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' 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. 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 supposedly serious discussion of terrorism, lack of infrastructure, and diplomats/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 loud, angry, mean 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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

BOOKS! (Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart + Will to Love)

I started these two books in March, and now I'm ready to review them! I have accepted the reality that I've been in a reading slump as a result of dealing with my mom's health issues in the fall and winter, and I have also accepted the reality that I'm still feeling greatly fatigued and uninspired this spring. However, I am choosing to honor the fact that I have read what I can, little by little, and that I'm still managing to write a new review before May is over. That's still a win! Today's review is about two books written by Black women in the early 2000s. First up, a novel about a queer woman whose midlife crisis sends her on a spiritual journey that acquaints her with the "Grandmother" spirit of ayahuasca. Then, a romance novel about an obsessively commitment-averse doctor who meets his match when a corporate finance phenom agrees to date him for only one month. And lastly, an honorable mention that celebrates the intimacies of cuddling.
Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker
When I reviewed In Love & Trouble, I mentioned that I hadn't read any other Alice Walker besides The Color Purple, and that I had a novel of hers that's been tucked away ever since I bought it at my local library. Well, In Love & Trouble put me in the mood to read more Walker, so I figured, Now Is the Time to Open This Book!
At 57 years old, Kate suddenly realizes that too many things in her life aren't doing it for her anymore. Her Buddhism practice, once a refuge from her COGIC upbringing, gives way to a new faith crisis. Her body feels like it's falling apart in more ways than one. She's just about ready to dump her painter boyfriend Yolo, who now seems too young and too male to understand her needs and the changes she's going through. And she's having dreams about frozen anacondas and the river of her life running dry. Sensing (and being told by her friends) that she must get close to a river to start finding answers, Kate disassembles the altar room in her house, leaves the house in Yolo's care, and joins a three-week boat trip down the Colorado River with a group of other women. During that trip, she learns about the Hopi people and purges some of the trauma of her failed familial and romantic relationships. 
Following her return, Kate starts visiting a local shaman, a Black woman named Anunu who administers ayahuasca to her. (This is not Kate's first time drinking the "Grandmother medicine", also called yagé.) Kate then joins a two-week ayahuasca retreat near a jungle river in an unspecified Latin American country, under the guidance of an indigenous Latino shaman named Armando (Anunu's past mentor). Here, participants spend most of their time fasting, tripping off of ayahuasca, and engaging with whatever lessons the Grandmother spirit has to teach each of them, but the ayahuasca stops working on Kate fairly early in the retreat. So she instead journals about her dreams, reflects on slavery and colonialism in Latin America and the American South, and listens mindfully as her fellow participants confide in her about their breakthroughs, which are liberating but unpretty. While Kate is on her ayahuasca retreat, Yolo has his own revelations in Hawaii, where a touristy vacation evolves into a careful meditation on Pacific Islanders' despair after he's invited to help memorialize a former girlfriend's dead son. By the end of the book, Kate and Yolo have returned to her house spiritually reinvigorated, at greater ease with each other, and inspired to make changes in their lives together that they are hopeful about seeing through.

Despite seeing the online backlash Alice Walker received in March for defending J.K. Rowling's TERF views, I continued reading Now Is The Time to Open Your Heart anyway because I'd already decided I wanted to know what this novel has to say. So imagine how astounded I was to discover its laudatory representation of Mahu, healers and traditional hula teachers in Polynesian culture who are born male but live as women as an expression of the divine. Walker does not describe them as "trans", "nonbinary", "gender non-conforming", or "genderfluid" in the book, but basic googling today offers multiple descriptions of Mahu as "third gender", so it can be argued that transness is a core part of their calling and the spiritual, educational, and caretaking roles they fulfill within their communities. In other words, Walker may not have employed the word when writing NITTTOYH, but the concept of people being trans is clearly not new to her at all. So to see this transphobic turn in 2023 confuses the heck out of me, especially knowing what I now know about what she went out of her way to write in this book (and presumably do the research for) nearly 20 years ago. You use a Mahu character (Aunty Pearlua) to depict how living beyond the gender binary has proved vital in fighting against colonization's efforts to destroy Polynesian culture and subjugate women. You give multiple examples of how global suffering from colonialism is enduring and interconnected amongst Black Americans, Native Americans in the continental U.S., Native Hawaiians, indigenous people in Latin America, and Aboriginal people in Australia. Just to turn around two decades later and align with this white British woman on the idea that real women are being erased and replaced? Unacceptable!

On a less controversial note, I know some people keep a journal of their dreams in real life just like Kate does, and I wish I'd had the foresight to do the same for the dreams and visions described in NITTTOYH. I wish I would've kept track of the specific moments they come up in the novel and what they mean. There are so many of them, recounted by multiple characters, and they're all so vivid and dripping with symbolism. For example, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Kate's enslaved ancestor Remus, whose bloody-mouthed spirit she feels haunted by for a long time. During the ayahuasca retreat Kate has a dream where she walks and talks with Remus about being tortured due to white obsession and jealousy toward his physical beauty. And in that dream, she finally realizes that all her nth-great uncle wanted was for her to listen to his story, take in what he's learned since becoming an ancestor, acknowledge how pretty he used to be, and give him new "teeth" (made of corn because the dream is set in the countryside), so he could feel pleased with himself again. Lalika, a Black woman from Mississippi who also attends the ayahuasca retreat, has her own story of objectification to tell, revealing to Kate how Saartjie Bartmann became her patron saint because she and her friend Gloria would each have visions of Saartjie while being sexually exploited in jail. Those visions gave Lalika and Gloria someone to believe in, someone to identify with and help them dissociate during those perilous months. But belief in "Saint Saartjie" wasn't enough to counter the harm of putting their trauma on display after they were released and had to go on a press run to raise legal funds.

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart is something special, but I think readers need to be open to the abstract in order to fully appreciate it. There's so much yearning for maternal love and guidance in it. So much reverence for indigenous ways and wisdom from multiple continents. So much growth in Kate and others' awareness of how alive nature is, always moving and communicating with those who dare to pay attention. The book has an overall plot but plays with not telling every facet of its story (stories) linearly. It's way more philosophical than I was anticipating yet still manages to be accessible and grounded, constantly grappling with how existential, spiritual, and environmental principles can be applied in the real world that people have to return to once their retreats are over. If you are in a transitional period in your life, concerned about aging and times changing, curious about psychoactive plants, interested in decolonizing your imagination, due for a healing journey of your own, and not set against reading any more Alice Walker (which is your prerogative), then read this book!
Favorite quotes:
"She was a baby again; she realized how much she must have enjoyed being one. She seemed to remember, feeling the diapers on her bottom, that when she was a baby people were always kissing her. Um, she thought. Happy... When was the last time someone had stood outside the toilet waiting for her? Kate asked herself... She liked it. Oh, she thought to herself, I am someone who enjoys being pampered! Usually, raising her children, she'd received no such pampering, though always giving it to others. She had forgotten her own need" (70). 

"It was clear to Kate, sitting across the room from Missy, that she had every intention of being healed, but lacked the courage to let it happen. Her body grew as tight as a ripe tomato, and every orifice seemed closed: eyes, mouth, ears. She crossed her legs and became rigid. Nothing is coming into me, she seemed to say, and nothing is going out" (153).

"It is hard to believe, but there is something inside of you, no matter how sick and fed up with your sickness you are, that does not want you to heal. It will actually fight you. Sometimes I think of it as a small boy... He is there having a good time at your expense and if you get well he worries there will be nothing left to do. No games to pay with your sick body, no games to play with your mind... He will have to be negotiated, just like you would talk to a lawyer. If I am well, you must tell him, there will actually be lots more for you to do. More games for you to play, because we will be much stronger. If we are much stronger, we can go more places. We can have more fun. He is an odd little boy, this part of yourself that wants to control you while you are sick. And sometimes we are all charmed by him" (153-54).

"The land does not like being sold. It haunts me... It is offended by my disrespect. It wasn't meant to be bought and sold, you know. It was meant to be loved and sung to; it was meant to be appreciated for its wonderfulness. And admired. Shared, yes. Bought and sold and abandoned over and over, no" (176).

Will to Love by Doreen Rainey
I found a beaten-up copy of this book while browsing through a deceptively low-key indie bookstore called Carol's Paperbacks Plus, which specializes in used paperbacks and has a surprisingly massive layout. This book's condition almost made me set it back down on the shelf, but then I looked it over and realized it was a Black romance novel of the 2000s variety that my mom used to read, and with some further internet sleuthing I learned that the author doesn't even write anymore. (She's a life coach now.) So in a way, this find was one of a kind! I was actually surprised to see that this book was published in 2007, because the illustrated cover design—which I love, don't get me wrong—is giving me Black Expressions circa 1998, or the opening credits of 'The Nanny' if 'The Nanny' were a Black dating sitcom. But that only adds to Will to Love's nostalgic charm.

The titular Will is a doctor in DC who co-owns a private practice with three other doctors, including his best friend Derek. He also owns an adorable big-footed German Shepherd named Apollo. Romantically, Will is a bachelor who takes pride in showing women a good time, but he's also infamous for wielding a five-point list of rules to keep things strictly casual: Don't assume exclusivity, There's no need to talk every day or know everything about each other, His medical practice comes first, Don't expect commitment (including marriage or cohabitation) from him because it ain't gonna happen, and The relationship is over if the woman breaks any of the rules (because he's never the one to break them). On every first date, he gives "The Speech" to clearly communicates these rules, what he's willing and unwilling to do for his lovers, and what the result will be for crossing his boundaries. And even though many women seem to understand and agree to his terms at first, without fail they all eventually start believing that they can be the exception, only to get dumped for trying to convince Will of the same. As a result, none of Will's relationships last longer than four months, which he's consistently unbothered by. Until he meets Caryn.

Caryn, a DC native, has had her mind set on climbing the corporate ladder ever since she left home for college in Boston, where she's now based. For a decade she's busted her behind facilitating mergers and acquisitions between companies all over the world, and she doesn't even have time to decorate the condo she bought two years ago, much less be in a real relationship. Her professional and financial goals have always been more important to her than dating. (Will has his rules, and Caryn has her master plan.) But she has enough self-awareness to know she's overdue for a break and has neglected her family and friends for too long, so she goes on a one-month vacation back to her hometown, staying at her parents' house in Alexandria. When Caryn goes to meet her best friend Sherisse at Sherisse's office, she also meets Will, because Sherisse and Will are colleagues; Sherisse is one of Will's business partners and the only female doctor at the private practice. And despite vehemently disapproving of Will's dating style and fiercely warning him against trying to seduce her friend, Sherisse gives him Caryn's number at Caryn's request. Because Caryn doesn't want anything serious from him either; she simply wants to be spoiled and taken on dates around DC for a few weeks, and is curious if Will can live up to his own hype.
So their fling begins, and Will unexpectedly falls for Caryn. Hard. While she's ignoring her feelings and shutting him down when moments between them get too intense, he's breaking his own rules left and right: meeting her parents, attending her family cookout, talking about him and Caryn as "we", and wanting more from their relationship than Caryn is willing to give. After they realize, mid-coitus, that they truly are in love with each other, Caryn panics and skips town back to Boston in the middle of the night, cutting her vacation short before Will has the chance to verbally tell her he loves her. They then spend the next month agonizing over whether to call the other person first; Will refuses because his pride has been wounded and he's experiencing heartbreak for the first time, and Caryn uses work to distract herself from how terrible she feels about leaving him the way she did. However, with some prodding from Caryn's dad and an impromptu reunion in Paris, Caryn and Will officially become a couple, assuring each other that they're in it for the long haul. That is, if a huge promotion that moves Caryn to San Francisco doesn't strain their relationship beyond repair.
First let me declare that Will is not wrong about his pre-Caryn dating rules! Now, far be it from me to stand in the gap for a man (God forbid). And perhaps I am biased in favor of his non-commitment policy due to my introversion, my vigilance against disappointment, my as-yet lifelong disinterest in romantic relationships, and the fact that I'm viewing aughts 30-something Black professional dating culture from a 2023 perspective. But I truly can't remember the last time I was on a male character's side as much as I was on Will's, and I truly do not agree that pre-Caryn Will is as wrong as his previous lovers and his bestie Derek argue that he is. (Although I can make an exception for Sherisse's behavior, because she was just trying to protect her friend.) He may be blunt and a little full of himself, and he could stand to be less cold-blooded when dumping people, but Will is upfront about his intentions at all times. He does not lie to women or lead them on, and it's not his fault that his previous lovers broke their own hearts by claiming they could handle a no-strings arrangement when they actually couldn't. I'm not trying to cut Will some slack in that lazy "well at least he's honest" sort of way that lets men off the hook way too often. But how is he a villain for knowing what he wants, meaning what he says, and sticking to the agreed-upon terms of his relationships?
As for our female lead, I applaud Doreen Rainey for being smart enough to not have Caryn need Will to be her savior. When we meet Caryn, she is cognizant of the sacrifices she's made and what she's missed out on interpersonally while excelling in her career. But she regards Will as someone who can temporarily make her feel special and knock the cobwebs off that thang, not someone to save her from herself or even be her man. Granted, after he becomes her man, their love does give Caryn the courage to quit her job of her own accord once she gets promoted and realizes for herself that: a) finally reaching the career goal that she's strived so hard for is making her miserable, and b) her priorities in life have shifted and she wants to be closer to Will again. But Will is not the one to demand or create that change for her, and I found that to be very progressive on Rainey's part. The only place that Will to Love significantly falters is its ending, which feels entirely too rushed. Considering that Caryn and Will don't officially become a couple until chapter 23 (of 25), I was initially impressed by how Rainey laid out the next phases of their relationship—including long distance troubles, and how swiftly those troubles change them as people and hinder their compatibility—in so few pages. But come on now. Will very heavily implies that that they should break up, like it's on the very tip of his tongue and Caryn doesn't even fully clock that that's what he's both saying and trying not to say at the same time... but then he's asking her to be his wife three pages later? Rainey gave me the ending I wanted, but the abruptness of it made it not feel right.

Sure, some of the book's phrasing gets repetitive at times, the early part of it spends a little too long on characters arguing with Will about how terrible he is (even though he's not!), and the ending reconciliation/proposal feels rushed, but overall I think Will to Love is really solid. I was thoroughly entertained. It hits all the customary romance novel beats while still offering some delightful surprises, Caryn's family feels like a real everyday Black family, Caryn and Will are intriguing and worth rooting for, and I'm realizing that I do greatly enjoy the Gentle Giant Dog As Wingman trope (shout-out to Apollo in this book, and Otis the Great Dane from Before I Let Go). If you're in the mood for a love story but also don't care about being in a traditional relationship, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"The moment I met you, I knew you were special... because of the light that shines from your heart and your soul. I promise to nurture that light. To protect that light. To love that light. It is what makes you special and I want to spend the rest of my life shining with you" (56).
"Please, mom... I can only defend myself against one imaginary person at a time. Why don't we stick to my invisible husband before moving on to the yet-to-be-born children?" (109).
"...but there were times when not only was arrogance necessary, it was critical to getting what you wanted out of life. 'Arrogance is overconfidence, audaciousness, boldness, daring and having pride in what you do. I find it impossible to believe that you didn't have some of those traits to break through that glass ceiling... A woman? A black woman? You must have had daggers coming at you form several angles... Without a healthy does of arrogance, you'd be stuck somewhere in middle management, trying to break into six figures and wondering when you were going to get a break. Now, I'm not saying you use all of that to put somebody else down or destroy others, but you do use it to pull yourself up'" (179).

"I want more than moments, Caryn. More than memories" (237).

Honorable Mention: The Cuddle Sutra by Rob Grader
(Illustrated by Leela Corman)

During this past winter, in the thick of handling my mom's health stuff, I felt the loneliest that I've ever felt. I was so lonely that I found myself longing for something I've literally never longed for before: a good, lengthy, strong but gentle cuddle. (I am a hugger but I also generally don't like people touching me. It's complicated.) If only I had a shoulder to cry on. If only I had someone who could be the big spoon and hold me as I tried to asleep, then maybe I wouldn't be so exhausted all the time right now. I remember thinking those thoughts for the very first time in my life. Even though I never received the kind of physical support that I needed back then, I also never forgot what it felt like to be desperate for that support. I was able to go without, but back then it seemed essential.

So when I popped into the dollar store on Mother's Day to get a couple cards for Ma and then happened to spot The Cuddle Sutra in the book section, I knew that this title was coming home with me. By now I have pretty comprehensively reverted back to "don't touch me" mode, but The Cuddle Sutra seemed like it'd be a cute read so I figured why not. Maybe I could use it as inspiration the next time I feel an urge to be the little spoon. Plus it has pictures! There are 50 or so cuddling positions described and illustrated in this book, divided between private and public displays of affection. And even though some of them sound made up—walking side by side while doing the "Cross My Heart" or the "Promenade", for instance, seems too awkward to be real—I was still amused by Grader's creativity and sense of humor. If any of that sounds up your alley and ordering online isn't adventurous enough for you, then see if you can find this little gem at a dollar store near you.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The J-Drama Drop #31

I've decided to rename my J-drama review series. Instead of calling it "ドラマ (Dorama) Time!" like I have been since I started reviewing J-dramas on this blog in 2013, I'm going to see how I feel about calling it "The J-Drama Drop" from now on. The reason or inspiration for this change? Nothing specific, other than knowing that today's review would be different from usual because I only have one actual J-drama to discuss, followed by an anime and multiple Japanese indie films as honorable mentions. (None of the winter 2023 J-dramas were speaking to me, so I circled back to a series from fall 2022 that I discovered was added to Netflix worldwide in February, while also taking advantage of a free online Japanese film festival that's currently running from January to June this year. More on that festival later in this review.) And because of that format difference, I figured why not use this as an opportunity to experiment with giving the series a new name? (But I'm counting this review as #31 rather than #1 because I am NOT starting over, ya dig?)

君の花になる (Kimi no Hana ni Naru/I Will Become Your Flower/I Will Be Your Bloom) - TBS/Netflix/2022
  • Asuka (Honda Tsubasa from 'Koinaka') excelled at her job as high school teacher and loved encouraging her students to follow their dreams, including an aspiring singer named Dan who would frequently record himself singing in empty classrooms. But Asuka's dedication and can-do attitude were taken advantage of by colleagues who harassed her and foisted their work onto her, and after misunderstandings caused most of her students to turn against her too, Asuka had no choice but to quit because her anxiety became too overpowering.
  • Four and a half years later, Asuka's now-former student Dan has already debuted as the leader and songwriter of a boy band called 8LOOM ("Bloom", originally an idol group of eight members, now only seven). But 8LOOM is currently floundering; they're not selling records, they're not ranking on the charts, and no fans are hyping them up anywhere on social media. So the president of their record company (Hanamaki Records) announces that they'll be dropped from the label unless they can reach #1 on the streaming charts within the next six months.
  • Meanwhile, Asuka has received psychiatric treatment, has recovered from most (not all) of her work PTSD, and is working for her sister's bento food truck business. She responds to a job ad and gets hired to be 8LOOM's live-in housekeeper/cook (寮母, ryoubo, "dorm mother" or "housemother") to get their lifestyle habits and self-discipline back on track. The educator in Asuka is determined to help the guys triumph, but will her past failures and anxiety flare up in the process? Will Dan learn to stop trying to be his own grumpy island? And might something "bloom" between Dan and Asuka?
Meh: I chose 'Kimi no Hana ni Naru' because it looked breezy and vibrant and seemed to offer a fairly light-hearted peek into the Japanese made idol industry. And for the most part the show delivers on all of those fronts, but I'm still left feeling "meh" about more than I would've liked. First off, the show resolves its major conflict way too early; 8LOOM reaches its goal of having a #1 single on the charts (plus a #3 single at the same time) by the end of episode 5, and they get their contract renewed early on in episode 6. So at this point we're not dealing with a cut-and-dry underdog story anymore, but we still have four episodes left, so what's the new conflict going to be? 
Cut to a scandal breaking out at the end of episode 8 when a stealthily-shot photo of Dan and Asuka holding hands goes viral. Holding hands (and commending each other on the good work they've done on any particular day) is all they ever do when they're alone together, because Dan has confessed his romantic feelings for Asuka but she neither vocally reciprocates his feelings nor turns him down. Their "relationship" is as chaste as they come, which was wise on the 'Kimi no Hana' production team's part since it prevents the "teacher and former student are attracted to each other" element of the show from becoming icky. But no matter! Idols are meant to appear single and sexless (or at least always available as potential love interests in their fans' imaginations), and many fans regard any indication to the contrary as betrayal. So 8LOOM's fans (8LOOMYs) start bashing the group online which puts their career in jeopardy again, Dan's pink-haired bandmate Naruse starts actin' stank (even though he knew about Dan's crush on Asuka before anyone else and was initially very supportive), Asuka moves out of the dorm and finds a new job as a teacher, and Dan gets suspended from all 8LOOM activities for three months for refusing to apologize for his involvement with Asuka. And as I watched this crisis unfold, I couldn't stop thinking, All of this over such a non-issue? Over holding hands? Y'all can't be serious. It felt like the overblown social media scandal in 'Kikazaru Koi' all over again.
And then the plot becomes just plain confusing; I understand what happens, but I don't understand why I'm supposed to believe it makes sense. Dan decides to recommit to the band and leave Asuka alone by the end of episode 9, but then he and his band mates have a dorm meeting where they weepily agree to disband because most of them have had other goals a-brewing that they now want to pursue. But then, at the end of the final show of their national tour in episode 10, Dan starts to announce their disbandment to the audience and then takes it upon himself to say, actually, he doesn't want 8LOOM to be over after all. His bandmates agree, but they clearly didn't discuss changing their minds before this moment, and ultimately they decide to each do their own thing until they can recongregate again (which they do three years later). And I know the moment is meant to be touching, but all that talking and sobbing at each other on stage made me so uncomfortable! If I were in 8LOOM, or a concertgoer in the crowd, or one of the Hanamaki Records staff witnessing that happen, I'd be mortified! Because why are y'all discussing family business, things that fans needn't be privy to, during a concert, in front of an audience of thousands? And what was the point of y'all working so hard to get back relevant again, which you only recently achieved, if you were just going to disband anyway?
My last "meh" is small and ridiculous, but I just couldn't ignore it so here y'all go: Dan in episode 9, sitting in the pouring rain listening to the farewell message that Asuka left on his red Zoom H1 Handy Recorder microphone as if it's waterproof, when those mics are very much NOT? So silly. Them mics cost too much money for us—well, me—to be suspending disbelief like that! (I know because I use a Zoom H4n Pro for Young, Gifted and Abroad.)
Better: As much as I just ranted, 8LOOM deciding to disband after earnestly discussing the reasons why was surprisingly eye-opening to me. Idols start their careers at such young ages, auditioning for or getting recruited to entertainment companies, being placed into groups and trained for years, debuting but still struggling to get on. And by the time they finally do get on... they're old enough to dream new dreams that they didn't or couldn't consider before because they were spending so much of their youth focused on this one thing (their collective music career). Obviously idols are people too, and I'm sure plenty of them genuinely have other interests that are primarily for their own personal development. But I suppose I never seriously considered that more than just a few idols might prioritize those interests over their music careers if given the chance, rather than merely funneling those interests back into their record-selling or product-selling activities. So in that way, 8LOOM taught me something new.
Also, the interior design of 8LOOM's dorm is so inviting! As junky and full of too much stuff as the house appears at first glance, I still caught myself thinking how lovely it'd be to live in it. It feels cozy, colorful, playful, lived in, with ample sunlight during the day and every piece of clutter having its place. It's completely believable that a bunch of teens and 20-somethings live there, but it's also a space that a 30-year-old like myself wouldn't mind calling home either. Speaking of dorm life, I was also impressed to see that two characters in the 8LOOM camp are queer, and it's not treated like a big deal at all. Their queerness simply... is. During a dorm meeting when the guys discuss love and dating to help Dan come up with a love song to write, Takumi (the skincare-obsessed member) describes being bisexual or pansexual; he doesn't label himself but states nonchalantly that he "doesn't distinguish between men and women." And when the dorm is in desperate need of cleaning before a TV crew arrives for a shoot, 8LOOM's manager named Kenji brings a man with him to help Asuka and the guys tidy up, gleefully and succinctly introducing the man as his boyfriend.

Best: Y'all. The production team behind 'Kimi no Hana ni Naru' made up a fictional boy band for this show about idols. Called it 8LOOM.  Cast young male actors, dancers, and musicians to portray this fictional group. But then also debuted 8LOOM as a limited-time group in real life! Had 8LOOM releasing singles, putting out music videos, performing on TV and at major festivals and events, selling merch (including plushie versions of each member), all coinciding with the October-December airing of the series! Personally, I can't stand the word "brand" and how everyone and everything has to be a "brand" now... but 8LOOM is branding, and planning, at its finest. I can't not salute what they pulled off!
And the casting! Oh my goodness! There's such a wide age range among the actors, and it's so satisfying how well they act with each other. Whereas all the idol characters are in their teens and 20s, which is to be expected, Asuka and 8LOOM's two managers are in their 20s to 40s. Meanwhile, President Hanamaki (Natsuki Mari, the fashion boss gallivanting around with much younger men in 'FOLLOWERS') and her mysterious boy toy exec named Trinity (Takenaka Naoto, the star retiree/foodie in 'Samurai Gourmet') are in their 60s and 70s. Sure, these varying ranks and ages are a given to a certain extent, indicative of the age-based hierarchical structure within most Japanese  companies and Japanese society at large. Nonetheless, it was still so refreshing to see this show about idols not focus solely on the conventionally pretty and young-looking characters, you know? 
Honorable Mention: Aggretsuko - Netflix
I've watched all 100 of the initial アグレッシブ烈子/'Aggressive Retsuko' anime shorts (2016-2018), all five of its Netflix seasons (2018-2023), and its 2018 Christmas special also on Netflix. I don't want to make myself emotional going on and on about what this series means to me, so let me just say this. Although anime stoked my initial interest in Japan in high school, these days I watch anime only sparingly, when I feel drawn to a show for a special reason. 'Aggretsuko' became an important show in my life because it helped me make sense of my spirit-breaking experience working in corporate, as well as my struggles with finding and articulating my place in the world in my 20s. (A struggle that is ongoing, I assure you.) 'Aggretsuko' has allowed me to laugh at my pain, delight in getting to know all of Retsuko's wackadoo friends and co-workers who are never as one-note as they may seem, and learn more about Japanese society and especially Japanese millennial concerns. Most crucially, this anime has allowed me to rage vicariously through Retsuko's singing sessions, even if her fire waned considerably in the show's final season. I'm extremely thankful for Rarecho (the show creator and Retsuko's death metal voice), Kaolip (Retsuko's main voice actor), and everyone else involved in making 'Aggretsuko' intersect so precisely with so many poignant years in my life.
Honorable Mention: JFF+ Independent Cinema 2023
Since I only watched one drama this time around but still wanted more material for this review, I figured I'd include films that I watched during the 2023 edition of Japanese Film Festival Online. The festival is available on a website called JFF+, is free for residents of eligible countries, and has been put on by The Japan Foundation every year since 2020. I mentioned last year about watching
Her Love Boils Bathwater during the 2022 festival, and while last year's lineup focused on major releases, this year the festival is offering a new program focused on independent films. Hence, "JFF+ Independent Cinema". Here are the four indie films that I watched (out of 12 options), in the order that I watched them. Keep in mind that I didn't time the publishing of this review well, so only the latter two and four remaining films are currently available as part of the festival's second half (mid-March to mid-June): 
Wonderwall: The Movie (ワンダーウォール 劇場版, Maeda Yuki, 2020). College students in Kyoto fight against the man ("the man" being their own university) to keep a student-run dorm from being demolished. This dorm has been a hub for student activism since the 1960s, and the current students must use whatever tactics they can to prevent the university administration from evicting them, demolishing the dorm, and building a new (read: more profitable) facility in its place. I liked that this film managed to tell so much story in only one hour, and that it was full of actors who were unfamiliar to me. It's possible that I had seen some of them before, but the only person I recognized without having to think about it was Okayama Amane, who played the nerdy but charming convenience store boo in 'Koi Nante, Honki de'.
Dareka no Hana/Somebody's Flowers
(誰かの花, Okuda Yusuke, 2021). After his older brother dies in an accident, a welder frequently checks in on his elderly parents at their apartment. One of the parents' neighbors dies when a flower pot falls on his head, and another neighbor is held responsible for it because the pot technically fell from his balcony. It's highly likely that the welder's father (who has dementia and was left home alone that day) is actually the one responsible for that incident, but the welder conceals this information, even as he becomes increasingly friendly with the dead neighbor's now-widow and her young son. I was impressed by this film's surprising non-slownessit's just slow enough but not nearly as slow or boring as I assumed it might beits human intrigue, the blurred/overlapping lines between victims and perpetrators, and the support group scenes. (The welder, the widow, and the widow's son attend the same local support group for people whose loved ones have died in tragic accidents.)

Tabidachi no Shimauta~Juugo no Haru~/Leaving on the 15th Spring (旅立ちの島唄~十五の春~, Yoshida Yasuhiro, 2013). The small Okinawan island of Minami Daito has no high school, so upcoming freshman must relocate to "the main island" (Okinawa Island) to attend high school every year. In other words, kids from Minami Daito have to leave home at 15 years old (sometimes with a parent/relative/guardian relocating with them, sometimes not), and the island organizes send-off festivities for them every spring. It's Yuna's turn to leave the island next year, and she's also been chosen to lead Minami Daito's all-girls sanshin traditional music troupe. As Yuna prepares for her farewell performance, dabbles in youthful infatuation, and explores her upcoming education and housing arrangements, she must also accept that her family—already split between Minami Daito and Naha, the big city on the main island—will never be under the same roof again. This film was the opposite of 'Somebody's Flowers' in that the pacing felt much slower than I expected. Nonetheless, I was delighted to see Yuna's father being played by Kobayashi Kaoru, the same actor who plays the lead chef/former gangster in the 'Shinya Shokudo' series.

Yume wa Ushi no Oisha-san/A Little Girl's Dream
(夢は牛のお医者さん, Tokita Yoshiaki, 2014) This documentary introduces nine-year-old Tomomi, a girl from the dwindling rural town of Matsudai-machi (now part of Tokamachi City) in the 1980s, who helps raise cows and pigs at her elementary school in addition to caring for cows at home after her parents become dairy farmers. These experiences inspire Tomomi to become a veterinarian, and the documentary continues to follow Tomomi as she pursues the studies and exams required for her desired field, and embarks on the first 10 years (2003-2013) of her career as a cow vet in her home prefecture of Niigata. I love how this film balances the preciousness of Tomomi and her classmates' childhood amongst animals, with the "dreams do come true" inspirational nature of Tomomi's journey becoming a female veterinarian from a working-class background, and the harsh realities of Tomomi having to make decisions about her patients' care based on their profitability (because they're still livestock at the end of the day). In a word, this documentary is splendid.
That's all for now! More than enough, don't you think? I know I started my review of 'Kimi no Hana ni Naru' with a lot of complaining (even more than I anticipated when I sat down to write this review, whoops), and I do feel like the show drags during the last few episodes. However! Overall it is quite fun, and you should watch it if you're in the mood for something light, cute, and non-committal. I would highly recommend 'Aggretsuko' to anyone, but maybe skip season 5 if you're not a hardcore fan who absolutely needs to know how the series wraps up. And as for the indies, while 'Dareka no Hana' surprised me with its intrigue, the Little Danielle in me who briefly thought she wanted to be a vet in elementary school loved 'Yume wa Ushi no Oisha-san' the most. Now, off I go to find more Japanese stuff to watch!