Thursday, September 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Transcendent Kingdom + While We Were Dating)

August was a busy month and anxiety/indecisiveness kept me from reading much, but as is my end-of-the-month custom, I'm back with a new book review for September! Today's selections are the most recent releases from Black women authors whose work I've come to profoundly appreciate since discovering them within the past four years. First up is a novel about a Ghanaian-American neuroscience PhD student who houses her mentally-ill mother, while researching solutions to the drug addiction and depression that nearly destroyed her family. Second is a romance novel about a Black advertising exec and a famous Black plus-sized actress who "pretend" to date in order to secure the actress's dream role.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi's debut novel) astounded me and remains one of my favorite books ever, but if I'm being honest, I put off reading Gyasi's next novel when I heard about it coming out last year. From the preliminary information I'd seen about it, I knew Transcendent Kingdom would be a completely different story from Homegoing, and I didn't want to be disappointed. But then I was in Target last month running an errand when I spotted paperbacks of Transcendent Kingdom on sale, and since that day was also a pretty pivotal personal anniversary for me, I decided to buy myself a copy as a gift. I didn't intend to read it right away, but the longer it sat on my desk (a.k.a. the kitchen table), the more I felt it calling me to read it now. So that's what I did. 

Gifty is a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford University (Gyasi's alma mater) who was raised by Ghanaian parents in Huntsville, Alabama (just like Gyasi was). The closest thing to a community that her family had was the all-white First Assemblies of God Church that her religious mother joined not long after settling in Huntsville, but the racism inherent in its members' worldview showed Gifty as a pre-teen that her folks would always be outsiders. At first her family consisted of her parents, her brother Nana (six years her senior), and herself. But then, when Gifty was four years old, her father left the family and returned to Ghana when being treated like a dangerous Black man and struggling to find a sense of belonging became too much for him. And then, when Gifty was 11, her basketball star brother died of a heroin overdose after years of addiction. Nana's passing thrust their mother into a depression that left her bedridden, and Gifty was sent to stay with relatives in Ghana while their mother recovered. Recover she did, and she remained stable until 17 years later, in the present, when she lapses back into a deep depression and is sent by her pastor to stay with Gifty in Palo Alto. Now, on top of researching exactly what parts of the brain control reward-seeking behavior in her lab at Stanford, Gifty must figure out how to get her 68-year-old mother to to eat again, speak again, and generally return to the land of the living. The book's title refers to a passage about the boundless mysteries of the human brain, "Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom... That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know" (21).

I saw so many parallels between Transcendent Kingdom's characters and characters of other works that I've enjoyed in recent years. Let's start with the male figures in Gifty's family. Her father reminded me of Kweku from Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi), a fellow Ghanaian immigrant and head of household who, hurt and homesick, also abandons his family and flees to Ghana when life in America turns sour. Big brother Nana reminded me so much of Tyler from the 2019 film Waves, another Black teenager and star athlete who becomes increasingly unstable and violent toward his family due to drug addiction, and who eventually loses out on the glowing future everyone assumed he would have. Unlike for Tyler, the sports injury that triggers Nana's addiction isn't career-ending, but an OxyContin prescription coupled with the enduring pain and anger he harbors about his dad's abandonment, along with his uncertainty about college choices, is all the window of opportunity needed for a three-year addiction to form. And when the Oxy runs out, it's implied that a fellow teenaged boy from the church is the one who introduces Nana to heroin.
Gifty herself reminded me of several fictional and non-fictional people (myself included), but I'll just share the most notable few. I couldn't help but think of Casey from Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee), a fellow twenty-something who is no longer a believer but still, sometimes in spite of herself, finds value and insight in remnants of her intense Christian upbringing. As a woman pursuing a science PhD, to me Gifty also recalled the unnamed narrator of Weike Wang's Chemistry, who also deals with grad student struggles while confronting childhood trauma that centers around her mom. My close friend Irene is currently a PhD student at Stanford in real life, specializing in medical research (I've visited her at her lab and everything!), so of course I thought of her often as I made my way through this novel as well. Yaa Gyasi even name-drops some local Palo Alto establishments and real-life labs at Stanford in the book, so I was frequently messaging Irene questions like, "Have you been to a restaurant in Palo Alto called Tofu House?", "Also, have you ever been to Philz Coffee?", "Are you familiar with the Ting Lab or Deisseroth Lab at Stanford?". As sobering and heartbreaking as reading Transcendent Kingdom often was, it was fun to have Irene confirm that yes, those are all real places and yes, she's familiar with them all.

Perhaps I risk sounding hyperbolic when I write about how much I see myself in the books I read (Leah Vernon's Unashamed and Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow come to mind as recent examples), but I can't help it if it's true! Gifty and I are both 28-year-old Black women; we were both raised in Christian households (although hers was much more stringent than mine); we both came up in educational environments where Black people should've been more prevalent; we both tried to use overachievement to cover our insecurities and solve our problems; we've both struggled with shame, body issues, intimacy, trust, and asking for help due to childhood trauma that was beyond our years; and we've both felt conflicted between "wanting to feel good" and "wanting to be good" (194). Considering the epilogue of this book, I do wonder if Gyasi is pulling a Parasite-esque pipe dream ending, showing readers the healed, fully-loved, and no longer codependent future that Gifty deserves but is unlikely to attain due to the dire nature of her and her mom's circumstances. Or I don't know, maybe after wading through all of Gifty's trauma, Gyasi decided to give Gifty and readers a break by truly granting her a hopeful ending where she's at greater peace.

To sum everything up, here's a message I sent to Irene after finishing Transcendent Kingdom: "The main character is a neuroscience PhD at Stanford, studying restraint and reward-seeking in an effort to understand the addiction that killed her brother and the depression that has severely hampered her mom. Lots of talk about Christianity and science, where they intersect/diverge, the questions that neither of them can answer (main character is also a former Christian, raised by Ghanaian parents in Alabama). It's kind of heartbreaking, but it's written really well. I enjoyed it. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed in the least! A little bummed out by the contents (much of it hit too close to home) but not at all disappointed!" If you're interested in African immigrant experiences in the South, recovery from religious indoctrination, Black women in STEM, familial loss, diary entries, contemplations of faith and science side by side, the nuances of addiction and depression, or sexual exploration for late bloomers, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"We don't even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That's science, but that's also everything else, isn't it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions" (33).

"What I'm saying is I didn't grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing. I grew up only with my part, my little throbbing stone of self-hate that I carried around with me to church, to school, to all those places in my life that worked, it seem to me then, to affirm the idea that I was irreparably, fatally, wrong. I was a child who liked to be right" (184).

"Suddenly, I felt embarrassed by my revelation, but Katherine didn't seem even the least bit fazed... I'd lost some of my timidity around the subject of sex, but not all of it. For years I hadn't been able to reconcile wanting to feel good with wanting to be good, two thing that often seemed at odds during sex, especially sex the way I liked it" (194).
"Her smile was radiant, assured, proud... holding me as my own mother so rarely did, smiling brightly as my mother rarely smiled, I knew that the woman I had spent the summer with reflected the woman my mother could have been. My mother deserved to be this happy, this at ease in her body and in the world" (235).

While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Conversely to Transcendent Kingdom, I'd been looking forward to reading While We Were Dating ever since I first heard about its July 2021 publication date. Reading The Wedding Party in 2019 not only familiarized me with Jasmine Guillory's writing, but it also set me off on the "Stop Being a Snob and Seek Out All the Romance Novels You Can Find That You Think You'll Enjoy and Just Friggin' Enjoy Them!" journey that I'm still on now. That one irresistibly-delightful book opened me up to a whole new world (that world being romance), so it's kind of a big deal to me personally. Hence, when I found out that While We Were Dating would be directly connected to The Wedding Party—male lead Theo unexpectedly found the love of his life in TWP, so WWWD would be his younger brother Ben's turn—and that Ben's love interest would be a Black woman, I was already sold! I didn't need to know anything else! ("Black love" is not something I dwell on a lot in real life but for some reason it's become a priority for the romance I read, go figure.) And then more details filtered in, namely that Ben's love interest would be a plus-sized actress named Anna who is revered for her beauty and sex appeal, and then WWWD shot all the way to the top of my reading list! Back in June, it was one of four books that I ordered from Harriett's Bookshop in Philly (thanks to a Christmas gift card from my good friend Marlee!), and once I cracked it open late this month I finished it in a week and a half. Which is a record, considering how slowly I've been reading this year! I kid you not, there was one particular sitting where I read all night until 8:45am the next morning without even realizing it!

Ben Stephens is based in San Francisco and Anna Rose (stage name Anna Gardiner) is based in Los Angeles. They initially meet in a pitch meeting in the Bay for a smartphone ad campaign that Ben's advertising agency is vying for. His superiors are stuck in traffic, and so Ben has a chance to shine by doing the pitch all by himself. Anna (the lead actress of the campaign who also has veto power over which agency gets the gig) is impressed by Ben's acumen and attention to detail, and they're mutually drawn to each other right away. So when she selects Ben's agency under the condition that Ben be in charge of the entire two-week campaign shoot, the pair develop a working relationship that's immediately friendly and almost-strictly professional (they're both natural flirts). That is, until Anna's dad has a health emergency and Ben takes it upon himself to drive her seven hours south to the Palm Springs hospital that her dad is staying at. The couple grow closer on the drive down, and by the time they arrive back in the Bay the next day, they've already done the do three times and Anna has poured her heart out to Ben all about how anxiety derailed her life and career a year prior. In fact, Ben is the first man to ever so much as see her naked since her mental health crisis. 
After Ben and Anna try and fail to maintain their distance for the remainder of the campaign shoot, and with the surefire Oscar-worthy film role of a lifetime almost within Anna's grasp, Anna's manager devises a plan. He convinces her to make Ben her fake boyfriend just until her upcoming superhero movie premiere is over, so that she can generate enough media buzz to convince studio execs that her name is huge enough to warrant her dream role. She's meant to fool Ben into complying, but her conscience forces her to let Ben in on the whole scheme... and Ben is surprisingly receptive. He keeps all of his romantic relationships casual anyway, so what's a month-long, highly-publicized fling with the gorgeous, emotionally-intelligent actress he's already been having sex with anyway? However, as Ben spends time in L.A. with Anna attending events, doing publicity stunts for paparazzi, and chilling at Anna's house, they reveal more of their emotional selves to each other in the process, and Ben is the first to fall in love. Will Anna love him back? Can this casual fling, turned fake dating arrangement, actually become something real? Can Ben work through his conflict-avoidance and express the full range of his feelings to Anna, as well as inform his brother Theo about the half-sister who's recently reached out to Ben claiming to be their father's daughter? (Spoiler: the answer to all these questions is yes!)

This is my first time intentionally consuming a fake dating story in recent memory besides the first To All the Boys I've Loved Before movie, and I'd assumed that the default setting for this trope was a platonic pair pretending to be romantically involved, until the pretense causes them to fall in love for real. Which is why the way WWWD uses the trope was a little confusing to me at first, because it's a fake dating story where the lead couple pretend to date after already getting physically and emotionally involved (although not technically being together). The lines between Anna and Ben are blurred from the beginning, which complicates their relationship but also makes their conflict resolution that much sweeter in the end. So I understand how Guillory spins the trope in this novel. I guess I'm just not sure if the nature of Anna and Ben's relationship was meant to be that undefined, or if it was just me. I'm completely inexperienced when it comes to that sort of thing, so it could just be me. I also noticed that the conditions that Anna and Ben agree to are very similar to those that Theo and Maddie attempted to uphold in The Wedding Party: having a casual relationship for a clearly-defined period of time, until a certain goal is met, after which both people will go their separate ways and continue on with their lives. For Theo and Maddie the goal was making their mutual best friend's wedding a success, and for Anna and Ben the goal is catapulting her career even higher than it was before her anxiety came into play. But of course, as happens in both books, by the time the goal is achieved the two lovebirds are already "besotted" with each other. They're both slow to realize that they're in love, but once they do, being without each other is no longer bearable.
I was so impressed by the way Guillory has Anna address her body image issues as a plus-sized woman in the entertainment industry, issues Anna has largely overcome at this stage in her career. I hadn't expected Guillory to go there, but seeing as how she's also a plus-sized Black woman in a creative industry (in other words, Guillory knows what it's like), I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Anna doesn't hate herself or her body anymore, and though she's fully aware of how industry people might feel emboldened to give her less respect and fewer opportunities than she deserves because of her appearance, she keeps pursuing her career anyway because she is passionate about acting and enjoys how much fun her life in Hollywood is. Speaking of Hollywood, the intricacies of Anna's media strategy and how expertly she and Ben put on for the cameras (even scheduling their activities around when photographers will be at certain locations) are making me rethink every photo I've ever seen of a celebrity couple. Are the famous people we see really dating or just performing publicly to keep their names in people's mouths for strategic reasons? Is any celebrity image or interaction we see truly impromptu or organic? As vain or vapid as Hollywood is perceived to be, for me it was fascinating to read about how much strategy goes into celebrity appearances, and how such strategy is in many ways necessary for actors to have successful careers.
While The Wedding Party and While We Were Dating both consumed me in their own ways, I still love The Wedding Party slightly more. Maybe it just has the advantage of being my "first" romance novel as an adult, but hey. Some of the phrasing and word usage in WWWD gets a little repetitive (take a shot every time you see "licked and sucked", "God/Oh God/My God", "laugh out loud", "smile", etc.), and somehow what's at stake, even at Hollywood proportions, doesn't feel quite as intense as it did in TWP. WWWD is definitely the breezier read between the two, which isn't a bad thing at all, just a difference. It's an undeniably special story in its own right, and the commentary on Anna's career as a plus-sized actor, as well as on both her and Ben's mental health (Anna's anxiety is explored heavily, and readers get to sit in on Ben's therapy sessions), make the novel well worth the read. I almost thought I was disappointed by its conclusion, since Anna and Ben don't officially get together until the very end, meaning that we only get five pages with them as a fully-fledged, not-pretend couple, and how they'll sustain their long-distance relationship remains to be seen. But then I thought, what more fitting way to end a book that's been written during this pandemic? Looking toward the future together, not planning everything out or having all the solutions, yet hoping for the best. That works for me. 

If you're interested in what rich and famous people are like behind the scenes, plus-sized artists claiming space, clever banter, surprise half-siblings, how people can discuss mental illness together in open and supportive ways, or you're someone like me who reads romance for the explicit sex scenes, the emotional growth, and the Black representation, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, of course... but I forgot about that dream after a while. Probably because I saw how hard it was for people who looked like me to get anywhere... I suppose I saw how hard it was for people who looked like me—women who looked like me—anywhere, not just in Hollywood. I'd been working as an agent, so I saw how shitty Hollywood was, but my friends were all over corporate America, and it wasn't any better there. So after a while, when I saw a role I wanted, I just said fuck it and decided to go for it" (39).  

"You are the worst fucking tease in all of California!" (102).

"That never works. Get your hopes up all you want—life is more fun that way" (294).
"He kept thinking one day he'd wake up and not care about Anna anymore... like she hadn't become wedged into his life. It hadn't happened yet. He thought about her every night as he fell asleep, her name was on his lips every morning as he woke up. One night he dreamt she was there with him; waking up that morning had been awful" (319).

Friday, July 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Lost Names + Things that I Do in the Dark)

Lately I've been trying to pick back up and finish older books that I've set aside at the same time that I make my way through newer purchases. So for this month's review, I'm pairing two books that I've kept waiting for years, both of which were originally published in the 1970s (1970 and 1977, respectively). First up is a semi-autobiographical novel about the final 13 years of Japan's colonization of Korea, from the perspective of a young boy growing up in what's now called North Korea. And then, a collection of 1950s-1970s poems by June Jordan (edited by Toni Morrison) which contemplate selfhood, community, desire, and Black struggle/liberation.

Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood  by Richard E. Kim
I ordered Lost Names after reviewing The Martyred (Richard E. Kim's most decorated work), because I was interested in learning more about Korean life under Japanese colonization from the testimony of someone who had actually lived through it. According to my Goodreads account, I initially started reading this novel in March of 2018. Then I set it aside for a reason that escapes me now, but it was probably my usual folly of thinking I can pause one book, finish a handful of other ones quickly during that pause, and then resume that one book again in no time. Somehow three years passed, and last month I finally decided to start Lost Names over from the beginning. 
The novel focuses on a boy in a northern Korean town 50 miles south of Pyongyang, where he lives with his parents, younger siblings, and paternal grandparents. The boy's father is greatly-respected for his past involvement in the Korean independence movement (which resulted in years of imprisonment), and for feeding and employing local people through the apple orchard he owns. Because the boy's family is wealthy and well-connected but also community-oriented—all the townspeople know who his daddy is, regardless of status or ethnicity—this allows the boy some wiggle room to evade or even resist certain restrictions and punishments that Japanese authorities enforce at his heavily-militarized school. In seven chapters, Richard E. Kim describes a Korean boyhood that's loosely based on his own, starting with the boy's family getting harassed by military police while briefly relocating to Manchuria in 1933, and ending with the boy and his father leading their town in liberating itself on the day of Japan's WW2 surrender announcement in 1945. Additionally, because it's written from a child's perspective, most of the book describes events connected to the local school, where both Japanese and Korean teachers are employed to mold the boy and his classmates into future soldiers for Imperial Japan.
The title Lost Names refers to the townspeople being required to register "new names" (Japanese ones) at the local police station, risking consequences such as their children being banned from school if they refuse. However, the issue of names actually comes up a lot less often in this book than I expected. None of the characters are named, and so even when Kim depicts a specific day during winter 1940 where people line up to register new names, we don't actually learn what those names are. (Except for the Japanese family name that the boy's father has chosen, the meaning of which still manages to reflect the family's commitment to their fellow Koreans.) Without a doubt, the moments when the boy internalizes the fact that his people are having their names taken from them are pivotal and painful. But I'd assumed the book would delve more into what kinds of Japanese names Korean people registered and why, how and when Koreans employed their real names over their Japanese ones (and vice versa), and how those names might have changed or endured after colonization ended. (For instance, would a young Korean person who grew up only studying Japanese language and history in school want to hold onto a Japanese name post-1945?) And my assumption proved incorrect. Lost Names is less about names themselves and more about the constant institutionalized attempts to make Koreans forfeit their identities. The imperial war effort and assumptions of Japanese superiority infiltrate nearly all aspects of daily life in this particular Korean town, and many Koreans find themselves acquiescing in ways that they never would've thought possible.

In an American context, I'm aware of the cynical argument that education systems exist to cultivate a future workforce, masses of young people whose labor can be exploited once they're capable and of age enough to supplement and/or replace the current workforce. But Lost Names is probably the starkest example I've read of a school that's unabashed in its campaign to turn children into tools. Furthermore, I had no idea just how militaristic Japanese schools were in Korea. At the boy's school, there's no pretense about nurturing well-rounded people, educating children for the sake of their own personal development, or giving them ample options for the kinds of adults they can grow into. These students are not merely children, they are future bodies to be sent to Japanese front lines abroad. And the institution where these children spend most of their days is not merely a school, it's a soldier factory. Now admittedly, I'm not familiar with how military schools work, and perhaps an American military academy wouldn't be so different from what Kim describes. But my goodness! The boy's schooling escalates from rigid morning assemblies and a field trip to view propaganda films on his first day of second grade, to most of his second year of junior high being spent building an airfield (manual labor all day and two hours of class at night)! "Extreme" simply isn't a severe enough word to describe this education system.
Remarkably, even amidst so much oppression, pockets of resistance show up throughout this story. Farmers start producing less (or quit farming altogether) when Japan creates an artificial shortage by sending most of Korea's meat and rice to Japan. The boy's mom teaches her children and the household's young servants to read and write Korean when Japanese authorities prohibit such instruction in schools. The boy's family (among others) delays registering new Japanese names for as long as they can, and the boy's father makes a point of wearing Korean clothing when he goes to the police station to register. On two occasions, Korean staff at the boy's school intercede when the boy is being beaten by Japanese staff. When the boy's Japanese teacher forces him to star in a pro-Empire propaganda play put on by the school, the boy goes onstage and pretends to forget the monologue that the teacher wrote for him. The boy's uncle, a high-ranking military officer in Manchuria, works with Korean and Chinese resistance fighters in secret. And the boy's father consistently has secret meetings and conversations with people who await (or are actively working toward) Korean liberation.
Before reading Lost Names, I never considered that Korean people could've felt guilty toward their ancestors and future generations, who might resent them for supposedly letting the Japanese run over them the way they did. Of course, colonialism is layered, methodical, and insidious, and it's never something that the colonized just "let" happen. Plus, Korea is known for having a relentless resistance movement even before the country's status as a Japanese colony became official in 1910. But in Lost Names, Kim's adult characters express such a profound sense of remorse and a shame-tinged hope that past and future generations will forgive them, and it's absolutely heartbreaking to read. Even on the day of Japan's surrender, the boy and his father commiserate over how bitter they feel because it seems like liberation was bestowed upon Koreans by someone else, instead of them fighting for it and seizing it for themselves sooner. And that's another sentiment that I didn't anticipate. 
The townspeople's successful and highly-organized efforts to take power back from the Japanese allows this book to close with resounding triumph. This is a brief moment in time, between Japanese colonization and the Korean War, where anything seems possible for the future of an independent, non-partitioned Korea. Which is why I couldn't help but add my own sorrow to the immense hope that radiates from the boy and his father, because they have no idea what troubles are still to come. Even as I write this review, my heart hurts for what could've been. If you're interested in historical fiction, Korean history and Christianity in the early to mid 20th century, children's lived experiences of Japanese imperialism (especially surrounding WW2), or father-son stories, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"I think about it, however. Would the Japanese Emperor know that we children are bowing our heads to him? He may be asleep... he may be eating his breakfast... or he may be in the toilet, for all we know... and I can't help giggling about the picture conjured up by the last image... the Emperor is in the toilet and someone knocks on the door and says, 'Your Majesty, Your Majesty! The children, the children! They are bowing to Your Majesty!'... and the Emperor says, 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I have my pants down!' Ha, ha, ha, I laugh" (30-31).
"People are driven into the cold, dank, and gray recesses of their houses with nothing much to do but think about the warm spring... Children are bound, too, into wherever they can find a little warmth, with a monotonous routine and a frustrating and demoralizing suspicion that, somehow, life has come to a stop. But, of course, life has not come to an end; it is, simply, in captivity, in the grips of a very cruel season...." (88).
 "No, you don't forget that. No, I won't forget that... I merely reflect, with a quick, sharp ache within me, that that is only one of the many other things that I cannot and will not forget. 'Vengeance is Mine,' says a god. 'Vengeance is Yours,' I say, 'Memories are Mine'" (135).

Things that I Do in the Dark: Selected Poems  by June Jordan
Two coincidences led me to read this collection of poetry, even though understanding poetry has never been my forte. I found this first edition copy (so first edition that it has an ISBN but no bar code!) back in college, at a book sale that some student org was running one day in the grassy open area next to my dorm. I was even less skilled at resisting the urge to pounce on a book deal back then, and so June Jordan's Things that I Do in the Dark was one of the works I bought for cheap that day. I wish I could remember why I was drawn to it. I'm certain I didn't know who June Jordan was, and I'm certain I wasn't paying close enough attention to notice Jordan's note of thanks to Toni Morrison (her editor) in the collection's opening pages. Maybe it was Alice Walker's co-sign on the back cover? Maybe I skimmed through the pages and found a phrase that caught my eye? No clue! But I bought the book and kept it stowed away in various places over the years that followed. Cut to May 2021 when, after watching the documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir on Netflix, I went digging for two of her books (as-yet-unread, of course) that I knew I'd put away somewhere in the house. My search was successful, and I also happened to rediscover my copy of Things that I Do in the Dark in the process of digging through multiple book storage bins. I started reading it in June, and finished it this month.
This collection contains over 130 poems that were written from 1958 to 1973 by June Jordan, a celebrated and proudly-bisexual Black woman poet, professor, and activist who was raised by Jamaican parents in Brooklyn. Some of these poems are descriptive, some are declarative, and all of them demonstrate Jordan's earnest desire to make sense of the relational and political systems that Black people were situated in at that time. And this is mostly the '60s and '70s we're talking about, so there was a lot to make sense of. The book is divided into four thematic sections, and the following parentheses are the exact descriptions I wrote in the margins for each one: For My Own ("herself/her people"), Directed By Desire ("romantic relationships"), Against The Stillwaters ("politics"), and Towards A Personal Semantics ("abstract?"). Obviously, the last section contains most of the poems that I understood the least. However, up until that point, I felt surprisingly enthusiastic about this book because I was reading June Jordan's poems more smoothly than I've been able to read any other poetry in a long time. Did every poem make sense to me? Of course not! But what made the difference was that I didn't agonize over what I didn't understand. I just kept reading the next line that followed. I would even venture to say that Jordan's poetry seems to make more sense when not read too slowly; there's frequent enjambment, and the rhythm of these poems is faster than I'd expected.
I'm not a Kentuckian but my mom is, so my interest is always piqued when I notice Kentucky mentioned in the books I read (here's to you, Marriage of a Thousand Lies and The Portable Promised Land). Hence, despite my efforts to push the horrific details to the back of my mind, the poem that still lingers with me the most from June Jordan's collection is "Poem for My Family: Hazel Griffin and Victor Hernandez Cruz". The first part of this four-part poem details the butchering and burning of a 17-year-old enslaved boy named George, who was murdered in western Kentucky by his two masters in 1811. The masters who murdered him, the Lewis brothers, were also Thomas Jefferson's nephews. And knowing what Thomas Jefferson did to James and Sally Hemings, for me the mention of his name in this poem chillingly underscored how widespread the evil was in that extended slave-owning family. The poem goes on to say that young George lived and died being treated like meat, and argues that Black people's freedom necessitates that Black people reclaim themselves and white people incur "property loss" or "property damage" (because Black people literally stop being "property" when no longer enslaved). Every time I look at my copy of Things that I Do in the Dark, even without touching it or opening it up, I think about what June Jordan wrote about George. 
Other favorites of mine include "These poems they are things that I do in the dark" (self-explanatory); "Ah, Momma" (about the revelations Jordan discovers about her mom by observing her habits and exploring her closet); "On a New Year's Eve" (where Jordan lauds the temporary and fleeting aspects of her relationship with her lover over the supposedly rare or magnificent things in life that last forever but are overrated); and "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies" (where Jordan throws down the gauntlet and vows to antagonize rather than appease white people, since they're going to act scared of her anyway). If you're interested in poetry written by Black women, what it feels like to love/be loved, or Black liberation and self-determination, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"To begin is no more agony
Than opening your hand" (from "Who Look at Me", p. 5)
"Although the world
forgets me
I will say yes
AND NO" (from "Who Look at Me", p. 10) 
"...once, in there you told me, whispering, that once, you had wanted to be an artist: someone, you explained, who could just boldly go and sit near the top of a hill and watch the setting of the sun
Ah, Momma!
You said this had been your wish when you were quite as young as I was then: a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl who heard your confidence with terrified amazement: what had happened to you and your wish? Would it happen to me too?" (from "Ah, Momma", p. 37-38)

"the temporary is the sacred

[...] let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
almighty/fathomless and everlasting
(whatever that may be) 
it is this time 
that matters

it is this history 
I care about

the one we make together

[...] all things are dear
that disappear

all things are dear
that disappear" (from "On a New Year's Eve", p. 74-76)

"I will no longer lightly walk behind 
a one of you who fear me:
Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavement anymore
[...] I must become the action of my fate.
[...] I must become a menace to my enemies." (from "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies", p. 145-46)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

BOOKS! (If I Dont Have You + If I Had Your Face)

I'm closing out the month of June (and the first half of 2021) with a new book review! First up is a novel about a one night stand that becomes an unlikely long distance relationship between two Black artists, who operate on separate coasts and in separate countries. And then, a novel about five 20 and 30-something Korean women living in the same apartment building in Seoul, weathering the beauty standards and competitive social hierarchies that dictate their survival. My only reasoning for pairing these two books together is that both of their titles start with the conditional "If". 
If I Don't Have You by Sareeta Domingo

Who would've thought that reading Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Party back in 2019 would have the impact on me that it's had? Certainly not me! I wouldn't say that I'm a dedicated romance reader now, but I've become more open to giving certain romance novels a chance when they do genuinely interest me (and especially when they focus on Black people in love). Case in point: If I Don't Have You. I believe I discovered this novel through following Kelechi Okafor and/or Bolu Babalola, two Black British writers who are acquainted with this book's author, Sareeta Domingo. I can't remember what exactly sold me on this book in particular, but when March came around this year and I finally decided how I wanted to use the Amazon gift card my stepmom gave me last Christmas, I chose two works of romance written by Black British women and If I Don't Have You is one of them.
When Kayla (a writer and multidisciplinary artist from London) interviews Ren (an Afro-Brazilian indie filmmaker from New York City who's pivoted to being a blockbuster director) during the New York press junket for Ren's new film, the two artists feel an immediate and undeniable connection. The pair are mutually stunned by each other's presence, physical beauty, and sense of artistic integrity. They discuss Ren's filmography, Kayla asks him a few extra questions and snaps Polaroids of him for an independent project of hers, and then they part ways, each on their way out of the city; Kayla's temporarily heading home to London, and Ren's heading to Toronto for work. Luckily, they run into each other at the airport, and weather-related flight cancellations lead to them sharing the only available room in the hotel that the film studio had previously booked for Ren's press junket. After wandering around the city together that night, they return to the hotel and have what they think will be a one night stand. But after spending the following morning together and struggling to bid farewell at the airport, Kayla and Ren agree to reunite in New York in three months' time and see how far this new relationship might go.

However, what Ren doesn't know is that Kayla is already engaged. She's spent years building a career as an artist in New York City, and marrying an American citizen has become her only viable option for staying in the States. Her business partner and Columbia art school friend Cole (who fancies her but respects Kayla's boundaries enough to keep their relationship platonic), has agreed to marry her so she can remain. While in London waiting for everything to be arranged so she can return to the States and marry Cole, Kayla receives an unexpected postcard from Ren, who'd taken her up on her challenge to "find" her instead of exchanging contact information when they last parted. What unfolds, through messages and phone calls and video calls and emails, is a long distance relationship that both lovers are deeply invested in, even as much as they're unsure of whether they can maintain it. But Kayla's never been in love before, and a combination of fright and cowardice prevent her from telling Ren the truth about the lengths to which she's going to protect her ambitions. And Ren—who was effectively abandoned by his mom when she moved back to Brazil after divorcing his dad, and who's still hurting after his ex-girlfriend recently cheated on him with his best friend—certainly won't take kindly to being betrayed and possibly rejected again. When Ren unintentionally crashes Kayla's wedding party in New York, he's the one to walk away from the relationship altogether. But can they still find their way back to each other?

This novel is a movie. The whole time I was reading it, I felt like I was reading a movie. Especially during Kayla and Ren's first night together (before the sexcapades), when they're eating at a favorite diner of Ren's, then meandering around the city, even pausing to pull each other close and dance in the street? And the whole time they're vulnerably spilling their guts, while still being somewhat bashful because of how strongly they're attracted to one another? A movie, I tell you! I also appreciate that no matter what's going on in Kayla and Ren's individual lives, the focus always returns to their relationship. While in London, Kayla braces herself to be judged and interrogated before telling her family about her upcoming wedding, but then there's no big ordeal once her family hears the news (her mom and sister, the ones whose reactions she was most worried about, are shockingly accepting of her decision). So then most of her time in London is spent thinking about and communicating with Ren. Special circumstances force Ren to interact with his ex-girlfriend and his ex-best friend again when the hurt and anger is still somewhat raw, but that gets resolved, and Ren's not even remotely interested in trying to get his ex-girlfriend back because he's concentrated on the new possibilities he has with Kayla. While they're broken up, Kayla and Ren each start dating other people, but once those other people aren't a factor anymore, they disappear from the story. Plus, the novel's leads can't resist thinking about each other when they're broken up anyway. The book stays on track, moving gradually toward the obvious goal of bringing the lead couple back together somehow, and I appreciate Sareeta Domingo's steadfastness in writing it that way. Getting to the point while also taking her time.

The conflict between Kayla and Ren boils down to miscommunication and misjudgments, which seem to be the main obstacles in most modern romantic stories. But once they do finally hash out their differences, the way they talk through their fears, confusion, hurt, and insecurities is almost unbelievably honest. People sometimes criticize the dialogue that's in books, films, and TV because the characters don't talk like real human beings would, but the dialogue in If I Don't Have You is the opposite. It actually makes me question if the real-life conversations I'm having are truly as "real" and honest as they could be! (I tend to resist being vulnerable with people, so I already know the answer to that question is no. But I digress.) And the way Domingo writes body language and physical intimacy between this couple is just... Lawdhammercy. I had to take breaks to collect myself! Kayla and Ren make me want to believe in fate and love and second chances again, even though I've never had a relationship to make me disbelieve in any of those things in the first place! That's how much I bought into their love story.

If I Don't Have You is undoubtedly the best romance book I've ever read (so far), and is my favorite thing I've read in 2021 (again, so far). The cover, header, and footer font is loopy and pleasing to the eye. My only gripe about the book is that its cover illustration doesn't make clear that Kayla's devastatingly-long and beautiful hair is in locs. As far as reading romance goes, I wholeheartedly believe in the precedent that If I Don't Have You has set for me and I'm excited to explore more, both in the romance genre and in Sareeta Domingo's bibliography. If you're into Black love, the artist's quandary of succeeding without selling out, top tier sex scenes, self-deprecating humor that's actually adorable and not annoying, or supporting one of the 20 Black British books that Jacaranda Books published last year ("Twenty in 2020") then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Do your dreams feel real? 
What is it you most admire about the person you admire most? 
How often do you look up?
Why is that song your favourite?
When did you last get goose bumps?
Why do we create?" (31-32).
"Maybe sometimes you just have to live in the moment, take what life gives you... Like maybe there's a plan... A blueprint for your life that you don't know about—certain things that are meant to happen, people you're supposed to meet. When you think about it, how much do we really need to know about another person to get their essence, anyway? To understand if they're... significant? No time at all, right? I'm only just starting to understand how important it is to not take things like that for granted." (95)

"'Kayla.' He says my name like it's a complete sentence, packed with meaning" (223).

"I think as creative people, you, me, any of us, create because it's inside and needs to come out. Because we're human beings, and making art is what defines us as such. Like making love, without necessarily the intention of making life... But as much as I think creating is a need, I also think sometimes we create for the hell of it. Because we can, you know?" (230).

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

I learned that this novel existed last year through reading an article about Korean feminist literature, but I can't remember which article; it was either this one or this one. And so I added this novel to the book list I keep on my phone, but wasn't in a rush to read it anytime soon. Then at the end of May this year, I went with a friend to Cleveland to visit an independent bookstore she'd been raving about for months: Loganberry Books. Normally when I go book-browsing I will something to "speak" to me, and wait to feel that unmistakable connection that compels me to buy a particular book at that particular time. It's even more the case at independent bookstores, where I'm usually expecting something special and/or conveniently cheap to stand out to me. And as beautiful and full of options as Loganberry is, I just wasn't connecting to anything that day. I spotted If I Had Your Face in the fiction room, remembered I had it on my list, and bought it just to say I didn't leave the store empty-handed. But then I started reading it this month... and I couldn't put it down! I was flying through it! So it turns out I did make the perfect find at Loganberry, I just hadn't realized it yet. Five relatively young women are at the center of this novel, which is narrated by four of them in alternating chapters. They all live in the same apartment building (office-tel) in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, but none of the women are wealthy themselves, and they each initially moved to Seoul from elsewhere. 
Ara, a hairstylist from Cheongju, has been mute since her teens and is heavily-involved in the fandom for her favorite male K-pop star. Ara's best friend and roommate Sujin, also from Cheongju, grew up in an orphanage and does nails for a living, but is obsessed with getting plastic surgery so she can use that newly-attained beauty to make a ton of money working in room salons. (Room salons are establishments where men, especially business types, go to private rooms to be entertained by women whose job it is to look pretty, drink alcohol with them, listen to them talk, and perhaps even have sex with them if the women and the establishments permit it. The closest thing I can think to liken room salons to are hostess bars in Japan.) Kyuri, a woman from Jeonju who's had innumerable cosmetic procedures and has worked in room salons all of her adult life, lives across the hall from Sujin and Ara and tries to caution Sujin from joining a world that could lead to degradation and inescapable debt. Miho, Kyuri's roommate who grew up with Sujin in the same orphanage back in Cheongju, is an artist whose previous studies in New York gave her access to wealthy Korean circles, where she made a rich best friend and a rich eventual boyfriend who weren't as well-adjusted as they seemed. And living on the floor beneath this quartet is Wonna, a married woman from Namyangju who was abused by her grandmother as a child and avoids superfluous human interaction, but who also admires her younger upstairs neighbors for how free and independent she thinks they are. None of these women have had happy childhoods, and as they entertain their respective desires and aspirations—Ara wants to meet her K-pop crush, Kyuri wants to maintain her lifestyle while potentially finding a path away from room salons, Sujin wants the perfect face so she can be an "ace" room salon girl like Kyuri, Miho wants to maintain her university funding and finish her art series commemorating a dead loved one, and Wonna wants to finally have a viable pregnancy and give birth to a child—they contend with all the odds that are stacked against them.

I related most to Wonna (I too witnessed/experienced abuse in my childhood) and Miho (I too am an artist, albeit not a professional one), but I definitely learned the most from Kyuri. Kyuri, in word or deed, dispels a lot of the myths I've held onto about plastic surgery and sex work in a way that I sorely needed. As much as I try not to judge people, plastic surgery is one of those things that I've always silently judged people for, dismissing them for being so vain and insecure as to alter their bodies in such drastic ways. I'm one of those people who would look at the prevalence of modified faces in South Korea, a country known as the plastic surgery capital of the world, and react with the oversimplified conclusion, "Why does everybody in Korea hate themselves?". Obviously some people have cosmetic procedures done simply because they want to. But as I delved deeper into this novel and messaged my American friend who lives in Korea about it, I realized, "It's really helping me understand in a new way how status-focused Korea is. Like the plastic surgery thing isn't simply because people hate themselves (even though that probably is part of it for some people). It's really about getting ahead and having an edge over the next person, especially since so much of social mobility for women is tied to how others assess their looks." For example, the stigma associated with sex work makes it nearly impossible for Kyuri to transition to another field, or marry out of having to work at a room salon ever again. But she needed to surgically alter her appearance just to be considered beautiful enough to work at one of the more upscale room salons that pay more and have slightly better working conditions. That's how competitive it can be for Korean people—especially Korean women—to make a living, even in an industry as shady as sex work. 
And speaking of supposed shadiness. Kyuri is brutally honest about the negative repercussions of doing sex work, but at the same time she rightfully rebukes people (even if only to herself) who insult her and treat her like she's beneath them. She's not downtrodden, she knows she's being exploited, but she's also making a living and paying for her ailing mother's healthcare with the money she earns from doing the very thing that people look down on her for. And who is anyone to look down on Kyuri anyway, when the room salons are full of "respectable" businessmen lying to their wives and girlfriends about their whereabouts, while said wives and girlfriends pretend not to know what their men are doing? And who is anyone to look down on Kyuri, when there are doctors, pharmacists, plastic surgeons, whole entire "professional" sectors that profit off of the sex workers who patronize their services? Everyone, including and especially men, is full of it as far as Kyuri as concerned, and she sees right through people who try to act like they're morally sound or have no ties to her industry whatsoever.
I was reminded of so many other works as I read this book. The 1989 miniseries 'The Women of Brewster Place' came to mind, with its ensemble cast of Black women living in the same apartment building, dealing with their own singular and collective struggles they face due to being women. The 2017 documentary 'Save My Seoul' also came to mind, with its examination of how precariously young some girls can be when they get involved in sex work, and of how sex work was a cornerstone of Korea's postwar economic recovery. Sujin's dogged protectiveness of Ara proves to be motivated by guilt for letting Ara down in a life-altering way in the past, a revelation that immediately reminded me of the character Terry in the British TV series 'I May Destroy You'. And of course, If I Had Your Face has obvious parallels to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, which matter-of-factly lays out the everyday sexism that Korean women are expected to unquestioningly put up with in order to participate in society. I also noticed that there are actually five main characters in If I Had Your Face (not four, as the back cover suggests), but although she plays a significant role in Ara, Kyuri, Miho, and Wonna's lives, Sujin never has a chapter where she shares her own backstory and perspective in first-person like the other women do. She's the common denominator, but she never gets to take the floor. And I figure that that has to mean something. There must be a reason for it, but I don't know what.
This book is often blunt about some incredibly tragic events that happen in these characters' lives, but gosh darn it if it isn't also funny. There's so much humor here. Sarcasm, cynicism, playful chiding, messing around, passive aggression, laughing to keep from crying. The humor in this book takes so many forms, often showing up alongside some of the darkest revelations and harshest realities that these women face. And believe it or not, If I Had Your Face ends on a hopeful note. Open-ended, but still hopeful. Ara has gotten rid of her assistant from hell and overcome her K-pop idol obsession. Sujin's face has healed and she's enjoying her new pretty status while working in room salons like she'd been wanting to from the beginning. Kyuri may or may not be doing the impossible (leaving sex work for a "real" job), thanks to Sujin's help. Miho's art career is as promising as ever, she's cut her hair from waist-length to shoulder-length, and she's carefully plotting revenge against a man who recently wronged her. And Wonna, with her overly-caring husband out of the picture and her pregnancy progressing, is finally opening up by inviting the girls over for dinner, showing them an ultrasound, and letting Ara help with baby prep. They've bonded in a way that transcends merely being neighbors. If you're interested in societal taboos, novels with multiple narrators, perspectives on Korean womanhood, the consequences of beauty standards, or stories about friendship between women, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I know it will fade by next week, but for now it makes me happy, as if I have set off a signal to the world. Already, I have noticed how people react with great caution to someone with fuchsia hair, even if that person is mute" (149).
"I am sitting on the curb looking up at the cloudless wintry sky and wondering if I am a happier person than I was twenty minutes ago, when I did not know what I know now" (172).

"In a way, I think I am now experiencing true freedom for the first time in my life. That is the way to think of this—that this is karma, and also absolution... But before he sees her in my work, I will suck everything I can from him. I will be wild and unleashed. I will now take from him what I can. I have not heard Kyuri's philosophies on men all this time for nothing... I will build myself up so high in such a short time that when he leaves me, I will become a lightning storm, a nuclear apocalypse. I will not come out of this with nothing." (213-215)

"Whatever it is, I am so grateful that a gush of hope springs deep inside me and it is everything I can do to not break down completely in public. I want to share this with someone—anyone. I want to clutch the lady who is sitting next to me on the subway and tell her. I want her to know a little world is erupting inside of me" (216).

Sunday, June 13, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 25 - pt. 2

Part 1 of this review covered the two J-dramas I watched entirely with English subtitles, and part 2 focuses on the two shows I started out watching with no subtitles at all. (Thankfully, English subs for the latter of the following became available eventually.) Here they are!

銀座黒猫物語 (Ginza Kuroneko Monogatari/Ginza Black Cat Stories) - Kansai TV/Sony Pictures/2020
  • In each episode, a person facing some sort of dilemma winds up in Ginza, a district in Tokyo that's known for being high-end. While each person is in Ginza, a black cat (the titular "kuroneko") suddenly appears and leads them to a local business, then disappears.
  • Each episode features a different business, ranging from restaurants and bars to a custom-made chopstick store, a one-of-a-kind suit tailor, and a printing press specializing in business cards. The main character of each episode learns about the unique quality or history behind the products that these establishments make and sell, which somehow helps said characters solve their personal dilemmas or at least gain greater perspective on them.
  • The show's opening sequence invites viewers to discover "the Ginza you don't know about", encountering sites and stories that people might not expect to exist in this presumably well-known district.

As ritzy as Ginza is known to be, part of this show's charm is that it focuses on pretty regular people (read: people who are not wealthy). And it seems to be targeted at adults 20-something and up (read: working-age people who can go to Ginza and spend money after watching this show), since the themes center on grown-up relational and professional concerns. For the episodes that are about relationships, the moral is basically, "Your parents actually did/do love you, they just didn't know how to show it and they're sorry." Or, "Your parents actually did/do love you, but they showed it in a way that you couldn't understand until now." And for the episodes that are about current or future career concerns, the moral boils down to, "You can do your job better than you think, you just need the right inspiration and support." Or, "You haven't lost your talent, but maybe you need to loosen up and stop being a purist or thinking you're above it all." 

My motivations for watching this show were fairly cut and dry. First, the concept reminded me of 'Blanket Cats', another J-drama that revolves around cats and presents different, relatively unrelated stories in each episode. And second, the obvious tourism angle with a particular emphasis on food recalled other shows that serve as episodic advertisements for the array of cuisines that are available in Japan (such as 'Samurai Gourmet' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'). If I had to say what makes 'Ginza Kuroneko Monogatari' different, it's that this show emphasizes the craft, effort, and years of dedication that the owners and employees of these businesses put into making each dish or item special. If you like cats, jazz music, slice of life J-dramas, or thinly-veiled tourism campaigns, then definitely give this show a try!

共演NG (Kyouen NG/No Co-Starring) - TV Tokyo/2020
  • Hitomi and Eiji are middle-aged, well-established actors who used to be in a relationship. 25 years after their VERY public breakup following the revelation that Eiji cheated on Hitomi, as well as a mutual moratorium on appearing in any projects together, the two actors are tricked by their respective managers into co-starring in a TV show again. And the new show is a love story at that, with title that translates to 'I Love You So Much That I Want to Kill You'.
  • It's not only Hitomi and Eiji who can't stand each other. A pair of female 20-something former idols hate each other's guts, and same goes for their two male 20-something counterparts. And a middle-aged actor who spent years in New York is constantly bickering with an elderly actor who's also an industry legend. In short, this cast is made up of four pairs of actors who refuse to get along, professionalism be darned.
  • As Hitomi and Eiji weather multiple scandals and try to smooth over feuds between the other actors, they reassess their own animosities toward each other. During the three months of their show's production, they manage to form a working partnership that is shaky but promising. That is, if their lingering feelings for each other and Eiji's jealous wife (the woman he previously cheated on Hitomi with) don't get in the way.
NG is an abbreviation of "No good", an English phrase that Japanese people use to refer to misses, bad takes, things that are unacceptable, or something that just won't do. Hence, the title 'Kyouen NG' refers to Hitomi and Eiji's longstanding refusal to work together. The opening song is delightfully groovy, and the resentful dance sequence that accompanies it tickled me every time I watched it. The first part of the song literally goes like this (English translation by yours truly): "With you it's no good, no good / I don't even want to see your face / Kyouen NG, NG / We will never be able to understand each other". So it's made VERY clear that Hitomi and Eiji still got beef, even after two and a half decades!
Something I noticed right from the first episode is that this is the first J-drama I've seen so far that mentions "social distance" (literally, that term) and shows COVID-19 film production protocols. And if that wasn't meta enough, the broadcast network within 'Kyouen NG' is called "TV Toyo", sporting a similar name and the exact same logo and font as the show's real-life broadcast network, TV Tokyo. As for the whole cheating thing, I thought it was clever how the show broaches the subject of celebrities having affairs with each other, especially when it's revealed that two of the young actors in the cast (one of whom is married) are in a relationship. Their apology press conference poses multiple questions that warrant further discussion: Yes, they had an affair which isn't a good thing to do, but even as public figures why do they have to make a dramatic show of remorse and self-flagellate for people who aren't even involved? Isn't that played out? Isn't it a private matter, to a certain extent, to be handled between the people who are actually involved? And isn't infidelity super prevalent in Japanese society anyway? So why do these two actors have to perform repentance for masses of people who are likely just as messy as them or more? Cheating scandals have been known to derail Japanese entertainers' careers, and given recent real-life examples (see Kawatani Enon and Becky in 2016, or Anne Watanabe's husband and Karata Erika in 2020), I was impressed that 'Kyouen NG' chose to address the topic in such an honest way. As you might have guessed, the messiness of infidelity is what drew me to the show in the first place. But what's actually left the most lasting impression on me is that 'Kyouen NG' goes out of its way to illustrate how much of a collaborative effort TV and film production are. So much work goes on behind the scenes, even just for 30 minutes to an hour's worth of entertainment that audiences consume like it's nothing.
As for actors I recognized, I loved seeing Suzuki Kyoka as the lead actress. Coming from 'Grand Maison Tokyo' where she played a chef with an abundance of talent but a scarcity of self-confidence, it's thrilling to see her be so sleekly-styled, so confidently taking charge of situations, and so expressive with her disdain of anything related to Eiji. She knows when to keep her composure and when to air out her grievances if need be. And every time she glares at Eiji is just perfect. I also recognized Eiji's wife (Yamaguchi Sayaka) as Naomi Watanabe's boss in 'Kanna-san!'. She is scarily-convincing with her "seems caring but is definitely unhinged and playing mind games right now and might kill somebody later" vibe, her fabricated cutesy high-pitched voice, and her aggression disguised as hospitality. Another familiar face was the showrunner within 'Kyouen NG' (who's remote the entire time and never comes to set except for the very last episode), which is played Saito Takumi, a.k.a. the hot nerd in 'Hirugao' and the playboy dentist in 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi". Last but not least, I was surprised to see Lily Franky in this show. I've mostly only seen him in movies, but with this and 'The Naked Director' I guess he feels like doing dramas these days.

If I had to pick a favorite from this quartet of J-dramas that comprise this review, I would say that 'Oh! My Boss!' was the easiest to watch, but my overall favorite would be 'Kyouen NG'. Simply for Suzuki Kyoka's performance as a consummate professional actress, and as a woman over 50 who's still got it!

Saturday, June 12, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 25 - pt. 1

With summer approaching, I'm happy to finally say that I've finished the remaining three J-dramas from 2020 that I was interested in watching, plus one that aired during the winter 2021 season! Which means it's time for a new J-drama review! I'm writing about all of these shows in the order that I finished them, and the following two were the ones I watched entirely with English subtitles.

オー!マイ・ボス!恋は別冊で (Oh! My Boss! Koi wa Bessatsu de/Oh! My Boss! Love Not Included) - TBS/2021 

  • Nami leaves her hometown in Kumamoto and follows her childhood friend/unrequited crush to Tokyo, having no dreams other than to hopefully be in a relationship with him and lead an ordinary life. 
  • To her surprise, Nami is hired as the assistant to Reiko (Nanao, 'FIRST CLASS'and 'FIRST CLASS 2'), the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine called MIYAVI. Nami is selected by the deputy editor for this role specifically because he believes a person with no fashion sense or lofty industry aspirations will fulfill her duties earnestly, and not look down on the job as mere grunt work or a brief stepping stone toward higher places.
  • Nami discovers that her friend/crush is already engaged to someone else. As she works tirelessly to meet Reiko's near-impossible demands and help make each issue of MIYAVI perfect, Nami also stumbles into a love triangle between MIYAVI's culture writer Ryota and a photographer named Junnosuke (Tamamori Yuta, 'Grand Maison Tokyo'). Junnosuke just so happens to be Reiko's younger brother.

This show is basically The Devil Wears Prada, except the characters are nicer to each other. Reiko seems cold and mean because she cares deeply about the quality of her work and doesn't entertain unnecessary conversations or people wasting her time, but she's nowhere near as cutthroat as movie villain Miranda Priestly. And unlike movie protagonist Andy (who uses her experience as Miranda's assistant to kickstart her journalism career), Nami isn't a very ambitious person at all. Nonetheless, working closely under Reiko exposes Nami to the fashion world and opens her up to the possibility of wanting more, even if she doesn't know what "more" specifically means for her yet. Tangentially, much like Stanley Tucci's character in The Devil Wears Prada, the deputy editor of MIYAVI is very clearly gay, but it feels like overkill when the actor in 'Oh! My Boss!' always holds his pinky up in every scene he's in. I'm not part of the LGBTQ community, so far be it from me to speak out of bounds, but that's the impression I got of his character. Why include such a stereotype with the pinky thing, when his styling and other mannerisms already get the point across? And speaking of the magazine! Of all the possible names to choose for a fictional fashion magazine, I'm so curious as to why the show writers chose "MIYAVI", when a very famous Japanese musician and actor named Miyavi already exists in real life. Are the show writers fans of him? Did Miyavi give some sort of approval for his name to be used in the show? I have no clue.

As for Nami and Junnosuke, their romantic relationship progresses way too quickly to be believable in my opinion, but they're so adorable together that at some point I simply stopped caring! They encourage each other to explore their respective passions, even to the point of breaking up to avoid holding each other back. (Spoiler: They don't stay broken up.) Also, I have to say that I'm really impressed with Nanao's acting in her portrayal of Reiko. As someone who started out as a model, she could very easily stick to roles that wouldn't require her to deviate too much from the model type, but she challenges herself to step up her acting instead. Not to say that she didn't have solid performances in both seasons of 'FIRST CLASS', but she's obviously progressed so far beyond that. She especially sells it during her crying scenes in 'Oh! My Boss', making viewers feel her frustration and distress in those moments. Speaking of quality acting, it was so nice to see my birthday twin Takaoka Saki ('Kenja no Ai', 'Everyone's Getting Married') appear as the nice-nasty kimono expert/fashion exec who almost hires Nami away from Reiko. And props to Kurashina Kana ('Ubai Ai, Fuyu'), who plays Junnosuke's friendly violinist ex-girlfriend.
'Oh! My Boss!' is definitely the cutest, brightest, most colorful, and most easygoing show that I watched in this J-drama roster of mine. But the final episode did leave me with a plethora of questions. The episode doesn't feel so much rushed as it feels... random? After spending the entire series antagonizing Reiko and gloating upon finally taking Reiko's job when she's ousted from MIYAVI, all of a sudden Reiko's rival (Takahashi Maryjun, 'Dying Eye') quits because some advertisers have pulled out and now she insists that only Reiko can lead MIYAVI? Junnosuke decides to pursue photography again instead of forcing himself to be his dad's business successor, only to almost immediately tell Nami he's leaving to do public relations for an NGO in Cambodia? When he'd never mentioned being interested in Cambodia or NGOs before? Then he gives Nami an engagement ring and leaves Japan, but doesn't communicate with her at all during the next three years that he's away? And she doesn't even bring it up when he finally does return? The show skips ahead three years in the last eight minutes of the episode? Maybe filming or writing complications due to COVID meant the people behind the scenes had to slap some things together in the 10th episode that might've been developed more if the show had the usual 11 or 12-episode run? So many questions.

In all, 'Oh! My Boss' champions the idea of following one's dreams, but without arguing that being average is inferior or that people settle for less when they choose to have an ordinary life. Rather, the show acknowledges that the ordinary-ness of life will always be there, and that the extraordinary—such as the dream of pursuing a career in fashion/publishing that Nami didn't have at first but discovers later on—can be found and nurtured in the most ordinary of people and places. 
恐怖新聞 (Kyoufu Shinbun/Terror Newspaper/Terror Bulletin) - Fuji TV/Tokai TV/2020
  • A Kyoto college student named Shizuru moves into her first apartment, and one of the movers has her sign up for the Kyoufu Shinbun without her realizing what paper she's signing. 
  • People cursed with the Kyoufu Shinbun regularly receive newsletters from a supernatural source, and each newsletter predicts an imminent death (depicting the victim, manner and cause of death, date and time of death, and the perpetrator if one is involved). Each time the holder of the curse receives a newsletter, they get 100 days shaved off of their own life expectancy. The only way to be rid of the curse is to die, or to pass the Kyoufu Shinbun on to someone else by having them sign one of the newsletters. 
  • After her father falls victim to one of the newsletters, Shizuru works with the help of her coworker-turned-boyfriend Yusuke and her best friend Momoka to prevent more deaths from happening. But after her relationships with both of them fall apart, Shizuru continues trying to stop the curse on her own, with eventual assistance from her mom and constant hounding from a suspicious detective.
I wasn't always sure if this show wanted to be taken seriously or not. The death scenes are extremely violent and graphic... but also kind of campy? I'm not sure if the show is comical on purpose for the sake of taking the edge off of its dark tone, but I was tempted to laugh during or after nearly every death scene. Maybe that says something more about me than the show, I don't know. 

One of my favorite parts is when Shizuru discovers Yusuke cheating on her with Momoka, and she confronts both of them immediately! No dilly-dallying! She spots them at a restaurant together, calls Yusuke while looking in the window from directly outside the restaurant, catches him in a lie when he tells her he's at home, makes her presence known, and then confronts the traitors together. And then when Shizuru tells her mom about it, her mom has her back, even going so far as to nonchalantly suggest passing the Kyoufu Shinbun on to Yusuke. Shizuru is tempted to do just that, but ultimately is too compassionate of a person to go through with it. She's apparently compassionate to a fault, because even though Shizuru does resolutely break up with Yusuke and make him wait a while before taking him back, for some reason it takes her until the second to last episode (episode 6) to stop giving Momoka the benefit of the doubt and realize that her bestie truly does hate her.

I thought each episode was going to set up an impending death, show Shizuru's attempts at preventing said death, and reveal all the tricky ways in which she's foiled by fate as the people she tries to save die anyway. And the first three episodes are like that, with all of the rules of the curse not fully revealed until episode 3 (specifically the rule that if the current holder dies, the curse returns to the previous person who had it before them). But from then on? Oh, that's when things really got cooking and I was hooked! Completely sucked in. In particular, I was absolutely not expecting the direction that episode 5 went in. Shizuru's past life is alluded to in the preceding episode, and I thought that was just a throwaway line. But episode 5 takes it literally by portraying Shizuru's former self in feudal Japan, explaining how the Kyoufu Shinbun curse got started, and revealing exactly what Shizuru did in her past life that's causing her to be tormented in the present. And I normally don't enjoy watching historical stuff, but I was captivated by what that episode set up. From one episode to the next I never knew exactly where the overall story was heading, and that made the show that much more thrilling of a ride. Sure, it's kind of a corny horror series in the way that 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna' was. But unlike 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna', 'Kyoufu Shinbun' doesn't drag. It provides twists and turns that build onto each other and pay off in the end for the most part. Even the aspects that are unintentionally comical (especially the supposedly scary but actually silly-looking demon reveal at the very end), demonstrate that there was a lot of thought put into how this show's plot would unfold.

All in all I'd say 'Kyoufu Shinbun' is a fascinating exploration of fate, reincarnation, atonement for past sins (even sins from a past lifetime that you didn't know you'd had), self-preservation, and human greed. Most characters who get the curse want to get rid of it so they can live longer, but two particular characters actually use the curse to profit off of being able to predict future events, which I didn't see coming! I was thoroughly entertained by this show, but I also felt genuinely sorry for the main heroine. Poor Suzuru, just trying to live her 20-somthing life on her own for the first time, only to wind up cursed and have her life put in danger. If there's any moral to be learned from 'Kyoufu Shinbun' at the end of the day, it's this: Be careful what you sign!

I've still got two more shows on this roster to write about, so don't miss part 2 of this J-drama review!