Tuesday, July 12, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 28 - pt. 1

I'm finally ready to review the J-dramas that I watched during the rest of spring and the beginnings of summer! Would've been ready sooner but I kept finding additional shows to watch, and I just finished the last of them today so here we are! This edition of Dorama Time features four J-dramas, plus two honorable mentions (shows that are partially in Japanese and set in Japan, but aren't Japanese productions). Since I've got so many shows to write about, I'm going to try streamlining my thoughts using a Meh/Better/Best approach (an idea I've just come up with, you'll see what I mean). For part 1 of this review, I'm focusing on the first and last J-dramas that I finished on this roster: two love stories that are both about career women who design and/or promote home goods, falling in love with chefs who have troubled pasts and a fear of commitment. The reason why I chose these shows eludes me now, but since I wasn't initially familiar with most of the actors in either show, I can only assume that I chose them for escapism purposes.
着飾る恋には理由があって (Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte/Why I Dress Up for Love/There's a Reason for the Love I'm Wearing) - TBS/2021
  • With her hands and eyes perpetually glued to her phone, Kurumi is insanely busy managing her own following as an Instagram influencer, doing PR and social media for the home decor company she works at, AND being a de facto personal assistant/stylist/wrangler for her boss (Hayama) whom she's secretly been in love with for seven years. In fact, she's so busy that she forgets to renew her apartment lease, which causes her to rent a room in the spacious house that her divorced, middle-aged chef friend (Kouko) owns.
  • Three people are already renting the other extra rooms in Kouko's house: a reclusive visual artist named Ayaka (played by Nakamura Anne from 'Grand Maison Tokyo'), a psychiatrist named Haruto, and Haruto's cousin Shun, a young chef specializing in Spanish cuisine who was once a wunderkind in Spain and tried to run his own restaurant in Tokyo but flopped. Still bruised from the failure and disappointment, Shun has made nonchalant his middle name. Except for the food truck he runs to make a living, he maintains little to no attachments to anyone or anything; his minimalist room is nearly devoid of furniture, he only has a few sets of clothing, and he's lost track of his smartphone that he no longer uses. Shun often dismisses Kurumi's social media-obsessed lifestyle as superficial, which leads to numerous petty arguments between them. 
  • But then late one night, Kurumi and Shun brush a little too closely when retrieving items from the fridge at the same time, and they share a kiss. And as the housemates go on more group outings, Kurumi and Shun's growing attraction for each other becomes undeniable. Can they become something real, enough for Kurumi to forget about her crush on Hayama? When Hayama moves into the sharehouse temporarily and Shun peeps his interest in Kurumi, will that be enough to make Shun step up, stop pretending he doesn't care about anything, and get both his love life and career back on track?
Meh: Kurumi's career crisis in episodes 9 and 10where she gets bashed online for unknowingly promoting a plagiarized bag design on Instagram, her job as social media manager is jeopardized, and the hate comments have her spiraling to the point of wanting to quit her job and move to Hokkaido with Shun when he gets a new opportunity theredidn't seem like that big of a deal to me. I understand that this crisis serves as further character development for both Kurumi and Shun, especially when Shun tries to talk his girlfriend down from such a drastic decision. (Now that he's emerging from his self-imposed social isolation and working in a restaurant again, he warns Kurumi from experience that running away only leads to regret, and he doesn't want her to make the same mistakes he did.) But couldn't Kurumi have resolved her work crisis by simply deleting that IG post, never directly addressing the plagiarism issue, and waiting it out until netizens' fickle attentions inevitably shifted to something else? Isn't that what tons of companies and public figures do when they have a PR scandal?

Also... is 'Kikazaru Koi' about Kurumi and Shun's love story? Is it about Kurumi realizing her dream of becoming a product buyer of stylish, handcrafted, and eco-friendly home goods? Is it about Shun overcoming his past failures and learning to care about things again? Is it about the housemates' collective friendship? One could argue it's about all of those things, but at various points it seemed like the show couldn't make up its mind, and none of those plotlines got enough airtime for me to feel them out the way I would've liked. The love story is what drew me in, but once I got into a groove with that, the show would shift focus, come back to the romance, then shift focus again, gradually getting less romantic as the show went on. 'Kikazaru Koi' ends with a solid, standard 10-episode run, but I genuinely believe the story would've benefited from two additional episodes. Episode 10 speeds through too much trying to tie up the remaining loose ends.
Better: How refreshing it was to see Nakamura Anne stepping outside of her usual sporty, long-haired, super-feminine, put-together model image to play Ayaka, a character who has short hair, an androgynous style, a gruff personality, and a situationship with her co-worker (pregnancy scare included)! 
The all-consuming nature of social media is not a new topic, but whereas 'FOLLOWERS' examined how social media (or SNS as it's referred to in Japan) can make or break careers, 'Kikazaru Koi' uses Kurumi to demonstrate what it's like when social media IS the career. Whether its for her job's IG or her personal IG, Kurumi's got multiple alarms set to remind her when to post content throughout the day, and she can't even take a bath without her phone nearby. I felt stressed just watching her, and while I don't envy that life, Kurumi's character definitely deepened my respect for social media managers.
When Kurumi first stepped foot into her Kouko's house and the camera panned out to show the entire place, I literally gasped. The interior design is so simple, sparse even, a style I would normally think is boring. But something about Kouko's house blew me away, and it might be the most beautiful house set I've ever seen in my 13 years of watching J-dramas. So much open space and natural light! Neutral walls with warm-toned wood floors, ceilings, and doorframes! A sunken dining area! And who can forget the breathtaking outdoorsy scenes from when the group goes on a trip to Yamanashi? The camping (glamping) domes at Shakushiyama Gateway Camp, with Mt. Fuji looming like a sleeping giant in the background! The onsen that sits right on a riverbank! My goodness!

Best: Yokohama Ryuusei is absolutely perfect as sensitive and smirky-but-not-mean-spirited Shun! I love that Shun confessing his feelings for Kurumi doesn't take long, and that it's also not forced to be an overblown moment; the moment reflects his laid-back yet sincere personality. At the end of episode 3, he and Kurumi are eating alone at a campfire in Yamanashi, and he's feeding her while refusing to let go of her hand. (He claims it's to help her "detox" from always reaching for her phone, but we know what's what.) And suddenly he admits, "I've been having dreams about you," to which Kurumi responds by joking, "Maybe it's because you like me or something." And Shun pretends to pause and consider it before cheekily replying, "Yeah, I guess you're right. I probably do like you." Would you believe that I replayed that scene a dozen times? Because that's what I did! There's a different scene at the end of episode 6 where Shun tries to act all broody and detached to avoid getting hurt, even telling Kurumi that he'll be fine if she chooses Hayama instead of him. But Kurumi wastes no time interrupting him (literally putting her hand over his mouth and pinching his lips shut) to say, "Shut up! I chose you, remember? I'm choosing YOU." Shun tears up hearing this, and then they snuggle together under a blanket on Kouko's balcony while the sun sets, and it's super soft and intimate! I replayed that scene multiple times too!
One of my favorite hallmarks of 'Kikazaru Koi' are the touching post-credits scenes of each episode which display how much attention Shun pays to Kurumi without her noticing, and how he actually puts a lot of thought into his interactions with her beforehand (even though outwardly he seems to be messing with her all the time). In general, Shun prefers to show Kurumi his affection through things like sarcasm. Or feeding her the exquisite food he makes at the sharehouse and in his food truck. Or attempting to break into a park at night so Kurumi can see the fully-bloomed sakura trees that she missed due to her busy work day, and then setting up an indoor viewing at the sharehouse instead, using a sakura-themed art piece that Ayaka had just made. Or, as previously mentioned, holding Kurumi's hand so she won't be distracted while they spend alone time together by a campfire. Real "acts of service" type stuff, and I dig it. It takes Shun the entire series to learn how to not only show but also tell how he feels, but when he gets it right, he really gets it right. 

Last but not least, that ending theme song by Hoshino Gen, "Fushigi"? Splendid. Nothing else to be said.

恋なんて、本気でやってどうするの?(Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?/Who Needs True Love?/What Do You Really Do About Love?/How Do You Love For Real?) - Fuji TV/KTV/2022
  • 27-year-old Jun is so dedicated to her work as a tableware designer that her two best friends jokingly call her by her job title (buchou or "Chief") as a nickname. She's a virgin who believes relationships are a waste of time because nothing is guaranteed and everyone ends up alone in the end. Deep down, she's also terrified of becoming just like her mom, a love-obsessed woman who repeatedly abandoned herself (and Jun as a child) running behind countless men before eventually getting dumped.
  • Around the same period that Jun's crush/co-worker/former high school classmate marries one of her subordinates (i.e. not her), she and her two best friends become regulars at a new French bistro called Salut. Salut is extremely popular with women because of its handsome waiter and sous chef named Shuma. After closing time he'll basically sleep with any woman who asks, and even offers to let brokenhearted Jun use him as dating practice, but he avoids serious relationships. Jun accepts Shuma's offer but of course ends up falling in love with him anyway, and after confessing her feelings and being sufficiently d*ckmatized by Shuma, they enjoy the beginnings of their new, no-longer-pretend love.
  • That is, until Shuma's gambling and alcohol-addicted mother leaves her rehab facility to live with him and begins sabotaging his relationship with Jun. Both Jun and Shuma's careers are threatened, with Jun being demoted due to lackluster sales of the latest plate collection she's designed, while Shuma's dad who owns Salut plans to shutter the restaurant. Jun and her friends collaborate with Shuma and the head chef to help save Salut, but our lead couple eventually breaks up because of Shuma's mom. Meanwhile, a different high school friend of Jun's (Otsu) offers her a loveless but stable and drama-free marriage. In the midst of all this chaos, can Jun and Shun be convinced that true love is worth taking a chance on each other again?
Meh: Less of a "meh", more like a "hmm". At the end of the final episode, Otsu's at a bar drinking Jun's rejection away, and he happens to strike up a conversation with Misaki, the nail salon owner who often lets Jun and her two besties come by to chat about their relationship troubles because they're all Misaki's friends too. As the pair converse at the bar, Misaki reveals to Otsu that for all the relationship advice she regularly gives her friends, she's actually asexual. (Which is a category that I was tempted to put Jun into at the beginning of the show given how uninterested she is in romance and how confused she is by other women's obsession with dating and sex, but I digress.) And on top of that, Misaki divulges that her only experience with romance is her years-long crush on... Jun! So basically Otsu and Misaki, unbeknownst to each other, are at a bar drinking over their unrequited love for the same woman. Which is such an intriguing and unexpected plot twist that it's almost a shame that it was dropped in at the last minute. If Misaki's character was written to be a queer asexual woman from the beginning, then I would've loved for that perspective to be expressed more in her earlier conversations with Jun and the girls.
Better: I didn't mention it in the summary above, but Jun's two best friends Kyoko and Arisa go on their own complicated relationship journeys as well. At the beginning of 'Koi Nante, Honki de', housewife Kyoko is unhappily married to her inattentive gamer dude husband, and by the end she leaves him for Kaname (Salut's head chef). Their connection is innocent at first, with Kaname making a consolation meal for Kyoko when she hangs out at Salut after hours because she's sad about her husband forgetting their anniversary. Kaname initially doesn't like to be seen and rarely comes out of the kitchen when customers are present, but he makes exceptions for Kyoko, discretely gives her little treats whenever she dines at the bistro, and gradually starts teaching her how to cook French food as they spend more time together.
As for Arisa, the beginning of the series has her dating a married man. But when she catches him cheating on her with someone else—is it still "cheating" if he was already cheating with her in the first place?—to blow off some steam she starts dating Katsumi, a nerdy-looking employee at the convenience store she frequents. Katsumi proves to be more charming and thoughtful than Arisa would've given him credit for, and they become boyfriend and girlfriend even despite Arisa trying to hide how much she likes him, and despite Arisa's incomplete efforts to end things with her married ex. More on that in a second.
I was glad to see the name of the real-life restaurant that makes all of Salut's food (bistro-confl. in Setagaya, Tokyo) stand out enough in the show's credits for me to easily find them online. And the ending theme song "Watashi" is also quite nice. Dramatic, emotional, yet still catchy. Apparently Matsumura Hokuto, who plays Shuma, is also in the boy band SixTONES ("stones"), which sings the song.
Best: That makeout scene between Jun and Shuma at the end of episode 4, whew! Without words, only using his body, Shuma communicates how much he WANTS Jun in that moment, ya hear?  
And we support a man who's sure about the person he loves! Katsumi's so sure about Arisa that when he learns she cheated on him (broke up with her married ex but slept with him one last time for closure's sake), he thanks her for their time together and lets her go not because he resents her, but because he acknowledges that their relationship wasn't serious. It meant slightly more to him than it did to her, and while mutual feelings did grow over time, he knows that at first Arisa was only dating him to kill time. But then, Katsumi's still so sure about Arisa that when he finds out she's working at a hostess bar to earn the 3 million yen in damages that her married ex's wife demands (approximately $22,000 USD when I'm writing this), he decides that he's not giving up on Arisa after all. Katsumi's so sure about Arisa that he takes out all of his money from the bank to help settle her debt, accompanies Arisa to the married couple's house to deliver said money, and HE apologizes to the wife on Arisa's behalf so the wife will leave Arisa alone! Who does that? A man like Katsumi does, that's who! 

Honorable Mention: 義理/恥 (Giri/Haji; Duty/Shame) - BBC/Netflix/2019

Kenzo is a detective and his younger brother Yuuto works for one of Tokyo's multiple prominent yakuza organizations. After an incident, Yuuto is presumed dead until he resurfaces in London and assassinates the nephew of his boss's rival. This sets off a war between rival yakuza groups in Tokyo, and Kenzo is sent to London to retrieve Yuuto so that the latter's punishment can hopefully restore order. Posing as an exchange student taking a criminology course, Kenzo unexpectedly finds his mission both bolstered and complicated by Kelly (the Scottish woman who teaches the course and is also a detective searching for Yuuto), Rodney (a gay, half-Japanese sex worker and drug addict who knows London's club scene), and Kenzo's own daughter Taki (who steals her mom's credit card and runs away to join her dad).

This is a fantastic watch if you don't like neo-noir or crime thrillers (or you don't think you like neo-noir or crime thrillers) but are interested in Japanese stuff. A bilingual production shot between Japan and the UK is no easy feat, but the team behind 'Giri/Haji' pulls it off with stunning precision. William Sharpe's performance as Rodney was my absolute favorite aspect of the entire show. His brazenness, his sarcastic humor, his inner demons, his one liners? Perfection. That moment in episode 1 when he's at a bar, the bartender informs him, "Your boyfriend's here," and Rodney replies flatly, "I don't have one of those," with disgust and feigned confusion as if he doesn't know what species of creature a boyfriend is but he's certain he wants no parts of it? Oh, from then on I was all in! Regardless of the other plot developments to follow in the series, wherever Rodney's character was going, I was willing to follow.

Last year I was a guest on a podcast about multilingual people called Speaking Tongues, and after recording that interview the host Elle Charisse recommended 'Giri/Haji' to me, but I didn't get around to it until late last month. And as I told Elle, I'm still unsure about the filter that makes everything (especially the Japan scenes) look like it takes place in some bygone decade. I don't know if it's because 'Giri/Haji' is a BBC production, or because a lot of Western people's frame of reference for Japan is the 1980s, or if it's a purely stylistic choice, but it threw me off. Besides that, overall I'm very glad that I finally watched this series! So imagine how disappointed I was to discover that there'll be no season 2; the show ends on multiple cliffhangers and creator Joe Barton had plans for a second season, but then the BBC cancelled the show altogether in 2020. 

Part 2 of this J-drama review coming soon!

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