Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Terrace House, A Deeper Dive: Why Brendon Bigley Should Watch Boys x Girls Next Door (And So Can You!)

What's Boys x Girls Next Door?

Terrace House: Boys x Girls Next Door is the first series of Terrace House that was broadcast only in Japan from 2012 to 2014. It is not available on Netflix outside of Japan.

Who is Brendon Bigley?

He's one of the two hosts of No Script At All a recap podcast for Terrace House which is currently covering the current season, Opening New Doors. It's great, you should listen to it. Unlike his co-host, Andrea Capprotti, he has not seen any of the original series.

Would you like No Script At All or any podcast to recap BxGND?

Absolutely: I'd love to hear a podcast cover the amazing things that happen in this series.

Should No Script At All or any podcast to recap BxGND?

Almost certainly not. Very few English speakers have or will ever watch this show in comparison to the series on Netflix. There was an earlier torrent site which had all the torrents for the episodes on a page, and, IIRC, the maximum number of downloads for any episode was roughly 1100. As more people have discovered the show since then there may be two or three times as many people who have seen it, but that's still tiny. If Netflix ever released it internationally, then it would definitely be worth it, but otherwise there just will not be enough of a base of listeners for any podcaster.

Why hasn't Netflix released it internationally?

It does not have non-Japanese subtitles, but they create subtitles for shows for international audiences all the time. No, the issue is probably the music rights. Even now the Japanese and international versions of the shows on Netflix use different music. Notably, a different Taylor Swift song has served as the intro music for each series in Japan. It was a way for her to break into the Japanese market, and she promoted the show early on to the point that she's still seen as part of the show by Japanese fans. Netflix and Fuji would have to re-edit the soundtrack for an international version, but I think they think the first series is a bit beyond its sell-by date and would rather spend its money on making more Terrace House instead.

And, perhaps, it is best that Netfix and its partners chose not to release the earlier series. I suspect that had both BxGND and B&GITC been available when Aloha State came out that there would have been even more backlash than we saw. I do not think we'd have gotten Opening New Doors, had BxGND already been out there.

Why bring this up now?

The fan project, Costco Subs, which has been working for over a year to create English subtitles for the 98 episodes of the show has finished up as of today, and so you can now watch the whole thing. And, in the way of such things, it's likely that the ways that you can currently see the show will slowly disappear over time. Now is absolutely the best time to start watching this great show.

How can I watch Boys x Girls Next Door?

There are currently three ways to watch the show. All of them require a computer or mobile device to do so. These ways are all quasi-legal since like many shows produced in other countries there is no legal way to purchase or rent a copy of the subtitled show.

The most legal way to view the show is to download the subtitle files from the Costco Subs project from the discussion threads on reddit (you're looking for the file link with the extension .dxfp). You'll download the subtitle file for an episode, and then convince Netflix that you are watching from Japan by using a VPN. A good, free VPN right now is available at VPNGate. The first time set-up requires that you install some software, but once it's set up, it only takes like 5 clicks and you'll be watching Netflix Japan. You may need some additional software to display the subtitles: I use the Chrome extension Super Netflix on my PC. At the start of the show you press ctrl-shft-alt T and then select the subtitle file.

Netflix tries to shut down access to VPNs to maintain their contracts with the various international media companies it does business with. VPNGate just rotates in new servers as Netfliz cuts them off. Netflix really does not care about your using VPNs since it's getting someone's (hopefully your) subscription fee, but its partners do.

Do note that episodes 13, 26 and 62 are not currently available on Netflix Japan. They are all clip shows of various kinds which have not been done on later versions of the series, and so you will not miss any plot threads by skipping them. I did like episode 26 since it introduces the final four members of the panel - YOU was the sole original host and she was joined by Torichan in episode 14.

The second way is to download the episodes with the subtitles already at Tecchan's House. Doing so will require that you use a torrent client to do so. I use qBittorrent. You will also need a media player program to watch them. I use the VLC media player.

The third way is to watch the subtitled episodes at streaming sites like Dramacool. This method would be the easiest for most users; however, unlike any of the other Japanese shows I've ever watched on streaming sites they have blanked the sound entirely on this show whenever there is any music playing in the original soundtrack. And the BxGND soundtrack is pretty good with lots of western pop music that you will recognize.

So why should I go to all that trouble and watch this series?

There are many reasons:
  1. It's more Terrace House If you have liked the show on Netflix, then the simplest reason is that it's more of the show you like.
  2. It's the best season of Terrace House I know that those of us who have seen the series sound always like smug hipsters when we praise this series, and I do not want to oversell the series. Most of the episodes are just on par with the typical episodes you've seen on the Netflix series. However, there are about four or so episodes that are a bit better than the peaks of the other series. There are twists that you won't see coming and could not have been scripted. You will laugh harder, cry more, and have your heart lifted by the romance to a greater degree on those peak episodes than any comparable episodes in the subsequent series.
  3. It re-contextualizes events and things you've seen on the other series You know how Arman was given such flack by the panel for holding Arisa's hand before a confession? There is an incident that happens on BxGND that will make you wonder why they were fine with this but upset at that. There's also a sense a lot of what we've seen on the other series has occurred before with interesting variations that shed a different light on the later series.
  4. The way the show evolved is interesting There is no panel at the beginning: just YOU in the back of a car at the beginning and end of each episode (as one wag on reddit put it: if the car goes below 50, it explodes). The beginning is comparatively rocky without the panel. But you'll still want to watch the first two parts because there are several iconic moments, and you are introduced to key housemates who are part of the golden era that begins after the panel is seated in their now familiar positions.
  5. The music colony phase At one point in BxGND there are two professional musicians and a talented amateur (who can't sing), and we get a more diegetic music than usual, and I love that the house can become so art-focused for a bit.
  6. Seina You cannot fully understand her run on OND without having seen the earlier series. It's surprising: she does not start at all like the Seina we know now. But she really grows over the course of her time on the earlier series and becomes the force of nature that we now know her as.
  7. Tecchan You thought Arman was around for a long time? But more important than the length of his stay on the show is Tecchan's maturation over the course of it. He's a pretty immature goofball at the beginning, but by the end, he's providing near Hansan levels of wisdom to his fellow housemates.
  8. And Seina and Tecchan probably won't even be your favorite housemates There are, inevitably, some forgettable housemates on BxGND, but there are also at least three other housemates who are simply great. My pick for the GOAT for Terrace House as a whole is from BxGND, and as much as I like Tecchan and Seina, it's neither of them.
Is there anything I else should know before I watch?

Yes. The following is not a spoiler since it happened after the show was over, but everyone finds out about it at some point, and I feel it's best to know ahead of time. One of the housemates, Yo-san, died about a year-and-half after the show was over. He had a heart attack after dropping a lot of weight that he picked up after being on the show. He had an extended up and down and up run on the show, and knowing what happened will change your view of what he did. In particular, he has a brief fling with a pop singer who was not in the house, and dumps her on camera so that he could pursue someone who is in the house. After the show, however, they reconciled and were engaged when he passed.

Should I go start watching it right now?

Yes.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Terrace House, A Deeper Dive: Chasing Ami

Ami is a bigger mass of contradictions than most people in the cast of Terrace House. On the one hand, she is blunt to the point of rudeness at times, but, on the other hand, the people on the show genuinely seemed to adore her for reasons that are not at all clear in what appears on screen. Her initial statement for what she's looking for in a guy as someone who will not betray an interest in her seems to be accurate, impossible to satisfy, and demonstrably attractive to to almost every guy in the house with her. She seems relentlessly passive until Seina shows up, but then it's off to Taka's room to ask him out. What does Ami want, and to what extent are her actions intentional? And, more to the point, why do all of the guys she lived with on the show with the exception of Shion seem to be genuinely romantically interested in her?

She's pretty, of course, but all the women on Terrace House are beautiful. (It's a gross, but really interesting question: who is the least physically attractive woman who has ever been on the show? There have certainly been woman who are now considered unattractive by the audience based on their personality and behavior on the show, but it's much harder to rank their looks. The guys, on the other hand are allowed a broader range of looks and so it's almost certainly a much easier question when considering them.) She's a younger member of the cast, but youth has also not been considered particularly attractive in prior cast-mates.

I think her personality plays a part: the guys do seem interested in figuring her out as a puzzle - how do you show interest in someone who says she'll shut down on anyone showing an interest in her? Yuudai has received and deserved a fair bit of criticism for his behaviors, but his approach to her might not have been entirely wrong: the blatant negging might well work for her (not that I think negging is ever justified or a good idea in any sense). Certainly, neither Taka nor Shohei had any more success with more conventional approaches.

Here's my thesis as to why she is both implausibly attractive based on what we see on the show and why none of the guys worked for her: you guys, I think she may be funny.

Specifically, I think she has a sharp, dry and sarcastic wit, and expects nothing less than for the guys she's interested in her to keep up with her and dish it back. I also think that it's really hard to capture her wit in the house segments of the show when contrasted with the panel segments of the show. In comparison to the broad and quick banter of the professional comedians on the panel, her sarcasm just comes off as rude.

The critical scene to justify, however, is when Taka gets his butt hurt, and Shion tells Ami to go to see him in episode 15. He's obviously in pain, and she gives him nothing. Watching that scene again, I think she's trying not to laugh. Clearly, she's making sure he's okay, but when that's established she just is not going to give any ground. I think she intended the scene to be read by Taka and and audience as funny, but, instead, it's easily read as uncaring and cold. And I think Taka was just getting tired of her games. My initial read was even that she intentionally trying to establish that she was not interested in Taka and wanted to shut down his advances entirely. Now, I actually think that had Taka responded with equal sarcasm right back at her, he might well have won her over.

I am not a conventionally attractive cisgendered woman: I cannot imagine what it must be like for any of the women on Terrace House. I can guess that they all have to learn to deal with unwanted attention. Ami has chosen to act like if not be a shrew, a rose whose thorns are meant to keep predators at bay. But the danger of such a path is that it feeds into problematic narratives of dominance and submission that can be and are fetishized across many human cultures and feed into structures of gender-based harassment and control.

Ami is a cypher. To a greater or lesser extent all the people of Terrace House are as well. Despite the length of Terrace House seasons, we only see a fraction of these people's lives, and it's not entirely possible to read their the motivations and desires even as the producers do their best to assemble a narrative from what is captured on camera. Thus, there is a huge temptation to read into the stories the things we want to see as opposed to what is really there. That is, in Ami's case in particular we are tempted to do exactly what Yuudai, Taka and Shohei do: see in Ami what we want to see. If we want to see the spoiled mean girl who dismisses the people she no longer has any use for, she can be seen that way. If we want to see the sarcastic girl who just wants to be met as an equal on the field of verbal sparring, she can be seen that way too.

In that sense, we are all chasing Ami.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 9 - Mondai No Aru Restaurant

Titles:
Japanese: 問題のあるレストラン or Mondai No Aru Restaurant
English: A Restaurant With Many Problems
Broadcast Year: 2015
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Kissasian
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
Tanaka Tamako is working at the headquarters of a large restaurant corporation happily preparing the launch of new restaurant as the prototype for a new chain when she learns that one of her friends from high school, Fujimura Satsuki, had been subjected to blatant sexual harassment by the president of the corporation and a room full of the entirely male corporate leadership. Tamako exits the corporation in a blaze of glory, dousing most of Satsuki's harassers with buckets of ice water. She then recruits a bunch of misfits including the president's abandoned daughter to start a largely al fresco restaurant on the top of a building across the street from the restaurant she had been preparing and where her ex-boyfriend is now the chef. The group struggles to open the restaurant and bring it to profitability while dealing with the competition from the corporation and the personal aftereffects of the institutional sexism of the corporation.
Crimes and Misdemeanors: 
Blatant Sexual Harassment, Subtle Sexual Harassment, Institutional Sexual Harassment, Stalking, Physical Assault, Parental Kidnapping, Attempted Murder
Awards: Best Supporting Actress
Cast:
Maki Yoko plays the protagonist, Tanaka Tamako, but this series is very much a large ensemble piece. She also plays one of the four principal roles in The Best Divorce.

Takahaka Mitsuki plays the victim of internalized sexual oppression Kawana Airi for which she won the Best Supporting Actress award. She has not appeared in any other of Sakamoto's series.

YOU, the first host of Terrace House, plays Karasumori Nanami a hanger-on who has a surprising background.

Matsuoka Mayu plays the restaurant's otaku chef and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She has not appeared in another of Sakamoto's series but was in the asadora Amachan as one of the idols.

Nikaido Fumi plays Nitta Fumi, the Tohai graduate who cannot find another job. She also played the step sister in Woman.

Yashuda Ken plays the gay transvestite dessert chef Oshimazuki Haiji. He has not appeared in any other of Sakamoto's series.

Kazama Shunsuke plays the supportive fiancee of Fujimura Satsuki. He also played the psychopath in Soredemo, Ikite Yuku.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
Yeah, it's the first Sakamoto series I ever watched, and now I have to argue that it's better than Mother despite its receiving far fewer accolades. Like Mother this series has been remade in another country - China, in this case. Like Mother it is a highly feminist work here examining all aspects of workplace sexual harassment. Unlike Mother, however, it is a comedy, and that is probably the biggest factor which made me fall in love with this series to the point that I would want to seek out the rest of Sakamoto's recent work to place in context via this series of blog entries.

I love these characters, and I get an impulse to revisit them occasionally. Part of that bonding comes from the structure of the show in that most of the crew of Bistro Fou are given at least one episode where their story comes to the foreground where we see their particular encounter with sexism and how they heal and grow beyond it. Almost all of these women are not conforming to their culture's expectations for their gender, and they are constantly being beaten back for not doing so. And the few characters who do conform are also punished for doing so. It is not hard to write a show to say that sexism is bad, but this show excels at particularizing the myriad of ways sexism is bad.

Tanaka, Satsuki and Kyoko are friends who had been in their high school kendo club together. Both Tanaka and Satsuki's stories form the through-lines for the series, but Kyoko's story is the center for the second episode. She has married and had a son, but her husband has left her because she has not lived up to the impossible standards of wifely duties that his mother had set. Kyoko had to cook and clean and care for both her son and his mother, and her ex-husband constantly berates her not being good at any of those tasks. Her self-esteem is low, and she is almost convinced that she deserves to lose her son, but the restaurant teaches her that she already can cook and that she deserves so much more from her ex.

Mayu is probably my favorite character though likely the most implausible. We see her transform from an introverted otaku who literally refuses to talk to anyone into a bright young women who can share her gifts and the things she enjoys. Her story is probably the most extreme of the group, but all I can say is that I bought it and was moved. She discovers that her and her mother's abandonment by her father has resulted in her becoming an amazing chef and that those skills are broadly appreciated by the staff and the customers.

Fumi is an ambitious young business women whose ambitions are constantly stifled by institutional sexism. She has no desire to get married, but, nevertheless, she is never allowed to advance because the assumption is that she will. She wants nothing more than to make strong business cases and grow her career, but she is literally laughed out of the room. Bistro Fou values her for who she is and accepts the fact that she will always be looking for a role which will challenge her.

Mitsuki stays at the sexist corporation longer than any of the rest. She embraces being the girl that the company wants her to be even if that means being groped but otherwise ignored. However, she attracts a stalker, and her refusal of his advances turns violent and she finds refuge and healing with the rest of misfits at Bistro Fou.

Haiji is a stereotype and comic relief, and, yet, somehow the character works in this piece. He is a gay transvestite who, nevertheless, does not feel misgendered. His character is given maybe half an episode where we see that his brother, who is his one remaining blood relation, fully accepts Haiji as he is. The fact that he wears women's clothing is never played for laughs, but while his performance is pretty broad he is consistently respected by the rest of the crew at Bistro Fou as a multidimensional human being like all the rest.

The resolution of Satsuki's story line forms the final episodes of the series, and it where YOU as Nanami is allowed to shine. The blatant sexual harassment of Satsuki ultimately brings down the corporation and Mayu's father. But it's not a victory that brings anyone any joy. Instead, everyone is left worse off for its having happened. Bistro Fou must close as well because its existence was always quixotic, and one single spoon is enough to tip its precarious balance. The final scene, however, is a button that says that this marvelous, happy family that formed Bistro Fou will, nevertheless, keep fighting the good fight.

Mother does a masterful job at tearing you apart, but Mondai No Aru Restaurant succeeds at the harder task of putting you back together. And that's why Mondai No Aru Restaurant tops the list of Sakamoto's series for me. I want to be with these people and experience their healings and their laughter all over again.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The TV Dramas of Sakamoto Yuji Part 8 - Mother

Titles:
Japanese: Mother (Like Woman and anone, that's the way it's shown in the title credits.)
English: Mother
Broadcast Year: 2010
Subtitled Episodes Available at: Ondramanice
Spoiler-free Synopsis:
A teacher of a second grade class discovers that one of her students, Rena, is being abused, and when it seems like there is little chance for the Japanese equivalent of Child Protective Services to intervene quickly enough, she tries to fake Rena's death, kidnap the girl and attempt to start a new life with her as her mother. In the process, she finds she needs to turn for help to her own mother and discovers secrets in their past that complicate and explain her impulse to help Rena.
Crimes and Misdemeanors: 
Child Abuse, Kidnapping, Blackmail, Attempting to Purchase a Family Register
Awards: Best Drama, Best Newcomer, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screen Play
Cast:
Okay.

When I reached the end of episode 11 my overwhelming thought was "Who the hell was that actress?" and "They should give her all the awards." Her name is Ashida Mana, and they gave her all the awards. You know how for most child roles the actor cast is chosen to be older than the part they play for a variety of perfectly normal and understandable reasons? The character Michiki Rena is eight years old. Ashida Mana played that role when she was SIX, and her performance in this series will break your heart (fuck: I'm even tearing up as I write this). It's not (as you might expect) the physical abuse or the maybe implied sexual abuse, it's how the series ends. For the Goddess' sake, just fucking go watch it.

The protagonist, Nao, is played by Matsuyuki Yasuko, who has not appeared in any other of Sakamoto's series, but won the Best Actress award for this performance.

Tanaka Yuko plays Nao's biological mother. She also plays mothers in Woman and anone, but won the Best Supporting Actress award for this performance.

Ono Machiko plays Rena's abusive mother, Kaho, and also plays the protagonist's wife in The Best Divorce. 

Ayano Go plays plays the abusive boyfriend of Rena's mother, and also plays the philandering husband Ryo in The Best Divorce.
Beyond Here There Be Spoilers:
I'm pretty certain that Mother would be most people's pick for Sakamoto's best series. It's been remade in both Korea and Turkey, and the Turkish version was a huge hit there as well. While the performances are undeniably great, it is really Sakamoto's writing which allowed everyone to shine. He writes Rena/Tsugumi as sunny and, most important, smart. She does not know her multiplication tables yet, but she will find a way. Nao is icy, but intelligent as well. Motherhood was never something Nao aspired to, but she finds that she could not be less than the best mother she can be when confronted with Tsugumi's need. (Again, fuck: how many tissues will I need to write about this show?)

It's a series called Mother that features at least five mothers. I'm not sure Sakamoto could or should have given us a deeper look at Rena's biological mother: she does at least a couple of horrible things on screen, but I think we can understand her if not sympathize with her. And so she's pretty much no more than a villain. Contrasting her are the four mothers of Nao's family: Nao's adoptive mother, her biological mother, her pregnant sister and Nao herself. The core of this series is the sacrifices and commitments these women are willing to make for their children. As usual in Sakamoto's oeuvre,  there are surprises and touching moments,and in this case they reveal what Sakamoto thinks is the essence of motherhood and that is a willingness to do anything for the sake of their children. I think most people would agree that that is an ideal to aspire towards, and that theme is thoroughly explored in this series.

We root for Nao and the renamed Tsugumi even though we know what Nao is doing is the wrong thing to handle Tsugumi's situation. The devastating part of this series is that we are shown that Nao would be great mother for Tsugumi, but, of course, Nao's actions are wrong, and so it cannot be. The one light in the darkness; however, is that the story does not have to end there, and when Tsugumi is old enough they might be able to reconnect.

The series is an exemplar of feminist writing as well. It is entirely about women's agency to the point that the show immediately passes the Bechdel test and would fail to pass many opposite versions of that test. For instance, there are at least two named male characters, but if I recall correctly none of them ever talk to each other let alone talk about anything other than Rena or Nao. Contrariwise, there may have been a discussion or two about Nao's sister's fiancee, but that's about it for any discussion between women about a man.

Mother is an amazing achievement. While the story is firmly planted in the tropes of melodrama - we have the usual array of dying characters and hospital scenes, abuse, misadventures, and crushing disappointments - the series is grounded in both a realistic portrayal of these people's lives and a thorough thematic exploration of what motherhood means to these women. It is about the bonds that form and just how resilient those bonds can be. But it's also about the joy that those bonds provide as well. Watch this series if only for the joy of Ashida Mana's performance.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

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

Titles:
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
Cast:
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 unaware 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 characters 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 grandmother, 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 Sakamoto's 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

Titles:
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
Cast:
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.

Tatsuya Uchihara (Uchi from Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City) has a cameo in Episode 1 He plays a hair stylist and says the word "Shampoo" at about the 16:00 mark.
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

Titles:
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 ended two months ago at time of writing
Cast:
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 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.