The new Hollywood spy thriller “Salt” has received good reviews, even if a sizable portion of them admit that the plot is preposterous. What critics appreciate is the protagonist’s uncertain nature as a hero. Angelina Jolie is a CIA operative outed by a Russian defector as a sleeper agent. The question of whether she is a good guy or a bad guy is what maintains audience interest even as the situations become more ludicrous. The part was supposedly written for Tom Cruise, who turned it down because he doesn’t do ambiguous.
Moral ambiguity would seem to be the theme of the five-part NHK drama series “Tetsu no Hone” (“Bones of Steel”), which just ended. Based on a novel by Jun Ikeido, the series looks at the machinations behind Japan’s public works projects. It specifically explores the age-old practice of dango (bid-rigging), which is illegal but nonetheless central to the survival mindset of Japan’s construction companies.
Ikeido reveals the sticky ethics of this system by presenting it through the eyes of an innocent. Baby-faced idoru (personality) Teppei Koike plays Heita Toshima, a trained architect who has secured a job with Ichitani Construction and is looking forward to designing condominiums. After he gets into a fight at a work site he’s transferred to the sales section of the civil engineering department, which he believes is punishment for his intemperate actions.
Sales is as bad as he thought it would be. His new colleagues barely acknowledge his presence and he soon realizes Ichitani belongs to a group of companies that decide beforehand which of them will get a specific job. This process is presented as being as old as the companies themselves. Heita is initially bothered that his employer is breaking the law, but his first loyalty is to Ichitani so he does as he’s told. Heita accompanies his supervisor to the explanation meeting for a highway bypass. Nobody pays attention to the presentation, since it’s already been decided that Ichitani will win.
Then someone sends an anonymous letter to the media with information about the rigged bid for the project. In the ensuing crisis Ichitani loses the contract and the group descends into backbiting. Someone is undermining Ichitani’s position, and as the stakes go higher, Heita’s loyalties become stronger — not only to Ichitani, but to the the dango group as well.
These intrigues reflect current realities. The government is cutting back on large-scale public works projects, which means construction companies have to fight over a smaller pie. In the drama, a powerful politician who receives under-the-table contributions from the construction industry is trying to force a merger between Ichitani and another big contractor so that he can keep the cash flowing. Though bid-rigging is illegal, this manipulation strikes Heita as being even worse, since it is a betrayal of the group by someone who has benefited from it.
By the middle of the series, Heita has gone over to the dark side, losing his girlfriend in the process and maybe even his soul. But the questions Heita wrestles with are sentimental, not ethical. A banker who is making a move on Heita’s girlfriend asks him why he supports the dango group for the sake of Ichitani. “Your company will cut you off if it suits them,” he tells him. But Heita can’t be swayed. “I am working hard for our survival,” he says.
This is what makes Heita an unambiguous hero. He and the other sales drones were presented as the men who make things happen when it comes to Japan’s infrastructure. It’s the guys with the combovers and the rumpled suits who make the deals and bring in the money that filters down to all the subcontractors and their families. But because they utilize a system that is illegal, they cannot openly take credit for their achievements and they suffer silently for it. The drama’s tragic figure is a department manager for a rival company who inadvertently incriminates a member of the group during an interrogation by the Tokyo prosecutor. Like a samurai who has compromised his lord, he kills himself on a foot bridge that was the first big contract he won for his company.
Heita comes to believe that bid-rigging is a “necessary evil,” but the times, they are a-changin’. “Wake up,” a former colleague tells him. “It doesn’t work any more.” If the dango system is collapsing, it’s not because it deserves to collapse, but because it can’t be helped. The series celebrated Heita’s selflessness without exploring the reality that bid-rigging drives up the price of public works. It said the practice is illegal without really explaining why. As a result, the story felt dramatically arid.
Moral ambiguity is more pronounced in the current Fuji TV crime series, “Joker” (Tues., 9 p.m.). In the first two episodes, the protagonist, a police detective played by Masato Sakai, seemingly killed suspects he had found to be guilty but who could not be arrested due to lack of evidence. The vigilante is one of the most common antiheroes in fiction, and as the story progresses it reveals more of the detective’s past and his motives, which turn out to be almost as sympathetic as Heita’s, except that the detective knows that what he is doing is wrong.
The main difference in tone between “Tetsu” and “Joker” has to do with the two shows’ lead actors. Since his breakout role as the emotionally conflicted emperor in NHK’s historical drama “Atsuhime,” Sakai has been pigeonholed as the go-to guy for complicated, self-doubting characters. Unfortunately, this typecasting has manifested as tics and mannerisms: the half-smile, the squint, the annoyingly level speech patterns.
Still, Sakai manages to re-create a credible dual personality. In contrast, Heita’s purity of purpose makes him a saint, not an antihero, which is why Koike was the perfect choice for the role. Like Tom Cruise, he doesn’t do ambiguous either.