Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
Ataru (2012) is a rather surprising series from Japan. The titular Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is disabled so, to that extent, the producers are breaking the mould by having someone with obvious problems in a leading role. That said, the way in which people respond to this young man’s behaviour is very disappointing. So let’s start off with the formula employed. Detective or mystery series frequently feature someone who has high-level abilities and some challenging social features. So, for example, Galileo acts as an external advisor to the Tokyo Police Department while continuing employment as a professor of physics. He’s socially gauche, disconcerted by children, and behaves with some degree of eccentricity in other social contexts. So these are characters which balance some degree of ability with disability.
Ataru has savant syndrome, i.e. is mentally disabled, usually with some degree of autism, but has exceptional skills in one limited area of human activity. Some savants have advanced calculating or musical skills. Ataru is shown as having a heightened level of sensitivity to external stimuli, picking up words, spoken and written, and seeing the world as oddly coloured images with amazing attention to detail. This has apparently enabled him to absorb vast amounts of information on what seem to be entirely random subjects. So, for example, he can survey a number of screws on the floor and tell that one of them is manufactured in Taiwan while the rest are Japanese. He can also tell by observation that an aluminium tube has a nonstandard composition. Coming new to this series, we’re expected to find such ability plausible. There’s just one problem. He can’t speak to people. In part this is his autism, but it’s also a feature of the fact he speaks many words in English, presumably because he’s spent a long time abroad. This makes the series somewhat unique in having the feature character unable to speak the kind of dialogue expected of mystery detectives.
We’re also led to infer this young man is an important asset for a “foreign” agency (probably American) yet he’s left unsupervised at Tokyo airport and wanders off. The agency then spends the rest of the series trying to find him without admitting to the local authorities that he’s lost. Frankly, if he’s that important, he would be under constant supervision. To his handlers, he’s a known quantity and should be treated as needing full-time management. It’s also baffling he should have so much money with him (as US dollars). Although he understands enough of the world to buy food and has some understanding of scales of monetary value, there’s no explanation of why he should have a wallet stuffed full of money, but nothing else by which to identify him. You should think if he was prone to walking off, he would have an RFID tag taped to his ankle or at least have a card in his pocket with a telephone number saying, “This man needs help. Call this number.”
So Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) is the lone woman in the local police department. As we have come to expect, she’s an example of patriarchal tokenism. She featured in adverts and some video presentations about life as a police officer and has become a pin-up girl. But she’s not taken seriously when she tries to investigate real crime. It’s left to Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) to act as a buffer between her and the rest of the department. From a very brief observation of the scene of an explosion in a factory, Maiko Ebina wants to treat the death of one worker as suspicious whereas all the senior detectives write it off as an accident. When she returns to the scene, she meets Ataru who gives her a number of totally obscure clues which she then wrestles with. In due course, the solution to these clues convince Shunichi Sawa there’s a real crime to investigate. In due course, they track down a critical link in the chain and, incredibly, we’re then told who was responsible. We have never met this person. We have no idea why the murder was arranged. Before you can even begin to think about it. the episode has ended. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The focus is on the eccentric clues and not on solving the case by formal police work. The production also keeps breaking off for what the producers hope is humour. I’m not saying one or two of the jokes are not amusing, but a sad number of them are actually making fun of the disabled man, e.g. in his lack of self-awareness when it comes to wearing clothes in public.
Now here comes the second crunch. In her first interactions with Ataru, he hits and then bites Maiko Ebina (actually, as a character, she’s quite annoying and deserves to be hit). Yet despite not apparently recognising this man is disabled, she accepts this abuse and instead of calling in medical support to diagnose and offer the right type of treatment, she gives him a place to live. If you visit Japan, it’s rare for you ever to see anyone disabled. The vast majority of the abled never meet anyone disabled. Indeed, in this series, Ataru is left at the police station and, within a short period, the staff say he’s out of control and want him removed. Why? Because he makes a fuss when his hotdog does not have any lettuce in it. In Japan, no one ever has lettuce in their hotdogs and, if they do, they keep quiet about it when at work. It’s not an exaggeration to say prejudice against the disabled is institutionalised. It’s only when Maiko Ebina’s brother, Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori — a member of a boy band) who’s a medical student meets Ataru that we have an informal diagnosis.
The second episode is equally odd. The trio happen to be in a flower shop when a man drops down dead. His dying words are, “Blue roses.” Ataru is fixated by some spit which the dying man had dropped. Our savant diagnoses this as gastric reflux disorder but, in a quick screen for poisons, the forensic department fails to find anything suspicious. His wife confirms the deceased had heart disease. The doctor treating him was giving him drugs for arrhythmia. But Ataru offers two hints by a roundabout route. The first is a change in the way the deceased knotted his tie. The second relates to eyeballs. An hour later, we have an admission of murder which, in a way, was not actually necessary. Sorry, that’s ambiguous. The man might have deserved to die two or more years ago, but not because of his recent behaviour. At least the plot followed a more conventional police procedural track with the officers solving the case. The only other issue of interest is that there may be a question surrounding the way in which Maiko Ebina’s mother died some fifteen years ago.