Return the Sword, If You Respect Me

Giri/Haji Turns to the Camera

One of the first shots in Giri/Haji is of a blade sticking out of the back of a dead man. The dead man is a Japanese national based in London, living in a stylish Finance Guy flat that looks out over the twinkling skyline. He leaves a glass of whiskey untouched as he crumples onto his carpet and spills purple blood over the white fibers.

I reflected on the blade protruding from his back a lot as I made my way through the eight episodes of Giri/Haji. The blade itself is a wakizashi, a traditional Japanese short sword. We learn that it’s the ancestral blade of the Fukuhara family of yakuza. Fukuhara family assassins would impale their victims with the blade, and then the victim’s family would return it to the Fukuharas as a show of their respect. Now the sword is in London, stowed in some evidence locker after it was pulled from the back of a stereotypical transnational professional. How did it get there? We have to unwind many narrative threads to get a complete answer.

And yet, right away, we have most of what we need: This is a show about people who would stick an ancient sword in someone’s back in front of a plate-glass view of the City of London. I’m in. Let’s ride.

Giri/Haji is a joint Japanese-British production which brings yakuza and Tokyo cops to London and brings them into conflict with Cockney gangsters straight out of Guy Ritchie. Along the way, there’s a lot of sex and a surprising amount of existential and familial reflection. The 16-year-old daughter of the main Japanese detective, Kenzo Mori, surreptitiously joins him in London. She learns bawdy life lessons from Rodney, a sex worker whom Kenzo uses as his street-smart local fixer. Characters decide to get divorced. An ailing father passes away. A grandiose British mob boss dreams of joining the yakuza. Meanwhile, an explosive gang war ignites on two continents—but there’s still time to go to the beach and have a pint.

To steal a line from my mom, there are times when Giri/Haji feels like Tarantino if Tarantino controlled tone more carefully. The action is often surprising and jarring, in a visceral and gaudy way—there’s one scene in particular where two characters die in quick succession right as they’re beginning to acquire the kind of depth that makes us believe they’ll be hanging around. And there’s a continual layering of self-satirical wryness over melodramatic violence. It all works fairly well even if sometimes the seams show, as when the British mob boss threatens a henchwoman in a way we come to understand is unlikely for a sap like him.

About halfway through Giri/Haji, there’s a massive shootout at an upscale Spanish restaurant in Soho. It’s all well-choreographed, expensively staged, and impossible to summarize if you haven’t been initiated into the show’s baroque plotlines. At the end, having fought his way through a restaurant in the company of a small army of leather-jacketed Albanian gangsters, Kenzo makes a fateful decision. There’s an explosion.

And then the show goes through a frankly tiresome montage with a voiceover that’s about, in essence, the Butterfly Effect. The smallest thing far away can have the biggest consequences here. That kind of thing. There are lots of soulful shots that weave together different times and places to explain how we got to an exploding restaurant in London.

I found myself not caring about butterflies flapping their wings in a yakuza-run bookies shop. Instead, I found myself reflecting on that sword sticking out of the dead man in that early scene.

I have a tendency to put blades into stories. Not because I’m fixated on swords or knives in real knife—I own a good pocket knife that sometimes comes in handy, but that’s the extent of it. Yet I find blades transfixing in stories. Something about a glinting strip of metal that gains significance by being brandished by a body or sliding into one. A sophisticated symbol that becomes a crude tool when it cuts through flesh. Both messy and clean at once.

You’re lucky, as a storyteller, when you get to neatly set the tone with a blade. Giri/Haji achieves this early on, and then fails to fully trust itself. It’s a good show, which is why it doesn’t need to turn to the camera and give a trite lecture about unforeseen consequences and ripple effects and whatever else. (Later on, the show makes a significantly bolder move by breaking into a black-and-white interpretive dance summary of its own dramatic arc at a climactic moment. This is kinda weird and maybe unnecessary but at least feels distinctive in a way the Butterfly Effect shit doesn’t.)

There’s far too much emphasis these days on what a story’s “message” or “point” is. This comes up endlessly on Twitter, as stupid discourses tend to do. If fictional narratives needed to have a thesis statement, they’d be essays or speeches or something other than made-up stories. This should be obvious, but it’s nearly impossible to get many people to believe, even many good storytellers. That’s how you get an otherwise ripping crime drama turning to the camera and intoning solemnly about cliches.

Stick to sticking in the blade. It makes a bloody mess on the carpet that’s interesting to watch our heroes try to clean up. But more importantly, swords are cool.

Give me questions in the comments below! I’d like to do another reader question mailbag—along the lines of this one—in the next few weeks, so ask me things you think this newsletter would be good at answering…

Calvin and Hobbes Corner

We’re still not working:

If the goal of this story arc is, as someone suggested to me recently, to dramatize the feeling of having to churn out endless content as a syndicated newspaper cartoonist, then Watterson is nailing it. I keep wondering when we’re going to get to the actual story. It’s all prelude, which is like life itself. Or something.

Anyway, this is a story arc that begs existential questions. We can almost feel Calvin aging and growing more jaded as he refuses to do a simple homework assignment. He’s making the situation a thousand times worse than it has to be. Just react normally, do the work, and you’re home free. But that’s not how Calvin operates. He will never take the easy way out if there’s an alternate path that lets him rage against the injustice of basic obligations.

I do love that Watterson sets yet another redundant dialogue about the refusal to do homework in a wagon racing down a hill. Calvin’s life often feels both self-inflictedly miserable—no friends (aside from a stuffed tiger), no (conventional) successes, constant resentment at the order of things—and tantalizingly exciting. He gets to bounce down a hill in a wagon! I wanted desperately to do that as a kid, when I was first reading this comic, but even then I understood it wasn’t something you could do in real life. That Calvin is able to do it while bitching about a leaf collection is a nice summation of what makes us envy him despite his ever-mounting failings and problems.

A poem

Ôuchi Yoshitaka is preparing for the end