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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review of "Kazokugari 家族狩り" - Summer 2014

Before the summer dramas began their run, "Kazokugari" attracted my attention for its suspense thriller element of a serial killer on the loose to eliminate dysfunctional families, the discussion on families and the various types of problems facing them as well as its cast lineup with Matsuyuki Yasuko at its helm. Everything looked pretty promising on paper. However, I have to admit that it took me a long while to warm up to this story because the pacing and action only picked up considerably after the half-way mark so I did toy with the idea of dropping this at one point or another. I'm glad that I did not give up on this drama but honestly speaking, it could have been better and more engaging to keep people in for the long haul. There could have been people who just gave up because it was getting tough to wait for the answers to the numerous questions being thrown at the viewers' faces.

To begin with, I'll start with a summary of the story. As usual, there will be spoilers so please refrain from reading this if you do not wish to spoil the fun before watching this drama. You might wish to skip to the final paragraph instead where I'll indicate whether this drama is recommended. In addition, I wish to make it clear that I've not read the original novel by Tendo Arata so I'm not comparing the novel and drama in any way.

There are three main characters in this drama namely Hizaki Yuko (Matsuyuki Yasuko), Sudo Shunsuke (Ito Atsushi) and Mamihara Koki (Endo Kenichi) where they have a bunch of other characters linked to them to form the underlying "family" stories which run parallel with the investigation of the serial family suicides or rather murders as Mamihara believes them to be. The three of them are also interwined due to the cases with Hizaki being assumed to be the killer by Mamihara based on his past interaction and impression of her, Hizaki and Sudo knowing each other due to a misunderstanding and later becoming soulmates as well as Sudo trying to convince Mamihara that his thinking about Hizaki is wrong.

Hizaki Yuko is an employee at the Tokyo Children Welfare Centre where she helps children who are abused physically and mentally. In her eagerness to help these children, she would often file complaints at the local police authorities for being lax and unable to spot the abuse earlier. Unknown to most people, Hizaki was severely affected emotionally 7 years ago due to the suicide of a family and she blamed herself for not being assertive enough to bring the children out of that abusive household thus indirectly causing their deaths at the hands of their father. As a result, she had to quit her job and was hospitalised for her psychological problem before returning to work 5 years ago. Due to that experience, Hizaki decides to go all out to save the children despite being cursed at by abusive parents who didn't think they were wrong and regarded as a troublemaker by the police for going overboard with her actions. At home, things aren't rosy for her as well because she is the sole breadwinner with her father Seitaro suffering from dementia and her mother Tamiko on the brink of breaking down due to having to care for Seitaro all the time. The frustration at work and home take its toll on Hizaki but luckily, she still has a confidante Yamaga Yoko (Zaizen Naomi) who she met through volunteering work for families with parenting problems and can share her problems with the latter.

Sudo is an arts teacher at Domei Senior High who is a great fan of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Easily swayed by others, Sudo finds himself being romantically involved with his elder colleague Miho who sort of forced herself on him. Sudo is known for being a gentle and friendly guy but holds very strong views against marriage and family thus resulting in his reluctance to marry Miho even though she tells him that she is pregnant with his child. At the same time, he tries to care for his students despite them thinking little of him and even Miho is not supportive of his actions too. She even goes to the extent of distancing herself from a supposedly abusive student who had stopped coming to school just to stay out of trouble but Sudo tries to reach out to that student even though he's not obligated to. Unknown to those around him, Sudo had been a teenager who shut himself in his room and even harboured the thoughts of killing his parents. However, before Sudo did anything drastic, he decided to leave his hometown and broke off all contact with his family which explains why he has little faith in marriage and family.

Mamihara is an inspector at the Metropolitan Police Department's First Division who is involved in the investigation of the deaths of several families. Even though everyone thinks that there is nothing suspicious about these deaths and that the murders were committed by the errant children of these families, Mamihara believes that there is someone out there who is targeting these dysfunctional families and becomes convinced that Hizaki is very suspicious due to her overzealous attitude in setting things right in dysfunctional families. On the domestic front, his own family is also on the verge of breaking up with his elder son Isao dead due to an accident 9 years ago which looked more like a suicide, his wife Sawako (Akiyama Natsuko) suffering from a mental disorder due to the son's death and was institutionalised for a while before being discharged recently and his younger daughter Mayumi (Shinoda Mariko) being estranged from him. What happened to Isao also affected Mamihara's career progression and caused him to lose his passion for work other than being focused entirely on the family suicide cases. Through work, he also befriended a single mother Fuyushima Ayame (Mizuno Miki) who is trying to rebuild a life after escaping from her gangster husband. Although there is nothing fishy going on between Mamihara and Ayame (she seems to be reliant on him for a sense of security), Sawako thinks otherwise and even goes to confront Ayame about it. At the same time, Ayame's husband comes looking for her after his release from prison which results in Mamihara having to juggle his family problems and attempting to protect Ayame and her son.

Through these three characters and the relationships they have with other people, we get a main story of solving the mystery of the serial deaths of entire families and side stories of how each of these main characters struggle to find the meaning of family despite their less-than-ideal circumstances. Hizaki is so overloaded with work and family problems that she herself is on the verge of breaking down even though she should be well enough to take care of the abused children. Sudo brushes his family issues under the carpet and pretends that nothing is wrong by running away, even despite Miho's attempts at trying to force him to get married for the sake of their baby. Mamihara knows that his family is no longer the way it was but you see him making half-hearted efforts at trying to set things right as if he knew that there was no point making an effort. As the truth unravels over what led to these serial deaths, it serves as a wake-up call for these characters and towards the end of the story, you see them making small efforts to make changes although it's still premature to assess if there is anything positive to come out of it.

Without revealing the identity of the culprit behind the murders nor the motive, I'll still like to share my thoughts on the rationale behind the killings. Self-righteousness is a really delicate thing. If you go overboard with your sense of justice, it drives you to do the most unimaginable things. In this drama, the culprit actually has no moral basis to conduct such self-righteous killings. Right in the beginning, the culprit had already learnt the hard way of what it meant by neglecting what's more important in life and in turn causing the disintegration of the family unit. However, I do not really think that the culprit learnt a lesson from the episode. Instead of looking into oneself to see where things had gone wrong, the culprit chose to end the suffering of family members who were traumatised by another abusive or wayward family member by killing everyone at one go. Of course, given anyone with a logical state of mind, we wouldn't reach that kind of conclusion. However, the culprit in this story is not normal. And that is what makes the motive behind the murders sickening. The culprit had no valid reason to kill. The manipulative and violent manner in which the victim families were selected and "executed" just sends shivers down my spine so for those who probably can't stomach such a controversial theme may want to reconsider whether to start watching this drama.

Despite the highly engaging final two episodes, this drama suffered from a draggy beginning when it took a lot of time to lay down the relationships between the characters. It got to the point that I was ready to give up by episode 3 because there was so little progress made in the main storyline. Moreover, it got really miserable and painful especially to see Hizaki suffering so much emotional stress from her work and family problems that I couldn't bear to go on further. Things picked up a little bit after that especially with some minor twists along the way created through sudden stoppages of critical scenes but the progression after it sort of defied the usual conventions. In a way, that was an ingenious way of making the story less predictable and yet believable as the story would go back to the earlier scene to explain what happened after that. All I can say is, patience is of the essence here. You've got to sit through a lot of the foundation material before you get to the climax so this is definitely not going to be a high-speed rollercoaster ride from the start.

Speaking of the acting from the cast, Matsuyuki definitely shines with her portrayal of Hizaki by showing her vulnerabilities and strength very convincingly. Especially when Hizaki was about to buckle under the pressure and contemplating killing her own family and committing suicide, that sense of hopelessness and despair really came through to the viewers. I liked the fact that she did not have to be hysterical all the time to show how much she was hurting inside due to the lack of understanding from those around her and how Hizaki could actually be a pillar of strength to others while coping with her own problems. It was as if Matsuyuki could switch between the negative Hizaki and positive Hizaki with great ease. In this sense, I think Matsuyuki really nailed the role down so well and it's one of the more memorable performances I've seen from her.

On the other hand, I was expecting a bit more from Ito Atsushi because I was misled by the pre-OA trailer. In that trailer, Sudo was shown as speaking to his class and talking in such an animated and radical manner that I assumed Sudo was going to be some anti-social or pretty negative type of character. As Ito had been playing quite a lot of those meek and weak characters who get pushed around a lot, I was hoping that he might be somewhat of a force against Hizaki rather than go with the flow. However, when the drama started, it turned out that Sudo did have a negative side to him i.e. his broken ties with his family and his pessimistic view of marriage and family but he wasn't really as radical nor arrogant as the trailer made him out to be. That's why I was a bit disappointed to see Sudo being somewhat powerless to take the lead in his relationship with Miho and was going along with her wishes. However, towards the end, Ito managed to show some amazing traits in Sudo e.g. how he manages to win over people with sincerity which makes the character less bland than he should have been. In that sense, I think Ito also managed to show the different layers in Sudo's character quite well although it wasn't really as drastic as the changes in Hizaki's character. On a side note, the hint of a romantic link between Hizaki and Sudo does seem a bit off but they might just make a cute couple after all although the drama did not mention anything conclusive about this.

Last but not least, Endo Kenichi who has played police officers so many times in the past, gets to show a different side of him this time. Besides being stubbornly obsessed with the investigation of the family murders and being fixated on the theory that Hizaki might be the killer, Mamihara is also weighed down by his family problems. He knows that there are issues but he only makes half-hearted efforts to attempt to solve them. For a person in such a situation, he still goes to care for another woman and her son despite not being able to render effective or wholesome care and protection. In a way, that's somewhat similar to the culprit who was too carried away with solving problems for other people and neglecting the breakdown of the family unit. By the end of the story, it doesn't look as if much has changed for Mamihara although he's finally trying to take bigger steps to solve the problems. The thing is, is it too late and too little for his wife and daughter? Endo is great in the sense that he can use his straight face to convey a variety of emotions but I think the character was too caught up with the case so I would have wished that there was more time showing Endo in a different light which would have made his performance more memorable.

And my ratings for this drama...

Story: 7.5 out of 10 (It takes a lot of patience to get through the first half of the drama which is rather emotionally heavy too. The last two episodes were quite good so it made up for the long wait for things to heat up.)

Acting: 8.5 out of 10 (Great acting from the three main characters especially Matsuyuki Yasuko)

Theme song/BGM: 7 out of 10 (The theme song did not leave much of an impression on me but I'm giving higher marks in this category for the insert song i.e. "I Love You" by Ozaki Yutaka which was hauntingly beautiful and matched the mood of the drama at certain important junctures of the story)

Visual effects / Scenery: 6 out 10 (Some of the visual effects e.g. slow-motion shots and detail to attention for the graphics was a pleasure to look at but the scenery aspect was slightly lacking.)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 7 out of 10 (Much as I don't really think that Matsuyuki and Ito matched each other in terms of appearance, I like the chemistry between their characters)

Total: 36 out of 50

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