Spring has not been accompanied by a heady mix of dramas to erase the disappointment of winter. The networks are not addressing the problems facing the ratings slump even as they dish out an ever increasing number of dramas each season. Miscasting is a frequent offense as is the lack of good production values, but when mediocre actresses and actors start being referred to by the media as having come into their own, that should set off alarm bells. The dismal offering looks set to extend into the summer and the seasons ahead with few morsels to offer hope that the self-afflicted pain results in some delicious delights. So sit tight and brace yourselves!
Marumo no Okite
Marumo no Okite (Marumo’s Rules) is about Takakgi Mamoru (Abe Sadao who is probably best known for playing Arase Monji in the Iryu series), a bachelor, is a salaryman employed at a stationery manufacturer’s customer support desk. One day, he receives news that Sasakura Junichiro, his good friend from junior high school baseball club days has died of cancer, leaving behind 6-year-old twins called Kaoru and Tomoki (Asahida Mana and Suzuki Fuku), and regrets that he had said nasty things to him the last time they spoke.
Mamoru attends the funeral and is torn to see that the two children will be raised separately by relatives. He remembers the fondness with which Sasakura had spoken of his twins and how they have been happy to be together since birth. Feeling compassion for Kaoru and Tomoki, he impulsively decides to take care of them for the time being. The children in turn willingly embrace him as their caregiver and affectionately call him “Marumo”. And so, his days as a carefree single come to an abrupt halt as he begins living with the two children and a talking dog. Cluessless about parenting and childrearing, Mamoru encounters many problems along the way, but also finds himself learning from Kaoru and Tomoki … … and maybe gets his groove back.
Marumo no Okite is a simple, heartwarming though completely predictable family drama with adorable child actors who are undoubtedly the lure. Perhaps that’s why Abe Sadao seems to overact to compensate for that. There is a sense that the children, and not the adults, are expected to carry the drama, but adorable kids alone do not make a good production and when they try too hard, it gets unnatural and annoying.
Anyhow, what is Fuji TV thinking? Marumo no Okite is cute, too sickeningly cute and fluffy to go up against the juggernaut of Jin and is better suited as a children’s show at an earlier time slot. It is foolhardy of the network. In fact, its new ‘Dramatic Sundays’ time slot has been anything but dramatic.
Iryu Sousa (Personal Effects Investigation) is a variation of TV Asahi’s successful hit drama series, Rinjo. This time, the focus is on searching for the final message of deceased victims through the personal effects they have left behind rather than the dead bodies itself, but the similarities in the proganists are hard to miss. Like Kuraishi Yoshio, Itomura Satoshi played by Kamikawa Takaya who is following his role in the very engrossing Marks no Yama with yet another detective role, is regarded as a nuisance by the police organisation. Both men have keen powers of observation, stick to their convictions when they think they are right and become engrossed in cases once they get involved.
In fact, Kamikawa might be the man the network needs to draw audiences so that it can legitimately turn Iryu Sousa into a long running series as Uchino Masaaki’s marital woes and drink driving problems appear to put future roles in jeopardy. That would be an utter shame because while Kamikawa is a solid, dependable actor, he lacks the charisma, intensity and wide repertoire that Uchino is capable of. But since appearances are important, it looks like Uchino will have to be penalised. In that case, we could see TV Asahi’s Wednesday detective drama slot alternating between Aibo, Shin Keishichou Sousa Ikka 9-gakari and Iryu Sousa in future. A returning drama is like comfort food, but it would be so much better if the network does not choose to fall back on dramas that have proven to be popular hits and extend it for countless seasons, but instead attempt new themes.
Iryu Sousa is a better effort at the investigative genre compared to Akuto and Honboshi last season. In some ways, that is. It still has shortcomings in that Itomura is supposed to support the investigative team through his analysis of personal effects, but he always ends up doing the investigation for the other cops who are, as you guessed, incompetent and contemptuous. It hardly makes sense to have so many people in the drama when the only person really doing any heavy lifting is Itomura. Like Kuraishi, he doesn’t just document evidence but probes about to make sense of that evidence and reaches the answers faster because of a rabid curiosity which his colleagues seem to lack. That said, are the protagonists getting too stereotypical?
Jin Season 2
TBS’ hit drama Jin, which made Uchino Masaaki popular for his unforgettable portrayal of the swashbuckling Sakamoto Ryoma, returns for more adventures in Edo and hopefully some satisfying answers to the mystery of the foetus and the man wrapped in bandages.
The synopses for the two seasons are available on the blog so there won’t be a summary of the story. A big part of the draw of season 2 are the interactions between Jin and Ryoma, and whether Jin can save Ryoma from his tragic destiny. The Jin-Nokaze-Saki love triangle unravelled when Nokaze took it upon herself to withdraw and find her own happiness, but Saki rejects Jin out of guilt and a healthy dose of noble idiocy because the writers want them kept apart. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Jin and Ryoma rather than Jin and Saki have a thing going on.
The episodes without Ryoma and Nokaze often plod along slowly. It also does not help that Jin spends much of the current season in an existential crisis, wondering about his purpose and whether his actions in this era will have an impact on the course of history (didn’t he do that in the previous season too) or if history will render his actions moot such that his inner monologues get overly repetitive and tedious. We get it and we don’t need to be clobbered over the head! His insecurities and slight bumbling manner in spite of his medical brilliance lends him humanity and vulnerability, but when overdone makes him rather weak as a character.
On a side note, the many historical figures from Princess Kazunomiya, wife of the fourteenth shogun, to Tanaka Hisashige, one of Japan’s greatest inventors and the founder of Toshiba, that Jin encounters is a nice, interesting touch as effort is clearly made to ground the story in that period by weaving Jin’s adventures around them.
Jin is the best of the season in almost all aspects even though it is a little self-absorbed. Now that Ryoma is back in the picture, and has brought Jin to the heights of ecstasy and depths of sorrow, maybe we will get some good storytelling to take us through the last leg of the story. For those who love watching Uchino Masaaki, savour these moments because we don’t know if he’s going to be put in cold storage for awhile.
Shiawase ni Narou yo
Helmed by acclaimed scriptwriter Inoue Yumiko, who boasts solid credentials and a long list of hits including Shiroi Kyoto, Engine, Good Luck, 14-sai no Haha and Pandora (the most notable exception is the rather disastrous First Kiss), Shiawase ni Narou yo (Be Happy!) promises to be the drama to rise above the mediocrity that has befallen Fuji TV’s lineup of Getsu-9 in recent years. Once the network’s much envied golden hour, recent Getsu-9 have failed to capture the imagination and hearts of viewers. And so, the slump in viewership ratings has, to a large extent, mirrored its waning popularity. Who better to entrust the revival of the timeslot than the ratings queen?
Shiawase ni Narou yo is about Takakura Junpei and Yanagisawa Haruna – two people who have been scarred by love and are scared to love again. Junpei (Katori Shingo in a bland, nice guy role) is ironically a marriage agency adviser at B-ring and proud of his job. He is good at making the people around him happy and has a record of bringing many couples together. But in truth, he has not been able to overcome the pain of the breakup with his girlfriend of five years or her subsequent marriage to one of his rugby team buddies.
Junpei meets Haruna (would it be too kind to call Kuroki Meisa an actress when she sleepwalks through yet another role?) when she becomes a member of B-ring although they do not start off on the right footing as she initially offends his sensibilities with her careless statement that any person who can provide her with a comfortable life would make a fine marriage partner. Haruna, who is exquisitely beautiful, does IT consultancy at a prestigious company and is the daughter of a businessman, is a prize catch for the agency. Or so it seems, until her illustruous background is exposed as lies. Her distortion of the truth does not end there, and despite the way Junpei gets twisted about by her, he is reluctantly drawn to her and able to see her vulnerabilities which in turn evoke protective instincts and a fierce desire to make her experience the joy of being in love with someone. And Haruna, in turn, seems moved by him … …
Curiously, a hotshot lawyer named Yashiro Hidehiko (Fujiki Naohito played suave male characters better in his earlier days) joins B-ring at about the same time and is rudely insistent on dating Haruna whom he claims to be his type. Even though Yashiro fits the profile of the sort of man she wants, Haruna appears oddly cool towards his advances. Could the two of them be acquaintances or lovers putting on a play of being strangers?
Maybe Inoue Yumiko is overstretched between the scripts for Shiawase ni Narou yo, Saigo no Bansan and the upcoming summer drama starring Sato Koichi and Miura Haruma for she has only been involved in the script for Ep1 and left it to her co-scriptwriter who is better known for misses like Tsuki no Koibito, Gaikoukan Kuroda Kousaku and Mei-chan no Shitsuji. This drama neither treads new territory nor feels particularly romantic but has a certain charm (in spite of its running toothache gag to blare that the hero is in love with the heroine if we are too obtuse to follow their interactions) when it gets the balance right.
Unfortunately, the main cast does not have the acting chops or the chemistry to deliver winning performances to elevate this drama from average to addictive weekly crack. This is especially apparent for Haruna’s character. The aim to make her mysterious is not convincing unless they have confused a poker face with enigma. Kuroki Meisa should only be consigned to cameos and remain a model. But Naka Riisa takes the cake for being awfully irritating and juvenile with pouts and whines to convey frustration that her crush is oblivious of her feelings. There’s only so much a person can tolerate.
The parents offer a potentially more interesting secondary story, and it might just be that it isn’t merely the happiness of being in love, but also the happiness of rediscovering one’s place in life again that is what the drama is about. Still that isn’t enough of a draw to sit around for another 9 episodes.
Madonna Verde is an adaptation of Kaido Takeru’s novel of the same name. Kaido is well known for the Team Batista medical mystery series which has been turned into a successful movie and drama franchise.
The drama opens with a beautiful scene of Yamazaki Midori (veteran film actress Matsuzaka Keiko in a role that does her better justice than Shukumei 1969) and her daughter, Sonezaki Rie (Kuninaka Ryoko in her meatiest role to date), basking in the joy of the news of pregnancy and their shared secret of surrogacy. But this is fraught with big risks because surrogate pregnancies have not been legalised in Japan and Midori is 55. Rie had lost her womb and foetus to cancer and is desperate for a child. Midori, who is torn to see her daughter’s heartbreak over the lost foetus and intense yearning for a child, hesitantly agrees to bear her child for her out of love. And so, one new year’s day, Rie secretly implants eggs fertilised by her husband Shinichiro in Midori’s womb at the clinic where she does consultations. The procedure is a success and the embryo starts to grow in her mother’s womb. However, an anonymous letter accusing Rie of pursuing surrogate pregnancy at the clinic is delivered to the university hospital where she works. Her superiors are already troubled by her views on infertility treatment because she has been advocating surrogate pregnancy in her lectures although there is still no social consensus on the debate.
Madonna Verde isn’t just an exploration of the controversial issue of surrogate pregnancy, but also a character study of Rie and her mother. Midori’s actions are guided by unconditional love for her daughter, but Rie’s does not appear to be so simple. Her desperation for a child actually seems to border on obsessive. That coupled with her strong views on surrogate pregnancy and her answer that she was born to face challenges, leads to a niggling but chilling feeling that she would willingly risk the life of her mother and in fact put her through society’s harsh scrutiny for the sake of a baby that she can hold up as Japan’s first case of a baby born to a surrogate mother. Is she that selfish, cunning and calculative? I wouldn’t put it past her to do that.
This could be Kuninaka Ryoko’s breakout role but she doesn’t leave much of an impression in the initial episodes. She plays Rie with such tension and stiffness that it felt like she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders each time. She tries hard but she does not seem to really get into character and convey the complex emotions. The difference is apparent next to a seasoned actress like Matsuzaka Keiko, who anchors the drama with a very natural portrayal of a mother guilt-ridden that she could not ease the pain her daughter went through and would do anything to make her happy.
Muscle Girl follows the journey of a small four-member female pro wrestling group called Shiratori Pro Wrestling that founders with the death of its owner. His only child, Shiratori Azusa (Ichikawa Yui is sweet but has never really made much of an impression), decides to take over from her father, but discovers that it is so mired in debt that she loses heart. To add to her troubles, the ambitious manager of the rival Aoibara-gun, a former prodigy of her father, signals his intention to disqualify and shut down Shiratori Pro Wrestling, and then their referee goes missing on the day of the match that is to be their final on the circuit. A desperate Azusa mistakes Yo Jiho (FT Island’s Lee Hong Ki speaks decent Japanese but his acting leaves much to be desired), a famous South Korean star, for the similar-looking referee and beseeches him to preside over their match.
Jiho has come to Japan to act in a Japan-South Korea joint blockbuster movie, but has other agenda. He is looking for his mother who is his only family. She had suddenly disappeared from their home in Korea one day, and Jiho believes that she had run away to Tokyo because he had been so busy that he did not time for her. Even though he has no idea where to start his search, he escapes from his talent agency and goes in pursuit of her.
Azusa and Jiho have had entirely different upbringing, but they soon unite for the survival of Shiratori Pro Wrestling and find strength in each other at a difficult time in their life. Jiho also gains a surrogate family in Azusa and the girls of Shiratori Pro Wrestling, who wholeheartedly accept him for who he is, oblivious of his superstar status. Before long, romantic undercurrents develop. Azusa is moved by how earnest, sweet and thoughtful Jiho is. He, in turn, is touched by her generosity and concern for him, which reminds him of his mother. However, that is certainly the last thing a girl would like to hear from a guy!
Female pro wrestling sounds like an exciting, riotous premise among the many sequels and investigative dramas that dot the spring landscape, but Muscle Girl falters in its execution by trying to juggle Shiratori Pro Wrestling’s struggle to overcome adversity with Jiho’s search for his mother. The latter at times threatens to eclipse the former and dominates a large part of each episode. Why is she even in Tokyo to begin with? There is also an unexpected amount of heavy-handed moralising in this drama which gets annoying. Jiho has an annoying habit of spouting quotes about “trust” and “family” which could rival Forrest Gump by the time Muscle Girl ends its run.
The potential for interesting stories about the lives of the wrestlers, their passion for the sport, relationship between management and wrestlers and what goes on behind the scenes seems wasted. We instead get contrived conflicts and a traitor in Shiratori Pro Wrestling’s midst who is out to sabotage the group. Its characters other than the heroine and hero also feel like caricatures. The manager of Aoibara-gun and the head of Jiho’s talent agency are made out to be cartoonish baddies and to complicate matters. It could really have been great fun even with the mediocre acting had it not been all over the place.
For those accustomed to Korean dramas, there’s no complicated love triangle or square here or major lie between Azusa and Jiho. Azusa quickly catches on to Jiho’s identity, but let’s him break the news to her when he is ready. While Jiho may be a superstar, he is the opposite of a cold, pompous ass with the heart of a softie, the favoured male stereotype right now. He does save the day a few times but he is bumbling enough to be endearing. However, wrist grabs still seem de rigour. Perhaps that’s the compromise?