Wednesday, July 13, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 28 - pt. 2

Gave you part 1, and now I'm giving you part 2 of this review, as promised! Here are the other two J-dramas, plus an honorable mention, that I watched in spring/early summer this year. I picked the following J-dramas because they seemed like weird and/or scandalous shows that had something thought-provoking to say. (Also, I just found out that they're both based on manga written by a woman named Sakai Eri.) I picked the honorable mention because it's an adaptation of one of my favorite novels.
ヒヤマケンタロウの妊娠 (Hiyama Kentarou no Ninshin/Hiyama Kentaro's Pregnancy/Hiyama Kentaro's First Pregnancy/He's Expecting) - Netflix/2022
  • 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' presents a world where some cisgender men can get pregnant. (No, the show doesn't explain how or why this is happening, only that men who can't or choose not to terminate their pregnancies all give birth via C-section.) Kentaro (Saitoh Takumi from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi'), who works at an advertising agency and has casual sex with various women, starts experiencing strange symptoms which include sweating, exhaustion, vomiting, nipple swelling, and lactation. Turns out he's been knocked up by Aki (Ueno Juri from 'Alice no Toge'), his longtime friend with benefits.
  • Aki doesn't want children because it'll likely derail her hard-won career as a writer and photographer; for Japanese women, becoming a mom often means leaving the workforce for good. She heavily supports Kentaro in getting an abortion so they can both move on with their lives. And that's the plan, until Kentaro takes a huge risk by revealing his pregnancy during a pitch meeting at work for an important client. The novelty of him being a pregnant man appeals to the client, and they hire him as one of the spokesmodels for their rebrand campaign. In other words, Kentaro keeps his baby to secure the bag.
  • The downside of this career boost is that without Kentaro's knowledge, his bosses devise a three-year advertising plan to milk him and his baby for all they'll be worth (pun intentional on my part). Meanwhile, Kentaro weathers the challenges of pregnancy and family planning with Aki, while also building community with other men who are or have been pregnant. Surprisingly, this includes Kentaro's own father (played by Lily Franky from 'Kyouen NG' and 'The Naked Director'), a scammer who previously abandoned the family due to the stigma of giving birth to Kentaro back in the 1980s.
Meh: This is less a criticism of the show itself and more a criticism of the fact that even if pregnancy emasculates or feminizes them in the eyes of others, sexism would still work in pregnant men's favor. When Kentaro first starts acting unpredictably and looking disheveled at work, his boss demotes him to administrative duties and busy work that are usually reserved for women. (He basically receives the discriminatory cold shoulder that women often get in the work place whether pregnant or not, but especially once pregnancy starts affecting their work habits and availability.) The irony of Kentaro deciding to keep the baby is that it has nothing to do with genuine acceptance and support in the workplace, and everything to do with the salaryman's tendency to do whatever it takes to benefit his employer, even if it means exploiting himself. Kentaro's best case scenario, remaining in his bosses' good graces while also securing a modeling campaign, is only available to him because he's a man doing what's seen as a woman's job (being pregnant). If he were a regular degular woman, his employer would view his pregnancy as unremarkable and inconvenient, and he certainly wouldn't be getting a spokesmodel gig or celebrity status from it.
Better: However, to the show's credit, 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' does touch on this double standard. Most of the closest people in Kentaro's life are women, and his female co-workers remind him that, basically, he ain't special! He's only treated as special for doing something that countless women are already expected to do without complaining or questioning or inconveniencing the people around them. Furthermore, there's a lot about carrying and raising children that Kentaro is ignorant of because he's a man who hasn't bothered to know about those things until now.
And to Kentaro's credit, him being close with women does contribute to his ability to adapt to pregnancy (once he decides to keep the baby), pay more attention to the discrimination that women face, and be more mindful of his privilege. Sure, people believe he's less of a man because he's carrying a baby—some even insist that he's becoming a "mother", not a fatherbut he also acknowledges that his newly-acquired media following is due to people being more willing to listen to him than to women. Even though he often states obvious things that women have been discussing online already for ages (like how maternity clothes are too dowdy-looking, etc.).
Best: When I first heard about the show and began watching the first episode, I wondered if it might be a commentary on transgender people becoming parents, which would've been fascinating to learn about. But the show goes out of its way to emphasize that this phenomenon is about cisgender male pregnancies (男性妊夫/dansei ninpu, or 男性妊娠/dansei ninshin). With transness unfortunately being left out, the show thoughtfully attempts to explore other gender-related topics, like what male pregnancy would mean for their female sex partners (their baby mamas, if you will). Would it be a lucky opportunity for a woman to have a baby without needing to interrupt her career by carrying it herself, like how Aki sees it? Would it be romantic to have a man go through the turmoil of pregnancy, medical appointments, incessant unsolicited advice from others, and the pain of childbirth for her, like how Aki's friend sees it? The wife of Kentaro's new preggo friend Miyaji must raise the son they already have (which she gave birth to) in addition to running their florist business and tending to her increasingly hormonal husband. So would having a pregnant husband/boyfriend/FWB actually be triple the burden, like it is for her?
I also appreciate how informative 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' is about Japan's abortion laws. (While 2021's 'FM999' did wow me with its creative approach to the lived experience of abortion, the legal aspect didn't come up at all.) For instance, both Kentaro and Aki must sign a consent form for him to get an abortion as initially planned, which reflects the real-life fact that Japanese women (especially the married ones) often aren't allowed to receive abortions without the other progenitor's (a man's) consent. Relatedly, Kentaro doesn't find out he's pregnant until he's 9 or 10 weeks along, and isn't able to schedule an abortion until after the 12-week mark. But by that point an abortion is treated as a stillbirth, and Kentaro would've been required by law not only to bury the fetus, but also report the abortion to a city office so he could receive permission to do the burial...? My googling couldn't tell me how accurate that part is, but imagine the extra hassle and potential trauma of having to do that too!

シジュウカラ (Shijuu kara/Starting at 40/From 40 Onward/After 40) - TV Tokyo/2022
  • Shinobu (Yamaguchi Sayaka from 'Kyouen NG') quits her 20-year middling manga artist career in Tokyo to relocate with her husband and son to a big house in the suburbs. However, one of her comics from over a decade ago (about married women having affairs, something she fantasized about doing early in her marriage when her husband cheated on her) sees a sudden boom in popularity. This prompts the publisher to commission Shinobu to write a brand new series about female infidelity. So she turns one of the rooms of the house into her office, and hires a manga assistant to help her.
  • Said assistant is a baby-faced 22-year-old named Chiaki. While they're drinking at a bar to celebrate completing the first volume of the new series, on what also happens to be Shinobu's 40th birthday (which her husband had forgotten), Chiaki propositions Shinobu but she plays it off. This exchange sets off at least a year of will-they-won't-they, and for most of that time she tries to keep things professional. With her encouragement, Chiaki makes his own comic about being sexually exploited in middle and high school by grown women who paid him for sex. Shinobu doesn't want to be like those women, and even though she briefly runs away with Chiaki, she changes her mind and opts to stay with her family. Shinobu's husband becomes suspicious and starts antagonizing her, but then he almost dies from a heart attack.
  • Five years later, Shinobu and Chiaki have lost contact. Chiaki's manga career has stalled since his debut comic was published, so he works as a chef. Whereas Shinobu's career has flourished, but she's bored and her comics have become uninspired. And her now-retired and dependent househusband is acting increasingly needy. So she has an affair with and tentatively accepts a marriage proposal from a magazine editor, her ex-boyfriend from high school who's commissioned her for a new project. Separately, this same editor also commissions a new project from Chiaki in order to keep tabs on him. Both the editor and Chiaki's live-in girlfriend attempt to drive a permanent wedge between Chiaki and Shinobu when the pair start interacting again, but those attempts ultimately fail.
Meh:  Episode 12 (the final episode) is weird. I know I said weird is what I wanted, but I didn't like it. The editing for that episode is different (I can't describe in technical terms why it's different, but I could just tell). A few supporting characters have random voiceover monologues that no one asked for. Shinobu and Chiaki reunite in a romantic sense, but it still just feels so... unearned? Not just from an age standpoint but a lack-of-chemistry standpoint as well. While it's clear throughout the series why Chiaki is in love with Shinobu, I never understood why Shinobu would still be stuck on Chiaki once she isn't a miserable housewife anymore (once she doesn't need him for escapism anymore). You're 45 now and still longing for this baby-looking young man because why? Because of his prolific talent? Because he saw and empathized with your unhappiness back when no one else did? There's a scene in episode 11 when Chiaki tells Shinobu that he's giving up and wants to forget both manga and her entirely, and she's the one still trying to convince him that her affection for him is genuine even though a relationship between them would never work. I watched that entire scene like, "Shinobu! Girl! Let the boy go live his own life! STANNUP!" Why a woman of her age and success would still be interested in Chiaki is beyond me, and I very much could've gone my whole life without ever seeing the sex scene at the end of episode 12.
Better: The scene where Shinobu sits down with Chiaki to help him understand that he was taken advantage of by those grown women of his past is so necessary. As she emphasizes, just because he got money out of it and his body reacted like bodies do when physically aroused, doesn't mean he enjoyed any of it or that entering into those arrangements at such a young age was his own fault. He was a child. He is not a bad person; he's a victim. (And his mom is trifling for knowing what was happening the whole time but never saying anything because she was spending that money too!) 
There's a black and white bird with grey wings that appears in Shinobu's earlier work and then reappears (sometimes in Shinobu's imagination, sometimes not) in other parts of the show. For some reason, it took me until after I'd finished the final episode to google the show's title in katakana form (シジュウカラ) and realize that shijuukara is the name of that specific bird! A bird that's also known as a Japanese tit. I was already aware of shijuu as an alternate reading of 四十 or 40 (usually yonjuu), which refers to Shinobu's age and makes the title 'Shijuukara' translate to "From 40 Onward". But I had no idea that 'Shijuukara' was actually a double entendre referencing the bird as well! That's so clever!
Best: That ending theme song by SpendyMily, "Koukai"? It GOES! The lead singer's tone and ability to emote with his voice remind me so much of Mitsumura Tatsuya, lead singer of the now-disbanded NICO Touches the Walls (one of my favorite bands in high school and college).
Honorable Mention: Pachiko (Season 1) - Apple TV Plus/2022

Based on Min Jin Lee's 2017 novel of the same name, 'Pachinko' is an American production that traces the history of the Baeks, a Korean family contending with Japanese hegemony from 1915 Busan to 1989 Tokyo. (In the show, at least in season 1, the year 1989 is the present.) Much of the events center around the oldest and youngest members of the Baek family. There's Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung from the 2020 film Minari), a permanent resident in Japan who was born in Busan during Japan's colonization of Korea and who moved to Osaka as a pregnant newlywed in 1931. And there's her grandson Solomon, an NYC-based finance guy who takes a temporary assignment in Tokyo in hopes of elevating his career. Solomon was born and raised in Osaka but was sent by his father to continue his schooling in the US as a teenager, and in bubble era Tokyo he mistakenly assumes that his Korean-ness is irrelevant to his professional aspirations because anti-Korean sentiment in Japan is a thing of the past. The deal he's trying to close (convincing a Korean grandmother to sell her home to his firm's client so the client can build a luxury hotel on that land) forces him to confront his Korean identity in unanticipated ways. Concurrently, Sunja reflects on all the difficulty that she's survived and pushes herself to return to her birth country (accompanied by her son Mozasu, Solomon's father) for the first time since 1931. 

Sunja's storyline is extremely faithful to the book, with the exception of her return to Busan (the book version of Sunja never sets foot in Korea again). And although Solomon's character exists in the book as well, the TV version of him is where the 'Pachinko' creators seem to take the most liberties. In the book, there's a character named Noa (Solomon's father's older brother, so his uncle) who similarly struggles to embrace being Korean, to the point of cutting off contact with his family so he can pass as Japanese, and eventually dying by suicide. 'Pachinko' takes the tortured self-hatred of Book Noa and replaces it with the naiveté and arrogance of TV Solomon. TV Noa's misfortune is referenced in retrospect (though not in detail), and he does appear as a child, but it remains to be seen whether season 2 will portray the more tragic aspects of that character as written in the novel.
Because Pachinko is one my favorite novels, watching the TV adaptation has been a no-brainer for me ever since I first heard that it was in development. And then I heard that Youn Yuh-jung was playing Sunja, that Hallyu superstar Lee Min-ho (my K-drama crush in high school) was playing Sunja's yakuza baby daddy Hansu, and that Justin Chon (Seoul Searching, Gook, etc.) was one of the co-directors, and that's all I needed to know! Masterful wouldn't even scratch the surface of describing what a cinematic and historical gift 'Pachinko' is. You wanna talk about art that sets the proverbial captives free? This show is it! Especially episode 4, where Sunja and Solomon each witness different forms of Korean resistance and embrace getting rained on (literally) as they return to their true selves. And Lee Min-ho's solo episode (episode 7) about how Hansu survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake AND the ensuing Kanto Massacre that targeted Korean people? That was a big-budget history lesson that broke my heart. Those events aren't mentioned in the novel, so I know the 'Pachinko' team did their research for that one! Have I not said enough? Watch 'Pachinko' if you know what's good for you!

Having reviewed all the Japanese and Japanese-ish dramas that I've watched recently, I gotta pick a favorite, right? Excluding the honorable mentions, 'Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte' is my favorite this time around. Sure, 'Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?'' has a very similar premise and a similarly lengthy title, commits more to its romantic angle, and has a more cohesive plot (especially if we're comparing final episodes). But 'Kikazaru Koi' has Yokohama Ryuusei as the male lead, stealing every scene he's in even when he has no dialogue, and for that, 'Kikazaru Koi' is the winner in my book! And if we're including the honorable mentions, then 'Pachinko' far and away surpasses all of the other five shows. Yes, I'm biased because it's based on a book I already love, but so be it! Now off I go to watch more J-dramas!

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