Smoking is an entertaining and addictive crime/action series from Japan about a group of vigilante assassins and their enemies, made up of just twelve short episodes.
Smoking is an absolute gem of a show, one of those hardly-known foreign-language TV series that Netflix is so good at acquiring without much fuss. So I’m going to make a big fuss about this one…
It’s almost like a modern Japanese equivalent of the old Saturday morning serial: lots of action, individual stories within a loose arc, great characters, and short snappy episodes. It is violent, without being gory (well, just slightly, once or twice); grown up, without any nudity, entertaining fun without being a comedy. If all that sounds good, give Smoking a try.
Smoking is about a small group of vigilantes, run by Uncle Sabe (Rin Furukawa), a former underground doctor. Their signature lies in Sabe’s work, removing the tattoo from a target’s back and delivering it as proof of the job’s success. The jobs concerned are always about restoring some sort of justice or honor, such as dispatching a gang leader who does not pay out the rewards he’s promised. Smoking’s targets are not all gangland-related, though: some are personal and bring no reward at all.
Under Sabe’s wing are three very different young men: Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), who doesn’t speak; Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko), a little more sophisticated than the others; and Goro (Tomomi Maruyama), a big guy nicknamed “Gorilla”, who does most of the physical fighting. As the series progresses, each person’s backstory is revealed, outlining what brought them to the team, along with motivations for certain scenes of payback. They steadily become quite sympathetic, though not exactly well-rounded: these are strong but two-dimensional characters, like the great Saturday morning Zorro. The acting is as good as the script calls for… Sometimes it requires hammy humor, and sometimes more nuanced expression: the cast of good guys can deliver that range. (It’s not so important for the baddies: they are drawn straight out of comic books.)
Two directors (Hajime Gonno and Takashi Motoki) and three writers (Zuimaro Awashima, Yûsuke Moriguchi, and Nonji Nemoto) are responsible for this show, and the collaboration works well. Sometimes there is an obvious change of pace and style, but this suits the way the focus moves to a particular character who is lovesick or one with a traumatic history. It works well in another sense too, in that what is apparently a superficial and cliched crime story at the start gradually becomes richer over the dozen episodes, as you see how the threads weave together.
Smoking is a simple, low-budget production, with a soap-opera quality soundtrack to match. And it is very, very entertaining: fun at times, emotional at other times, and every episode starts with you wondering who’s going to get killed this time and why? Smoking is as addictive as cigarettes: I loved it, and hope there is a second season.