Sunday, June 13, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 25 - pt. 2

Part 1 of this review covered the two J-dramas I watched entirely with English subtitles, and part 2 focuses on the two shows I started out watching with no subtitles at all. (Thankfully, English subs for the latter of the following became available eventually.) Here they are!

銀座黒猫物語 (Ginza Kuroneko Monogatari/Ginza Black Cat Stories) - Kansai TV/Sony Pictures/2020
  • In each episode, a person facing some sort of dilemma winds up in Ginza, a district in Tokyo that's known for being high-end. While each person is in Ginza, a black cat (the titular "kuroneko") suddenly appears and leads them to a local business, then disappears.
  • Each episode features a different business, ranging from restaurants and bars to a custom-made chopstick store, a one-of-a-kind suit tailor, and a printing press specializing in business cards. The main character of each episode learns about the unique quality or history behind the products that these establishments make and sell, which somehow helps said characters solve their personal dilemmas or at least gain greater perspective on them.
  • The show's opening sequence invites viewers to discover "the Ginza you don't know about", encountering sites and stories that people might not expect to exist in this presumably well-known district.

As ritzy as Ginza is known to be, part of this show's charm is that it focuses on pretty regular people (read: people who are not wealthy). And it seems to be targeted at adults 20-something and up (read: working-age people who can go to Ginza and spend money after watching this show), since the themes center on grown-up relational and professional concerns. For the episodes that are about relationships, the moral is basically, "Your parents actually did/do love you, they just didn't know how to show it and they're sorry." Or, "Your parents actually did/do love you, but they showed it in a way that you couldn't understand until now." And for the episodes that are about current or future career concerns, the moral boils down to, "You can do your job better than you think, you just need the right inspiration and support." Or, "You haven't lost your talent, but maybe you need to loosen up and stop being a purist or thinking you're above it all." 

My motivations for watching this show were fairly cut and dry. First, the concept reminded me of 'Blanket Cats', another J-drama that revolves around cats and presents different, relatively unrelated stories in each episode. And second, the obvious tourism angle with a particular emphasis on food recalled other shows that serve as episodic advertisements for the array of cuisines that are available in Japan (such as 'Samurai Gourmet' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'). If I had to say what makes 'Ginza Kuroneko Monogatari' different, it's that this show emphasizes the craft, effort, and years of dedication that the owners and employees of these businesses put into making each dish or item special. If you like cats, jazz music, slice of life J-dramas, or thinly-veiled tourism campaigns, then definitely give this show a try!

共演NG (Kyouen NG/No Co-Starring Allowed/Never Co-Starring Again) - TV Tokyo/2020
  • Hitomi and Eiji are middle-aged, well-established actors who used to be in a relationship. 25 years after their VERY public breakup following the revelation that Eiji cheated on Hitomi, as well as a mutual moratorium on appearing in any projects together, the two actors are tricked by their respective managers into co-starring in a TV show again. And the new show is a love story at that, with a title that translates to 'I Love You So Much That I Want to Kill You'.
  • It's not only Hitomi and Eiji who can't stand each other. A pair of female 20-something former idols hate each other's guts, and same goes for their two male 20-something counterparts. And a middle-aged actor who spent years in New York is constantly bickering with an elderly actor who's a Japanese industry legend. In short, this cast is made up of four pairs of actors who refuse to get along, professionalism be darned.
  • As Hitomi and Eiji weather multiple scandals and try to smooth over feuds between the other actors, they reassess their own animosities toward each other. During the three months of their show's production, they manage to form a working partnership that is shaky but promising. That is, if their lingering feelings for each other and Eiji's jealous wife (the woman he previously cheated on Hitomi with) don't get in the way.
NG is an abbreviation of "No good", an English phrase that Japanese people use to refer to misses, bad takes (i.e. when filming), things that are unacceptable, or things that simply won't do. Hence, the title 'Kyouen NG' refers to Hitomi and Eiji's longstanding refusal to work together. The opening song is delightfully groovy, and the resentful dance sequence that accompanies it tickled me every time I watched it. The first part of the song literally goes like this (English translation by yours truly): "With you it's no good, no good / I don't even want to see your face / Kyouen NG, NG / We will never be able to understand each other". So it's made VERY clear that Hitomi and Eiji still got beef, even after two and a half decades!
Something I noticed right from the first episode is that this is the first J-drama I've seen so far that mentions "social distance" (literally, that term) and shows COVID-19 film production protocols. And if that wasn't meta enough, the broadcast network within 'Kyouen NG' is called "TV Toyo", sporting a similar name and the exact same logo and font as the show's real-life broadcast network, TV Tokyo. As for the whole cheating thing, I thought it was clever how the show broaches the subject of celebrities having affairs with each other, especially when it's revealed that two of the young actors in the cast (one of whom is married) are in a relationship. Their apology press conference poses multiple questions that warrant further discussion: Yes, they had an affair which isn't a good thing to do, but even as public figures why do they have to make a dramatic show of remorse and self-flagellate for people who aren't even involved? Isn't that played out? Isn't it a private matter, to a certain extent, to be handled between the people who are actually involved? And isn't infidelity super prevalent in Japanese society anyway? So why do these two actors have to perform repentance for masses of people who are likely just as messy as them or more? Cheating scandals have been known to derail Japanese entertainers' careers, and given recent real-life examples (see Kawatani Enon and Becky in 2016, or Anne Watanabe's husband and Karata Erika in 2020), I was impressed that 'Kyouen NG' chose to address the topic in such an honest way. As you might have guessed, the messiness of infidelity is what drew me to the show in the first place. But what's actually left the most lasting impression on me is that 'Kyouen NG' goes out of its way to illustrate how much of a collaborative effort TV and film production are. So much work goes on behind the scenes, even just for 30 minutes to an hour's worth of entertainment that audiences consume like it's nothing.
As for actors I recognized, I loved seeing Suzuki Kyoka as the lead actress. Coming from 'Grand Maison Tokyo' where she played a chef with an abundance of talent but a scarcity of self-confidence, it's thrilling to see her be so sleekly-styled, so confidently taking charge of situations, and so expressive with her disdain of anything related to Eiji. She knows when to keep her composure and when to air out her grievances if need be. And every time she glares at Eiji is just perfect. I also recognized Eiji's wife (Yamaguchi Sayaka) as Naomi Watanabe's boss in 'Kanna-san!'. She is scarily-convincing with her "seems caring but is definitely unhinged and playing mind games right now and might kill somebody later" vibe, her fabricated cutesy high-pitched voice, and her aggression disguised as hospitality. Another familiar face was the showrunner within 'Kyouen NG' (who's remote the entire time and never comes to set except for the very last episode), which is played Saitoh Takumi, a.k.a. the hot nerd in 'Hirugao' and the playboy dentist in 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi". Last but not least, I was surprised to see Lily Franky playing Eiji's manager in this show. I've mostly only seen him in movies, but with this and 'The Naked Director' I guess he feels like doing more dramas these days.

If I had to pick a favorite from this quartet of J-dramas that comprise this review, I would say that 'Oh! My Boss!' was the easiest to watch, but my overall favorite would be 'Kyouen NG'. Simply for Suzuki Kyoka's performance as a consummate professional actress, and as a woman over 50 who's still got it!

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