Friday, October 21, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 29 - pt. 2

Here I am, following up part 1 of this J-drama review with part 2! I'm categorizing the remaining two dramas as "unique but slow." Based on the pacing alone, I can't necessarily recommend either of these shows to everybody because of how much they drag despite starting strong. However, if you're interested in the noteworthy premises of these shows—a 20-something succeeding as the female founder/CEO of an edtech start-up despite not going to college in the one; an aspiring voice actress transitioning to gardening as a career and stumbling into a bisexual love triangle in the other—then I'd say they're worth a try. I mostly kept watching because they both star former child actresses in more mature roles, and because I was curious how each show's respective love triangle would pan out.
ユニコーンに乗って (Unicorn ni Notte/Riding a Unicorn) - TBS/2022
  • Sana (Nagano Mei from '3-nen A-gumi') was raised by a single mom and couldn't afford college. But after going to a local university to sit in on a seminar by her idol, tech entrepreneur Haneda Sachi (Hirosue Ryouko from 'Naomi to Kanako'), Sana was inspired to become an entrepreneur herself. By sneaking into classes at that same university, Sana met her co-founders: software engineers Kou (her future CTO who fell in love with her but kept it to himself due to their company's "no office dating" rule), and Jirou (her future head engineer).
  • Together, the trio founded Dream Pony, launching an app called Study Pony meant to make education accessible for all people, of all ages, for free. Study Pony was a massive hit when it launched, but now, after three years user numbers are lagging and Dream Pony's main investor is threatening to bail if things don't turn around. Sana comes up with the idea to revamp the app into a virtual campus called Study Pony Campus, and her team hires more staff to make this happen. One new hire is a socially awkward but genius software engineer, and the other is a middle-aged former banker with no tech experience but a passion for education (Kotori, played by Nishijima Hidetoshi from 'Blanket Cats'). While Sana pretends not to be aware of her and Kou's mutual feelings for each other, she also develops a crush on Kotori.
  • Sana's overall goal has been to make Dream Pony a "unicorn" company (a designation for the few start-ups that reach $1 billion in value, also the inspiration for Dream Pony's name and logo). But before that can happen, she must launch Study Pony Campus, get user numbers back up, and secure more investors so the company can stay afloat. Sachi's not convinced that Dream Pony is viable, but later becomes an investor and Sana's business mentor.
Meh: I could never get a solid read on how 'Unicorn ni Notte' wanted me to receive Sachi. At first I thought a Miranda Priestly-esque "never meet your heroes" dynamic was being set up between her and Sana, due to her reasons for rejecting Dream Pony from her "unicorn" incubator program: edtech is unprofitable especially given Japan's declining birthrate, all Sana has is her sob story to market Dream Pony and no actual innovation to back it up, and the dearth of female entrepreneurs in Japan isn't enough reason to give Sana's company a chance. Ouch, right? But then when Dream Pony wins a business competition, Sachi invests in them and even uses her own company's legal team to handle a patent dispute between Dream Pony and another start-up. So she's helping Dream Pony succeed, right? And she's become friends-but-maybe-more with Kotori, the resident nice guy, too. But then, she offers to buy Dream Pony from Sana, since now she apparently sees edtech as lucrative for fostering a new generation of entrepreneurs; Dream Pony would mostly remain as it is, but as a subsidiary of Sachi's company. The show frames this as an opportunity for Dream Pony to go global since Sachi's company is bigger and has more resources, and a chance for Sana and Kou to finally be together since they'll no longer be co-workers. (Kou switches to his father's company once the merger is complete.) And yet. Perhaps I'm simply not business-minded enough to get Sachi's motivations, but I couldn't shake how underhanded her buyout offer felt. Sana barely had time to bask in her own achievement before selling it to someone else.

Speaking of Sana and Kou, I recognize that this show isn't strictly a rom-com and is more about the life cycle of Dream Pony, with each episode exploring a different hurdle or phase that this particular start-up would have to handle in order for its app to succeed. I also understand that in 2022, letting an ambitious female character's career be overshadowed by her love life is played out. However, since the show went through the trouble of tracking Kou and Sana's history while also highlighting her growing attraction to Kotori, I'd hoped the romance would hit harder than it did. Why have a love triangle if it's not going to be juicy? Sana does choose between Kou and Kotori by the end, but the overall romantic element of 'Unicorn ni Notte' is more subdued than I would've liked. In fact, as a whole the show ends in this breezy, open-ended way that wasn't what I was looking for. Nothing is quite as conclusive as I was expecting.
Better: My only concern with the Study Pony Campus idea was having people of all ages using the app and learning together. I kept wondering, But... don't the Dream Pony peeps know that the internet is full of pervs? Should adults and children really be enabled to interact without some safety policy in place? So I was relieved to see Sana's team address this issue in episode 7, by devising new features to assuage parental fears about their children being harassed online, and also closing the digital divide in a rural area by having middle schoolers test out the beta version of the app on their school-issued tablets.
And in addition to seeing what Nagano Mei can do when not playing a high schooler anymore, I was delighted to see another familiar face: Thelma Aoyama! I've been aware of her for over a decade as one of the more notable Black and Japanese biracial women really doing it big and still having longevity in the Japanese music industry, and I was pleased to see her step into acting as the "Internet Woman" (インターネットの女/Internet no Onna) in 'FM999' last year. So I felt proud seeing her in another, bigger role this time as Megumi, one of Dream Pony's engineers and the only other woman on Sana's core team.

Best: Visually the show is bright and colorful, the design of Dream Pony's HQ looks playful and stimulating, and I appreciate that the show tries to inject some diversity into the office too. For instance, I'd already known that Thelma Aoyama is part Black, but 'Unicorn ni Notte' takes the extra step of showing her character video-calling her parents—with a Black man playing her dad—to remove any confusion about Megumi's racial background. And Kaito, the genius new hire I mentioned earlier, is revealed to be half-Korean; he became such a social recluse due to getting bullied at school for being Korean, and due to being perceived as generally "weird" by his peers and teachers. Of course, these are crumbs as far as depicting diversity goes, but they're crumbs that the show delivers well without being self-congratulatory. 

プリズム (Purizumu/Prism) - NHK/2022
  • Satsuki moved to Tokyo to be a voice actress, and while her roommate's career is off to a solid start, Satsuki realizes it's time to dream a new dream. Both young women work part-time at a plant shop, where Satsuki makes terrariums during slow periods. Satsuki gets let go from the shop, but not before meeting Riku, who's been eyeing her terrariums and whom she runs into while dispatched to a different work location.
  • Satsuki and Riku start dating, he gets her a job at his garden design firm, and he even helps her reconcile with her dad and her dad's male partner Shinji (not necessarily in that order). At first, Satsuki has a strained relationship with both her parents, who divorced when she was in middle school. Her dad had an affair with Shinji, whom he left the family for, and she still feels awkward around both men until Riku brings them all together. Meanwhile, Satsuki's mom nags her about moving back home and settling down, and remains hurt and bitter about the affair... but not forever.
  • What Satsuki doesn't know is that Riku also used to be in a relationship with a man, his former garden design professor (Yuuma) who disappeared seven years ago until now, when Riku's boss hires Yuuma to assist with an important and ongoing project. As Satsuki and Riku's relationship intensifies, Riku seeks answers from Yuuma about why their relationship ended so abruptly and where they stand now, and Satsuki becomes genuine friends with Yuuma before learning that he might also be her rival for Riku's heart.
Meh: Like I said earlier, 'Prism' is slooow. Let's not dwell on it.
Better: Ain't no shame in admitting it, I chose 'Prism' because I wanted to see how it would handle queerness. Granted, although Satsuki's dad, Shinji, Riku, and Yuuma are all obviously queer, the show doesn't explicitly attach labels like "queer" or "gay" or "bisexual" to them, and "same sex" only comes up a few times. But I think this lends well to the show's title and how queerness can vary depending on individual queer people's perspectives. (Consider the Merriam-Webster definition of a prism as, "a medium that distorts, slants, or colors whatever is viewed through it.") Which reminds me of the "Woman Who Fell in Love with a Woman" (女に恋した女/Onna ni Koishita Onna) song from 'FM999', where the actress describes sexuality as an ambiguous "gradation" that's never just one thing all the time. 'Prism' is messy in a "feelings and relationships are complicated" sort of way, but not in the cheap "Satsuki and Yuuma fight over Riku while Riku is indecisive about who to choose" way that I selfishly hoped it might be at first. (Although the latter part of that description is true; Riku genuinely wants to be with Satsuki but also can't make his love for Yuuma go away.)
I was also impressed by Satsuki and the men closest to her all being designers. She designs terrariums, her dad's an architect, Shinji is a stage designer, Riku is an exec at a garden design firm, and Yuuma is a landscaping expert who taught Riku practically everything he knows.

Additionally, though I didn't choose 'Prism' specifically for Sugisaki Hana (who plays Satsuki), when I began watching I was thrilled to suddenly recognize her as the girl whose mom runs an onsen in Her Love Boils Bathwater. (A 2016 film that I was able to watch earlier this year via Japanese Film Festival Online.) As I mentioned about Nagano Mei, it's refreshing to witness another young actress transition into such a fascinating grown woman role, especially when the only frame of reference I had was of her playing a child.

The ending theme song ("Yabai ne Ai tee Yatsu wa" by Hara Yuuko) kind of gives me "singing from another planet through a can" vibes, but I dig it! And this is just an extra little tidbit that I found out while writing this review: Asano Taeko, the woman who wrote 'Prism', also wrote my beloved 'Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?'! How cool is that?
Best: What the show lacks in pacing, it makes up for in vulnerability and emotional maturity, especially from episode 5 onward! My goodness! So many conversations, with such carefully written dialogue, addressing such difficult and sensitive subjects, with the characters displaying self-awareness and empathy that I only wish more people possessed in real life. The two instances that stand out to me most are when Satsuki's mom meets Shinji for the first time while visiting her ex-husband in the hospital in episode 5, and the highly charged confrontation that Satsuki, Riku, and Yuuma have in episode 8 when Satsuki insists they all get their intentions out in the open. I don't want to spoil the details of those conversations since they're among the choicest moments of the entire series. But I will say that in both scenes, the woman expresses her pain and frustration without being homophobic, and the men express their sincere desire to cause no further harm without apologizing for loving who they love. Given the circumstances it feels like a fine line to tread, but 'Prism' pulls it off in spades.
Alright, so the quartet of summer dramas I watched this time around were pretty aight across the board; loads of intentionality, but nothing altogether earth-shattering. With that said, my favorite of the four is 'One Night Morning' (see part 1 of this review). It's creative, it's short, it's vivid, it's romantic, it's empathetic, it's full of food, and I still can't stop thinking about the purple episode (episode 7) because it's so satisfying. Now that I'm all caught up, I'm curious to see what the fall 2022 J-dramas have in store. Best believe I'll be back to tell y'all all about it!

Thursday, October 20, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 29 - pt. 1

No matter that October is almost over! I've just finished watching all four of my J-drama selections from the summer 2022 broadcast season, and I'm here to review them in the order that I finished them! (Which, coincidentally, is the exact opposite from the order that I started them.) The Meh/Better/Best approach that I came up with last time worked really well for me, so I'm going to keep rocking with that. First up are two dramas that I'm categorizing as "short and sexy (?)". They both only have eight episodes, around 25 minutes each, and there's onscreen intercourse that is meant to be sexy, but I was more intrigued by the narratives at play than the backs being cracked (hence the question mark). Plus I'm not usually in the habit of using "sexy" as a descriptor, so there's that too.
復讐の未亡人 (Fukushuu no Miboujin/The Vengeful Widow) - TV Tokyo/2022
  • Mitsuki (Matsumoto Wakana from 'Kingyo Tsuma') is the titular widow, whose husband Yuugo was the ace software developer at his job. That is, until he went to work one day and jumped from the roof to his death due to overwork and a hostile office environment.
  • A year later, Mitsuki (going by "Mitsu") has infiltrated her late husband's workplace as an ace software developer just like him, using her friendliness and helpfulness as a facade to investigate Yuugo's demanding boss, the co-workers who offloaded their work onto Yuugo the most, and whoever was the last person to interact with Yuugo before he jumped. She methodically zeroes in on each target and ruins their lives, from poisoning tea to temporarily abducting a cat to playing someone's adulterous sex tape at their wedding reception.
  • Behind the scenes is her brother-in-law Youji, a private investigator who disguises himself at the office and other locations in order to complete whatever task or gather whatever intel Mitsuki needs. Meanwhile, one of Yuugo's former co-workers (now Mitsuki's co-worker) becomes fond of "Mitsu", and adds perspective to who Yuugo was at work.
Meh: What I'm about to say is petty, but this show has the same problem as 'Tokyo Girl' on Amazon Prime. (FYI, I watched that J-drama when it initially debuted on Amazon Prime years ago, but chose not to review it because I wanted it to be just for fun. I might re-watch and review it later though.) And that problem is the hair! In both shows, the main character has a bob in the present, and when she's shown in the past having long hair, it's clearly the same bob with poorly-disguised extensions attached. I'm no hairstylist, so it's not like I could do a better job myself, but come on! At least don't make it so obvious, please!
Also, the backstory is that Mitsuki grew up with her future husband and brother-in-law (twins) because they were... her first cousins? Meaning she married (and boinked) her own first cousin? I kept replaying those parts of the show to confirm whether the trio was referring to each other as family in the figurative sense—like how we Black Americans often call non-blood-related loved ones "my cousin"—but I'm fairly certain they were being literal. Which means there's incest in this show that goes completely unaddressed, and it's treated as completely normal that both Yuugo and Youji fell in love with Mitsuki at some point. Apparently she only ever had eyes for Yuugo, even though Youji's the one who acted as her knight in shining armor when she was being abused by her stepdad, and who shared a bond with her that Yuugo knew he wasn't in on. (They committed double-murder as kids and promised to never tell Yuugo about it, but he somehow found out anyway.)
Better: Something about the way grief informs Mitsuki's revenge still lingers with me. I was expecting that Mitsuki would want to take the entire company down, but I was wrong. Suing the company would likely be unsuccessful (and the less interesting route), and it actually means something to her to not destroy the entire company, because in her mind that would erase the legacy of her husband's hard work. So the best solution she can come up with is to dole out specific punishments to specific people, using their most precious or most used items against them. Her approach is cunning, but also doomed to leave her dissatisfied because it's not all-encompassing.

On a separate note, I found out after I finished 'Fukushuu no Miboujin' that it's written by the same manga artist (Kurosawa R) who wrote the manga that 'Kingyo Tsuma' is based on. Tonally and from a "women dealing with dark situations but still getting their rocks off" standpoint, this revelation makes perfect sense!
Best: Regardless of the results, Mitsuki's commitment to her plan is what sells the entire show. Imagine being so loyal to your loved one and so committed to vengeance that within a year, you: change your name, learn to code, get hired as a programmer on the same research and development team at the same company that worked your husband to suicide, and even have an affair with your dead husband's unrepentant boss so you can slowly poison his tea every time y'all boink? And you convince your private eye brother-in-law to show up as the tea vendor/delivery man/custodian/security guard/whatever invisible role you need him to fill on any particular day? That's a woman who commits, and I respect it! Wouldn't be me, but I respect it!

And all things considered... Mitsuki gets an ending that isn't completely miserable. She executes her plan, has many of her questions answered, gets to walk away from the company without her true identity or motives being exposed, and then as a form of closure she ends the series by sleeping with the one co-worker she'd grown close to during this entire process. She herself is not "happy" per se, but she's done what she set out to do, and she's not all alone at the end.
ワンナイト・モーニング (Wan Naito Moningu/One Night Morning) - WOWOW/2022
  • Based on a manga by Okuyama Kenichi, each episode of this anthology series features a pair of young people—mostly 20-somethings, a few teenagers—spending a night together and then deciding how to address their encounter the next day. Despite the show's concept, sex isn't involved in every episode. Sometimes it's simply a pair of characters spending the night together because one of them is too drunk to go home, or one of them has no other place to go for the night, or they're working the night shift together. There's some sort of romantic tension in every episode, but that tension doesn't always lead to sex.
  • Each episode has a central color that informs all the visual elements. Episode 1 is lime green. Episode 2 is yellow. Episode 3 is light pink. Episode 4 is orange. Episode 5 is emerald green. Episode 6 is blue. Episode 7 is purple. Episode 8 is hot pink. Every episode, someone from the featured couple visits the same convenience store, where the lighting and the silent, bored-looking convenience store clerk's uniform always match the central color of that episode. 
  • Each episode also has a central food that the featured couple shares. These foods also tie into the morals of these stories, which I would paraphrase as, "You're more than fine as you are; even if you feel unremarkable, you don't have to become somebody else just to be valuable or useful or lovable. Sometimes you just need someone to see you, and eventually the right people will." Episode 1 is umeboshi onigiri. Episode 2 is shokupan/honey toast. Episode 3 is soumen. Episode 4 is gyuudon. Episode 5 is egg salad sandwiches. Episode 6 is cup ramen. Episode 7 is tsukimi soba. Episode 8 is nikuman.
Meh: The show's title refers to the morning after a one night stand, often referred to by English speakers as "the morning after". Obviously this show was made for Japanese audiences, but if the show creators were going to use an English title anyway, then I'm not sure why they didn't simply call the show 'The Morning After'. Maybe 'One Night Morning' sounds slightly more unique and mysterious? I don't dislike the title as it is, but the phrasing remains curious to me.
Better: I was so surprised to see Shigematsu, the silent convenience store clerk, get his own episode and actually talk! Episode 8 (the final episode) is mostly about him and his co-worker bonding over how isolated they feel due to being respectively hyper-visible (her and her large breasts), and invisible (him and his social anxiety). I was even more pleasantly surprised to witness how that finale paints 'One Night Morning' to be an understated thank-you letter to service workers, because after hearing how lonely it makes Shigematsu feel to be ignored by customers, we see a montage showing how the couples from the previous episodes wouldn't have experienced the intimate moments and revelations they had together without Shigematsu selling them the items they needed. He's had a significant impact on at least 14 people, without even realizing it. The last line of the series is literally a new customer telling him "Thank you" after he directs her to the walnut bread that she's come to the store looking for.
Best: Absolutely exceptional attention to detail and commitment to color schemes! From lighting to sets to costume design, everything is consistent with the chosen color of each episode. If you're someone who enjoys more of the stylistic aspects of film and TV, then 'One Night Morning' is for you.
And there are so many additional moments that I adore from this show! I adore how the male love interest in episode 3 is so smitten with the episode's lead character (his co-worker), that he proposes to her with the assurance that he'll take her last name if she doesn't like the way her new name would sound if she took his. Personally I wouldn't be thrilled to be ambushed with a proposal like that, especially not when I'm eating, and especially since the man and his co-worker have never so much as gone on a date. However! A man who's willing to take my last name? How very special and rare and feminist of you, sir! 
I adore all the different shades of blue shown in episode 6 because blue is my favorite color, and I adore that the episode uses Nicholas Britell's "Agape" (or a very convincing sound-alike?) as background music for some of its more emotionally-affecting moments. 
I adore how much the bespectacled and seemingly straight-laced lead of episode 7 (a widow who's also another co-worker of the woman from episode 3) is committed to being a discrete horndog. Emphasis on discrete. She has a secret "sex friend" (friend with benefits) of six months that she goes to love hotels with, after which they always eat tsukimi soba together before going their separate ways. Strictly sexual, plus soba. And I adore how vulnerable yet determined her sex friend is when he practically pleads, "I love you, woman! I know you're scared and grieving, but please let me love you!" at the end of that episode, when she tries to deny their mutual feelings for each other. (Also, I know I intimated I was "meh" on the sexiness of both 'Fukushuu no Miboujin' and 'One Night Morning'. But the love hotel scenes in episode 7, coupled with all the purple decor and purple lighting everywhere, truly delivered.)
That's all for part 1. Don't miss part 2!

Thursday, October 13, 2022

BOOKS! (The Obelisk Gate)

Listen. When I said in my last review that I'm locked in to this trilogy now? I meant it! I am LOCKED IN! It took me nine months to realize what a feat of brilliance I had on my hands with The Fifth Season (book 1 of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy) enough to finish it, and only three weeks to finish its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which I'm writing about today. 
Before I dig into my spoilerific reviewlike I said last time, I'm explaining this series to y'all as I'm explaining it to myself, and this review will be as long as it wants to beI must give another shout-out to my marvelous friend Sho, who bought me the Broken Earth box set in the first place. After I messaged them about finishing The Fifth Season, they sent me some fascinating articles about Jemisin's writing process (including why she chose second-person narration, how she approached creating races in this universe, and why she chose to "trick" readers into accepting Essun by presenting her as three different people). I am SHOCKED that Jemisin thought readers would hate Essun for being unlikable. Unlikable why? Because she's 40-something, a woman of color, a mom, has killed many, and is hard with people? Psshh! I've loved Essun in all her iterations so far, I refuse to be deterred by her supposedly-sordid details, and I refuse to judge any of her choices, especially when I can see through her hardness to grasp how loving and sensitive she truly is. That's my traumatized, cynical, messed up on the inside, don't trust nobody, prone to shame spirals, Black woman kindred spirit right there. And I'mma stick beside her!
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Now. Book 2. On the TV review podcast This Too Much (by The Black Guy Who Tips), I frequently hear the hosts discuss episodes advancing the plot versus advancing the characters, and as a novel The Obelisk Gate definitely feels like the latter. Book 2 might not seem as action-packed as book 1, but the "Hold up, WHAT IN THE ACTUAL F**K is happening right now?!" factor is still prevalent, and book 2 does flesh out more of the rules (so to speak) of this universe that were established or hinted at in book 1. Rules such as:

Orogeny comes from the "sessapinae", a special part of the brain stem that only orogenes have. Guardians (having orogeny as a recessive trait but not fully being orogenes themselves) have their sessapinae permanently altered as children when the empire surgically puts an implant ("corestone") inside them to make them Guardians. These implants cause Guardians pain at the base of their skull for the rest of their lives, which is why they're always smiling creepily like they do, because they're told that smiling releases pain-reducing endorphins. These implants are also prone to "contamination" due to—I'm calling it now, but I might be wrong—the iron in them, making certain Guardians deranged. That's what happened to the female Guardian in book 1 who spoke to Essun (Damaya) as if possessed before Schaffa killed her. The implant also prevents Guardians from aging past a certain point; they can live for centuries.  
When enacting orogeny, orogenes emit a "torus" of ice that forms around them and freezes anything or anyone within a certain radius (a radius that orogenes can learn to control the size of). Think energy in, energy out, and bystanders die if they get too close. Sometimes orogenes "ice" people on purpose, or as a reflex to feeling threatened. Some orogenes can also turn people and things into stone, just like stone eaters can (or at least Hoa showed that he could in book 1). It took me until embarrassingly late in this novel to fully grasp that when Jemisin uses the word "stone", it doesn't just mean gray rock, which is what I'd visualized. In the Broken Earth universe, "stone" refers to all kinds of stones, including gemstones. So when living creatures are described as being "turned to stone", basically becoming statues and dying instantly, the deathly result is often quite colorful rather than dull and uniform. The reason some orogenes can turn living things into stone is because...
...Orogenes have two powers at their disposal. One is energy distribution (orogeny); it's the style that Fulcrum orogenes are taught, and that most untrained orogenes instinctively know to a certain extent, which focuses on sensing/"sessing" with their sessapinae and connecting down through the earth for power. (This style relies on heat/pressure/physical movement.) The other style, unveiled in book 2, is "magic" distribution (or simply, magic); it's a highly-advanced and lesser-known style that Alabaster teaches Essun and that Essun's daughter Nassun discovers on her own, which focuses on perceiving with their awareness and connecting up to the floating obelisks for power. (This style relies on the threads of silvery-looking matter or "magic" found inside all living organisms and inside the obelisks too.) With this style, orogenes can access the interior of any substance, which allows them to do nearly anything from transmitting their consciousness through the air and surveying the entire continent at once, to altering the atomic bonds in people's bodies and turning them into stone. Orogeny is activated by exerting force, while magic is activated by resonating with the obelisks, of which there are 216 (217?) floating around the continent.
Relatedly, orogenes whose powers are activated can have their powers combined, creating a "network" to achieve a desired purpose. The same can be done with obelisks too, and a network of connected and activated obelisks is called the Obelisk Gate. The orogene acting as a yoke between all of the obelisks ("opening" the Obelisk Gate) becomes omnipotent for the brief amount of time that they can handle channeling all of that power through themselves without being destroyed.
And apparently, stone eaters are people too. I stand corrected. They used to be regular humans before being transformed. In fact, Hoa (Essun's stone eater) and Antimony (Alabaster's stone eater) are among the first and oldest stone eaters. Certain stone eaters attach themselves to certain orogenes, becoming their guardian or companion for life. And this companionship is triggered by obelisks (in the sky) pulsing and then floating like magnets toward orogenes who've connected to them while using their powers, whether those orogenes mean to connect or not. The obelisks' pulsing and movement alert stone eaters (in the ground) to those orogenes' location as well, prompting interested stone eaters to race and fight each other to be the first to approach them and establish an alliance.

Book 2 also introduces some new villains while reintroducing some important old ones, including:

Earth, apparently the biggest villain of all. While stonelore is the closest thing to a sacred text in the Broken Earth universe, the closest thing to God is Earth itself ("Father Earth"), which most people regard as malevolent ("Evil Earth" as opposed to, say, "Good God"). According to stonelore, Seasons did not exist and Father Earth was not malevolent until people, supposedly orogenes, over-exploited his resources by digging toward Earth's core to make and use obelisks for their power-hungry whims. (That's what the giant pits like the one Essun/Damaya found in book 1 were built for.) This exploitation somehow caused the Moon (capital M) to be flung away from Earth, and a Gospel-esque part of stonelore claims that Father Earth wages war upon humanity because humanity made his only child go away. Except it's actually the opposite of the Gospel story; it's not "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16). It's, and I paraphrase, "For Father Earth so hated humans for taking the Moon from him that he avenged the loss by opening a can of whoop-a** on humanity, in the form of Seasons, for thousands and thousands of years to follow."
So the underlying conflict of this series is between Earth and humanity, and the "three-sided war" that Hoa and Alabaster explain to Essun in books 1 and 2 refers to the opposing objectives/factions concerned with how to end that underlying conflict. (Read: how to handle humans, who've messed everything up.) One side wants to eliminate humans; another side wants to neutralize humans by turning them all into stone eaters (supposedly stone eaters first came to be because Father Earth tried to make some people more earth-like); and another side wants to establish a truce where Earth and humanity can peacefully coexist (Hoa is part of this faction). Since stone eaters have been around for thousands of years, they're the main ones engineering this war, using humans as pawns. So far, the two clearest villains on the anti-human side are a stone eater known as Gray Man (who wants to turn all people into stone eaters) and the element/mineral/metal, iron. Iron is present as the tiny shards that line the walls of the obelisk pits, and is also present in the Guardians' implants (as mentioned above). Iron is somehow sentient, able to communicate with and invade the bodies of people who make close contact with it, possessing them on Evil Earth's behalf.

And last but not least of the villains, there's still Schaffa, Essun's former Guardian. Who to my bewilderment, ire, and disgust, did not perish when Essun blew up the island of Meov to prevent him from capturing her and her son toward the end of book 1. More on that later.

All of this additional information sets the stage for multiple showdowns to come (including a battle that happens toward the end of this book), and clearly defines one of the end goals of the series: using the Obelisk Gate to bring the Moon back in alignment with Earth, thereby appeasing Father Earth, which would restore seismic order and make Seasons obsolete so humanity can do more than just barely survive. It seems that all sides of the three-sided war want to retrieve the Moon, but not all are interested in the restabilization of humanity. Just like in book 1, book 2's chapters are divided between three main characters⁠—who are actually three different people this time⁠—and Hoa the stone eater is still narrating it all as if he's telling the story to Essun. In the order that The Obelisk Gate's main characters are first presented:

Nassun. Eight-year-old Nassun uses a diamond to bribe a traveling stone lorist to take her away from Tirimo, because she hates how much of a drill sergeant her mom is during their secret orogeny training sessions. On the day of the great Yumenes quake, Nassun comes home to find her dad Jija has beaten her little brother Uche to death because the lorist had returned the diamond to Jija (who was home alone with Uche), and Uche revealed himself to be orogene by sensing the diamond in Jija's pocket. Jija can't bear to kill Nassun, however, because she looks like him and is his favorite child. Instead, he abducts her and they spend a year traveling south to an Antarctic comm called Jekity, which contains a compound called Found Moon where orogenes can supposedly be "cured" of their orogeny. But Found Moon is actually a place where orogene children who've been rejected by their families can train each other under the supervision of Schaffa and two other Guardians. So history repeats itself, with Nassun being influenced by the same Guardian who groomed her mother as a child. (Except Nassun is not afraid of Schaffa like Essun was, and is loyal to Schaffa in an overzealous way.) 
Over time, Nassun discovers new abilities by accidentally turning one of the other Found Moon kids to stone, and experimenting with "the silver" (magic) inside various living beings. She also accompanies Schaffa and another Guardian on a visit to the Antarctic Fulcrum, where she witnesses them slaughter the senior orogenes and then has a crisis about the horrors of the Fulcrum, which causes her to turn all the remaining orogenes  there into stone. (I'm still confused as to why she reacted by killing her own kind, but moving on.) On the way back to Found Moon, a gray stone eater introduces himself to her, and she names him Steel. Almost 11 years old now and fed up with managing her dad's volatile emotions while pretending to not enjoy being an orogene, she visits Jija one last time, Jija slaps the mess out of her, and she ices his house (but not him) on the way out to show him who the real gangsta is warn him against harming her further. Later, Jija comes to Found Moon attempting to kill Nassun, and Nassun kills him instead by turning him into stone too (but not before he manages to stab her in the shoulder). Steel witnesses all this but doesn't intervene, and afterwards manipulates Nassun into wanting to learn how to open the Obelisk Gate for him.

Essun. Despite Essun refusing to view the underground city of Castrima as anything but a temporary stopping point on her journey to finding her daughter, she gets roped into joining the headwoman's advisory council and training the comm's younger orogenes. Essun estimates that this current Season that Alabaster has started will last 10,000 years; humanity will likely go extinct unless someone does something about it, and both Lerna and Alabaster urge her to be that someone. As Alabaster slowly dies in the infirmary, gradually turning to stone as a side effect of using the Obelisk Gate to destroy Yumenes, he teaches Essun about magic redistribution so she can eventually use the Gate to bring the Moon back. (Finishing the mission that Alabaster began by slowing and altering the direction of the Moon's orbit when he destroyed Yumenes.) As a meat shortage looms, an army from a rival comm composed of elites leftover from the before times (Rennanis) sends a stone eater (Gray Man, also known to Nassun as Steel) to offer a deal: the Castrimans can join Rennanis voluntarily, but no orogenes are allowed. Gray Man holds Hoa's severed arm while delivering this message, and Essun rushes to her apartment to find Hoa in pieces. She feeds him the last of the special stones he's been carrying around since book 1, which enables Hoa to reconstitute himself into a young man made of black marble. This is the original form he was in when, as Essun now realizes, she (Syenite) first met him inside the garnet obelisk that exploded over Allia in book 1. Meanwhile, Castrima's headwoman Ykka (also an orogene) plans to hold a comm-wide vote on Rennanis's offer, but this inadvertently sets off a night of chaos where multiple people die, including Alabaster. (Essun gets triggered by the sight of a still woman about to beat down an orogene child like Jija beat Uche, she turns that woman into stone, and Alabaster uses his powers to intercept hers before she can stone everybody else. This saps the last of Alabaster's strength, and when Essun immediately goes to him in the infirmary, he's already dead and fully a statue, having left her a message: the enormous ovular onyx obelisk that he had Essun summon to Castrima is "the key".) 
Essun then shatters the ballot box and declares that orogenes' humanity is not up for a vote; she's decided to make Alabaster's death count for something by ensuring that Castrima remains united. She goes above ground to reject the Rennanis army's offer, and gets stabbed in the right arm by a Guardian she didn't know they had, but is spared from death when Hoa transports her through the ground. Essun and Ykka collaborate to combine all the Castriman orogenes' powers and prevent Rennanis from fully breaching the underground, but their network is disrupted when Rennanis-allied stone eaters start attacking them. Then Essun returns above ground (accompanied by Hoa), and uses the onyx obelisk to summon numerous other obelisks and open the Obelisk Gate. She wields the Gate's power to destroy the Rennanis-allied stone eaters, reach long-distance and turn everyone back in Rennanis into stone, and finally track Nassun down. She closes the Gate and passes out, but not before catching a glimpse of Alabaster (whom Antimony has remade into a stone eater). Hoa pulls her below ground again and takes her to Lerna's apartment, where Lerna discovers that Essun's right arm is completely stone as a result of opening the Gate. Hoa informs Lerna that the Castrimans can now move into Rennanis en masse—since Essun inadvertently damaged Castrima while trying to defend it—but that Essun will want to retrieve her daughter first. Hoa and Lerna clock each other's affection for and devotion to Essun, but seem to come to an understanding. For now.
Schaffa. Schaffa is about to drown in the ocean after Essun blows Meov up, but then he starts to panic. And in his panic, the cold and angry presence of the sentient iron within his Guardian implant speaks to him, seducing him into letting it overtake him so he can keep living. This presence gradually erases many of his memories and makes him feed off of people's magic like some sort of vampire, except he touches two fingers to the napes of his victims' necks rather than biting them. (He can consume magic from both orogenes and stills, but feeding off of stills kills them.) He learns these new things about himself after he washes up at a comm called Metter and an old, orogene-hating man lets Schaffa recuperate at his home. Schaffa accidentally feeds on Eitz (the old man's preteen grandson who's secretly orogene) when the boy approaches Schaffa for help, and realizing what he's doing and how satisfying it feels, he murders all the adults in Eitz's family before leaving Metter with Eitz. He and Eitz eventually arrive at Jekity, where Schaffa convinces the headwoman to let him create a Guardian compound which he names Found Moon. By the time Nassun arrives there years later, she becomes the tenth child in Schaffa's care. (Eitz was the first and is the oldest, and unfortunately he's the kid that Nassun later stones on accident.) 
Schaffa quickly singles Nassun out as his favorite once she arrives at Found Moon, and he fixates on her even more after he realizes that she's Essun's daughter. He's the one who insists that Nassun move into Found Moon permanently when her issues with her father start hindering her training; he even body slams Jija to scare him out of interfering. Having mostly lost who he used to be, Schaffa claims to want to redeem some of his past misdeeds that he still remembers, which is his main motivation for operating Found Moon (a safe environment where orogene children can explore their powers more freely than they would've been allowed to in the Fulcrum). But this is directly at odds with his impulses, as the iron presence in his head tempts him to keep feeding on and killing people (including Nassun), and punishes him with shocks of pain when he doesn't yield to those urges. When Nassun realizes that she can use her "silver" work to remove Schaffa's implant so he won't hurt anymore, Schaffa refuses because he doesn't want to rapidly age and die as a result. Later, he's the only one besides Steel to witness the aftermath of Nassun stoning her father.

I wrote much in my review of The Fifth Season about the parallels between being orogene and being Black in America. And those parallels still stand in The Obelisk Gate, because the empire's official declaration that orogenes are not people, as quoted at the end of chapter 14, echoes the logic of American slavery. (The Stillness depends on orogenes' slave labor, and so orogenes must be categorized as not human to justify the bondage that sustains the Stillness's way of life.) But now, The Obelisk Gate has me recognizing being orogene as an allegory for queerness too. For instance, when Eitz approaches Schaffa, his biggest fear is being outed to his family (especially his grandfather) because he doesn't want to disappoint them or be harmed by them in retaliation. But then, when Eitz isn't around, his mother confides to Schaffa that she already knows that Eitz is different. In this way, Eitz's subplot seems to echo that of a closeted gay youth. As for Nassun, at the part when Jija brings her to Jekity so she can be "cured" of her orogeny, my mind immediately pinged and went, Oh! Conversion therapy. And when Ykka tells Essun the story of how her fellow Castrimans surprisingly embraced her when she revealed herself to be orogene as a teenager, she says that she "outed myself." There's also something to be said about learning differences in this novel, and people having varying (but no lesser) strengths. Nassun doesn't understand Fulcrum-style orogeny that well, but she thrives at figuring out how to connect to obelisks and work magic without anyone teaching her how. Ykka is self-trained, so there's a lot Essun (Fulcrum-trained) can do that Ykka can't, but the reverse is true as well. Ykka can draw orogenes to Castrima (that's how Essun got there, because she felt pulled there) and already has experience combining other orogenes' powers with her own. In fact, she's the one who teaches Essun how to network with other orogenes, which makes Essun realize that Ykka doesn't need to know all the fancy little tricks because she knows how to do what's relevant to the needs of her comm.

If the biggest lesson I learned from The Fifth Season boiled down to, "The world doesn't have to be this way, and we don't have to live like this," then the biggest lesson I've learned from The Obelisk Gate is as follows. Even if there's no reasoning with bigotry/hatred/racism/foolishness/whateveryouwannacallit (some folks are lost causes), it's still worth it to believe in people and try living in harmony with them for the chance that they won't actually turn on you. A risk like that could be worth the potential cost. Because it's not about giving people an opportunity to prove their supposed inherent goodness; it's about you seizing your opportunity to live the life you want and deserve. For Ykka, that's a life of believing that orogenes and stills can truly live together peacefully, and that the Castrimans have her back because she's always had theirs. For Alabaster, that's the normal life that he, Essun, Innon, and Corundum had in Meov, even if only for a few years. And for Essun—who instinctively wants to "grab your runny-sack, grab your people, and run" but decides to stay and fight for Castrima and its ungrateful stills instead—that's whatever life will look like once this Season is, and hopefully all Seasons are, over. It's the better world that her children, especially her dead sons, have never gotten to experience.
Speaking of Essun's children, allow me to circle back to precious, impressionable, disillusioned Nassun. Initially, I sympathized with her but didn't see myself in her because I'm not a child, I don't have superpowers or siblings, my parents aren't murderers, and I've never been stuck on a creepy older man. But she and Jija have an argument in chapter 17 that unravels just like conversations with my dad used to, and that's when it hit me: Nassun adjusts herself around her dad's prickly emotions just like I had to do with mine, and over the same ages too (8 to 11)! I spent time alone with my dad because of court-ordered visitation and not because of widespread (un)natural disaster like Nassun; I was shoved down once but not shoved out of moving transportation and sent rolling down a jagged hill like Nassun was; and I wouldn't call what I did "manipulating", which is what Nassun believes she does to placate her father. However. Whittling myself down into some approximation of the girl my dad thought I was, funneling my actions, thoughts, and emotions into a limited range of acceptable expressions to avoid making him angry or primed to argue over something ridiculous? I definitely did all of that. Even the religious undertone of Jija's complaints and demands feels familiar to me. Like how he's bent on curing Nassun of her orogeny (my dad briefly tried to pray away my need for certain medications); or how he calls Found Moon a "den of iniquity" and forbids Nassun from fraternizing with certain children, even though he's never spent significant time there or gotten to know Nassun's peers (check); or how "How dare you disrespect your father!" flares up in him when Nassun gently counters him with truth he doesn't want to hear, because he perceives that as a challenge (no joke, I heard "The Bible says honor your father!" as a rebuttal until I was at least 22). Obviously Jija is an extreme case, and I didn't live Nassun's childhood to the exact same intensity or extent, but her experience is still very reminiscent of my own.

Today my dad and I text each other sporadically, which is as much communication as I'm comfortable with. I no longer feel the need to lament how he treated me as a child, and thinking about it doesn't affect me like it used to. But it did lay the foundation for me bracing myself for people's worst or not expecting much from them at all, avoiding them, being reluctant to trust them, and also being reluctant to wholeheartedly believe in the necessity of community to my personal well-being. So to read about a young Black girl being stuck with her estranged father under very specifically-distressing circumstances and eventually realizing she must sever ties with him (Nassun), in tandem with reading about a Black woman re-learning despite herself how to trust in people's better nature and rely on community to survive instead of cutting and running out of self-preservation (Essun)? That whooped my behind, I'm not gonna lie. I felt like N.K. Jemisin was telling me about myself.
Honestly speaking, whereas The Fifth Season left me feeling hopeful and energized, The Obelisk Gate has me feeling... sad. I enjoyed book 2 a lot, but it did have me catching a few stray hits. (I don't resent or take offense to this, I just wasn't expecting these characters' drama to come knocking at my front door. Now why am I in it, N.K. Jemisin? Why are you doing this to me?) And even though I've come exceedingly late to the party, I'm all in now and the Broken Earth trilogy has given me something to be enthused about, something to look forward to (and at the risk of sounding too dramatic, something to live for). So it's sad to know that this party is already two-thirds over, and I don't know what will take its place. Today is Thursday, my third day in a row of wrestling emotionally with finishing this book review—which I guess turned into more of an essay, so thank you for reading this far—and this morning I even spent most of my weekly therapy session talking and crying about everything I've just relayed to you all. I'm simply not ready to let this series go. Now, does this mean I'm going to restrain myself, savor book 3, ginger it slowly, and take my time with it so I can make this adventure last as long as possible? Of course not! Off to gobble up book 3 I go! 

Favorite quotes:
"I'd been looking at diagrams of the obelisks, trying to understand what their builders intended. My head hurt. I knew you were alive, and I missed you so much I was sick with it. I had this sudden, wild, half-rusted thought: Maybe, through the hole, I could get back to you" (168).

"It takes all of herself, and the confidence that comes of delight, to engage with the earth to her fullest" (188).

"You'd almost forgotten this part of him: the dreamer, the rebel, always reconsidering the way things have always been because maybe they should never have been that way in the first place. He's right, too... There's a reason Alabaster was the magnetic core of your little family, back when you were together. 
Damn, you're nostalgic today. It prompts you to say, 'I think you're not just a ten-ringer... You're always thinking. You're a genius, too—it's just that your genius is in a subject area that no one respects'" (204).

"No vote... Leave. Go join Rennanis if they'll have you. But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people" (334-35).
"I wish you could love me anyway, even though I'm bad... I tried to keep loving you, but it was too hard" (387).