Monday, October 23, 2023

The J-Drama Drop #33

Welp! It took me all summer and some of fall to find what I was interested in and decide what would stick. But here I am, in October, happy to finally have the material and presence of mind to write a new J-drama review! For this edition of "The J-Drama Drop" I'm covering two shows that premiered in July, and two honorable mentions including a Korean comedic docuseries and a Japanese indie film. 
御手洗家、炎上する (Mitarai ke, Enjou suru/The House of Mitarai Will Burn/The Mitarai Family Will Burn/Burn the House Down) - Netflix, 2023
  • Until middle school, Anzu (Nagano Mei from 'Unicorn ni Notte') enjoyed a peaceful and cushy life with her little sister Yuzu, their mother Satsuki, and their prestigious doctor father. Together they lived in a fancy house on the grounds of the hospital that had been directed by members of the Mitarai family (Doctor Dad's side) for generations. Then one day, their home suddenly burned down. Believing the fire was her fault, Satsuki had a breakdown and was hospitalized with long-term amnesia for years to follow. And within no time Doctor Dad divorced Satsuki, severed ties with her and their daughters, and replaced his family with Satsuki's less-well-off best friend Makiko (Suzuki Kyoka from 'Kyouen NG'), and Makiko's sons (who were Anzu and Yuzu's classmates before the fire).
  • Thirteen years later, a now-grown Anzu (whose last name is now Murata instead of Mitarai) infiltrates her former home under an alias, having been hired by Makiko to be the new housekeeper. Makiko had been copying Satsuki and coveting her life for their entire friendship, and Anzu never forgot the sight of Makiko among the crowd of onlookers, smiling and laughing with exuberant relief as the house burned. So now Anzu is determined to expose Makiko for committing arson and for being a fraud. (Makiko is now a hugely successful lifestyle influencer/media personality who hides the fact that she can't cook and doesn't clean.)
  • Unfortunately, Anzu gets clocked and subsequently blackmailed by Makiko's elder son Kiichi, a hikikomori with a violent streak who seldom leaves his room, and who makes money by proliferating misinformation (especially celebrity-bashing rage articles) online. But with the help of her sister, their friend and neighbor who lets Anzu use her name as an alias, and a woman who knew Makiko during her blogging era (when her fraudulent activities first began), Anzu might just succeed at taking Makiko down after all.
Meh: Part of the sisters' scheme relies on Makiko, Makiko's sons, and even Anzu and Yuzu's own father not recognizing Anzu (at least not at first) after 13 years have passed, and I don't really buy that. The sisters and Makiko's sons spent a lot of time together when they were younger; I highly doubt that natural aging would make most people look completely unrecognizable compared to how they looked in middle school (which Anzu and Kiichi were both in by the time the fire happened). And workaholic or not, how could even Anzu and Yuzu's father not recognize Anzu when she confronts him in his office? Sure it's been a decade, but your daughter's gotta announce her identity because you forgot the very essence of your own child that easily?
Another "meh" of the show is its romantic subplots. Anzu and Yuzu each develop romantic feelings for their corresponding stepbrothers (older for older, younger for younger, and the feelings are mutual in both regards), which thankfully didn't feel as weird as it could have because the four of them never lived in the same household. In other words, although they were school friends, they never lived as siblings, so neither pair fell for each other as siblings. What is weird to me is that Anzu and Kiichi not only end up being together, but that Anzu is the one who pushes to make their relationship official. Call me biased due to personal experience, but I don't think most men who act violently toward women and/or children ever do enough to warrant being considered fully redeemed. Granted, it's not like Kiichi was beating Anzu up, and he is humbled by the end of the series. But humbled or not, while he may still be deserving of love in a humanistic sense, I maintain that he's not deserving of Anzu's. Not after how he terrorizes her earlier in the series.

Better: The dynamic between Satsuki and Makiko reminds me of that one WOWOW drama I watched years ago ('Kenja no Ai'), where between two frenemies, the initially richer friend plots for decades to ruin her initially-less-rich-but-more-demanding friend's life, after the latter steals the richer friend's man. As line-crossing as 'Kenja no Ai' is, I like being reminded of that show, so I'll give 'Burn the House Down' bonus points for that.

Also, I was genuinely impressed by the show's way of demonstrating how the social media era has differed from the blog era in Japan, and how Makiko's addiction to attention has morphed to frightening proportions across both eras. The only difference is that in the social media era (the present), while she still fakes the funk as the perfect homemaker, she doesn't have to pretend to own Satsuki's apparel or live Satsuki's life anymore because she's already seized Satsuki's house, husband, and wealth.

Best: 'Burn the House Down' isn't as obvious as it seems! You think the show is just going to be about Anzu sinking her claws into all aspects of that lady's life in order to gather evidence against her and get her to admit to doing what we all know she did. But it turns out... (*SPOILER*) that lady really didn't do it! To be clear, Makiko's still a miserable, cutthroat, self-obsessed piece of work. (Consider that she was relieved the Mitarai house burned down because it meant no one would find out or care about her stealing her friend's clothes, jewelry, and accessories, some of which she wasn't able to return because she'd pawned or misplaced them.) And she's still responsible for covering up who actually did cause the fire. But she herself did not commit that arson. Viewers (and Anzu) can hate her for many reasons, but being an arsonist isn't one of them, and I appreciate the show for subverting my expectations.
18/40 ふたりなら夢も恋も (18/40: Futari nara Yume mo Koi mo/Together Even Dreams and Love are Possible/ Unbreakable Bond of Dreams) - TBS, 2023
  • Arisu is an 18-year-old aspiring art curator whose interest in art was nurtured by her mother, an art teacher who died when Arisu was still a little girl, leaving Arisu's father to raise her on his own. On the day of her high school graduation, Arisu takes a pregnancy test and learns that she's pregnant. With her now-former classmate and boyfriend (the baby's father) being rushed off to university in Canada by his mother who fails to strong-arm Arisu into abortion, and with her best friends being the only two people she can turn to for support, Arisu keeps the pregnancy a secret from her father and proceeds with her previously-set plans to move into her own Tokyo apartment and study art curation at university.
  • One day, well-established art curator Toko happens upon Arisu while Arisu is crouched on the sidewalk with stomach pains, near the women's health clinic that's run by Toko's OB/GYN and best friend Kaoru (Matsumoto Wakana from 'Angel Flight' and 'Fukushuu no Miboujin'). After their respective appointments, Arisu and Toko commiserate over Arisu's pregnancy and Toko's fertility issues. They part ways, but it turns out Toko is the corporate rep overseeing the art cafe that Arisu just started working at part-time.
  • Admittedly-nosy Toko continues advising and encouraging Arisu, and after seeing Arisu's apartment, insists that Arisu move in with her so Arisu can have a more stable environment to balance her studies and her approaching motherhood. Arisu's community grows to also include her dad, Toko's mom who visits from Kanazawa, and Yuma (a dancer and classmate of Arisu's who defends her from being shamed at school, and who also happens to be the son of the art company CEO who's technically both Toko and Arisu's boss). As affection grows between Arisu and Yuma, Toko also finds unexpected romance with Kase, an art delivery driver who got himself transferred to Tokyo to be closer to her after she drunkenly kissed him back in her hometown of Kanazawa.
Meh: I honestly can't think of anything I genuinely find "meh" about this show. At first I couldn't tell whether '18/40: Futari nara' would be full of fluff or not, but after the second or third episode it's packed with so much meaty commentary on the harrowing and heartbreaking choices women often have to make just to find fulfillment (or at least try), that I grew to appreciate the show's fluffier moments. At first I also thought that Arisu's whole deal of, "I know I was dumb for getting knocked up at 18 and now I'm going to be a single mother because my boyfriend and his mom want nothing to do with me, but I still want to keep my baby" felt forced. She doesn't spend too much time exploring other options, despite knowing how difficult it will be to raise a child on top of pursuing an extremely niche and competitive career field, and that didn't make sense to me. It felt like the folks behind '18/40: Futari nara' forced Arisu to remain pregnant simply because they'd already decided to make a show about a teen mom. But I ended up enjoying the show, which allowed me to suspend my disbelief.
Better: As Toko gets to know Kase, Kase reveals that he was so ashamed after his short-lived professional baseball career and first marriage came to an end, that he decided to become a delivery driver so he could still support himself without having to talk to anybody. And all I could think in response to that was, YES! FELT! Why didn't I think of that? Because when talking to people seems to have diminishing returns, why try to stem the tide instead of creating your own solitude? Jokes aside, while I would probably be creeped out or angry if a dude I'd only met once moved to my city "for" me in real life, something about the way Kase communicates his interest while still respecting Toko's privacy and busy schedule, not demanding or expecting anything from her that she's not ready to give, makes him more endearing than I'd expected him to be.
One of Arisu's cafe co-workers is played by Sakaguchi Ryotaro, who also played the demon on 'Kyoufu Shinbun', and it was so off-putting for me to recognize who he was and believe him as a regular friendly guy, when I know the potential he has to chill viewers' bones and make their skin crawl. But good on him for getting the chance to play someone normal! Something light to nibble on, as far as roles go. It was also off-putting yet refreshing to hear Ado singing this show's ending theme song "Himawari", which is a lot softer than her usual style. Based on what I've listened to from her discography, I'm so much more used to hearing her let it rip with her voice! Hearing her theme song for the first time at the end of episode 1 also confirmed for me that the earlier scene of a large group of newly-graduated teens singing-shouting "Usseewa" together in a karaoke room was not a coincidence. ("Usseewa" was Ado's debut single and first hit song.)

And last but not least, one of Arisu's best friends (the long-haired one who makes clothes and accessories for Arisu's baby) is alluded to being asexual! Look at this show trying to be up with the times!
Best: It's so smart how even though Arisu and Toko acknowledge that their relationship is unusual, they never feel the need to define it. Sometimes Toko acts like Arisu's bossy aunt or older sister, sometimes she offers a motherly presence (despite not being able to become a mother herself), and sometimes she's simply Arisu's 40-year-old roommate who's generous and helpful but also just as confused about life as Arisu is. If there is one word to encapsulate all that, the show intimates that that word isn't worth grasping for. Arisu and Toko simply are, until they're not. Until it's time for each of them to move on with their lives and continue as friends but no longer roommates. Also, I didn't realize until episode 2 that 18/40 isn't some random fraction, but a reference to their ages and how their perspectives as women differ based on their contrasting life experiences. I don't know what the thought process was behind titling the show '18/40' as apposed to '18 and 40' or '18 to 40', but I like it as is.
And how can I not praise Matsumoto Wakana's performance as Kaoru? The "your body your choice" speech that she gives Arisu in episode 1 is A-plus! I swear Matsumoto is everywhere, or at least she's been a familiar face in the J-dramas I've watched in 2022 and 2023. First in 'Kingyo Tsuma' (my introduction to her), then 'Fukushuu no Miboujin' (which I watched specifically for her), then 'Angel Flight' (which I didn't even know she was in), and now '18/40: Futari nara' (which I also didn't know she was in)! Maybe it's just my viewing choices, but Matsumoto seems to be having a similar run to that of Takahashi Maryjun, who also kept popping up in seemingly every J-drama I watched for a period of time. 
Kaoru is the fun friend who respects people's boundaries, reins in Toko's busybody tendencies, and doesn't seem to take anything too seriously besides her profession as a doctor... until episode 9 reveals how much more layered she truly is. In it, there's a scene where Kaoru informs Toko that she's giving up on having a baby, after eight years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, because she and her husband can no longer withstand the disappointment and the toll it's taken on her body. But the thing is, this is the first time that she's ever mentioned her fertility struggles to Toko. Her best friend, of all people. I may or may not have shed a tear. Kaoru tries to keep her composure when discussing it at first, but the more she confides in Toko the more she breaks down, and listing how blessed her life still is even without a baby only makes her cry more, and Toko cries along with her. Because gratitude doesn't erase how devastated Kaoru is. And the pain of having to let this thing go that meant so much to her because her best efforts simply weren't enough was so visceral to witness. I've been there (of course not in terms of wanting a baby, God no), and the scene made me think of the chorus to "Heat Lightning" by Mitski:
And there's nothing I can do, not much I can change
So I give it up to you, I hope that's okay

There's nothing I can do, not much I can change
I give it up to you, I surrender
Matsumoto Wakana absolutely sells that scene, and even as a supporting character in this series, her contributions are among my favorite.
Honorable Mention: Risqué Business Japan - Netflix, 2023

At this point I can't remember how I found out about this show, although it might have been the same way I found out about 'Chihiro-san' (and if that's the case, then thanks again Farrah!). My only sense of familiarity with the hosts is that singer Sung Si Kyung did a song called "Ai wa Naze" with Crystal Kay (my forever fave) in 2018. I'm also not sure what the rationale was behind having these two specific Korean male entertainers, Sung Si Kyung and comedian Shin Dong Yup, host this show exploring aspects of the sex industry (multi-floor adult toy stores, VR porn-viewing rooms, female and male porn actors, the Tenga office, etc.) and cultural attitudes about sex in Japan. But having watched the Japan edition in full, I actually believe the hosts being in their 40s and 50s is one of this show's greatest assets. They're not so old as to be prudish or act like they're wholly uninterested in sex, but they are old enough to get flustered reacting to certain information in a way that makes great TV. They're also not so young as to be distracted by all the stimuli or so horny that they fail to get a solid interview out of interviewees, but they are young enough to approach every place they enter or person they interview with an open mind. They both listen to learn, and Shin Dong Yup especially surprised me with how he was able to turn his silliness on and off. I assumed he'd just be telling dirty jokes for the entire series, but he strikes an impressive balance between doing that and asking questions out of genuine curiosity. And Sung Si Kyung amazed me with his ability to pull double duty, actively participating in the show while also interpreting between Japanese and Korean for his counterpart.

The only drawback I felt when watching this series, which is due to patriarchal societies and not 'Risqué Business: Japan' itself, is the fact that even with all the options there are for any and everyone to get off in Japan, most of those options are still centered around men. Women can visit (certain floors of) sex toy stores too, they have host bars they can visit to feel catered to (non-sexually), and female porn stars earn more than their male counterparts. But men still have the widest and easiest access when it comes to objects, places, and services that facilitate their sexual gratification. Just something I couldn't help noticing. But 'Risqué Business' is incredibly fascinating nonetheless, and I'm probably going to watch the new Taiwan edition once I finish writing this review!
Honorable Mention: 左様なら今晩は (Sayonara Konbanwa/Goodbye, Good Evening/A Girl in My Room) - Dir. Takahashi Natsuki, 2022, streamed via JFF+ Independent Cinema
So the first round of JFF+ Indepent Cinema that ran from December 2022 to June 2023 must have been a big hit, because JFF+ made another batch of indie programming available from August through October this year. (If you're reading this before November 1st, you still have time to watch them! Also, you can read my review of the films I watched from the first indie round here.) This time, the only film I felt compelled to finish was 'Sayonara Konbanwa'.
A girl who died in an apartment and whose ghost has been haunting the place since before lackadaisical Yohei and his girlfriend moved in, finally makes her presence known immediately after Yohei's girlfriend moves to Tokyo/Yokohama. (The girlfriend presumably leaves for a more interesting life and the possibility of a less lackadaisical boyfriend in the future.) Ghost girl hasn't been able to appear before because of the talisman the girlfriend had hung on one of the walls. She's bound to the apartment, so standing on the balcony and looking out is her only means of connecting to the outside world. Yohei grows increasingly curious about the ghost girl as he gets used to having her presence around, but the girl's foggy memory of her past and his realtor's refusal to tell him what happened in that apartment make his search for answers difficult. Meanwhile, the ghost girl just wants to experience some of the romantic things she knows she missed out on because she died so young (touching an Adam's apple, kissing, going on a date), and with Yohei's assistance she's able to do all three.
Let me first say that the view from Yohei's balcony is gorgeous! You can kind of tell this town is in the middle of nowhere, but it's surrounded by these lush green mountains and this painting-esque sky that make you want to go there anyway. Which is fitting, because reading the film's synopsis told me that this entire film was shot in Onomichi, a small port city that I've wanted to visit for years! (Long story, I applied for a job there many moons ago, didn't get the job, but did remain drawn to the place and its name for some reason. In fact, I still occasionally look up #Onomichi on Instagram just to see what's going on and what people are eating there. But I digress.) 'Sayonara Konbanwa' could stand to be 15 minutes shorter, but the actors (especially the ghost girl) really had me invested. The shots of various Onomichi locations, the mystery of how the girl died (we never find out), and the uncertainty over whether she'll ever depart from the apartment (she does!), were worth the lingersome pace for me.
As for my favorite J-drama this time around, of the two options I gotta give it to '18/40: Futari nara'. Even as a woman who DOES NOT EVER want kids, that show was pulling at my heartstrings! Now, off I got to find more review-worthy material to watch! Maybe I can have another "J-Drama Drop" out before 2023 is over?  

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