Sunday, December 12, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 26 - pt. 2

Continuing from part 1, let's get into my review of the other two J-dramas I watched from the spring and summer seasons! Once again, beware of spoilers: 
大豆田とわ子と三人の元夫 (Omameda Towako to Sannin no Moto Otto/Omameda Towako and Her Three Ex-Husbands/My Dear Exes) - Fuji TV/KTV/2021
  • As a 40-something woman, Towako (Matsu Takako from 'Quartet') is dealing with a lot of transition at the opening of the series. Her mother has recently passed away, and she's also recently been promoted to president of the design firm that she'd been working at as an architect for many years; the funeral and the inauguration were on the same day. Additionally, she's a single mom to a teenager named Uta, has a flighty best friend whom she feels responsible for, and can't seem to get her three ex-husbands (who are each still obsessed with her to varying degrees) to leave her alone.
  • In order from first to last, these ex-husbands include a mellow and stoic restaurant owner (Uta's father, played by Matsuda Ryuhei from 'Quartet') who's often oblivious when women are taken with him, a photographer and cheapskate who debates over trivial things, and an overly-analytical lawyer (the youngest of the exes) who works at Towako's firm. Each of the men seem to find their own new love interests over the course of the show, but they insist on continuing to butt into Towako's day-to-day. As rivals/frenemies with each other, they are united in their desire to keep Towako in their lives and make sure she's doing alright.
  • As Towako manages the various obligations in her life and begins to date again, she contemplates whether she truly prefers living alone, or whether she would prefer the company and support of a new significant other.
Towako married her first husband at age 24, so that gives you an idea of how long she's been dealing with these shenanigans as more men got added to the mix. This lady just wants to live in peace and be left alone by people she doesn't want to cross paths with anymore, but her ex-husbands keep popping up, inviting themselves into her home and activities, and it's hilariously exasperating to watch her handle them while trying not to lose her mind in the process. I was so proud for her (as proud as one can be for a fictional character, I suppose) that even though other people treat her marriage history as taboo or even try to shame her for it, Towako feels absolutely no shame about being a three-time divorcée. She's someone who can let go of things and walk away once an arrangement or relationship is over, and wouldn't more of us want to do that instead of unnecessarily hanging onto people and situations anyway? In fact, when a male client—who's also been divorced three times and is proud of it, but says Towako's three divorces make her pitiful and worthless because she's a woman—offers to make Towako his fourth wife as if he's doing her a favor, Towako calmly replies, "Failure doesn't exist. There are failures in life, but there is no such thing as a failed life." Hearing her say that almost made me stand up and clap!
As for Towako's exes, each man remains attached to her for specific reasons. For husband #3, being married to Towako was the only time in his life where he felt truly happy, and he doesn't want to let go of that happiness even though their relationship is over. For husband #2, Towako helped improve his self-esteem about just being an average Joe, and her beauty and dance skills inspired him to pivot from being a tabloid photographer to a legit and in-demand fashion photographer. And although Towako and husband #1 were and still are genuine friends, he really only married her (SPOILER) so he could be closer to Towako's flighty best friend, which is who he's really been in love with this whole time. The exes frequently hang out together at husband #1's restaurant for some reason, even though they don't particularly like each other (#2 and #3 especially don't, whereas #1 is neutral). And they're each still on remarkably good terms with Towako's daughter, who jokingly calls them "Season 1" (her dad), "Season 2"  and "Season 3" and entertains herself by poking fun at all four of the adults in her life. That was really cute to see.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this show was all the actors that I recognized from other productions. I don't know what is up with Takahashi Maryjun, but she keeps showing up in the J-dramas that I've been watching this year and last year ('Dying Eye', 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi', 'Oh! My Boss!', and now 'Omameda Towako') and I'm not mad at it! She stays booked, apparently! Additionally, while her character stops appearing in the series past a certain point, Ichikawa Mikako ('Unnatural', 'Nagi no Oitoma') makes an indelible impact playing Towako's best friend. There's also Odagiri Joe—who I recognize for being a very famous Japanese actor but somehow don't remember seeing him in anything previously, including 'Alice no Toge', which I know I watched—playing one of the new men in Towako's life. He's a super gentle and caring math nerd in public but is a ruthless jerk at the office (repping the investment company that plans to unseat Towako due to her firm's supposedly subpar profits). Last but not least, what a delightful surprise it was for me to see Nagaoka Ryusuke a.k.a. Ukigumo, the guitarist of of Tokyo Jihen, one of my favorite bands ever, playing husband #1's restaurant business partner! I had no idea he acted!
In the tenth and final episode, Towako discovers that her deceased mom was in love with another woman (her mom's own best friend since childhood), but she gave that relationship up for what ended up being an unhappy marriage to Towako's father, which is a revelation that seemed random to me at first. Towako finds a love letter that her mom wrote but never sent to said former bestie/lover, which leads her and her daughter to actually go to the woman's apartment for clarity on the situation. The woman, despite being asked such personal questions by complete strangers, welcomes them and is an open book. Most importantly, she affirms that people are full of contradictions; Towako's mom loved her family, and she also wanted to be free of said family. Much like Towako with her own multiple unsuccessful relationships, even though her mom was unhappy in her marriage, it doesn't necessarily mean the marriage was the wrong choice or that no good came of it. Towako and her own daughter resulted from it, after all. So that was actually a very sweet touch to help close out the show.

Although 'Omameda Towako' does have a decent amount of romance going on, it's really more of a slice of life story than anything else, so if that's your thing (it is mine) then you'll find a lot to enjoy about it. And I can't leave off from discussing this show without praising its most notable insert song. Ohmygoodness, that song! That absolutely gorgeous song! "All The Same" by composer Yuta Bandoh, with BIGYUKI on keyboard and the vocal jazz stylings of Gretchen Parlato, makes me want to dance for joy and then just do some really deep introspection and weep for little while. Something just comes over me every time I listen to it. I actually first heard it playing on a Japanese radio station months ago, then looked it up on YouTube and saw from skimming the video description and comments that it was part of a J-drama. But I didn't connect the dots and realize exactly which J-drama until I watched the first episode of 'Omameda Towako' and heard the keys and Gretchen Parlato's voice trickle in at the end. It felt like the best "gotcha" ever! There's also a rap song called "Presence", which is the show's ending theme and has multiple versions that each of the four main actors respectively participate in. And it's a fun tune, but "All The Same" has my heart. No lie, it's one of my favorite songs of 2021.
ひきこもり先生 (Hikikomori Sensei/Mr. Hikikomori/Hikokomori Teacher) - NHK/2021
  • Somewhere in Kanagawa, Uwashima is nearly 50 years old and a recovering hikikomori (severe social recluse). His wife left him and took their daughter with her after Uwashima first withdrew from society at 38 years old. At that time, he incurred massive debt after being scammed by a friend, which made him hate himself and feel like he couldn't trust anybody anymore.
  • Eleven years later, with the help of a rehabilitative program called "Hikikomori College", Uwashima has re-entered the world, lives with his mom, and has his own small yakitori restaurant that a friend helped him set up. But he still avoids interacting with people (and especially having to speak to them) on most occasions, until the principal of the local junior high invites Uwashima to become a part-time teacher.
  • With the guidance of one of the school's younger teachers, as well as a seasoned social worker who works at the school, Uwashima is tasked with managing a special classroom called "STEP Room", which enables truant students—or students who do make it to school but feel uncomfortable interacting with the school's general population the whole day—to learn in a more comfortable environment. Basically, STEP is meant to be a safe haven that will also reduce the school's truancy numbers, and the principal figures that a recovering hikikomori such as Uwashima can help the hikikomori students recover too. But the STEP team soon finds itself at odds with the principal, whose "zero truancy and zero bullying" policy just means he wants butts in seats and issues between students conveniently smoothed over, so he can be promoted to superintendent.
Before watching this show, I had mostly seen the hikikomori phenomenon discussed in relation to men in their 20s and up, so I was fascinated by the way 'Hikikomori Sensei' emphasizes how vulnerable younger people are to this kind of seclusion, linking the social disorder to school truancy. The show explores the reasons why students might be truant, framing it not as an issue of students and their parents being lazy, irresponsible, or not valuing education like they should (as is often the discourse in the U.S.), but rather as a result of these students' complicated and stressful living situations or even social hierarchies within the school itself. And rather than focusing on punishment, Uwashima and the women he works with focus on letting the students take meaningful time away from their regular classes, processing why they were skipping and what support they need, while getting an education in the meantime. The women even make a few house visits and trying to find solutions for those students who still refuse to attend school.
Given the sensitive subject matter, I love how this show carefully balances the reality of how detrimental being a hikikomori and running away from everything can be, with the assertion that it's totally fine to not come to work or school if you simply cannot handle it. If it's too much for you, then don't force it, you can just come back when you're ready. That's exactly what a frustrated Uwashima tells his students when one of them is getting bullied really badly. Then when Uwashima is forced by the principal to lie to the board of education and deny that any bullying is happening at the school, and his first attempt at meeting his now-16-year-old daughter goes poorly that same day, he relapses into seclusion again. However, once his students find out why he's been absent from school, they go by Uwashima's house to check on him, thanking him for how much he's helped them and returning the advice he gave them: don't come to school, it's okay to not come back to school just yet. And I'm not gonna lie, that scene made me shed a tear or two. Of course, seeing how much his students care about him and aren't pressuring him to return is what makes him want to come back to school again anyway, determined to make it a place where students feel safe and at ease. 

Although 'Hikikomori Sensei' isn't all that similar to either of the shows I'm about to mention, while watching it I did find myself reminded of 'Nagi no Oitoma' (wholesome summer drama set in a non-urban area, about an anxious woman in her late 20s who goes into hiding to heal from trauma and learn to trust herself and others again) and 'Hajimemashite, Aishitemasu' (which gives a surprisingly dark look into child abuse in Japan and what Japanese social workers do to aid and protect children in such situations). Suffice it to say, you probably need to be in a very compassionate mindset or crying mood to get the most out of watching this show. It's worth it, though! I will also note that out of all the shows I watched this time around, it's the only one that included the current pandemic in its storyline, acknowledging how much students lost out on ending the school year like normal and having their graduation festivities when schools shut down in 2020 (Japanese academic years typically end in March, with new ones beginning in April).

So now I gotta pick a favorite from the bunch, right? Hmm... I have to say that although 'Omameda Towako' introduced me to one of the best songs of the year, overall 'FM999' blew me away the most with its twist ending and its campy yet compassionate discussion of women's issues, especially abortion. I'll be moving on to some new (to me) J-dramas now, and hopefully it won't take me another six months to write about them, but we'll just have to see about that! Until next time.

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