When even WOWOW outdoes itself, you know you’ve got a real gem on your hands.
Shiroyama Kyosuke (Shibata Kyohei), the company president of Hinode Beer, is kidnapped by a mysterious group that calls itself Lady Joker. Shiroyama is soon released in exchange for a secret payoff of ¥2 billion and the warning that 3.5 kilolitres of Hinode beer would be tampered with if he doesn’t do as the group demands. Elite detective Goda Yuichiro (Kamikawa Takaya) is put on the case and realises there is more to it than a simple kidnapping…
Lady Joker is based on a novel of the same name by Takamura Kaoru and was also adapted into a film in 2004. I’d heard about the drama and how good it was, and I’m glad I finally gave it a go. It is one of those dramas that require your full attention because it’s chock-full of things that link up in intricate ways, and it’s best to take it one episode at a time instead of marathoning it so you will have a chance to appreciate all the little details and how the intensity and pressure build up on the various characters. At seven episodes, it is a little longer than the usual WOWOW fare, but you don’t feel the drag as there are no filler scenes and everything is tightly plotted.
The drama tackles various issues not often examined on Japanese TV, allowing viewers to ruminate and draw their own conclusions. The incident which sparked things off was a case of allegedly discriminatory hiring practice that led to a death, highlighting the plight of the burakumin class and the prejudice they continue to face. The drama uses this as a launchpad to examine the corruption that goes on in the corporate world – the backdoor deals, sōkaiya etc – and the rot in the police organisation, where closing of ranks and reluctance to deal with internal scandals are rife, among other key societal issues. So when Goda suspects that one of the kidnappers could be veteran cop Handa Shuhei (Toyohara Kosuke), he does his best to get his bosses to take action on this, but finds that a near impossible task as it would mean humiliation for the police if it were known they were played by one of their own (and Handa does take the police on quite a merry chase). I also appreciated the addition of an important side plot highlighting the risk and difficulties journalists face when gathering information on the sleazy underhand activities of those who have too much to lose. While these issues may seem uniquely Japanese at first glance, ultimately they have a universal tone and are relatable at their core. A timely and grim reminder that there is always more to things than what meets the eye, and where the violation of unwritten rules may result in more casualties than what some people think they can handle. Change requires concerted effort, but even then, the kind of change that results could prove to be all for naught given how entrenched certain practices have become.
The kidnappers are all as ordinary and nondescript as can be, and are mostly on the fringes of society where nobody gives them a second glance. They all have grudges about their treatment at the hands of those in power, and it is unlikely that their grievances will be properly addressed or given the time of day. You do feel sorry for them, especially Nunokawa who is overwhelmed with taking care of a special needs child – nicknamed Lady – and a suicidal wife. Handa himself is full of scorn and disgust for the police organisation, while Monoi is justifiably angry because he has lost family members thanks to some unfortunate association with Hinode. Ko and Yo-chan are similarly small fry who are unlikely to get anywhere no matter how hard they work, a plight not unfamiliar to many of us who slog day in day out just to make ends meet. Yet, Shiroyama, the Hinode company president, is not one of those run-of-the-mill obnoxious bosses so often caricatured and vilified in J-dramas – he comes across as a genuine man who just wants to do his best to minimise the fallout from the crisis. He is shown to be aware of how difficult his decisions are and the impact they have on those around him, and we come to empathise with him and want things to work out for him. It’s a rare drama where I feel I can easily root for any or all the key characters to come out of the whole thing unscathed, even as I watch them fall unwittingly into the traps they and others have set. In that sense, part of the ending is sobering, for you’ve come a long way with these characters and would have hoped for some decent payoff for at least one of them. The penultimate scene, with Goda realising how far he’s come – and probably full circle at that – is gold.
It is so refreshing to watch a drama chock-full of veterans and proper actors strut their stuff, and the acting on show was nothing short of fantastic. Kamikawa Takaya was every inch the straight-laced righteous cop, stiff and sometimes inflexible, and he had some great face-offs with Toyohara Kosuke, who was all smirky and gloaty fun. It was so nice to see a smart cop and an even smarter criminal play out the cat and mouse game with no end in sight – just when you thought Goda might finally pin it on Handa, the latter springs another surprise. I read a comment that they were supposed to be foils for each other that showed one could have become the other if certain things had gone by the script – this was reflected not only in the similarity of their names, but also their professions, intelligence and solitary nature. I also really liked the restrained performance of Shibata Kyohei, who played Shiroyama. He gave the character an air of dignity and calm that never faded even during the worst of times, and it was wonderful to watch. Mitsuishi Ken was in a smaller role as Shiroyama’s brother-in-law, who got the short end of the straw as he got caught up in the fallout that he unwittingly had a hand in creating. Yamamoto Koji was also solid in his portrayal of the journalist Yashiro, who nearly paid with his life for his stories on the kidnapping and corporate backdoor dealings. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Ishibashi Ryo in a supporting role as one of Shiroyama’s trusty subordinates.
Overall, this has been a really solid, thought-provoking drama and I have thoroughly enjoyed the viewing experience. It’s not often we get dramas of such a high calibre examining issues not often found in mainstream media. Definitely not a light watch, but worth every minute you spend on it. Lady Joker is a quality production through and through, and one that is worth a rewatch because you’ll surely be able to find more things to ponder in the next viewing. If you only watch one J-drama this year, make it this one.