Friday, March 25, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 27 - pt. 1

Look at me taking less than four months to write a new J-drama review after my last one! I guess it helped that I chose to only watch four shows this time around. This review is comprised of my selections from the autumn 2021 broadcast season in Japan, plus two shows on Netflix that I felt like watching just because. For part 1, I'm focusing on the Netflix shows:

全裸監督2 (Zenra Kantoku 2/The Naked Director Season 2) - Netflix/2021

  • The year is 1990, and after edging out his largest competitor in the 1980s porn video industry (see my review of season 1), Muranishi has even loftier goals than before. This includes rebranding Sapphire Pictures as Diamond Visual, getting access to satellite broadcasting rights, and massively expanding his roster of actresses and production staff so as to film and distribute new videos quickly and constantly. (Think of Berry Gordy's assembly line approach to talent development at Motown Records, except it's porn.)
  • However, Diamond Visual's frantic pace of production means Muranishi's not interested in creating pornographic masterpieces anymore, and his now-girlfriend Kuroki Kaoru, the former university student whose stardom sustained Sapphire/Diamond in its early years, has been relegated to spokesperson when all she really wants is to make a new video with Muranishi again. Meanwhile, Muranishi finds another muse in one of the newer, younger, more doe-eyed actresses, and Kaoru senses she's about to be replaced. All the neglect drives her to drink. A lot.
  • At the same time, the billionaire who owns the satellite channel Muranishi wants access to doesn't take Muranishi seriously and refuses to do business with him at first. Muranishi eventually gets his way, but the bubble economy in Japan bursts, resulting in massive debt that tanks Diamond Visual. (Getting scammed by two fake accountants also doesn't help.) Diamond Visual can't be salvaged, but as Muranishi crashes and burns, he risks also destroying his relationships with all of his friends/staff in the process. Oh yeah, and that same cop from last season (played by Lily Franky) is still collaborating with the yakuza to destroy Muranishi too.
This season was aight. They ruined the theme song (in my humble opinion) by adding a loud and unnecessary choir to it, but otherwise this season was aight. I watched it because I enjoyed season 1, and I watched season 1 because I was intrigued by the brazenness of an entire series being made about the Japanese porn industry in the first place. This time, I wanted to see what new directions the story would go in, and those directions were aight. While 'The Naked Director' has always about more than just porn (the yakuza, government policies on obscenity, and corrupt policing all feature heavily in both seasons), season 2 broadens the show's range of social commentary. For instance, in episode 1 Muranishi appears to be running for political office, claiming in a public speech that Japanese society should embrace sex and the distribution of porn because giving people that outlet to satisfy their lust actually reduces sex crimes. That's an interesting argument, but I'm also sure he's not considering sex crimes that may happen within the porn industry itself when he makes this argument. And what he's saying isn't meant to be taken seriously anyway, because in true Muranishi fashion, he's simply doing whatever he can to push the boundaries of what's socially or legally acceptable, thereby boosting his video sales. In short, his supposed political aspirations are only a publicity stunt.
The show also gives a brief nod to idol culture, with Diamond Visual making a series of thematic videos that supposedly recreate sexual encounters that women report having had with famous male pop stars. Even religion comes up too, when Muranishi tries to buy a religious organization's (cult's?) satellite broadcasting facility in an attempt to get ahead of the death of VHS that he correctly assumes will come one day. Ever ready with a sales pitch that makes porn sound like the most necessary thing in the world, he likens sex to religion in this way: both can be addictive, but they also help people prosper by giving them an escape and making them happy. The cult representative bluntly explains to Muranishi that, on the contrary, the less happy people feel, the more converts the cult gets, which means more revenue for the cult. But since Muranishi has made porn seem so profitable, and since the economy is on an upswing at that point and the cult's business isn't doing well anyway, the rep accepts Muranishi's offer.
Since 'The Naked Director' is loosely based on real events and real people, the 1992 economic bubble burst practically requires that this season be more somber than the previous one. But I wasn't prepared for how dark (like, DARK dark) Kaoru's storyline would become in particular. As I mentioned, Muranishi shelves Kaoru as an actress and she self-destructs in response to that, quitting Diamond Visual after Muranishi finally sets up a new video shoot for her but misleads her into thinking he'll be performing in the scene with her (he will not). She then moves in with a female friend, the longtime makeup artist-turned-assistant-director who leaves Diamond around the same time as her. After the bubble bursts and Muranishi basically runs everyone off of the Diamond compound, Kaoru returns and offers to start a new, non-porn-related business with him. (This is an olive branch; the idea she proposes isn't as important as simply being his collaborator/partner again.) But he rejects her, and that's the last straw. She returns home and attempts suicide by jumping over her apartment's balcony as a Billie Eilish song plays in the background (no joke). All is not lost, however! Kaoru eventually recovers, moves back in with her unwaveringly Catholic momI definitely did NOT see their reconciliation comingand studies art in Italy like she previously intended in season 1, so she does get a relatively happy ending. But she never receives the apology she deserves from Muranishi for how he mistreated her. Then again, maybe that would've been too out of character for him, no matter how wrecked he is by seeing her unconscious in the hospital.

There's also a love story between young gangster Toshi—who worked for Muranishi in season 1 but went a little overboard with his dirty work and got fired before ending up in jail and joining the yakuzaand Sayaka, the yakuza boss's favorite sex worker. I found that arc to be compelling but it does feel somewhat random in hindsight. Toshi rescues Sayaka from being the boss's plaything (pimped out to him by her mother of all people), but messing with the boss's girl is the biggest no-no, right? Especially when that boss is played by Kunimura Jun! You don't mess with that man! In all seriousness though, the show uses that conflict between Toshi and the boss to push Toshi toward finding refuge with some of his former Sapphire/Diamond friends, and eventually protecting them by severing any remaining influence that the yakuza has on them. So I guess that love story arc isn't so random after all. Anyway, the real reason I mention any of that is because I was so surprised and excited to see Nishiuchi Mariya playing Sayaka! The last production I saw her in was 'Totsuzen Desu ga, Ashita Kekkon Shimasu' in 2017, and I didn't recognize her in 'The Naked Director' at first. I just assumed she was an up-and-coming actress who happened to look very familiar for some reason I couldn't ascertain. But then I googled the cast list and saw that it was in fact Nishiuchi Mariya! Apparently she's been focused on modeling all this time and this her first J-drama appearance (her first new acting role, period) since 'Totsuzen Desu ga', so good for her! I say watch season 2 of 'The Naked Director' for curiosity's sake to find out how the story wraps up, or simply watch it to witness Nishiuchi Mariya's comeback.

金魚妻 (Kingyo Tsuma/Goldfish Wives/Fishbowl Wives) - Netflix/2022
  • Sakura (Shinohara Ryoko from 'Otona Joshi') runs a high-profile hair salon business with her abusive husband. In their ritzy apartment building where social hierarchy is reflected by floor number, they live at the very top. Sakura used to be a gifted hairdresser, but since getting injured, she mostly just does what her husband tells her to do. This includes handling the management and PR aspects of their business, playing up their "perfect couple" image for the press, and not saying anything about him sleeping with other women (one of whom is their neighbor). 
  • Sakura visits a goldfish shop and becomes acquainted with Haruto (the shop owner) when he accidentally sprays water on her. He's young, kind, and passionate about nursing sick or wounded creatures back to health. Haruto is actually connected to Sakura's past injury, but neither of them realize this at first. Later, when Sakura's husband attacks her one night, she flees to Haruto's place and they carry on an affair while Sakura helps him run the goldfish shop.
  • But Sakura and Haruto can't live in their own world forever. While her husband tracks her down and tries to manipulate her into coming home, Haruto's wealthy family pressures him to quit both Sakura and the goldfish shop so he can take over his father's corporation. Meanwhile, five housewives from Sakura's building start having or considering extramarital relationships of their own.
I planned to watch this show once I saw the trailer for it on YouTube and found out about its February release date. I recognized Shinohara Ryoko in the trailer, assumed the show would be like 'Hirugao' (a 2014 J-drama about cheating housewives and why they cheat, which was groundbreaking at the time), and when I began episode 1 the floor-number-as-social-status element immediately reminded me of 'Suna no Tou' from 2016. So even though I didn't recognize anyone other than Shinohara Ryoko at first, 'Fishbowl Wives' had more than enough to retain my interest. And I actually did recognize more actors as I watched more of the show. Yuriha, the neighbor who brazenly sleeps with Sakura's husband and smirks in her face about it (played by Hasegawa Kyoko) also appeared in 'Cecile no Mokuromi'. Haruto (Iwata Takanori) was also Ishihara Satomi's baby daddy in 'Dear Sister'. And the man whose wife is a former runner and current alcoholic (Inukai Atsuhiro) was the object of the heroine's unrequited love in 'Oh! My Boss!'. 

It might merely be a convention of this show and not a reflection of real life, but I had no idea that goldfish could be such a big deal (especially not the small kind that Haruto sells, when koi fish also exist and are more impressive-looking to me). In the States, unless you're some kind of aquatic nerd like Haruto, fish as pets are basically living, breathing decoration pieces. In my mind they've always been rather inconsequential. But so many characters in the show are interested in having goldfish in order to feel less lonely, or hold onto a remnant of their estranged family, or repair their childless marriages, and so on. (The child thing is actually why Sakura goes to Haruto's shop in the first place, because this mysterious fortune teller/feng shui expert in her apartment building suggests it... while at the same time encouraging Sakura and the other women in the building to cheat on their husbands? As if cheating is the key to their personal growth and spiritual well-being? Because women pursuing their true soulmate or "twin ray" is more important than staying loyal to their unfulfilling marriages? Well, I honestly can't say I disagree with that last part.) I was genuinely surprised by the show's ability to use goldfish not only as a metaphor for how stifled and vulnerable these wives feel, but also as a believable vehicle for multiple characters' wishes and healing journeys.
Cheating is not merely a tawdry or simple thing in 'Fishbowl Wives'; each instance of cheating is given its own context. And not all of the wives follow through on their impulse to cheat, either. The one exception is Saya (the aforementioned runner-turned-alcoholic, also "Bansou no Tsuma"/"The Chaperone Wife" from episode 4), who is almost seduced by Sakura's husband. That is, until she receives a call from her own husband that makes her realize that they both just want to slow down the pace of their life, spend more time together, and get their relationship back on track (no pun intended). The rest of the wives featured on this show, though? Oh, they're getting busy and they've each got their own reasons! Episode 2 ("Gaichuu no Tsuma"/"The Outsourcing Wife") frames cheating as "outsourcing" sex when a woman and her husband aren't sexually compatible. Or, in Yuka's case, when the wife wants a baby but the husband isn't interested in sex at all, and her chaotic trash bag of an ex-boyfriend is aggressively making her feel wanted again. Episode 3 ("Bentou no Tsuma") centers around a cuckolding fetish, which surprised the heck out of me! Noriko's husband pressures his co-worker and her to touch each other in front of him so he can get aroused, only for Noriko to leave him for the co-worker when she realizes that the co-worker cares about her comfort and appreciates her homemade bentou lunches more than her husband does. And as much as I hated Yuriha's stank attitude toward Sakura and how she flaunts her affair with Sakura's husband, I was deeply intrigued by what episode 7 ("Kaisou no Tsuma"/"The Renovation Wife") sets up between Yuriha and one of the carpenters working on her overbearing mother-in-law's house. Two people with perceived blemishes on their bodies—both Yuriha and the carpenter have large dark spots on their faces, and the carpenter has a gigantic owl tattoo on his back that his wife resents—finding intimacy and acceptance through each other. That's a beautiful story, and I wish I could've gotten more of it. Yuriha's story gets less runtime than each of the other featured wives, and it felt like something was missing.
Hisako ("Zutsuu Tsuma"/"The Headache Wife") from episodes 5 and 6 is probably the wife I felt for the most besides Sakura, since Hisako and I have constant migraines in common. Unlike the dull ache I deal with on the daily, however, Hisako's migraines are frighteningly sudden and debilitating, striking whenever she gets stressed out or feels guilty about something. Her arc also illustrates how even the most principled or uptight person needs sexual gratification and tenderness, and sometimes attaining those things involves wrongdoing that they supposedly despise. Which would be, in Hisako's case, spending afternoons getting railed by a man she met in a park. However... PLOT TWIST (it's too good not to spoil, I'm sorry)! Her paramour is really her own husband! He cheated on her and she kicked him out, but the ordeal was so traumatizing that she disassociated to the point of erasing all memory of him from her mind. So when they first run into each other again in that park, she doesn't recognize him and thinks she's meeting this man ("Baba") for the first time. He eventually comes clean, sincerely apologizing to her and asking to reconcile, but I can't help but wonder what their tryst means in terms of consent because he initiated their sexual relationship under false pretenses. (Hisako consented to doing the do with "Baba", not with her estranged husband.) However, she accepts his apology and also wants to give their relationship another try, claiming that he always felt physically familiar to her but she couldn't figure out why until he revealed the truth. So I guess it's okay? Maybe?
'Fishbowl Wives' gave me much to think about, but at the risk of sounding too simplistic, I thought the ending was so dumb! Once Haruto's family learns that Sakura is a battered woman who previously did a huge favor for them in the past, then they (especially the family lawyer, who's also Haruto's ex-girlfriend) stop treating her like scum and help her get a divorce. Haruto also rejects his dad's offer to take over the corporation once and for all. So there is literally nothing keeping these lovers apart. All obstacles have been removed. And what does Sakura do? She breaks up with Haruto because she wants to work with her now ex-husband on reviving their business, which has fallen into disrepair since she initially left. But I don't understand why she couldn't have done that and continued to be with her new man at the same time! It's not like she wanted to get back together with her ex-husband in a romantic way. Besides, she ends up cutting ties and opening her own salon two years later anyway; that's two years that she and Haruto could've been enjoying their relationship on non-adulterous terms! Ugh! So yeah, 'Fishbowl Wives' has a steamy premise and an anthology-esque approach to exploring women's adultery that I found smart and engaging, but the conclusion made the show just aight to me overall. As for our lead actress, Shinohara Ryoko's acting was brilliant as usual, and I don't know why she was giving me Jennifer Lopez vibes with how she played Sakura, but J.Lo definitely kept coming to mind. Maybe it was some of Shinohara's facial expressions when delivering certain dialogue? Or because the initial meekness of Sakura combined with her arduous attempts to escape her abusive husband reminded me of J.Lo's performance in the movie Enough? No clue, but even now I can't shake the thought.

Am I feeling just "aight" about my remaining J-drama selections as well? Gotta read part 2 of this review to find out!

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