Sunday, June 17, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 7 - The Best Divorce

Japanese: 最高の離婚 or Saikou no Rikon
English: The Best Divorce
Broadcast Year: 2013 plus a two-hour follow-up special in 2014
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Ondramanice and the special is at gooddrama
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
Two thirty-something married couples are having marriage problems. Mitsuo and Yuku have been married for a couple of years but are the classic odd couple: Mitsuo is fastidious and neat, and Yuku leaves the towels on the counter when she's done with them. Mitsuo is already reaching the end of his patience when he runs into his ex, Akira, who is now married to Ryo who is openly and obliviously unfaithful. The two couples try to resolve their differences, but divorce seems inevitable for both of them.
Crimes and Misdemeanors: 
Marital Infidelity, Failure to Submit Documents to the Registrar
Awards: Best Drama, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screen Play, Best Song
The protagonist, Mitsuo, is played by Eita who was also in Soredomo, Ikite Yuku and anone, and won the Best Actor award for this performance.

Ono Machiko plays Mitsuo's wife, Yuku, and also plays the abusive mother in Mother. In the Best Divorce she very much steals the show from the rest of these superb actors, and won the Best Supporting Actress award for doing so.

Maki Yoko plays Akira who is Mitsuo's ex and the wife of Ryo. She is also the lead in Sakamoto's Mondai no Aru Restaurant.

Ayano Go plays plays the philandering Ryo, and also plays the abusive boyfriend of Ono Machiko's character in Mother.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
It's a light, romantic comedy about divorce in which (spoiler) no one gets divorced - well, at least, not until the special. The special seems to be less well received than the original series, but I'd still recommend it for the performances, again, particularly that of Ono as Yuku. Her final statement of what she wants, and what love means is beautiful, and you'll want to shake Mitsuo for not being able to respond to it. The special does not give those two characters a happy ending, but it is true to the fact that these two mismatched humans almost certainly should have never gotten married in the first place.

The Best Divorce is a tricky series from an actor's perspective because none of the four principal characters are particularly likeable.

Eita as Mitsuo has to walk a pretty fine line between his compulsion for neatness and order, and still show some affection towards Yuku who never gives neatness and order a second thought. It would be easy to hate Mitsuo's desire to control Yuku, and Eita plays the comedic beats with a delicate touch that humanizes the character, and let's us know that he's not entirely aware of his own foibles.

Ayano as Ryo also has a difficult role since Ryo's routine philandering is obviously hurting all the women he sleeps with including his wife Akira, and, yet, he remains seemingly utterly oblivious to that fact. He's supposed to be a TA at a college, and so he should be fairly intelligent; nonetheless, Ayano presents the character as operating in a kind of haze, only living in the moment, and moving from bed to bed as the opportunities present themselves. Ayano somehow convinces us that Ryo is possible, and that somehow the women in his life would still respond to his attentions even when it's patently clear that he will continue to drift.

Maki's Akira is a much quieter role than the other three. If you've seen Maki Yoko in other roles, you know that she can turn on her movie-star charisma and win you over at will. Here we only see that charm in flashes. Akira is calm and deliberate. She does not like Ryo's roving ways, but neither does she see herself as a victim nor Ryo as a villain. She also knows that he is still a better match for her than her ex Mitsuo.

And then we come to Ono's Yuku. I would argue that Yuku is no more likeable than the other three. She's slovenly. She's enthusiastic, but scattered. She's not reliable in any sense. And, yet, Ono's performance is the real reason to watch this series. It's harder to see why Yuku could have fallen for Mitsuo, but it's very easy to see why Mitsuo would have fallen for Yuku. Thanks to both Ono and Eita's performances we can see that Yuku has something that Mitsuo needs, and that she could break him open and help him be a happier, healthier human being.

The Best Divorce is the stagiest of the Sakamoto dramas that I am reviewing in this series. The heights of this show occur when two to four of the character are seated and talking to each other. Sakamoto gives us all the possible pairwise interactions, and we see the four grow closer together as they try to resolve the conflicts in the marriages. While the show does go to various locations, the best parts of this show would work as well as a play.

One of the themes of this series is that divorce is not only about the couple. Yuku has a wonderful relationship to Mitsuo's mom, and, though he dreads visiting them, Mitsuo is genuinely loved by Yuku's huge extended family. In fact, one of the sharpest moments of the series is when we realize that Yuku and Mitsuo relationship and problems are not all that different from those of their respective families. Leaving behind this marriage would also effect their families, and they genuinely like each other's families.

If this were Sakamotos best series, it would be enough for an outstanding career. It is light, comedic and wise. The performances are superb, and direction lively and compassionate. While Sakamoto seems often to conflate drama with depth, when he ventures into comedy he often gets into subtler and more complex truths than his more melodramatic works. The Best Divorce might be his best exploration of what love means though the next series I shall look at, Mother, has a strong claim on that achievement as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 6 - Quartet

Japanese: カルテット (pronounced "Karutetto" which is as Japanese can get to "Quartet")
English: Quartet
Broadcast Year: 2017
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Ondramanice
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
Four string musicians meet in Tokyo and decide to form a string quartet. The second violin, Beppu Tsukasa, offers to house the group in his family's vacation home in Karuizawa for the winter. The lead violin, Maki Maki,has no idea what has happened to her husband who left their Tokyo apartment and disappeared in the previous year. The four name their quartet "Donuts Hole" and land a steady gig at a restaurant in Karuizawa. The four grow closer and strive to become a concert act.
Crimes and Misdemeanors: 
Spousal Abandonment, Robbery, Purchasing a Family Registry
Awards: Best Drama, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screen Play, Best Song
The protagonist, Maki, is played by Matsu Takako who has not appeared in any of Sakamoto's other series, but won the Best Actress award for this performance.

Mitsushima Hikari plays the cellist, Sebuki Sezume, which is a much lighter role than her previous performances in "Woman", "Someday, When I Recall This Love, I Will Surely Cry" and "Soredemo, Ikite Yuku". She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this performance.

Takahashi Issei plays the violist, Iemori Yutaka, and was also in Woman. He was nominated for Best Actor for this performance.

Matsuda Ryuhei plays the second violinist, Tsukasa, and he has not appeared in any other of Sakamoto's series, but did play the impossibly dedicated talent scout in the asadora Amachan.

Yoshioka Riho plays a waitress, Kisugi Arisu, at the restaurant where the Donuts Hole perform. She won the Best Supporting Actress award for this performance, but has not appeared in any other of Sakamoto's series.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
Quartet is about what it means to follow one's passion and make art. The four central characters are drawn together by their shared passion for making music despite their culture saying both they cannot and they should not be doing so. Through the series we learn that they were not brought to together by chance and that at least three of them have things in their past which should prevent them from making it as entertainers in Japanese culture. Nevertheless, they discover to their surprise that they like each other and want to perform together pretty much no matter what happens.

My personal preference is for Sakamoto's more comedic writing, and Quartet is one of his less melodramatic works. No one has a terminal illness, and we do not step into a hospital even once. Instead, the dramatic conflict comes from the character's pasts, and the mystery of Maki's husband's disappearance which is the inciting incident for the narrative. The characters are a bit quirky, but certainly less so than that of Mondai No Aru Restaurant; however, while Sakamoto does have a fondness for writing characters with easily understood tics, they are never cartoons, and he portrays and respects them fully as human beings,

Like another Japanese series, Nodame Cantable (manga, anime and live action drama), Quartet features a lot of music in the Western Classical tradition. I enjoy the Classical repertoire, but I generally find the appreciation for string quartet music to be overblown. Add to that the Japanese aesthetic that proposes that there are strictly proper ways to appreciate and master art forms and there becomes a danger that this music can be fetishized and lifeless. Sakamoto addresses this issue fairly directly in the series, and he sides with the idea that a more playful approach can be vital and fulfilling for both the audience and performers. Thus, the Donuts Hole perform familiar hits from the great musicians of Western classical music but also pieces from well known video games. One of the themes of Sakamoto's works is widening the idea of what is acceptable and breaking open the bounds of propriety which can be imposed by Japanese society.

The setting of Karuizawa is nearly a fifth principal character in Quartet. I watched this series before Terrace House Opening New Doors started, and so I have been comparatively disappointed by how Karuizawa has been shown on Terrace House whose cinematography is usually excellent. In Quartet, Karuizawa is an amazing winter fairyland of vistas and, clearly, an aspirational playground for the wealthy, and so we can understand how the Donuts Hole might be able establish themselves there.

All in all, Quartet is probably Sakamoto's most balanced confection. It does not strive for melodrama, but, nevertheless, has fulfilling moments of drama thoroughly grounded in the nature of the characters and their history. It has moments of comedy, but they are incidental, and he never puts the characters into situations simply for the sake of a laugh. Instead, we get lots of good music as we explore the lives of these artists, and their commitment to their art form and each other. It is a series that encourages people to live for their passion and the art no matter what impediments society places in their way.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 5 - anone

Japanese: あのね or anone - the title card in the episodes is written in romanji
English: anone (which can be translated as "you know what", but is also the personal name of the central character)
Broadcast Year: 2018
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Ondramanice
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
A young woman, Tsujisawa Harika, was abandoned by her family as a young girl is making her way in the world and living in an internet cafe. She and a couple friends hear of an abandoned bag full of cash at the beach and go and attempt to find and retrieve it. She and several other misfits are then brought together into the life of the wife, Hayashida Anone, of a printer who died a year or so earlier.
Crimes and Misdemeanors: 
Counterfeiting, Child Abandonment, Theft, Betrayal, Marital Infidelity, False Confession
Awards: None yet - it end two months ago at time of writing
The protagonist, Harika, is  played by Hirose Suzu who has not appeared in any of Sakamoto's other series, but she's already slated to lead one of next year's asadoras, Natsuzora (2019).

Tanaka Yuuko plays the titular Anone as well as mothers in Mother and Woman.

Eita plays the main antagonist, Nakaseko Riichi, who coerces the group of misfits into this criminal adventure. He also plays the brother seeking vengeance in Soredemo, Ikite Yuku, and the uptight lead in The Great Divorce. He has far and away the widest range of roles in Sakamoto's dramas. 
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
anone has a somewhat more sophisticated plot than most of Sakamoto's work. It is a tale of a bunch of misfits from disparate parts of society forming a tiny family of crime. It explores the backstory of three of the five main characters to some depth. We learn where Harika came from though neither she nor we ever really learn why she was abandoned. We learn why Riichi is obsessed with perfecting the counterfeiting operation he started with Anone's husband. We learn why Anone welcomes Harika into her life and becomes her surrogate mother. The terminally ill diner operator, Kaji, and the somewhat mysterious and strange Aoba are less developed, but their motivations are, nevertheless, well delineated.

anone is also a bit different than the other series by Sakamoto-sensei in that he dips his toe a bit into magical realism. Harika's initial memories of the institution her mother placed her are clearly a fantasy, and Aoba's ability to see spirits are outside the usual bounds of Sakamoto's narratives. In no sense does this series venture into science fiction or fantasy, but, clearly, one of the major themes of anone is deception and that includes self-deception and how a group accommodate the deceptions of its members. And so, while it's not a fantasy we do, for instance, in the end get several scenes of Kaji as something like a ghost.

Sakamoto's characters in the other series we are discussing do occasionally tell lies to protect others - in fact, each of the three mothers played by Tanaka Yuuko does so. In anone, the three principal characters all do so, and the show is largely about exploring why they do so. Sakamoto does not tend to focus his series on setting up and resolving resolving mysteries, but it is a part of his narrative palate. In anone, however, the various mysteries in the backgrounds of the principals are the prime drivers of this interwoven plot because the key questions considered here are epistemological: how do we know in terms of human relationships what is real and how do we confirm the reality of those relationships?

All of the members in this self-formed family of five ultimately confirm the reality of their relationships by acts of self-sacrifice. Harika's entire motivation is seeking money to help Hikoboshi get the medical treatment he needs, and when the way to get that money means denying that she loves him, she does so knowing he can never see him thereafter. Riichi sacrifices the personal freedom that counterfeiting would provide him for the sake of his extended family. Anone perjures herself in custody for the sake of the rest of the group. Aoba sacrifices her independence and the independence of running off with the money to tend to Kaji as he ends his days. Kaji sacrifices the last months of his life for the sake of this group of strangers.

anone is, ultimately, a tale of misadventures and deceptions, but through those misadventures the characters are left with each other as a new and resilient family. The other side of deception is trust, and in the end all of the characters trust each other and the familial relationship that they have formed. Ultimately, it's not about the family they were born with but the family they make through acts of mutual reliance and trust.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 4 - Someday, When I Recall This Love, I Will Surely Cry

Japanese: いつかこの恋を思い出してきっと泣いてしまう or Itsuka Kono Koi wo Omoidashite Kitto Naite Shimau
English: Someday, When I Recall This Love, I Will Surely Cry or Love That Makes You Cry
Broadcast Year: 2016
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Ondramanice
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
This story is a love hexagon that mostly centers on a young woman, Sugihara Oto, who has her purse snatched while visiting Tokyo. A worker at a moving company, Soda Ren, who is a roommate of the guy her stole purse finds the purse in their apartment and decides to drive to the countryside to return the purse to Oto. Ren's arrival helps Oto to flee from an approaching arranged marriage to an older man by driving her back to Tokyo. The two immediately loose touch with each other, and Oto establishes a new life for herself by becoming a healthcare worker at a corporate-run elder care facility. All the pieces of the hexagon are gradually drawn together, and the interweaving plots reach a climax on the day of Tohoku earthquake in 2011. The story then continues after a time gap to a point when the six are brought back together and resolve their relationships.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
Purse Snatching, Land Swindling, Exploitative Employee Recruitment, Corporate Hostile Takeovers, Elder Care Worker Exploitation
Awards: Best Actor, Theme Song Award
The protagonist, Oto, is  played by Arimura Kasumi who has not appeared in any of Sakamoto's other series; however, she immediately followed this role with the prestigious lead in one of last year's asdoras, Hiyokko, which is a delightful tale of a young woman from a rural rice farm who searches for her missing father in 1960's Tokyo. Hiyokko also features both leads from Transit Girls.

Takahata Mitsuki plays another side of the love hexagon, Hinata Kihoko, who is also interested in Ren. She is also part of the ensemble in Mondai No Aru Restaurant where she plays the one character who flips sides moving from accommodating the sexual harassment at the restaurant corporation to joining the other misfits at Bistro Fou.

Mitsushima Hikari plays Oto's single-mother in flashbacks. She, of course, was also the leads in Woman and Soredemo, Ikite Yuku, and one of the members of the quartet in Quartet

Kora Kengo plays the love interest for all three women in the hexagon, Ren. He won the Best Actor award for this performance at the 88th Television Drama Academy Awards.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
The first thing we must consider is the title which touts a melodrama that the series does not quite achieve (and it's probably better for that fact). Yes, there are some frustrating missed connections that the participants might regret in the following years, but other than some trauma from Ren and Oto's families and some implied trauma from the earthquake this series does not really go full weepy. It is a romantic drama in which the central pair are kept apart by various circumstances, and ends when the two finally acknowledge their love for each other and kiss.

The six characters who are interested in each other are mostly fully realized. All three of the women, Sugihara Oto, Hinana Kihoko and Ichimura Konatsu are interested in Ren, Ren and Asahi Ibuki are interested in Oto, and, lastly, Nakajo Haruta is interested in Konatsu.

The central love triangle in the group involves Oto, Ren and Ibuki, and we get to know their characters in some depth. Ren has come to Tokyo to try to make enough money to get back the land that his grandfather lost in a swindle. Oto was placed in the care of some of her relatives as a young girl after her unmarried mother died. The relatives are emotionally abusive and seek to make as much money as they can for themselves via an arranged marriage once she's old enough. Lastly, Ibuki is the younger son of the owner of a large corporation which runs several elder-care facilities including the one where Oto works. He seeks the approval of his father who has had little interest or time for him.

The series seems to have been written from the top down in many respects. Oto and Ren are introduced to each other through Ren's sense of justice in the first episode, and the series ends on their first kiss. The series is exactly (IIRC) divided in half by the earthquake with the narrative time of the first part continuing right up to the evening before the quake, and then, surprisingly, leaping five years at that point where the second part takes up the story in a similar fashion where we slowly uncover what has happened to the characters in the gap.

One of the themes of the series is integrity and justice. Ren's grandfather dies before Ren is able to earn enough to repurchase the land his grandfather had once tilled which causes Ren to lose his sense of justice, and so, after the earthquake he takes on a shady job helping to sign men up to work for some unseen nefarious organization which apparently exploits them. He no longer cares about how he earns his keep, and is only interested in helping his friend Haruta care for Konatsu who is still suffering from PTSD from the events of the quake which we are never shown nor, I believe,  even told about. When Oto seeks him out again she plays an essential role in restoring Ren's integrity.

Meanwhile, Ibuki has been courting Oto to the point that his engagement ring for her literally slips off her finger as tries to convince her to marry him. His trajectory in the latter half of the series is the opposite of Ren's. He had started as journalist who had written an article exposing issues in the healthcare industry, but when his older brother can no long take being the corporate thug who fires all the workers as his father repeatedly launches hostile corporate take-overs, Ibuki steps into his brother's role to win his father's approval. But Oto discovers that integrity is essential for her in a potential love, and chooses the restored Ren over the fallen Ibuki.

In short, this series is a night-time soap opera with some reasonably interesting twists along the way, but, perhaps, not the grand tragedy suggested by the title. There is a bit of the familial formation that runs throughout Sakamoto's work, but this group is not drawn as close as a whole as his other bands of misfits in his series. Sakamoto's script is successful at getting us to invest in this group of people, but I'm not sure that it achieves as deep of a catharsis as some of his other tragic series.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 3 - Woman

Japanese: Woman - yes, like Mother, the title of this series was in English even in Japan
English: Woman
Broadcast Year: 2013
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Newasiantv
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
Aoyogi Koharu is happily married with a daughter and another child on the way when her husband, Aoyogi Shin, is killed in an accident at a train station. She works several jobs and struggles to make ends meet. A serious medical condition has her seeking additional governmental support, and with her father dead she is forced to contact her mother, the two having been estranged since her parents divorced twenty years ago. Her little family is slowly reunited, but there is more to the story as she tires to get treatment for her illness and insure some stability for her children.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
Spousal Abuse, Child Abandonment, Grifting, Manslaughter
Awards: Best Lead Actress
The protagonist is Koharu played by Mitsushima Hikari who also is the second lead in Soredemo, Ikite Yuku, one of the members of the quartet in Quartet and has a guest role in Love That makes You Cry.

Koharu's mother is played by Tanaka Yuuko who has similarly important roles in Mother and anone (where she plays the titular role).

Nikaido Fumi plays Koharu's half-sister, Uesugi Shiori. She is also part of the main ensemble in Mondai No Aru Resttaurant where she plays the Todai graduate who has to keep reminding everyone she is a Todai graduate.

Usuda Asami plays Koharu's co-worker and best friend. She also plays the divorcee struggling to keep custody of her son in Mondai No Aru Restaurant, and has a small role in The Great Divorce special.

Takahashi Issei plays Koharu's doctor, and is also one of the members of the quartet in Quartet.

While not appearing in other series by Sakamoto, the actor who plays Koharu's step-father is Kobayashi Kaoru who also plays the diner operator at the center of the anthology series Midnight Diner, the most recent version of which, Tokyo Stories, is available internationally on Netflix.

Finally, one of two really good child actors in these series is Suzuki Rio who plays Koharu's daughter.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
This series is clearly meant to be a follow-up if not a sequel to Mother with a similar set of themes, shared cast, similar look and similar title. There are five mothers in Mother, but Mother might be a better name for this series since one of the themes of the series is the difficulties that working class single mothers face in Japan. Like Mother, it also explores the kinds of hard choices and sacrifices mothers are willing to make for the sake of their children.

Koharu's family after the death of Shin is happy but always on the edge financially, and child care is inconvenient and barely affordable. Further, when Koharu is diagnosed with aplastic anemia affording treatment and even finding the time for treatment proves pretty much impossible. She does have access some governmental support, but as is the case in the US and other countries all family resources must be exhausted first, and when the caseworker contacts Koharu's estranged mother he receives word that she can and will help financially.

In facing her potential death before her children are able to take care of themselves, she swallows her pride and goes to see her mother. Soon she takes her children to live with her mother, step-father and a step-sister she had never met before without telling them about the illness. Her plan seems to be to hope that they all will bond with her children, and, hopefully, take care of them should she die.

Sakamoto has an occasional weakness for plot contrivances, and it's in full force in Woman. As the two families are brought together it is revealed that Koharu's step-sister was fairly directly the cause of Shin's death. She had gotten in with a bunch of grifters who taught her how to accuse men on crowded trains of groping her, and the team would then extract cash from the men to prevent her from going to the police. When Shin appears at her home apparently to try to help Koharu reconcile with her mother, Shiori follows Shin onto a train and, apparently, felt enough jealousy at her previously unknown step-sister to similarly accuse Shin of groping her without her gang around, and a crowd decides to beat up Shin at the next station, and fleeing his attackers (and trying to recover the pears Korahu's mother wanted her to have) his head intersected the next train approaching from the opposite direction. The vigilantes and Shiori fled, and Shin was reported as having died as the result of his being a sex offender.

Now, Sakamoto is clearly feminist throughout these series, but it must be pointed out that this particular plot point is not especially suited to his usual feminist framing. I'm sure such grifting does occur in Japan, but, as is usual in most matters of sexual harassment and rape, false accusations occur orders of magnitude less frequently than actual incidents of sexual harassment and rape. However, the specters of false accusations are constantly raised by the traditional patriarchal power structures to inhibit any kind of progress from being made to mitigate the real problems. Thus, not only is this plot point contrived, it also runs contrary to the otherwise egalitarian themes of the series.

The aplastic anemia is also contrivance since it is treatable with a marrow transplant and viable matches are hard to find outside of fairly close blood relationships. I guessed who would provide the match, and I am sure you can as well.

A third contrivance puts an undelivered letter from Shin written the day before he died in the hands of Koharu which leads her to his mother who, unfortunately, for everyone is an alcoholic and essentially abandoned Shin when he was twelve in a similar fashion to the plot of the film Nobody Knows.

All that being said, the relationships between the members of Koharu's family are well drawn and well portrayed, and the series is well worth watching despite the contrivances. Korahu's daughter is particularly delightful as she swiftly establishes a relationship with Koharu's step-father and the two work to bring the family together despite the real issues between Koharu and her mother and her step-sister. This show is, unltimately, a hardscrabble tale of reconciliation and healing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 2 - Soredemo, Ikite Yuku

Japanese: それでも、生きてゆく. Soredemo, Ikite Yuku
English: "Still, I Will Live" or "Even So, We Will Be Living On"
Broadcast Year: 2011
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Ondramanice
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
Fifteen years ago a 12-year old village boy, Misaki Fumiya, killed the 7-ago sister, Fukami Aki, of his friend, Fukami Hiroki, while Hiroki was supposed to be watching his sister. Both families have been ravaged by the event in the intervening years: the Fukamis by their grief and the Misakis by harassment that has followed them even as they have moved and changed jobs to escape. The killer's younger sister, Toyama Futaba, tries to investigate the harassment and meets Hiroki, and the two then try to find Fumiya who has been released from juvenile detention and given a new identity and a job. The two families are uneasily brought together as they try to make sense of why it happened.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
Murder, harassment, suicide, assault, attempted murder, attempted suicide
Awards: Best Drama, Best Lead Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screen Writer
The protagonist is Hiroki played by Eita who is also the lead in Sakamoto-sensei's The Great Divorce and the main antagonist in anone. All three roles are strikingly different to the point you might not realize it's the same actor which speaks volumes for his versatility.

The second lead is Futaba played by Mitsushima Hikari who also is the lead in Woman, one of the four members of the quartet in Quartet and has a guest role in Love That makes You Cry. She is certainly a great actress though she shows less range across these roles, though the quirky Suzume in Quartet is quite charming and different from the other two roles.

The antagonist is Fumiya played by Kazama Shunsuke who also has a small role in Mondai No Aru Restaurant.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
One day while I was in grad school, I was taking a shower when Charles urgently knocked on the door of the bathroom saying, "I think Jeanette's brother is here." Charles cleared out of the house, and I dried off, put on my clothes  and went downstairs to find that, indeed, Jeanette's brother was there, but it was her younger brother and not the one who had just murdered his ex-girlfriend on the streets of San Jose a few days before and was being sought by the police.

It did not occur to me as I watched Soredemo, Ikite Yuku (hereafter, SIY) that I had been on the margins of a similar tragedy for a brief period in my life. I certainly did not have any view into the consequences for the victim's family, but it did get to see how the media covered the story here, and I did get to know the consequences for Jeanette's family in the following couple of years.

SIY is probably the darkest of the eight series we will be examining here though it's resolution might be less heart-rending than that of Mother. It is important to note; however, that Sakamoto does not aim for bleakness. Most of the characters come through the narrative of his stories stronger and happier than they were before. There is genuine catharsis in his stories, and so there's always a blend of darkness and light in his work - the comedies are not entirely light as well as we shall see.

In this story, the set up is akin to Romeo and Juliet scaled down to smaller families and no political stakes. Hiroki and Futaba do grow closer through the course of the series, and were their circumstances different their love might have blossomed. In fact, their respective families reach a point that they all would approve. But in the end Futaba chooses to help atone for her brothers actions in a way that would not easily include Hiroki, and Hiroki accepts her decision. Hiroki and Futaba are far more mature than Romeo and Juliet and the attraction between them is far less intense.

You might also expect a redemption arc for the murderer Fumiya who has been working diligently for several years on a farm whose owner believes in rehabilitation and hires men and women released from the penal system. The central tragedy of SIY is that while almost everyone other than the Fukami family believes Fumiya can be redeemed and his relationship to his family and society restored, he does not believe so, and he is almost certainly a psychopath. Hiroki's father is certain Fumiya would kill again, tries to find Fumiya and kill him, and because he is dying of a terminal illness he has nothing to lose. When he fails to find Fumiya before he dies, he presses Hiroki to complete the revenge for the sake Aki and Fumiya's potential future victims. And the Fukami patriarch turns out to be absolutely correct.

Both Futaba and Hiroki actively plan to kill Fumiya in the course of the series as Fumiya's character is revealed, but they both do not want to see the other become a murderer. They hold each other up to a higher standard, and so this series is, indeed, a poignant if not romantic love story. In the moment of crisis Hiroki chooses saving a life over taking one, and while the consequences are, perhaps, harsher for both families it is the one that leads to the greatest growth and hope for all involved.

My brush with murder was a different story. Jeanette's family are highly conservative Christians who were part of a tight-knit, charismatic church community and her brother's victim had been claiming to their fellow church members that he raped her rather than admit they had had a perfectly normal consensual relationship. He killed her after she wrote him a note saying, okay, he did not rape her but with enough sarcasm to put him over the edge. Everyone else in Jeanette's family was, rightly, appalled and apologetic, and Jeanette and her younger brother appeared on the local news in front of our shared house to explain the story and express their grief and condolences to the family of the victim. The murderer was found hiding in a storage unit not far from the crime scene a few days later and he was tried, convicted and went to prison.

And so there were a couple of days there when the house was the focus of a couple of local news shows, and we handled phone calls from local reporters (this was back before everyone had their own phone). I was surprised how compassionate the reporters were. One well-known face, Rigo Chacon, on a San Francisco station called a week after the story had blown over just to check in off the record and ask how her family was doing.

In SIY the press are shown hounding both families fairly relentlessly at least for at time, and that could be because of cultural differences. There are far fewer murders in Japan, and, of course, the story centers on the inexplicable killing of a child. Our culture no longer has the sense of familial culpability that it did prior to the Middle Ages. The earliest Anglo-Saxon laws established weregilds (prices of recompense for murders) to inhibit feuding between clans, and we see similar pressures on the Miakis and Toyamas in SIY to both apologize and make up for the actions of Fumiya even fifteen years later.

A year or two after I completed my PhD., Jeanette introduced me to my wife. I went to her wedding and she came to mine. We're still facebook friends. She would call and visit her brother in prison, and I suppose he was eventually released though we've drifted away over the intervening years and so I never really heard. In any case, while it certainly was a tragedy for both families, I do not think the families were destroyed to the extent that those on SIY were by the event. I think Jeanette's family did change churches but that's a comparably trivial shift, and there was no subsequent harassment that I know of.

Clearly, SIY was a critical if not ratings success. I have not touched on all the family members in this review, but each is fully realized and have their own arc. As a whole this series is probably more of a masterpiece than almost all of subsequent series that I like better, but I am personally less inclined to melodrama.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 1 - Introduction

He writes about families. Not necessarily the families we are born into, but the families we make.

He writes about women. His shows typically pass the Bechdel test within the first scene or two.

He writes about people on the margins of Japanese society. Gas station attendants, health care workers, hotel cleaning staff, otaku living in internet cafes.

He writes about crimes. Always with compassion if not approval for the perpetrators.

His name is Sakamoto Yuji and he should be as well known as Hayao Miyazaki or Haruki Murakami here in the West. In the past eight years he has written ten Japanese dramas and won the Television Drama Academy awards for best screenwriter four times during that period. There have been American writers with similar streaks like Aaron Sorkin, David E, Kelly and Rod Serling, but, generally, American shows have much larger writing staffs and Sakamoto-sensei is the solo writer of his screenplays.

His works are being discovered throughout the world, and are being remade in other countries. The earliest show in this period, Mother, has a remake currently running in Korea and the Turkish production was such a hit that they also remade Woman. Restaurant of Problems was also remade in China.

In general, Sakamoto-sensei's series lean towards melodrama. There are terminal illnesses, confrontations, and romances. However, he gravitates towards a more realistic approach to most of these parts of life and usually avoids the tropes of most Western soap operas. Yes, a character goes into a coma, but, no, that character does not return to consciousness at a dramatically convenient moment. The counterfeiters are caught even though they only inadvertently pass a single bill. The character in need of marrow transplant gets a marrow transplant. But, more important, his characters will surprise you with their reactions and revelations. Almost everything is motivated and grounded in the realities of his characters lives.

His writing tends to be a little stagy. Frequently, the pivotal scenes will have two to six characters seated at a table where truths finally are shared. And he loves nothing more than throwing a bunch of misfits together, shaking the box and seeing what comes out. His characters are multidimensional even when by the conventions of society and scripted television they are supposed to be stereotypes.

He revels in details and the minutia of a crafted, living world. He has written the most touching scene you will probably ever see involving grocery receipts. If you watch his shows, you will come to know what a fond is and wonder how it relates to women's rights. You will puzzle at socks never picked up from the hallway, and, yet, all will be revealed. All these things are there for a purpose.

In this series of posts I will examine the series for which English subtitles are available. Two of the series during this period have not been subtitled by fans as far as I can tell: 2010's crime drama Chase and a 2014 comedy set in the Japanese porn industry, Mosaic Japan. I will cover the remaining shows in my highly biased order of least favorite to most, and I will provide some basic content before launching into spoilers, but the vast majority of my analysis will include spoilers.