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Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk

March 13, 2014 11 comments

Blood-and-Iron-The-Book-of-the-Black-Earth--476514-1188293feb27c417d22e

This book forces us back to basics. As a social phenomenon, racism leads one race to treat one or more other races differently. Under normal circumstances, this difference is based on some easily identified feature such as skin colour. Whatever the feature, it’s perceived as making one race superior to the other(s). This perception of superiority is then used as a justification for the differential treatment. In practical terms, racism is also a measure of relative physical power because if the race(s) considered inferior resent(s) the difference in treatment, the individual victims may object. Self-evidently, if the race considering itself superior is able to enforce its will through the use of violence, we get into a self-reinforcing cycle which produces a stereotype of superiority and consolidates the prejudice and associated discrimination. The most obvious way in which this dominance/subservience is entrenched into local cultures is through the practice of slavery where the members of the inferior races are treated as property to be owned and, where relevant, inherited as a part of the land.

 

Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk (Pyr, 2014) The Book of the Black Earth 1 is set on the same fantasy world as his previous series featuring Caim. This time, most of the relevant action takes place in a country called Akeshia which is a version of 1001 Arabian Nights overlapping Egypt to give us sword and sorcery with factional political infighting. The magic system depends on zoana which allows the manipulation of the traditional elements: earth, wind, fire and water, plus the void. All children in this part of the world are tested and those with the ability to manipulate one or more of the elements, get higher status and potential access to political power. Those with the highest abilities get to be rulers, whether in the overt political domain or in the religious cults which train their sorcerers from young to be blindly obedient to the “faith”. Of course everyone is really interested in secular power but, for now, there’s an uneasy balance between the secular rulers and the priests of the Sun Cult which has emerged the victor in the “godwars”.

Jon Sprunk

Jon Sprunk

 

We start off in a period of this world’s history not entirely dissimilar to our own with the “European” races setting off on another “Crusade” to suppress the inferior races. Horace Delarosa, our “hero”, joins one of the ships as a carpenter but, in a sorcerous storm, the ship is lost and he washes up on the shore of Akeshia. So here comes a man not speaking the language and having no idea of local cultural norms of behaviour. Not surprisingly, he’s immediately arrested and, although shown some kindness by local villagers, he’s soon going inland on a forced march. However, as an inherently “better” human being, he defends the weak and befriends the downtrodden. “Europeans” have nobility of spirit written into their DNA. They are also gentle and humble and awfully nice, even when provoked by the soldiers guarding the slaves. We then get into the substance of the book through the arrival of another sorcerous storm. Two adepts go out in front of the caravan to defend themselves and their property (the slaves) but their skills are not up to the task. At this point, our hero discovers he can just switch off the storm. Yes, our superior European can instinctively do what no other local can do even after a lifetime of training.

 

And here comes the big plus to this discovery. No-one who can use the zoana can be treated as a slave. So through this inherent ability, he goes from the bottom of the heap to a launching pad which could enable him to be king one day. Yes, you can’t keep a good “European” down. No matter where he ends up, he’s always superior and will rise to the top. A few pages later, he’s being introduced to Queen Byleth of Erugash, one of the ten city-states controlling Akeshia and, wowser, is she a looker! Yes, she takes one look at our hero and she wants his genes in her children. There’s just one problem. Her political state is parlous. She’s about to be married off to a puppet of the Sun Cult so unless our hero can pull a rabbit out of his hat (that’s a euphemism but, in this instance, not one referring to sexual activity), she’s going to lose her role as de jure leader and become a mere baby producer for the puppet king.

 

Into the mix, comes Alyra who’s a spy working undercover as a slave in the Queen’s household and Jirom, an ex-soldier and gladiator whom our hero met as a fellow slave. Naturally, Alyra is also taken with our hero and Jirom is gay which makes their relationship confusing and explains why, despite his best efforts, Jirom is kept away from our hero lest he be tempted to the dark side (or something). So with just a few words of encouragement, our hero is soon demonstrating powers not seen in more than two-hundred years. When Europeans are good at something, they are really, really good at it! It was never a fair contest really and, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, he’s the number 1 warrior to the Queen and all-round nice guy. So he fights a few good fights and, despite not knowing how he’s doing what he’s doing with this magic thing, he’s doing it so well, he’s winning all his fights. Better still, when the locals use their powers, they develop stigmata and bleed from their wounds, but our hero ends up as good looking as when he started (once he’s combed his hair, of course).

 

So there you have it. Our hero saves the Queen (several times), incinerates lots of enemies, dispatches various demons and other creatures from “beyond”, and generally shows these primitive savages how a gentleman from “Europe” behaves. This makes all the women swoon and most of the ruling elite hate his guts — jealousy is a terrible curse even when magic is real — yes, my curse is bigger than your curse! The political machinations are somewhat simplistic and the increasingly divergent narratives arcs featuring Jirom are not as well integrated as they might have been making the pacing uneven and, at times, distinctly leaden. Summing up, at almost every level, Blood and Iron is overtly racist and sexist — at some points by my standards, offensively so. This may not be a problem for some readers. If all you want to see is people fighting using various levels of magical skill, this is a “classic” fantasy novel and you’ll probably enjoy this. Anyone else should steer well clear.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment

A-Price-to-Pay-An-Iona-Khan-Mystery--377918-f079cad1a106edf23bdc

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms (Severn House, 2013) is the second book in the series featuring Detective Constable Iona Khan, and it strikes out as if it’s going in an interestingly cosmopolitan direction. The protagonist has a Scottish mother and a Pakistani father, perhaps appropriately being named Iona Khan, drawing names from both cultures. In the real world, mixed-race couples often face active discrimination from both side of the family and from the community in which they establish their home. For the child of such a marriage to be the hero of a contemporary police procedural is a brave decision. Not only is this a woman as a detective in a police force known to be institutionally sexist, it’s a mixed race individual in a force known to be institutionally racist — a double whammy for our hero to duck and weave her way around. Add in the fact she’s a maths graduate and her capacity for a different way of thinking is also clearly staked out. She’s going to run into all kinds of problems simply because she’s a graduate — with the fast-track career structure, many direct entrants face considerable discrimination regardless of race. But here we come to the essential paradox in mixed-race characters.

For her to be acceptable as the protagonist, she can’t be too “foreign”. In effect, she must be British in almost everything she says and does (since there are no illustrations of her, readers probably don’t discriminate against her on the basis of her appearance, but some of her colleagues and random people she encounters may well react adversely to her skin tone and physical difference. Indeed, in some books of this type, the protagonist’s character almost becomes a walking stereotype of what it means to be British (whatever that does mean). In other words, the contribution of the non-British parent is rather more theoretical in the face of the socialisation the child has received by going through the British education system. The fact our hero has ended up in a counter-terrorism unit adds to the potential for mistrust. Some will inevitably question whose side she is on if those to be investigated are Pakistani.

Chris Sims

Chris Sims

The perennial problem when writing books with a female protagonist in police procedurals is how strong to make her. Since we live in a patriarchal society, there are certain norms to observe if the author is to produce what might be described as a mainstream book. Recently, I’ve been reading about a fourth wave of feminism building on support generated online. It’s stating the obvious that the previous three waves have been less than successful in disturbing the tranquility of the male-induced power structures. Hence, books like this can show a woman doing her limited best in the face of male obstruction. Often this will mean her brains and enthusiasm are ruthlessly exploited so that, if she happens to come up with the right answers, her male bosses can take the credit. Should the investigation take a wrong turn, she will be a convenient scapegoat. If there’s physical danger, there should always be men around to rescue her and so emphasise her essential weakness.

On the other side of the fence, a fourth wave book might have the woman solve the case that has defeated all the less than competent men around her, beat any criminals who attack her with cool judo moves, and be rewarded with a commendation and a promotion by a grateful nation (it’s a terrorism case so the Queen would have to give her a gong for preserving world peace). Depending on the model to be adopted, this woman might be able to drink all her male colleagues under the table, love them and leave them in the sack, or swagger with that indefinable quality that marks her out as an instinctive leader. In short, she would be an inspirational role model for all women readers, showing them that any glass ceiling would shatter the moment she happened to catch sight of it and that she would rise to the top, often with the support of the men who realise submissiveness is required when they are in the presence of a superior being. She will become a focus for individual and group action to call out men who are sexist and misogynistic, and challenge the assumptions underpinning patriarchalism. She will lead a vanguard of women towards a future of greater gender equality in a more global community. Yes, well you know the type of book I mean. Both patriarchalists and feminists can write propaganda.

I’ve diverted myself in this way because the book proves to be unadventurous in its gender politics. Ms Khan actually proves to be intelligent but perhaps necessarily rather paranoid. She’s competitive and suspicious of others which prevents her from being a real team player. Thus, even if the men around her were actually well-intentioned and trying to make her feel one of “them”, she would be unco-operative. This weakness makes her a less than engaging protagonist. Indeed, she proves to be somewhat reckless and has to be rescued. Even at the end when what’s probably an olive branch is extended in her direction, we’re left uncertain whether she’s capable of grasping it. This is a clear signal to women readers. The entire investigation was hurtling in the wrong direction, yet she did not have the self-confidence to open her mouth and insist on being heard. Indeed, when she did talk to a colleague and he passed on her ideas to their boss, she assumed he was her enemy and ceased co-operating. I’m not saying this is unrealistic. Women react differently in such situations of institutionalised racism and sexism. But her performance is less than stellar. In the end, she does “solve” the case but it’s only by accident, and because she didn’t follow protocol and tell people where she was going and why, she had to be rescued. This is embarrassing and not a little sexist.

I wanted to like A Price to Pay. The basic plot idea is sound and the reason why the investigation hares off down the wrong track is nicely worked out. But putting aside the slightly horrendous coincidence that kicks into operation as a plot dynamic about halfway through, I couldn’t warm up to Ms Khan at all. The fact I might understand the reasons for the protagonist’s actions does not make her likeable. Worse, almost all the women who appear in the pages of this book are victims in one way or another. Even the protagonist’s mother who had shown such good judgement in marrying for love, is shown completely misjudging the man who had been in her daughter’s life. And that’s quite fatal to enjoyment. So even though it works as a police procedural with an international dimension giving it contemporary relevance, I was disappointed.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)

November 10, 2012 14 comments

Elementary poster

As I have commented in other reviews, the need to cram plot into a confined space leads to often intractable problems for the scriptwriters. There are two basic ways to mitigate the damage (assuming the advertisers care, of course). The first is to work on the basis that simple is beautiful. The script never calls for any complexity. The cast is kept to a minimum and as little as possible happens. That way, a potentially elegant story may be told. Of course, it’s equally possible no real story is told and the few characters have to talk too much to fill in the time. Swords cut both ways (and have a pointy end). The alternative strategy means you rotate the featuring roles in each episode. Everyone gets their turn in the sun with more screen time and a better written part for that week. That, of course, runs alongside one fairly pervasive phenomenon. The majority of television shows and films are written by, produced by, directed by, and feature men. This institutionalises sexism. Most “stars” are men with women in the support roles. The scripts tend to give the men more interesting things to do and better dialogue. In the first episodes of Elementary, the token woman as sidekick was given very little time. Yes, there were moments she had to shine, but it was not until episode 4 that we saw some life in her. I was beginning to think this show was also racist. There are four regular cast members. A Brit, an American man, an Asian-American woman and an African American. Jonny Lee Miller, a Brit, is there because the British are cheap and work for less money than American actors. Lucy Liu is there because she’s distinctive and gives the show a better racial and gender balance. Aidan Quinn has gravitas as a senior police officer. But Jon Michael Hill is seen only in the background and has almost nothing to say. He’s a token presence. This has been reinforcing the stereotype that African Americans rarely get into the starring roles and, in their representation of real-world jobs, rarely shine. Frankly it’s a disgrace we should have to wait until episode 6 to see this actor get a chance. I expected better from an America that declared itself post-racial after electing Barack Obama as president (twice).

Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller ), Joan ( Lucy Liu) , Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) get more equal billing

Anyway, in narrative terms, poor Jon Michael Hill is on a complete loser. Even with a fair wind behind him, he’s the sidekick of the token NYPD officer. That makes him the gofer with no more brains than is required to get the right snack from the machine in the corridor outside the interview room. At best, he comes in to announce a fact or to stand beside the token officer while the latter fails to get a confession from the suspect. So in Flight Risk, he gets to be Holmes’s sidekick while Watson goes off to meet Holmes’s father. This means he actually gets into the foreground a couple of times. He never gets to say anything intelligent (he’s the sidekick who has no special skills), but at least he’s more visible this time round. In this, Watson is better equipped with medical knowledge and can correct Holmes when he sees a photograph of a suspect. Holmes sees an old pager on the man’s belt. Watson sees an insulin pusher on the belt of a diabetic. Years of training as a doctor were not wasted on her.

Roger Rees doing a good turn as a Brit in New York

Ironically, the best role of the night goes to Roger Rees, a classically-trained Brit actor who manages to do multiple accents in this episode, none of them very convincing. This follows the general rule that, if you’re gong to spring enough cash for foreign talent, you should get your money’s worth by having them show off the different funny ways they can talk. The scenes between him and Lucy Liu are pleasing and advance her in the series. She’s beginning to get somewhere with three episodes in a row offering her character development and the chance to contribute something positive in plot terms. As to the murder, this plays the old game of guess-the-victim. When a small jet crashes seconds after takeoff, were all the passengers from the same law firm the target because they were suing an “evil” chemical company for millions, was it personal, or did someone want to kill the pilot? It’s professionally put together and Holmes works out whodunnit and why as everyone else looks on with eyes of wonder. The problem is the perfunctory way in which Holmes is shown solving the case. We see the initial set-up for a few seconds and then Holmes tells us, “It’s murder!”, He didn’t do it!”, “This is the wrong engine oil!” and so on. There’s no time for reflection. It’s like one of these video games in which the lead character jumps from one floating rock to another with nothing in-between. We don’t even get to see the trail of breadcrumbs before he’s on to the next crumb. If there’s no crumb in sight, a deus ex machina crumb must appear from the hours of reading he does or from a fact brought to his attention by someone else. This is cheating by the scriptwriters. In this instance, the outstanding event is Sherlock’s analysis of all the records and consequent discovery that exactly 66 pounds of excess baggage is carried on all the key flights from Miami. What a convenient way for the criminal(s) to give him/themselves away. If there’s a positive note in Flight Risk, it’s the interesting sting in the tail with the mention of Irene (Adler), the first Sherlock Holmes canonical reference for a few episodes. So I’m just about maintaining interest in Elementary the series with Flight Risk one of the better efforts but I’m slowly moving to the view its limitations will outweigh its potential.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine. (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine. (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

The prejudices betrayed by what we say and write

August 23, 2012 4 comments

Sometimes, when reading non-related items in the news, the mind can suddenly identify a common denominator. Since it happened today, I’ll celebrate the event with an opinion piece. It seems there’s a self-published book called The Pearls: Defending Eden by Victoria Foyt and Weird Tales, under its new management, has tied itself in a knot over whether it should reproduce the first chapter of this book in its magazine. Also in America, I note that Todd Akin has refused the demands of his political party to withdraw from the election to represent Missouri in the Senate — as an aside, the drunken skinny-dipping episode in the Sea of Galilee may suggest other members of the same party can act in a debauched way. For the record, Akin distinguished between legitimate and other types of rape, asserting the belief that women could control their bodies to ensure they could not become pregnant if unwillingly impregnated. On our side of the pond, George Galloway offered the opinion that Julian Assange was not guilty of rape as he understood the word. Rather it was a case of bad manners or poor social etiquette. This on the day the Augusta National Golf Club ended its eighty-year single-sex membership rule and admitted its first two women members. It seems Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice are now lining up as many of the male members as possible in friendly competition on the golf course with a view to demonstrating they are better players of the game (the ambiguity is deliberate).

The lives we lead as social beings inevitably involve the use of signs and symbols to transmit meaning to each other. We talk, we write, we draw, and we use body language and facial expressions to package the meaning and send it to others. This means our society must agree what meanings are to be given to combinations of letters or symbols, and to lay down rules for the interpretation of what we see. As you might imagine, this would appear to be an immensely complicated communication system to learn if you saw it all written down. But we assimilate it as part of the socialisation process. Growing up, we listen to authority figures and interact with our peers. When we say and do things meeting with group approval, we’re rewarded. When the group disapproves, we may suffer social penalties or more formal punishments. This stick and carrot approach throughout our formative years teaches us how to conform or, at least, how to appear to conform.

As adults, we’re the sum of all our prejudices and beliefs. Everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of our personal sensibilities. If input matches our prejudices, we applaud. If input fails to match our prejudices, the reaction can range from simple dismissal to an angry physical retaliation. In my early schooling, we were taught self-reflection, to look with some degree of honesty at what we believe and decide whether those beliefs are “legitimate”. Today, no-one in the schooling system is taught critique whether for self-reflection or the assessment of others. People unthinkingly communicate with the world not realising how they reveal themselves in what they say and do.

So what would happen in a book written by a homophobe? Well, early on, the previously well-regarded A is outed as gay. Suddenly, all his co-workers stop co-operating with him and his employment is terminated because he can no longer perform his job effectively. His reputation follows him so no new employer will offer him a post. He ends up losing his home when he cannot pay the mortgage and, in the final pages, is beaten to death when found begging on a street corner. This would conform to the prejudices of many readers and they would buy the book. What might a gay author write on the same subject? When A is outed and suffers discrimination, he takes his employers to court and gets substantial damages for wrongful dismissal. He uses this money to establish his own business which supplies goods and services first to the gay community, and then more generally. When the opportunity arises, he offers employment to gay and straight people, making no secret of his own sexuality nor of his policy for equal treatment. He becomes a multimillionaire and buys the company that fired him. In a management evaluation exercise, he reallocates all the homophobes who abused him to work under managers who are openly gay.

Both books would be considered parables, expressing different points of view to appeal to niche groups of buyers. In other words, authors don’t suddenly stop being prejudiced when they write. They write about what they believe and express opinions about what they think is right and wrong. Fueling this process, organisations exist to make awards, but their criteria for deciding who deserve the awards represent their own prejudices. So, for example, The Libertarian Futurist Society makes an annual Prometheus Award to the books best demonstrating what it means to be free. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards are given to outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors. There’s no overlap between the award winners.

In an election, voters look for candidates holding opinions similar to their own. If they are anti-abortion, they will vote for candidates who deny abortion no matter how the woman became pregnant. If the political tide is turning against overt sexism or racism, people and organisations can trim their sails to move elegantly into line, or they can try to swim against the tide. So Augusta can, with whatever grace it can muster, offer membership to two token women of high status. The blogosphere can turn on Weird Tales for offering support to a book the commentators have labelled as racist. British George Galloway feels free to comment on the Swedish laws as they define rape. All these events mean we live in a society where we value free speech. For better or worse, people can say what they want to get elected to high political office and publish what they think will sell. Looking back this year, I’ve read books that suggest grooming young women to be sex slaves is OK, that killing illegal immigrants is OK although, if you want to be kind, you could intern them and then deport them by sending them out to sea to become someone else’s problem, or that trying to depose a military leader because he’s gay is always justified even if the country’s defence is then put at risk, and so on. There are as many opinionated authors as there are books published. It’s sad so many of them have no idea that what they write can seem [insert word]ist to others not sharing their beliefs. Or perhaps they are aware and actually want to offend those who don’t share their beliefs. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative of censorship is not in the public interest. We should all be allowed to make fools of ourselves or become heroes in the eyes of others for saying what needs to be said. As an elderly, white, male atheist, I’m no exception since I frequently hold opinions at odds with the rest of the world and assert my right to publish them.

The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 (2008) — episodes 5 to 8

Continuing this review of The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 (2008), the next case involves a kidnapping except there’s another nice inversion of expectation due to the failure of both Reiko Usagi (Ryoko Yonekura) and Seiichiro Kizaki (Toshio Kakei) to ask the right questions when they first arrive in the home of the missing person. They then compound this error by failing to search the house. So, although they suspect something is not quite right, they miss the real scenario. Although it does turn out all right in the end, it’s uncharacteristically due to luck rather than good judgement. However, Reiko Usagi does seize the moment following the emergence of a more successful working relationship, to ask Seiichiro Kizaki (Takanori Jinnai) about one of their cases five years ago. Ah ha. It’s the case involving Kyosuke Mariya (Yuu Shirota), the psychopath and, guess what, one of the Team died during this operation. Now we have the agenda. In the meantime, another newcomer to the Team Yusuke Amari (Sousuke Takaoka) has been acting like a stalker and now ferrets out that, five years ago, Reiko Usagi adopted her current name.

Ryoko Yonekura and Yuu Shirota playing out their roles in the prison context

The series now pivots in approach. Up to this point, the focus has been on the individual cases, showing us the understanding emerging between Reiko Usagi and Keigo Kirisawa. We now have the events of five years ago as the focus. Kyosuke Mariya (Yuu Shirota) starts the ball rolling by sending a “love letter” to the old members of his gang. They escaped more serious punishment from the criminal justice system because they were all juveniles. Then one is stabbed to death. This prompts Reiko Usagi to compare notes with Mikio Kudoh (Masato Ibu) a journalist who’s had an obsessional interest in the case. We now get twin narrative tracks as Reiko Usagi runs her own investigation, and various members of the Team and relevant senior officers decide which side of the fence they are on.

Takanori Jinnai so wanting to do the right thing

What makes this interesting to an outsider is that the death of one of the Team members has so completely blighted the reputation of those involved. They are acknowledged as the experts in saving lives, yet all it takes is one death and, even five years later, they live under a cloud. Institutionally, this is hardly the best way to keep the morale of employees high. Indeed, it’s not typical of the style of management for which Japan is justly famous. In the business world, managers aim to create a sense of harmony not this dysfunctional atmosphere. For reasons that only become clear as we near the end, there are too many bodies buried for that to happen. The guilt felt by Keigo Kirisawa is powerful and made worse because he’s never been completely clear about the detail of what happened. For him and the other officers it’s coming down to a simple decision. Are they career officers who will keep their heads down or are they righteous, prepared to stand up and establish the truth of what happened?

Kakei Toshio, second-in-command negotiator

Rather than spoil the enjoyment of you watching it, I will reserve my comments to a more general level. Although I think I have the bones of the backstory all worked out, the actual delivery is deeply confusing. I really don’t understand why Chief Shizuo Takabayashi (Ren Osugi) would appoint Reiko Usagi to the Team knowing who she was. From his point of view, it would have been better to let the sleeping dogs lie. The only explanation I have is that he wanted to set her up for dismissal from the police force, but there were so many better and easier ways to do that. Anyway, having made this decision, it’s understandable he would ask Yusuke Amari to keep an eye on Reiko Usagi’s movements. I’m also uncertain whether the gun that Kyosuke Mariya takes from Yusuke Amari is the gun from the original shooting. Finally, it’s just silly the police don’t surround the ski lodge and so allow the two to escape into the woods.

Overall, The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 is one of the more enjoyable Japanese police shows. Reiko Usagi’s determination to study and improve is genuinely impressive both in her regular meetings with the psychopath and in her study of lions in the zoo. She also mellows toward her sister when the latter announces her intention of settling down with a man. She even has a moment to dance with young girls in the park. But it’s her ability to analyse what’s going on around her and make positive deductions that make her really interesting. Others might see this as a woman’s intuition, but what she says is more usually a logical interpretation of what she’s seen and heard. On its own, it explains why the Team finally accept her as an equal, despite the pervasive culture of sexism. I can also understand why the production company would want to transfer this character’s continuing story to the big screen.

For the review of the first four episodes, see The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 (2008) — episodes 1 to 4.

The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 (2008) — episodes 1 to 4

Imagine a prison with bare corridors, paintwork in need of a little loving care and heavy doors. Now imagine the inside of a building used by an elite reaction police unit, able to deal with all terrorist, hostage and comparable situations in which it may be necessary to negotiate with the criminals. It’s a strange reflection on status that the interiors are similar. It seems the senior police units have little need for comfort or style. It’s all bare and functional with desks clumped together where the unit rests between missions. The conference rooms look like cellars, while the Chief’s office looks much as we would imagine the prison governor occupies. Into both worlds comes Reiko Usagi (Ryoko Yonekura). She makes a weekly visit to a psychopathic prisoner who will soon be put to death. She has just been accepted into the Special Investigation Team despite the fierce opposition of the Chief Shizuo Takabayashi (Ren Osugi). From the outset, he’s determined to throw her out. This reflects the intense and pervasive hostility to women in the force. Although women are trusted to handle the telephone, their only other function is either decorative or to offer massage services to older officers like Kohei Sumida (Takashi Sasano).

On her first day, Reiko Usagi arrives as the Team is being called out to deal with a hostage situation. Without being asked, she sits in the back of the car driven by the Team’s leader Keigo Kirisawa (Takanori Jinnai). A man has taken a woman hostage at gunpoint and is threatening to kill her but, before their arrival, he has made no demands. The Team’s lead negotiator Seiichiro Kizaki (Toshio Kakei) begins talking to the man, but this only provokes threats to start shooting. Reiko Usagi quickly assesses the situation and alerts the room that this is almost certainly a build up to a death-by-police suicide. Keigo Kirisawa is outraged that a junior (and a woman) should pre-empt his judgement and he slaps her face. It’s frankly amazing this should be portrayed as a routine event, not worthy of comment. The idea Western police officers (or indeed any senior managers) could discipline their junior staff by the application of physical force is absurd. Nevertheless, when she volunteers to walk over and talk to the man through the door, he allows her to go. In fact, he’s simply using her to distract the man’s attention. Officers then shoot stun grenades through the window and shoot the man dead. This is a clean rescue of the hostage but, when they examine the man, he had a suicide note and the gun was not real. Second-in-command Kazuyoshi Katayama (Katsumi Takahashi) tries to cover this up but, in an internal enquiry led by Chief Shizuo Takabayashi, it takes lies from Reiko Usagi to save their reputations. This leads to some real discomfort. She’s shown herself to be a potential team player but they prefer not to have a woman in their team. They resent being beholden to her.

Ryoko Yonekura getting down to essentials as Reiko Usagi

Shortly afterwards, the Team is called to another hostage situation in a factory. They are unsure whether this is a copycat suicide attempt or the hostage taker has a different agenda. Reiko Usagi goes in to talk with him face to face and, with direct communications to the Team, she elicits enough information so they can investigate who this man is and what he might want. It’s already apparent that she is on exactly the same wavelength as the leader, Keigo Kirisawa, and between them, they are able to resolve this situation. The fact Reiko Usagi has been successful in two situations is deeply distressing to the men who are used to all the glory for themselves (even when they don’t actually deserve it). The misogynous faction grows increasingly impatient to drive her out, but Keigo Kirisawa is now more clearly sitting on the fence. It’s obvious he’s waiting to see if she can succeed on her own terms rather than as a result of any help he might give.

The third investigation is an apparent terrorist bombing campaign, except that’s not quite how it develops. This is a rather pleasing story idea. On balance, I think it goes on marginally too long but there are two interesting consequences. The first is that the most obviously sexist member of the unit, Kohei Sumida, who’s an inveterate womaniser, actually shifts his ground to covert support for “the” woman. Second, the Chief is now disclosed as continuing to plot her dismissal.

Jinnai Takanori who slaps his juniors around

I suppose I should not be surprised that the Japanese police service is shown as so deeply sexist. Institutionalised sexism (and racism) seems to be the norm in the West in both policing and military environments. The Negotiator or Koshonin is not so much a story of a woman bumping up against a glass ceiling as crashing into reinforced concrete. The men are shown using their cell phones to take pictures of our heroine’s rear view on her first mission and later, when she has to take off her clothes during a negotiation, they literally fall over themselves to ogle her. Indeed, pictures from the in-house file leak to the press (nothing unusual about that, of course). However, what makes this serial so interesting is that the hostility is open with the Team leader even prepared to hit her in public (obviously without fear of any sanction). Japan introduced legislation in 1999 intended to move Japan to greater sexual equality. A Minister for State with responsibility for Gender Equality was appointed in 2005. Sadly, this has had little effect. In the latest international rankings, Japan is 94th out of 134 countries with only South Korea matching poor performance in gender equality with high wealth.

So there we have the first four episodes. The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 (2008) is completely fascinating. As yet, we still don’t know exactly what happened to Reiko Usagi’s father. This obviously gives her an agenda for joining the Team. We’re also left hanging with uncertainty why she should meet regularly with Kyosuke Mariya (Yuu Shirota), the psychopath, in his jail cell. There’s a journalist Mikio Kudoh (Masato Ibu) poking around but it’s not clear exactly why he’s interested in the Team. I’m hooked and want to see how it plays out.

The review of the concluding episodes is The Negotiator or Koshonin or 交渉人 (2008) — episodes 5 to 8.

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