Friday, December 10, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 26 - pt. 1

It took me six months, but I've finally finished watching all of my J-drama selections from the spring and summer broadcast seasons! (I haven't started the two shows I want to watch from the fall season yet, and the winter shows don't start airing in Japan until January or February 2022). There's no concrete reason why it took me so long, other than sometimes things just take as long as they take. This time around, I watched five J-dramas with English subtitles, and I'm writing about them in the order that I finished them. Part 1 of this review covers the first three shows from that roster. I've had six months' worth of time to sit with my thoughts on these shows, so this first part is a litte longer than usual. But still thoughtful and fun to read, I hope. Beware of spoilers:

恋はDeepに (Koi wa Deep ni/Love Deeply) - NTV/2021

  • Mio is a sensitive, kind-hearted (and fashionable, because it is Ishihara Satomi after all) marine biologist who's passionate about protecting the ocean, to the point of eccentricity. But she's not merely passionate... she actually has the ability to communicate with marine life! (Spoiler: She's actually a mermaid who only has one year to live on land among humans. The head of her lab has taken her in and is keeping her identity a secret until it's time for her to return to the ocean.)
  • Mio is opposed to the new seaside resort that a company called Hasuda Trust plans to build on the fictional Hoshigahama Beach, since that's her home base and she knows how detrimental the construction will be to the surrounding sea life. When she, representing her lab team, is called to Hasuda Trust to consult on the resort project, she thinks this will be her chance to stop the project altogether, or at least adjust it so as to cause the least harm. Unfortunately for her, Hasuda Trust is really only involving her as a cover to make it look like they care about the environment, so they can proceed with their plans with as little hindrance and public criticism as possible.
  • Mio's point-person at Hasuda Trust is Rintaro (Ayano Go from 'Saikou no Rikon'), the second of the three Hasuda sons who each play a role in managing the family business (or family conglomerate, if you will). The disagreeable black sheep of the family who's been living in London, Rintaro returns to Japan to work with his brothers when their father becomes ill. He's dedicated to the resort project because of a childhood promise he made to his mom, whose death he feels responsible for. Naturally, Mio and Rintaro butt heads due to their opposing goals. And naturally, since this is a romantic comedy, they find themselves irresistibly drawn together as they gradually share their vulnerabilities with each other. Can their love (and Mio's loyalty to the ocean) prevail over corporate interests? Mio can only live on land for three more months at this point; what will Rintaro do once he learns of her origins and how little time he has left with her?
So about the mermaid thing. Context clues confirm that Mio is a mermaid even though that fact is never explicitly stated. She tells Rintaro on one occasion that she's not human, and on another occasion she tells him she was born from the sea and can only be on land for a limited amount of time. In a later episode, Rintaro takes her to a museum containing an exhibit about mermaid myths—which include the notion that a mermaid must inevitably return to the ocean so as not to bring misfortune to both humans and herself by overstaying. Already in love with Rintaro at that point, Mio is overcome with emotion upon visiting this exhibit and rushes off to the beach. And while she can't bring herself to re-enter the sea at that very moment, her feet are shown to start webbing as she gradually morphs back into mermaid form. The mermaid aspect of 'Koi wa Deep ni' might echo The Little Mermaid, but rather than coming ashore for love or self-discovery, Mio comes ashore to defend the ocean from overzealous development efforts, and happens to fall in love along the way. If she's motivated by love at all, it's primarily her love for the ocean, not solely for some man.
Ishihara Satomi and Ayano Go are fantastic actors (Ayano's physical comedy in this series is especially A-1), and they definitely have chemistry as co-leads. But to me, none of their romantic scenes actually feel... romantic? Maybe they just have really good "best friend" chemistry? "Friends who kiss sometimes" chemistry? Or maybe "longtime married couple whose fire has cooled off but they remain on excellent terms" chemistry? But then again, with that being said, when Rintaro finally learns that Mio is a mermaid, he becomes the most supportive boyfriend-to-a-mermaid that there ever was. He's basically like (allow me to embellish): "I don't care what you are, and you don't even need to spell it out for me. I love you, girl! I'm down with whatever you're doing. Drinking salt water? Sign me up. Eating unseasoned seaweed salads? Count me in. Giving you a piggyback ride around town when your legs become too stiff and painful for you to walk? I got you!" It's very endearing.  

Even though Rintaro is the mean one, if this show has a villain, then it's definitely his nice-guy brother Kotaro (the eldest brother and Hasuda Trust's CEO, played by Otani Ryohei from 'Love Rerun'). These two men perfectly exemplify the difference between nice and kind. Rintaro is gruff, difficult, doesn't have much patience for pleasantries, and most people at the office are intimidated by him, but he's an honest person who genuinely demonstrates care and concern when something or someone is important to him. Meanwhile his older brother Kotaro is affable and approachable which makes everyone prefer to interact with him, but he only acts like a nice guy so no one will suspect or snoop around in the more cutthroat things he's doing (such as pressuring scientists to manipulate data, and using the resort as a front to extract natural resources from the ocean floor). Rintaro is kind but not nice, and Kotaro is nice but not kind. It's a distinction that the show demonstrates very well.

The first half of 'Koi wa Deep ni' has multiple conflicts and competing interests at play, in addition to the question how Mio is going to divulge her secret to the people closest to her: the folks at her lab who've become like family to her. The answer to that question is... she doesn't. Only her lab mentor (who lies and tells everyone she's his niece) and Rintaro know the truth about her, and the word "mermaid" or "ningyo" (人魚) is never uttered by anyone in the show. That is, except during the special episode after the finale where her lab team finds out via a video Mio left behind, and they're all weirdly accepting of this bizarre news. The second half of the show is slower and I found myself losing interest, mostly because there are barely any stakes. Mio is returning to the sea whether Hasuda Trust makes good on their new commitment to environmentally-sustainable development or not, so anything else that happens in the show becomes pretty much irrelevant. At some point I resigned myself to continue watching just so I could take in the gorgeous ocean views and see how things would wrap up. Cute show, beautiful shots of nature (sky, sea, beaches), but kind of boring past the first half. The acting is splendid, though! And I love all the ocean sounds that are designed to illustrate how alive the ocean is and how inextricably bound Mio is to it. Eight-hour ocean wave videos on YouTube are one of my go-tos to help me sleep at night, so hearing that on the show was very relaxing.

カンパニー〜逆転のスワン〜 (Company: Gyakuten no Swan/Company: Reversed Swans) - NHK/2021

  • Aoyagi is a longtime employee of a pharmaceutical company called Ariake Health, and has spent his entire career doing everything that was asked of him, only for his boss to use that as an excuse to devalue him as an employee one day. Now Aoyagi is actually considered less effective and less valuable precisely because he only does what he's told (supposedly the boss wants him to take more initiative and think outside the box). But then he's still expected to do exactly what his boss tells him when it comes to his next major assignment.
  • The daughter of Ariake's president is the lead dancer in the Shikishima Ballet Company, which Ariake sponsors and whose ticket sales have been steadily declining. Aoyagi is dispatched to Shikishima to do whatever it takes to help the ballet company put on a lucrative performance of Swan Lake, otherwise he'll lose his job and Ariake will withdraw its sponorship (effectively shuttering Shikishima for good). Yui, a personal trainer for one of Ariake's sponsored athletes whose job is also at risk, collaborates with Aoyagi to turn the ballet company around. Neither of them know anything about ballet, or about dance in general for that matter.
  • At the same time, Aoyagi's wife and daughter have left him, fed up with his obliviousness to the specifics of their lives. While focused on being a provider, he got lazy about knowing and cherishing his wife and daughter as individuals. Basically, he stopped paying attention. But perhaps his involvement in helping Shikishima put on a never-before-seen twist on the Swan Lake story will show his family his capacity to appreciate the finer details and subtler nuances of art and life.
Obviously the show's title has multiple meanings: 'Company' refers to both the ballet company (Shikishima Ballet), and the pharma company that employs Aoyagi and sponsors Shikishima. I was drawn to this show because as someone who's never been to a ballet, I thought it'd be interesting to see dancers at work, since the actors playing Shikishima dancers either learned ballet for this show or were already ballet dancers to begin with. (For instance, the world-famous dancer named Takano who started his career at Shikishima and reluctantly joins the production after much convincing is played by Miyao Shuntaro, an established ballet dancer in real life.) I also recognized Shikishima's director as the mom from 'Kyoufu Shinbun' (the actress's real name is Kuroki Hitomi), and Yui the trainer as the violinist ex-girlfriend from 'Oh! My Boss!' (Kurashina Kana). And to be frank, I'd just tried watching the ballet-themed K-drama 'Navillera' but couldn't get into it, and 'Company' seemed like a more happening show. 

There's a character named Minami who first appears as a convenience store employee, and I think what the show does with her character is so smart. Minami works at the convenience store during the day and at a hostess bar at night, and Aoyagi runs into her at both her workplaces within the first few episodes. They make friendly conversation about ballet, which he learns that she does as a secret hobby. And I was wondering where the show was going with this, assuming that it was telegraphing her to be Aoyagi's new love interest since he's separated at this point (although I hoped that wasn't the case, seeing as how he's old enough to be her father). And it turns out, no, Minami's actually going to be the new girl in the ballet company who upstages the prima ballerina, the presumed shoe-in for Odette who's also the daughter of Ariake Health's president. (At Ariake Health's prompting, Shikishima holds a fake audition so it won't look so obvious that the prima ballerina got the role because of who her dad is, and that audition opens the way for Minami to show her stuff as a dancer, and for the company to discover that she's actually a former international junior ballet champion who stopped dancing due to performance anxiety.) Of course, Minami doesn't get the role of Odette, but she earns a spot in the ensemble. And the setup to all of that proved to be so much more compelling than simply having Minami be a pretty face that Aoyagi can use to console himself on bad days.
Shikishima's new interpretation of Swan Lake centers on the male leads (the prince and the villain named Rothbart), and Shikishima's director initially wrote this version so her husband could have one last starring role, but he died before it could be finished. Now, with Takano back in the fold, the show becomes a vehicle to showcase Takano's talent one last time before he has to retire from ballet due to the toll that his long and strenuous career has taken on his body. Meanwhile, in the process of producing the performance, Aoyagi gets a crash-course in all things Swan Lake which also serves as a crash-course for the audience. 'Company' breaks down what Swan Lake is about, what purpose each character serves, and what emotions/characteristics/styles the dancers are meant to embody when performing said characters. Which is extremely helpful if you've somehow never heard of Swan Lake, forgot what you learned in the Natalie Portman movie Black Swan, or simply don't know why this particular ballet has been such a big deal for the past nearly 150 years. 
'Company' also does an excellent job of demonstrating the various risks, unexpected setbacks, and compromises that are part of successfully putting on a production of any sort, which is a behind-the-scenes aspect of show business that I also thoroughly appreciated seeing in 'Kyouen NG'. Most of the final episode is comprised of Shikishima's one-night-only performance of their finalized Swan Lake interpretation, which feels like watching a show within a show. It's pretty dope! And when the prima ballerina playing the white swan (Odette) is injured mid-show, Minami gets to substitute for her as the black swan (Odile), finally getting to be center stage instead of remaining in the ensemble. From Aoyagi to Yui to Takano to Minami and the other dancers of Shikishima, 'Company' is about people discovering what they truly want to do in life, and changing course as required. It's a very solid show that respects the technique, artistic skill, and athleticism that dancing requires. 

FM999: 999 Women's Songs (FM Kyuu Kyuu Kyuu) - WOWOW/2021

  • On her 16th birthday, a motherless girl named Kiyomi ponders her newly-acquired status as a young woman and wonders, "What is a woman, anyway?" (女って何なの?/Onna tte nan nano?). Those are the magic words that make a radio station that only she can hear (the titular FM999) start playing in her head, with the voice of a female DJ inviting Kiyomi to close her eyes and listen to different women answer her questions about womanhood through song.
  • Once Kiyomi closes her eyes, a lone woman (not the DJ) appears inside Kiyomi's mind, performing a song about said woman's specific circumstances and what she thinks about them, with both her clothing and the set she's on styled to match the subject of the song. Each of the first nine episodes of 'FM999' focuses on a different theme and features three songs performed by three different women (27 characters total, played by 27 different Japanese actresses, singers, comedians, dancers, and models). 
  • Every time the performers finish their songs, they have a talkback session with Kiyomi, expounding on the ideas and sentiments expressed in the song (in these scenes, only the performers are shown, while Kiyomi's voice is heard filtering in from off-screen). As Kiyomi is guided from one performance to the next by the unseen DJ's voice, she attempts to find a suitable answer to her question, "What is a woman anyway?"
'FM999' might feel random or even weird to some viewers, especially if at first its unconventional structure makes you feel like you don't understand what's going on where the show is heading. Nonetheless, I believe this drama is an excellent choice for anyone who enjoys musical theater, one-woman shows, or conceptual and highly-stylized music videos. This drama is also an excellent choice for people who are feminists and/or want to learn what womanhood means and how it feels from various Japanese perspectives. The production value and songwriting really speak for themselves, so rather than analyzing 'FM999' too much, I'll touch on the musical numbers that stood out to me the most: 
"Souridaiji no Onna" (総理大臣の女), where the show envisions what a female prime minister, something Japan has never had, would look like and what kind of PM she would promise to be. She's got bright orange and pink streaks in her updo, and a monochromatic hot pink outfit that includes a long dress, pink gloves, pink tights, pink heels, and gigantic pointy shoulder pads draped with a cape. (Ep. 2, played by Yashiro Aki) 
"Onna ni Koishita Onna" (女に恋した女), a surprisingly progressive tune in which a woman recounts falling in love with a woman, not making a big deal of it because gender is a "gradation" and she simply likes charming and attractive people, regardless of whether they're a man or woman. (Ep. 3, played by Motola Serena) 

"Dorobouneko no Onna" (泥棒猫の女), a 2000's-esque somber electropop song where a woman who was dating a married man reflects on her relationship with her now-deceased lover, after being ejected from the funeral by his wife and stealing the urn on her way out. (Ep. 3, played by Tomosaka Rie from 'Gekiryuu')
"Kamakiri no Onna" (カマキリの女), this song about how being horny is a natural instinct was aight, but I was mostly just happy to see a Black woman on the show. (Ep. 5, Japanese-Ghanaian hip-hop artist Namichie)
"Paris no Onna" (パリの女), in which an older lady in the back of a taxi sings a winding, romantic retelling about love at first sight in Paris, which then pivots into a warning against having sex without a condom, especially for one-night stands. She goes so far as to declare, "A man without a condom is no different from a criminal" (ない男なんて犯罪者と同じ, Nai otoko nante hanzaisha to onaji), and "A man without a condom might as well be a murderer" (ない男なんて人殺しも同然, Nai otoko nante hitogoroshi mo douzen)! I was not expecting that hilarious turn! (Ep. 5, Ken Naoko)
"Yuurei no Onna" (幽霊の女), a devastating yet catchy song about the ghost of a woman who, even after death, wishes she still had a body so she could caress and have sex with her boyfriend again. Even though he's now moved on with someone else. (Ep. 5, Toyota Ellie)
"Internet no Onna" (インターネットの女), about running away from home and avoiding weirdos on the internet. Another song that I thought was aight, but was really just happy to see another Black woman playing a character on this show. With her hair in bright pink braids, too! (Ep. 6, Japanese/Afro-Trinidadian singer Thelma Aoyama)
"Khoomei no Onna" (ホーミーの女), a song about a depressed woman who, wanting to die, begins learning Mongolian throat singing because she heard that the human body can't handle singing it perfectly (she intends to use it as a suicide method). Only for her to unwittingly develop a hobby and a community that give her an excuse to keep living until she masters the technique. (Ep. 7, Yoshizumi)

"Utaiowari ni Shinu Onna" (歌い終わりに死ぬ女), this last song of episode 8 (an episode about illnesses that women are predisposed to having) is performed by Kiyomi's mom. She's in her hospital bed, singing to herself in her final moments even though no one is likely to hear her song, hoping against hope that Kiyomi will remember her after she dies. (Nishida Naomi)
"Tamago wo Umu Onna" (卵を産む女), a song about a chicken-woman who's been single for eight years and is tired of having her period every month, but also isn't sure about wanting to be pregnant either. I mostly liked this song because Kiko Mizuhara performs it, and she's one of my favorite Japanese models/media personalities. (Ep. 9)
"Tako wo Taberu Onna" (タコを食べる女), a song that uses eating octopus (which have the intelligence of a human 3-year-old) as a metaphor for aborting fetuses (whose viability and consciousness people insist on debating). And I thought that was brilliant, because it's just veiled enough to address the subject of abortion somewhat subtly while still making the message very clear by the end. The character singing this song insists that terminating a pregnancy is a decision that women should make for their own body's sake, and they don't have to live miserably afterward either. They can move on, because abortion is only a small part of their lives that does not define them. (Ep. 9, Uchida Chika)
Episode 10 is where the pieces all come together and 'FM999' reveals itself to be more than just a collection of eye-catching theatrical performances. For the entire series, Kiyomi has been in her pajamas (or what I assumed were pajamas), which I thought was merely a quirk of the show that underscores how much she's ensconced inside her own mind. But there's actually a much bigger reason for her costuming! Brace yourselves for this MAJOR spoiler... 16-year-old Kiyomi is actually wearing hospital clothes, because she has just had an abortion. Furthermore, the radio DJ is actually the heart of the fetus Kiyomi has aborted ("Shinzou no Onna"/心臓の女), who reassures her not to beat herself up for the decision she's made. At this point in the reveal I was confused as to how the fetus could be the DJ, since the DJ's voice has been present throughout the show, whereas Kiyomi doesn't start having sex with her first boyfriend from school until the end of episode 5. However, episode 10 goes on to further reveal that the radio phenomenon and all those performances we've just witnessed are all part of a dream that Kiyomi has been having while asleep in a hospital bed, recovering from aforementioned abortion. In other words, she imagined it all. And it's only when she leaves the hospital with her father (who's surprisingly chill, supportive, and non-judgmental about the whole ordeal) that she's seen wearing her own regular clothing. 
Listen. I was NOT expecting 'FM999' to include teen pregnancy and teen abortion, but it went there! And with such impressive candor and sensitivity too! I felt totally thrown for a loop, realizing that what I figured would be a typical coming-of-age story (although with more theatrical flair), is actually a story about the inner thoughts of a girl who's just gone through a very particular and difficult aspect of womanhood prematurely, and who's trying to make sense of everything. Despite the show's subtitle being '999 Women's Songs', as I mentioned previously there are only 27 musical performances (28 including the fetus's heart, which sings the final song). So I'm not sure why the show is called 'FM999', other than that it's a catchy name for a fictional radio station. But perhaps 999 could also represent how innumerable women's experiences are; the songs refer to common occurrences that happen in Japanese women's lives, but at the same time the show doesn't claim to speak for every single Japanese woman out there. While looking into this series I learned that it was actually written by a man (screenwriter/director Nagahisa Makoto), which does make me wonder what inspired him to put on such an eccentric, darkly humorous, unflinchingly woman-centered production as this. On the drive home from the hospital, Kiyomi's father makes a point of asserting that it's men's duty to protect women, and so maybe that ethos was behind Nagahisa's intentions for making this project. Overall—and I hadn't anticipated being able to say this when I first started watching—'FM999' wowed me. Truly wowed me. Its official website has a full cast list that also specifies the name of each song, which episode the song appears in, and who performs it (photos included). So definitely check out that list here!
I'm not done yet! There are two shows left to cover, so be sure to read what I have to say about them in part 2 of this J-drama review.

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