Where do people go when they die?
Ishikawa Ango (Oguri Shun) is an intelligent, ambitious detective with keen powers of observation. One day, a former police officer is killed and when Ishikawa goes to the scene of the crime, he unwittingly runs into the killer and is shot in the head. He survives with the bullet lodged in his brain, but realises that as a result, he can now communicate with dead people…
At first glance, BORDER looked to be your usual cop procedural where a detective makes use of his extra powers to solve cases and save the day. Ishikawa is not only able to get first-hand information from the ghosts, he also has the help of a shady information network led by Akai (Furuta Arata) and is thus able to get to the heart of the matter much more quickly. It becomes evident as the drama progresses, however, that this goes beyond helping the victims redress their grievances and Ishikawa’s extra powers come at a cost. He doesn’t always save the day. He’s not your usual bleedin’ heart detective out to bring peace to the world. He makes the “mistake” of becoming too involved in righting the wrong and is in danger of going rogue.
The brilliance of BORDER lies in its character-driven plot. This is Ishikawa’s journey – or descent, if you like – into a different kind of realm and where he must make difficult decisions straddling both sides of the law, morality and ethics. The drama’s clever use of a tired trope means Ishikawa is forced to tackle head on the question of whether his newfound insight is boon or bane, and charts the emotional toll his powers have taken on him. Ishikawa choosing to keep his new ability a secret means he doesn’t have anyone to confide in and nobody to be his emotional anchor – the burden is his to bear alone as he strives to fight on behalf of those who longer have a voice. Not only does Ishikawa have to take down villains who may have more power and resources (for example, the political fixer in episode 7), he also has to battle inner turmoil each time he encounters a setback with time running out. The change in Ishikawa’s overall demeanour and his growing conviction in what he was doing were built up so well over the course of the drama that it was easy to empathise with him and become invested in his cause even if he seems to veer off course at times. Visually he seems more and more weighed down by the gravity of it all – the haggard look, slouched shoulders, eye bags – and there is a general heaviness and melancholia that pervades every aspect of the story and characters.
I appreciate dramas that don’t become preachy when dealing with weighty issues, and BORDER does this wonderful build-up of the examination of the various issues that Ishikawa – and by extension, his colleagues – grapples with. The title has multiple meanings and the line between what is right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness blurs as the story progresses, yet the drama doesn’t seek to judge and instead lays out different perspectives for the viewer to draw his own conclusions. There are a lot of grey areas, such as Ishikawa’s increasing reliance on the people who work for Akai’s network, and his unconventional methods to get the results he wants partly because he can’t – or refuses to – share about his extra help. When Ishikawa goes overboard in trying to exact justice and his helpers draw the line, the question lingers as to whether what he’s doing is not only ethical, but at what costs and whether such justice is as deserved as he believes it to be. In a neat reverse of the earlier situation, Akai’s men go the extra mile for Ishikawa in a later case – perhaps due to the nature of the crime and the victim involved, even those who have gone “underground” are able to step up and do what they feel is right in the hour of need.
The ending is a true cliffhanger in every sense of the word. It takes real guts to end the drama on that note, and the reason why it works is because of the groundwork laid throughout the drama, and the intriguing, almost philosophical, exchange in the finale about good and evil that provides much food for thought. The final villain (played brilliantly deadpan by Omori Nao), embodying “perfect evil”, constructs what he deems the perfect crime, and Ishikawa is at his wits’ end trying to nail him. Akai likens perfect justice and perfect evil as two sides of a coin – from far away, they look the same, but the devil is in the details – and advises him not to get too caught up in things that fade or he would be the one to suffer. Is perfect evil then the result of meticulous preparation and resourcefulness powering the darkness within? Is perfect justice merely a matter of playing the right power game and “waiting for your opponent to fuck up”, even if more lives are lost in the process? What then does justice amount to at the altar of sacrifice and at whose expense? What happens when the justice system is no longer able to effectively redress the grievances of those who have suffered? Interestingly, Akai also brings up the concept of fate, which is played out in several occasions and accompanied by an increasing sense of helplessness that peaks in the finale. We often say something is “fated”, as though subscribing to some greater power beyond us, or perhaps a concession that man’s ability is finite and limited in the face of certain things. One wonders whether Ishikawa’s whole journey has been an attempt to subvert the natural course of life and death, and that fate taught him a lesson about letting sleeping dogs lie (for it was Ishikawa’s overconfidence in episode 1 that got him in the firing line).
Acting was stellar on most fronts, and Oguri Shun carried the drama with a brilliant, nuanced performance. He embodied Ishikawa’s growing pain and anguish so well that it was clear he had become his character – the desperation, rage and helplessness were so palpable as to be almost upsetting, and I love how choice bits of dialogue, which seem at most relevant to the context of the episode at hand, slot in like disjointed shards to form the larger emotional picture of an increasingly damaged and tortured soul. I really liked Oguri’s performance and was surprised he hadn’t won any sort of award for this, for he would have deserved it. Interestingly, screenwriter Kaneshiro Kazuki actually wrote Ishikawa with Oguri in mind, as he needed an actor who could portray the various facets of the character, and Oguri accepted the role immediately. That final showdown had to be one of the best in dramaland, and Ishikawa’s shock and horror at the outcome was a sucker punch to the gut. Oguri had excellent chemistry with Endo Kenichi, who played his superior Ichikura Takuji, and Aoki Munetaka, who played his detective partner Tachibana Yuma. I had gone into this drama only aware of Oguri’s casting, and was happily surprised to see Endo feature, even more so when he turned out to be a caring superior who looked out for Ishikawa’s best interests. Munetaka was funny as the sometimes foul-mouthed, wise-cracking Tachibana, and I liked their bickering partnership.
Haru as Higa Mika, the prickly, intelligent coroner who forged a bond with Ishikawa (she suspected early on that he could see the dead), was fine generally. I didn’t really care for Higa’s weird habit of playing classical music when she cut up bodies, but thought her no-nonsense character was refreshing and liked that she was honestly concerned about Ishikawa as a friend and colleague. I’m also really glad there was no romance between them to get in the way of their professional partnership, which was generally solid. She was observant like Ishikawa, they worked well together and were each other’s occasional voice of reason. In particular, one of Higa’s lines stood out: When Ishikawa asked whether she, as a scientist, should be believing that he could see dead people, she said there is nothing in the world that cannot be explained – it is science’s job to explain. That one line made me wish Ishikawa had confided in her, for she could surely have shared his burden, if only a little. Furuta Arata’s turn as the mysterious Akai was intriguing, as he turned out to be a form of checks and balances even in a world of greys, the shady information network a kind of underworld of the living that nevertheless has its own moral compass and integrity. Overall, the cast was solid and I really enjoyed being part of this complex world.
Music was superb. There was one key instrumental piece used throughout the drama, and it was near instant love when I first heard it. I love instrumentals that complement a drama, and this one went above and beyond, embodying the spirit and essence so completely that the actual theme song actually felt rather pointless. Sometimes one good piece of music is all you need to encapsulate what this drama is about, and BORDER had it. Pacing was generally solid, although the final three episodes were naturally more gripping. The earlier episodes were a little slower given the world-building involved (turning point was probably episode 5, which had a really endearing and somewhat light-hearted touch to it), but the drama was not really a whodunnit and I thought overall things worked out very well.
Not many dramas these days bother to deal with issues in an intelligent manner and let viewers draw their own conclusions. Even fewer dramas wrap things up in a way as to have many calling for a season 2. I would love a sequel to see how it all works out – or not – for Ishikawa, but more and more, I feel that the drama ended on a note that was pitch-perfect for the messages and themes it wanted to convey. It took amazing guts for the drama to have ended like that, and showed the writer’s confidence in his story and the ability of the actors – in particular, Oguri – to carry things through the way they were meant to be. In that sense, a flawed masterpiece feels complete.
June 18 edit: There is a sequel! A drama SP titled BORDER 2 Shokuzai. More info here (don’t click if you haven’t seen the ending).