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July 27, 2009

JDrama Review – Mr. Brain (2009)

by Master Pillow

Potential (noun): 1. The inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being. 2. Something possessing the capacity for growth or development— http://www.thefreedictionary.com

Kimura Takuya makes his annual return to Japanese drama with the high budget Mr. Brain, a procedural crime investigation series that takes elements from American shows such as CSI and Columbo that on paper sounds as if it could have a ton of potential but instead ends up as a middling entry filled with vacant characterizations and episodic narratives rife with a myriad of illogical contrivances.

Japanese drama king Kimura Takuya is Tsukumo Ryusuke a former male host who suddenly undergoes a miraculous reinvention as a top notch neuroscientist due to an accident where scaffolding buries him alive. This incident causes his brain to go into overdrive and gives him the intelligence to go back to University to get his degree. Now a leading scientist he joins the IPS (Institute for Police Science) where he employs his newfound analytical skills to solve various crimes.

Each episode more or less is a self-contained tale where Tsukumo has to unravel a major mystery that at first seems totally fantastical such as a man who can apparently walk through walls or a killer who has seemingly come back from the dead. Along with his assistant Yuri Kazune (Ayase Haruka) and a crime fighting police duo they attempt to solve these seemingly impossible mysteries.

Columbo is actually a close example for Mr. Brain as both shows feature eccentric leads that are often times underestimated for their worth. Peter Falk’s Columbo went totally against type by presenting a police detective who was the antithesis to James Bond with a scruffy visage, crumpled clothing and a rickety car that looked like it was on its last legs. However, because of his looks all his opponents came to the erroneous conclusion that he was a mental light-weight and their egos overinflated their own intellect. What made Columbo an excellent series was watching how the lead character slowly chipped away at the antagonists with razor sharp logic that played to their egos that ultimately led him to discover the crime in question. It was, in essence, a stage play that featured Columbo going tete a tete with the weekly villain as they mentally jostled in complex mind games.

Kimura’s character here is not your typical nerdy scientist who goes around in a white lab coat. Dressed in spiffy tartan patterned pants with long messy hair, Tsukumo is like a hip Quincy who uses his power of deduction and neuroscience education to bring down his opponents. However, Mr. Brain never truly ignites our passion because the villains are rarely in direct opposition to him. Even though it’s obvious who the antagonists are for each episode they merely go about their business sometimes having no contact whatsoever with Tsukumo. This leaves our hero to deduce everything for himself without much aid from any of his supporting cast.

It’s one thing to have a brilliant protagonist but it’s another case altogether when he’s surrounded by less than capable people who either are too stubborn to help or just plain dunderheads. Case in point is his assistant Yuri Kazune (Ayase Haruka) who does nothing but provide him with a convenient test subject in which Tsukumo can manipulate. Make no mistake, she’s no Watson to Sherlock Holmes and brings with her absolutely no redeeming qualities in which she can effectively aid him in their criminal investigations. Ayase Haruka is reduced to either wide smiling or mock anger throughout the series coming across as someone who should not even be employed in such a high powered crime lab.

The fault clearly lies with the screenwriters who do their best to beef up Tsukumo at the expense of everyone else. Therefore, once again the cops are rendered completely ineffective at their jobs most of all Hayashida Toranosuke (Mizushima Hiro) who spends the bulk of the show being an abject coward that quivers like a schoolgirl whenever the threat of violence presents itself. Now, some might argue that Mr. Brain is not a totally serious drama in which I’d counter that while some levity can work wonders the nefarious plots presented in each episode are hardly comic in nature. Serial killers, police cover ups, multiple personalities, amnesiac patients and wrongly accused criminals are subjects that are not in the least bit funny. Having a cop such as Hayashida bumbling around the scene might work in the Pink Panther but not in a crime drama.

With only eight episodes the series feels completely eviscerated as if the filmmakers intended on a full 11-12 episodes. As such, the show’s episodic nature never feels like it has been paced correctly with the final two episodes featuring a ridiculously truncated denouement that is not only open-ended but wholly deflating in emotional resonance. Making matters worse is that the major plot thread that is introduced in the pilot episode disappears completely before making its reappearance in the final two episodes where it is unceremoniously dropped like a hot potato with no explanation as if everyone involved is expecting more episodes to come. This might be the case but if ratings are any indication all we are going to get are these eight episodes with no hope for any more making these loose ends insanely irritating.

These hanging plot threads pop up in other minor aspects of the show but each time they are a reminder that the screenwriters have either forgotten about them or dropped them due to time constraints. From the pilot episode the audience is informed that Tsukumo and Yuri have to present a thesis and consequent research paper in order to justify their department. This is subsequently mentioned in several continuing episodes as Yuri attempts to figure out what they can write about but then the entire subplot disappears never to be mentioned again. This is extremely lazy writing as it doesn’t take more than a line or two to effectively end the plot thread but it never materializes.

However, missing information about a research paper isn’t so bad but the subplot focused on Tsukumo’s analysis of his own brain certainly is central to the plot. After setting up the series with a somewhat interesting hook showing how an accident basically reforms him, the show drops the ball by never truly exploring Tsukumo’s inner journey to discover why things like pictures of bikini clad women don’t excite him anymore. Instead, the plot thread is played for laughs but this is a major missed opportunity for the filmmakers to mine some thoughtful insights into his psyche. Even worse, we get occasional glimpses into his thought process or inherent worries such as when he collapses due to lack of energy that again show a lack of creativity as these events are never expanded upon or even explained as they relate to Tsukumo’s newfound intellectual prowess.

There’s no doubt that much money was spent to create the show but much of it is wasted on useless elements that in hindsight were only meant to boost ratings at the expense of common sense. Nearly each episode features a villain guest star who is a major drama figure thus we see famous people such as Gackt, Koiyuki, Kamenashi Kazuya or Nakama Yukie show up but in all cases they don’t add much to the overall quality of the show and instead make Mr. Brain feel like a stripped down Fantasy Island or Love Boat which kept throwing stars into the mix no matter the plot. That is not to say that any of these guest stars is badly miscast but their involvement does nothing to add to the flavor of the show and instead telegraphs to everyone who the antagonist truly is.

Because of the show’s episodic nature the entire IPS team is woefully underused and the audience is left with no hooks in which they can begin to understand each individual. Instead, all we’re left with is a bunch of intelligent people who are defined by their jobs and not who they are. Sure, we get glimpses into their lives such as the scientist who continuously leaves concert tickets on top of the cleaning lady’s wares only to get perpetually turned down or the other member who previously belonged to the police but became reclusive after his profiling turned out to be totally incorrect. Nevertheless, these instances don’t form compelling characters and as such they became a cacophony of faces that whiz by without any inherent meaning.

The IPS set itself is huge and impressive enough but past the architectural wonder it’s never truly integrated well into the plot. Each IPS member has a clear department to handle but there’s no rhyme of reason to the layout and certainly no need for ridiculous holographic images and touch screen tables that would make Steve Jobs bristle with envy. The look is certainly modern but it is way too sterile an environment that simply looks like it was created for TV and nothing else.

While one might be able to look past the underused supporting characters or the complete lack of back-story for any of them one can’t ignore some incredibly suspect plots that hinge upon totally erroneous contrivances. I’m no expert in legal matters but things such as convincing a suspect to undergo brain scanning to prove their guilt/innocence seems completely far-fetched unless you believe, like Columbo, that the antagonists think they are smarter than Tsukumo. Thus a scene where Tsukumo takes them into an ultra-expensive brain scanning room to basically destroy their alibis really stretches the imagination. None of these people have been charged with anything and a brain scan would function like a lie detector test in that the suspect has the right to refuse the procedure unless a judge ordered them to take it.

Sometimes the story would be forced and manipulated to feature Tsukumo’s intellect even though his deductions are seriously pedestrian. When the cops go nuts wondering how an invisible man opens doors any viewer could easily figure out that the villain is merely smart enough to avoid camera detection so when Tsukumo reveals the truth you can’t help but shake your head as the cops seem completely astounded and act as if it was the second coming of Christ.

Mr. Brain is not all bad as there are some original elements though like the occasional snippets that feature a super deformed Tsukumo and Yuri that explain a bit about how the human brain usually works – kind of like a stripped down PBS documentary albeit done in a fun anime art style. At least we can learn a thing or two about neuroscience even if it sometimes seems like it’s tangential to the plot. As broken as the show is Kimura Takuya is still a charismatic actor and once again there’s no doubt why he’s the number one draw for Japanese dramas. Then again, don’t expect something as exhilarating as his 20 minute monologue at the end of his previous show, Change. Kimura can emote and dominate when he wants but Tsukumo is not a particularly compelling personality and there are often times when one gets the distinct impression that he’s coasting relying on his considerable charm to carry the load instead of truly crafting an original character. It also helps that Tsukumo develops a kind of respectful relationship with the lead detective Tanbara Tomomi (Kagawa Teruyuki) even though they get off on the wrong foot. Kagawa Teruyuki sometimes verges on chewing scenery but there’s an undeniable passion and charm that he brings to his jaded cop.

As Kimura Takuya dramas go Mr. Brain is far from his worst but can still do no better than end up firmly in the middle of the pack. With too few episodes, some ridiculous plot threads and inconsistent logic the show never truly gels and comes off as an underwhelming CSI procedural drama that relies more on high profile guest stars rather than in-depth psychological narratives. With all the money poured into the show it’s regrettable that it did not amount to much more than a paycheck for all involved which is a shame considering the massive amount of potential that the series initially warranted.

Final Note: Shining a green laser pen directly at things serves no purpose and instead of giving Tsukumo a quirky quality comes off as trite and exceedingly childish.

** out of ****

2009, Japan, 8 Episodes, Approx 450 Minutes, TBS
Directors: Fukuzawa Katsuo, Hirakawa Yuichiro, Yamamuro Daisuke
Screenwriters: Makita Mitsuharu, Morishita Yoshiko
Producers: Ishimaru Akihiko, Iyoda Hidenori
Music: Kanno Yugo

Tsukumo Ryusuke: Kimura Takuya
Yuri Kazune: Ayase Haruka
Hayashida Toranosuke: Mizushima Hiro
Funaki Junpei: Hiraizumi Sei
Kanda Junichi: Shitara Osamu
Ochi Koichi: Yamazaki Shigenori
Mariko: SHIHO
the cleaning lady: Kinoshita Yukina
Namikoshi Katsumi: Isaka Shunya
Iwabuchi Kiyoshi: Hayashi Yasufumi
Seta Ippei: Kobayashi Katsuya
Natsume Mitsuo: Tanaka Yuji
Nanba Jotaro: Tortoise Matsumoto
Sasa Miharu: Daichi Mao
Tanbara Tomomi: Kagawa Teruyuki
Takegami Teijiro: Gackt
Miyase Kumiko: Koyuki
Wakui Masakazu: Kamenashi Kazuya
Akiyoshi Kanako: Nakama Yukie
Kitazato Yosuke: Kamikawa Takaya

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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