Monday, September 24, 2018

Terrace House, A Deeper Dive: All the Rabbit Holes I've Been Down

I not sure why this show more than any other in my lifetime has led me to explore so many lines of inquiry around the show. Part of the reason must be the metanarratives woven into the show through its structure: the panel discussing the show on the show and the people on the show watching the show in the show. After all, I first learned of Terrace House through a video discussing the implications of these structures:
In any case, the show invites questions as you watch it:
  • Why is dating so hard in Japan?
  • Who are these panelists?
  • Why does a dating show cast people who can't date?
  • Are there any other shows like this one?
As I dove into these questions I was led to learn more about Japan in general, and I was exposed to some great media being produced in Japan and, later, Korea.

In this post I will attempt to link to and briefly discuss all the rabbit holes I've gone down in pursuit of these questions and others that have arisen along the way.

The Shows Themselves

I started by watching the series available internationally on Netflix:
Watching the show led me to seek groups of people talking about the show, where I learned that there was an earlier series which is not available on Netflix:
And that was followed by a movie:
  • Closing Door - for which there's nothing to link to yet since it has not been subtitled yet. However, there are plans to do so within the next few months.
Talking About the Show

Once I was watching the show, I wanted to talk about it and hear people talking about it:

  • r/terracehouse - The largest and most active online English-speaking community talking about the show is on reddit.
  • NSAA facebook group - The listeners of the No Script At All podcast have formed a lovely little community to talk about the podcast and the show. Joining the group requires that you answer a question: the answer is "Terrace House".
  • #terracehouse - The twitter hashtag is more noise than light, but it gives you some idea what's on the minds of watchers as a whole. Occasionally, it can lead you to new articles and podcasts related to the show.
    • Lovelog - A Japanese fan blog catches a lot of news about the cast and panelists with several articles each day. Google translate will usually give you a pretty good idea of what each article is about.
  • #テラスハウス - Even beyond the issues of google translate, the Japanese twitter hashtag is pretty useless, riddled as it is with bots leftover from 2014 tweeting links to the same small set of articles from that time and Miwako stans retweeting bikini shots. Even after muting those you'll be left with a more toxic community than we see here in the English-speaking world.
I also started listening to podcasts. Currently running are:
  • No Script At All - Currently covering OND, Brendon and Andrea covered every episode of AS and have tabled their run on B&GITC. The episodes are released weekly with occasional gaps.
  • Terrace Neighbors: A Terrace House Podcast - Both the hosts went to college in Japan and so this podcast focuses more on giving more insights related to the culture and life in Tokyo. They are covering B&GITC and reserve the right to cover more than one episode per podcast though they've recently have been one to one. Episodes come out every other week.
  • Tourist House - The two hosts have taken the wise approach of covering three episodes of B&GITC on each episode of the podcast, and have just finished. They plan a single episode on AS, and will then start on OND.
  • Under One Roof, A Terrace House Party - Three siblings discuss OND (one of whom never speaks). This podcast has been coming out a bit more sporadically than the others here.
  • A Show About Nothing - A married couple, Ifa and Tama, from Jakarta are covering B&ITC.
One other podcast has succeeded in covering an entire season:
  • Terrace House Talks - Covered all of AS. Also had an interview with Yusuke/Eden Kai from the show.
Several podcasts stopped before they finished an entire season;
The People on the Show

Learning about the cast and, particularly, the panel led me to explore J-dramas for the first time, and so I will link to many of them below, but the two that any Terrace House fan should watch are:

  • Transit Girls - This Christmas love story between two girls was filmed by the Terrace House team between Closing Door and B&GITC. It was the first J-drama on broadcast TV to center on a lesbian relationship, and it is great despite a lot of non-consensual cheek pinching. It features Ito Kentaro as the next door neighbor and three additional TH cameos.
  • Mondai No Aru Restaurant - This comedy about institutional sexual harassment features YOU in the ensemble and introduced me to the writing of Sakamoto Yuji which is probably the most rewarding rabbit hole TH has led me down.
An obvious question once you get into the show is who are the panelists? I have written about all of them on this blog, and watched many J-dramas that have featured them. 
  • YOU - Leads to two rabbit holes: her music and her acting. 
    • As for her music, she was the lead singer for a synth-pop band in the late 80s called Fairchild. My favorite track of theirs is
      • Jelly Eyes - Yes, young YOU wearing a peacock feather headdress: what more could one want? 
    • She started acting while she was a pop idol, but really broke through with a dramatic role in the 2004 film:
      • Nobody Knows - An utterly dire film based on a true story. I hated this film, but it's well made and did not prevent me from checking out her in
      • Mondai No Aru Restaurant - Which led me to seek out more works by its writer, Sakamoto Yuji. YOU does not appear in any other of these series, but they are all excellent, and a rabbit hole well worth going down:
        • Mother - His most lauded work featuring an unbelievably great performance by a six-year old Ashida Mana.
          • Call Me Mother - This is the K-drama version of the same story which came out this year, nine years after the original. It's good but not great like the original, but was, nevertheless, hugely successful.
          • Our House - Ashida Mana also starred in this light family drama at the whopping age of 12. Her performance is bit variable - directors can let her overact - but when she's on, she's still amazing. She's taking a bit of break right now for, you know, middle school. What did you do today?
        • Soredomo, Ikite Yuku 
        • The Best Divorce - Another high recommendation. The follow up special has Miwako in a small role. Tokui quotes it in an episode of BxGND.
          • Matrimonial Chaos - This the K-drama of the same story which will be broadcast this fall.
        • Woman
        • Someday, When I Recall This Love, I Will Surely Cry
        • Quartet - Set in Karuizawa and has a cameo by Uchi in the first episode.
        • anone
  • Torichan - Is more of a model than an actress; nevertheless; she's done some film and TV roles over the years as well as released one single.
    • Tag - Available on Netflix. This was probably the first thing I watched by a member of the panel since it was on Netflix and came up in my recommendations after watching TH. It's a fairly surreal horror film with OTT, cartoonish violence, but it's also strikingly beautiful at times. It's also a fairly feminist allegory despite the MANY upskirt shots. Torichan plays the protagonist in the first and last segments as her character is transformed in an unexplained, ambiguous way.
    • Yamada and the Seven Witches - Torichan plays a member of the Scooby gang in this light high school paranormal comedy.
    • Ai No Cocokawa - Her single.
  • Tokui - Along with Yamachan and Babachan is a manzai comedian which means like the other two he has a comedic partner who is not on the show. His duo's name is Tutorial. His success in manzai led to a huge career on variety shows, and, infamously, hosting a series of comedy specials called Keeping the Chuck of Tokui Yoshimi Down on an adult satellite network. However, he's also had some supporting roles on J-dramas.
    • The NSFW things he's know for are sketches from the comedy specials that have not been subtitled:
      • Pero Pero House - Is a direct parody of Terrace House mocking the unbelievable amount of time it takes for the couples to get it on. In the first episodes one of the girls is happily giving BJs to each of the guys in turn within minutes.
      • Handjob Karaoke - This comes up on YouTube as an example of crazy Japanese game shows. No, it's just an extended segment on one of Tokui's specials.
    • More fun for us English speakers are his appearances on J-Dramas that have been subtitled:
      • Cecile's Plot - Tokui plays a gay hairdresser at a fashion magazine. The lead is Maki Yoko who just shines in this role, and led me to seek out other things she's done, and so when I spotted that YOU was also in Mondai No Aru Restaurant, I was in. The story of this J-drama is set in the world of fashion modeling, but it's really about women's friendships.
      • It's Not That I Can't Marry, But I Don't Want To -  Tokui plays the guy who got away in high school in this light romcom with really terrible dating advice for career women. Kentaro plays Tokui's character in flashbacks to high school.
  • Kentaro - Has the currently most active acting career of anyone associated with the show including a couple of roles you can find on international Netflix.
    • Good Morning Call - Available on Netflix. Kentaro has a fairly hefty recurring role in the first season (only). 
    • Kantarou: The Sweet Tooth Salary Man - Also available on Netflix. Kentaro plays the antagonist in a single episode.
    • Are You Ready? Hey You Girl! - Kentaro plays one of the three wingmen of the protagonist in this high school comedy and is the center of the final episode.
  • Babachan - Has had a few character parts in a few shows.
  • Shono - Is getting some roles right now as well, but few of his are large or subtitled at this point.
    • Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu - He does have a recurring role here, but maybe five lines total in the entire series, and so don't watch it for him. It is, nevertheless, a delightful series about a marriage of convenience and a good exploration of gender norms and expectations in Japan. I watched this series because it was supposedly the basis for Because This Is My First Life, a great K-drama that I'll link to below when discussing Shohei..
  • Yamachan - Is widely known and hosts many shows and events. He even refereed a couple of the 48-group Janken tournaments which ties him into a rabbit hole discussed below. Unfortunately, very little of what he does gets subtitled.
  • Hiroomi Tosaka - The first person in the Boy Prince slot is arguably the biggest name ever on the show. He is a member of Sandaime J Soul Brothers, a boy band that was the largest selling live musical act in Japan in 2017.
One of the housemates led me done the deepest rabbit hole of all, but the rest are pretty short: most of the cast are so young that they have not had as much time to produce things or be a part of many projects.
  • Rie Kitahara - One of the first six housemates raised the question of why a dating reality show would cast someone who cannot date. Rikopin faced the same issue on B&GITC. As an active member of AKB48 at the time, she was a huge get for the show. She did pretty well in the 48-groups reaching #10 out of 370 participants in her final single election in the group, but she was never an ace singer and only centered one song while she was part of the organization. She "graduated" (retired from the groups) this spring and is pursuing a career in acting. Rie led me to learn more about the "Love Ban" in general and AKB48 specifically.
    • Choose me - She had centered this music video for a "coupling song" (something like a B-side in the US except there's usually more than one) two years before she appeared on Terrace House.
    • Watashi no Tame ni - Her graduation song.
    • Tokyo Idols - This documentary is available on Netflix, and takes a dim view of the idol scene in Japan. It pulls up short of accusing the scene of being, essentially, pedophilia, but it's a fair implication from the documentary particularly when it examines the younger idol shows.
    • Heavy Rotation - AKB48's most infamous song primarily because of the associated MV which features 21 AKB48 members including Rie all under the age of 18, in lingerie. The director of the video was a woman, if that helps. (Hint: it doesn't help.)
    • Amachan - I wondered if there was a good J-drama about the Japanese idol scene and MyDramalist led me to this asadora. Asadoras consist if 15 minute episodes broadcast 6 days a week on NHK, and you might well wonder after the first 18 episodes what the heck this show has to do with idols since it seems to be entirely about women who free dive for sea urchins, but be patient: it definitely gets there including a character who is based on Aki-P, the man who created AKB48 and its related groups.
      • Hoyokko - Amachan was so good, it led me to try another asadora, and this one was highly recommended. It's set in the 1960s Tokyo, and includes both leads from Transit Girls, one of whom has a substantial role as the protagonist's best friend. I've tried some other asadoras, but none caught me like these two.
    • 48Talk I don't particularly like the 48-groups' music - I'm not really into any kind of pop music. However, I do listen to this podcast because the whole marketing system is so fascinating. The four host of this podcast do a good job of covering what is happening in the 48-groups without being too squicky about the girls in the groups.
    • Alt Idols - However, the alternative idol scene is producing some music that is really interesting to me. And there are artists in this scene that are entirely deconstructing what is wrong with the rest of the idol scene.
      • Babymetal - Is the most well-known alternative idol group, and, indeed, I was listening to them well before I ever knew Terrace House existed. I particularly liked their second album, Metal Resistance.
      • Pikarin - She claims to come from a Buddhist hell called Makai, and who's to doubt her? She habitually walks on the backs of her fans who will not let their Queen's feet touch the ground as she wishes - she crossed the famous crosswalk in Shibuya by doing so,
      • Fruitpochette - A speedmetal swing tune? Yes, please.
      • BiSH - I don't generally like the rest of their oeuvre, but this was the song of the summer for me.
      • amiinA - alT idoL needS morE banjO! you'rE welcomE.
      • ········· - How can you not love ·········? You can't say their name in any language. It's painfully hard to search for them online though apparently iTunes just made it possible to find them on that service. Their genre is shoegaze, and it's really good.
        • CD - Yes, the name of this CD is CD. Of course, it is. Do give it a listen, but do feel free to stop after 22:00 since it's entirely a noise composition thereafter.
      • Alt Idol Podcast - Follows the whole scene producing an episode whenever the feel there's been enough news.
    • Produce 48 - A competition reality show that pitted girls from K-pop music agencies against girls from the 48-groups to select a group of 12 to debut in both countries. It was an interesting survival show, but pretty much a failure in terms of the final group selected. Since only South Koreans were allowed to vote only 3 of 12 final girls were Japanese.
  • Momochan - She joined an idoly rock band called Band Ja Naimon! ("We are not a band!") a year or so after the show.
  • Seina - She appeared along with Hana in a single scene of episode 4 of
    • Hibana: Spark - Available on international Netflix. It's a frustrating show. It's beautifully directed and acted, and tells the story of a struggling manzai act which is very helpful in understanding Babachan, Tokui, Yamachan and Ippei. But it's also fairly bleak, and the final half-hour is QUITE weird.
    • Still - She and Daiki acted in this MV.
  • Makun - He apparently DJs as well as surfs:
  • Hana - In addition to some acting, she also gets a solo break in the following song:
  • Oji - I have not watched Kamen Rider (a recent action children's show like Power Rangers), but he has had the biggest acting success of all former housemates having an extended run as Karoto Dan in all but five episodes of Kamen Rider Ex-Aid.
  • Yo-san - He was engaged to jyA-Me at the time he passed.
  • Renati - The second professional musician on the show, and kicked off the music colony phase of BxGND. She's signed to Sony, and so you can only view one of her videos an YouTube outside of Japan:
  • Maimai - Yes, the show had two singer/songwriters with a folksy vibe at the same time. Maimai promotes under the name chay, and since she's with Warner Brothers, far more of her material is available on YouTube:
  • Mizuki - Our favorite Lattest barista acted in a music video:
  • Misaki - Is still a member of the Eibisu Muscats.
    • Sexy Beach Honeymoon - The group had a surprising amount of chart success with one of their songs reaching #19 around the time she was on the show.
    • Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories - Available on interational Netflix. She appears in a single 10-second shot as the younger version of the protagonist of one episode of this anthology series.
  • Eden Kai - He's in the thick of building his career:
    • Sound of Love - A really good collaboration from this summer.
    • Let's Go Home - An old school torch song off his third album, Home Sweet Home.
  • Lauren - Appeared in a short film:
  • Wez - In case you ever need to find it:
  • Mayu - She does a lot of advertising and is an extra in a scene of 
    • The Could-Have-Gone-All-The-Way Committee - Available on international Netflix. She appears in episode 5.
  • Shohei - After his terrible kisses, someone on reddit recommended the following K-drama as an example of more recent trends in Asian drama that are resisting "the guy must be aggressive and the girl must resist" kissing trope:
I have run a couple of polls on reddit to determine people's favorite musician from the cast, and these posts contain a bit more about the musicians from the show.
  • Poll #1 - Since this pole was run shortly after AS, it's no surprise Eden Kai led the vote.
  • Poll #2 - After Shohei ended his run, I updated the pole to include him. Surprisingly, Rinati leapt to the top.
And I built a short YouTube playlist with the music of the TH cast and panel.

A good resource for finding J-dramas which include the cast is MyDramaList. You can find a list of what I've watched and am currently watching there as well.

The Music On The Show

The first thing to know about the music on Terrace House is that the music used on the show is entirely different on the Japanese and the international versions of the show. The music used in the Japanese version contains a lot of popular western music which would be prohibitively expensive to license internationally. A different Taylor Swift song has served as the opening theme song in three  of the seasons (with the same song serving for both B&GITC and AS), and in fact she promoted the show in its initial run as a way to break into the Japanese market. The music for the international version comes from an industrial licensing company called 5Alarm Music (you need to register to see what they have, but it's free to do so and I've only received a single nice e-mail after doing so); nevertheless, the main credit songs for B&GITC and AS were both by the same group - two guys known as Lights Follow.

Some music obsessives have tracked down every track used in every episode of the show for some of the seasons:
Someone was interested finding more of the music used in the international versions of the show similar to that of Lights Follow and so I built a Pandora Station to do so.

Related Shows

There are a couple of shows that are similar to TH:

  • Ainori, The Love Wagon - Ainori started long before TH, and, in fact, TH may well have been shaped to be in contrast to Ainori. The focus is much more on match-making in the context of cheap travel. It too has been rebooted by Netflix and the first of these new seasons has a really good story line involving a guy named Shy Boy
  • Hyori's Bed & Breakfast - It's available on Netflix, but watch it at at streaming site because the music is MUCH better, and, in fact, you will miss some music related scenes in the Netflix version. Even less happens on this show than TH, but you will love Hyori, Sang Soon and the employees as they run a B&B for a couple of weeks in each season. The joke is, of course, that Hyori and the employees are incredibly popular K-Pop stars.
    • Dream High - The first season led me to seek out more of the employee, IU, and this K-drama features her in a good secandary role. Worth watching if only to hear her acoustic version of "Video Killed The Radio Star".
    • Ask Me About K-Pop - The show also led me to want to learn more about K-Pop and this ongoing podcast is an excellent introduction to the topic.

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 Ondramanice. This method would be is 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. The earliest versions loaded to the streaming sites blanked the sound entirely when music was playing. I have checked a later episode, and that's not the case, but do not be surprised if that happens for some episodes.

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?


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

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
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

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

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. (ETA: If you've seen Pacific Rim, then you've already seen her - she played the young version of Mako.)

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

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 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

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.

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.