Okay, that’s a lie by probably 25% since five or six of these are already airing, but don’t quote me on that; I’m no good at math. What I am good at is hiding from the Internet for a year and a half and drowning in dramas, so that’s what I’m going to talk about: more dramas to get lost in.
Genre: Detective, Thriller, Psychological
Episode count: 9
Duration: 54 minutes
Synopsis: It’s another night of homicide investigation for ambitious detective Ishikawa Ango (Oguri Shun), but events soon take a deadly turn. As he wanders off to check the perimeter, he is shot in the head by an unknown perpetrator. “Where do people go when they die?” It’s a question meant to be answered for a different day, however. Ishikawa survives, but with the bullet lodged inside his brain. Although it may pose later health crises, to remove it requires a risky operation—not only would Ishikawa’s life once more be at stake, so would his newfound ability: to see the dead. Whether his sixth sense is a result of coming into contact with death—or is a side effect of the bullet’s location—remains a mystery. But for someone like Ishikawa, immersed in his work so completely that he has no life beyond it, this ability is a gift that he cannot risk losing.
Why you should watch it: Border is aptly titled for obvious reasons upon first glance, but it holds double meaning. For as much as Ishikawa steps on that threshold between life and death, he treads a fine line between law-abiding and corrupt. The deceased victims often point him in the direction of the culprit, and if not, they at least supply Ishikawa with ample clues—and this is what I love about the show. It’s quick to engage its audience, so rather than dwelling on a stuck point, it starts off with a bang (sometimes literally) and runs upholding its pace. But what’s a plus for viewers is a double-edged sword for Ishikawa. The dead can directly point out the murderer, and yet there’s no use without evidence—not unless you have the city’s underground backing you up, and Ishikawa does.
One of Ishikawa’s selling points lies in his ability to preserve this clean-cop, morally righteous mentality all the while using illegal methods as a basis to find legal means that pin culprits down. Early on, Ishikawa holds clear ideas on right and wrong, or Good versus Evil—and to pull a quote directly, he states in episode three, “Real heroes don’t need to take lives.” What a statement! Much can be discussed and debated on philosophical grounds, but I find it refreshing to see a character whose well-defined principles don’t allow him to stray too far off. There is a nice, kept balance between how “dirtied” Ishikawa becomes and maintaining his sense of justice. But even Ishikawa’s ‘criminal’ acquaintances can’t always ensure a culprit’s downfall, and it becomes that much more painful for him to accept facts: “justice” cannot always trump evil deeds, and it becomes his undoing. His comment from episode three is wholly forgotten, and it’s equally distressing as it is worrisome to watch his descent. It’s only a matter of how far Ishikawa falls, and will he be able to bounce back?
In its finale, Border shows how far Ishikawa will go in the name of justice—but it’s a decision that permanently alters his fundamental person, and the ethics of his actions are left open for discussion. (Do I see a season two in the near future? No? Ah, I can dream.) This complete transformation owes much credit not only to the script, but to the actor. J-dramas are not my territory, but Oguri Shun impressed me enough that I’m now tempted to stalk his filmography. He took on a character who could have been undoubtedly bland—especially in the drama’s first half—and colored him with an emotionally-nuanced performance.
The catch: One of my bigger disappointments lies with the show’s failure to utilize side characters. With the exception of a few, the cast is largely forgettable—and if not for the acting, characters like Ishikawa’s partner (yeah, okay, but his name is what again? It’s Tachibana, not that I’ll remember later on), a pair of computer geeks, and Higa Mika—the coroner, played by Haru—would be lost to me. Ishikawa aside, Higa is the one other consistent character to stand out, but her personal development is shafted. Instead, all we see is the potential of what could have been. Likewise, Tachibana never expands outside of comic relief, and Border only hints at a different side to Ishikawa’s boss. The way these characters play off each other is lovely to watch, but it’s a downright shame when the script hands all but one such little range to work with.
And then, of course, there is the final episode. Everything about it cries for a season two, but the existence of one seems unlikely. Depending on the person, this can be considered as either good or bad, but I’m a viewer on the fence. Ishikawa’s transformation wins me over—it’s not just watching the process of his unraveling, but seeing the result in action, and I find something appealing in the way Border leaves us to ponder. But then it feels extremely lacking, and—ultimately—incomplete. What of the aftermath? We’ll never know…
Weekend Pick features binge-worthy entertainment that can be marathoned during your work-week break. Think you have a good suggestion? Drop a comment below or send a message!
- Genre: psychological thriller
- Episodes: 11
- Runtime: aprox. 36 – 45 minutes per episode
- Watch: Crunchyroll & SoompiTV
“Kanzaki-san, there’s no way to make everyone in the world happy! People have no problem lying for massive amounts of money.”
So the motif goes. Adapted from Shinobu Kaitani’s manga, Liar Game follows impossibly naïve Nao Kanzaki (Erika Toda) as she becomes wrapped up in a high-stakes underground competition—a game where players lie in part of stratagems to cheat each other out great sums of money. Should they lose, an unpayable debt awaits that the Liar Game Tournament (LGT) Office promises to collect “by any means necessary.” Betrayal and deceit are not only encouraged by LGT employees, but expected among participants. As in real life, people cheat and double-cross for self-gain, so when 100 million yen goes up for grabs—versus drowning in a 100 million yen debt—expect people to behave at their most cunning. …Or not.
Nao challenges this belief and remains unchanged in her pure-heartedness, choosing to see the best in everyone. In a high-risk game where people jump at opportunities to crush their opponents, no one could ask for a more unfit contestant than Nao. True to her character, she is duped out her 100 million within the show’s first ten minutes. When psych-grad-turned-swindler ex-con Shinichi Akiyama (Shota Matsuda) comes to her aid, their involvement with Liar Game begins.
Although Erika Toda is one of my small-smaller biases, her acting displays little range—a flaw of Nao’s character design. She is gullible to a fault, and her refusal to place the slightest doubts in people land her in pitiable situations. Kindness, although a desirable trait, becomes her downfall in a world affluent in treachery. Others see her trusting nature and use it to their advantage, kicking her down in the process (over and over, again and again). (I wish I was kidding.) These learning experiences should be the seed from which childish innocence grows into prudence. And yet! She remains obstinate, and after the first, second, and even third time being fooled in Liar Game (I’m really not kidding), any hope of character development crumbles. Not to my surprise, Nao’s rigidly incorruptible purity serves as hope:
“She is innocent. She trusts everyone and doubts no one. Many may think her stupid, but they all realize eventually. They believe she is stupid because they have grown too used to doubting and hurting others.”
Regardless of wrongdoings within Liar Game, Nao proves that goodness endures. Contestants lie and cheat her repeatedly, but most ultimately feel indebted by her kindness. Even so: a line exists between innocence and stupidity, and Nao’s folly has no limit. I prayed for Nao to adapt without losing virtue, but she’s helplessly dependent on Akiyama through every episode. Her intentions are pure, but if not for Akiyama’s strategies and influence, she could never make it to the point where her ideals reach people—let alone win. To consider that Liar Game initially takes off as Nao’s story, this aspect attests detriment to the show. But rather than filling in as a main character, Nao acts as a catalyst and sees no development of her own. Boo! Instead, it’s Shinichi Akiyama who steals the spotlight.
Thanks to Akiyama’s analytic and observational skills, Liar Game scoots viewers to the edges of their seats in almost nail-biting suspense. It’s not that the audience should question if our characters make it to the top, but how. It was the racing heart, the anxious finger-tapping, and that bated breath—just waiting for Akiyama’s manipulations to surface—that makes this show marathon-worthy. All the more enjoyable is
my new crush the actor himself. Shota Matsuda pegs his role as calculating and silent with absolute calm, but he’s not emotionally distanced. He starts off cold though not uncaring, and his emotive growth progresses in deft subtlety. In comparison to Erika, whose depth is limited to an agonizing extreme, Akiyama’s character provides wider range for Shota to command—and he nails it. He is a predominant reason to watch, yet Akiyama’s best asset—in little ways—works against the show. Where’s the fun when Akiyama’s wizardry continuously spares our boat of characters from sinking? Whoosh. Deflation!
Yes, the hook fizzles halfway, but the show has Shinobu Kaitani’s masterminded rounds to up the ante. Thrill is drawn from the game itself, each round evolving into something more complex as stakes rise with risk and tension. The elaboration of each round make me feel awfully simple and a lot like Nao: clueless, distressed, and dependent on another’s smarts. If I ever become caught up in an event as terrifying as Liar Game, my artifice wouldn’t get me far. Between logic, craft, some common sense and guesswork, Shinobu’s chance and probability alone put me through a mindspin.
Entertainment-wise, Liar Game does well as a psychological thriller. It’s sure to make hearts race with the dynamic combo of Shota Matsuda’s performance and the game’s conduct. It’s the way these two features complement each other that induces suspense in the first place. …But oddly, it has a surprising shortage of unease for such nerve-wracking conditions. As I said: it’s not if our characters make it, but how. By what methods the cast chooses to survive each round—and each other—provide addicting quality. Dread and concern, however, for anyone’s unknowable future doesn’t exist. The characters’ mental and emotional states flip-flop under high-stress situations, but the threat isn’t valid. Or rather, Liar Game lacks any sense of risk that jeopardizes characters. If done right, a vulnerable environment could benefit the show in several ways, but I admit that the lack of present danger doesn’t fatally wound it either.
It goes without saying that Liar Game’s concepts need finer execution, but no one can deem it an unwatchable show. It is strange, though. Notions of human nature and greed are overstressed to a point where the show becomes excessively moralistic. People deceive for self-gain all the time, and whether it’s in Liar Game or real life: is there a difference? The show dances around this question and the answer is yes! Liar Game takes ordinary people and places them in a game of survival where, if they lose, they may as well be dead. The stress is extreme, and it wouldn’t dawn on many to split winnings when LGT pits one player against the other. But it is what it is, and despite its shortcomings, I’m swept into the franchise—cheese factor included. Just don’t expect me to dive in for seconds.