Sunday, March 26, 2017

Grand Deceptions

Life is a game
So take the chance
And play your hand
You might just win
You never know
『相棒 Season 7のテーマ』
 ("Theme of Partners Season 7")

I'm not a big binge-watcher in general, but I'm also very bad at watching the shows I watch each week/whatever schedule the follow. In short: I am just bad at watching TV shows...

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12
Aibou 13
Aibou 14 

Aibou 15

In the fourteenth season of the long-running police procedural TV drama Aibou ("Partners"), we were introduced to Kaburagi Wataru, a bureaucrat with a golden future in the Ministry of Justice who got temporarily assigned to the Metropolitan Police Department. There he made acquaintance with Sugishita Ukyou and the Special Orders Unit. Sugishita is an eccentric, but brilliant policeman who believes in justice rather than in playing political games. The SOU, which technically can't do anything without a formal order, exists especially to keep Sugishita away from normal police business, but Sugishita will stick his nose in any case that interests him. Kaburagi supported Sugishita as his partner throughout the fourteenth season and made a career change in the season finale, so at the start of Aibou 15 ("Partners 15", 2016-2017), we find Kaburagi trying to adapt to his transformation from high-ranking government official to rookie police sergeant as he and Sugishita take on new cases to solve.

Being timely with an Aibou season review is a first for this blog! Usually I only watch a series once a new season has started (each October), but this season was the first time I actually watched it more-or-less real-time. The fifteenth season ran from October 2016 to March 2017, and was also accompanied by the fourth theatrical release of the series in February 2017 (which I haven't seen, though the two-parter of this season ties in lightly with the movie it appears).

What hasn't changed much however is the formula of the Aibou series. Once again, this 18-episode long season (of which three episodes are feature-length specials) presents a fairly diverse police procedural with a distinct tone of social ommentary. That means that the crimes in this series are almost always a result of some social injustice either happening in the 'normal' society, or in 'high' society, at the level of government organizations and the politics that drive them. As an result, the average Aibou episode is basically built around two 'cores': one is a personal crime, which in turn is then shown to be connected to some bigger social problem at hand. 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, the episodes can be quite different in tone per episode: sometimes you get an old-fashioned locked room murder, and other times it's a straight thriller or even something cozy.

As always, I'll not do a write-up of each episode, but pick out the highlights. Aibou seasons don't really feature ongoing storylines (actual planning would've made Aibou 13 a lot better), and that's the same for this season, so that also makes it easier to zoom in on some episodes. Episode 7, Fake, is a tense thriller about the abduction and murder of two children. While the forces fight against the clock to save the kids, Sugishita and Kaburagi also poke around as they feel something is off about this case, especially as the mother of one of the children is behaving in a strange manner. The premise of the double child abductions reminds of Norizuki Rintarou's Ichi no Higeki, but the conclusion is very surprising. It's a bit cheating actually, but as a human drama story, this episode had me hooked from start to finish. Episode 8, The Woman of 100%, is about Kurata Eiko, a former collegue of Kaburagi who is now known and respected as one of the best female prosecutors in Tokyo. That is also the reason why Kaburagi and Sugishita are both very curious as to the reason why she doctored the evidence in the case of a murder on a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Kaburagi and Sugishita know the witness stated something different about witnessing the defendant in her original police statement compared to her testimony in court. The mix of classic courtroom drama mystery with police procedural and even political thriller modes is surprisingly strong for a show of just 45 minutes.

The mid-season special Return is about a town that is welcoming former convicts, offering them a place to start a new life. Sugishita and Kaburagi are given a special order to man the local police station, as for some reason several police constables have gone missing there. As a mystery story, this is a long, and rather predictable tale, but I have to say: the moment the Big Bad shows their true face, it doesn't really matter. We are seldom treated to an almost cartoon-like villain in this series, like a Joker, and to be honest, they felt a bit out of place, but man, this episode was memorable because of that person. I wonder whether they'll return in the future.

The internet plays a large role in the last two episodes. Episode 17, Last Work, is about a Youtuber who apparently has murdered someone to get more views: he is uploading his videos in parts and each parts shows more of his heinous crime of abducting and torturing a homeless man. At first, people all thought it was just a hoax, but slowly the police starts to suspect something might've really happened and things of course explode once the body of the victim is actually found. This was more a human drama-focused episode than one actually based on solving a mystery, but the use of Youtubers and the social commentary provided is quite interesting.

The final episode is a two-hour long special titled Proof of Evil. Yashiro Miwako, the calculating head of the Public Relations Section of the Metropolitan Police Department, has popped up now and then across the last few seasons, but takes center stage now the media has found out through a leak that she has a half-blood daughter she had kept hidden from the public. While normally this wouldn't be big news, suspicions are the father of the child might be a Russian spy, which would make her position in the MPD very difficult to maintain. Evidence is also found that her notebook was hacked through an e-mail sent from Kaburagi's e-mail, making him the prime suspect in the leaking scandal. The subject matter is without a doubt very timely, but as a season finale, this episode was also quite boring, especially after the bloody terrorist attack on a police academy in the previous season finale. Nobody dies here, we only see police officials trying to trace the leak and investigating the identity of the father of Yashiro's daughter and then stuff happens and it ends. The problem is there is no build in tension, nor story. The climax (which happens only after nintey minutes) is weak and over before you know it, while there are no build-up, nothing to keep your attention in the ninety minutes up to that point. It's just going on and on about the unknown father and the possibility Kaburagi leaked the information without reframing the problem in any way: it's just repeating the same point over and over. As a finale, this was a very disappointing episode, and doesn't really set-up things for the next finale in an alluring way, like previous finales did.

On the whole though, I have to say I thought Aibou 15 was a pretty weak season. Few episodes were truly entertaining, there also seemed to be fewer 'straight' mystery plot stories than previous seasons and even the three two-hour specials were much weaker than usual, either by a considerable scaling down of events, or just plain drawn-out plots. I don't expect masterpieces a whole season long, but in previous seasons, I'd usually come across one really entertaining episode every two, three episodes. This time it was more like once every five, six episodes.

Aibou hasn't really changed its formula in the fifteen seasons it has run, and that makes comparison rather easy. And that makes it painfully clear Aibou 15 is a rather weak season overall. Yes, there are a few good episodes, but way too little considering the ratio in previous episodes. Most of the season is filled with paint-by-numbers episodes, or even worse, boring, dragging two-hour specials that don't even come close to the usual spectacle and sensation we see in those episodes. Let's hope the next season (which will come without a doubt) can make up for this one.

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒15』

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