半沢直樹 HANZAWA NAOKI, the most popular live-action Japanese drama in years, is well worth watching, and its roaring success there and elsewhere is indicative of a major problem in the nations’ corporate culture.
Hanzawa is a brilliant, hardworking, charismatic, successful banker with a loving, beautiful, and sacrificially supportive wife and cute kid. He does due diligence and then gives both his support and friendship to the small businesses he deems promising (this alone makes him a kind of unicorn in Japanese banking). No amount of overtime is too much for him. And he’s out for revenge.
His top target is the banker who years ago induced his father to commit suicide by denying his small business a loan extension. He wants to overcome this man and reform the bank for which he works. By the end of the first episode, however, Hanzawa is fighting for his career, as corrupt superiors who have cheated the company for personal gain frame him and put him on the chopping block.
A typically meek Japanese worker would take the fall. In the words of one character, in Japanese corporations the superiors take the credit for the subordinates’ successes, and the subordinates take the blame for the superiors’ failures. Hanzawa is different, though. He fights ruthlessly and swears to his enemies that he’ll get a double helping of vengeance for their wrongs (BAIGAESHI DA!). Sakai Masato nails the combination of niceness and scariness required for this starring role.
It’s tense watching. Hearing the theme song again would give me a myocardial infarction. The creators, like the author of the original novels, clearly find catharsis in showing how personal advancement and protection of the organization have long come before doing the right thing at Japan, Inc. and THAT is why the country has fallen. Some of Hanzawa’s bosses are acid. The others are base. Yet the love of Hanzawa’s wife and the loyalty of his friends and subordinates keep him (and you) believing in people enough to carry on.
I’ve had plenty of time to calm down since finishing the series (the ending wasn’t just a cliffhanger, it was like falling off a cliff; a sequel is certain to follow some day) and what most sticks with me is the creators’ passion for reform. I respect Ikeido Jun for becoming so well-versed in business (he worked for a bank for years), yet still preserving his idealism enough to leave his company at 32 to write crusading books like this. He made it to the biggest possible public stage. HANZAWA NAOKI is likely too Eastern to ever come to the U.S. but you can still take some inspiration from its existence.