Wednesday, March 30, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 27 - pt. 2

You know what we're here to do. It's time for part 2 of my J-drama review! (Check out part 1 if you haven't already.)

いりびと-異邦人- (Iribito/Stranger/The Stranger) - WOWOW/2021
  • Naho is pregnant and comes from a wealthy family of art curators (the Ariyoshis), the most venerated of whom was her now-deceased grandfather. Her family even owns an art museum in Tokyo (Ariyoshi Museum), but she's been spending her pregnancy in Kyoto at her husband and mother's insistence due to the calmer pace of life there. Supposedly Kyoto is better for Naho's health.
  • While in Kyoto, Naho becomes entranced by the paintings of an unknown newbie who turns out to be Tatsuru, the young, mute, female apprentice of a highly-respected artist named Shozan. Shozan repeatedly blocks Naho's attempts to showcase Tatsuru's art in public, and Naho gradually discovers that Shozan is holding Tatsuru hostage and is jealous of his mentee's fresh and visionary talent. This makes Naho determined to free Tatsuru from Shozan and jumpstart Tatsuru's career.
  • Meanwhile in Tokyo, Naho's husband (Kazuki) and her mother (Katsuko) have a romantic history that briefly gets rekindled when Kazuki's gallery needs to be saved from bankruptcy; Katsuko agrees to let Kazuki handle the sale of a painting from Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" series—a masterpiece that Naho has treasured the most since childhood thanks to her grandfather's loving influence—on the condition that he sleep with her. Katsuko and Kazuki then attempt to sell more of the Ariyoshi collection when the family decides to shutter the museum behind Naho's back, only to learn that the most rare and valuable pieces are all in Naho's name. If they wanna cash in, they're gonna have to go through her.

I chose this drama because I enjoyed Takahata Mitsuki's previous performances in 'Mondai no Aru Restaurant' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko', and I knew I could rely on WOWOW to deliver something dark and/or messy since it's a cable channel. Luckily for me, 'Iribito' is both dark and messy! I sensed that Naho's husband had something going on with her mom from the moment in episode 1 when Katsuko walks into his gallery and smiles at him in a "Hey babe" sort of way, and I sensed correctly! 

And if that weren't enough intrigue to kick this show off, there's an ominous feeling that surrounds Naho and Tatsuru's connection from the very beginning. When Naho is first mesmerized by Tatsuru's artwork at a Kyoto gallery, neither the gallery owner nor Shozan want her to have it. As if she would be crossing a line by buying it, offending Shozan by taking more interest in his mentee's work than his own, and therefore putting herself in danger by getting on Shozan's bad side. Granted, Naho probably should be scared! Shozan was involved in the death of Tatsuru's father whose success he envied—which Tatsuru witnessed and was so traumatized by that she lost the ability to speak for the next 17 years—he "adopted" Tatsuru and took over her father's house, and he trained her to be an artist just to force her to paint pieces that he can sell as he loses hand function in old age. But Naho is as stubborn as she is curious, so she buys the artwork anyway. Thus commences a battle of wills between Naho and Shozan that she's unlikely to win; the Kyoto art community is small, and Shozan's influence is wide-reaching. But Naho doesn't back down, even going so far as to give the $1 billion worth of masterpieces that she inherited from her grandfather over to a different Kyoto gallery owner in exchange for holding Tatsuru's first solo exhibition there.

Now, apparently 'Iribito' is based on a novel of the same name by Harada Maha, so I don't know if the potential lesbian vibes between Naho and Tatsuru are from the original source material or made up for the show. Either way, those vibes are clear and evident... up until the show changes its mind. Naho does seem oddly fixated on Tatsuru, and that fixation is immediate even before she knows who Tatsuru is. There's a moment in episode 1 where they lock eyes in an art museum as complete strangers, and Tatsuru becomes lodged in Naho's mind for the remainder of 'Iribito' after that. Naho's husband later has a dream about Naho sharing an intimate embrace with Tatsuru which made me think of 'Killing Eve'; you think Eve and Villanelle are drawn to each other simply because they have murder in common (Eve investigating them, Villanelle committing them), but then you realize they're actually hot for each other too! So I thought to myself, That's where we're going with this? Alright, bring it on! But the show teases the lesbian idea only to reveal in the final episode that *SPOILER* Naho and Tatsuru are sisters who didn't know of each other's existence until now. (Or at least Naho didn't.) But even if the two women weren't related and Kazuki's suspicions were correct, the bigger issue is that he doesn't truly understand Naho's gift for discovering masterpieces and the genius artists who make them. It's a gift that, as an art curator, requires profound dedication on Naho's part. So when Naho refuses to leave Kyoto and even insists on giving birth there and remaining there permanently, he accuses her of having an affair with Tatsuru because what else could make her so stuck on being in Kyoto? It couldn't possibly be Naho's appreciation for Tatsuru's craft, right? He couldn't possibly be projecting onto her for something he himself did WITH NAHO'S MOM, right? Right?

Believe it or not, Naho and Tatsuru being sisters isn't the only sordid family secret that gets revealed in 'Iribito', but I figure I've already spoiled enough of the scandalousness of a show that's only five episodes long, so I'll just leave it at that. On a lighter note, it's such a powerful moment when Tatsuru finally stands up to her mentor/abuser, regains her voice (literally), and escapes from him once and for all! From then on she and Naho get to live in peace, raising Naho's baby in Kyoto together, building up Tatsuru's art career, and living at a famous female calligrapher's residence that's full of other women too. So yeah, 'Iribito' is kind of sombre and understated, but it's also a surprisingly wild ride. Come for the stunning shots of Kyoto and its traditional arts, stay for the drama between high society art folks.

群青領域 (Gunjou Ryouiki/Ultramarine Area/Indigo Area) - NHK/2021
  • Kim Junhee is a Korean woman and the pianist of a popular Japanese band called Indigo AREA. The band started out as an instrumental one, but then vocalist Haruki was added to help the band gain more mainstream success, and Junhee and Haruki are now a much-publicized couple. 
  • But then, Haruki suddenly announces in the middle of a live-streamed performance that he's going solo, and afterward he tells Junhee that he resents her talent and has been dating another woman behind her back. All of this becomes a huge scandal, attracting extremely relentless media attention that Junhee can't handle.
  • Overwhelmed, Junhee escapes Tokyo and hides out in a seaside town, where she stays at a boarding house befriending the elderly woman who owns it and a man named Ren (the only other boarder there, who also saved Junhee from accidental drowning when she first arrived in town). She works at the local supermarket until her real identity is exposed by customers who record her defending her co-worker from the store manager's sexual harassment, and the altercation goes viral on social media. Junhee then returns to Tokyo to try to pick up the pieces with her bandmates, but winds up going back and forth to the seaside town when more scandals arise that make a successful Indigo AREA comeback seem impossible.
I mostly chose this show because the premise reminded me of 'Nagi no Oitoma'. A young woman is dumped/double-crossed by her boyfriend and has her career abruptly upturned, so she escapes to the countryside so she can heal in solitude, with the help of a few friendly new neighbors. 'Gunjou Ryouiki' sounds delightfully similar to that, right? Itaya Yuka ('FOLLOWERS') playing the band's manager also didn't hurt. And apparently I've seen lead actress Shim Eun Kyung in the Korean film 'Sunny', but I only saw it once when it was first released in 2011 and I didn't know who she was back then. Her Japanese is excellent by the way, at least from what I could tell, and in terms of what the role of Junhee required. Assuming it's not someone else's vocal stylings dubbed over hers, she even does some singing by herself in the final episode! Also, I realized that I somehow managed to watch two shows at the same time that both star relative newcomer Sumire in supporting roles; she played Tatsuru in 'Iribito', and in 'Gunjou Ryouiki' she plays the girl Haruki dumps Junhee for. She's styled so precisely in both shows that it didn't click for me that she was the same actress until I noticed that both characters had the same set of  hazel (grey? green?) eyes. 
The show keeps hinting at Junhee's traumatic past, memories of which cause her to have severe anxiety during an important performance. It turns out that Junhee had a little sister who died in a car accident when they were both very young, and Junhee always blamed herself for not being there to prevent it. This is set up to be this big emotional reveal, but she and Ren discuss it when they're alone together by the sea a couple of times and then that's it. I'd sensed that there might be some residual tension or even a confrontation between Junhee and her mother, but in the last episode she calls her mom to invite her to watch what's ultimately Indigo AREA's final performance, and then that's it. So the buildup to and revelation of Junhee's traumatic past is actually quite anticlimactic.
I definitely thought 'Gunjou Ryouiki' would focus more on Junhee's personal breakthroughs than on the ensemble as a whole, and the last few episodes did seem to drag a bit. But overall I thought the show was solid. Most notably from the ensemble, Reiji the guitarist is revealed to be gay, which becomes an unexpectedly significant subplot and actually doesn't end tragically! His roommate is in love with him but Reiji basically uses him as a sex buddy and substitute for the drummer Takuma, whom Reiji actually has feelings for despite Takuma being straight, having feelings for Junhee, and not even knowing that Reiji is gay. Reiji's roommate gets tired of being used and outs him to the press, which nearly breaks Reiji and throws another wrench into Indigo AREA's comeback plans. Nonetheless, all of the bandmates accept and support Reiji, and after hiding out at the boarding house with Junhee for a while, he finds it within himself to return to music and even apologize to this roommate for using him. (I didn't agree with Reiji apologizing to the person who outed him, but I suppose it's important for that character to make amends in order to demonstrate that he's not the user he always feared he was.) Reiji's arc impressed me, and also, the actor who plays Reiji (Hosoda Yoshihiko) is an excellent crier! 

By the end of 'Gunjou Ryouiki', the other band members decide to continue on without Junhee. Not because Indigo AREA is unsalvageable as is (it's not), or because Junhee has an outwardly-arrogant-but-fundamentally-insecure-hence-going-solo diva moment like Haruki did (she doesn't). Rather, it's because Junhee realizes she's always been motivated to play piano for other people's benefit, so she wants to explore playing piano for herself for once. And because her bandmates support her decision as a friend, they decide to split amicably. Everyone is beginning new journeys, which reminded me of 'Nagi no Oitoma' once again (where each member of its ensemble embarked on new paths as summer came to an end). Viewers are left with the theme that the boarding house obaachan puts forward in the beginning and that other characters repeat: Life doesn't necessarily have to be grand or complicated. Just be an honest person, do the things you really want to do, and make sure to eat and sleep well. Everyone has the right to live life as they please. Literally, 「楽しく生きたってバチなんて当たらないんだから」(Tanoshiku ikitatte bachi nante ataranainda kara; "Living in a fun way isn't a sin," or, "It's not like you'll be punished for enjoying your life").

All of the four shows I watched this time around were pretty chill; none blew my mind, but none greatly disappointed me either. So as far as favorites go, I guess I'll pick 'Iribito' for going in the most unpredictable directions. It's not an "in your face" type of show, but still I was on edge the whole time and never quite knew what to expect. Now, off to watch more J-dramas I go!

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