Wednesday, February 8, 2023

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 30

Happy New Year! Since this is my first time really writing something new in 2023, I figure I owe y'all that greeting. I meant to have new reviews out in January, seeing as how it was my 10th anniversary month and all, but the month got too hectic for me to write about anything. (Truth be told, I've had the October-January from hell, and February's looking like it might have beef with me too, but y'all didn't come here for those specifics.) I couldn't even finish reading anything last month! However, I did finish watching my most recent and very short Japanese drama roster, so here I am writing the 30th edition of my J-drama review series,"ドラマ (Dorama) Time!". Of the fall 2022 offerings I only had two J-dramas I was interested in, plus I did my own little 'Shinya Shokudo' retrospective where I set out to watch every episode ever made (re-watching the original three seasons and then watching the two Netflix seasons for the first time; thankfully Netflix has all five seasons). Here goes!
サイレント (Sairento/Silent) - Fuji TV/2022
  • Tsumugi (Kawaguchi Haruna from 'Kikazaru Koi') and Sou were high school sweethearts whose relationship was aided by their mutual friend Minato. (Minato was best friends with both and had feelings for Tsumugi, but kept those feelings to himself when he realized that Tsumugi had a crush on Sou.) Tsumugi fell for Sou's voice when he read an essay of his at a school assembly, and as a couple they bonded over their shared love of music (especially the band Spitz). 
  • But then Sou got diagnosed with hearing loss soon after the trio's graduation, and he was so overwhelmed that he hid his disability from his hometown friends by moving to Tokyo for college. After going completely deaf in college, Sou broke up with Tsumugi via a text claiming he'd fallen for someone else, when really he loved her so much that he believed it'd be too painful for both of them to no longer hear each other's voices or enjoy music together like before. Now, in the present, eight years have passed, and Tsumugi shares an apartment in Tokyo with her little brother while working at a record store and dating Minato. She thinks she's over Sou and is about to move in with Minato, until she unexpectedly crosses paths with Sou at a subway station on her way to an apartment viewing. 
  • Tsumugi almost immediately begins taking sign language classes to better communicate with Sou, and Minato—grateful to have his best friend back and sensing that Sou and Tsumugi's romance might eventually be rekindled—amicably breaks up with Tsumugi before his own potential resentment and jealousy can ruin the trio's renewed friendship. As the series approaches its conclusion, seemingly everyone in Tsumugi and Sou's lives is asking them, "Why aren't y'all together?" The lead exes do want each other back, but can they make a relationship between a hearing person and a non-hearing person work? Can Sou stop fixating on what they've lost and still might lose enough to give their love another chance?
Meh: The following isn't necessarily a demerit against the show, but rather an acknowledgement of my own misguided expectations. While Tsumugi and Sou becoming girlfriend and boyfriend again is an endgame of the series, 'Silent' is less about their romance and more about what it's like to be a deaf Japanese person. Sou's character is our main entry into this, but we also learn about this experience through his only deaf friend (a woman named Nana who was born deaf and who taught Sou sign language, played by Kaho from 'Love Song' and 'Kare, Otto, Otoko Tomodachi'), Tsumugi's sign language teacher (a hearing man who chose his profession after becoming close with Nana during their college years), and Sou's family (of which his mother played by Shinohara Ryoko and his younger sister put the most effort into learning sign language for him). To be clear, I deeply respect and appreciate that the creators of 'Silent' chose to focus more on the lives, frustrations, and dignity of deaf people than on creating another run-of-the-mill love story, because all of that was enlightening to me as a hearing viewer. I merely wish that Tsumugi and Sou's love story had a little more oomf to it, that's all. A teaspoon more of passion, maybe. Everyone's just a little too mature about everything. The love triangle gets dismantled just a little too smoothly. Tsumugi and Sou are just a little too chill with each other.

Better: Again, this is more about me than the show itself, but I like that Tsumugi and Sou's last names sound like plant names even though they aren't. Officially, Tsumugi's last name Aoba is written 青羽 and not 青葉 ("fresh leaves" or "green leaves") like I assumed before looking it up just now. Sou's last name Sakura (佐倉 and not 桜 like I assumed) has nothing to do with cherry blossoms. Nonetheless, isn't it adorable to think about a "Miss Greenleaf" and a "Mr. Cherry Blossom" falling in love with each other not once, but twice? And Sou's full name written in hiragana (さくらそう) or katakana (サクラソウ) means "primrose"! As in the flower! Maybe I'm just having a language nerd moment, but something in there's got to be intentional on the screenwriter's part, right? 
On a separate note, I was surprised but glad to see Itagaki Rihito playing Tsumugi's little brother Hikaru. After witnessing him play the disturbingly young romantic (?) lead in 'Shijuukara', it was a relief to see him acting alongside more people closer to his age range. I mean good on him for challenging himself with that other show, but his character in 'Silent' comes across much less like an overly intense, emotionally tortured, baby-looking young man, and for his sake and mine I am thankful.
Best: Oh my goodness, Meguro Ren (playing Sakura Sou) is such an excellent crier! That scene at the end of episode 1 where Tsumugi finally tracks Sou down after her initial sighting of him at the subway station, and he tries to walk away from her but she catches up to him and starts talking to him, and he's signing to her in response and sobbing from the distress of them not being able to understand each other before walking off? I was locked in from that moment forward.

モダンラブ・東京~さまざまな愛の形 (Modanrabu・Tokyo Love in Its Many Forms/Modern Love Tokyo) - Amazon Prime/2022
  • 'Modern Love Tokyo' presents seven episodes of people finding, expressing, rediscovering, or holding onto love in Tokyo. Each episode features a different couple. 
  • This is one of multiple Asian adaptations of the American, largely NYC-focused, romantic anthology series 'Modern Love' that were released in 2022. 
Meh: Whereas I felt like I was clearly watching a TV anthology when I saw 'Modern Love' (and this Anne Hathaway scene from season 1 cemented my endearment for the series), watching 'Modern Love Tokyo' felt like sitting through a collection of short films, which made the series drag a bit. With that said, the only episode I can honestly say I disliked was episode 5, where a female journalist gets catfished by an unhoused man for two weeks, finds out, and wants to continue dating him because of their genuine connection. That episode dragged the most, and toward the end I couldn't tell what was real and what was in the journalist's imagination, or what I was meant to understand from what she may have been imagining. 
And while it felt progressive to see Mizukawa Asami ('Double Fantasy') and Maeda Atsuko playing a lesbian couple raising two young children together in episode 1, I didn't sense much chemistry between their characters. 

Better: Episode 6 is super cute! Naomi Scott plays a British woman temporarily hustling in LA who becomes unexpectedly smitten with one of her online English students, an advanced learner and grad student who studies corn (played by Ikematsu Sosuke). They continue communicating after his lesson subscription ends, and she even flies to Tokyo to spend time with him in person. Both of these lead actors impressed me, as this was my first encounter with Naomi Scott's acting (I only knew of her as a singer before she became Disney's live-action Jasmine), and I had no idea that Ikematsu Sosuke could not only speak English well but act well in English too. This episode is almost completely in English, and also references all the proceeding episodes and their main characters at the end, which makes me think that this was meant to be the final episode. Perhaps episode 7 is a bonus that the production team decided to add to the season later on.

Speaking of bonuses, I also thoroughly enjoyed episode 7, the shortest and the only anime episode of 'Modern Love Tokyo'. In it, an office worker named Tamami who doesn't feel special often spends time at a bar drinking wine and doodling. When the bartender unknowingly plays her favorite song from high school ("You May Dream" by Sheena & The Rokkets), Tamami reminisces about her short-lived romance with one of her schoolmates. Back then, she found a boy named Rin playing that song on the piano in their school's empty gym/auditorium, and they bonded over being Sheena & The Rokkets fans. Thinking about that time also reminds adult Tamami of how her art teacher encouraged her to have confidence in her skills, which motivates her to start posting her drawings on Instagram. She gains a following there, which leads her to reconnect with Rin, who's a professional musician now.

Best: Episode 4, hands down. Kaho (Sou's deaf friend in 'Silent') stars as a depressed graphic designer named Mai. Her debilitating depression forces her to take an extended break from work, and her dog groomer husband Kengo looks after her as she spends months at home wallowing, because wallowing (in addition to therapy and medication) is part of her healing process. That episode depicts depression so well, and it does so with a bit of humor and without relying on dim lighting and dark colors! Mai spending sleepless nights blaming herself for everything that's wrong in her life (work stress, co-workers sneak dissing her) and outside of her life (polar bears potentially starving to extinction, whales dying from consuming plastic garbage, forests dying from acid rain, cars polluting the air) seems ridiculous. Until you remember that one time in April 2019 when Notre-Dame de Paris was burning and you burst into tears, not for Notre-Dame, but because you couldn't help bemoaning how nothing ever lasts. (Indeed, that is a true story of mine.) Sometimes depression translates the sense of "I feel helpless, and that makes me feel frustrated and scared and not in control" into "everything is my fault," which results in people like Mai blaming themselves for things that don't make sense to non-depressed people. And episode 4 displays that phenomenon in a serious but quirky way.
I also love how Kengo is willing to repeatedly affirm for Mai (because she asks him many times) that he won't divorce her, that he'll never hate her, and that he's going to stay by her side even if she spends most of her time laying around crying and her hair smells from lack of washing. Because he loves her, and as he reframes it, she's just "hibernating" for now. He provides the stability she needs to eventually come back to herself, and he sticks by her because he sincerely wants to, not just because he feels like it's his husbandly duty. And as an extra sprinkle on top, Mai and Kengo have the most adorable pug, who gets frequent camera time and adds a sweet touch to this heavy story.

Honorable Mention: Shinya Shokudo (seasons 1-3)/Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (seasons 4-5) - Netflix

Toward the end of July 2022, I randomly got inspired to watch 'Shinya Shokudo' from beginning to end. I'd already viewed all three of the original seasons (see my reviews for S1, S2, S3), and I'd been meaning to get around to the two additional Netflix seasons for years and just kept putting it off. So I finally stopped putting it off, but I started over from the beginning first. Five seasons, with ten episodes per season, spanning from 2009 to 2019, viewed by me from July 2022 to January 2023. 

Each episode is under half an hour long, but it took me a while to finish all 50 of them because I would only watch this show when I was eating. 'Shinya Shokudo' tends to be quite mellow and cozy-feeling, and since I'd already seen most of it previously, I figured watching it while eating my meals would help maintain my attention span as I progressed through the series. I wouldn't always remember to turn the show on when I sat down to eat, but I remembered often enough to start mentally referring to my viewing sessions as, "Let's eat and cry while watching other people eat and cry." (There's a lot of eating and crying on this show, y'all.)

Even though I'm not left with any more affection or nostalgia for 'Shinya Shokudo' than I already had before, there are no words to describe how powerful it was for me to see the "Cream Stew" episode (S2E6) again. I saw the young sex worker in the all-white suit and her white shoes and her updo come on screen, and memories of studying that episode and its script in class with Matsuhima-sensei at JCMU came flooding back to me. That was the episode that started it all, that inspired me to seek out the rest of the series in the first place, so taking that episode in anew meant a lot to me. 

I can't say that the Netflix seasons add anything spectacularly new to the series overall, and that was probably intentional on the production team's part since aside from brighter lighting and clearer film resolution, the visual and tonal continuity between seasons 1-3 and seasons 4-5 is pretty seamless. The ending theme songs are switched out almost every season, but "Omoide" by Suzuki Tsunekichi (RIP) reigns as the opening theme song for every single episode. With everything that matters about the show remaining the same, much of the plot being centralized inside or around one location (the titular diner run by everybody's favorite gangster-turned-chef), and many of the same actors making multiple appearances... honestly the most obvious signs of change and the passage of time that I noticed were the cellphones that characters used. You glimpse the full gamut of how cell phone technology in Japan evolved from 2009 to 2019, and I don't know why that's so fascinating to me, but it is. 

So there you have it, a shorter than usual J-drama roster this time around. If I had to pick a favorite between the two new shows I watched—which I do, because I always pick a favorite when reviewing J-dramas—I'd have to give it to 'Silent'. Even though it didn't give me what I was looking for romance-wise and was pretty subdued as a whole, learning more about deafness and the deaf community in Japan made seeing the show worth it. The care and dignity with which it's written are top notch, and watching the film CODA (2022 Oscar winner for Best Picture) in the midst of watching 'Silent' made me appreciate the latter even more. Give it a try if you are interested in representations of disability in media, prefer gentle love stories, or want to hear "Subtitle" by Higedan again and again.

 Now, off I go to find more J-dramas!

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