Friday, July 21, 2023

The J-Drama Drop #32

Back again to talk J-dramas! Truth be told I would've had this review out weeks ago; at first I only found one J-drama that stuck with me this time around, so I also watched a couple Japanese films to beef up the rest of the review, and was ready to write. But then, I happened to see someone post about 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' in a Facebook group that I'm in, saying it was legitimately funny, touching, and probably the best J-drama she's ever seen (because it's the first one that's ever held her attention all the way through). So I figured, Alright, bet. I set aside time to watch that show as a last-minute addition, and now I'm here, ready to get to reviewing!

(I don't think she'll ever read this, but thanks for the spirited recommendation, D.T.!)

エンジェルフライト 国際霊柩送還士 (Angel Flight: Kokusai Reikyuu Soukanshi/Angel Flight: International Casket Repatriators) - Apple TV Plus/2023

  • Rinko is a young woman starting a new job at Angel Hearse, a team responsible for repatriating the bodies of Japanese people who die abroad and foreigners who die in Japan. Angel Hearse's office is located at Haneda Airport, and is helmed by a middle-aged, eccentric but earnest woman named Nami (who recruited Rinko).
  • In almost every episode, Rinko and Nami are dispatched to a different country to retrieve bodies. Along with repatriation, Angel Hearse's work includes preparing the bodies for burial and helping the deceased's loved ones understand the circumstances surrounding their death. (Not in a forensic way, but in a "This is why your loved one went to this country, what being in this country meant to them, and how they were living" way.)
  • The Angel Hearse team (and the show itself) repeatedly asserts the need for every dead person to have a proper burial, regardless of how tenuous their relationship was with their loved ones, because at least then those loved ones won't regret not saying goodbye. Meanwhile, Rinko is estranged from her abrasive and ailing mother while also being her caretaker, and Nami refuses to believe that her fiancé (who was lost at sea in Cuba eight years ago) is truly dead.
Meh: Even though Rinko is the designated fish out of water through whom the audience learns the ropes of this particular subfield of mortuary services, I simply was never that interested in what was going on with her. I understand the show needing to spend time on her in order to make her a fully fleshed-out character, but things got boring fast every time 'Angel Flight' focused on Rinko and her issues with her mom.
At the risk of sounding too sensitive, I must say... episode 2 feels incredibly racist. It almost made me quit the show completely. I didn't appreciate Black people being portrayed as terrorists (who conduct a mass shooting at a fancy hotel banquet for diplomats), especially when the show lazily sets the episode somewhere that doesn't exist. A serious examination of terrorism, lack of infrastructure, and diplomats and development workers living in certain countries despite locals vocally not wanting them there at least warrants being contextualized in a place that's real, does it not? But I guess that would've taken too much guts. Too many details. Instead, the show drums up a fictional and vaguely Central African place called "Mubadal". And I know the production team knows better, because when they address xenophobia, exploitation, and solidarity between Japanese and foreign garment workers in episode 4, the episode is on the workers' side. (Specifically on the side of a young Vietnamese woman who dies after working late at a factory and having her pay repeatedly withheld by her Japanese boss, who knows that people like her can't fight back because they have few other job or visa options.) But that same strong emphasis on empathy and understanding toward (poorer and darker-skinned) non-Japanese people is not afforded to the supposedly loud, angry, mean, ungrateful Black people in the country that the show makes up in episode 2.
Better: It was so much fun watching Matsumoto Wakana (from 'Fukushuu no Miboujin' and 'Kingyo Tsuma') play an absurdly wealthy, suspiciously-twice-widowed, unbothered bish whose Moroccan billionaire husband dies under dubious circumstances in episode 5. There's such an immense well of attitude and calculated fury in her, with pain and sincerity lying just beneath it all. And her body language, poses, and styling tell so much of her gold-digger story before she even opens her mouth! What a sharp performance!

I also appreciated how episode 3 makes a point of not prioritizing the rich over the not-rich. A typhoon is happening, there's only room for one casket on a flight from Gimpo to Haneda, and there are two Japanese nationals who each died in Seoul and need to get shipped back to Japan in time for their already-scheduled funerals. The choice is between a working-class mom/restaurant owner whose adult children gifted her K-pop concert tickets after a lifetime of always putting herself last, and a big name menswear CEO who died after she did. Despite pressure from the CEO's team to focus on transporting his body alone, Nami pretends to go along with orders while secretly making her own arrangements to get both bodies out of Korea at the same time.

And even though she isn't given a ton to do on screen, I love that one of the Angel Hearse staff members is played by a plus size woman (Noro Kayo, one of the early members of idol group AKB48). Of course she's plus size by Japanese standards, which is to say she's still quite small, but hey. I was glad to see her in the cast nonetheless.

Best: Yonekura Ryoko (playing Rinko's boss Nami) is the one who truly makes 'Angel Flight' click, and I mostly stuck with this show just for her. This is actually my first time watching her work in full, since I was never interested in her 'Doctor X' series (too many seasons), and I started but bailed on 'The Journalist' (which came out on Netflix last year and starred her, Ayano Go, and Yokohama Ryusei) because it felt too ominous for me to stomach. Now, I'm glad that I've finally gotten to see her in action and know for myself how phenomenal of an actress she is. Yonekura manages to blend a workaholic mom who is an expert in her field, with a jokester who's silly beyond belief and doesn't seem to take much seriously, with a heartbroken woman who's spent nearly a decade grieving her fiancé while also hoping that he'll return to Japan alive... all in one character. If that's not an example of mastery in the craft of acting, then I don't know what is.
 離婚しようよ (Rikon Shiyou Yo/Let's Get Divorced) - Netflix/2023
  • Yui and Taishi are a married couple who split their time between the city of Tokyo and Ehime Prefecture. Yui (Naka Riisa from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshin' and 'Fruits Takuhaibin') is a beloved TV and commercial actress. Taishi (Matsuzaka Tori from Her Love Boils Bathwater) is a spoiled politician, representing Ehime, who holds the same seat in the National Diet that his family has held for generations. Taishi doesn't care about his job despite being groomed for it, and he relies on Yui's popularity to keep him in the public's good graces.
  • Outwardly they're the perfect couple, but behind closed doors they ice each other out, and have been estranged since Taishi cheated on Yui with a newscaster named Sakurako (Oda Lisa, 'Company: Gyakuten no Swan') three years ago. Taishi secretly rekindles his affair with Sakurako, and after Taishi and Yui agree that it's been time for them to divorce, Yui starts having her own affair with a sculptor and frequenter of pachinko parlors. Yui and Taishi also each find divorce lawyers, who, of course, are bitter law school exes.
  • But Yui is wary of the penalty fees she might incur if divorcing sullies her wifely image enough to be considered a breach of her many commercial contracts. And ultimately, when a special election is called and Taishi has to campaign against an aggressive new opponent, the couple agrees to play nice and delay their divorce until after the election is over. Can Taishi get his head out of his behind enough to maintain his Diet seat and potentially win Yui back? Can Yui get the divorce she desperately wants so she can finally move on with her life? What happens when Yui comes up pregnant? Are Yui and Taishi truly over? (Spoiler: Yes. They are. The show stays true to its title.)
Meh: Taishi pouncing on Yui in episode 1, straddling her, and proceeding to initiate sex despite her protests... read like assault to me. I don't like how the show tries to make it okay by revealing in a later episode that Yui eventually gets aroused in that moment too. And for the show to use that scene as a major plot point by having Yui become pregnant as a result... I didn't too much care for that either.

Better: So many actors I was happy to see here! For starters, there's Itaya Yuka (from 'Gunjou Ryouiki', 'Followers', and countless other productions) playing Taishi's divorce lawyer. I've seen her play somebody's boss/manager/mentor/authoritative figure so many times, and she's great in everything she's in. Everything!
Then there's Nishikido Ryo's fine self, playing Yui's paramour Kyoji. The way he gently reaches toward her face, pulls down her mask, kisses her, and then they start full-on making out right there in the middle of a pachinko parlor? In just episode 2? My God on today! So good! When Nishikido Ryo first popped up on screen in episode 1, I recognized him immediately, which is hilarious because for the life of me I can't remember watching any of his work or closely following either of the idol groups he used to be in. I racked my brain, checked my previous J-drama reviews, looked up his entire filmography... nothing. So I don't know how I know Nishikido Ryo, but I know he's fine, and I was very pleased to see him playing Yui's side piece. And by making his character impotent, the show uses his and Yui's affair to make a point about couples sharing profoundly erotic moments without penetration, which felt groundbreaking.
I was also proud to see Naka Riisa and Oda Lisa level up from the roles that I've seen them in previously. I remember Oda Lisa as the shy-ballerina-that-could from 'Company', so I was impressed by her sinking her teeth into to such a juicy role as Sakurako, portraying not only a mistress but a young media personality who pivots to politics by scheming her way to the top. But even with her scheming, she seems to genuinely believe in the issues she campaigns for (women's equality, childcare resources, etc.). As for Naka Riisa, she stood out as the sarcastic younger sister in unrequited love with one of her brother's best friends in 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi', and she played a sex worker/damsel in distress with so much care and dignity in 'Fruits Takuhaibin', but she downright shines as the lead in 'Rikon Shiyou Yo'. Her Yui is funny, knows how to play the PR game but also doesn't hold her tongue when it's time to raise her voice, and knows that her husband is trash and that she deserves better. Now that I think about it, Naka Riisa's performance reminds me a lot of Suzuki Kyoka's performance in 'Kyouen NG', as a woman who's forced to shoot a drama with the ex that cheated on her decades prior. 
In fact, much of 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' is very reminiscent of the meta, behind-the-scenes, "TV show about making a TV show" vibe of 'Kyouen NG'. 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' uses Yui's career to depict how absurd the entertainment industry is and how ridiculous shoots can be, and this show isn't afraid to be silly. That shoulder-length dusty brown WIG, with BANGS, that Yui's 60-something male lawyer wears in the flashback scene of his and Itaya Yuka's law school years in episode 3? Intentionally unserious! 
Best: One thing about my viewing experience with this show, I never knew what was gonna happen next. And this show has so much personality! Something I feel has been missing from a lot of the recent J-dramas I've watched. The concepts are there, the quality is there, everyone's doing their best, but sometimes there just isn't enough oomph. 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' has that oomph!
Speaking of which, I don't know whose idea it was to have 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' partially set in Ehime—I checked the tourism board websites for Ehime Prefecture and the city of Matsuyama and found no mention of this show—but whoever they are, they're a genius! I learned so much about that region, including that it's famous for its oranges. And seeing Yui be charmed by Taishi's love for his rural hometown, so much so that she still admires him for it after he stops being a good husband to her, is part of what endeared me to the show the most. Even after what he puts her through, she still respects him as a person, defends his ability to improve as an elected official, and helps him to campaign during election cycles, all because his love for Ehime is the only thing about him that never wavers. In some other context I might say that's pathetic, but this show makes it wholesome. Beautiful, even.

Most of all, I love how grown this show is. Yui's mother has seven children by multiple baby daddies, and she's consistently unashamed because she had the children she wanted to have without letting any one man overstay his welcome. Yui and Taishi do each other dirty during their marriage, but in the end they manage to be co-parents who are still somewhat in love with each other, would still let each other hit, but won't go that far because they're better off as friends. Taishi uses Sakurako as his sexual plaything (while she uses him to boost her media career, and then her political career), but in the end they're colleagues at the Diet who don't need to interact because they can leave each other in the past with no hard feelings. Yui similarly uses Kyoji as an outlet and claims to be madly in love with him only to discard him for Taishi during the special election, but in the end Kyoji and Taishi are allies, with Kyoji helping him win his Diet seat back after losing it. Taishi and his opponent Soda become fierce political rivals, and Taishi eventually gets Soda ousted from office by leaking his kickback corruption to the press on the low, but in the end Soda and his wife don't hesitate to give Taishi free sweets and beverages from their bakery when they spot him having a public dad-in-distress moment with his and Yui's son.

Like I mentioned earlier, 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' stays true to its title: despite the will-they-won't they moments that the show teases us with, Yui and Taishi don't get back together because they truly don't need to be together anymore. And the show has a happy ending because this couple, and everyone else around them, learns to grow and move on.

Honorable Mention: ちひろさん (Chihiro-san/Call Me Chihiro) - Netflix/2023 
I watched this film for Takahata Mitsuki (from 'Iribito' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'), because I mistook lead actress Arimura Kasumi ('Soshite Ikiru') for her. They don't look that much alike, although they are around the same age. But for the first hour of the movie my brain was struggling to make sense of how Takahata Mitsuki's face looked so much more wisened by life experience (like someone you can tell has gone through some ish) in this role than in any other role I'd seen her in before. And then I looked up this film's cast and realized it was Arimura Kasumi all along. 
'Call Me Chihiro' is a quiet story about a former sex worker who works at a bento shop in a seaside town, and is embraced by locals who don't seem to mind what she used to do for a living. She is kind and congenial but also keeps people at arm's length, purposely never divulging too many personal details about herself. There are visual and verbal allusions to her harrowing past: she's estranged from her mother and brother; she has a scar on her back from being stabbed by an overzealous client who might still be stalking her; she's shown in flashback to have interviewed for her previous sex work job in a standard Japanese job interview suit and shoes, indicating that she did try to make it in the traditional/respectable work world at some point but it didn't work out. But to Chihiro, that stuff's not really anybody's business. Except for maybe her best friend (also a former sex worker) and their former pimp (played by Lily Franky), who both attempt to start over in the same seaside town as Chihiro. And even they have trouble trying to figure her out. Despite her friendly exterior, Chihiro is a detached and lonely person at her core, and just as a solid sense of community starts to form around her, she leaves to start over once again in another rural town so she doesn't risk getting too close to anyone. Which I could relate to since my personality is very similar to hers, but I could also imagine viewers reacting to the end of the movie with, "...That's it?" or, "Why would she just disappear like that?"
(I can't remember for certain, but I may or may not have heard about this movie through one of my podcast guests named Farrah tweeting about it. So if that's the case, then thanks to Farrah for the recommendation!)
Honorable Mention: Queer Japan - 2019
When I was researching the roles and gender identities of Mahu in Hawaiian culture for my review of Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, my search led me to find a documentary called Kumu Hina on Tubi, and I noticed Queer Japan listed in the "You May Also Like" section for that film. Given that I have at least one queer friend in Japan whose wellbeing I care about very deeply, I bookmarked Kumu Hina for later and watched Queer Japan right away.
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Graham Kolbeins and co-written by him and Japanese American writer/artist Anne Ishii, Queer Japan is a documentary that spotlights queer people and communities in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Okinawa. It focuses mostly on artists, performers, bar owners, and activists. There's a wide age range among interviewees, but surprisingly, the main interviewees who are shown most repeatedly are middle aged people and senior citizens. I say "surprisingly" because I'd assumed that younger people would be more open to talking about their queerness, and that a documentary about queer people would therefore skew younger. But now I think it was a brilliant idea to feature so many older interviewees, because they add a historical perspective to how much the portrayal, public perception, and lived experience of queerness has changed in Japan. They speak to these shifts happening not only during their own lifetimes, but also across the bubble era, the Meiji era, and the Edo era more widely. I happened to find the Queer Japan website in the process of writing this review, so if this film sounds interesting to you then feel free to learn more about it here.

Between the two J-dramas I watched this time around, 'Rikon Shiyou Yo' is the obvious favorite here. But if you're interested in Japanese funeral traditions and perceptions of death, then give 'Angel Flight' a gander too.

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