(*Note, although this is the second in this series of reviews, I only encourage you to read the first review to get the preamble of the review series, all subsequent parts can be read individually.)
Furuhata Ninzaburou is a Japanese television drama clearly inspired by Columbo with its focus on a disarmingly quirky detective and how he solves crimes the solutions to which we already know, but as we established in the first review of this series the series more than an idle copycat. Elements of Japanese culture play heavily into the series, with Furuhata developing a love for children’s romance manga, murders by kabuki, and crimes committed at shogi tournaments. Furuhata Ninzaburou, both television show and character, have the DNA of Columbo, show and character, but Kōki Mitani’s skillful scriptwriting bleeds through with tons of charm, clever clues, and memorable killers to create a show that stands on its own two feet…
The first six episodes of the series’ first season were split down the middle between three great episodes, and three less-than-great episodes, but the average quality was quite high, with even the worst of episodes being functional and having their charms. We will now round out the first season of this show with six more episodes, starting with…
Episode 7 – The Rehearsal Murder has samurai actor Jushiro at a crossroads, as the wealthy benefactor and owner of the movie studio has decided to sell the property for the construction of a shopping mall. Even after collecting the signature of every single person who works at the studio, Jushiro was unable to convince his supervisor to cancel the deal. Desperate, Jushiro concocts a devious plot to tamper with the choreography of a swordfight scene in which his boss guest stars as the villain, so that when he uses a real sword to cut his boss’s throat open, it looks like nothing more than a prop-and-choreography accident during the rehearsal, with dozens of witnesses swearing up and down that the crime was an accident. Now, Furuhata is posed with a new problem: not with proving who committed the murder, but instead with proving that the murder was deliberate and premeditated.
If Episode 6 ended off the first part of the first season on one of the worse episodes so far, Episode 7 opens up the second part with the best episode in the show so far. The specialized question of “how to prove the murder was intentional” is well-utilized here with a killer who does a good job at deflecting all of Furuhata’s suspicions by accepting half-guilt for everything he throws at him. One of the best scenes in the show is in this episode, in which Furuhata nearly dies after thinking he’s baited the actor into revealing he can tell a real sword from a fake one.
Throughout the episode, The Rehearsal Murder teases you with the inscrutable clue of a moving moon prop on the set, and the explanation for how it establishes the killer’s intentions to commit murder is utterly brilliant, if not totally believable. The denouement makes incredible use of the movie studio setting, with footage from an old black and white samurai film being used. This is the best episode of the show I’ve seen so far, and an utterly gobstopping inverted mystery. If you ever choose one Furuhata Ninzaburou episode to watch, let it be this one!
It certainly doesn’t help that I am a fan of old samurai films, so the stylings of this episode appeal to me personally…
Episode 8 – The Limited Express Murder takes place on a train, where Dr. Nakagawa meets with a private inspector who has proof of his infidelity. When the inspector threatens to release the photos to his wife, Dr. Nakagawa murders him with lethal injection and steals the jacket containing the photos. Unfortunately for Dr. Nakagawa, a detective inspector is on the train and refuses to leave him be…
Like the last one, this episode has a scene where Furuhata lays a trap that initially appears to go off without a hitch, but actually backfires in his face, only this time played for comedic effect rather than dramatic. Besides that, the episode is just pretty good, with lots of natural little contradictions building up an image of the culprit’s guilt, and the interplay between Nakagawa and Furuhata is good (as it always is in this series). The trap is a fairly standard variation on the typical inverted mystery trap of “killer reveals information they shouldn’t know”, but since it relies on baiting it out of the killer at the last minute it isn’t fair for the viewer, and isn’t very interesting. Not a bad episode, but overwhelmingly average in every respect and a bad follow-up to the exceptional Rehearsal Murder.
Episode 9 – The Psychic Murder has Furuhata at the set of Kuroda, a famous psychic television personality who is being visited by an engineer from a local university in an attempt to disprove all of his psychic tricks as mumbo-jumbo and jiggery-pokery, such as proving that he can move water with static electricity or showing how mind-reading is just asking leading questions with obvious answers. When Kuroda claims to have found the scarf of a missing woman, the engineer accuses him of planting the scarf there, and proves it by showing that the scarf was actually a fabrication he and the police concocted together to trick him. In disbelief, Kuroda has a public panic attack and, desperately trying to prove his abilities, suddenly “discovers” a corpse in the same location as the scarf, shocking everyone… except Furuhata who suspects the truth that Kuroda killed the victim!
In concept, the idea of a psychic pretending to discover his own murder victim sounds interesting, but in practice this paints the killer as colossally idiotic. The killer was only just accused of being at the scene of the crime, planting the scarf so he can pretend to discover it; the exact same (true) accusation can be made of him “discovering” the body, making this discovery not only unconvincing in proving his psychic abilities, but also entirely stupid in painting him as an obvious suspect in the murder. It’s such an idiotic maneuver on the part of the killer that it deflates all tension from the episode — the fact that Furuhata canonically plucks a confession from him in an in-universe half-hour is not surprising in the slightest.
The psychic show is incredibly fun, but unfortunately lasts for nearly 70% of the episode and doesn’t actually contribute to the mystery outside of one line that is dropped at the very end of the segment. The investigation at the end is very short, and the killer is caught on two very basic, generic clues. There is a brilliant idea at play, where Furuhata needs to prove that the killer saw something specifically with his eyes, as opposed to in a psychic image in his head, and the explanation for this is incredibly clever, but the question is underplayed to the point of having none of the impact it could’ve had, wasting what is ostensibly a very good idea for an inverted mystery trick. Also, like in The Kabuki Murder, episode 2 in part 1 of this review series, this episode heavily involves a second crime that goes entirely unresolved.
The killer’s personality is one of the most interesting of the show so far, but this is a story that would benefit from being told from their perspective. As it stands, this episode has a very promising beginning that ends up flopping around limply at the end with wasted potential and half-baked ideas. If nothing else, the psychic show being an extremely entertaining waste of time works in this episode’s favor, but this is the worst inverted mystery in the show so far, and it’s by a massive margin.
Episode 10 – The Politician Murder sees Sokomizo, the secretary to a prominent politician, on urgent clean-up duty after he accidentally knocks a young woman out who refuses to take his boss’s hush money. While trying to help the woman recover, Sokomizo is ordered by his boss to overdose the woman and make it appear like a suicide, much to horror. Naturally, interested in being selected as his boss’s successor, he does so reluctantly — while the politician, in the next room, orders a pizza to the crime scene and makes coffee with the victim’s coffee maker! Sokomizo is therefore horrified when his boss reveals, over the body of his murder victim, that he’ll be giving the position to his son, enraging Sokomizo. Now in so deep that another murder would be the least of his problems, he proceeds to strike his boss over the head in order to make it look like a failed affair that ended in a murder-suicide…
Only, Sokomizo is shocked when he is being badgered by a nosy police lieutenant, who mentions that the politician is not dead, but rather hospitalized with amnesia…
Like Limited Express, this is another one that’s technically sound, but I didn’t love so much. The psychological trick isn’t very interesting and, in my opinion, not properly set-up by the killer’s behavior throughout the story — it also recalls an episode of Columbo, which itself is also pretty middle-of-the-lane. Furuhata’s reasoning throughout the episode is good, though, and I enjoyed the scenes in the hospital with Imaizumi getting his hemorrhoids treated. Not a terrible episode, but not incredibly memorable.
In Episode 11 – Sayonara DJ, famous radio celebrity Otaka has been sending herself fake death threats in anticipation for the murder of her subordinate for stealing her boyfriend! She commits this murder during a very short break in her radio show, using a shortcut known only to staff, so that she could pretend to have been in her dressing room at the time… She dresses the victim up in her cardigan, making it look like the murderer who sent Otaka the death threats mistook the two women, and then returns to her dressing room using the same shortcut..! Only, to her colossal misfortune, Lieutenant Furuhata Ninzaburou was at the station at the time on her request, and he is not to be fooled!
This is a very good one, with an extremely well-utilized setting. The denouement, similarly to Rehearsal Murder, uses the radio station in very clever ways to accentuate Furuhata’s arguments. The trap that nails the killer’s guilt is another variation of “revealing unknowable information”, but not only is this one entirely fair to the audience, it does a good job at using innocuous information not clearly related to the murder to hide the trap (though the “Challenge to the Viewer” foreshadows it so heavy-handedly, I’d be shocked if anyone gets to the denouement without figuring it out…) as well as a fun pop culture reference. The killer is extremely charming and her banter with Furuhata is some of the best in the whole show — my favorite scene is when she forces him to answer listeners’ questions on the radio show as punishment for suspecting her. Not an out-and-out classic, as it isn’t extraordinarily inspired, but it’s clever and great fun.
A man is acquitted for the murder of legendary senior detective Kogure’s daughter. Enraged with the verdict, and knowing fully well the defendant is guilty, the police officer takes the law into his own hands, shooting the perp dead in the middle of the street! However, although Furuhata suspects the detective, he has a perfect alibi: he saw a man carrying an attache suitcase into a suspected drug deal at around the same time the murder was being committed, with multiple witnesses attesting to this and corroborating Kogure’s story. Worse yet, the witnesses all came despite Kogure asking them not to, proving that it was impossible for them to lie on his behalf. Furuhata must unravel this tricky alibi to establish the guilt of his superior in Episode 12 – The Stakeout Murder.
This one is very good, being the second semi-inverted mystery in the series with the first being Shogi Tournament Murder in part 1, since we don’t see the trick the killer uses to establish his alibi. However, it isn’t very hard to guess what kind of gimmick was utilized, there being maybe one or two different possibilities. The killer’s guilt is established by two clues, and while both are extraordinarily clever, only one is entirely fair to the audience, a mistake that flows organically from the killer’s murder plot and solidly establishes his guilt. The other clue is a huge coincidence and extraordinarily lucky for Furuhata, too, on top of being impossible to figure out until the last minute, but the way it ties around into establishing the killer’s guilt is novel.
However, I’m a bit disappointed that most of the investigation simply had Furuhata badgering Kogure about his stake-out. Maybe in a longer story, I would’ve loved to the relationship between Kogure and his daughter expanded upon more, since in this episode it’s just a data-point that serves to provide a motive. Otherwise, the killer’s only real charm is that we see him try fast food for the first time, and he treats it like it’s high cuisine. I also didn’t feel like the episode paid off on the inherent drama of Furuhata investigating a murder committed by his own superior officer — a renowned, respected man in his profession. This is the season 1 finale and has a naturally dramatic premise, so in a way it feels like a waste to have the episode be so… normal.
Nonetheless, still a very good, not extraordinary, episode that rounds season 1 out very nicely.
Furuhata Ninzaburou‘s first season’s last six episodes round out to being as consistently good as the first six.
What I’ve started to notice about Furuhata Ninzaburou, as opposed to Columbo, is that the former has a greater tendency for high-concept plots that go a long way to inspiring a strong variety of crimes, situations, and traps. Columbo‘s plots are more complicated, but nearly every episode of Columbo involves murders committed in the high-society, with business owners being a very frequent character to call on for murders, and the murders being, conceptually, the kind of murder you’d expect to see in the real world. Men bludgeoned to death in their offices, or shot in their bedrooms — all very conceptually sterile.
Furuhata Ninzaburou, on the other hand, feels a lot more comfortable running with stranger, less realistic premises. Murders committed on psychic television, and a samurai movie rehearsal being exploited to make the crime look like an accident, and an impossible crime involving cheating at a shogi tournament, and a detective author acting out a complexly-staged fake hostage situation all feel uniquely Furuhata Ninzaburou; the kind of thing Columbo would never touch.
Looking back, I began to realize that most the episodes I found the most underwhelming are the ones that felt too much like Columbo episodes and not enough like Furuhata Ninzaburou episodes, with a few exceptions. Limited Express Murder and Politician Murder both felt like the kinds of crimes I’d expect to see in Columbo, and in a way they also stood out to me as being distinctly unlike this particular series, too. Many of the episodes we’ll see in Season 2 will further show that Furuhata Ninzaburou had a firmer grasp on gimmick and premise than its ancestor Columbo.
I’ve started to feel like it’s actually a bit insufficient to call Furuhata Ninzaburou “the Japanese answer to Columbo“. It’s a phrase that diminishes how much work Furuhata Ninzaburou does to stand on its own two legs and be its own show with no regard for whatever may have inspired it.
Season 1 rounds out beautifully, and I cannot wait to review season 2. To end this review, a ranking of the twelve episodes of Season 1…
- Rehearsal (Season 1, Episode 7)
- Faxed Ransom (Season 1, Episode 4)
- Shogi Tournament (Season 1, Episode 5)
- Sayonara DJ (Season 1, Episode 11)
- Shoujo Manga (Season 1, Episode 1)
- Stakeout (Season 1, Episode 12)
- Politician (Season 1, Episode 10)
- Limited Express (Season 1, Episode 8)
- Piano Lesson (Season 1, Episode 6)
- Psychic (Season 1, Episode 9)
- Kabuki (Season 1, Episode 2)
- Psychological (Season 1, Episode 3)
This ranking is actually a bit misleading because I think it implies some episodes are worse than they really are. The Stakeout Murder, for example, is sitting in the middle of the list, which would imply that it’s roughly average/mediocre, but it’s actually very good. To qualify, I think 12, 11, and 10 are bad, 9, 8, 7 are underwhelming, and 6 upwards are a spectrum of very good to great. Let it go to show just how consistent the quality is in this show, then, if half of its episodes are at least significantly above average in quality.