Thursday, December 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Harbor + The Secret Lives of Church Ladies)

Well, what do you know? Look at me writing two book reviews in one month! For the holidays I've been chilling in Louisville, and my only real goal for these last few lingering days of December has been to write another book review before "this year" becomes "last year". So here I am doing just that! This review features two novels, each of which I read cover-to-cover in two days, and one of which is the last book I'll be finishing in 2021. Both of them were written by Black women and both contain romance in varying degrees of graphic detail. First up is a very NSFW romance novel about a polyamorous relationship that forms between three Black 30-somethings who've lost their significant others in the same murderous incident. And then, a collection of stories about Black Southern women who grew up in church yet find themselves bucking tradition in favor of desire, self-discovery, and doing what they want simply because it feels good. 

Harbor by Rebekah Weatherspoon
 
I'm not going to divulge the real reason why I chose to read this book, because I don't want to tell on myself (at least not any more than I already have in nearly 9 years of keeping up this personal blog, amirite?). So I will just say... previously I've mentioned how I became aware of Jasmine Guillory because her name seemed to be everywhere in the online spaces I frequented around 2019, which made me want to know what the hype was about. I found out about Rebekah Weatherspoon, another Black woman who writes romance novels, in much the same way. And when I looked through Weatherspoon's bibliography, Harbor (part of her "Beards & Bondage" trilogy) seemed to be her most prominent example of a romance between Black people. But not between just two Black people, oh no. Three. Harbor is a standalone novel and also the third and final part of what Weatherspoon calls, "This sort of bizarre, extremely horny romantic suspense trilogy" in her very succinct thank-you paragraph at the end. In this review I will occasionally refer to the book's characters by their first initials: VS = Vaughn and Shaw. CVS = Corinne, Vaughn, and Shaw. VBS = Vaughn, Brooklyn, and Shaw.
 
Vaughn is a patent and trademark lawyer living in Boston, and his boyfriend Shaw lives on Cape Cod crafting custom wood furniture for wealthy clients. Brooklyn, a Bronx native, is an assistant district attorney living in Brooklyn. There's no reason for VS and Brooklyn's paths to cross, until VS's girlfriend Corinne and Brooklyn's fiancé Josh are killed in a double murder-suicide—Corinne was being stalked, and the stalker killed her and Josh while they were in bed together. In other words, Brooklyn and VS learn of their significant others' deaths and their infidelity at the same time. Blindsided, they each mourn their dead lovers while nursing their anger at being lied to and cheated on. (From the little I've learned thus far about polyamorous relationships, being polyamorous doesn't necessarily mean that partners can have sex with whoever else they want, whenever they want, and without discussing it first. Every relationship is different, and poly partners often have their own agreements and boundaries set in place. For CVS, being polyamorous meant that they were all in a committed relationship with each other, and so Vaughn and Shaw rightfully feel betrayed by Corrine's secret involvement with someone else.) 
 
Feeling emotionally raw and desperate for answers, Vaughn seeks Brooklyn out at Josh's funeral, and they agree to meet at a Boston hotel with Shaw reluctantly in attendance as well. Although Shaw doesn't initially think any good can come from this meeting, and the concrete answers that Vaughn and Brooklyn seek will elude them forever, the trio find unexpected comfort in each other since only they know exactly what it's like to be dealing with this uniquely messed-up predicament. And although VS are attracted to Brooklyn and vice versa—while in Brooklyn's hotel room, they all acknowledge that each one of them is foine—the three agree that the loss is too new, and that they're too close to the situation to become sexually involved with each other so soon. They don't want to "trauma bond" (at least not yet), so Brooklyn and VS go their separate ways, but not before Shaw returns to her room to make out with her a little bit. Sixteen months later, Brooklyn randomly texts Shaw about just having "the worst sex of my life," and Shaw invites her to spend a weekend at his house on the Cape so that he and Vaughn can rectify that for her. Thus begins Brooklyn's introduction to Vaughn and Shaw's BDSM lifestyle, which includes a secluded beach, Shaw's sex dungeon, and agreed-upon terms and conditions.

While Vaughn is the one to initiate contact with Brooklyn and he technically has sex with her first (at Shaw's instruction), to me Brooklyn and Shaw still seemed to have a more intense connection between just the two of them. What Corrine did is clearly called "cheating", but when Shaw visits Brooklyn alone and kisses her, that's not considered crossing a line, and I was confused about that. V knew S was going to visit B's hotel room again, and V knew S probably wasn't going there just to talk, but it's not clear whether V and S discussed the kiss afterward or not. Additionally, there are two occasions where B and S play without V (one occasion V knows about and is partially present for via FaceTime, the other one he's completely left out of and doesn't know about until after the fact). So jealousy is briefly addressed within VBS's arrangement, but it wasn't always clear to me what counted as boundary-crossing for them and what didn't. 
 
There's an obstacle that's somewhat randomly thrown in to manufacture what I now understand to be a common or even expected trope in romance story structures: The couple (throuple?) break up or otherwise separate in the third act, making it all the more rewarding and meaningful when they manage to find their way back together again by the story's conclusion (happily ever after/happy for now). One of the detectives investigating the double murder-suicide shockingly rolls up on VBS when they're at brunch during one of their kinky weekends on the Cape, and he clearly questions and disapproves of VBS being together. This scares Brooklyn and VS into ceasing contact so as not to raise further suspicion and potentially be treated as suspects in the case. However, that obstacle arises and disappears in a matter of 13 pages (I counted). The more important conflict lingering from that scare is B and VS needing to admit that they want more than just sex with each other; they want to be a polyamorous "unit", even with the emotional and professional risks that come with being committed to (and public with) such a relationship. For Brooklyn in particular, who's new to this and whose career would be most at stake out of the three, the run-in with the detective forces her to decide whether she's willing to break norms and potentially be exposed in order to pursue love with these two men.
 
Speaking of their love, I would've liked to read more of VBS's relationship after they made up, like how they grew to further understand each other's likes and dislikes (one more play scene wouldn't have hurt). We go from them reconciling on Brooklyn's sister's farm to them having a commitment ceremony—as close to a wedding as they can get, since their union won't be legally recognized—on that very same farm 16 months later. And Brooklyn does recap the major happenings of that in-between time, but I wanted to know more of the details. For example, there's a specific act that B keeps thinking about once she and VS first start doing their kink stuff together, and she finally gathers the nerve to request it, only for S to insist on delaying it until the three of them have discussed all the health concerns related to it. Which I thought was excellent! A thoughtful approach to doing-the-do safely. Wonderful. But then it never comes up again. I'm sure that over the 16-month course of this trio's revived relationship leading up to the commitment ceremony, B got to experience the act that she wanted done to her, but it just seems strange to keep mentioning something, as if the reader is being primed to look forward to it, and then never actually show it happening.
 
I learned so many new things from reading Harbor, and one of them is a potential reason for why some folks prefer poly relationships in the first place. This was fascinating to me because as an introvert with no romantic experience, being in a relationship with multiple people at once is not the first idea that comes to mind when I think about dating. And admittedly, in the past I did entertain the heinously ignorant supposition that bisexual, pansexual, and/or polyamorous people might simply be indecisive or greedy. But thankfully, Vaughn helped me consider that there are some people who overflow with so much love and affection that they can't help but want to share it with as many others—selected and vetted others, in Vaughn's case—as possible. Furthermore, if that's the case, then perhaps it's necessary to share one's affection with multiple partners, rather than risk smothering one partner with all of that love and the needs that come attached with it. That's an idea that had literally never occurred to me before, and through Vaughn, Rebekah Weatherspoon presents it in a way that makes perfect sense.
 
Something else that I find brilliant about Harbor is how it acknowledges that VBS are trauma bonding, but contests whether bonding over trauma is really so dangerous if the parties involved prioritize honesty at every step. The novel contains lots of talk about feelings, as VS and VBS are constantly checking in with what each person needs or wants in the moment. "What do you need?" is a question that is asked quite frequently. Brittany, Vaughn, and Shaw are each recovering from the trauma of death and infidelity as they probe the potential of this new entanglement, and they want to take care of each other while still processing their respective emotions as authentically as possible. Not too long ago, I read a Korean online comic called "Ouroboros" (Songhyel) that was somewhat similar to Harbor in terms of framing polyamory as a means of exploration and healing amidst PTSD. A cop is abducted, held hostage for days, and repeatedly raped by his brother-in-law, and after losing his wife and being suspended from his job, he starts dating a younger colleague and a rich heir/party boy at the same time. And what you assume is a love triangle gradually morphs into a poly situation where the colleague and the heir's respective desire to have the cop to themselves takes a backseat to them collaborating to support the cop through the trauma responses he's exhibiting. In hindsight, I'm glad that I read that comic before arriving at Harbor, because it enabled me to approach the story with a more open mind. If you're curious about kink/BDSM, recovery from loss, and how a polyamorous relationship might play out between 30-something Black professionals, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"But none of that is going to happen 'cause as it turns out this motherfucker was cheating on me... and I can't even take this giant diamond ring off my finger and throw it in his face, because he's dead" (15).
 
"I can want good things for myself. I can want real happiness. I can want whatever the fuck I want. If I want sex to be a part of my life again, why wouldn't I want it to be good? No use in wishing for mediocre" (71).  

"On top of that, she's a plus-size Black woman. How many times a day do you think she's getting some messaging that she's undesirable? Fifty? A hundred?... So, I think it makes sense that if we want her to be with us in any long term way we prove to her that we aren't using her and that her needs and her very real fears are being met" (151).
 
"Trust me. It's part of the process. You've done the mourning. It's time to do something stupid. It's another signpost on the road to better health" (205).

"You don't have to apologize for getting off" (210-211).

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
 
I've been hearing about this story collection almost nonstop since it was published in 2020; people have been raving about it, and apparently it was a surprisingly huge critical and commercial hit for West Virginia University Press (a relatively small publisher). With the beginning of summer 2021 came my copy of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, one of four books that I ordered from Harriett's Bookshop in Philadelphia as a 3rd podcast anniversary present to myself, thanks to a gift card from my very generous friend Marlee. I called myself starting to read it in November, but set it aside, then re-started it on Christmas Eve, and finished it the day after Christmas. Also, I would like to add—purely for bookworm and slight fangirl purposes—that I posted this photo of my dog Julia with my Harriett's purchases on IG (see the bottom of this review), tagged the authors of each one in said photo, and Deesha Philyaw followed me as a result! That was on August 20th, and as of this writing she's still following me! How cool is that? I've never had a famous author follow me before. But let's stay on topic. Moving on!

In nine stories ranging from the 1980s to Y2K Eve to the present, Black Southern female characters (ages 14 to super grown) narrate their romantic and sexual discoveries. They give into temptation with intention, hone in on the desires of their hearts, and amend or discard the limiting beliefs they learned from growing up in church as need be. From two closeted 40-year-old best friends having an annual New Year's Eve date-night-in at a hotel far from home, to a real estate agent entertaining her man friend while her Eddie Levert-obsessed and dementia-diagnosed mother sleeps in the next room, every story in TSLOCL makes some direct or indirect mention of women getting it on, enjoying sexual pleasure even in taboo or supposedly forbidden situations. In fact, seven of the nine stories include characters who sleep with married men, or used to. (There's even a story titled "Instructions for Married Christian Husbands", which is one woman's detailed set of stipulations that married men must agree to before she allows them to have sex with her.) Such women are not "chosen" in the way that Black women are conditioned in church to value being chosen, but then again, becoming someone's wife isn't an objective that they've based their entire identities and personalities on anyway.
 
Of the stories, an undeniable standout (and the source material for the book's 2022 UK cover) is "Peach Cobbler". Marvelously, it uses a girl named Olivia innocently confusing the local pastor for God—the married Pastor Neely to whom her mom secretly provides both culinary and carnal sweets for over a decade—to examine how often grown church ladies also treat their male church leaders like God, and how silly that is. Olivia's mom even treats Pastor Neely as if he's the head of her own household, letting him hit it once a week, not allowing Olivia to badmouth him or ask questions about his presence in their home, and making a peach cobbler every week (EVERY WEEK!) that only he gets to eat when he visits, otherwise it gets thrown in the garbage. The titular peach cobbler works as a metaphor or stand-in for, to put it most plainly, pussy. ("My mother's peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife", "You got the best cobbler in the world right here", and so on.) Peach cobbler also represents sweetness, something that Olivia's mom intentionally deprives her of. Whether that sweetness be a taste of the dessert her mom expertly makes, or permission to attend her wealthier classmate's birthday party, or her mom being a little softer with her sometimes, Olivia mustn't grow up expecting too much from life. Or so her mom asserts.
 
Come to think of it, Olivia and her mother remind me of Dana and her mother Gwen from  Silver Sparrow (Tayari Jones), wherein Gwen welcomes Dana's polygamist father to her home like a king once a week while Dana is expected to stay in a child's place, abiding by this arrangement and not revealing their existence as her dad's secret second family to anyone. Gwen at least cares a bit more about how her relationship with her man impacts her daughter. But Olivia's mom doesn't seem concerned at all about the uncomfortable and unfair circumstances that she's forced her daughter into, practically screwing the pastor right under Olivia's nose, well into Olivia's teenage years! And just like I did with Gwen, I tried and failed to not judge Olivia's mom for her choices. Granted, I've never been "sick with desire" or taken under by it, as Olivia describes her mom in the story. So maybe I just don't get it due to lack of experience. Maybe it's just something about certain Black women of a certain age from a certain time period (much of the action in both Silver Sparrow and "Peach Cobbler" takes place in the 1980s and early 1990s, in the South). But come on! What kind of subservient behavior are these characters modeling for their daughters, prioritizing men's pleasure and security over their own just to hold onto a fraction of said men's time and attention? Don't mothers owe their daughters better than that? Lord have mercy, did "Peach Cobbler" blow my socks off and horrify me at the same time.
 
Despite the amount of time I've just spent addressing "Peach Cobbler", my favorite story in TSLOCL is actually "How to Make Love to a Physicist" for the same reason that my favorite story in Love in Color (Bolu Babalola) was "Psyche". It's about a plus-sized Black woman finally learning to feel more at home in her body, while taking hold of the fulfilling kind of love and physical intimacy she's just now realizing she deserves. Extra points for this particular Black woman (Lyra) working with a therapist to overcome her self-sabotage—she and the handsome physicist she's met at a STEM conference are feeling each other, but she ghosts him twice—ditching the girdles and the sucking-in that her super religious mother has always insisted on, and being a late bloomer at owning her curvy and jiggly body at 42 years old. With all that said, "Peach Cobbler" is definitely a close second favorite. And my goodness, these character names! Caroletta, Tasheta, Arletha, Mayretta, Kachelle, Timna, Lajene... and those are just the names I'd never heard of. Others I'd heard before but hadn't anticipated seeing in print, attached to characters in a much-publicized, much-nominated, and much-awarded novel like this one. Now that I have, I couldn't be more delighted. Another delight was recognizing quite a few names that Deesha Philyaw listed in her acknowledgments, and I was most pleasantly surprised to see Bassey Ikpi (I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying) and Melanie Dione mentioned. Before I realized they were writers, I was first introduced to them both via podcasts (Bassey on the "This Too Much" series of The Black Guy Who Tips, and Melanie on The Bad Advice Show).

Earlier this week I encountered an application question asking me to talk about a Black woman, femme, or non-binary person I've learned from, and I impressed myself with my response, so I'm including it here to conclude this review:  
 
Speaking of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, there is one story called "Eula" where Deesha Philyaw likens cunnilingus to prayer, and another called "How to Make Love to a Physicist" where she likens consummation to consecration, and I have never read the sexual and the spiritual juxtaposed in that way before, the way she does it. I no longer subscribe to the purity culture I was raised in, but I was still surprised to read the comparisons that Philyaw made. I am still thinking about those comparisons, and I feel myself being challenged to more deeply contemplate sex—especially unmarried and non-heterosexual sex—as sacred and holy.  
 
If you've ever questioned the faith you were raised in (especially its rules about what women and girls  should or shouldn't be doing), longed for someone to love you back, wanted to act on your desires without being judged, or if you want to read these stories before they're adapted into an HBO show written and executive produced by both Deesha Philyaw and Tessa Thompson, then read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"Do you think God wants you, or anybody, to go untouched for decades and decades? For their whole lives?... all those women at church who think they have to choose between pleasing God and something so basic, so human as being held and known in the most intimate way. If God became human once [then] why would he make rules that force such a painful choice?" (9-10).

"Closed mouths don't get head!" (25).
 
"'So you don't have to worry, anymore, Mama,' I said, 'about me wanting to be anything like you. I swear, my life won't be anything like yours. Because it will be sweet, and it won't be crumbs'" (74). 

"I say all of this to say that sometimes wheels are set in motion long before the spark is manifest. Is that the same thing as fate? I don't know, but I do know that rare, brilliant events take time" (113).

"You, the infantilized husbands of accomplished godly women, are especially low-hanging fruit. Ripe for the picking with little effort on my part... I build monuments to my impulses and desires on the backs of men like you" (146, 153).

"You're not a nobody, Mama... You're... someone who can't give me what I need. But you're not nobody" (174).

Sunday, December 19, 2021

BOOKS! (Quicksand + Passing)

Believe it or not, I had my November book review all planned out in advance! I was going to write about Nella Larsen's Passing and Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, and even gave myself deadlines for finishing those books! (The Netflix release date for Rebecca Hall's film adaptation of Passing was set for November 10th, and my local Phi Beta Kappa chapter had a virtual book club discussion scheduled for The Sympathizer on November 17th.) And did I finish either of those books by those deadlines, or even before the month of November ended? Nope! Hence, no November book review. 
 
However! I'm proud to announce that now, not only have I finished Passing (1929), but I've also finished another Larsen novel titled Quicksand (1928), which is semi-autobiographical. You see, when I first heard in 2018 or 2019 that the Passing film was in the works, I planned to read the book ahead of time just like I did with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But when I got on Thriftbooks back then, I didn't just order a copy of Passing by itself. No, I ordered The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and the Stories (edited by Charles R. Larson, no relation), which includes three short stories, Quicksand, and then Passing at the very end. And since the residual straight-A student in me felt obligated to read the entire collection, it took me a while to finally reach the work that Larsen is most known for. Today I'm reviewing both novels, which were each set, written, and published in the latter half of the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance.
 
Quick note about the short stories, though. "The Wrong Man" is about a fancy Long Island wife who worries about her past as a kept woman being exposed when her ex shows up at an elite party that she and her husband are both attending. "Freedom" is about a man who uses a business trip to NYC as an excuse to permanently escape the girlfriend he wishes to be rid of, only to be overcome with guilt and grief when he learns that she has died giving birth to their baby (who also died). And "Sanctuary" is about a young man somewhere in the South who convinces his friend's mother to hide him from the police, but he might not be safe with her either once she learns what crime he committed. If those sound interesting to you, then feel free to read the collection that I got. Otherwise, I'm sure Passing is available on its own, or there are editions out there that just have Passing and Quicksand together and nothing else.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen
 
Helga is a chronically dissatisfied woman (likely dealing with depression), and no matter where she goes, her misery sets in at some point. As the daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a Black absentee father, she grew up in Chicago among her white stepdad's relatives, and as the only Black (biracial) person in her family, she always felt out of place. But that sense of feeling out of place endured as she got older, even at the Black boarding school that her uncle sent her to after her mother's death; Helga found comfort in being among kids who looked like her, but also felt alienated by not having a loving family to go home to like her peers did. In the present, Quicksand opens with Helga working as a teacher at a boarding school for Black girls in the Southern town of Naxos. She's frustrated with the school's restrictive codes of dress and conduct, and disgusted by the fact that the school is clearly a project for white Southerners to make a show of being charitable to the Black students and staff; the school can cultivate a new generation of good Negroes who will stay in their place and entertain no lofty ambitions that might threaten the white Southerners' sense of social and financial superiority. Helga is fed up with the school and never fit into Naxos anyway, so she quits her job, boarding a train back to Chicago that same day. Thus commences a cycle of Helga fleeing from location to location, believing upon arrival that she's finally found the happiness she's been searching for and an environment that suits her, only to feel the urge to escape to greener pastures again once she gets tired of the place or it somehow doesn't meet her expectations. 
 
She nearly goes broke in Chicago (without references, she can't even get hired to do domestic work, which seems to be the only thing people are hiring Black women for at the time), until the YWCA hooks her up with a gig as an assistant to a Black woman who gives lectures on "the race issue". This gig takes Helga to New York, specifically Harlem, where she finds a circle of educated Black friends who enjoy the finer things in life just like she does. But then she comes to resent being sequestered with so many Black people all the time, and being confined to a lesser life in America simply because she's Black. Then one day she unexpectedly receives some "I don't want to be associated with you anymore because you're Black, so never contact me again" money (that's me paraphrasing) from her Chicago uncle to the tune of $5,000, which would equate to approximately $80,000 in 2021. This windfall has Helga feeling like, "I'm not like the rest of these Negroes!" (I'm paraphrasing again but that's essentially her sentiment when she realizes she has the money to escape America now), and she dips off to Copehnagen, Denmark where her mother's rich sister and said sister's husband welcome her with open arms. Remembering a childhood trip visiting family in Denmark, Helga naively believes that there are "no Negroes, no problems, no prejudice" in Copenhagen, and that she'll find people who appreciate and understand her there. People, I would argue, that she already has in Harlem, until she decides that being just another Black person isn't good enough for her. But I digress.
 
Helga lives the life of luxury that she feels she's always deserved, only to realize that although her aunt and uncle do seem to genuinely care for her as a person, they also want to use her as a show pony for their wealthy associates. More specifically, they hope that Helga's exotic qualities as a Black woman will appeal to a famously arrogant painter that they want her to marry, enabling Auntie and Unc to enter an even higher social echelon. Unfortunately for them, Helga refuses that dude's proposal, and after two years in Denmark she decides that she misses "her people" and wants to be around Black folks again, so she returns to Harlem. But in Harlem, her former roommate and best friend is now married to Dr. Anderson, the man who was the principal of the Naxos school, the man that Nella has been reluctantly in love with, and the only man who ever saw through her and could tell she was searching for something missing in her life. After being kissed and then rejected by Dr. Anderson, Helga drunkenly stumbles into a church on a rainy night and gets "saved". (It's pretty clear that she's just hungover and needs a place to dry off and cry, but she's so in need of relief that she gets swept up in the fervor of the church service and considers herself "saved"). She then immediately latches onto the first man who expresses interest in her, seducing a visiting reverend who walks her back to her hotel that night. Seeing in him a chance for stability and happiness (any man with means will do at this point if it means escaping the dead end she's once again reached in New York), she convinces him to marry her soon after their tryst and lands right back in the South. Helga's living as the reverend's wife in a small Alabama town, shunned by the largely female congregation and encumbered with too many babies born in quick succession. Now with her own children involved, once she inevitably gets tired of her life this time, it's much harder for her to get up and flee again.
 
I genuinely believe that most of Helga's trouble and isolation are due to the fact that for so long, she craves social status and upward mobility more than anything else. From her perspective, Black people are just as unwelcoming to her and rigid about social hierarchy as white people because she doesn't have a family (no recognizable name or connections), but as I understand it that's because she focuses on ingratiating herself with only bougie Black people. If she spent time with more Black folks who weren't so well off or at least weren't so snobbish about wealth and ancestry, I highly doubt that she would've had such a hard time finding people who welcomed her, without judgment or ulterior motive, regardless of her mixedness or lack of family. But she's an educated woman who likes nice things, who's described as having a "craving for smartness, for enjoyment," and for her I guess that's something only high society Black people can give her. Speaking of which, I didn't realize that elite Black people might look down on someone like Helga. With the colorism that often accompanies bougie Blackness to this day, no less back then, I'd figured that our light-skinned protagonist could easily claim a place among the elite. And yes, Helga does have privileges due to being half-white, light-skinned, and college-educated. But she neither comes from a well-established family nor subscribes to elite Black people's ideas of what will uplift the race (rigid standards for ladylike-ness, etc.), nor is she involved with the movement for racial equality, all of which makes her a target of ire or complete disregard.
 
Reading Helga frequently made me feel like I need to check myself, because I too have dealt with the loneliness, crushed idealism, and resentment that she feels as a new working person struggling to adjust to the so-called "real world". Perhaps, like Helga, I'm always looking elsewhere, for somewhere grander, for a place and people who will make me feel like "The king undisputed, respected, saluted, and seen for the wonder I am" (word to Scar from Disney's 'The Lion King', whom I kept thinking about when reading this novel). And if that's the case, and like Helga I never seem to be truly and lastingly happy in any situation, then maybe my expectations are too rigid? Maybe the world hasn't caught up to my wants yet, or maybe I have an over-inflated sense of who I am and what I deserve. It's definitely something to think about. And if I may get a bit philosophical, lately I find myself questioning more and more whether the pain and suffering of this life are actually worth it, and I wonder if it might be more benevolent to not force new people to join us in the turmoil we're already facing on this side (since children don't ask to be born). Helga, however, takes this idea to an extreme and asserts on more than one occasion that Black children in particular are better off not being born, since life in America is so unrelentingly wretched for Black people and there is no escape. These thoughts come up in Helga's bitterest moments, so maybe she doesn't even truly believe what she's saying. But to think that I would have any ideas remotely in common with someone who dares to imply that Black Americans should just die out? That's terrifying! Black people are historically known for making our own self-hood, our own fun, our own art, our own culture, our own wonder to balance out the strife of being in this country, and I could never imagine wishing our stuff away like that. (And that's silly anyway, because in the most generalized terms, if Black people cease to exist then racist white people get what they want. And we can't have that! Think about what you're saying, Helga!) So yeah, maybe the strife hasn't been worth it and still isn't, but we're here now. What I'm finna erase myself for?
 
Remember that the novel is titled Quicksand, as in sinking into something inescapable, so suffice it to say that Helga doesn't get a happy ending. The final sentence of the novel is bone-chilling! Especially considering that it follows multiple paragraphs of Helga on post-partum bed rest, formulating plans to escape and reclaim her life once more, plans that are doomed to never come true. The ending is so incredibly dark and despairing when you think about how limited Black women's options are in late 1920s America, even if they are educated, have mixed/light-skinned privilege, have wealthy relatives, and were once able to flit off to a foreign country when the going got rough. As someone who's not light-skinned I found myself still relating so much to Helga's search for meaning, belonging, and happiness, even in those moments when I didn't want to relate to her at all. And given how men are both the key to Helga's survival as well as the reason why she's trapped in the end, I think it's such a supreme, applause-worthy show of pettiness that Larsen dedicated this novel to her cheating husband (E.S.I., or physicist Elmer Samuel Imes). I don't know for sure that she meant it in a petty way at the time, but that's how I'm taking it now! If you've ever struggled with adulting or are interested in the Harlem Renaissance, the racial politics of the 1920s, how confusing it is to be a Black person living with internalized anti-Blackness, and how an independent woman might fare in this time period, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"These were her people. Nothing, she had come to understand now, could ever change that... How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people, could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever... Ties that were of the spirit. Ties not only superficially entangled with mere outline of features or color of skin... Thankful for the appeasement of that loneliness which had again tormented her like a fury, she gave herself up to the miraculous joyousness of Harlem. The easement which its heedless abandon brought her was a real, a very definite thing" (125). 
 
"Not that she intended to remain... No. She couldn't stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back. 
 
This knowledge, this certainty of the division of her life into two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America, was unfortunate, inconvenient, expensive... mentally she caricatured herself moving shuttlelike from continent to continent. From the prejudiced restrictions of the New World to the easy formality of the Old, from the pale calm of Copenhagen to the colorful lure of Harlem" (125).
 
"They say [that] if one stands on the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue long enough one will eventually see all the people one has ever known or met. It's pretty true, I guess. Not literally of course... It's only another way of saying that everybody, almost, sometime sooner or later comes to Harlem, even you" (129).

Passing by Nella Larsen 
 
Irene and Clare are both light-skinned Black women who grew up together in the South Side of Chicago; Irene had a loving family with middle-class means, whereas Clare lived with her alcoholic father and often had to rely on the generosity of their neighborhood. Between the two, only Clare was light enough to "pass" for white. After her alcoholic father died when she was fifteen, Clare was taken in by her white great-aunts (who treated her like a maid) in another part of town, and after a certain point she stopped visiting the South Side altogether. Twelve years later in 1925, Irene and Clare run into each other in the rooftop restaurant of a fancy hotel. Both are married and are only visiting Chicago for the summer; Irene lives with her doctor husband named Brian and their two sons in Harlem, whereas Clare (who lives as a white woman now) spends most of her time in Europe with her white banker husband named Jack and their daughter. Clare claims that she's been trying to reconnect with folks from their old neighborhood, and insists that Irene and another light-skinned female acquaintance of theirs come to Clare's house for tea. The gathering is at best weird and at worst downright dangerous, as Clare introduces her guests to her virulently racist husband. Jack proudly hates Black people—Clare lets the man call her "Nig" as some twisted inside joke!—but apparently has had so few interactions with them that he has no idea that he's in the presence of three Black women at that very moment. Irene receives a letter from Clare before departing Chicago, but vows to never again have anything to do with Clare because she's still angry about Clare selfishly prioritizing her own loneliness over her former friends' comfort and safety.
 
That is, until 1927 (where the novel opens), when Irene receives another letter from Clare, announcing her arrival in New York and requesting to see Irene again. Irene refuses to respond and destroys the letter, but an obstinate Clare shows up at Irene's house, invites herself to the charity dance that Irene is organizing, and keeps showing up at Irene's house and events over the following months, insisting on their friendship and using Harlem as an escape from her white life. While she cares nothing about Blackness and feels no kinship with Black people as a whole, and while she used to firmly believe that immense wealth made passing worth the cost, now Clare misses elements of Black life and dips her toes back into it when she can, sneaking over to Harlem whenever Jack's out of town on business. And at first Irene, who is often swayed by Clare despite her best efforts to the contrary, warms up to the new friendship that forms between them. Eventually, however, she tires of her friend's near-incessant presence, and she even becomes convinced that Clare and Brian are having an affair. With Clare and Jack's move to Switzerland approaching, Irene plans to inform Jack about Clare's trips to Harlem in order to get Clare whisked out of town and out of her life faster. But when Irene realizes that Clare's no longer afraid of being exposed, she catastrophizes that the freedom of divorce will make Clare's behavior more unpredictable than ever (like moving to Harlem forever or skipping off to Brazil with Brian), and she flips her strategy. Now she's dogged about preserving Clare's secret so as not to jeopardize her own marriage and lifestyle. But then Irene, Brian, and Clare attend a house party together one night, and the proverbial ish hits the fan. Irene is determined to not let Clare be free. And she means that.
 
I knew going into this that most of discussion about "passing" would center around Clare, so color me shocked to realize that Irene is technically passing as well when they meet on that hotel roof in Chicago. They've both been allowed entry because of their perceived whiteness (white people can't detect that they're Black), but Clare is the only one who lives as a white woman all the time, and Clare is the only one described as "passing" in that scene. Later in the novel Irene uses the phrase "going native" to describe her own occasional form of passing, which is temporarily blending in with whiter surroundings for the sake of convenience. I'm pretty sure I learned previously that there are varying approaches and gradations to passing, but for some reason the way it's framed in this novel felt like brand new information that I'd never considered before. I'd always assumed passing to be final; once people pass, they're gone forever, striving to never see or be seen by the Black people who knew them, and to never interact with another Black person as if they're fellows. But over breakfast one morning, Irene and Brian discuss the phenomenon of people who pass eventually becoming dissatisfied and risking exposure to return to their old haunts, because all that they've gained from passing somehow isn't enough. That's exactly the predicament that Clare is in.

I've been careful not to look too much into the book or film versions of this story so as not to spoil anything for myself (and so I can formulate my own thoughts), so perhaps this is old news... but I definitely sensed some queer subtext between Irene and Clare. Irene repeatedly analyzes Clare's physical appearance and marvels at Clare's beauty in her mind, and it's just about the only thing she verbally compliments Clare on. She feels caressed or even "seduced" by Clare's smile and voice (attributes that Irene fixates on the most, in addition to Clare's eyes), and she also frequently describes Clare's laugh as musical. In fact, that laugh is what she finally recognizes her old friend by when Clare re-introduces herself in Chicago. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Irene is repeatedly persuaded by Clare to do things she doesn't want to do, especially when it comes to meeting up with Clare and allowing Clare to join her activities. And sure, being easily swayed by a friend's prodding and convincing doesn't necessarily mean you're attracted to or in love with them. Some people are simply skilled manipulators, adept at getting their way. But it sure did make me wonder. 
 
On the other side of this relationship, Clare (and by extension other deserters who try to dip their toe back into the Black life they left behind) reads like an ex who wants that old thang back. Except rather than a lover, that old thang is the feeling of being around other Black people. But perhaps that old thang she wants back is also Irene? In all honesty, it's still not clear to me why she's so stuck on Irene of all people. Yes, Irene has the sense of community that Clare lost, and Irene's family looked out for Clare when they were children, but it's implied that other people on the South Side helped Clare as well. So why Irene? Was it just her misfortune to cross paths with Clare when she did, and get trapped in Clare's web? Irene doesn't dwell on the "why her" of it all, but she does try her darnedest to impress upon Clare that she should stop coming around or at the very least be more careful given her dangerous situation (as a supposedly "white" woman who doesn't want to be discovered hanging around Black people). And those conversations read to me like arguments between forbidden lovers, where one tries to break it off gently while the other refuses to stay away, preferring to forsake the risks, insert herself into the other's presence, and demand answers for why she's being ignored and rejected. So like I said... queer subtext, yeah?

On the second page of the novel Irene describes Clare as selfish, having nothing sacrificial about her and "no allegiance beyond her own desire", and I really should've taken that as the warning that it is, because that description is NOT an understatement. Lord have mercy! Clare has no consideration or sympathy for anyone but herself—it's like her brain literally can't fathom that her actions have consequences or that other people have both feelings and the wherewithal to tell her no—and when her actions inconvenience others or even put them in danger, she simply expects them to understand her motivations and forgive her. Not that she truly cares about forgiveness anyway, so much as she cares about getting her way. To put it plainly, Clare shows up at Irene's house one October, and proceeds to turn Irene's life upside down within the span of a few months. Blows it up. And while Irene takes it upon herself to match Clare's ruthlessness and is eager to spill the beans to Jack at one point, she still can't bring herself to out Clare as Black. As a fellow Black person, Irene still feels a duty (more to their race than to Clare specifically) to not put Clare in danger by exposing her truth. And it's a duty that Irene resents, but no matter how frustrated she gets, she just can't shake it. Obviously she winds up keeping the secret for more vindictive reasons by the end, but I couldn't help but be struck by the way loyalty to the race manifests within this toxic friendship.
 
Don't be mistaken, though. Passing has some fun bits in it too! During their encounter in Chicago, Irene tells Clare about an upcoming vacation to Idlewild, Michigan (which was a resort town for Black people in the first half of the 20th century), and as a lifelong Michigander that was a pleasant surprise to me. I just learned about Idlewild within the past couple years, so I was glad to see its significance confirmed in this novel. On another note, it made me chuckle to later read Irene's anecdote about belatedly realizing that a woman she'd met multiple times was "fay", as in "ofay", as in white. Even though it's not a word I've ever used—some might call it a slur but in my opinion it's a word that doesn't really have teeth, much like "cracker"—for some reason it amuses me to know that Black people have been calling white people "ofays" for so long, even all the way back in 1927 and probably before then too. If I were to compare the two novels, although both address the dilemmas of being a light-skinned and/or biracial Black woman in America in the 1920s, Passing is shorter, more tightly-written, faster-paced, and has more interpersonal drama, whereas Quicksand is more introspective and covers more ground both emotionally and geographically. I was thoroughly impressed by both, and continue to marvel at how Nella Larsen was able to write works which, even through linguistic changes that have happened over the decades, are still so easily readable nearly 100 years later. With that said, I feel drawn to Quicksand more because of how much I related to Helga's lows. But as for Passing, if you're like me and must read the book before watching the movie, or you're interested in frenemy situations, strained marriages, colorism and social mobility, the intellectual milieu of the Harlem Renaissance, and the potential regrets of passing, then read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro" (178).
 
"If, at the time of choosing, Clare hadn't precisely reckoned the cost, she had, nevertheless, no right to expect others to help make up the reckoning. The trouble with Clare was not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well" (212). 

"She paused in her dressing, seeing with perfect clearness that dark truth which she had from that first October afternoon felt about Clare Kendry and of which Clare herself had once warned her—that she got the things she wanted because she met the great condition of conquest, sacrifice" (268).

Sunday, December 12, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 26 - pt. 2

Continuing from part 1, let's get into my review of the other two J-dramas I watched from the spring and summer seasons! Once again, beware of spoilers: 
 
大豆田とわ子と三人の元夫 (Omameda Towako to Sannin no Moto Otto/Omameda Towako and Her Three Husbands/My Dear Exes) - Fuji TV/KTV/2021
  • As a 40-something woman, Towako (Matsu Takako from 'Quartet') is dealing with a lot of transition at the opening of the series. Her mother has recently passed away, and she's also recently been promoted to president of the design firm that she'd been working at as an architect for many years; the funeral and the inauguration were on the same day. Additionally, she's a single mom to a teenager named Uta, has a flighty best friend whom she feels responsible for, and can't seem to get her three ex-husbands (who are each still obsessed with her to varying degrees) to leave her alone.
  • In order from first to last, these ex-husbands include a mellow and stoic restaurant owner (Uta's father, played by Matsuda Ryuhei from 'Quartet') who's often oblivious when women are taken with him, a photographer and cheapskate who debates over trivial things, and an overly-analytical lawyer (the youngest of the exes) who works at Towako's firm. Each of the men seem to find their own new love interests over the course of the show, but they insist on continuing to butt into Towako's day-to-day. As rivals/frenemies with each other, they are united in their desire to keep Towako in their lives and make sure she's doing alright.
  • As Towako manages the various obligations in her life and begins to date again, she contemplates whether she truly prefers living alone, or whether she would prefer the company and support of a new significant other.
Towako married her first husband at age 24, so that gives you an idea of how long she's been dealing with these shenanigans as more men got added to the mix. This lady just wants to live in peace and be left alone by people she doesn't want to cross paths with anymore, but her ex-husbands keep popping up, inviting themselves into her home and activities, and it's hilariously exasperating to watch her handle them while trying not to lose her mind in the process. I was so proud for her (as proud as one can be for a fictional character, I suppose) that even though other people treat her marriage history as taboo or even try to shame her for it, Towako feels absolutely no shame about being a three-time divorcée. She's someone who can let go of things and walk away once an arrangement or relationship is over, and wouldn't more of us want to do that instead of unnecessarily hanging onto people and situations anyway? In fact, when a male client—who's also been divorced three times and is proud of it, but says Towako's three divorces make her pitiful and worthless because she's a woman—offers to make Towako his fourth wife as if he's doing her a favor, Towako calmly replies, "Failure doesn't exist. There are failures in life, but there is no such thing as a failed life." Hearing her say that almost made me stand up and clap!
 
As for Towako's exes, each man remains attached to her for specific reasons. For husband #3, being married to Towako was the only time in his life where he felt truly happy, and he doesn't want to let go of that happiness even though their relationship is over. For husband #2, Towako helped improve his self-esteem about just being an average Joe, and her beauty and dance skills inspired him to pivot from being a tabloid photographer to a legit and in-demand fashion photographer. And although Towako and husband #1 were and still are genuine friends, he really only married her (SPOILER) so he could be closer to Towako's flighty best friend, which is who he's really been in love with this whole time. The exes frequently hang out together at husband #1's restaurant for some reason, even though they don't particularly like each other (#2 and #3 especially don't, whereas #1 is neutral). And they're each still on remarkably good terms with Towako's daughter, who jokingly calls them "Season 1" (her dad), "Season 2"  and "Season 3" and entertains herself by poking fun at all four of the adults in her life. That was really cute to see.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this show was all the actors that I recognized from other productions. I don't know what is up with Takahashi Maryjun, but she keeps showing up in the J-dramas that I've been watching this year and last year ('Dying Eye', 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi', 'Oh! My Boss!', and now 'Omameda Towako') and I'm not mad at it! She stays booked, apparently! Additionally, while her character stops appearing in the series past a certain point, Ichikawa Mikako ('Unnatural', 'Nagi no Oitoma') makes an indelible impact playing Towako's best friend. There's also Odagiri Joe—who I recognize for being a very famous Japanese actor but somehow don't remember seeing him in anything previously, including 'Alice no Toge', which I know I watched—playing one of the new men in Towako's life. He's a super gentle and caring math nerd in public but is a ruthless jerk at the office (repping the investment company that plans to unseat Towako due to her firm's supposedly subpar profits). Last but not least, what a delightful surprise it was for me to see Nagaoka Ryusuke a.k.a. Ukigumo, the guitarist of of Tokyo Jihen, one of my favorite bands ever, playing husband #1's restaurant business partner! I had no idea he acted!
 
In the tenth and final episode, Towako discovers that her deceased mom was in love with another woman (her mom's own best friend since childhood), but she gave that relationship up for what ended up being an unhappy marriage to Towako's father, which is a revelation that seemed random to me at first. Towako finds a love letter that her mom wrote but never sent to said former bestie/lover, which leads her and her daughter to actually go to the woman's apartment for clarity on the situation. The woman, despite being asked such personal questions by complete strangers, welcomes them and is an open book. Most importantly, she affirms that people are full of contradictions; Towako's mom loved her family, and she also wanted to be free of said family. Much like Towako with her own multiple unsuccessful relationships, even though her mom was unhappy in her marriage, it doesn't necessarily mean the marriage was the wrong choice or that no good came of it. Towako and her own daughter resulted from it, after all. So that was actually a very sweet touch to help close out the show.

Although 'Omameda Towako' does have a decent amount of romance going on, it's really more of a slice of life story than anything else, so if that's your thing (it is mine) then you'll find a lot to enjoy about it. And I can't leave off from discussing this show without praising its most notable insert song. Ohmygoodness, that song! That absolutely gorgeous song! "All The Same" by composer Yuta Bandoh, with BIGYUKI on keyboard and the vocal jazz stylings of Gretchen Parlato, makes me want to dance for joy and then just do some really deep introspection and weep for little while. Something just comes over me every time I listen to it. I actually first heard it playing on a Japanese radio station months ago, then looked it up on YouTube and saw from skimming the video description and comments that it was part of a J-drama. But I didn't connect the dots and realize exactly which J-drama until I watched the first episode of 'Omameda Towako' and heard the keys and Gretchen Parlato's voice trickle in at the end. It felt like the best "gotcha" ever! There's also a rap song called "Presence", which is the show's ending theme and has multiple versions that each of the four main actors respectively participate in. And it's a fun tune, but "All The Same" has my heart. No lie, it's one of my favorite songs of 2021.
 
ひきこもり先生 (Hikikomori Sensei/Mr. Hikikomori/Hikokomori Teacher) - NHK/2021
  • Somewhere in Kanagawa, Uwashima is nearly 40 years old and a recovering hikikomori (severe social recluse). His wife left him and took their daughter with her after Uwashima first withdrew from society at 38 years old. At that time, he incurred massive debt after being scammed by a friend, which made him hate himself and feel like he couldn't trust anybody anymore.
  • Eleven years later, with the help of a rehabilitative program called "Hikikomori College", Uwashima has re-entered the world, lives with his mom, and has his own yakitori business that a friend helped him set up. But he still avoids interacting with people (and especially having to speak to them) on most occasions, until the principal of the local junior high invites Uwashima to become a part-time teacher.
  • With the guidance of one of the school's younger teachers, as well as a seasoned social worker who works at the school, Uwashima is tasked with managing a special classroom called "STEP Room", which enables truant students—or students who do make it to school but feel uncomfortable interacting with the school's general population the whole day—to learn in a more comfortable environment. Basically, STEP is meant to be a safe haven that will also reduce the school's truancy numbers, and the principal figures that a recovering hikikomori such as Uwashima can help the hikikomori students recover too. But the STEP team soon finds itself at odds with the principal, whose "zero truancy and zero bullying" policy just means he wants butts in seats and issues between students conveniently smoothed over, so he can be promoted to superintendent.
Before watching this show, I had mostly seen the hikikomori phenomenon discussed in relation to men in their 20s and up, so I was fascinated by the way 'Hikikomori Sensei' emphasizes how vulnerable younger people are to this kind of seclusion, linking the social disorder to school truancy. The show explores the reasons why students might be truant, framing it not as an issue of students and their parents being lazy, irresponsible, or not valuing education like they should (as is often the discourse in the U.S.), but rather as a result of these students' complicated and stressful living situations or even social hierarchies within the school itself. And rather than focusing on punishment, Uwashima and the women he works with focus on letting the students take meaningful time away from their regular classes, processing why they were skipping and what support they need, while getting an education in the meantime. The women even make a few house visits and trying to find solutions for those students who still refuse to attend school.
 
Given the sensitive subject matter, I love how this show carefully balances the reality of how detrimental being a hikikomori and running away from everything can be, with the assertion that it's totally fine to not come to work or school if you simply cannot handle it. If it's too much for you, then don't force it, you can just come back when you're ready. That's exactly what a frustrated Uwashima tells his students when one of them is getting bullied really badly. Then when Uwashima is forced by the principal to lie to the board of education and deny that any bullying is happening at the school, and his first attempt at meeting his now-16-year-old daughter goes poorly that same day, he relapses into seclusion again. However, once his students find out why he's been absent from school, they go by Uwashima's house to check on him, thanking him for how much he's helped them and returning the advice he gave them: don't come to school, it's okay to not come back to school just yet. And I'm not gonna lie, that scene made me shed a tear or two. Of course, seeing how much his students care about him and aren't pressuring him to return is what makes him want to come back to school again anyway, determined to make it a place where students feel safe and at ease. 

Although 'Hikikomori Sensei' isn't all that similar to either of the shows I'm about to mention, while watching it I did find myself reminded of 'Nagi no Oitoma' (wholesome summer drama set in a non-urban area, about an anxious woman in her late 20s who goes into hiding to heal from trauma and learn to trust herself and others again) and 'Hajimemashite, Aishitemasu' (which gives a surprisingly dark look into child abuse in Japan and what Japanese social workers do to aid and protect children in such situations). Suffice it to say, you probably need to be in a very compassionate mindset or crying mood to get the most out of watching this show. It's worth it, though! I will also note that out of all the shows I watched this time around, it's the only one that included the current pandemic in its storyline, acknowledging how much students lost out on ending the school year like normal and having their graduation festivities when schools shut down in 2020 (Japanese academic years typically end in March, with new ones beginning in April).

So now I gotta pick a favorite from the bunch, right? Hmm... I have to say that although 'Omameda Towako' introduced me to one of the best songs of the year, overall 'FM999' blew me away the most with its twist ending and its campy yet compassionate discussion of women's issues, especially abortion. I'll be moving on to some new (to me) J-dramas now, and hopefully it won't take me another six months to write about them, but we'll just have to see about that! Until next time.

Friday, December 10, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 26 - pt. 1

It took me six months, but I've finally finished watching all of my J-drama selections from the spring and summer broadcast seasons! (I haven't started the two shows I want to watch from the fall season yet, and the winter shows don't start airing in Japan until January or February 2022). There's no concrete reason why it took me so long, other than sometimes things just take as long as they take. This time around, I watched five J-dramas with English subtitles, and I'm writing about them in the order that I finished them. Part 1 of this review covers the first three shows from that roster. I've had six months' worth of time to sit with my thoughts on these shows, so this first part is a litte longer than usual. But still thoughtful and fun to read, I hope. Beware of spoilers:

恋はDeepに (Koi wa Deep ni/Love Deeply) - NTV/2021

  • Mio is a sensitive, kind-hearted (and fashionable, because it is Ishihara Satomi after all) marine biologist who's passionate about protecting the ocean, to the point of eccentricity. But she's not merely passionate... she actually has the ability to communicate with marine life! (Spoiler: She's actually a mermaid who only has one year to live on land among humans. The head of her lab has taken her in and is keeping her identity a secret until it's time for her to return to the ocean.)
  • Mio is opposed to the new seaside resort that a company called Hasuda Trust plans to build on the fictional Hoshigahama Beach, since that's her home base and she knows how detrimental the construction will be to the surrounding sea life. When she, representing her lab team, is called to Hasuda Trust to consult on the resort project, she thinks this will be her chance to stop the project altogether, or at least adjust it so as to cause the least harm. Unfortunately for her, Hasuda Trust is really only involving her as a cover to make it look like they care about the environment, so they can proceed with their plans with as little hindrance and public criticism as possible.
  • Mio's point-person at Hasuda Trust is Rintaro (Ayano Go from 'Saikou no Rikon'), the second of the three Hasuda sons who each play a role in managing the family business (or family conglomerate, if you will). The disagreeable black sheep of the family who's been living in London, Rintaro returns to Japan to work with his brothers when their father becomes ill. He's dedicated to the resort project because of a childhood promise he made to his mom, whose death he feels responsible for. Naturally, Mio and Rintaro butt heads due to their opposing goals. And naturally, since this is a romantic comedy, they find themselves irresistibly drawn together as they gradually share their vulnerabilities with each other. Can their love (and Mio's loyalty to the ocean) prevail over corporate interests? Mio can only live on land for three more months at this point; what will Rintaro do once he learns of her origins and how little time he has left with her?
So about the mermaid thing. Context clues confirm that Mio is a mermaid even though that fact is never explicitly stated. She tells Rintaro on one occasion that she's not human, and on another occasion she tells him she was born from the sea and can only be on land for a limited amount of time. In a later episode, Rintaro takes her to a museum containing an exhibit about mermaid myths—which include the notion that a mermaid must inevitably return to the ocean so as not to bring misfortune to both humans and herself by overstaying. Already in love with Rintaro at that point, Mio is overcome with emotion upon visiting this exhibit and rushes off to the beach. And while she can't bring herself to re-enter the sea at that very moment, her feet are shown to start webbing as she gradually morphs back into mermaid form. The mermaid aspect of 'Koi wa Deep ni' might echo The Little Mermaid, but rather than coming ashore for love, Mio comes ashore to defend the ocean from overzealous development efforts, and happens to fall in love along the way. If she's motivated by love at all, it's primarily her love for the ocean, not solely for some man.
 
Ishihara Satomi and Ayano Go are fantastic actors (Ayano's physical comedy in this series is especially A-1), and they definitely have chemistry as co-leads. But to me, none of their romantic scenes actually feel... romantic? Maybe they just have really good "best friend" chemistry? "Friends who kiss sometimes" chemistry? Or maybe "longtime married couple whose fire has cooled off but they remain on excellent terms" chemistry? However, with that being said, when Rintaro finally learns that Mio is a mermaid, he becomes the most supportive boyfriend-to-a-mermaid that there ever was. He's basically like (allow me to embellish): "I don't care what you are, and you don't even need to spell it out for me. I love you, girl! I'm down with whatever you're doing. Drinking salt water? Sign me up. Eating unseasoned seaweed salads? Count me in. Giving you a piggyback ride around town when your legs become too stuff and painful for you to walk? I got you!" It's very endearing.  

Even though Rintaro is the mean one, if this show has a villain, then it's definitely his nice-guy brother Kotaro (the eldest brother and Hasuda Trust's CEO, played by Otani Ryohei from 'Love Rerun'). These two men perfectly exemplify the difference between nice and kind. Rintaro is gruff, difficult, doesn't have much patience for pleasantries, and most people at the office are intimidated by him, but he's an honest person who genuinely demonstrates care and concern when something or someone is important to him. Meanwhile his older brother Kotaro is affable and approachable which makes everyone prefer to interact with him, but he only acts like a nice guy so no one will suspect or snoop around in the more cutthroat things he's doing (such as pressuring scientists to manipulate data, and using the resort as a front to extract natural resources from the ocean floor). Rintaro is kind but not nice, and Kotaro is nice but not kind. It's a distinction that the show demonstrates very well.

The first half of 'Koi wa Deep ni' is has multiple conflicts and competing interests at play, in addition to the question how Mio is going to divulge her secret to the people closest to her, the folks at her lab who've become like family to her. The answer to that question is... she doesn't. Only her lab mentor (who lies and tells everyone she's his niece) and Rintaro know the truth about her, and the word "mermaid" or "ningyo" (人魚) is never uttered by anyone in the show. That is, except during the special episode after the finale where her lab team finds out via a video Mio left behind, and they're all weirdly accepting of thus bizarre news. The second half of the show is slower and I found myself losing interest, mostly because there are barely any stakes. Mio is returning to the sea whether Hasuda Trust makes good on their new commitment to environmentally-sustainable development or not, so anything else that happens in the show becomes pretty much irrelevant. At some point I resigned myself to continue watching just so I could take in gorgeous ocean views and see how things would wrap up. Cute show, beautiful shots of nature (sky, sea, beaches), but kind of boring past the first half. The acting is splendid, though! And I love all the ocean sounds that are designed to illustrate how alive the ocean is and how inextricably bound Mio is to it. Eight-hour ocean wave videos on YouTube are one of my go-tos to help me sleep at night, so hearing that on the show was very relaxing.

カンパニー〜逆転のスワン〜 (Company: Gyakuten no Swan/Company: Reversed Swans) - NHK/2021

  • Aoyagi is a longtime employee of a pharmaceutical company called Ariake Health, and has spent his entire career doing everything that was asked of him, only for his boss to use that as an excuse to devalue him as an employee one day. Now Aoyagi is actually considered less effective and less valuable precisely because he only does what he's told (supposedly the boss wants him to take more initiative and think outside the box). But then he's still expected to do exactly what his boss tells him when it comes to his next major assignment.
  • The daughter of Ariake's president is the lead dancer in the Shikishima Ballet Company, which Ariake sponsors and whose ticket sales have been steadily declining. Aoyagi is dispatched to Shikishima to do whatever it takes to help the ballet company put on a lucrative performance of Swan Lake, otherwise he'll lose his job and Ariake will withdraw its sponorship (effectively shuttering Shikishima for good). Yui, a personal trainer for one of Ariake's sponsored athletes whose job is also at risk, collaborates with Aoyagi to turn the ballet company around. Neither of them know anything about ballet, or about dance in general for that matter.
  • At the same time, Aoyagi's wife and daughter have left him, fed up with his obliviousness to the specifics of their lives. While focused on being a provider, he got lazy about knowing and cherishing his wife and daughter as individuals. Basically, he stopped paying attention. But perhaps his involvement in helping Shikishima put on a never-before-seen twist on the Swan Lake story will show his family his capacity to appreciate the finer details and subtler nuances of art and life.
Obviously the show's title has multiple meanings: 'Company' refers to both the ballet company (Shikishima Ballet), and the pharma company that employs Aoyagi and sponsors Shikishima. I was drawn to this show because as someone who's never been to a ballet, I thought it'd be interesting to see dancers at work, since the actors playing Shikishima dancers either learned ballet for this show or were already ballet dancers to begin with. (For instance, the world-famous dancer named Takano who started his career at Shikishima and reluctantly joins the production after much convincing is played by Miyao Shuntaro, an established ballet dancer in real life.) I also recognized Shikishima's director as the mom from 'Kyoufu Shinbun' (the actress's real name is Kuroki Hitomi), and Yui the trainer as the violinist ex-girlfriend from 'Oh! My Boss!' (Kurashina Kana). And to be frank, I'd just tried watching the ballet-themed K-drama 'Navillera' but couldn't get into it, and 'Company' seemed like a more happening show. 

There's a character named Minami who first appears as a convenience store employee, and I think what the show does with her character is so smart. Minami works at the convenience store during the day and at a hostess bar at night, and Aoyagi runs into her at both her workplaces within the first few episodes. They make friendly conversation about ballet, which he learns that she does as a secret hobby. And I was wondering where the show was going with this, assuming that it was telegraphing her to be Aoyagi's new love interest since he's separated at this point (although I hoped that wasn't the case, seeing as how he's old enough to be her father). And it turns out, no, Minami's actually going to be the new girl in the ballet company who upstages the prima ballerina, the presumed shoe-in for Odette who's also the daughter of Ariake Health's president. (At Ariake Health's prompting, Shikishima holds a fake audition so it won't look so obvious that the prima ballerina got the role because of who her dad is, and that audition opens the way for Minami to show her stuff as a dancer, and for the company to discover that she's actually a former international junior ballet champion who stopped dancing due to performance anxiety.) Of course, Minami doesn't get the role of Odette, but she earns a spot in the ensemble. And the setup to all of that proved to be so much more compelling than simply having Minami be a pretty face that Aoyagi can use to console himself on bad days.
 
Shikishima's new interpretation of Swan Lake centers on the male leads (the prince and the villain named Rothbart), and Shikishima's director initially wrote this version so her husband could have one last starring role, but he died before it could be finished. Now, with Takano back in the fold, the show becomes a vehicle to showcase Takano's talent one last time before he has to retire from ballet due to the toll that his long and strenuous career has taken on his body. Meanwhile, in the process of producing the performance, Aoyagi gets a crash-course in all things Swan Lake which also serves as a crash-course for the audience. 'Company' breaks down what Swan Lake is about, what purpose each character serves, and what emotions/characteristics/styles the dancers are meant to embody when performing said characters. Which is extremely helpful if you've somehow never heard of Swan Lake, forgot what you learned in the Natalie Portman movie Black Swan, or simply don't know why this particular ballet has been such a big deal for the past nearly 150 years. 
 
'Company' also does an excellent job of demonstrating the various risks, unexpected setbacks, and compromises that are part of successfully putting on a production of any sort, which is a behind-the-scenes aspect of show business that I also thoroughly appreciated seeing in 'Kyouen NG'. Most of the final episode is comprised of Shikishima's one-night-only performance of their finalized Swan Lake interpretation, which feels like watching a show within a show. It's pretty dope! And when the prima ballerina playing the white swan (Odette) is injured mid-show, Minami gets to substitute for her as the black swan (Odile), finally getting to be center stage instead of remaining in the ensemble. From Aoyagi to Yui to Takano to Minami and the other dancers of Shikishima, 'Company' is about people discovering what they truly want to do in life, and changing course as required. It's a very solid show that respects the technique, artistic skill, and athleticism that dancing requires. 

FM999: 999 Women's Songs (FM Kyuu Kyuu Kyuu) - WOWOW/2021

  • On her 16th birthday, a motherless girl named Kiyomi ponders her newly-acquired status as a young woman and wonders, "What is a woman, anyway?" (女って何なの?/Onna tte nan nano?). Those are the magic words that make a radio station that only she can hear (the titular FM999) start playing in her head, with the voice of a female DJ inviting Kiyomi to close her eyes and listen to different women answer her questions about womanhood through song.
  • Once Kiyomi closes her eyes, a lone woman (not the DJ) appears inside Kiyomi's mind, performing a song about said woman's specific circumstances and what she thinks about them, with both her clothing and the set she's on styled to match the subject of the song. Each of the first nine episodes of 'FM999' focuses on a different theme and features three songs performed by three different women (27 characters total, played by 27 different Japanese actresses, singers, comedians, dancers, and models). 
  • Every time the performers finish their songs, they have a talkback session with Kiyomi, expounding on the ideas and sentiments expressed in the song (in these scenes, only the performers are shown, while Kiyomi's voice is heard filtering in from off-screen). As Kiyomi is guided from one performance to the next by the unseen DJ's voice, she attempts to find a suitable answer to her question, "What is a woman anyway?"
'FM999' might feel random or even weird to some viewers, especially if at first its unconventional structure makes you feel like you don't understand what's going on where the show is heading. Nonetheless, I believe this drama is an excellent choice for anyone who enjoys musical theater, one-woman shows, or conceptual and highly-stylized music videos. This drama is also an excellent choice for people who are feminists and/or want to learn what womanhood means and how it feels from various Japanese perspectives. The production value and songwriting really speak for themselves, so rather than analyzing 'FM999' too much, I'll touch on the musical numbers that stood out to me the most: 
 
"Souridaiji no Onna" (総理大臣の女), where the show envisions what a female prime minister, something Japan has never had, would look like and what kind of PM she would promise to be. She's got bright orange and pink streaks in her updo, and a monochromatic hot pink outfit that includes a long dress, pink gloves, pink tights, pink heels, and gigantic pointy shoulder pads draped with a cape. (Ep. 2, played by Yashiro Aki) 
 
"Onna ni Koishita Onna" (女に恋した女), a surprisingly progressive tune in which a woman recounts falling in love with a woman, not making a big deal of it because gender is a "gradation" and she simply likes charming and attractive people, regardless of whether they're a man or woman. (Ep. 3, Motola Serena) 

"Dorobouneko no Onna" (泥棒猫の女), a 2000's-esque somber electropop song where a woman who was dating a married man reflects on her relationship with her now-deceased lover, after being ejected from the funeral by his wife and stealing the urn on her way out. (Ep. 3, Tomosaka Rie from 'Gekiryuu')
 
"Kamakiri no Onna" (カマキリの女), this song about how being horny is a natural instinct was aight, but I was mostly just happy to see a Black woman on the show. (Ep. 5, Japanese-Ghanaian hip-hop artist Namichie)
 
"Paris no Onna" (パリの女), in which an older lady in the back of a taxi sings a winding, romantic retelling about love at first sight in Paris, which then pivots into a warning against having sex without a condom, especially for one-night stands. She goes so far as to declare, "A man without a condom is no different from a criminal" (ない男なんて犯罪者と同じ), and "A man without a condom might as well be a murderer" (ない男なんて人殺しも同然)! I was not expecting that hilarious turn! (Ep. 5, Ken Naoko)
 
"Yuurei no Onna" (幽霊の女), a devastating yet catchy song about the ghost of a woman who, even after death, wishes she still had a body so she could caress and have sex with her boyfriend again. Even though he's now moved on with someone else. (Ep. 5, Toyota Ellie)
 
"Internet no Onna" (インターネットの女), about running away from home and avoiding weirdos on the internet. Another song that I thought was aight, but was really just happy to see another Black woman playing a character on this show. With her hair in bright pink braids, too! (Ep. 6, Japanese/Afro-Trinidadian singer Thelma Aoyama)
 
"Khoomei no Onna" (ホーミーの女), a song about a depressed woman who, wanting to die, begins learning Mongolian throat singing because she heard that the human body can't handle singing it perfectly (she intends to use it as a suicide method). Only for her to unwittingly develop a hobby and a community that give her an excuse to keep living until she masters the technique. (Ep. 7, Yoshizumi)

"Utaiowari ni Shinu Onna" (歌い終わりに死ぬ女), this last song of episode 8 (an episode about illnesses that women are predisposed to having) is performed by Kiyomi's mom. She's in her hospital bed, singing to herself in her final moments even though no one is likely to hear her song, hoping against hope that Kiyomi will remember her after she dies. (Nishida Naomi)
 
"Tamago wo Umu Onna" (卵を産む女), a song about a chicken-woman who's been single for eight years and is tired of having her period every month, but also isn't sure about wanting to be pregnant either. I mostly liked this song because Kiko Mizuhara performs it, and she's one of my favorite Japanese models/media personalities. (Ep. 9)
 
"Tako wo Taberu Onna" (タコを食べる女), a song that uses eating octopus (which have the intelligence of a human 3-year-old) as a metaphor for aborting fetuses (whose viability and consciousness people insist on debating). And I thought that was brilliant, because it's just veiled enough to address the subject of abortion somewhat subtly while still making the message very clear by the end. The character singing this song insists that terminating a pregnancy is a decision that women should make for their own body's sake, and they don't have to live miserably afterward either. They can move on, because abortion is only a small part of their lives that does not define them. (Ep. 9, Uchida Chika)
 
Episode 10 is where the pieces all come together and 'FM999' reveals itself to be more than just a collection of eye-catching theatrical performances. For the entire series, Kiyomi has been in her pajamas (or what I assumed were pajamas), which I thought was merely a quirk of the show that underscores how much she's ensconced inside her own mind. But there's actually a much bigger reason for her costuming! Brace yourselves for this MAJOR spoiler... 16-year-old Kiyomi is actually wearing hospital clothes, because she has just had an abortion. Furthermore, the radio DJ is actually the heart of the fetus Kiyomi has aborted ("Shinzou no Onna"/心臓の女), who reassures her not to beat herself up for the decision she made. At this point I was confused as to how the fetus could be the DJ, since the DJ's voice has been present throughout the show, whereas Kiyomi doesn't start having sex with her first boyfriend from school until the end of episode 5. However, episode 10 goes on to reveal that the radio thing and all those performances we've just witnessed are all part of a dream that Kiyomi has been having while asleep in a hospital bed, recovering from aforementioned abortion. In other words, she imagined it all. And it's only when she leaves the hospital with her father (who's surprisingly chill, supportive, and non-judgmental about the whole ordeal) that she's seen wearing her own regular clothing. 
 
Listen. I was NOT expecting 'FM999' to include teen pregnancy and teen abortion, but it went there! And with such impressive candor and sensitivity too! I felt totally thrown for a loop, realizing that what I figured would be a typical coming-of-age story (although with more theatrical flair), is actually a story about the inner thoughts of a girl who's just gone through a very particular and difficult aspect of womanhood prematurely, and who's trying to make sense of everything. Despite the show's subtitle being '999 Women's Songs', as I mentioned previously there are only 27 musical performances (28 including the fetus's heart, which sings the final song). So I'm not sure why it's called 'FM999', other than that it's a catchy name for a fictional radio station. But perhaps 999 could also represent how innumerable women's experiences are; the songs refer to common occurrences that happen in Japanese women's lives, but at the same time the show doesn't claim to speak for every single Japanese woman out there. While looking into this series I learned that it was actually written by a man (screenwriter/director Nagahisa Makoto), which does make me wonder what inspired him to put on such an eccentric, darkly humorous, unflinchingly woman-centered production as this. On the drive home from the hospital, Kiyomi's father makes a point of asserting that it's men's duty to protect women, and so maybe that ethos was behind Nagahisa's intentions for making this project. Overall—and I hadn't anticipated being able to say this when I first started watching—'FM999' wowed me. Truly wowed me. Its official website has a full cast list, which also specifies the name of each song, which episode the song appears in, and who performs it (photos included). So definitely check out that list here!
 
I'm not done yet! There are two shows left to cover, so be sure to read what I have to say about them in part 2 of this J-drama review.