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!

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