2013: My Year in Drama
I already have posts for Orange Days, Tatta Hitotsu no Koi, I Hear Your Voice, Moteki, Unemployed Romance, Flower Boy Next Door and Kimi wa Petto. I’ve linked to each one of those posts. So: what else did I watch, but didn’t write about? Let’s see!
I’ve made the argument in other internet spaces that the romance is basically dead. As far as I’m concerned, only Bollywood and Asian television seem to take it seriously. Although Love Generation is now 16 years old, it’s still a worthwhile example of what we should be seeing on our television screens. Kimura Takuya, a hotshot advertising agency dude, gets taken out of his element and transferred to the business office of his company. His long hair and earrings won’t fly there; neither will his complete apathy toward the new work he has to do. It’s there he meets Takako Matsu, a younger Office Lady, who takes an interest in him. Whereas a k-drama would probably use the office job as a source of backstabbing, rivalries and other complications, in Love Generation it becomes a place where Takuya’s character is continually tested. Apart from the growth of the tentative romance between the main characters, the series treats as equally important his growth in dealing with his new situation. So: real weight is given to his work projects, to his relationship with his superiors, to how how he handles all these things; it isn’t background, it’s part of the makeup of the series. All of this while providing plenty of great moments of interaction between the leads: some playful, some romantic, some sad, some utterly ridiculous; we understand their bond and attraction toward each other. It also features hands down the most gorgeous 90’s pop tracks from Cagnet and others. Like, they’re on constant rotation. Love Generation contains multitudes. Also acts as a secret documentary on how awful it must be to be a salary man.
We must be true to our reasons. Just as Big did for Suzy, Heartstrings exists to simply dress up Park Shin Hye in adorable outfits and let her be cute forever and ever. Okay, that isn’t all there is to it. Something like a k-drama version of those “let’s put on a show” Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals, Heartstrings concerns itself with the almost inevitable union between Park Shin Hye and CNBLUE’s Yong-hwa. She plays traditional Korean music, he plays guitar in a rock band; of course, they’re meant to be together. For a while it plays as a traditional “stuck up boy mistreats plucky girl” nonsense as she loses a bet with him and has to do anything he says for a month, but this soon gives way as each character becomes more honest, and shares their dreams with each other. As usual, sometimes it does play as nothing but a series of confrontations (Park Shin Hye has a rival in the school production who constantly talks smack, the guy who runs the theater department is jealous of the director), but mostly it’s just a bunch of good people hanging out with each other and having fun. The final episode invents some reason for them to be apart from each other, but we all know it’s nonsense; the world of Heartstrings is too optimistic and beautiful for such petty conflicts.
Although Love Generation deals with the workplace, the romance is always at the heart of it. This show, on the other hand, is very much the opposite. In fact, the romance is pretty much completely underplayed. Instead, Freeter, ie o kau (which translates to “Part-Timer Buys a House”) focuses on the everyday struggle of the main character in finding meaning in his job. After a surreal and horrifying spell in the salary man world, Ninomiya Kazumari’s main character decides to quit and find something he’s more comfortable with. This proves to be harder than he thought it would be. At its core, Freeter is a social issue show – it’s deeply concerned with the post-graduate fate of the Japanese youth, the process by which they begin to find their role in society, and ultimately how the changing norms that the show depict affect the conception of the Japanese family. And there’s the show’s weird and sort highly risible portrayal of depression. All of this to say that there’s way too much here to disentangle in a little blurb. The show is at its absolute best when it focuses completely on the main character’s growing attachment to his job, and how it comes to define him. His growing responsibility and sense of self-worth is so well done that whatever other things you wish the show did fall by the wayside. That said, the Ninomiya and Karina pseudo-romance is very gentle and subtle, portraying two adults who through the course of the show come to understand and rely on each other. Like Bambino before it, the drama here is in the self-realization. Still, Naoto Takenaka’s character in this is the biggest asshole ever regardless of how his character is eventually half-redeemed.
Urakara is the defining document of the Hallyu Wave. This is a demented meta-text that is a product of this boom, but also very explicitly about it. The show opens with the group about to make their debut in the Japanese market (by the point this show aired, their songs “Mister,” “Jumping” had already become huge hits), but all of a sudden their manager disappears. To replace him, a robot takes his place. This is ridiculous by any standard, but it sort of works as a walking metaphor for KARA’s dalliance with the late night TV market (and how that basically involves catering to Japanese taste). The robot manager decides that in order to win over the Japanese market (aka Men), they’ll be assigned Love Missions – the manager will give them a target, and a member must make that man fall in love with them. The manager orders them to do this because it will make them more beautiful and desirable. What we have here is then a show that is explicitly about KARA’s marketing in Japan, and how the Hallyu Wave positions itself in that new market. We get episodes where members appear in strange, folklore-based TV dramas, do music performances, struggle with speaking Japanese, etc. It’s a TV show that’s not only about itself, but also its mode of production. Even without all this Very Important meta-textual nonsense, Urakara is still just a gleefully ridiculous show that once in a while becomes surprisingly melancholy. There are bizarre moments such as when Seungyeon takes a ghost out to an amusing park, Nicole finds out she can do telepathy (aliens?!) and more; but there are also moments of serene beauty as when Jiyoung, her heart tender and beautiful after her first love, never gets to find out the other person’s feelings (the robot manager’s intersection here a pointed commentary of how members of these groups are often forbidden to date and/or are forced to keep relationships completely hidden). The most poignant moment, however, is when Nicole says that KARA will be together forever and everyone cheers. You were beautiful.
After watching nothing but an endless parade of k-dramas about chaebols who seemingly only exist in order to torment the plucky poor girls around them, this show was something of a relief. Shun Oguri is an eccentric self-made millionaire; Satomi Ishihara is the college student who goes to work for him. Although Oguri is prickly in his interactions with her (he often puts her down), he’s mostly interested in actually using her for what she can do for him. Soon enough, she makes herself indispensable. What I found remarkable about this series is how the focus is remarkably different. Instead of the main character’s wealth being used as an excuse for displays of opulence and a reason to ignore the realities of work, Rich Man Poor Woman explores how much actual hard work it takes the main character to achieve it (it helps that he actually has, you know, skills). Instead of money seemingly coming out of nowhere, we’re made acutely aware of the struggle and sacrificed involved with how the character’s wealth came to be. Indeed, one of the main thematic strands of the show is about how much of ourselves we invest into the work we do, not only because it’s necessary to survive, but because its proof that you have achieved something, that you’ve created something that is truly yours. The show’s missteps all have to do with the Arata character, who unconvincingly turns against his business partner (and then laughs maniacally like he’s Sideshow Bob) and then realizes he regrets it.
Instead of pointless confrontations, declarations and other nonsense, Summer Nude concerns itself with the gradual understanding of the bonds between the characters. Although there is a plot, the show almost always seems to try to simply have their characters interact with each other, and have the character development flow through that. Yamapi’s typically emotionally aloof performance is perfect for a character that is stuck in a state of limbo – unable to move on, but cognizant that he’s settled; it’s marvelous. But it’s Karina that is the show’s heart. The first half of the series takes her character, after the 1st episode’s ruined wedding, and gives her time to grief, heal and most marvelously, discover a sort of oasis. Most importantly, she’s simply fully realized; pissed off, arrogant, and always completely human (the friendship that develops between her and Erika Toda is probably the show’s secret MPV). But perhaps what most impressed me was the show’s sense of place; how its rhythms feel influenced by the not only the setting, but the season – laid-back and casual, but somehow still transformative. The show’s beachfront shack becomes not only the home that all the characters can return to, but also the one that they must leave in order to order to find themselves.
This was one of the most ridiculous things I saw all year. A 16-year-old hacker gets roped into a secret intelligence agency by his dad in order to stop Russian terrorists/religious fanatics? Right from get-go, we’re in the land of constant twists; like some sort of j-drama 24, this thing is full of secret spies, role reversals, impossible twists, ridiculous technology (the show’s depiction of hacking involves a CGI falcon breaking into buildings) and so much more. The whole thing’s ridiculous, but it has the courage of its convictions. The show puts the main character and his friends through the ringer several times (like extreme psychological damage), and yet he somehow still begs to be involved, even though his life has been ruined. Hiroki Narimiya shows up for a bit to have a shitload of fun saying ridiculous stuff, the bad guys talk creepily to themselves, much crying and shouting occurs. Again, ridiculous. The show’s style tries to outdo the content in its outlandish somehow; hand-held nothingness, distorted angles, fish-eye lenses (?), frequent usage of on-screen text (someone is typing ominous messages about the destruction of Japan). Bloody Monday is astoundingly dumb and I would have it no other way.