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!

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