Friday, September 11, 2020

Poetry to Penpalooza

I spent much of last weekend feeling lonely and reading poetry; I can't remember which precipitated the other. 

On Saturday night I took a break to scroll through Twitter and saw that one of the writers I follow had retweeted info about something called Pen Pal Palooza. Another writer named Rachel Syme organized this pen pal exchange, where anyone in the world can sign up and be randomly matched with two pen pals at once. One pen pal gets your info so that they can write you first, and unless they message you directly then I guess you don't know who or where they are until you receive their letter in the mail. For the second pen pal, you get their info so you can write them first. And because I was already up late, feeling lonely, and the fierceness of my introversion had been compromised by fatigue, I took a chance and signed up for #penpalooza too. 

The next day, Sunday, I got an email notifying me that I'd been matched with a woman in London! I wrote her a letter and sent it on Tuesday. Cut to today, Friday, and I've just received my first letter from my other pen pal! On hedgehog stationery! From a California librarian who's only a year older than me, likes to bake, asked me for podcast recommendations, and enclosed a tea packet and a nature photo that she took herself. This is someone I was randomly matched with, but we have so much in common already! Also, how kind and thoughtful is it that she sent me actual stuff? The letter would've been plenty on its own!

I know I don't tend to write life/personal/online diary posts on this blog anymore, and that was a conscious decision. But I was really excited to receive mail from one of my new pen pals today, and so I wanted to post something about it here. This is my first time being pen pals with a stranger, and also my first time doing this as a so-called "adult".

(P.S. - Rachel is keeping Pen Pal Palooza open for the rest of the year. So if you're reading this and it's still 2020, then sign yourself up so you can start exchanging letters with new friends! Links above.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 23 - pt. 2

Continuing from part 1, here are the last of the Japanese dramas that I've watched so far this year. Let's go!

グランメゾン東京  (Grand Maison Tokyo) - TBS/2019

  • Previously, Obana (Kimura Takuya, 'I'm Home') was the head chef in an elite French restaurant in Paris. An allergic reaction at a diplomatic dinner not only shut down the restaurant and upended the careers of all the Japanese chefs working under him, but it also got Obana blacklisted in the culinary industry in both France and Japan.
  • While still in Paris, Obana meets Rinko, a chef who's exceptionally skilled at identifying ingredients but lacks the natural talent or star quality that Obana has. They form a partnership and plan to open a high-end French restaurant in Tokyo, using Japanese ingredients to make French dishes. To redeem both of their careers, their goal is for this new restaurant (Grand Maison Tokyo) to earn three Michelin stars within its first year of operation.
  • They recruit a couple of Obana's former colleagues, including a host/sommelier named Kyouno, a recipe genius and single dad named Aizawa, and an exceptionally skilled young chef named Yuta
  • With Obana's scandalous reputation, competition from a restaurant led by one of Obana's former colleagues-turned-rivals, and two food writers (including Nakamura Anne, 'Love Rerun') who seek revenge against whoever it was that caused the allergic incident back in Paris, numerous obstacles stand in the way of Grand Maison Tokyo's success. Can the GMT team make it? Will this be Obana's second chance?

The struggle to get a high-end restaurant (that's associated with a blacklisted chef) off the ground in such a competitive food scene as Tokyo is enough conflict to carry the show, and it does so sufficiently. But I guess to make things even more interesting, smaller conflicts are thrown into the mix, but a few of them read as random and unnecessary. Aizawa's supposedly-French baby mama (who appears to be a Japanese actress with slightly angular facial features and a rusty red wig?) pops up from Paris demanding custody of their daughter Amelie because... Aizawa's too good at being a chef? And that whole episode was just a convoluted strategy to remove Amelie from the story because... she was in the way of the main story and the show didn't know what else to do with her character? And then Kyouno starts beefing with Obana AGAIN after seemingly reconciling their long-standing Paris beef, because he's suddenly in love with head chef Rinko and doesn't like that Obana spends so much time with her and lives in her garage? And who the heck were those scheming food writers really working for, anyway? Basically, a handful of the things this show tried to do didn't pay off or didn't make sense.

All in all, even with the interpersonal disputes and less-than-promising odds that threaten the restaurant's survival and eventual success, 'Grand Maison Tokyo' is a pretty low-stakes show. From Obana's reputation almost getting GMT shut down, to multiple traitors' attempts at sabotaging GMT from the inside, to Obana's mentor not liking GMT's food, to the slim chance of placing high in the world restaurant rankings, to the even slimmer chance of earning three Michelin stars, and so on. Everything gets solved either by someone's change of heart, an outside person's benevolence, the skill and steadfastness of GMT's staff, or by simply re-vamping menu items or creating new menus altogether. To be clear, I don't think the low stakes are to this show's detriment; I was just surprised to notice the change, seeing as how the first half of the show more strongly emphasizes the tension and near impossibility of what Obana and Rinko are trying to achieve. For some reason the foot is taken off the gas pedal in the second half. Still, if you're interested in the craft of cooking and want to see a team of underdogs win after a seemingly insurmountable failure from their past, 'Grand Maison Tokyo' is worth a try.

凪のお暇 (Nagi no Oitoma/Nagi's Long Vacation) - TBS/2019

  • At the age of 28, Nagi is getting by in life, but she's not particularly happy. She doesn't have any friends, her female co-workers are clique-y, and her relationship with her awful boyfriend/co-worker Shinji (Takahashi Issey) is kept a secret.
  • Nagi avoids expressing herself too clearly or having too strong of opinions, opting instead to follow along with what she thinks other people want her to do in any given situation. This strategy of following along also applies to her naturally curly hair, which she keeps a secret from everyone (including Shinji, she thinks) by straightening it all the time. 
  • One day, Nagi overhears Shinji telling people in their office that he's not interested in her at all. This triggers a panic attack which results in Nagi quitting her job, moving out of her apartment, ditching most of her possesions, and hiding out in a less urban area on the outskirts of Tokyo (Tachikawa) so she can hopefully change into someone different. Someone with more intentionality and control of her life. She soon finds community among her neighbors, makes a new friend with a woman she meets at the unemployment office (Ichikawa Mikako, 'Unnatural'), and becomes attracted to the DJ/playboy who lives next door.
  • But Shinji can't leave well enough alone. And as he seeks Nagi out in Tachikawa and tries to prey on her weaknesses again, Nagi must decide who she is, what she wants, and how she wants to be treated by others.

This show has a special place in my heart because, much like the titular character in 'Boukyaku no Sachiko', I see so much of myself in Nagi. (And wouldn't you know, in the process of writing this review I found out that Oshima Satomi was a writer for both shows! I also learned that this show is based on a manga, which surprisingly I hadn't picked up on! Usually I do.) Like Nagi, I also left a job in my twenties and entered a period of solitude to build myself back up again. I also have a physical aspect of myself that I've always been ashamed of and try to hide from people whenever possible. I also deal with anxiety. The show never explicitly calls it that, instead using the phrase 空気を読みすぎる (kuuki wo yomisugiru or "reading the room too much") to describe trying too hard to control situations and anticipate how people will react to the things you do and say. But those scenes of people drowning internally while trying to navigate difficult, scary, or out-of-control situations? That's anxiety, boo! Also, the show is set largely in a more rural area during the summertime, which immediately stoked memories of my own summer living in Japan. So yes, 'Nagi no Oitoma' already appealed to me greatly from the get-go.

It's also not lost on me that Takahashi Issey stars as the male lead, meaning that with this show and 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi', I've been watching two Takashi Issey shows at the same time. That wasn't on purpose—I respect him as an actor but he's not someone whose work I seek out on a regular basis. He just so happened to star in two of the dramas that I wanted to watch most this time around. He plays a typical salaryman in both (finance/sales guy), and while his character in 'Tokyo Dokuhin Danshi' is much more likeable, Shinji has a lot more depth. Sure Shinji is the quintessential a-hole ex-boyfriend, but what we learn is that he degrades Nagi for the same family-induced anxiety, insecurity, and distress that he tries so hard to hide within himself. Does acknowledging this truth redeem him or excuse his behavior? Not in my book! But it's an element of his character that I wasn't expecting.

I know this is the bare minimum, but I also appreciate that Nagi's curly hair is done in a way that looks realistic, instead of being used as an excuse to make the actress Kuroki Haru's hair look "wild" or to put an afro on her head just for laughs. I don't know what exactly went into styling Kuroki Haru's hair—whether it was a curly perm or repeated use of flexi rods and curling irons—but the stylist did a commendable job. I finished 'Nagi no Oitoma' last because I enjoyed it the most and I wanted to linger on it for as long as possible. In other words, this is my favorite out of all the J-dramas I've watched so far in 2020! Now I see that watching the final episode in late August was actually perfect timing. Everyone in that episode is moving on, either literally or figuratively. Summer is coming to an end, Nagi is a changed person, and her extended break from life is coming to an end as well.

Thanks for reading both parts of this J-drama review! I've got my next selections locked in, but can I finish them and write about them before 2020 is over? You'll just have to wait and see!

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 23 - pt. 1

I'm back again with another J-drama review! And it didn't take me over a year to finish my selections this time⁠—it only took me five months, which is progress, believe it or not! Since my last J-drama review I've watched four dramas from 2019 and one from 2020, mostly with English subs. Part 1 of this review focuses on the three shortest shows, including a surprise standout from Netflix. Each of the following has fewer than the average 10-12 episodes, and/or has episodes that run shorter than the average 45-60 minutes.

東京二十三区女 (Tokyo Nijuusan-ku Onna/Tokyo 23-ku Onna/Women of Tokyo's 23 Wards) - WOWOW/2019

  • A magazine writer and a professor work together to explore six wards of Tokyo: Shibuya, Koto, Ikebukuro, Odaiba, Itabashi, and Shinagawa.
  • As they explore, they investigate the urban planning histories and accompanying ghost stories (or myths, legends, folklore, what have you) of each ward.
  • With one exception, each of the six episodes features the ghost of a woman who was wronged or broken down in life and is now seeking something from the living—be it closure or connection or even vengeance.
I believe it was the woman-centered premise and the horror story angle that made me watch this show. Watching each episode is like reading a scary short story that has a twist at the end, though the twists were never as frightening as I hoped. Occasionally predictable, creepy or unsettling at most, but not frightening. It would be easy to simply declare that this show is boring. However, I think 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna' does put a worthwhile spin on the theme of past actions having consequences in the present: even a megacity can be cursed. The show manages to cultivate a consistent mixture of dread and curiosity while playing with viewers' expectations of how each story will end, which still makes for an interesting collection of tales.

If you're interested in anthology series, ghost stories, folk tales, and/or the history of Tokyo, then I'd say 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna' is worth it for curiosity's sake. But it's certainly not a show that I have the need or desire to watch again.

東京独身男子 (Tokyo Dokushin Danshi/Tokyo Bachelors) - TV Asahi/2019
  • Taro (Takashi Issey, 'Quartet') is an analyst at a large bank. He's been single for a while, and when his ex-girlfriend Mai returns to Tokyo after living abroad, he realizes that he wants to rekindle the relationship. His two best friends Iwakura and Miyoshi witness his attempts.
  • Iwakura, the oldest of the bunch, is a successful lawyer. He enjoys being single but considers pursuing a relationship with Yuki, a junior lawyer at his firm who expresses interest in him.
  • Miyoshi (Saitoh Takumi, 'Hirugao'), the youngest of the bunch, is a divorced dentist and a proud bachelor. He's sworn off marriage and serious relationships, but he changes his mind after meeting Yuki at a bar. (Iwakura and Miyoshi compete with each other for Yuki's affection.) Miyoshi also has a younger sister named Kazuna (Naka Riisa, 'Fruits Takuhaibin') who's in love with Taro. But again, Taro is still stuck on his ex-girlfriend Mai.
  • Should these men remain bachelors for the long haul? Try to get married? Change careers? These are the big questions that this trio of best friends face together.
Something about the tone and story of this drama shifted, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or if something happened during the production process along the way. From the first episode it seems like the show will mainly focus on Taro's quest to either move on from his ex-girlfriend or somehow get her to choose him again, with his friends offering moral support and comedic relief. But then the show spends significant time fleshing out each of the men's love lives and work/life issues, not just Taro's. The storyline with Taro's ex ends halfway through the show, and the show becomes more about these three best friends navigating the turning points in their lives as 30-somethings and 40-somethings. In short, the romance and comedy aspects fade slightly to make way for something more serious and contemplative. Which I didn't dislike, but again, it's a noticeable shift. As the trio remark to each other, this time in their lives feels like their very last chance to make huge changes before things are presumably set in stone forever on the road to future retirement. (Of course, nothing is ever completely set in stone, but you get what I'm saying).

What makes this show really stand out is the genuine and affectionate friendship between Taro, Iwakura, and Miyoshi. They talk about everything, they help each other with their problems, they jokingly make fun of each other, they even get health-checkups together! If you want to watch something sleek and modern about professional people in Tokyo, centering male friendship in a way that's not overwhelmingly "bro"-like, then this show is for you.

FOLLOWERS - Netflix/2020
  • Natsume has been struggling to establish a career in entertainment. She wants be a "serious" actress, but has a hard time getting roles due to her age (early/mid twenties), refusal to act cutesy, and her agency which doesn't acknowledge or promote her talent.
  • Rimi Nara (Nakatani Miki, 'Ghostwriter'), is a famous and well-respected photographer with a decades-long career. Natsume works as a stand-in for one of Rimi's photo shoots, and Rimi recognizes in Natsume the same drive and internal fire that Rimi had when she was just getting started in the industry. Rimi snaps a photo of Natusme and posts it on Instagram, curious to see what Natsume will do with the swell of attention (or "followers", get it?) this will bring.
  • At the same time that Natsume tastes popularity for the first time and starts booking modeling gigs, she begins dating a former child star turned YouTuber/film-maker named Hiraku, who cautions her against succumbing to the lure of fame in exchange for her integrity as an actress.
  • Meanwhile, Rimi balances her illustrious career with her numerous attempts to have a baby on her own (she wants to be a mom, not necessarily to be in a relationship with a man).
I watched this show completely on a whim; it wasn't originally part of this roster of J-dramas that I was in the process of finishing. One of my favorite podcasts called Jinjja Cha said they would review it a few months ago, so I added 'Followers' to my running list of things to watch, but then forgot all about it. And then in July, I randomly remembered the show and decided to give it a try. I became so engrossed in it that I finished the show in 24 hours (split over two days, but you get what I mean). Part of what got me hooked is that I recognized similarities to director Mika Ninagawa's previous work (2012 film 'Helter Skelter') before even realizing that she's the director of 'Followers'. It's all in the set design, costumes, and lighting. Bright yet shadowy, ornate edging on gaudy/chaotic, sexy yet foreboding, lots of reds and purples and yellows and lighting in unusual colors. However, 'Followers' goes for a much more hopeful and millennial twenty-something feel than 'Helter Skelter', so there are pops of pastel as well. Sawajiri Erika (who played main character Ririko in 'Helter Skelter') even makes a cameo in the first episode, and one of the main characters of 'Followers' named Sayo has a career breakdown (accompanied by an emotional breakdown) that directly echoes that of Ririko in the 2012 film. So as woman-centered stories about people trying to make it or maintain longevity in the Japanese entertainment/fashion industry, the connections between 'Followers' and 'Helter Skelter' are incredibly clear! My spidey senses, so to speak, were tingling and I kept thinking, All of this feels very familiar, hmm... until I looked at the credits at the end of the first episode, googled Mika Ninagawa, and then it all made sense. That was a very pleasant surprise and made me appreciate the show all the more. 
Rimi seems so intrigued by Natsume and also, I assume, helps Natsume get taken under the wing of Rimi's similarly well-established friends. (Natsume gets a makeover, access to makeup and fashion events, and a new agent seemingly overnight.) Because of this, I thought that Rimi would take Natsume under her wing as well, and 'Followers' would focus on their mentor-mentee relationship. Not so. Although Rimi and Natsume are aware of each other, they only really interact at the very beginning and very end of the series, and the time in between focuses on their own respective career and relationship journeys.

Also, shoutout to Nakatani Miki and Itaya Yuka! I thought Nakatani Miki looked vaguely familiar, and then I looked up the cast and realized that she'd the played seasoned, somewhat rigid, manipulative literary queen taking advantage of fresh blood in 'Ghostwriter'. What a turnaround! She seems so much younger and more energetic as Rimi, and the contrast between these two characters only serves to underscore what a versatile actress she is. As for Itaya Yuka ('Cecile no Mokuromi'), she's an actress whom I'm always pleased to see. No matter what I've seen her in, I've never been disappointed with her performance. 

Got two more J-dramas to tell y'all about, so be sure to read part 2 of this review to find out which show is my favorite overall!