Monday, December 21, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 24 - pt. 1

I didn't think I'd finish watching my selections in time to have another J-drama review written before the end of the year, but it seems I've proven myself wrong! This time I watched five shows, and coincidentally all but one of them were originally aired on a Japanese cable channel called WOWOW. I choose J-dramas based on their premise and/or lead actors, not on which company broadcasts what. But judging from what I've seen from WOWOW so far, shows from that channel are less afraid to go there, especially when it comes to depicting dark themes and mature subject matter. And since that's the kind of material I've been gravitating toward lately, I suppose it's fitting that my slate turned out the way it did. Plus, WOWOW shows tend to have shorter runs (only four to six episodes) than the average J-drama, which meant that I could finish everything in half the time it would usually take me. I watched all of the following shows with English subs.

ダイイング・アイ (Dying Eye/Daiingu Ai) - WOWOW/2019

  • A bartender named Shinsuke (Miura Haruma from 'Boku no Ita Jikan', R.I.P.) is involved in a car accident that kills a pregnant piano teacher named Minae (Takahashi Maryjun from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi'). "Dying eye" refers to the look she gives the driver as she's dying. A year and a half later Shinsuke's still on probation, but he loses all memory of the accident after Minae's husband tries to kill him by knocking him out.
  • After Shinsuke recovers, his girlfriend goes missing, and he's eventually seduced by a mysterious woman named Ruriko (Takashashi Maryjun) who has enchanting eyes. "Dying eye" is also a reference to Ruriko's eyes.
  • The more that Ruriko shows up and Shinsuke remembers details of the car accident, he realizes that he might not have been the only one at fault (hint: his bosses are shady), and he collaborates with a detective to discover what exactly happened to Minae/Ruriko.
The huge "reveal" at the halfway point of the show is that Ruriko is the ghost of Minae, which confused the heck out of me because it was so obvious from the beginning. Was it not supposed to be obvious? They used the same actress for both characters, just changed her makeup and put a wig on her, and she has very recognizable facial features. So I'm not sure if the audience wasn't supposed to not know it was the same person, or perhaps it was moreso about us watching Shinsuke realize who she was, since he was already having trouble remembering so many things relating to that incident? I don't know. But a huge reveal it was not. Granted, there is another twist later on in the show revealing that Ruriko isn't exactly a "ghost", so to speak, but by that point I'd stopped caring. The show is intriguingly mysterious at first, ending each episode on a cliff-hanger and making it seem like it's building up to something mind-blowing, but it really doesn't pay off in the end. The final episode is a dud that makes 'Dying Eye' underwhelming as a whole. It could've been a thougthful commentary on guilt, manipulation, curses, spiritual possession, and how creepy mannequins can be, and it tried but simply didn't stick the landing.

Now all I can think about are the aspects I didn't like or that didn't make sense. For instance, the scene of Minae getting hit by the car and bleeding out as she's pinned to a wall is quite graphic, and the show replays that scene multiple times (at least once every episode), which feels gratuitous. Overkill, if you will. The main detective on the case has a young partner who's killed by Ruriko for absolutely no reason, and we don't even find out how she did it; he just disappears in one episode and the cops discover his body elsewhere in the next. Shinsuke finds out that his girlfriend was killed by his former boss/supposed mentor, and instead of beating the mentor up or turning him in to the cops, Shinsuke accepts a bribe from the mentor in exchange for his silence. But dude, weren't you just worriedly and relentlessly searching for your girlfriend a couple episodes ago? Now her being dead is no big deal? Also, Shinsuke gets arrested at the end of the final episode and I can't recall what exactly he did to warrant arrest this time? It didn't seem like he'd committed any additional crimes. I could go on, but basically if you're looking for something with a satsifying or worthwhile ending, then don't bother with 'Dying Eye'. But if you're a fan of the late Miura Haruma and want to watch everything he's appeared in, which includes this show, then knock yourself out.

そして、生きる (Soshite, Ikiru/And, Live) - WOWOW/2019
  • Toko (Arimura Kasumi, 'Shitsuren Chocolatier') is from Morioka, and was raised there by her uncle after her parents died in a car crash. As a twenty-something, she's now a waitress and aspiring actress preparing for an important upcoming audition in Tokyo. However, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 prevent her from going, and in the aftermath she volunteers to help rebuild a heavily-impacted town called Kesennuma.
  • Kiyotaka is from Tokyo. He was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle after losing his parents, and at first he meets their expectations by getting hired at a prestigious firm. But then he swiftly quits so he can focus on doing volunteer work in Kesennuma, which is where he meets Toko.
  • Toko and Kiyotaka start dating while also following their respective dreams. Toko gets another chance at an audition in Tokyo, and Kiyotaka gets an international development job that will soon have him moving to the Philippines. Toko learns some news that causes her to ghost Kiyotaka, and that decision becomes a point of no return in their lives and relationship.
Some of the most awful life events happen to these two lead characters, and with the absolute worst timing. I saw an online commenter refer to such occurrences as "blows to the spirit", and I couldn't think of a more apt description. And those blows just keep on coming. It seems like good things are happening and our lead couple can breathe and relax a little, and then BAM. 'Soshite, Ikiru' is a fairly depressing story... but told in the warmest, most thoughtful, tender, straightforward, and mature yet easygoing way possible. The transition between events is so smooth, and since there are only six episodes, the show makes use of every minute it has to convey something heartfelt and meaningful about interpersonal relationships.
The production value on this show is so impressive! From Morioka to Kesennuma to Tokyo to San Juan to Pasig, every location looks gorgeous and also like a real place that actual people live in, ruins and slums included. One episode is focused on the Philippines and they have Kiyotaka speaking Tagalog and English, they have Filipino actors, even the local media and news reports that are shown are designed to look as true to life as possible. (I've never been to the Philippines so I can't speak to how accurate it is, but it looks convincing to me.) The episode even touches on the question of whether development workers like Kiyotaka and the organizations who fund them are truly serving local communities, or are moreso meddling and perpetuating a cycle of inequitable relations between countries. Kiyotaka goes to San Juan with genuinely pure intentions after having volunteered to rebuild Kesennuma and believing he'd found his life's purpose, but even he has to reckon with how his presence might do more harm then good. And honestly, when it comes to talking about the Philippines and Filipino people specifically, and international development in general, I've never seen a J-drama broach these subjects with such nuance. It even connects seemingly-benevolent foreign influence (including Japan's) with the kind of destabilization that leads to terrorism, and I've just never seen that done in a Japanese show before. Again it's only one episode, so the commentary is brief, but it is sharp.

Until I heard Toko and her best friend Han-chan talk about how hard Japanese grammar and certain turns of phrase can be, I didn't realize that Han-chan is played by a Korean actress. Her name is Kang Ji-young and apparently she's a former K-pop star! I rarely paid attention to KARA (a K-pop girl group that used to be huge in Japan), so I didn't recognize Ji-young as being from that group. She's a decent actress, though, and as a fellow non-native Japanese speaker, I think her language skills are legit! And it's cool that the show works her being Korean into the show without having her character face mistreatment for being Korean. Han-chan's just a friendly, chill girl from South Korea who likes to spend extended amounts of time in different countries before moving on to the next destination whenever she feels like it. The only thing I don't like about the show is a character named Kubo, who's a salesman. I don't know if it was the way the character was written or what, but I just didn't care about anything he had to say. Every scene he was in, I was waiting for that scene to end and the next scene to start. I hesitate to think it was the actor's fault.

I mentioned Toko's ghosting of Kiyotaka as a point of no return because that's exactly what it proves to be, and the show tells us that yes, Toko does some things that the audience might think are incredibly misguided. But the point is that those are the "mistakes" that Toko chooses. She might avoid necessary conversations, but she also takes decisive action, stands by those decisions, and accepts the consequences. In the show's logic, choosing something and making a mistake is more conducive to moving forward than waiting for a sign or getting stuck, and I can appreciate that. 'Soshite, Ikiru' has a bittersweet ending for sure, but one that's reflective of the title of the show. Time will pass, life will continue to happen to you, and you have to find a way to keep living. Even if "what could've been" gets interrupted or never ends up happening at all. What a beautifully down-to-earth show this is!

全裸監督 (Zenra Kantoku/The Naked Director) - Netflix/2019
  • In Sapporo, Muranishi Toru sells English encyclopedias for a living until he loses his job and his wife leaves him. A chance meeting inspires him to put his sales experience to work in selling porn cassettes and magazines. He becomes incredibly successful until a competitor named Ikezawa (who runs a massive porn company called Poseidon) bribes the police to arrest Muranishi and shut his business down. Muranishi and his business partner escape to Tokyo.
  • After being lured back to Sapporo and serving jail time, Muranishi and his partner return to Tokyo and pivot to video, starting their own porn movie studio called Sapphire. They have a meager staff and meager funds, and at some point Muranishi begins playing the lead actor in each movie he directs, becoming the titular "naked director". His biggest star is a college student named Megumi who leaves her strict household so she can explore her sexuality more freely through doing porn.
  • Ikezawa keeps trying to put Muranishi out of business, all while the yakuza takes their cut of the booming porn industry and the police try to shut it all down.
Of all the J-dramas I watched this time around, I have to admit that I was most impressed by this one. I heard about it when it was released last year and I was intrigued but didn't know what to think of it, so I put off giving it a try. Once I did give it a try, however, I couldn't stop watching! This show is definitely for mature audiences, so I'd only recommend it if you don't mind lots of nudity and sex scenes. But the thing is, even though it's about porn, it doesn't feel lewd. If anything, the show is wacky and brilliant. It's almost nonchalant about all the sex that's going on (on camera and with many witnesses), which underscores the fact that sex work is a job just like any other. 'The Naked Director' also does an amazing job of not only recreating the look and feel of the 1980s, but also linking developments in the porn industry with economic changes that were happening in Japan at the time. And apparently Muranishi Toru and Kuroki Kaoru are real people, meaning this show is semi-biographical, which gives me a lot to think about.

Although the show is sex-positive, there are three specific young actresses whose involvement with Sapphire is presented as empowering and liberating when it's really not. Or rather, it's more profitable for Muranishi than it is liberating for them. The first actress who Sapphire mangages to find seems to feel an unexpected sense of appreciation and camaraderie through shooting her porn video; the crew compliments her on her hard work and how well she did, and she takes that to heart because she's never been commended for anything before. But later on when she moves on to an office job, she's forced to quit when her co-workers harass her for doing porn after someone from Sapphire distributes an uncensored version of the video. Meanwhile, that video she did is still money in Muranishi's pocket. The second actress is headhunted from Poseidon, and Muranishi pressures her to have real intercourse with her scene partner because her acting (pretending to have sex) isn't good enough. Once they start doing it for real, she's shown to enjoy it the whole way through. But then Ikezawa gets the police to arrest her (because at that time it's illegal to distribute videos showing uncensored or unsimulated sex), leak her identity to the press, and inform her parents so that she has no choice but to flee Tokyo and head back to her parents' house in shame. Meanwhile, that video is still money in Muranishi's pocket.

The next actress, Megumi (or Kuroki Kaoru as she's known professionally), is the star who really gets Sapphire rolling in the dough. Her first video saves the company on two occasions, and she eventually becomes a spokesperson of sorts, appearing on talk shows to advocate for herself, represent Sapphire, and demystify porn as a whole. Her involvement in porn is framed as her embracing her truest self; she's always had sexual urges and been interested in sex, but couldn't express that under her conservative Catholic mom's strict control. In fact, Megumi showing up at the studio to apply as a porn actress for Sapphire quickly transitions to her having sex with Muranishi on camera, initiated by Megumi herself. It's Muranishi's first time being the scene partner to one of his actresses, and presumably Megumi's first time having sex ever. And she seems so into it and sure of what she wants, that the crew even remarks afterwards that she was really the one in control. But how can that be when she's having sex with a man significantly older than her, who's acting as a father figure by providing affection that she's never received from a man (the catalyst for their sexual encounter is a hug that he gives her during the audition), and she's doing it out of a sense of need, trying to save up money to study art in Italy and escape her mom? I think it's refreshing how self-assured and unashamed Megumi is about her sexuality, but that doesn't mean she's not also being exploited given the power dynamics at play between her and Muranishi.

There's an episode where most of the crew goes to Hawaii in a last ditch effort to create a best-selling movie that will keep the company afloat. I had a feeling that this episode would be corny (and I mean CORNY), as most Asian shows I've seen tend to be when they randomly throw white/American/English-speaking characters into the mix, and I was absolutely correct. The dialogue and the plot take a nosedive until Muranishi returns to Japan, and it's the only part of the show that I wish I hadn't had to see. But other than that, I'm so glad that I finally decided to give 'The Naked Director' a chance, plus its opening theme song is bomb! And shout-out to Kunimura Jun, who plays a yakuza boss involved with both Poseidon and Sapphire. I last saw him play the devil incarnate in a Korean movie called The Wailing, and he's so excellent at playing characters who seem harmless but are actually evil!

I'm not done yet! Check out part 2 of this J-drama review, where I discuss the final two shows on my roster and select my favorite of them all!

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