Last year, I watched the J-drama series Ataru and even though I went into it not knowing what to expect, it turned out to be a really excellent series. I had thought I’d done a full review, but in looking, I only did a short one as part of my TV Thursday post. Therefore, having now seen the 3.5 hour special that aired late last year, I’m going to give a hybrid review, both a proper review of the original series and the new adventure of Ebina and Ataru.
First, a short overview of the original series. The pretty face of the police force, Ebina Maiko, is very unhappy with her career. She’s being pictured on posters and in advertisements pushing the police department but even though she’s a fully qualified detective, nobody takes her seriously. She thinks that the police give up too early on cases they call “trash heaps”, those cases which appear to be suicides or accidents, but which, with proper investigation, she thinks may be serious crimes. Ebina takes a vacation to consider her career options and while independently investigating one of these “trash heaps”, she finds a young man in the remains of a burned out warehouse. She thinks he’s dead, covered in blood, but it turns out he’s only sleeping. The man, a developmentally disabled savant who identifies himself as Mr. Bugger. Bugger, for all of his mental difficulties, has amazing observational abilities and the capacity for putting together disparate facts to solve difficult mysteries. Think of him like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. Not knowing what to do with him, Ebina offers Mr. Bugger a place to sleep and together, they go on to solve many challenging cases together. What she doesn’t know is that Mr. Bugger is actually part of an FBI task force and his FBI handler, Larry Inoue, comes looking for him to take him back.
That’s how the series starts off and, if you entirely missed the series, the first 2 hours of the 2013 special recaps it, which I found quite obnoxious. It wasn’t a quick review of what came before, it was a clip show. They re-showed how Ebina and Mr. Bugger met and solved the first case, they showed the drama between Ataru and his Japanese family who gave him up to the FBI because they were afraid he’d hurt their new baby, they showed every relationship, every case, including the final case in the series, the death of Ebina’s mother. I understand that the series was 18 months before but come on. If you’ve seen the series, you can skip the first two hours of the special and get straight into the meat of the matter, something I wish I had done.
The special focused on a case that brought Mr. Bugger back to Japan after having left for more training in America at the end of the series. Ebina is heartbroken and misses Ataru terribly but she’s also left the police and started her own detective agency. She’s not very good at it however, she fails to find a missing cat and when she does succeed at finding a wealthy woman’s missing 3-year old snake, the police won’t let her keep it and the woman refuses to pay for Ebina’s services. Feeling bad for her failure, Ebina happens upon a crime in progress, a woman stabs a man who is attacking her, but later says she has no idea who he is and he has no idea who she is. She thinks he’s the guy who hacked her computer and stole some items in a game they both play. Mr. Bugger magically appears in Ebina’s loft, the place he used to sleep and Larry, his handler, tells them that they’ve come to Japan to search for a serial killer in the Crucifixion Murders. Similar cases have started to appear in Japan, where stalkers are being targeted for execution with religious overtones. What’s worse, Ataru’s younger brother, Tasuku, finds himself embroiled in the case, first as a suspect and then as a potential target. Can Ebina, Ataru and the team solve the mystery before Tasuku is killed?
The case itself isn’t bad, although I think it is pretty funny that Ebina’s accusation that Tasuku is a Christian is taken as such an insult. In fact, everyone acts that way, like you’d have to have a third eye to be a Christian. It’s played against a backdrop of family drama, with Tasuku feeling unloved, thinking his parents only love Ataru and his parents feeling guilty for sending Ataru away to America in the first place. We find out that there’s somewhat of a cult, a group of players in the game who, if they kill a stalker and pose the body in a certain way, they will receive a million game-dollars. Ebina and Mr. Bugger manage to solve the murders, but the ultimate culprit remains unknown until the reveal at the very end, that another of the subjects in the FBI study is trying to draw Ataru out. They’re setting up a theatrical movie and hopefully another season, but so far we only know about the movie, The First Love & The Last Kill, that was released last September. I know they’re in the process of subtitling, I have no idea when it will be available but I’ll keep an eye out for it. My issue though is that the appearance of the culprit comes entirely out of the blue, she’s never really hinted at anywhere in the special, she just appears at the end. I find that kind of cheap, especially because that’s how the special mostly ends, going off to chase her before she kills again.
There are some nods back to the original series, which I suppose should be expected but they were fun nonetheless. In the original, Mr. Bugger religiously watched an American crime series starring swimming acrobatic detective Nancy and as he’s standing in New York City, you can see a billboard announcing season 13 of the series. We get more information on Ataru’s favored brand of ketchup and mustard and how they have to order it in bulk to keep him at his peak. I also found out that there was another series that came out in 2010, Keizoku 2: SPEC, which was referenced throughout Ataru. Now I have another show I have to look for!
Our cast is excellent. Nakai Masahiro plays Ataru and he’s absolutely wonderful in the part. He hasn’t been in anything else I’ve seen, I just find it a bit funny to picture him, doing his Ataru bit, in the very popular and long-running cooking drama “Masters of Taste“. Maybe he could pour ketchup on everything! Kuriyama Chiaki plays Ebina and while she’s not a huge J-drama star, at least not for things I tend to watch, in films, she’s everywhere. She was in Ju-On back in 2000 and played Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill as well as Takako Chigusa in the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is a hell of a lot better than that Hunger Games crap. Then there’s one of my favorite actors, Kitamura Kazuki as Sawa Shunichi, who has been in Akihabara@Deep, Densha Otoko Deluxe and Galileo.
While Ataru may never get to my beloved status like Trick and Galileo have, I definitely want to see more. The characters have a wonderful chemistry, Nakai’s portrayal of Ataru is perfectly believable and consistent and, luckily, they avoided the potential time bomb of a romantic relationship between Ebina and Sawa, which far too many shows fall into. They’re friends, there is a great magnetism between the two, but there was never a place in the show where Ebina got all teary-eyed and wanted to get together with Sawa. That’s as it should be IMO. This is a group of people that I want to revisit. Many shows, I’m happy with the series as it exists but I don’t particularly want to see more of it. This is different. It’s one of a relative few that I want to come back, that I want to see further adventures, because having these characters together is just fun. I’m looking forward to the movie and I honestly hope they do a second season sometime soon. Ataru, as a series and as a second half to a special, get two thumbs up from me.