Sunday, September 11, 2016

Strawberry Night SP (2010)

Strawberry Night is the first book in Honda Tetsuya's popular detective series which features a hardboiled female detective, constantly at odds with the rigid, patriarchal system of her chosen profession. Adapted into a standalone special in 2010, this 2-hr feature provided audiences a taste of the kind of brutal and gruesome cases that comprise the author's brand of macabre fiction and similarly introduced a dark and complex heroine in Lieutenant Himekawa, whose single-hearted focus in her work can both be admired and despised. It also marked the beginning of a string of adaptations which came out in the form of a television miniseries in 2012, followed by a full-length motion picture in 2013 entitled, Strawberry Night: Invisible Rain, and then capped off by another t.v. special on the characters following the events of the film.

In 2016, the book, Strawberry Night, was translated into English, published under the title, The Silent Dead. With the book now available to a wider audience and the series having reached the end of its run, it's as good a time as any to revisit the special and see how it stacks up against the other made for t.v. offering in the series.

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When a body wrapped in a blue plastic tarp is found near a pond in a Tokyo suburb, Lieutenant Himekawa (Yuko Takeuchi) and her squad from the homicide division of the Metropolitan Police are called in to investigate the unusual circumstances behind the crime. It's a baffling case---the man who was brutally murdered came from a modest background with no known enemies, and it's a complete mystery as to why the body, with its stomach carved out, was dumped in such a conspicuous place. The case takes a rather bizarre turn when a second body is found with the same signs of torture and cause of death, but there appears to be nothing to connect the two victims together.

The police's only lead is an exchange on a message board discussing a site on the dark web, which has Himekawa convinced that they're dealing with a methodical killer with a high body count. She alerts her superiors of this possibility but has trouble convincing them of the merits of her theory. With her right hand man (Hidetoshi Nishijima) stuck behind a desk and rival detective, Katsumata (Takeda Tatsuya), breathing down her neck, Himekawa has to struggle against professional impediments and personal prejudice to usher the case forward, bringing to light a world where death is proffered as a spectacle.

The Strawberry Night SP is a solid adaptation of its source material, being arguably the best of the lot, simply for supplying viewers a structured story. It also happens to be the only one in the series that offers a sense of closure to the case, all the while touching upon issues such as social injustice and apathy, law enforcement inefficiency in criminal apprehension and gender discrimination.

Well-paced, with the deductions made being logically sound, this television special, for the most part, is an engaging mystery that also makes use of the more sinister aspect of the dark net. It has a perpetrator that exploits the dichotomy of life and death, attracting victims to witness a person's demise as if it were performance art---the most chilling part of it all, is that these people were willing participants and patrons to this Sunday theater, who can even be considered as accessories after the fact.

There is sufficient information provided about the protagonist, the killer and the victims to make this a well-rounded effort. The motivation behind the killings might be a bit extreme but it's often the type of existentialist dilemma that is featured in this sub-genre of Japanese television and cinema. The material does not shy away from everything that's vile and sordid and for this reason credit should be given to screenwriter Yukari Tatsui for keeping the story moving and intact without relishing the gory details. Furthermore, director Yuichi Sato's command of every frame provided subtle hints and sufficient exposition to the case without giving away the big reveal of the identity of the sought after criminal. It's a twist that not many will see coming and this is probably one of the few times when the endeavor to misdirect viewers really pays off. 

But perhaps the highlight of the show is not so much the commission of the crime---which is horrific in itself---but rather, the depiction of how the traditional policing model in Japan can hamper the resolution of cases. Extremely bureaucratic and political, police officers and detectives are shown to be mired in jurisdictional and intra-agency rivalries, often withholding information and reluctant to cooperate with each other. The Iron Gun's unorthodox methods of securing information provide a nice foil to Himekawa's intuitive reasoning and impulsiveness, turning the special into a contest on which detective will first crack the case. 

Entertaining though it may be, the Strawberry Night SP is far from perfect, given a weak third act and an overbearingly defensive heroine. Given her traumatic past and present hostile work environment, it's understandable how an ambitious woman like Himekawa would have a chip on her shoulder but it is quite unsettling to see her lashing out indiscriminately at people who care and support her. There's also quite a leap in logic at the very end on her part when the mastermind is uncovered and an unearned display of empathy towards a virtual stranger that is somewhat puzzling to say the least. The gallery salute and the insertion of a ghostly apparition seem out of place with the overall tone of the series and lastly, there are a number of questions  left unanswered regarding the true status of Himekawa's relationship with a certain colleague.  



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