Drama Review: Hero (Fuji TV, 2001)
by Ender’s Girl
Kimura Takuya, Matsu Takako, Abe Hiroshi, Otsuka Nana, Kadono Takuzo, Katsumura Masanobu, Kohinata Fumiyo, Yashima Norito, Kodama Kiyoshi
In a Nutshell:
Self-taught public prosecutor Kuryu Kohei brings his unconventional crime-busting methods to the Josai district office, much to the consternation of the other prosecutors and law clerks.
(SpoilLert: Moderately spoilerish. No biggies.)
I’m trying to rack my brains for something about this drama that I hated, or disliked — even just a teensy bit. Nothing comes to mind. Even the semi-crummy production values (which would seem more at home in 1987 than in 2001, the year the show aired), “spazzy music” (to quote my cyber-friend, ai*), and odd, quirky editing style — they all just GROW ON YOU. And to think these are just the technical aspects of the drama.
The soundtrack is SO effin’ catchy! By the end of the first episode I was jerking and twitching along to the now-familiar music, a sly throwback to those old-school detective comedies a la The Pink Panther: jazzy and off-beat, with just a hint of sleaze. Brilliant!
At first the directorial style caught me off balance: the actors speak directly into the lens while the camera swoops in for a close-up, and the dialogue ping-pongs from one person to the next at such a frenetic pace. But the style of Hero actually lends itself well to the screwball, sometimes campy atmosphere. I soon realized how much it reminded me of Baz Luhrmann’s Velvet Curtain oeuvre (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and even Australia), dubbed as such because of his penchant for the theatrical. But you know what? I loved every Luhrmann film to freaking BITS (and wish he were more prolific) and he remains to this day my favorite director ever. So going back to Hero, it’s all good, baby.
The great thing about Hero was that despite the drollery and high dramedy, the actors were so completely into their character. Hero scores the best ensemble acting I’ve seen in a drama, in a loooong time. That easy rapport among the cast was undeniably there, the comfortable system of trust and reliance so apparent in the way they’d riff their lines off each other, scripted or ad-libbed, any which way. It’s also quite obvious how much the actors simply enjoyed being with each other, and what they were doing — otherwise, this renzoku wouldn’t have had that intangible quality that makes an ensemble drama truly… transcendent.
It wasn’t just the acting (which, paradoxically, was so unselfconscious despite the screwball treatment), but also the way each character was written, that I found to be so endearing. It may have taken me a few episodes to warm up to ALL of them (maybe because of the way they all treated Kimura’s character at first, heh — more on that later), but at some point I realized how deeply absorbed I was in each of their own little storylines, the details of their own little interpersonal dramas, filled with their own little hang-ups and insecurities, foibles and follies.
I loved how the story was about ALL of them, and how the writing deftly went from each interwoven thread to another, that by the time the series ends, they feel like old familiar friends. Who can forget the oft-clueless but well-meaning boss, who toes the shaky line separating his subordinates and his superiors? Or the capricious dandy with a mean, competitive streak–but who can’t score a date? Or the hilariously acerbic, overachieving lawyer (Abe Hiroshi!!!) and his office paramour, a coolly sophisticated career woman secretly disenchanted with life — and love? And the law clerks — MAN, DON’T YOU JUST LOVE THEM??? The peppy, puckish pencil pusher who dispenses the daily workplace scuttlebutt with almost vindictive glee! The divorced milquetoast who harbors a secret passion for the female prosecutor — and for ballroom dance! Or Amamiya Maiko!!! — The briskly efficient prude who doggedly pursues her lawyerly ambitions — but is naively terrified of falling in love!
Even the minor occurring characters are unforgettable in their own way: the security guard so unappreciated in his vigilance; the overzealous policeman patrolling the Josai district; Nabeshima, the dignified old deputy director of the regional bureau, so wise and so compassionate; and the moody bartender who says little but observes and understands more than he lets on — and who (hilariously!) can whip up any order, anything at all, from his tiny little arsenal of a kitchen, much to the befuddlement of the other characters. Heehee!
And of course, I’ve saved the best for last…
Kuryu Kohei — what’s NOT to love about him? You love him just as much for his QUIRKS (his obsession with home TV shopping, his penchant for interrogating suspects with oblique and seemingly pointless questions, his stubborn aversion towards formal wear of any kind, even that ridiculous russet-colored bomber jacket he’d bring everywhere, etc. etc.) as for the substance of his CHARACTER — the humility, integrity and kindness, the incredible work ethic and equally insatiable curiosity, and most importantly, the humaneness with which he practices his profession. For Kuryu Kohei, CRIME is the enemy, not the PEOPLE. So he treats everyone (colleagues, suspects, witnesses, even complete strangers) with the decency and compassion that are (sadly) often the first to go when a prosecutor becomes inured to the law-breakers to be dealt with day in and day out. Never mind that he’s not as clever as, say, Shibayama (Abe Hiroshi), or as competitive as Egami (Masanobu Katsumura). Kuryu relies on his street-smarts and natural instincts, coupled with a heart devoid of any iota of personal ambition and self-importance.
It was brilliant of the writers to insert those little touches illustrating society’s preconceived notions and stereotypes about the law profession. For example, when the prosecutors walk in on Kuryu fixing the main TV set on his first day at work, they simply ignore him (assuming that he’s “just” the repairman) and remain oblivious to the fact that the object of their speculation and debate is literally right under their noses. You KNOW what the inevitable conclusion is to this short comedy of errors, you can see the punch line coming, that moment of realization that throws them all in a tizzy. And later in the episode, you can see Amamiya’s face just deflate when Kuryu casually mentions that he never got past junior high and became a lawyer only through self-study. You can just see that little thought bubble by her head, her feelings of consternation tinged with contempt, how she considers herself better qualified than the man who, by some stroke of (mis)fortune, has become her immediate superior. How can the prosecutors and law clerks take anyone like Kuryu seriously? How can the audience?
The story of Hero is a journey not so much for Kuryu, but for the public prosecutors who get to work with him — though for so brief a time. At the start, you can just feel the lawyers’ ill-concealed scorn towards someone whom they obviously do not accept as a colleague. For how can he be, when he hardly fits the bill — with his outsider status, lack of formal education, and no-frills demeanor? So they give him the most “menial” of legal cases, the minor offenses such as underwear theft or what have you. But it’s Kuryu who ends up cracking the most difficult cases wide open (even those that weren’t on his docket), simply relying on his keen powers of observation (for it’s easier to notice things when you’re being ignored by everyone else) coupled with his characteristic willingness to work longer hours, ask more probing questions, and cover more investigative ground than anyone else in the Josai district office. And each time he’d graciously allow his colleagues to take the credit for a case, I felt like kicking him for being so bloody selfless. But then that’s just how HE is as a person: uncovering the truth, upholding the law — that’s what should be the Big Deal. Everything else is dross.
Funny how this guy turns out to be the best of them all — and by the end of the series, they ALL know it. So on their journey of (re)discovery, the disdain and condescension melt away into grudging admiration, and finally into complete and wholehearted respect for Kuryu as a law enforcer, as a man, as a human being.
Hero isn’t so much a courtroom drama as it is a legal procedural, because the focus of the scenes is less on the actual trial proceedings and more on the investigative work and legal preparations so crucial to establishing probable cause for a case. It’s the whole PROCESS of fact-finding, of research, of hitting dead-ends and following new leads — that makes crime-solving stories so appealing to me. And part of the enjoyment is derived from seeing the different arms of law enforcement and the judiciary work together to maintain law and order in the world. It becomes more interesting, of course, when you have conflicts of interest, power plays and turf wars among the various branches — as explored in some of the episodes.
In any ultra-competitive meritocracy (and Japan should be riiight up there), people know their place, and nobody ever lets them forget it. The fine class lines remain as entrenched as ever between the social strata, only this time, merit has replaced birth circumstance. In the microcosmic setting of Hero, the prosecutors, the law clerks, the security guards, the beat policemen, the elite detectives — they may all work together for a common goal, each role a distinct cog in the judicial machinery, yet the professional tension remains, one sprung from each person’s acute, almost painful awareness of their own relative status. Who’s got the more impressive credentials. Who outranks who. Who has a more specialized profession. Who enjoys a higher pay grade, etc. etc.
I love how the writing touches on the inherent tension between the prosecutors and the clerks, squeezing from this dynamic some of the most beautiful and touching moments in the entire drama. It isn’t that the prosecutors are wicked stepsisters (who just happen to hold law degrees) out to make life miserable for the hapless clerks. Not at all — it’s just how the system works. The prosecutors have a much bigger responsibility — in decision-making and interpreting the law, in sniffing out potential defendants to recommend for indictment, and later on, in proving a defendant’s guilt in a court of law. While the clerks are the office drones who do the paperwork and pencil-pushing, a routine less mentally challenging but much more physically draining than that of their more exalted office mates.
It’s simply brilliant how little things are used to further illustrate the prosecutor-clerk inequity, but in such scenes, there is always humor, tempered with compassion… To be tacitly expected to get off a crowded elevator when the prosecutors are already inside. To accept your assigned tasks — no matter how unreasonable — meekly and without complaint. To shelve your own dreams (such as winning a ballroom dance contest, or opening a crepe shop) in order to help the lawyers achieve their own. To keep your personal opinions to yourself—because what the prosecutors think will always carry more weight. To work long, grueling hours until the bosses are satisfied and call it day… Yet the writers of Hero manage to embed little gems of hilarity amid the sobering reality, like that time when Abe Hiroshi’s character Shibayama makes his clerk, Endo, taste-test his ramen after an anonymous saboteur terrorizes their district office and sets off a wave of paranoia in the workplace. It’s such a small moment, yet it nails the whole skewed dynamic between prosecutor and clerk, and provides as much comic relief as it does insight into the complexities of human relationships.
So you don’t begrudge the clerks their right to feel a little resentment once in a while, particularly when a case hits crunch time and deadlines need to be met — and it’s times like these when the clerks feel the heat the most. That the prosecutors often take their clerks for granted is again less a reflection of the lawyers’ character than it is of the justice system in general. Again, it’s just the way things are, and everyone knows it.
And yet, you keep rooting for the clerks, these foot soldiers so unappreciated yet so indispensable to the system in which they function. The episode that focuses on their “plight” was one of the best for me. Here we see the three male clerks (Endo, Suetsugu and Masaki — the transferee from another district and the one with the crepe dreams) band together and feed off their malcontent, half-seriously dreaming up a foolproof plan to get them out of their bureaucratic hole — which would be to strike out on their own, be their own boss. Watching the three clerks brainstorm on possible fillings for their crepes was as amusing as it was heartrending. The episode takes on a pleasant twist when a particular incident causes the prosecutors to appreciate their clerks to a greater extent than before. The clerk Masaki (a guest actor and not on the main cast) realizes that, unlike his previous district office, the undercurrents of mutual affection and loyalty between the lawyers and their clerks in the Josai office run much deeper than anyone will care to admit. But by then it is too late, he tells Kuryu, he’s just tendered his resignation and has invested far too much in his crepe business to turn back. “If I had worked here from the start,” he confides to Kuryu, “I wouldn’t have resigned.” Made me cry, that scene!
And then here comes Kuryu Kohei, who cares neither for status nor influence, considering them inconsequential to his calling as a public prosecutor: which is to protect the innocent, and bring wrongdoers to justice. Kuryu possesses such a… clarity of purpose, and an ethical purity so shockingly alien in a field where competition, compromise, and jockeying for personal advancement are the norm.
It is only fitting that a show about law enforcement is imbued with such a strong sense of social justice and moral equity — not just on the level of the cases being prosecuted, but more importantly, on the level of the human relationships in the story. Injustice always begins in the human heart, and all these characters who cross paths with Kuryu Kohei soon find their own personal presumption and bigotry shattered. They learn their lesson, sometimes the hard way, and by the time Kuryu is taken out of their lives (just as abruptly as he entered it), they’ve all become… better people. Not perfect, but BETTER. And that’s more than enough for the time being.
There’s a good symmetry to how everything pans out: Kuryu may have been “defeated” by a system so steeped in bureaucratic bullsh*t, and one entirely beholden to the whims of a bunch of old farts more concerned with protecting their media image than dispensing real justice — “We’re just civil servants,” the prosecutors tell each other resignedly after the ethics committee takes punitive action against Kuryu. But he leaves their district office with their admiration, respect and love — and just by being himself.
The drama may be just eleven episodes long — a heartbeat in the Hollywood timeframe — but it manages to pack in such insightful social commentary through the legal cases and the human interactions. There are gender issues: sexism in the workplace, the complications of extramarital affairs, the politics of sexual harassment, etc. There are socio-economic issues: in any society, how much sway do power and wealth really hold over the justice system? There are the law enforcement issues: where does one arm’s jurisdiction begin and end? How much trust and dependence should society place on our law enforcers, when the police and the prosecutors can (with some collusion) willfully tamper with evidence, frame a suspect, or manipulate the outcome of a case? How perfect is the judicial system of a democratic society? How far should a lawyer go to prove the innocence or guilt of a person? To quote Alan Moore, borrowing from the Roman poet Juvenal: “Who will watch the Watchmen?”
Then there are the legal conundrums, those gray areas where what is moral may not necessarily be what is legal, and vice versa. As a prosecutor, which side of Lady Justice must be upheld? The uncompromising side of her that follows the letter of the law in exacting retribution? Or the gentler, more compassionate side that looks beyond the law that was broken and seeks to understand the person and the reason for breaking it? Correspondingly, how do you judge something as intangible as MOTIVE — and say whether it is there or not? The limitation of the law is largely that it is dependent on behavior: the law seeks to pass judgment on actions, deeds, words, conduct. But there are still places in the human heart that even the long arm of the law is unable to reach: why do people do what they do? “How do can you prove there’s love?” Muses Kuryu aloud to a woman he has tried (unsuccessfully) to pin down for marriage fraud. “No one can read another person’s thoughts.” (Ah, love, the inscrutability of love.)
I’ve always, always been a sucker for legal dramas (which largely explains my complete absorption in the plot of Hero), and the best out there deftly tackle the more contentious issues but refrain from passing any judgment outright. In a great drama, all the sides are explored, all the questions raised — but ultimately it is up to the viewer to don the black robes and adjudicate for himself. I probably have yet to encounter a better-written and more satisfying legal drama than David E. Kelley’s The Practice (particularly the first five seasons), which probably grappled with more legal, social and moral issues than any other lawyer show I’ve seen. Hero and The Practice have such disparate formats, but I believe they are alike a way that goes beyond style or format. Both seek to entertain, yes of course (for that is the fundamental goal of television, to entertain an audience), but they also seek to question, to engage, to provoke, to challenge.
That being said, I must append one of my favorite scenes from The Practice, in which the two prosecutors (or D.A.s) on the show, Helen Gamble and Richard Bay (played by Lara Flynn Boyle and Jason Kravits, respectively) are having dinner coming off a particularly grueling case which they have just lost to the defense (Bobby Donnell and his team, the main characters of The Practice).
Helen Gamble: I need it, Richard. Give it to me.
Richard Bay: What?
Helen Gamble: The Speech. Why we do what we do.
Richard Bay: Oh, I am not really in the mood after…
Helen Gamble: PLEASE, Richard. I NEED it. Please give it to me. And don’t just phone it in.
Richard Bay: Helen…
Helen Gamble: Please! Can’t you see how demoralized I am?
Richard Bay: OK. (takes a deep breath) There are heroes in this world. They’re called District Attorneys. They don’t get to have clients, people who smile at them at the end of the trial, who look them in the eye and say, “thank you.” Nobody is there to appreciate the District Attorney, because we work for the state. And our gratitude comes only from knowing there’s a tide out there. A tide the size of a tsunami coming out of a bottomless cesspool. A tide called crime, which, if left unchecked will rob every American of his freedom. A tide which strips individuals of the privilege of being able to walk down a dark street or take twenty dollars out of an ATM machine without fear of being mugged. All Congress does is talk, but it’s the District Attorney who grabs his sword, who digs into the trenches and fights the fight. Who dogs justice day, after day, after day without thanks, without so much as a simple pat on the back. But we do it. We do it, we do it because we are the crusaders, the last frontier of American justice. Knowing that if a man cannot feel safe, he can never, never feel free.
Helen Gamble: Thank you.
One of my favorite aspects of Hero is the romance angle (NATCH!!!), which is such a lovely complement to the legal/procedural core of the show. Kuryu and Amamiya are always off investigating cases — which ain’t exactly the most romantic thing in the world to be doing, right? But that’s precisely why the love thing worked SO well for me. The Kuryu-Amamiya work-blossoming-into-love dynamic is spiritually akin to the relationship between Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock in the movie Two Weeks’ Notice. I love this film because it DOESN’T build on the love-at-first-sight, cosmic-kismet-fishnet-whatnot premise. It’s great to look at Love as something that grows quietly from friendship, mutual trust and respect, into a deeper and more lasting romantic bond. Also, as in Hero, it would be perfectly natural for two colleagues to end up together after spending so much time around one another — albeit in a purely professional capacity at first. Perhaps a few indispensable seeds need to be sown first (i.e. complementing personalities, good chemistry — both professional and personal, and maybe even a hint —though just a hint!— of physical attraction simmering beneath the surface), but these seeds remain dormant until the time is ripe for the relationship to follow is natural course into That Many-Splendored Thing. To grow, mature, and bear fruit both sweet and —sometimes— bitter. Love can blossom in the most unexpected of places, and between the most unexpected of people.
Kimura Takuya and Matsu Takako have such terrrrific chemistry together, and you see this in every single moment they share: in their playful banter and verbal sparring, in their sidelong glances (that somehow go unnoticed by the other party), in their teamwork and easy camaraderie, in their mutual admiration and comical myopia towards the glaringly obvious (THAT YOU BOTH LIKE EACH OTHER, DUMMIES!!!), even in the little things that remain unspoken between them until the very end. Kuryu’s laid-back personality is the perfect foil to Amamiya’s more high-strung nature, though both share a deep commitment to their work (and, more importantly, to the Cause of their work) — they just have different approaches to it. Amamiya, whose no-nonsense style belies her insecurities and naiveté vis-à-vis love and romance, has little patience at first for Kuryu’s unorthodox case-solving methodology, but he wins her over (and wins her heart!) by being exactly who he is: unpretentious, unassuming, casual — but certainly not careless, and damn right honorable. As in any well-written romance, the sexual tension between our leads is what fuels the romantic thrill: those near-hits and narrow misses, the emotional roller-coaster ride where their relationship advances (either by choice or by circumstance) only to lurch two steps backwards (again, either by choice or by circumstance) into neutral territory, much to the sheepish chagrin of Kuryu, Amamiya, and, like, every freaking viewer watching, gaahhh!!! But that’s exactly why I’m SO happy that the writers throw us rom-com diehards enough bones in this legal drama to keep us reasonably hopeful that a happy ending is imminent for our favorite legal-eagle couple.
Because the pace of Hero is so brisk, I re-watched the entire renzoku (just 11 episodes! I’m more used to the slower, drawn-out plots of K-dramas) a few days later so I could more fully enjoy the details–the little moments in a scene, the hidden gems of wit and wisdom in the dialogue, the background drama while a major plot development unfolds, even the “filler scenes” I may have overlooked the first time — but which all prove indispensable to the narrative flow. And each rediscovered moment, each new detail, just makes me love this drama more and more. Sometimes, you also need to see the TREES for the forest. And I will never, ever, ever get tired of watching those oddly bent, adorable, screwy little trees.
Artistic & technical merit: A-
Entertainment value: A+