence the title Aibou ("Partners")). Kameyama worked for many seasons with Sugishita and was replaced with the career policeman Kanbe Takeru as the 'second partner'. Kanbe was eventually placed back in the National Police Agency, leaving Sugishita without a partner.

Which made Aibou Eleven a good time to step into the series, as it introduces the world to Sugishita Ukyou's new partner in the Special Order Unit. Kai Tooru (nickname Kaito) is a newly promoted detective who gets picked by Sugishita as his new subordinate, after they manage to solve a hostage crisis in the embassy of Japan in Hong Kong together. Kai's estranged father happens to be the newly appointed Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency, who tries his best at getting his son out of the force; he figures that his son won't last long in the Special Order Unit anyway. And indeed, Kaito at first cheated for being placed in the Special Order Unit, as he wanted to go to the Homicide Division. But he soon finds out what Sugishita does here, and why it's called the Special Order Unit. As Sugishita interprets his own unit: 'if there's a special order, the unit will do it', and more importantly, 'unless there's a special order, the unit is free to investigate whatever it wants'. And so we follow Sugishita and Kaito as they stick their noses in a variety of criminal cases and solve them.

And I have to say, I regret I haven't followed this series before, because it was surprisingly fun. At it's core, Aibou Eleven is a buddy-cop drama mixed with puzzle plots, with gentleman detective Sugishita as our masterdetective and Kaito as the viewer-proxy. But it is the variety of plots that made Aibou Eleven really worth watching and I feel tempted now to look for the previous ten seasons now.

As you can probably figure from the introduction above, Aibou in general is a police drama that focuses a lot on the functioning of the police. Like with series as Odoru Daisousasen, you'll learn a lot about the organizational structure of the Japanese police and the internal politics. A lot of the stories are tied to both local and national politics, and in general feels close to the shakai-ha (socially concious mysteries) promoted by Matsumoto Seichou, because they function as a critique on the workings (and resulting corruption) or large-scale organizations. The pilot episode of  Aibou Eleven for example, deals with international politics and diplomatics, as the National Police Agency isn't sure how to react to a hostage situation in the Embassy of Japan in Hong Kong, while other stories deal with the illegal act of amakudari ("descent from the heaven", high government officals quitting their job to work at a company in the sector they governed). Other contemporary social problems, like the sale of identities or the use social media are addressed in this season.

But it's the way these 'grand schemes' are used as a background for more traditional, puzzle plots that make a lot of Aibou Eleven's episodes great to watch. A lot of the problems described above might seem faraway from home, but the way these plots manage to make this social problems relevant, and yet not overshadow the importance of a puzzle plot is, at the best of times, fantastic. The first episode, the hostage sitation in the embassy for example, is in its core actually a 'normal' whodunnit murder mystery. I have to admit that sometimes it feels a bit forced, but overall this is a format I have learned to enjoy.

And not all stories are related to politics anyway. There are some 'normal' murder cases that Sugishita and Kaito get involved with. Because of Sugishita's rank, reputation and the free time the Special Order Unit has, the duo can basically investigate a lot freely, which leads to a variety of cases introduced in the series, from the above mentioned large plots to small-scale murder mysteries. As such, the series probably has something to offer to most mystery fans.

And Sugishita Ukyou himself is an interesting character. He's basically the opposite of Columbo, always dressed as a gentleman, knowledgeable about basically everything, head of his own (very, very small) unit. And whereas police detective like Columbo and Furuhata Ninzaburou work by haunting the suspect and catching them on little slips of the tongue, Sugishita works much more like a 'conventional' police detective. He is basically what happens when you put the archetype of a great detective in the police. It's a bit strange, as I am more used to the 'hard-working' type of police detective in this kind of mystery fiction, but it works and coupled with a partner, very fun to watch. He does share a 'Oh, one more thing please' as a catchphrase with Columbo though!

Oh, and the fact that Kaito's father as Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency is actually behind a lot of the high-class plots and schemes is interesting for the drama (as it puts the Special Order Unit against Kaito's father), but the fact that Ishikawa Kouji is playing him is pretty funny, as he himself played great detective Kindaichi Kousuke in the Ichikawa Kon movies

Anyway, Aibou Eleven was a fun series and made me much more curious to the rest of the series, as well as the upcoming Aibou Twelve. And strangely enough, this year's Detective Conan movie, Private Eye in the Distant Sea. The scriptwriter of that movie is actually mostly known for his work on Aibou and it would be interesting to see how the Aibou flavor works in conjuction with Conan!

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒 Eleven』

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