Continuing on from part 1, I've got two more dramas to tell y'all about for the second part of this J-drama review. Both of these shows are about women being mistreated and overlooked by society, so they're downers for the most part, but at least one of them has a promising ending. Let's get to it!
絶叫 (Zekkyou/Scream/The Voice Calling Your Name) - WOWOW/2019
- Hajimemashite, Aishiteimasu') at the scene and conclude that she's the woman who died. A female detective named Ayano takes the lead on the case. Around the same time, a gangster who used a phony non-profit organization to steal vulnerably people's government benefits is also found dead.
- Scenes of the police investigation alternate with flashbacks to Yoko's past, showing a woman who was uncared for since she was a little girl. Her mom loved her little brother more than her, and that continued to be so even after the brother was killed, Yoko's dad abandoned the family, Yoko and her mom were forced to sell their Shizuoka home and go their separate ways, and Yoko's mom became financially dependent on her.Yoko stumbles through adulthood in Tokyo alone, barely scraping by on jobs that include insurance scams and sex work.
- The police eventually discover that Yoko was widowed multiple times. She would marry a man, that man would die under suspicious circumstances, and Yoko would receive a life insurance payout before finding a new husband in a different city. As the police get to the bottom of what Yoko was really up to and who she was involved with, they uncover even more unexpected truths about her.
Much like 'Soshite, Ikiru', this is another tale of a woman enduring many "blows to the spirit". Unlike 'Soshite, Ikiru', however, this show is anything but warm and uplifting. We know from the beginning that Yoko doesn't make it out, that despite her attempts to find some sort of purpose or love or happiness in life, she still ends up dying alone in her apartment with her body rotting amongst cat carcasses... Or does she? Whether Yoko is truly dead or alive and missing somewhere, what remains is that her life is miserable from beginning to end, all while she's desperately hoping for someone to see her and genuinely care about her for once. The show's title 'Zekkyou' (絶叫) means a scream, shout, shriek, or exclamation, and in the context of the show the word takes on an additionally solemn meaning: a silent scream, a cry for help that continues to be unheard and ignored. That scream, or "the voice calling your name" as the English title phrases it, belongs to Yoko. She's a textbook example of someone who can't catch a break, and despite her efforts life simply refuses to improve or get easier and less lonely for her.
The mystery of a woman who supposedly dies a solitary death was a significant draw for me, but I mostly chose this drama for Ono Machiko. As I've said in the past, she's one of my favorite Japanese actresses and her skill makes me feel like I can trust her choices about the projects she appears in. I haven't seen all of her work, but based on what I have seen, she hasn't disappointed me yet. Her performance in 'Zekkyou' is no different. It's a very short show (only four 1-hour episodes) and it doesn't end on a positive note. Still, it's a worthwhile examination of what desperation can push people to do, and what happens to those who have been abandoned by society and know it.
坂の途中の家 (Saka no Tochuu no Ie/The House on the Slope) - WOWOW/2019
- Galileo') is an everyday housewife in Kanagawa, married to a typical salaryman and spending her days taking care of their three-year-old daughter until she's selected to be a lay judge in court (similar to doing jury duty in the States). The trial she's participating in involves a woman named Mizuho who's being prosecuted for drowning her baby to death. Public opinion has already concluded that Mizuho is a monster and a failure as a woman for not fulfilling her duties as mom, but the trial is meant to determine if the drowning was premeditated and if Mizuho's living conditions and mental state might preclude her from being solely responsible for her child's death.
- As the trial goes on, Risako notices parallels between Mizuho's story and her own. This is especially so as her husband and in-laws begin asserting the demands of the trial and the stress of caring for an emotionally-volatile toddler as "proof" that Risako is an unfit wife and mother. Risako has a mom who's wealthy and overbearing, she gave up her career to appease her husband who barely helps out at home, and she had a harder time adjusting to motherhood than the other new moms around her seemed to have. Just like Mizuho.
- In addition to Mizuho, the show explores the other jurors' personal experiences with parenting as well. One juror (Ito Ayumi, 'Cecile no Mokuromi') has infertility issues but now wants a child more than ever after her husband has already cooled off on the idea. A male juror has a daughter but doesn't see her often, because his resentful wife (a former rich kid) wants him home as seldom as possible so she doesn't have to think about how rich they're not. And even one of the official judges (Sakurai Yuki, 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi') is struggling! Her husband has started bucking against being the primary caretaker for their son (as previously arranged), and wants her to step back from work into a more traditional housewife role.
Empathy and editing! Those are the biggest takeaways that I get from this show. What moms need, what women need in general, is more empathy and less judgement. Especially in a country like Japan where women are often expected to subsume their entire being under the designation of "wife" and "mom" once they get married and have children, and their value as women is questioned if they fail the expectations attached to those roles. As for the editing, I don't know all the technical terms but the show does lots of clever things to depict Mizuho's life and then re-imagine those exact same scenes with Risako in her place—seamlessly cutting back and forth between the two—which I think is a stellar way of emphasizing that these two women aren't so different and really any parent could find themselves in Mizuho's unfathomable situation. Would every parent go so far as to harm their child? Of course not. But the show cautions viewers against believing that behavior like Mizuho's comes out of nowhere, because it doesn't. A couple of times there's also a neat trick where a shot rotates in a full circle around the screen before returning to its original position, conveying how disorienting and overwhelming the situation is for the character who's in that shot, which was really cool to see. Cinematic, even.
Also, shout-out to the social worker who's called to assess Risako! At first we're led to believe that Risako's husband called the social worker to observe how out of her depth Risako is and, I don't know, remove Risako from the household? Take their daughter away? It's unclear what result the person who reported her was hoping for. Anyway, Risako is immediately on edge (as was I) because for her this is yet another person questioning her every move and seeking to punish her for not meeting their standards. But to Risako's surprise (and mine), the social worker gently helps her realize that her husband is trash! He's been emotionally abusing her by constantly making her believe she can't do anything right and putting her down instead of helping her achieve her goals (family-related tasks, making a valuable contribution as a lay judge, etc.). Not only that, but the social worker does her research, talking to anyone she can who's remotely connected to Risako in order to confirm her findings: Risako does need significantly more support so she doesn't crumble from the pressures of motherhood, but she herself is not the problem. I wasn't expecting anything positive or helpful from the social worker once that character was introduced, but the show turned it around and proved me wrong. Color me relieved!
This drama is a heavy one to get through, but it ends with a sense of hope after Risako finally speaks her mind during court deliberations and pushes back against the people who are controlling her the most (namely her husband and her mom). Watch this show if you like Shibasaki Kou and/or want to watch a show that's purposefully empathetic toward women.
Although I said that I was most impressed by 'The Naked Director', my actual favorite from this roster of J-dramas is 'Soshite, Ikiru'. It's consistently well-written, takes a compassionate look at humanity, and offers a solid conclusion to a story of young love that simply isn't meant to last. But of course, I would encourage anyone who's interested to give any of these five shows a try. (Except maybe for 'Dying Eye'. You can probably skip that one, haha.) Until next time!