Monday, February 26, 2024

BOOKS! (Just for the Cameras + The School for Good Mothers)

(Happy New Year, I guess? February is almost over, my grandpa is still dead, and nothing makes sense, but sure, Happy New Year to you and yours. This is my first post of 2024, after all.)

One of my goals for 2024 has been to get back to reading two books a month and writing one book review a month like I used to do, and sure I've already missed January, but a girl can still keep hope alive, can she not? So here I am with the first book I purchased in 2023, and the first book I've finished in 2024. That's my only rationale for pairing them together. First up, a softhearted raunchfest of a romance novel about three queer British Nigerian roommates in Manchester, comprised of a sex worker couple and their good friend, who eventually become a polyamorous unit after the friend starts participating in the sex workers' videos. And then, an emotionally tortuous but necessary debut novel with flecks of dark humor, about a Chinese American mom in Philadelphia who's forced into a new technology and surveillance-obsessed parenting program for a year, after accidentally leaving her toddler at home alone for two hours. 

Just for the Cameras by Viano Oniomoh
 
When I wrote my review for Sweet Vengeance, Just for the Cameras was her newest raunchy release. I said back then that I'd be reading Viano Oniomoh's next book as soon as I could get my hands on it, and was I lying? I surely was not! I ordered this novel in October and started reading it in November, but we all know how November turned out for me. So I ended up finishing this romance novel  in January.

The romantic leads of Just for the Cameras are three British Nigerian twenty-somethings in Manchester, England. Luka (a demisexual biromantic photographer) has been friends and roommates with Kian (a bisexual interior designer and sex worker) and Jordanne (also a bisexual sex worker) for years, and their supportive presence was instrumental in helping him recover from being left at the altar by his ex-fiancée Dolores. (This little tidbit was unintentionally hilarious to me because the name Dolores literally means "pain" or "sorrow." Like, you know... might've predicted that one. But I digress.)  While Luka isn't necessarily heartbroken anymore, being jilted in such an abrupt way, in addition to a lifetime of emotional manipulation and neglect by his parents, have only worsened his fear of abandonment and the sense that he is undeserving of love.
 
What Luka doesn't know is that Jordanne and Kianwho are in a committed relationship and generate most of their income from making sexual content togetherhave secretly been in love with him for ages, but they keep their affections for him confined to the realm of fantasy. When they have sex they fantasize about doing it while Luka is in the room, at first unaware, but then noticing them, watching them, responding to them, joining them, ordering them around...  But of course they would never actually put their friend in that situation. Luka respects what they do, and they respect him by cleaning up after themselves when they use common areas of the apartment to record, but Luka has never seen any of their videos, much less expressed any interested in getting involved with them on or off camera. Until Luka comes home early one day, walks in on Jordanne and Kian having sex on the living room sofa, and aroused curiosity wins out over embarrassment for all three of them. So much so, that after the couple mentions to Luka that they want to shoot some voyeurism scenes to reinvigorate their content, Luka shocks them by volunteering to film with them and see how it goes. 
 
The trio agrees to collaborate on just one video, but wind up doing three, each beginning with Jordanne and Kian trying to discretely do the do under a blanket or bed covers when Luka enters the scene. With each video Luka becomes a progressively more active and authoritative participant, and by the end of the third filming they're all tangled in bed together. The videos are a massive hit with Jordanne and Kian's subscribers, and all three roommates' desires for each other have been set ablaze, but every moment of increased intimacy between the trio (on and off camera) is followed by Luka getting shy and distancing himself from the other two. Despite how desperately he yearns to be closer to them, he can't allow himself to believe that his friends' interest in him ventures beyond no-strings physical interactions. Even after the couple eventually invites him to join their relationship, which Luka immediately accepts, his impulse to run away remains strong. All the while, as Luka agonizes over whether Jordanne and Kian truly want to be with him or not, Kian and Jordanne agonize over scaring him away by coming on too strong. Can this trio of overthinking and overly considerate individuals turn "just one more time" into something that lasts?

As someone who also needs an inordinate amount of reassurance but usually resists asking for it, I connected with Luka as a character right away. What also endeared me to him was his burgeoning ability to allow himself to want things for simple reasons that don't need expounding or interrogation. He's risk-averse and constantly catastrophizing, but he also sports rose tattoo sleeves that he had done simply because he likes pretty things. He's a demisexual babe who's been detached from feeling desire or arousal since his break-up, and he's terrified of being rejected by his roommates, but he also chooses to do porn with them simply because he wants to. (And because they're hot! Props to Viano Oniomoh for writing a romance novel about Black people who are unambiguously big and also hot! Jordanne is fat. Kian is fat. Luka is thick-bodied with abs. They all find each other endlessly sexy. Bravo!) My review thus far has focused mostly on Luka, but Just for the Cameras provides some fascinating backstory for Jordanne and Kian as well. Jordanne was disowned by her parents when an ex-boyfriend outed her for doing sex work, and she stumbled through learning to trust and rely on people when she started dating Kian, so they both have an abundance of patience for Luka's fear-induced flightiness. They never tire of having to keep reassuring him that their affection for him is real and true, that they want him to feel safe and comfortable with them, and I found such tirelessness remarkable. 
 
I was also impressed by the pride that Jordanne and Kian take in their work. Having sex on camera for money is both not a big deal (nothing to be ashamed of), and also an integral form of expression for them. They do porn because they genuinely enjoy it, and because it pays! They have control over how their content is made and distributed, and they earn more than enough from their videos to sustain themselveseven enough for Kian to quit his job at an architectural firm, which he later does because he hates it. Plus, getting featured as the cover story of a Black erotic magazine helps Jordanne reaffirm how integral sex work is to her purpose of destigmatizing Black women's desires. And this destigmatization is evident within their community too. Most of their close friends are also Black queer sex workers. By the end of the novel, Jordanne and Kian have each spoken clearly to their respective (very traditional, very Nigerian) parents about their commitment to doing sex work full time, and all of their parents respect Jordanne and Kian's choices with astonishingly little judgment. (Except for Jordanne's dad, who's a lost cause.) And while Luka is reluctant to claim the title of "sex worker" by the end of the novel, he's still continuing to film videos with is boyfriend and girlfriend and get paid from them too, since Jordanne and Kian always insisted that he receive his cut, even from the very first video they collaborated on.

Just for the Cameras can feel only the slightest bit long, but I actually appreciate that it takes its time laying the foundation for exactly how and why Luka becomes comfortable with wanting to join Jordanne and Kian's relationship, and how their polyamorous arrangement morphs into a new relationship all its own. Rebekah Weatherspoon's Harbor is the only other romance novel about Black polyamorous people that I have to compare JFTC with, and there are some notable differences. First, where Harbor has a woman joining a relationship between two men, JFTC has a man joining a relationship between a man and a woman. That progression happens more quickly and with comparatively less emotional back-and-forth in Harbor; since that trio's main priority at the outset is having their kinky needs met, there's more hashing out terms and consent than reflecting endlessly on feelings. Whereas in JFTC, while the trio is also somewhat kinky, their main priority is doing everything possible to not jeopardize their pre-established friendship. Also, while in both novels a casual sexual arrangement gradually transforms into a fully-committed union by the end of the story, in JFTC it's clear that despite attempts at denial, each member of the trio yearns for a deeply romantic  three-person relationship from the beginning. If someone were wondering which book to crack open first to learn about polyamory, I suppose it would depend on what that someone is looking for. Harbor focuses more on recovering from grief and is more informative about BDSM rules and expectations, while Just for the Cameras is more sentimental in a mushy kind of way and gives a behind-the-scenes perspective on how porn creators live.
 
Looking at Oniomoh's work alone, out of the two novels of hers that I've read so far, Just for the Cameras comes in second for me. Sweet Vengeance is more tightly written, plus it'll always have that indirect "Demon 79" ('Black Mirror') connection in its favor because of how I discovered it. But make no mistake, Just for the Cameras is way too lovely to pass up, especially for readers who can handle the raunch that it's serving. And as usual, Oniomoh wrote, self-published, illustrated the cover, and designed the pages for this book herself. If you're interested in Black romance novels, examples of Black polyamory, explicit sex scenes, healing from shame and trauma, the (independent) sex industry, Black people in Britain, or adult children asserting agency in their relationships with their parents, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Stretch marks decorated their bellies, thighs and hips like pretty, pale firebolts zigzagging against their dark skin" (58).
 
"It overwhelmed her, the thought of itLuka dating them. Both of them. All of them dating each other. It made her feel like she couldn't breathe, like she was flying so high in the sky she'd met the vastness of space; limited and infinite at the same time... When she'd first realised she loved Kian, she'd never thought she'd love anyone else the way she loved him. Down to her soul, she'd thought, this is it. This is the love everyone's been talking about. I finally get it. I finally understand.
 
Now, here she was, doubled up on the very love people had sworn to her happened only once in a lifetime" (107-108).
 
"It's natural, considering everything you've been through, to want to ruin something good when you finally have it... But your anxiety and your trauma are lying to you. They're telling you this good thing is surely too good to be true, that you should probably save yourself before you get hurt, using your previous history as apparent proof. But most times, oftentimes, they're just flat-out wrong... Sometimes, a good thing is simply a good thing." (255).
 
"I know this is going to be difficult, but here's an assignment. For this weekend, and this weekend only, I want you to let yourself have this. Every gesture, every kiss, every intimate momentput all of yourself into it. Give yourself permission to be happy, for just this one weekend. Pretend you're in a time capsule, if you must, and nothing of the past or the future matters. Just you, in precious moments with your partners. Can you do that for me?" (255).

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
 
I can't remember how this novel got on my radar, but it was on my book list for a while, and then I happened to spot it at Costco in early 2023. Now mind you, Costco used to have an unexpectedly robust book section. I found Giovanni's Room, my first James Baldwin novel (and perhaps his gayest one) at Costco. I found Pachinko at Costco. But at some point, probably around the election of 45, the book section got whittled down to "stuff Republicans would read" (how I joke about it with my mom now). So although my copy of this book was printed with a permanent sticker endorsement from a certain Republican president's daughter turned news correspondent on the front cover, I was pleasantly surprised to find The School for Good Mothers at Costco the day I did. Who let something so progressive, so transgressive, slip onto the display? To whoever was or wasn't doing their job and allowed that to happen, I am thankful. 
 
At the beginning of the novel, depressed 39-year-old Frida Liu is divorced, a single mother, and living in Philadelphia, despite never expecting to be any of those things. Originally raised by Chinese professor parents in the Chicago area, she gave up her career and social life in New York City to move to Philly because her (white) husband Gust wanted to, only for him to begin an affair with a (younger, richer, also white) woman named Susanna while Frida was pregnant with her and Gust's first child. Gust fully left Frida for Susanna when said child (named Harriet) was still a newborn. Which is to say that in the 18 months that Harriet has been alive, Frida has had adapt to a new reality—renting a house for herself and Harriet, splitting custody with her ex-husband, receiving a paltry $500 per month in child support, and writing full-time for an old and unaccommodating Wharton business professor. One early September day, after a string of consecutively stressful and sleepless nights trying to meet an article deadline while tending to Harriet's non-stop crying due to an ear infection, Frida is desperate for air. So leaves she places Harriet in an ExerSaucer so she can quickly go get coffee and retrieve some notes from her office. But this excursion ends up being two and a half hours, which is long enough for a neighbor to call the police, for police to seize Harriet and place her in Gust (and Susanna's) custody after interrogating Frida, and for a cold-blooded social worker to further chastise her before informing her that it'll take at least 60 days for a decision to be made about Frida's revised custody rights (or lack thereof). All this because of one "very bad day," as Frida will frequently refer to it.

And unfortunately for Frida, timing is not on her side. After the deaths of two children under their watch, Child Protective Services is now trying to cover its own behind by implementing new, extreme, yet mysterious policy changes that put an even crueler onus on parents (especially mothers) to prove that they don't deserve to be criminalized and permanently stripped of their parental rights, even for relatively minor missteps. It's like in the 80s when the US started militarizing the police force with war-standard gear and guns and tanks, except CPS is being militarized with technology. Frida submits to 10 weeks of violently invasive surveillance (cameras in her home, phone activity monitored), severely limited visits with Harriet that are supervised by the aforementioned hostile social worker, and interviews with a court-appointed psychologist. But this merely enables the cops, the CPS surveillance people, the social worker, and the psychologist to each use their findings against Frida, framing and interpreting her every behavior in the most unforgiving ways, in order to paint her as an irredeemably unfit mother. Based on these findings, the family court judge gives Frida the "choice" of attending a new year-long "rehabilitation" program that bad moms are currently being funneled into. If she succeeds at being fixed as a mother, she just might get her daughter back. (This is the titular School for Good Mothers, but in the book it has no specified name. I'll refer to it as TSFGM anyway.) Philly is hosting the pilot of this program, which will later expand nationwide. It begins in November, meaning that Frida and her hundreds of peers will miss Thanksgiving with their children along with all other holidays, birthdays, and milestones to come for the next year.

The school is a former liberal arts college campus turned quasi-prison. Frida and the other moms keep being told they're not in prison, but in some ways it's the same or even worse. They all must wear the same uniform, and can't receive care packages or letters. They're each limited to one 10-minute video call with their children per week. The campus is surrounded by an electrified fence. And they have the constant threat of the termination of their parental rights held over their heads. If they don't convince the state that they've sufficiently unbecome themselves and improved their parenting by the end of the program? Termination. If they get expelled from the program? Termination. Quit the program? Termination. Possess or use drugs or alcohol during the program? Termination. If they ever tell anyone anything about the program, even long after they've completed it, even if their full parental rights have been restored? Termination, and a spot on the Negligent Parent Registry, which has the same tracking and consequences as the sex offender registry but specifically for bad parents. (The moms are even required to sign NDAs, so as arrogant as the powers that be are about this supposedly groundbreaking program, they're serious about preventing any details about it from getting out to the public.)  Frida and her fellow moms are basically in a state-mandated hostage situation. 
 
Aside from her roommates, Frida spends most of her time in class with four other inmates mothers who have toddler daughters just like she does. The two instructors assigned to retool and evaluate their mothering neither have children themselves, nor offer any credentials that would attest to expertise in childhood development, child and maternal health, or parenting. The main fixture of these classes are "dolls" (or "demon robot doll children", as I often referred to them in my notes) that have been manufactured to be as lifelike as robotics and artificial intelligence will allow. These dolls are the main tool with which the moms' mothering skills are measured, and they're designed to, however vaguely, resemble each mom's real child in both age and appearance. With cameras in their eyeballs, the dolls also serve as an additional layer of surveillance on top of all the other forms of monitoring that the moms are subjected to. Frida names her Eurasian robot toddler Emmanuelle. 
 
The school operates on the notion that there's only one way to be a good mom, and despite incorporating such advanced technology, the standards for womanhood and motherhood that the school insists upon are stuck in the 1950s to an absurd degree. I recently watched 'Fellow Travelers' (a 2023 miniseries about closeted gay men working on Capitol Hill during the Red and Lavender Scares), so that era was fresh in my mind as I finished The School for Good Mothers. And I remember telling my therapist how I usually avoid thinking about the 1950s because it seems like after the Great Depression and WW2, (white) America was desperate to reaffirm itself, so the most stringent ideals for true Americanness reigned supreme. Which only fostered more suffering. TSFGM is no different in its capacity to foster suffering, to require it in order for the moms to redeem themselves, and yet insist that making them suffer is not the point. I'll let you discover the inane, reductive curriculum and all its subsequent horrors for yourself, since I'm sure Jessamine Chan put a lot into laying them out the way she did. But consider the following as indicators. 
 
The first mom to quit is Helen, a 50-something white woman and Frida's initial roommate, who quits on the second day after being freaked out by the demon robot dolls; she's genuinely frightened by the six-foot doll she's assigned as a stand-in for her teenage son. The first mom to be expelled is Lucretia, a Black schoolteacher, Frida's classmate, and Frida's first friend at the school. In addition to already being required to reimburse the school when her doll "dies" from water damage after insisting on playing in the snow (a debt Lucretia absolutely cannot afford), Lucretia gets expelled for defending herself when her high school rival Linda (another classmate of hers and Frida's) picks a fight with her. The first mom to die by suicide is Margaret, a young Latina woman who is part of the first lesbian couple to get caught by staff during a boom of clandestine lesbian activity on campus. (Moms are people, people get lonely, loneliness sometimes begets horniness, especially in such close quarters.) The first moms to escape are Roxanne, a 20-something Black college student who replaces Helen as Frida's roommate, and Meryl, a white teen mom and classmate of Frida's whom Roxanne has a crush on despite Meryl having an appetite for Black men (including her baby's father back home, one of the guards, and one of the guys from the school for good fathers). Notably, rather than having her parental rights terminated when she gets caught, Meryl is still allowed to return and finish the program after a week-long solitary confinement in a dark basement room. Her whiteness seems to be the only explanation for such leniency. (As the only Asian mom at TSFGM, Frida repeatedly observes how the school treats Black and Brown moms with more suspicion and more punitive measures than any of the other moms, including her.)

As I just alluded to, there is a school for good fathers not too far away, but the two groups of detainees only interact on each other's respective campuses for co-ed training during the last five months of the program. Not surprisingly, three times more women have been institutionalized as "bad mothers" than men as "bad fathers", since patriarchy (especially 1950s-style patriarchy) weighs the pressure of being a good parent and therefore a good person more heavily against mothers. And of course, good father school has fewer rules, allows more privilegesa full hour to speak to their children once a week for instance, compared to 10 minutes for the womenand revolves around the idea that it's important for them to stay in their children's lives. Meanwhile, the mothers are constantly made to internalize the idea that they're a danger to their children, that their children would probably be better off not interacting with them, that they might not be suited to be parents at all. Frida herself has her call privileges revoked twice as punishment for not performing well enough on evaluations; she isn't allowed to speak to her daughter for months at a time because her counselor keeps moving the goalposts for what she must do to earn those privileges back.

So obviously The School for Good Mothers is giving The Handmaid's Tale, especially with the reduction of women to their mothering capabilities and the color-coding of social role by uniform. (Moms wear blue jumpsuits, instructors and other female staff wear pink lab coats, male guards wear... whatever they wear.) It's also giving demented summer camp, especially when the mom and dad schools are made to socialize during the summer and some of the fall; there's an introductory picnic and an end-of-summer dance, both pacification tactics that feel infantilizing and just plain weird. TSFGM is also giving results-obsessed corporate culture, with privileges being dangled in moms' faces while rules are changed and benchmarks are pushed farther and higher. It's giving cult, especially with all the self-flagellating mantras that the moms are prompted to repeat. The main one is "I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good," but there are also countless other situationally-dependent mantras that follow the same structure, "I am a bad mother for/because [insert supposed infraction here]." It's giving high school health class fake baby assignment, taken to the extreme, with data treated like gospel. And it's been years since I've seen Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the circumstantial solidarity, rivalry, and rebellion that TSFGM moms exhibit reminded me of those films as well. All of this to say that while Chan has created something scarily original with this novel, it's also in good company with previous works that examine or predict the ruinous consequences of institutionalizing people on such a massive and cruel scale.

There's so much more I wanted to touch on, especially how Frida's self-esteem (which she acknowledges is influenced by growing up in predominantly white spaces) intersects with her romantic history and sexual desires, but I'll close with this instead. With its similarities to The Handmaid's Tale, I'd hoped that The School for Good Mothers would have a similarly hopeful ending. (Margaret Atwood's Offred is supposedly whisked off to freedom by the resistance, and the oppressive regime she's been living under is later studied as an era of the past, no longer in power.) For Frida, I was desperately hoping along with her that she would have her parental rights restored and be reunited with Harriet for good. To her credit, Frida does complete the program, but... let's just say that hope and this novel's ending are in two separate "galaxies." While I can't say I'm in a rush to re-read The School for Good Mothers anytime soonmy heart needs a break, and I can't be feeling despondent and enraged like this all the time!I can say that I'd recommend this novel to anyone. It reads like a movie, it reads like something that should be taught in high school and university classrooms, and Chan has readers living every minute right alongside Frida in a way that makes her loneliness and suffering feel like our lot as well. And an extra little tidbit I couldn't help but notice: Crystal Hana Kim (author of another splendid Costco find titled If You Leave Me) is included in Chan's "Acknowledgments" section. If you care about women and children in a sincere and non-paternalistic way, are wary of tech and government getting even more in bed with each other to encroach upon your life, want a The Handmaid's Tale-esque story that's modern and focuses more on women of color, have any interest in or connection to Philly, or simply want more literature written by Asian American women in your life, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"On her bad day, she needed to get out of the house of her mind, trapped in the house of her body, trapped in the house where Harriet sat in her ExerSaucer with a dish of animal crackers. Gust used to explain the whole world that way: the mind as a house living in the house of the body, living in the house of a house, living in the larger house of the town, in the larger house of the state, in the houses of America and society and the universe. He said these houses fit inside one another like the Russian nesting dolls they bought for Harriet... she felt a sudden pleasure when she shut the door and got in the car that took her away from her mind and body and house and child... The pleasure of the drive propelled her. It wasn't the pleasure of sex or love or sunsets, but the pleasure of forgetting her body, her life" (13-14).

"If she ever tells Harriet about this place, she'll say that she had to store her devotion somewhere. Emmanuelle, a vessel for her hope and longing, the way people used to invest tablets and sacred trees with their faith and love" (184).

"When they reach the tree line, they begin howling. They're beginning to understand. Beginning to mourn. They sound like Lucretia on the day of her snow-angel disaster. Like the dolls on the day they were hit. The only word Frida can make out is no. She waits and listens then decides to join them... Many mothers screamed until they lost their voices. They held each other. Some knelt. Some prayed. Some bit their hands... A body could produce pure fear. Pure sound. Sound that eclipsed thought. Meryl screamed louder still.... felt something life from her as she howled, as if she were jumping out of her own skin" (291-92).

Sunday, December 3, 2023

FOR GRANDPA (PT. 2)

(I wrote this statement on November 22nd, the day after my grandpa passed away. It's written as if I were giving a eulogy to an audience of loved ones, but I actually wrote it just for myself, to help myself begin processing the loss. After being affirmed by the handful of people with whom I shared this statement privately, I'm using my 31st birthday today as an occasion to share my sentiments about Grandpa publicly.)

Roger Conwell, Jr. was known by many affectionate names. Uncle Sonny, Daddy, Pops, Grandpops, Roger C. To me, at first he was Granddaddy, but for most of my life I ended up calling him Grandpa. And I knew Grandpa much the same way you all did. He was brilliant. He was hard-working. He was loving. He was generous. He was stubborn. He was sarcastic. He was quick-witted. He was kind. He was a believer and an educator. He valued family. He had a grateful heart.

And he valued his independence. I know how hard it was for him to gradually lose that in the years following his stroke, and in those years I became more acquainted with Grandpa's fears. He was afraid of wasting away. He was afraid of being a burden and having people get tired of him. He was afraid of losing himself, of losing his mind. He was afraid of not being able to do anything. He was afraid of not being here anymore, and missing out on things that were important. 

But as many of you know, "Perfect love casts out all fear." That's 1 John 4:18. And I remain so moved by the love I saw extended toward him and toward us, his children and grandchildren, at the hospital on Tuesday, November 21st. I'm thankful that so many family and loved ones got the chance to come see him and say goodbye. I'm thankful that he was surrounded by love, and that so many of you were a part of that. I'm thankful that Grandpa was not alone in the end. I hope that he knows he wasn't alone.

There's a movie called The Farewell, where a family learns that their elderly matriarch has terminal cancer, and instead of telling her about her diagnosis, they decide to focus on helping her enjoy the time she has left. And when asked why, one of her sons explains, "It's our duty to carry this emotional burden for her." While sitting in that hospital room, as uncomfortable and heartbreaking as it was to see Grandpa in the state he was in, that idea gave me solace. Because it's our responsibility to carry him through his departure. It's our responsibility to be witnesses to his transition, witnesses to everything he was and everything he did in life. That's our role right now. And thankfully, because of all the lives Grandpa touched, none of us have to do that alone.

For now, I will simply say the prayer that I quietly pray to myself whenever I hear about someone passing away. "Dear Lord, please welcome your beautiful creature back into your loving arms. Please comfort and cover all who mourn today." It just so happens that today, we are the ones who mourn. 

Thanks for everything, Grandpa. We love you. See you later.
 

FOR GRANDPA (PT. 1)

I'm 31 today. (Let's not dwell on it, gonna have bingsu for "breakfast" and go see Beyoncé, whatever.) Who I really want to talk about today is my grandpa, Roger Conwell, Jr. Grandpa became an ancestor at the age of 86 on Tuesday, November 21st (two days before Thanksgiving). We laid him to rest on Tuesday the 28th. I am not well. 

But I want to thank all of the loved ones in/from Louisville, Henderson, Indianapolis, and elsewhere who showed up (in person or in spirit) for my family during that impossible week. I never once felt alone or unsupported. My Uncle Rod wrote a wonderful obituary for Grandpa, my cousin Reilly spoke representing Alpha Phi Alpha, my preacher cousin Jaqua spoke on behalf of the family as a whole, and I wrote my own statement for myself that y'all can read here if you'd like.

Please share your love and your presence with everyone you need to share them with. Today. You think you'll have more time or more chances... until you simply don't. 
 

 

Monday, October 23, 2023

The J-Drama Drop #33

Welp! It took me all summer and some of fall to find what I was interested in and decide what would stick. But here I am, in October, happy to finally have the material and presence of mind to write a new J-drama review! For this edition of "The J-Drama Drop" I'm covering two shows that premiered in July, and two honorable mentions including a Korean comedic docuseries and a Japanese indie film. 
 
御手洗家、炎上する (Mitarai ke, Enjou suru/The House of Mitarai Will Burn/The Mitarai Family Will Burn/Burn the House Down) - Netflix, 2023
  • Until middle school, Anzu (Nagano Mei from 'Unicorn ni Notte') enjoyed a peaceful and cushy life with her little sister Yuzu, their mother Satsuki, and their prestigious doctor father. Together they lived in a fancy house on the grounds of the hospital that had been directed by members of the Mitarai family (Doctor Dad's side) for generations. Then one day, their home suddenly burned down. Believing the fire was her fault, Satsuki had a breakdown and was hospitalized with long-term amnesia for years to follow. And within no time Doctor Dad divorced Satsuki, severed ties with her and their daughters, and replaced his family with Satsuki's less-well-off best friend Makiko (Suzuki Kyoka from 'Kyouen NG'), and Makiko's sons (who were Anzu and Yuzu's classmates before the fire).
  • Thirteen years later, a now-grown Anzu (whose last name is now Murata instead of Mitarai) infiltrates her former home under an alias, having been hired by Makiko to be the new housekeeper. Makiko had been copying Satsuki and coveting her life for their entire friendship, and Anzu never forgot the sight of Makiko among the crowd of onlookers, smiling and laughing with exuberant relief as the house burned. So now Anzu is determined to expose Makiko for committing arson and for being a fraud. (Makiko is now a hugely successful lifestyle influencer/media personality who hides the fact that she can't cook and doesn't clean.)
  • Unfortunately, Anzu gets clocked and subsequently blackmailed by Makiko's elder son Kiichi, a hikikomori with a violent streak who seldom leaves his room, and who makes money by proliferating misinformation (especially celebrity-bashing rage articles) online. But with the help of her sister, their friend and neighbor who lets Anzu use her name as an alias, and a woman who knew Makiko during her blogging era (when her fraudulent activities first began), Anzu might just succeed at taking Makiko down after all.
Meh: Part of the sisters' scheme relies on Makiko, Makiko's sons, and even Anzu and Yuzu's own father not recognizing Anzu (at least not at first) after 13 years have passed, and I don't really buy that. The sisters and Makiko's sons spent a lot of time together when they were younger; I highly doubt that natural aging would make most people look completely unrecognizable compared to how they looked in middle school (which Anzu and Kiichi were both in by the time the fire happened). And workaholic or not, how could even Anzu and Yuzu's father not recognize Anzu when she confronts him in his office? Sure it's been a decade, but your daughter's gotta announce her identity because you forgot the very essence of your own child that easily?
 
Another "meh" of the show is its romantic subplots. Anzu and Yuzu each develop romantic feelings for their corresponding stepbrothers (older for older, younger for younger, and the feelings are mutual in both regards), which thankfully didn't feel as weird as it could have because the four of them never lived in the same household. In other words, although they were school friends, they never lived as siblings, so neither pair fell for each other as siblings. What is weird to me is that Anzu and Kiichi not only end up being together, but that Anzu is the one who pushes to make their relationship official. Call me biased due to personal experience, but I don't think most men who act violently toward women and/or children ever do enough to warrant being considered fully redeemed. Granted, it's not like Kiichi was beating Anzu up, and he is humbled by the end of the series. But humbled or not, while he may still be deserving of love in a humanistic sense, I maintain that he's not deserving of Anzu's. Not after how he terrorizes her earlier in the series.

Better: The dynamic between Satsuki and Makiko reminds me of that one WOWOW drama I watched years ago ('Kenja no Ai'), where between two frenemies, the initially richer friend plots for decades to ruin her initially-less-rich-but-more-demanding friend's life, after the latter steals the richer friend's man. As line-crossing as 'Kenja no Ai' is, I like being reminded of that show, so I'll give 'Burn the House Down' bonus points for that.

Also, I was genuinely impressed by the show's way of demonstrating how the social media era has differed from the blog era in Japan, and how Makiko's addiction to attention has morphed to frightening proportions across both eras. The only difference is that in the social media era (the present), while she still fakes the funk as the perfect homemaker, she doesn't have to pretend to own Satsuki's apparel or live Satsuki's life anymore because she's already seized Satsuki's house, husband, and wealth.

Best: 'Burn the House Down' isn't as obvious as it seems! You think the show is just going to be about Anzu sinking her claws into all aspects of that lady's life in order to gather evidence against her and get her to admit to doing what we all know she did. But it turns out... (*SPOILER*) that lady really didn't do it! To be clear, Makiko's still a miserable, cutthroat, self-obsessed piece of work. (Consider that she was relieved the Mitarai house burned down because it meant no one would find out or care about her stealing her friend's clothes, jewelry, and accessories, some of which she wasn't able to return because she'd pawned or misplaced them.) And she's still responsible for covering up who actually did cause the fire. But she herself did not commit that arson. Viewers (and Anzu) can hate her for many reasons, but being an arsonist isn't one of them, and I appreciate the show for subverting my expectations.
 
18/40 ふたりなら夢も恋も (18/40: Futari nara Yume mo Koi mo/Together Even Dreams and Love are Possible/ Unbreakable Bond of Dreams) - TBS, 2023
  • Arisu is an 18-year-old aspiring art curator whose interest in art was nurtured by her mother, an art teacher who died when Arisu was still a little girl, leaving Arisu's father to raise her on his own. On the day of her high school graduation, Arisu takes a pregnancy test and learns that she's pregnant. With her now-former classmate and boyfriend (the baby's father) being rushed off to university in Canada by his mother who fails to strong-arm Arisu into abortion, and with her best friends being the only two people she can turn to for support, Arisu keeps the pregnancy a secret from her father and proceeds with her previously-set plans to move into her own Tokyo apartment and study art curation at university.
  • One day, well-established art curator Toko happens upon Arisu while Arisu is crouched on the sidewalk with stomach pains, near the women's health clinic that's run by Toko's OB/GYN and best friend Kaoru (Matsumoto Wakana from 'Angel Flight' and 'Fukushuu no Miboujin'). After their respective appointments, Arisu and Toko commiserate over Arisu's pregnancy and Toko's fertility issues. They part ways, but it turns out Toko is the corporate rep overseeing the art cafe that Arisu just started working at part-time.
  • Admittedly-nosy Toko continues advising and encouraging Arisu, and after seeing Arisu's apartment, insists that Arisu move in with her so Arisu can have a more stable environment to balance her studies and her approaching motherhood. Arisu's community grows to also include her dad, Toko's mom who visits from Kanazawa, and Yuma (a dancer and classmate of Arisu's who defends her from being shamed at school, and who also happens to be the son of the art company CEO who's technically both Toko and Arisu's boss). As affection grows between Arisu and Yuma, Toko also finds unexpected romance with Kase, an art delivery driver who got himself transferred to Tokyo to be closer to her after she drunkenly kissed him back in her hometown of Kanazawa.
Meh: I honestly can't think of anything I genuinely find "meh" about this show. At first I couldn't tell whether '18/40: Futari nara' would be full of fluff or not, but after the second or third episode it's packed with so much meaty commentary on the harrowing and heartbreaking choices women often have to make just to find fulfillment (or at least try), that I grew to appreciate the show's fluffier moments. At first I also thought that Arisu's whole deal of, "I know I was dumb for getting knocked up at 18 and now I'm going to be a single mother because my boyfriend and his mom want nothing to do with me, but I still want to keep my baby" felt forced. She doesn't spend too much time exploring other options, despite knowing how difficult it will be to raise a child on top of pursuing an extremely niche and competitive career field, and that didn't make sense to me. It felt like the folks behind '18/40: Futari nara' forced Arisu to remain pregnant simply because they'd already decided to make a show about a teen mom. But I ended up enjoying the show, which allowed me to suspend my disbelief.
 
Better: As Toko gets to know Kase, Kase reveals that he was so ashamed after his short-lived professional baseball career and first marriage came to an end, that he decided to become a delivery driver so he could still support himself without having to talk to anybody. And all I could think in response to that was, YES! FELT! Why didn't I think of that? Because when talking to people seems to have diminishing returns, why try to stem the tide instead of creating your own solitude? Jokes aside, while I would probably be creeped out or angry if a dude I'd only met once moved to my city "for" me in real life, something about the way Kase communicates his interest while still respecting Toko's privacy and busy schedule, not demanding or expecting anything from her that she's not ready to give, makes him more endearing than I'd expected him to be.
 
One of Arisu's cafe co-workers is played by Sakaguchi Ryotaro, who also played the demon on 'Kyoufu Shinbun', and it was so off-putting for me to recognize who he was and believe him as a regular friendly guy, when I know the potential he has to chill viewers' bones and make their skin crawl. But good on him for getting the chance to play someone normal! Something light to nibble on, as far as roles go. It was also off-putting yet refreshing to hear Ado singing this show's ending theme song "Himawari", which is a lot softer than her usual style. Based on what I've listened to from her discography, I'm so much more used to hearing her let it rip with her voice! Hearing her theme song for the first time at the end of episode 1 also confirmed for me that the earlier scene of a large group of newly-graduated teens singing-shouting "Usseewa" together in a karaoke room was not a coincidence. ("Usseewa" was Ado's debut single and first hit song.)

And last but not least, one of Arisu's best friends (the long-haired one who makes clothes and accessories for Arisu's baby) is alluded to being asexual! Look at this show trying to be up with the times!
 
Best: It's so smart how even though Arisu and Toko acknowledge that their relationship is unusual, they never feel the need to define it. Sometimes Toko acts like Arisu's bossy aunt or older sister, sometimes she offers a motherly presence (despite not being able to become a mother herself), and sometimes she's simply Arisu's 40-year-old roommate who's generous and helpful but also just as confused about life as Arisu is. If there is one word to encapsulate all that, the show intimates that that word isn't worth grasping for. Arisu and Toko simply are, until they're not. Until it's time for each of them to move on with their lives and continue as friends but no longer roommates. Also, I didn't realize until episode 2 that 18/40 isn't some random fraction, but a reference to their ages and how their perspectives as women differ based on their contrasting life experiences. I don't know what the thought process was behind titling the show '18/40' as apposed to '18 and 40' or '18 to 40', but I like it as is.
 
And how can I not praise Matsumoto Wakana's performance as Kaoru? The "your body your choice" speech that she gives Arisu in episode 1 is A-plus! I swear Matsumoto is everywhere, or at least she's been a familiar face in the J-dramas I've watched in 2022 and 2023. First in 'Kingyo Tsuma' (my introduction to her), then 'Fukushuu no Miboujin' (which I watched specifically for her), then 'Angel Flight' (which I didn't even know she was in), and now '18/40: Futari nara' (which I also didn't know she was in)! Maybe it's just my viewing choices, but Matsumoto seems to be having a similar run to that of Takahashi Maryjun, who also kept popping up in seemingly every J-drama I watched for a period of time. 
 
Kaoru is the fun friend who respects people's boundaries, reins in Toko's busybody tendencies, and doesn't seem to take anything too seriously besides her profession as a doctor... until episode 9 reveals how much more layered she truly is. In it, there's a scene where Kaoru informs Toko that she's giving up on having a baby, after eight years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, because she and her husband can no longer withstand the disappointment and the toll it's taken on her body. But the thing is, this is the first time that she's ever mentioned her fertility struggles to Toko. Her best friend, of all people. I may or may not have shed a tear. Kaoru tries to keep her composure when discussing it at first, but the more she confides in Toko the more she breaks down, and listing how blessed her life still is even without a baby only makes her cry more, and Toko cries along with her. Because gratitude doesn't erase how devastated Kaoru is. And the pain of having to let this thing go that meant so much to her because her best efforts simply weren't enough was so visceral to witness. I've been there (of course not in terms of wanting a baby, God no), and the scene made me think of the chorus to "Heat Lightning" by Mitski:
 
And there's nothing I can do, not much I can change
So I give it up to you, I hope that's okay

There's nothing I can do, not much I can change
I give it up to you, I surrender
 
Matsumoto Wakana absolutely sells that scene, and even as a supporting character in this series, her contributions are among my favorite.
 
Honorable Mention: Risqué Business Japan - Netflix, 2023

At this point I can't remember how I found out about this show, although it might have been the same way I found out about 'Chihiro-san' (and if that's the case, then thanks again Farrah!). My only sense of familiarity with the hosts is that singer Sung Si Kyung did a song called "Ai wa Naze" with Crystal Kay (my forever fave) in 2018. I'm also not sure what the rationale was behind having these two specific Korean male entertainers, Sung Si Kyung and comedian Shin Dong Yup, host this show exploring aspects of the sex industry (multi-floor adult toy stores, VR porn-viewing rooms, female and male porn actors, the Tenga office, etc.) and cultural attitudes about sex in Japan. But having watched the Japan edition in full, I actually believe the hosts being in their 40s and 50s is one of this show's greatest assets. They're not so old as to be prudish or act like they're wholly uninterested in sex, but they are old enough to get flustered reacting to certain information in a way that makes great TV. They're also not so young as to be distracted by all the stimuli or so horny that they fail to get a solid interview out of interviewees, but they are young enough to approach every place they enter or person they interview with an open mind. They both listen to learn, and Shin Dong Yup especially surprised me with how he was able to turn his silliness on and off. I assumed he'd just be telling dirty jokes for the entire series, but he strikes an impressive balance between doing that and asking questions out of genuine curiosity. And Sung Si Kyung amazed me with his ability to pull double duty, actively participating in the show while also interpreting between Japanese and Korean for his counterpart.

The only drawback I felt when watching this series, which is due to patriarchal societies and not 'Risqué Business: Japan' itself, is the fact that even with all the options there are for any and everyone to get off in Japan, most of those options are still centered around men. Women can visit (certain floors of) sex toy stores too, they have host bars they can visit to feel catered to (non-sexually), and female porn stars earn more than their male counterparts. But men still have the widest and easiest access when it comes to objects, places, and services that facilitate their sexual gratification. Just something I couldn't help noticing. But 'Risqué Business' is incredibly fascinating nonetheless, and I'm probably going to watch the new Taiwan edition once I finish writing this review!
 
Honorable Mention: 左様なら今晩は (Sayonara Konbanwa/Goodbye, Good Evening/A Girl in My Room) - Dir. Takahashi Natsuki, 2022, streamed via JFF+ Independent Cinema
 
So the first round of JFF+ Indepent Cinema that ran from December 2022 to June 2023 must have been a big hit, because JFF+ made another batch of indie programming available from August through October this year. (If you're reading this before November 1st, you still have time to watch them! Also, you can read my review of the films I watched from the first indie round here.) This time, the only film I felt compelled to finish was 'Sayonara Konbanwa'.
 
A girl who died in an apartment and whose ghost has been haunting the place since before lackadaisical Yohei and his girlfriend moved in, finally makes her presence known immediately after Yohei's girlfriend moves to Tokyo/Yokohama. (The girlfriend presumably leaves for a more interesting life and the possibility of a less lackadaisical boyfriend in the future.) Ghost girl hasn't been able to appear before because of the talisman the girlfriend had hung on one of the walls. She's bound to the apartment, so standing on the balcony and looking out is her only means of connecting to the outside world. Yohei grows increasingly curious about the ghost girl as he gets used to having her presence around, but the girl's foggy memory of her past and his realtor's refusal to tell him what happened in that apartment make his search for answers difficult. Meanwhile, the ghost girl just wants to experience some of the romantic things she knows she missed out on because she died so young (touching an Adam's apple, kissing, going on a date), and with Yohei's assistance she's able to do all three.
 
Let me first say that the view from Yohei's balcony is gorgeous! You can kind of tell this town is in the middle of nowhere, but it's surrounded by these lush green mountains and this painting-esque sky that make you want to go there anyway. Which is fitting, because reading the film's synopsis told me that this entire film was shot in Onomichi, a small port city that I've wanted to visit for years! (Long story, I applied for a job there many moons ago, didn't get the job, but did remain drawn to the place and its name for some reason. In fact, I still occasionally look up #Onomichi on Instagram just to see what's going on and what people are eating there. But I digress.) 'Sayonara Konbanwa' could stand to be 15 minutes shorter, but the actors (especially the ghost girl) really had me invested. The shots of various Onomichi locations, the mystery of how the girl died (we never find out), and the uncertainty over whether she'll ever depart from the apartment (she does!), were worth the lingersome pace for me.
 
As for my favorite J-drama this time around, of the two options I gotta give it to '18/40: Futari nara'. Even as a woman who DOES NOT EVER want kids, that show was pulling at my heartstrings! Now, off I got to find more review-worthy material to watch! Maybe I can have another "J-Drama Drop" out before 2023 is over?  

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

BOOKS! (Adèle + Sweet Vengeance)

Here I am! Back for a new book review, and a spicy one at that. To be honest, I'm slightly nervous about this one. A very small part of my nervousness is due to the explicit nature of today's selections. (I thought my review of Harbor was pushing it in terms of exposing my appreciation for raunchiness, but, well... the raunch keeps finding me.) And a very large part of my nervousness is due to finding out this summer that I wasn't selected for either of the arts writing fellowships I worked hard on applying for in the spring. (One of which I thought I'd be a shoe-in for since it's for rising book critics, and I've been writing about books for 10 years now.) It was a real and unexpected blow to my confidence; I took the rejection emails in stride at first, but they somehow weighed on me more as time passed. As a glutton for external validation who's terrible at not making every single rejection and failure my middle name, suffice it to say that I was not chomping at the bit to put out a new review because... Who wants or needs it, anyway? Apparently nobody. Right?
 
And yet. I can't neglect the fact that, for me, writing reviews on this blog is part of the payoff of reading. If I finish a book and write a review about it, then I feel doubly accomplished. And I feel more secure (and sometimes even invigorated) to move on to the next one, because I know I've given each work its due. So here I am, still showing up. Good enough or not, fellowship-worthy or not, sure, whatever. Y'all are still gon' get these reviews! First up today is a French novel about a 30-something Parisian journalist, wife, mom, and sex addict who blows her life up having countless affairs because cheating makes her life feel meaningful. And then, a romance novel about a Nigerian woman in her late 20s, the demon she summons to help kill her rapist, and the intimacy they develop while exacting her revenge. Buckle up!
 
Adèle by Leila Slimani
(translated from French by Sam Taylor)
 
I found a used copy of this novel at the same store where I found a used copy of Will to Love. I bought it because I enjoyed reading The Perfect Nanny (Slimani's other super famous novel) and had heard Adèle was similarly tortured and contemplative... but with lots of trysts. 
 
The French title, Dans le jardin de l'ogre (In the Ogre's Garden) is a brilliant allusion to Adèle's character, because she's a serial cheater who feigns innocence and normalcy but secretly enjoys feeling ravaged by men. Getting fisted in an alley by a dumpster, ravaged. Hiring two male sex workers to come to her apartment to have a violent coke-filled threesome with her, ravaged. And those are only two of her brief yet vivid dalliances. 
 
She's independent enough to have her own career as a journalist (all the more press trips and foreign places to boink random people), but her livelihood and social status in Paris still derive from her husband Richard, a doctor from a well-off Normandy family. So while on one hand Adèle is an average white wife and mother (half-Algerian mais peu importe!), who relishes not having to make it in the real world on her own, on the other hand she resents how ordinary she is, and tries to play against type with delusions of grandeur and rough sex with men whom she mostly doesn't bother remembering. And though Adèle does feel some guilt for forsaking all else when her sexual cravings hit, and she exhausts herself covering her tracks so as not to jeopardize her cushy Parisian life, she simply will not and cannot stop cheating because she's addicted to sex. She tries to quit or pause her activities, and yet always finds herself back on the prowl. (Until she gets outed for having an affair with one of Richard's richer colleagues, of course, and Richard moves their family of three to the countryside where he places her under his own version of house arrest and she becomes a shell of herself.) For Adèle, illicit sex is about more than just the thrill of assuaging her horniness without attachments, or getting away with the forbidden, or trying to feel or seem interesting. Hers is an example of how, for some people, the erotic gives life meaning and makes equilibrium possible. In the countryside, six months of being on housewife house arrest inevitably wears on her, and her father's funeral might be just the opportunity she needs to escape for good.

As a person, Adèle fascinates me to no end because she embodies the sentiment of, "But I'm not like the rest of them." She's consistently inconsistent. She sleeps around, a ton, but resents the possibility of being regarded as easy or a slut by her co-workers (who are also married yet sleeping around like she is). She yearns for a glamorous, idle life, but when she and Richard get invited to a dinner party at his richer colleague's mansion, she's disgusted by the vapidness of the colleague's wife and the other wives she's seated with, even though they are part of the echelon she supposedly aspires to join. She often hooks up with strange men at night, but is also sometimes perplexingly anxious and terrified of walking through Paris alone and being approached, by strange men, at night. And while the concept of women (especially women of certain means) staying with husbands they don't love for the status and financial security they provide is not new to me, Adèle has made me realize how much deeper it goes than that. Because for her, security and stability also enable her to be out of touch with reality. Even as scandalous as her doings and fantasies are, she still expects to be shielded from the harshest realities and most boring minutiae of daily life, and being married to Richard affords her that. And I guess it just hit me in a new way that maybe it's not so much that certain wealthy and/or white women are unaware of how out of touch they are. Maybe being out of touch with reality is exactly what they prefer. Maybe it's what they seek from marriage in the first place.
 
I'm not sure if Slimani meant to make a big deal out of it, but I was stunned to read the latter passages written from Richard's point of view and have it truly sink in that his and Adèle's marriage has always been doomed because they have always been sexually incompatible. Sure, Richard married Adèle because he wanted to take care of her and had the financial means to do so, and Adèle (who grew up poorer than him) has always wanted a life where she felt taken care of. However, Adèle has also felt drawn to the erotic, lewd, and lascivious from a young age, whereas Richard has been disinterested in sex his entire life aside from achieving his dream of fathering a son. (Slimani doesn't label him as asexual, but given his opinions on how unimportant sex is and how crude discussions of sex are, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him that.) I'm not arguing that Adèle is right to cheat, although I don't believe she deserves to be snatched away from her city life, surveilled like a criminal, and given the stingy allowance and limited privileges that Richard gives her. But even if Adèle had not cheated, their relationship would likely still have fallen apart because sex is of inestimable importance to her, Richard has never been capable of meeting her sexual needs, and she has a habit of getting destructively bored with normalcy despite craving the protection it provides. Which makes Richard's methods of curing (read: punishing and taming) her even more heinous, because he's desperately trying to force a relationship to continue in the same shape it started in, or in the same shape he has in his mind, and that's simply not going to happen. In short, it's not just Adèle. Both of these people are severely out of touch! 

It's been a while since I read The Perfect Nanny, but if my memory serves me correctly there are some noteworthy commonalities between it and Adèle, which was published in 2014 two years before The Perfect Nanny. In both, the main couple is a pair of 30-something Parisian professionals who aren't RICH rich but have done well for themselves. In both, the husband is white, the wife is of North African descent, and the wife is anywhere from apathetic to ashamed about her heritage. In both, the couple has a very young son (the couple in The Perfect Nanny actually has two young children). In both, the wife is educated, has her own career, and rejects any expectations of being a stay-at-home wife and mother. And in both, the husband and wife kind of hate each other even though they won't admit it. But that last point might be me projecting too much of Adèle's relationship onto the couple from The Perfect Nanny.
 
If you're interested in French literature, portrayals of sex addiction, self-absorbed women, women (particularly wives and mothers) who cheat, eroticism, funneled rage, love as obsession and possession, barely-concealed marital misery, and characters with both mommy and daddy issues (Adèle's mom has always hated and competed with her, while her dad was affectionate but basically a stranger), then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"Adèle felt for the first time that mix of fear and longing, disgust and arousal. That dirty desire to know what was happening behind the doors of those seedy hotels, in the dim depths of those back alleys, in the seats of the Atlas Cinema, in the back rooms of sex shops whose pink and blue signs pierced the twilight. Never since that eveningnot in the arms of men, nor during the walks she took years later on the same boulevardhas she ever rediscovered that magical feeling of actually touching the vile and the obscene, the heart of bourgeois perversion and human wretchedness" (61-62).
 
"Then she decides that it's not worth living while fighting against such a desperate desire, such an absolute need. That she would have to be insane or utterly stupid to inflict this deprivation on herself, to watch herself suffering and hope that it lasts as long as possible" (92).

"In the depths of her amnesia there exists the reassuring sensation of having existed a thousand times through the desires of others. And when, years later, she happens to bump into a man who tells her in a deep and slightly shaky voice: 'It took me quite a while to get over you,' she draws an immense satisfaction from this. As if all of it has not been in vain. As if, in spite of her best intentions, some sort of meaning is somehow mixed up in this eternal repetition... She wanted them to burn for her, wanted them to love her to the point of losing everything, even though she has never lost anything" (121-122).
 
"A wave of calm surges through her. She has the feeling that she is cut off from the world, that she is experiencing a moment of grace. She rediscovers the pleasure she used to feel as a teenager, when she would dance for hours, sometimes alone on the dance floor. Innocent and beautiful. She never felt any embarrassment then. Never worried about the danger. She gave herself over completely to what she was doing, on the cusp of a future that she imagined glorious, higher, greater, more exhilarating" (209-210).

Sweet Vengeance by Viano Oniomoh
 
Okay, so... I've been aware of "monsterf*cking" as a romance subgenre for a while, but I've always steered clear from it because it seemed weird and disgusting. And as someone who was raised in a Black Christian household, I just don't play with demons like that! But my reading of Sweet Vengeance was actually inspired by two recent influences that I now profoundly appreciate: a monster erotica anthology podcast called Monstica, and the "Demon 79" episode of 'Black Mirror' season 6, which just released in June. I gave Monstica a try last year while searching for erotic and/or queer audio dramas, and was surprised by how exquisitely well-written and produced it was. (Episodes 3 and 8 are my favorites.) Cut to June of this year, when I was BLOWN AWAY by "Demon 79", in which a British South Asian woman named Nida is required by a demon named Gaap to kill three people within three days in order to save the world. I searched Twitter to see if anyone else was obsessed with it too, and I happened to spot romance author Tati Richardson recommending Sweet Vengeance by Viano Oniomoh as having the "same vibes" as the episode. I've mentioned before how enthralling sci-fi morality tales like 'Black Mirror' are to me, and in an effort to make the magic of "Demon 79" last longer, and keeping in mind how much more I enjoyed Monstica than expected, and being swayed by how lush and gorgeous this book's cover is... I ordered Sweet Vengeance straight away.
 
When I think of our protagonist, a plus size bisexual graphic designer in Nigeria named Joy, I recall one of the Jade and X.D. podcast's old catchphrases: "Say No to Co-Workers!" It was a half-joking warning against socializing too much with co-workers and letting them know too much of your business. That catchphrase resonated with me as a "show up, do my work, go home" type of person who was vigilant about compartmentalizing work as separate from the real me and my real life. But now having read Sweet Vengeance, I can't think of anyone who has more of a right to take swearing off co-workers as gospel than Joy. After two years of grief and grinding due to the death of her parents in a plane crash and being screwed out of any available inheritance or keepsakes (except for her father's dagger), Joy was finally ready to have a social life again. So she went to hang out at a bar with her co-workers from her grocery store day job... only to be drugged, taken back to her apartment, and raped there by one of them. (The unnamed co-worker isn't the one who spiked Joy's drink at the bar, but he was still aware of what was happening to her and took advantage of her condition.) Being raped sent Joy into a lengthy depressive episode and frightened her into uprooting her whole life for safety's sake; she moved to an apartment in a different part of town that was tiny enough for her to see all of her surroundings at once, she changed jobs to work at a different grocery store, she deleted her social media, and she nearly eliminated all interactions with people. Anything to avoid crossing paths with her rapist and taking a chance on anyone, since she was more doubtful about who to trust than ever.

Now, Joy has emerged from her depressive episode raring for revenge. She's sick of bearing the weight of having been raped while her rapist lives free and unbothered, so she's decided one of them's gotta die, and it ain't gonna be her. After consulting her wealthy witchy Aunty Paloma, Joy plans to stab the rapist with her father's dagger and summons a demon in advance to make the rapist's death look like an accident. The demon who appears in her apartment is a 200-something-year-old (30 in human years), touch-starved, deep purple demon named Malachi. He's been living discretely in the mortal realm ever since escaping hell, where he was imprisoned from birth and used to reap human souls and emotions for his captors to feed on. Joy is prepared to offer herself sexually to Malachi as a sacrifice that would make him amenable to striking a deal with her, but Malachi declines at first, opting to drink a bit of blood from her finger instead. But over the next few days, as Malachi alternates between spending time with Joy in her apartment and using his powers to help her terrorize her rapist (in the rapist's waking and non-waking hours), these two death and cartoon-obsessed loners fall in (blood)lust, in like, and ultimately, in love. And Joy not only reclaims her power as an avenger of rape survivors, but also discovers unprecedented power in her plus size body and sexual prowess, as Malachi enthusiastically defers to her in the bedroom.

So about Joy becoming a dom. I love how BDSM is part of the natural progression of her and Malachi's already unconventional relationship. It's not something they ever outrightly negotiate, but rather a result of Malachi automatically prioritizing Joy's comfort, even before knowing that she's a rape survivor. And it just so happens that he prioritizes her comfort by making gentle requests, and by waiting for her to give him permission to act and instructions for exactly how she wants it. Hence, Joy becomes the dom and he becomes the sub. And it's genuine! Malachi's gentleness and willingness to follow directions aren't mere courtesy or patronization; he genuinely enjoys accommodating her and feeling owned/claimed/dominated by her when they're being physically intimate. Meanwhile, Joy never feels pressured to perform or do anything with him that she doesn't want to do. So it works out for them both.
 
I also love that Joy never changes her mind about murdering the man who raped her. There's no sense of anticipatory guilt about potentially stooping to her rapist's level by doing something evil to him like he did to her. And forgiveness is not even an option worth considering. Naw. Joy decides that that man needs to die, she recruits a demon to help her stalk him so that he will fear her properly, and then she she stabs him multiple times in his own bed, making sure her face is the last thing he sees as he dies. Not only that, but besides not feeling any remorse afterward, Joy goes a step further by later killing her best friend Iyore's pedophile rapist uncle in a similar way (with Malachi's assistance of course), so that Iyore no longer has to delay her wedding for fear of the uncle showing up. Joy is a self-described "proud murderer of rapists," and although I won't say I condone murder, I respect how committed she is to her vengeance even while still being traumatized.
 
As for whether the "Demon 79" comparison holds up, it actually does! I was skeptical, but then pleased to make my way through Sweet Vengeance and clock so many similarities. In both, the protagonist is a young woman of color who works a service job and is targeted by a co-worker (Joy is a supermarket cashier, whereas Nida sells shoes in a department store). In both, the protagonist summons a demon into her apartment by making a blood pact with it (except Nida does so accidentally). In both, the demon appears to the woman in a form she finds attractive, and he can only be seen and heard by her. In both, the demon can communicate with the woman non-verbally (Malachi can smell human emotions and sense Joy's intentions through the invisible bond formed by their contract; Gaap shows Nida visions of the peril that awaits if she doesn't kill enough people in time). In both, the demon is low-ranking and must abide by rules set by other demons who are much older and more powerful than him. In both, the woman and the demon live incredibly lonely lives, find companionship in each other, and choose to face oblivion together (except Nida and Gaap's union reads as more platonic than Joy and Malachi's). And of course, in both Sweet Vengeance and "Demon 79", the female protagonist is motivated to commit murder, with the major difference being how she's motivated. Whereas Nida's goal is thrust upon her and forces her to question her understanding of morality and humanity, Joy's goal is self-assigned, she doesn't believe killing her rapist detracts from her humanity, and while she does have a strong sense of justice, she's not preoccupied with being perceived by others as good.
 
While Sweet Vengeance hasn't made me eager to read more monster romances, it has enabled me to understand more of the subgenre's appeal with less judgment, and it has definitely made me a new fan of Viano Oniomoh. (She's got a new romance novel out called Just for the Cameras that's giving me Harbor flashbacks from the premise alone, so best believe I'll be snapping that one up too.) Sweet Vengeance is the most audacious and imaginative book I've read in a while, it's my favorite read of 2023 so far, it balances the silly with the morbid and the delectable with the dire while still making every page count, and Oniomoh not only wrote and self-published this novel but also illustrated the cover herself! That's undeniable talent right there! If you're interested in "paranormal erotic romance" (as Oniomoh categorizes it on her website), romance novels set in Nigeria, survivors getting revenge against their rapists, recovery from grief and depression, cartoons (especially 'The Amazing World of Gumball'), or stories about Black plus size women getting all the love and tenderness they deserve, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"He let out another airy chuckle. Joy's lips twitched for a moment. And like clockwork, there was the sweet, bright scent. Was this the scent of her pleasure? Her happiness?
    Fuck, Malachi had been wrong. If her bloodthirst tasted divine, then it was nothing on her happiness. He wanted to cause her to form that scent againand again and again and again, just because" (38).
 
"'Sweet, murderous Joy,' Malachi husked, his wings flaring, wanting to wrap around them both, like he could shelter them from the world. 'You are exquisite.'" (45).

"And so what? He suddenly thought, almost viciously. So what if Joy was using him? So what if he couldn't have her after this? So what if he never saw her again? Was he going to pretend he didn't want her now, just because their contract would soon come to an end?" (72).

"Malachi was hit suddenly by the force of her beauty. The glow of the moonlight, along with the slowly morphing colours of the flowers around them turned her into a living, breathing painting. She looked like something ethereallike a Sovereignlike if he reached out to try and touch her, she'd disappear, burst into a shower of sparks" (130).

Friday, July 21, 2023

The J-Drama Drop #32

Back again to talk J-dramas! Truth be told I would've had this review out weeks ago; at first I only found one J-drama that stuck with me this time around, so I also watched a couple Japanese films to beef up the rest of the review, and was ready to write. But then, I happened to see someone post about 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' in a Facebook group that I'm in, saying it was legitimately funny, touching, and probably the best J-drama she's ever seen (because it's the first one that's ever held her attention all the way through). So I figured, Alright, bet. I set aside time to watch that show as a last-minute addition, and now I'm here, ready to get to reviewing!

(I don't think she'll ever read this, but thanks for the spirited recommendation, D.T.!)

エンジェルフライト 国際霊柩送還士 (Angel Flight: Kokusai Reikyuu Soukanshi/Angel Flight: International Casket Repatriators) - Apple TV Plus/2023

  • Rinko is a young woman starting a new job at Angel Hearse, a team responsible for repatriating the bodies of Japanese people who die abroad and foreigners who die in Japan. Angel Hearse's office is located at Haneda Airport, and is helmed by a middle-aged, eccentric but earnest woman named Nami (who recruited Rinko).
  • In almost every episode, Rinko and Nami are dispatched to a different country to retrieve bodies. Along with repatriation, Angel Hearse's work includes preparing the bodies for burial and helping the deceased's loved ones understand the circumstances surrounding their death. (Not in a forensic way, but in a "This is why your loved one went to this country, what being in this country meant to them, and how they were living" way.)
  • The Angel Hearse team (and the show itself) repeatedly asserts the need for every dead person to have a proper burial, regardless of how tenuous their relationship was with their loved ones, because at least then those loved ones won't regret not saying goodbye. Meanwhile, Rinko is estranged from her abrasive and ailing mother while also being her caretaker, and Nami refuses to believe that her fiancé (who was lost at sea in Cuba eight years ago) is truly dead.
Meh: Even though Rinko is the designated fish out of water through whom the audience learns the ropes of this particular subfield of mortuary services, I simply was never that interested in what was going on with her. I understand the show needing to spend time on her in order to make her a fully fleshed-out character, but things got boring fast every time 'Angel Flight' focused on Rinko and her issues with her mom.
 
At the risk of sounding too sensitive, I must say... episode 2 feels incredibly racist. It almost made me quit the show completely. I didn't appreciate Black people being portrayed as terrorists (who conduct a mass shooting at a fancy hotel banquet for diplomats), especially when the show lazily sets the episode somewhere that doesn't exist. A serious examination of terrorism, lack of infrastructure, and diplomats and development workers living in certain countries despite locals vocally not wanting them there at least warrants being contextualized in a place that's real, does it not? But I guess that would've taken too much guts. Too many details. Instead, the show drums up a fictional and vaguely Central African place called "Mubadal". And I know the production team knows better, because when they address xenophobia, exploitation, and solidarity between Japanese and foreign garment workers in episode 4, the episode is on the workers' side. (Specifically on the side of a young Vietnamese woman who dies after working late at a factory and having her pay repeatedly withheld by her Japanese boss, who knows that people like her can't fight back because they have few other job or visa options.) But that same strong emphasis on empathy and understanding toward (poorer and darker-skinned) non-Japanese people is not afforded to the supposedly loud, angry, mean, ungrateful Black people in the country that the show makes up in episode 2.
 
Better: It was so much fun watching Matsumoto Wakana (from 'Fukushuu no Miboujin' and 'Kingyo Tsuma') play an absurdly wealthy, suspiciously-twice-widowed, unbothered bish whose Moroccan billionaire husband dies under dubious circumstances in episode 5. There's such an immense well of attitude and calculated fury in her, with pain and sincerity lying just beneath it all. And her body language, poses, and styling tell so much of her gold-digger story before she even opens her mouth! What a sharp performance!

I also appreciated how episode 3 makes a point of not prioritizing the rich over the not-rich. A typhoon is happening, there's only room for one casket on a flight from Gimpo to Haneda, and there are two Japanese nationals who each died in Seoul and need to get shipped back to Japan in time for their already-scheduled funerals. The choice is between a working-class mom/restaurant owner whose adult children gifted her K-pop concert tickets after a lifetime of always putting herself last, and a big name menswear CEO who died after she did. Despite pressure from the CEO's team to focus on transporting his body alone, Nami pretends to go along with orders while secretly making her own arrangements to get both bodies out of Korea at the same time.

And even though she isn't given a ton to do on screen, I love that one of the Angel Hearse staff members is played by a plus size woman (Noro Kayo, one of the early members of idol group AKB48). Of course she's plus size by Japanese standards, which is to say she's still quite small, but hey. I was glad to see her in the cast nonetheless.

Best: Yonekura Ryoko (playing Rinko's boss Nami) is the one who truly makes 'Angel Flight' click, and I mostly stuck with this show just for her. This is actually my first time watching her work in full, since I was never interested in her 'Doctor X' series (too many seasons), and I started but bailed on 'The Journalist' (which came out on Netflix last year and starred her, Ayano Go, and Yokohama Ryusei) because it felt too ominous for me to stomach. Now, I'm glad that I've finally gotten to see her in action and know for myself how phenomenal of an actress she is. Yonekura manages to blend a workaholic mom who is an expert in her field, with a jokester who's silly beyond belief and doesn't seem to take much seriously, with a heartbroken woman who's spent nearly a decade grieving her fiancé while also hoping that he'll return to Japan alive... all in one character. If that's not an example of mastery in the craft of acting, then I don't know what is.
 
 離婚しようよ (Rikon Shiyou Yo/Let's Get Divorced) - Netflix/2023
  • Yui and Taishi are a married couple who split their time between the city of Tokyo and Ehime Prefecture. Yui (Naka Riisa from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshin' and 'Fruits Takuhaibin') is a beloved TV and commercial actress. Taishi (Matsuzaka Tori from Her Love Boils Bathwater) is a spoiled politician, representing Ehime, who holds the same seat in the National Diet that his family has held for generations. Taishi doesn't care about his job despite being groomed for it, and he relies on Yui's popularity to keep him in the public's good graces.
  • Outwardly they're the perfect couple, but behind closed doors they ice each other out, and have been estranged since Taishi cheated on Yui with a newscaster named Sakurako (Oda Lisa, 'Company: Gyakuten no Swan') three years ago. Taishi secretly rekindles his affair with Sakurako, and after Taishi and Yui agree that it's been time for them to divorce, Yui starts having her own affair with a sculptor and frequenter of pachinko parlors. Yui and Taishi also each find divorce lawyers, who, of course, are bitter law school exes.
  • But Yui is wary of the penalty fees she might incur if divorcing sullies her wifely image enough to be considered a breach of her many commercial contracts. And ultimately, when a special election is called and Taishi has to campaign against an aggressive new opponent, the couple agrees to play nice and delay their divorce until after the election is over. Can Taishi get his head out of his behind enough to maintain his Diet seat and potentially win Yui back? Can Yui get the divorce she desperately wants so she can finally move on with her life? What happens when Yui comes up pregnant? Are Yui and Taishi truly over? (Spoiler: Yes. They are. The show stays true to its title.)
Meh: Taishi pouncing on Yui in episode 1, straddling her, and proceeding to initiate sex despite her protests... read like assault to me. I don't like how the show tries to make it okay by revealing in a later episode that Yui eventually gets aroused in that moment too. And for the show to use that scene as a major plot point by having Yui become pregnant as a result... I didn't too much care for that either.

Better: So many actors I was happy to see here! For starters, there's Itaya Yuka (from 'Gunjou Ryouiki', 'Followers', and countless other productions) playing Taishi's divorce lawyer. I've seen her play somebody's boss/manager/mentor/authoritative figure so many times, and she's great in everything she's in. Everything!
 
Then there's Nishikido Ryo's fine self, playing Yui's paramour Kyoji. The way he gently reaches toward her face, pulls down her mask, kisses her, and then they start full-on making out right there in the middle of a pachinko parlor? In just episode 2? My God on today! So good! When Nishikido Ryo first popped up on screen in episode 1, I recognized him immediately, which is hilarious because for the life of me I can't remember watching any of his work or closely following either of the idol groups he used to be in. I racked my brain, checked my previous J-drama reviews, looked up his entire filmography... nothing. So I don't know how I know Nishikido Ryo, but I know he's fine, and I was very pleased to see him playing Yui's side piece. And by making his character impotent, the show uses his and Yui's affair to make a point about couples sharing profoundly erotic moments without penetration, which felt groundbreaking.
 
I was also proud to see Naka Riisa and Oda Lisa level up from the roles that I've seen them in previously. I remember Oda Lisa as the shy-ballerina-that-could from 'Company', so I was impressed by her sinking her teeth into to such a juicy role as Sakurako, portraying not only a mistress but a young media personality who pivots to politics by scheming her way to the top. But even with her scheming, she seems to genuinely believe in the issues she campaigns for (women's equality, childcare resources, etc.). As for Naka Riisa, she stood out as the sarcastic younger sister in unrequited love with one of her brother's best friends in 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi', and she played a sex worker/damsel in distress with so much care and dignity in 'Fruits Takuhaibin', but she downright shines as the lead in 'Rikon Shiyou Yo'. Her Yui is funny, knows how to play the PR game but also doesn't hold her tongue when it's time to raise her voice, and knows that her husband is trash and that she deserves better. Now that I think about it, Naka Riisa's performance reminds me a lot of Suzuki Kyoka's performance in 'Kyouen NG', as a woman who's forced to shoot a drama with the ex that cheated on her decades prior. 
 
In fact, much of 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' is very reminiscent of the meta, behind-the-scenes, "TV show about making a TV show" vibe of 'Kyouen NG'. 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' uses Yui's career to depict how absurd the entertainment industry is and how ridiculous shoots can be, and this show isn't afraid to be silly. That shoulder-length dusty brown WIG, with BANGS, that Yui's 60-something male lawyer wears in the flashback scene of his and Itaya Yuka's law school years in episode 3? Intentionally unserious! 
 
Best: One thing about my viewing experience with this show, I never knew what was gonna happen next. And this show has so much personality! Something I feel has been missing from a lot of the recent J-dramas I've watched. The concepts are there, the quality is there, everyone's doing their best, but sometimes there just isn't enough oomph. 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' has that oomph!
 
Speaking of which, I don't know whose idea it was to have 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' partially set in Ehime—I checked the tourism board websites for Ehime Prefecture and the city of Matsuyama and found no mention of this show—but whoever they are, they're a genius! I learned so much about that region, including that it's famous for its oranges. And seeing Yui be charmed by Taishi's love for his rural hometown, so much so that she still admires him for it after he stops being a good husband to her, is part of what endeared me to the show the most. Even after what he puts her through, she still respects him as a person, defends his ability to improve as an elected official, and helps him to campaign during election cycles, all because his love for Ehime is the only thing about him that never wavers. In some other context I might say that's pathetic, but this show makes it wholesome. Beautiful, even.

Most of all, I love how grown this show is. Yui's mother has seven children by multiple baby daddies, and she's consistently unashamed because she had the children she wanted to have without letting any one man overstay his welcome. Yui and Taishi do each other dirty during their marriage, but in the end they manage to be co-parents who are still somewhat in love with each other, would still let each other hit, but won't go that far because they're better off as friends. Taishi uses Sakurako as his sexual plaything (while she uses him to boost her media career, and then her political career), but in the end they're colleagues at the Diet who don't need to interact because they can leave each other in the past with no hard feelings. Yui similarly uses Kyoji as an outlet and claims to be madly in love with him only to discard him for Taishi during the special election, but in the end Kyoji and Taishi are allies, with Kyoji helping him win his Diet seat back after losing it. Taishi and his opponent Soda become fierce political rivals, and Taishi eventually gets Soda ousted from office by leaking his kickback corruption to the press on the low, but in the end Soda and his wife don't hesitate to give Taishi free sweets and beverages from their bakery when they spot him having a public dad-in-distress moment with his and Yui's son.

Like I mentioned earlier, 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' stays true to its title: despite the will-they-won't they moments that the show teases us with, Yui and Taishi don't get back together because they truly don't need to be together anymore. And the show has a happy ending because this couple, and everyone else around them, learns to grow and move on.

Honorable Mention: ちひろさん (Chihiro-san/Call Me Chihiro) - Netflix/2023 
 
I watched this film for Takahata Mitsuki (from 'Iribito' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'), because I mistook lead actress Arimura Kasumi ('Soshite Ikiru') for her. They don't look that much alike, although they are around the same age. But for the first hour of the movie my brain was struggling to make sense of how Takahata Mitsuki's face looked so much more wisened by life experience (like someone you can tell has gone through some ish) in this role than in any other role I'd seen her in before. And then I looked up this film's cast and realized it was Arimura Kasumi all along. 
 
'Call Me Chihiro' is a quiet story about a former sex worker who works at a bento shop in a seaside town, and is embraced by locals who don't seem to mind what she used to do for a living. She is kind and congenial but also keeps people at arm's length, purposely never divulging too many personal details about herself. There are visual and verbal allusions to her harrowing past: she's estranged from her mother and brother; she has a scar on her back from being stabbed by an overzealous client who might still be stalking her; she's shown in flashback to have interviewed for her previous sex work job in a standard Japanese job interview suit and shoes, indicating that she did try to make it in the traditional/respectable work world at some point but it didn't work out. But to Chihiro, that stuff's not really anybody's business. Except for maybe her best friend (also a former sex worker) and their former pimp (played by Lily Franky), who both attempt to start over in the same seaside town as Chihiro. And even they have trouble trying to figure her out. Despite her friendly exterior, Chihiro is a detached and lonely person at her core, and just as a solid sense of community starts to form around her, she leaves to start over once again in another rural town so she doesn't risk getting too close to anyone. Which I could relate to since my personality is very similar to hers, but I could also imagine viewers reacting to the end of the movie with, "...That's it?" or, "Why would she just disappear like that?"
 
(I can't remember for certain, but I may or may not have heard about this movie through one of my podcast guests named Farrah tweeting about it. So if that's the case, then thanks to Farrah for the recommendation!)
 
Honorable Mention: Queer Japan - 2019
 
When I was researching the roles and gender identities of Mahu in Hawaiian culture for my review of Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, my search led me to find a documentary called Kumu Hina on Tubi, and I noticed Queer Japan listed in the "You May Also Like" section for that film. Given that I have at least one queer friend in Japan whose wellbeing I care about very deeply, I bookmarked Kumu Hina for later and watched Queer Japan right away.
 
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Graham Kolbeins and co-written by him and Japanese American writer/artist Anne Ishii, Queer Japan is a documentary that spotlights queer people and communities in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Okinawa. It focuses mostly on artists, performers, bar owners, and activists. There's a wide age range among interviewees, but surprisingly, the main interviewees who are shown most repeatedly are middle aged people and senior citizens. I say "surprisingly" because I'd assumed that younger people would be more open to talking about their queerness, and that a documentary about queer people would therefore skew younger. But now I think it was a brilliant idea to feature so many older interviewees, because they add a historical perspective to how much the portrayal, public perception, and lived experience of queerness has changed in Japan. They speak to these shifts happening not only during their own lifetimes, but also across the bubble era, the Meiji era, and the Edo era more widely. I happened to find the Queer Japan website in the process of writing this review, so if this film sounds interesting to you then feel free to learn more about it here.

Between the two J-dramas I watched this time around, 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' is the obvious favorite here. But if you're interested in Japanese funeral traditions and perceptions of death, then give 'Angel Flight' a gander too.