Hashimoto, Mizukami, Ayano, and Hoshino as police officers in "MIU404".

The Antidote to Us vs. Them Cop Shows — “MIU404”

“MIU404” is the first police procedural I’ve seen that’s consistently empathetic to its lawbreakers. The Japanese series keeps a keen focus on the circumstances and corruption that funnel many into crime, whether it’s abused workers, indebted women, or immigrants traded in bulk by businesses.

A Mobile Investigative Unit (MIU) is a patrolling unit that arrives on scene to start the investigation as quickly as possible. It’s designed to hand over this initial work to a local or specialized department. Sometimes, they’re brought in as support for ongoing investigations. It’s an interesting approach for a police procedural genre that’s long relied on A-to-B plots that catch the bad guy and wrap up in an hour. “MIU404” can do this, but it’s just as interested in the frayed cases, messy loose ends, and law enforcement blind spots that are never resolved.

What’s shown here is much closer to real investigative work. It relies on comparing interviews to physical details instead of making the crime scene a magic detective diorama. A team that brings multiple perspectives bounces ideas off each other, instead of one genius being relied upon to solve it all. They ask relevant specialists for their expertise instead of having mind palaces that store information like a computer. They consult their captain, go through procedure, and get permission when they want to chase down hunches that aren’t fully supported – or get told why they shouldn’t. DNA is almost never mentioned. It’s a staggeringly fresh breath of air that feels more real than countless gritty detective shows.

The live wire in “MIU404” is Ayano Go’s portrayal of police officer Ibuki Ai. An inexperienced and impetuous officer who’s flunked out of every department, he’s given one last chance with the MIU. It’s not named outright, but he has what might be an impulse control disorder. He also has a past incident of beating a suspect – not someone we’d expect to be the show’s bleeding heart. Usually that would be the background for the series’ grizzled vet, not the excited apprentice. Yet Ibuki relentlessly argues on behalf of victims and suspects alike, always wanting to give whoever they’re after the benefit of the doubt. His two modes are charging in, hoping for a chase or fight, and standing up as the voice that empathizes and presumes innocence.

Hoshino Gen’s Shima Kazumi is the grizzled vet who’s been demoted, but he doesn’t fit familiar stereotypes either. He does his best to make no presumptions about a case. As he often repeats, he distrusts everyone including himself. He’s a skilled and perceptive investigator, and Ibuki’s hunches can grate on him. Shima does things by the book because it means he can better remove his own potential bias.

Interestingly, this includes Shima recognizing his own limitations. He knows that as raw and misdirected as Ibuki can be, the younger man also has a willingness to take chances that Shima lacks. Ibuki will risk chasing something futile that Shima wouldn’t. Shima recognizes this is an asset. He appreciates that Ibuki has a different way of doing things that can also dig out hidden truths, so long as Ibuki remembers to temper his emotions before acting on them.

This gives us partners who are empathetic in completely different ways. Ibuki’s empathy is emotional. He wears it on his sleeve and starts to act on it even when it might be counterproductive. He also lacks the self-awareness to identify the boundary between what he wants for himself and what’s good for others. He can mistake the two.

Shima’s empathy is much more measured. He needs it to be informed. He’s weathered enough to be motivated by the impact of his actions rather than an emotional need to act. Of course, that means he can sometimes overanalyze whether he’s justifying an action. That makes his empathy too guarded and slow at times.

Both approaches have their strengths and pitfalls. Both characters are deeply flawed and imperfect. Yet together, they have a way of tempering those weaknesses. Shima holds Ibuki back when the impact is opposite of the intent, or when Ibuki’s being narcissistic…and Ibuki coaxes Shima into action when the latter would overanalyze away their chance to help.

Their ability to build empathy for each other in a way the other doesn’t have access to for themselves means they have an ability to guard against each other’s potential abuses of power. By the time we’ve met them, neither is doing anything egregious, but they’re able to point out the casual and implicit shortcuts they might take as police that they really shouldn’t. This is a way for the series to highlight criticisms of policing in a way that offers a more constructive route. It’s a remarkably smart and nuanced approach.

“MIU404” doesn’t present us ideal cops or an expectation for them to be perfect individuals. Nor does it give us unrealistic heroic icons who pave over faults as many U.S. procedurals do. Instead, it gives us deeply flawed, often tired people. They might be so flawed as to be harmful, and that grind itself isn’t easy…except the show describes how a healthy environment of various perspectives, accountable oversight, and honest communication about their impulses and ideas can help the department better serve people.

There are elements that may take some acclimation for Western viewers. “MIU404” is a broadcast series made for Japanese audiences, not a co-production with a Western company with global viewership in mind. There are different storytelling priorities, particularly when it comes to the comedy.

The series can flip between video-esque and cinematic approaches to storytelling pretty readily. We’re used to shows that choose one aesthetic instead of contrasting the two. What that video-esque realness brings forth isn’t drama or aesthetic, but rather how ordinary much of what’s presented is. It doesn’t feel like actors are getting gritty realness or neon-at-night hyperreality, but the video-esque quality brings things down from the level of acted drama to the level of “yeah, this could happen”.

Making the investigations feel ordinary, unremarkable, and routine makes it much more consequential than a thousand breadcrumb-by-algorithm NCIS episodes. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat there watching a broadcast police procedural and thought, “This feels real”. Don’t get me wrong, the old Dick Wolf, “Law and Order”, Campbell’s-soup-for-TV approach has its place, but it’s also lost much of its original intent behind an ocean of cop shows saturated in us vs. them themes, computers-are-magic montages, and relentless police brutality glorification. With those, you can hop in halfway through any episode and know the full plot stakes inside two minutes because the progression of each story is exactly the same.

The standout quality of “MIU404” is Nogi Akiko’s mystery writing. It’s not all dead bodies and ticking clocks either. One episode revolves around high schoolers prank calling the police, pretending to be women who are stalked and getting in the way of investigating a real serial stalker. Since MIU is support, they’re tasked with investigating the prank calls while the investigative department pursues the stalker. Even before the two inevitably intersect, the course of that investigation is still compelling, a testament to writing that doesn’t need constant escalation in order to be interesting.

The series does have a few moments of melodrama and heightened drama. This might seem a big leap from that sense of the everyday it features in its investigations, but that’s more because of what we’re used to as U.S. audiences. Gritty drama is made all around the world, but it’s only the primary mode of visual storytelling in a few places – mostly North America and Europe. The rest of the world leans further toward melodrama as its storytelling medium, and let’s be real – our obsession with grittiness is just as apt to go overboard and lack believability.

That shift from the ordinary to melodramatic, which often includes a bit of cute and cringe, is just as normal as our storytelling shifts from ordinary to gritty, which often includes grim menace and a reinforcing one-liner timed to the commercial break. If you’re willing to pick up and understand how one is as natural a progression as the other, then “MIU404” is thoughtful, moving, and funny. If that’s a step too far, then you may get some storytelling whiplash from the show’s shifting tones.

Ibuki and Shima’s different approaches to similar empathy don’t stop the two from constantly getting on each others’ nerves, and herein lies the downfall of many a police procedural. I consider myself something of an expert on witty buddy cop banter, having survived many years of the “Hawaii Five-0” reboot. Why would I do that to myself? It was the only way to watch Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park kick ass for several years running. Unfortunately, every episode would stick the other two leads (Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan) together for filler so they could bicker each side of a B-plot nobody cared about. And then they’d play tinkly little piano music over it to suggest this was somehow fun. Every broadcast police procedural made in the U.S. repeats this. It’s Buddy Cop 101 and it makes me want to tear my hair out.

“MIU404” has some bickering, but it’s mostly well written and acted. Some of it borders on comedy routine, and it often veers straight into dramatic and revealing character moments. There’s a rare bit that doesn’t land or that relies on a level of cuteness that’s a big cultural difference – something we’d never include in a U.S. police procedural. Most of it really works, and feels like a welcome deluge in the desert of terrible police show banter.

Moreover, Ibuki and Shima’s bickering reveals a closeness and appreciation for each other, as it becomes more and more of an in-joke between them. It also reflects their growing ability to call each other in when one’s going too far or the other’s being a stick in the mud. It would’ve been easy to take this in an Odd Couple route, but “MIU404” is much more interested in how this helps them see from the other’s perspective and learn their own limitations. It’s a much warmer feeling, and creates the sense of a safe space the series can lean on to tackle some exceptionally tough themes in its cases.

The episodes themselves are explicit about the issues they call out. Investigations center on workplace abuse, road rage, Japan’s lack of witness protection, and the abuse of immigrants, just to name a few early topics. Desperate crimes aren’t seen as a perpetrator to lock up and tally off, but rather a symptom of larger social ills to identify. Other procedurals might do this from time to time as a ‘special episode’, but they’re often written as half-measures because it’s not what those shows really do. For “MIU404”, this is exactly what it’s designed to engage. This is why it’s here, so the areas it focuses on come off as remarkable and pointed.

One of the most interesting moments in the show involves four MIU officers and their captain debating the right course of action for punishing young offenders. They each have a different approach and philosophy that backs it, but as usual their captain’s heard this all before and is one step ahead. Aso Kumiko’s Captain Kikyo Yuzuru is the most admirable character on the show. She’s the first character we meet in the series after she announces the new department’s creation, but what social media’s taken from her leadership position centers on her looks. When meeting with other captains and those who outrank her, she regularly deflects the claim that her differing opinions arise from being a woman, and redirects the conversation into what she requires and expects from others in relation to her department.

There are stereotypes this kind of character can fall into, but Kikyo is a full person who considers her job a responsibility instead of an achievement. Her portrayal can be seen as a microcosm of the show’s arguments overall – that for police to be useful, they have to keep community in mind. They can’t pit victims against each other to justify screwing one or the other over. They’re there to carry out a responsibility, not exert their position. “MIU404” gives us police officers who are susceptible to mistakes and abuses, which is unfortunately the reality. It also gives us a person in charge who shapes an environment where these habits can be communicated and disarmed, and in doing this argues that this should be the expectation for the system as a whole. These arguments are about Japanese policing toward a Japanese audience, but many of them apply to a lot of other places. As a U.S. viewer, the show is resoundingly relevant.

“MIU404” ought to be a good show with a few great episodes, but its warmth, complex understanding of different kinds of empathy, its ability to argue systemic changes, its talented ensemble, and showrunner/writer Nogi Akiko’s skill at both mystery and comedy writing make it feel like an utter treat.

Nogi’s lobbying for her medical procedural “Unnatural” to also be picked up internationally, and I deeply hope it is. She’s an exceptional storyteller whose voice we could stand to hear more of in this part of the world.

You can watch “MIU404” on Netflix. There’s no embeddable trailer, but you can click through and see it there.

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