Hanzawa Naoki (半沢直樹) was the best-received drama of 2013, so it seems right to close out the year with a review of it. Drawing a striking 19.4% of Kanto viewers in its first episode, its ratings went nowhere but up – literally increasing episode-by-episode to its finale peak of 42.2%. Normally I wouldn’t bring up ratings in the course of an interview, but I’ve never seen a series do anything like this before (I’m sure it must have happened, but I’ve never seen it). So yeah, that got my eyebrows raised.

I viewed the entire series over the course of two days, and then took a few days to decide how to review it. Always encouraging readers to watch the drama for themselves, I never want to ruin anything or toss in unnecessary spoilers, but this series poses a peculiar problem because it is a suspense series with story lines stretched over the course of multiple episodes. So, the normal model of going through it one episode at a time totally not going to work, and I’m going to focus more on the characters than the story.

I will say upfront, though, that there are two major phases to the show – an Osaka arc and a Tokyo arc. It’s fair to reveal that since even a visit to DramaWiki would reveal the same, and it’s important because after the first episode, you might wonder whether they spend all ten episodes on the same story, which would be drawing it out a bit too much. So don’t worry – they don’t.

The series begins with Hanzawa Naoki (Sakai Masato) at a job interview for the Sangyo Chuo Bank. He says he wants to join this bank specifically because it helped save his parent’s factory after his father died.

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At the reception for new employees, we find out he’s ambitious, aiming for the top.

Jumping to the present day two decades after he joined the bank, we find him being shoved to the floor to apologize to this man:

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That’s Branch Manager Asano (Ishimaru Kanji) and all we know for now is that the issue is 500 million yen (around $5 million) have been lost and Hanzawa does not want to apologize to Asano. Instead, he aims to recover the money.

Moving back in time a little bit, we find Hanzawa at his regular work as loan department chief for the Osaka Nishi branch of the Tokyo Chuo bank (the product of a merger between the bank Hanzawa originally worked for and another – a fact vaguely important because of the internal politics). He has to assess whether a factory is credit-worthy for a loan.

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This scene is the main introduction we get to his on-the-job character, which is hard-nosed but compassionate. He likes to see people dedicated to their work.

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Back at the bank, the tension is palpable. Asano is aiming to meet the loan target that the bank headquarters has set – 10 billion yen – and their branch is only 500 million yen short (that number should sound familiar – if not, you’re going to hear/read it over and over again during the course of the first story arc).

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Asano orders Hanzawa to make up the difference by making a loan for the full amount to this man:

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That’s Nishi Osaka Steel’s president, Higashida (Ukaji Takashi). And technically the task is given to Hanzawa’s young subordinate, Nakanishi (Nakajima Yuto), but Hanzawa stepped in very quickly when it was obvious that Nishi Osaka Steel was not deserving of the loan. He asked to review the company’s finances, but Higashida refused. Well, if that isn’t a red flag . . .

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. . . but Asano is so desperate to make the loan that he makes a complete end-run around Hanzawa, insisting that he’ll take full responsibility if anything goes wrong. Well, now we know why Hanzawa wasn’t willing to apologize to Asano at the beginning.

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Hanzawa has two banking buddies at the start of the series – both of whom joined the bank at the same time as him. The first is Kondo Naosuke (Takito Kenichi), who is also Hanzawa’s sparring buddy.

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Kondo has trouble dealing with stressful situations (not including, apparently, getting beaten up in kendo), tending to go catatonic. To deal with it, he repeats numbers, but despite the coping mechanism he’s in disfavor at the bank because his performance fell short of expectations.

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While Kondo is nervous sort of character, Hanzawa’s other friend – Tomari Shinobu (Oikawa Mitsuhiro) – is a charismatic fellow with absolute self-confidence.

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But will Hanzawa be able to trust these friends as the situation at the bank gets tough for him? Or will they abandon him, fearing for their own employment?

One person will stand next to him without fail throughout the series, though – I don’t mind saying that right away because there’s never even the slightest question of it. It’s his wife, Hana (Ueto Aya), and I’ve never seen a more charming married couple in a Japanese drama, and you have to go pretty far back in American cinema to find a match – they’re a lot like Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man series of films except they’re missing a dog.

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Hana takes a reasonable interest in Naoki’s work, trying to help him out whenever she can by socializing with the phenomenally unpleasant wives of the other bank employees and teasing information out of them.

The initial conflict is set up early on in the first episode, when Hanzawa learns that Nishi Osaka Steel has misrepresented its finances.

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He goes to company president Higashida to demand the 500 million yen loan back, but Higashida points out that if the bank failed to review his finances properly, it’s their own fault, and he’s under no obligation to return the money.

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Soon after, Nishi Osaka Steel fails to make a loan payment, putting it into default. Its secured creditors get to pick off the company’s assets first, but Hanzawa’s bank is made an unsecured loan and there’s apparently no money left for them.

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But where’s the money? This is a steel company we’re talking about – the money can’t just vanish the way it does in financial firms when their speculative investments decline in price. Generally with an industrial company, the money has to go somewhere.

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At this point we’ve caught up to that clip at the beginning where Hanzawa is forced down to his knees to apologize to Asano. I won’t say there aren’t any more flashbacks, because there definitely are.

Shortly after that, Hanzawa finds out from Tomari that Asano is talking to everyone at headquarters, making sure they all think Hanzawa was completely to blame for the 500 million yen loss. Hanzawa confronts Asano about this and lays down the gauntlet – if Hanzawa recovers the 500 million yen, Asano will drop to his knees and apologize to him.

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And that’s the conflict of the first story arc in a nutshell – Hanzawa has to recover the 500 million yen from Higashida while dodging Asano’s attempts to put all the blame on him and get him fired.

Along the way he picks up another comrade, Takeshita (Akai Hidekazu), whose company collapsed as a victim of Nishi Osaka Steel’s default . . .

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. . . and another enemy, Kurosaki (Kataoka Ainosuke), who works for the tax bureau and is also after Nishi Osaka Steel’s hidden money to make up the back taxes owed. Kurosaki and Hanzawa race against each other to seize any remaining assets of Higashida or Nishi Osaka Steel that they can find.

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Saying any more about the plot would probably ruin the fun – it’s a wild ride – so let me discuss the characters and the acting a bit deeper.

I think Hanzawa is probably the most complicated two-dimensional character I’ve seen. He’s two-dimensional in that he only has a single motive – revenge (at first it’s revenge against Higashida for tricking his bank out of 500 million yen, but he has grander targets as the series continues, and especially as it moves into the Tokyo arc). Nothing gets Hanzawa fired up like revenge, and he inspires a desire for revenge in some of those around him like Takeshita.

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As a result, it’s not the case that he’s a ‘nice guy’ – while he can be extraordinarily kind to his friends, he’s also brutal to his enemies. He’s a fighter, and occasionally, he gets beaten.

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Sakai-san’s performance is superb – nothing short of that could have gotten this series the success that it saw. His character is, as the title suggests, right at the center of the show, and he had to win the support of the audience. The viewer has to be rooting for Hanzawa, and even though he can be vicious, there’s no point where we really fail to because Sakai-san keeps his character engaging and spirited. His face is always telling half the story.

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I confess that I had soured a bit on Sakai-san after Ooku, in which is character was practically the complete opposite of Hanzawa. Nice to see him making a turn-around.

I don’t know much about Ishimaru Kanji-san, who played Asano, but his acting was borderline – at times it felt a bit forced. That’s all right, though – he had just as many facets to deal with as Sakai-san because we saw Asano’s home life as well, and it was more difficult for him to paint a realistic character because he was an antagonist.

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Takeshita provided an interesting contrast to Hanzawa as they worked together, and even though Akai-san hasn’t been in a drama in years, he performance was quite smooth. The scenes between Takeshita and Hanzawa were always solid.

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So were all the scenes with the Hanzawa pair – Naoki and Hana. I can’t gush enough about how good the chemistry was between Sakai-san and Ueto-san.

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But Ueto-san had even better scenes when she was reacting to the often-obnoxious wives of the other workers, where the expressions on her face often provided some of the best humor in the series.

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Higashida was a pretty standard tough-guy with a flair for dodging trouble, but this is probably the best acting I’ve seen from Ukaji-san after watching him in . . . oh, a ton of series including Nobunaga no Chef, Kagi no Kakatta Heya, Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, and Nobuta wo Produce. He rarely gets such a central part, though.

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Often next to Higashida was his mistress Fujisawa Miki, played by Dan Mitsu-san. I’ve been curious about Dan-san’s part in this series ever since she appeared on VS Arashi and while she played a larger role than I might have expected from the correlation chart, it wasn’t really enough to get a real sense of her acting. No problems with the way she carried out the role either, though.

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The over-the-top character for the series is the tax bureau guy Kurosaki played by Kataoka Ainosuke-san. While providing some comic relief, he’s also a serious opponent to Hanzawa as it’s sometimes hard to figure out who’s ahead and who’s behind.

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I don’t know anything about Kataoka-san, but he struck a wonderful balance between being menacing and funny – and was usually both at the same time. The great writing helped tremendously with his character, too.

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Oikawa-san was a delight in all the scenes he was in as the self-assured Tomari. Tomari wasn’t a complex character at all, and at times seemed mainly a device to feed Hanzawa some critical information, but Oikawa-san made the most of the role, giving the role a bit of flair.

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It was tough to watch some of the scenes with Takito-san playing Kondo because Kondo is such an abject loser for much of the series. That said, of all the characters, he’s the one that developed the most during the course of the drama.

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Of all the actors involved in this epic drama, I was most interested to see how Nakajima Yuto-kun would do as a very young member of an extremely veteran cast. As Nakanishi he was quite good. He had some great moments, but also some points where he really overdid it. I definitely think he should see some further roles after this.

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Some of the characters play more of a part – or even their entire part – in the second story arc of the drama.

Owada Akira (Kagawa Teruyuki) is the Managing Director of the bank (just under the Chairman) and Asano’s superior. He plays a passive role in the first arc, but a much more active one in the second. Kagawa-san always puts every muscle in his face when playing a part and that alone makes him fun to watch.

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But I don’t want to give the impression that he’s over-the-top in this drama (since he often has been in other roles) – he plays it pretty straight. I wouldn’t say it’s his best work – he’s done so much – but it’s definitely up there.

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Speaking of the bank’s chairman, that’s Nakanowatari Ken (Kitaoji Kinya). He doesn’t really have to do much, and it’s probably safer that way because seeing Kitaoji-san still gives me chills from his role in Karei naru Ichizoku. If you ever start to think that this chairman might be a nice guy, go ahead and watch Karei naru Ichizoku. You’ll hate me for it later, but at least you’ll always be suspicious of any character Kitaoji-san plays.

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Suruga Taro-san plays hotel president Yuasa in the second arc. It was good to see him in this role, because he’s also in Yorozu Uranaidokoro, and the character he plays in that one is totally different. So, we can confirm a good acting range for Suruga-san. He also played a forgettable role in Kuro no Onna Kyoshi.

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His character is an earnest young heir who has to break away from his ancestors’ ways in order to save the company.

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After discussing all these characters and actors, let me be clear that it ultimately all comes down to this man:

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Which is why the title is what it is. The character Hanzawa Naoki is bound to become as iconic – a fiery, relentless force of nature who loves and is dedicated to his friends and the innocent while being merciless (well, actually he occasionally shows some flashes of mercy) toward his enemies and the guilty. He lashes out at the unethical practices of the financial world in a way that echoes the frustration many people have with that industry and the way it has conducted itself – especially during financial crises.

The plot was tight and very well-crafted. The writing relied heavily on the great cast – even a marginally lesser cast would have left this a mediocre drama, unable to convey the necessary intensity at critical moments.

The pacing varied greatly between slow, tender moments such as those between Naoki and Hana and fast chase scenes – even fight scenes (remember, Hanzawa knows kendo). No scene was pointless, though, even if the importance of the scene wasn’t immediately clear. The varied pacing is something that can be done more effectively in a suspense drama than in any other genre, because the slower scenes also serve to sustain the tension.

And what suspense! It’s a bit hard moving from the first arc to the second arc, but within the arcs, the drama is absolutely riveting. A person would have to be phenomenally incurious to watch the first episode and then resist watching at least the rest of the Osaka arc.

Honestly, the Osaka arc is actually somewhat more fun than the Tokyo one. I’ll just throw that out there.

And what about the ending? I’d say it was satisfying and fair. It’s not a Hollywood ending, but not hopelessly morbid, either. I’m not going to get more specific than that.

This series might not be for everyone, but I can’t think of a person (well, an adult) who I wouldn’t recommend it to. If you haven’t already given it a try, do yourself a favor and watch the first episode.

And on that note, I’ll close out 2013 and say Happy New Year!