Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The J-Drama Drop #31

I've decided to rename my J-drama review series. Instead of calling it "ドラマ (Dorama) Time!" like I have been since I started reviewing J-dramas on this blog in 2013, I'm going to see how I feel about calling it "The J-Drama Drop" from now on. The reason or inspiration for this change? Nothing specific, other than knowing that today's review would be different from usual because I only have one actual J-drama to discuss, followed by an anime and multiple Japanese indie films as honorable mentions. (None of the winter 2023 J-dramas were speaking to me, so I circled back to a series from fall 2022 that I discovered was added to Netflix worldwide in February, while also taking advantage of a free online Japanese film festival that's currently running from January to June this year. More on that festival later in this review.) And because of that format difference, I figured why not use this as an opportunity to experiment with giving the series a new name? (But I'm counting this review as #31 rather than #1 because I am NOT starting over, ya dig?)

君の花になる (Kimi no Hana ni Naru/I Will Become Your Flower/I Will Be Your Bloom) - TBS/Netflix/2022
  • Asuka (Honda Tsubasa from 'Koinaka') excelled at her job as high school teacher and loved encouraging her students to follow their dreams, including an aspiring singer named Dan who would frequently record himself singing in empty classrooms. But Asuka's dedication and can-do attitude were taken advantage of by colleagues who harassed her and foisted their work onto her, and after misunderstandings caused most of her students to turn against her too, Asuka had no choice but to quit because her anxiety became too overpowering.
  • Four and a half years later, Asuka's now-former student Dan has already debuted as the leader and songwriter of a boy band called 8LOOM ("Bloom", originally an idol group of eight members, now only seven). But 8LOOM is currently floundering; they're not selling records, they're not ranking on the charts, and no fans are hyping them up anywhere on social media. So the president of their record company (the fictional Hanamaki Records) announces that they'll be dropped from the label unless they can reach #1 on the streaming charts within the next six months.
  • Meanwhile, Asuka has received psychiatric treatment, has recovered from most (not all) of her work PTSD, and is working for her sister's bento food truck business. She responds to a job ad and gets hired to be 8LOOM's live-in housekeeper/cook (寮母, ryoubo, "dorm mother" or "housemother") to get their lifestyle habits and self-discipline back on track. The educator in Asuka is determined to help these guys triumph, but will her past failures and anxiety flare up in the process? Will Dan learn to stop trying to be his own grumpy island? And might something "bloom" between Dan and Asuka?
Meh: I chose 'Kimi no Hana ni Naru' because it looked breezy and vibrant and seemed to offer a fairly light-hearted peek into the Japanese made idol industry. And for the most part the show delivers on all of those fronts, but I'm still left feeling "meh" about more than I would've liked. First off, the show resolves its major conflict way too early; 8LOOM reaches its goal of having a #1 single on the charts (plus a #3 single at the same time) by the end of episode 5, and they get their contract renewed early on in episode 6. So at this point we're not dealing with a cut-and-dry underdog story anymore, but we still have four episodes left, so what's the new conflict going to be? 
Cut to a scandal breaking out at the end of episode 8 when a stealthily-shot photo of Dan and Asuka holding hands goes viral. Holding hands (and commending each other on the good work they've done on any particular day) is all they ever do when they're alone together, because Dan has confessed his romantic feelings for Asuka but she neither verbally reciprocates his feelings nor turns him down. Their "relationship" is as chaste as they come, which was wise on the 'Kimi no Hana' production team's part since it prevents the "teacher and former student are attracted to each other" element of the show from becoming icky. But no matter! Idols are meant to appear single and sexless (or at least always available as potential love interests in their fans' imaginations), and many fans regard any indication to the contrary as betrayal. So 8LOOM's fans (8LOOMYs) start bashing the group online which puts their career in jeopardy again, Dan's pink-haired bandmate Naruse starts actin' stank (even though he knew about Dan's crush on Asuka before anyone else and was initially very supportive), Asuka moves out of the dorm and finds a new job as a teacher, and Dan gets suspended from all 8LOOM activities for three months for refusing to apologize for his involvement with Asuka. And as I watched this crisis unfold, I couldn't stop thinking, All of this over such a non-issue? Over holding hands? Y'all can't be serious. It felt like the overblown social media scandal in 'Kikazaru Koi' all over again.
And then the plot becomes just plain confusing; I understand what happens, but I don't understand why I'm supposed to believe it makes sense. Dan decides to recommit to the band and leave Asuka alone by the end of episode 9, but then he and his band mates have a dorm meeting where they weepily agree to disband because most of them have had other goals a-brewing that they now want to pursue. But then, at the end of the final show of their national tour in episode 10, Dan starts to announce their disbandment to the audience and then takes it upon himself to say, actually, he doesn't want 8LOOM to be over after all. His bandmates agree, but they clearly didn't discuss changing their minds before this moment, and ultimately they decide to each do their own thing until they can recongregate again (which they do three years later). I know the moment is meant to be touching, but all that talking and sobbing at each other on stage made me so uncomfortable! If I were in 8LOOM, or a concertgoer in the crowd, or one of the Hanamaki Records staff witnessing that happen, I'd be mortified! Because why are y'all discussing family business, things that fans needn't be privy to, during a concert, in front of an audience of thousands? And what was the point of y'all working so hard to get back relevant again, which you only recently achieved, if you were just going to disband anyway?
My last "meh" is small and ridiculous, but I just couldn't ignore it so here y'all go: Dan in episode 9, sitting in the pouring rain listening to the farewell message that Asuka left on his red Zoom H1 Handy Recorder microphone as if it's waterproof, when those mics are very much NOT? So silly. Them mics cost too much money for us—well, me—to be suspending disbelief like that! (I know because I use a Zoom H4n Pro for Young, Gifted and Abroad.)
Better: As much as I just ranted, 8LOOM deciding to disband after earnestly discussing the reasons why was surprisingly eye-opening to me. Idols start their careers at such young ages, auditioning for or getting recruited to entertainment companies, being placed into groups and trained for years, debuting but still struggling to get on. And by the time they finally do get on... they're old enough to dream new dreams that they didn't or couldn't consider before because they were spending so much of their youth focused on this one thing (their collective music career). Obviously idols are people too, and I'm sure plenty of them genuinely have other interests that are primarily for their own personal development or fulfillment. But I suppose I never seriously considered that more than just a few idols might prioritize those interests over their music careers if given the chance, rather than merely funneling those interests back into their record-selling or product-selling activities. So in that way, 8LOOM taught me something new.
Also, the interior design of 8LOOM's dorm is so inviting! As junky and full of too much stuff as the house appears at first glance, I still caught myself thinking how lovely it'd be to live in it. It feels cozy, colorful, playful, lived in, with ample sunlight during the day and every piece of clutter having its place. It's completely believable that a bunch of teens and 20-somethings live there, but it's also a space that a 30-year-old like myself wouldn't mind calling home either. Speaking of dorm life, I was also impressed to see that two characters in the 8LOOM camp are queer, and it's not treated like a big deal at all. Their queerness simply... is. During a dorm meeting when the guys discuss love and dating to help Dan come up with a love song to write, Takumi (the skincare-obsessed member) describes being bisexual or pansexual; he doesn't label himself but states nonchalantly that he "doesn't distinguish between men and women." And when the dorm is in desperate need of cleaning before a TV crew arrives for a shoot, 8LOOM's manager Kenji brings a man with him to help Asuka and the guys tidy up, gleefully and succinctly introducing the man as his boyfriend.

Best: Y'all. The production team behind 'Kimi no Hana ni Naru' made up a fictional boy band for this show about idols. Called it 8LOOM.  Cast young male actors, dancers, and musicians to portray this fictional group. But then also debuted 8LOOM as a limited-time group in real life! Had 8LOOM releasing singles, putting out music videos, performing on TV and at major festivals and events, selling merch (including plushie versions of each member), all coinciding with the October-December airing of the series! Personally, I can't stand the word "brand" and how everyone and everything has to be a "brand" now... but 8LOOM is branding, and planning, at its finest. I can't not salute what they pulled off!
And the casting! Oh my goodness! There's such a wide age range among the overall cast members, and it's so satisfying how well they act with each other. Whereas all the idol characters are in their teens and 20s, which is to be expected, Asuka and 8LOOM's two managers are in their 20s to 40s. Meanwhile, President Hanamaki (Natsuki Mari, the fashion boss gallivanting around with much younger men in 'FOLLOWERS') and her mysterious boy toy exec named Trinity (Takenaka Naoto, the star retiree/foodie in 'Samurai Gourmet') are in their 60s and 70s. Sure, these varying ranks and ages are a given to a certain extent, indicative of the age-based hierarchical structure within most Japanese  companies and Japanese society at large. Nonetheless, it was still so refreshing to see this show about idols not focus solely on the conventionally pretty and young-looking characters, you know? 
Honorable Mention: Aggretsuko - Netflix
I've watched all 100 of the initial アグレッシブ烈子/'Aggressive Retsuko' anime shorts (2016-2018), all five of its Netflix seasons (2018-2023), and its 2018 Christmas special also on Netflix. I don't want to make myself emotional going on and on about what this series means to me, so let me just say this. Although anime stoked my initial interest in Japan in high school, these days I watch anime only sparingly, when I feel drawn to a show for a special reason. 'Aggretsuko' became an important show in my life because it helped me make sense of my spirit-breaking experience working in corporate, as well as my struggles with finding and articulating my place in the world in my 20s. (A struggle that is ongoing, I assure you.) 'Aggretsuko' has allowed me to laugh at my pain, delight in getting to know all of Retsuko's wackadoo friends and co-workers who are never as one-note as they may seem, and learn more about Japanese society and especially Japanese millennial concerns. Most crucially, this anime has allowed me to rage vicariously through Retsuko's singing sessions, even if her fire waned considerably in the show's final season. I'm extremely thankful for Rarecho (the show creator and Retsuko's death metal voice actor), Kaolip (Retsuko's main voice actor), and everyone else involved in making 'Aggretsuko' intersect so precisely with so many poignant years in my life.
Honorable Mention: JFF+ Independent Cinema 2023
Since I only watched one drama this time around but still wanted more material for this review, I figured I'd include films that I watched during the 2023 edition of Japanese Film Festival Online. The festival is available on a website called JFF+, is free for residents of eligible countries, and has been put on by The Japan Foundation every year since 2020. I mentioned last year about watching
Her Love Boils Bathwater during the 2022 festival, and while last year's lineup focused on major releases, this year the festival is offering a new program focused on independent films. Hence, "JFF+ Independent Cinema". Here are the four indie films that I watched (out of 12 options), in the order that I watched them. Keep in mind that I didn't time the publishing of this review well, so only the latter two, plus four other films not covered below, are currently available as part of the festival's second half (mid-March to mid-June): 
Wonderwall: The Movie (ワンダーウォール 劇場版, Maeda Yuki, 2020). College students in Kyoto fight against the man ("the man" being their own university) to keep a student-run dorm from being demolished. This dorm has been a hub for student activism since the 1960s, and the current students must use whatever tactics they can to prevent the university administration from evicting them, demolishing the dorm, and building a new (read: more profitable) facility in its place. I liked that this film managed to tell so much story in only one hour, and that it was full of actors who were unfamiliar to me. It's possible that I had seen some of them before, but the only person I recognized without having to think about it was Okayama Amane, who played the nerdy but charming convenience store boo in 'Koi Nante, Honki de'.
Dareka no Hana/Somebody's Flowers
(誰かの花, Okuda Yusuke, 2021). After his older brother dies in an accident, a welder frequently checks in on his elderly parents at their apartment. One of the parents' neighbors dies when a flower pot falls on his head, and another neighbor is held responsible for it because the pot technically fell from his balcony. It's highly likely that the welder's father (who has dementia and was left home alone that day) is actually the one responsible for that incident, but the welder conceals this information, even as he becomes increasingly friendly with the dead neighbor's now-widow and her young son. I was impressed by this film's surprising non-slownessit's just slow enough but not nearly as slow or boring as I assumed it might beits human intrigue, the blurred/overlapping lines between victims and perpetrators, and the support group scenes. (The welder, the widow, and the widow's son attend the same local support group for people whose loved ones have died in tragic accidents.)

Tabidachi no Shimauta~Juugo no Haru~/Leaving on the 15th Spring (旅立ちの島唄~十五の春~, Yoshida Yasuhiro, 2013). The small Okinawan island of Minami Daito has no high school, so upcoming freshman must relocate to "the main island" (Okinawa Island) to attend high school every year. In other words, kids from Minami Daito have to leave home at 15 years old (sometimes with a parent/relative/guardian relocating with them, sometimes not), and the island organizes send-off festivities for them every spring. It's Yuna's turn to leave the island next year, and she's also been chosen to lead Minami Daito's all-girls sanshin traditional music troupe. As Yuna prepares for her farewell performance, dabbles in youthful infatuation, and explores her upcoming education and housing arrangements, she must also accept that her family—already split between Minami Daito and Naha, the big city on the main island—will never be under the same roof again. This film was the opposite of 'Somebody's Flowers' in that the pacing felt much slower than I expected. Nonetheless, I was delighted to see Yuna's father being played by Kobayashi Kaoru, the same actor who plays the lead chef/former gangster in the 'Shinya Shokudo' series.

Yume wa Ushi no Oisha-san/A Little Girl's Dream
(夢は牛のお医者さん, Tokita Yoshiaki, 2014) This documentary introduces nine-year-old Tomomi, a girl from the dwindling rural town of Matsudai-machi (now part of Tokamachi City) in the 1980s, who helps raise cows and pigs at her elementary school in addition to caring for cows at home after her parents become dairy farmers. These experiences inspire Tomomi to become a veterinarian, and the documentary continues to follow Tomomi as she pursues the studies and exams required for her desired field, and embarks on the first 10 years (2003-2013) of her career as a cow vet in her home prefecture of Niigata. I love how this film balances the preciousness of Tomomi and her classmates' childhood amongst animals, with the "dreams do come true" inspirational nature of Tomomi's journey becoming a female veterinarian from a working-class background, and the harsh realities of Tomomi having to make decisions about her patients' care based on their profitability (because they're still livestock at the end of the day). In a word, this documentary is splendid.
That's all for now! More than enough, don't you think? I know I started my review of 'Kimi no Hana ni Naru' with a lot of complaining (even more than I anticipated when I sat down to write this review, whoops), and I do feel like the show drags during the last few episodes. However! Overall it is quite fun, and you should watch it if you're in the mood for something light, cute, and non-committal. I would highly recommend 'Aggretsuko' to anyone, but maybe skip season 5 if you're not a hardcore fan who absolutely needs to know how the series wraps up. And as for the indies, while 'Dareka no Hana' surprised me with its intrigue, the Little Danielle in me who briefly thought she wanted to be a vet in elementary school loved 'Yume wa Ushi no Oisha-san' the most. Now, off I go to find more Japanese stuff to watch!

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