Posted by: cis | November 27, 2008

new drama watch: ryūsei no kizuna, salad of all the drama

Like Sarah said, Ryo’s new drama better be good – to justify his current drama hair, and to justify the fact that… I dunno, he was pretty underwhelming in Last Friends? He could have been a lot creepier– I don’t want to go too much into my personal theory about violence on Japanese television (oh ok i do. essentially: violence on j-tv is rarely convincingly acted, making it very hard to copy violent behaviour from j-tv. contrast it with the romantic gestalt: you can learn romantic behaviour from japanese youth drama, likely interactions and appropriate reactions, how romance arises. what’s very unclear is how violence arises, even in drama like gokusen that front-and-centre teen violence in a teen-friendly (also moral-drawing) way), but the very unsatisfying thing about Sōsuke, Nishikido Ryō’s character in Last Friends, was that the domestic-violence setup was too rushed, the jump from ‘nice boyfriend’ to ‘abusive domestic partner’ happened so fast that the later ‘how she keeps going back to him’ part of the narrative was difficult to keep believable. Michiru, the girlfriend, was one of those ‘victim characters’ that Japanese dramas love so much – the girl born with a ‘kick me’ sign on her back, who people can’t help but bully, the reason for bullying always opaque or unconvincing. Presumably the audience appeal lies in their inherent victimhood: the idea that someone who’s ‘naturally’ a target can escape that fate. And so, as a born victim, no wonder she keeps going back to her abusive boyfriend– but it would have been more interesting, narratively, if Sōsuke had been presented as a refuge from a bullying world who then turns into a bully, rather than a girlfriend-beater whose character is fleshed out after the fact. Also maybe we’d have got some better acting out of the boy.

So let’s talk about Ryūsei no Kizuna, Ryō’s new drama. It is good! I mean, I think it is? I can’t really tell, because as dramas go, it’s the most bare-faced mélange of previous series that I’ve seen yet. Originality has never seemed like the biggest priority for Japanese drama, but you might have expected it from a Kudokan script (with Ikebukuro West Gate Park, Kisarazu Cat’s Eye and Manhattan Love Story he was more the one being copied from than the copier). Instead, what he seems to have done is made trope-borrowing a strength – he’s built this ridiculous beast together from revenge tragedy, food-and-family heartwarmer, wacky-hijink-of-the-week renzoku, totally assured that he’s genius enough to make it work. Seriously, all it’s missing is lol catholicism.

So let’s talk about the various parts, trying to avoid spoilers:
1. REVENGE TRAGEDY
The great thing about revenge tragedy is that it’s a tragedy whether you’re venger or vengee! ‘Revenge Tragedy’ is basically a branch of a slightly more general trope in dramas, which I’m going to come out and call ‘Shakespeare’s Late Romances’: something AWFUL happened SEVERAL YEARS AGO and now the affected are of age to do something about it. You know, Prospero gets exiled to an island for twelve years, Hermione ‘dies’/pretends to be a statue for sixteen years, Cymbeline’s infant sons are kidnapped and live in Milford Haven (milford haven!!) for twenty years, that sort of thing. There’s been a lot of this in Japanese drama over the past few years: Unfair, Kurosagi, Maou (in many ways Maou is a retread of ‘Unfair’, just without the interesting female lead), this season’s Innocent Love, a bunch of others. Innocent Love stands apart because, as yet, the ‘revenge’ part of the story hasn’t quite appeared: it still has that focus on the inescapability of one’s past, though, not just one’s own actions (as in Unfair) but the actions of others (as in Kurosagi, Ryūsei no Kizuna). The lead female character in Innocent Love – Akiyama Kanon, as played by Horikita Maki – can’t positive-think her way out of her past any more than Michiru could avoid being a target of bullying (the two dramas have the same writer, ASANO Taeko, who’s just recently made the jump from marriage drama to youth issues plots, via the Nana films).
Maybe I’m being too Western-centric by calling them ‘Shakespeare’s Late Romances’ plots? It might be more appropriate to coin the phrase “Sōgamono dramas”. There’s a crime committed when the protagonists are children: when they come of age they take revenge, but the world will punish them for it. The only difference is that these days ‘the world’ is as likely to be their own conscience as any official justice.

2. FAMILY-RESTAURANT HEARTWARMER
I’m fairly sure there are lot of studies on the role of Japanese food in the invention of Japanese identity. There are all those titbits of information to be gleaned from articles: I swear I read somewhere that the rice diet wasn’t universal across Japan until after the Asia-Pacific War, which is crazy when you consider that people’d been paying their tax and tribute in rice since, like, the Heian period. And that whole ‘Aomori is for apples, Iwate for nanbu senbei’ popular conception is a post-war creation: not the fact that nanbu senbei are made in Iwate, or that Aomori’s climate is well-suited to pomology, but the choice to officially and explicitly emphasise local delicacies as national identity, to create a map of Japan from omiyage.
So far, so Eric Hobsbawn. Check those j-tv listings, my friends, and you will find that in every season there is at least one drama on Japanese TV that is about food, and it is about food as identity. Tradition, in Osen; social responsibility, in Kuitan; but most of all, in Teppan Shōjo Akane and Zettai Kareshi and Lunch Queen and a grillion others, it’s that natsukashii aji, that sweet taste of home. It’s people with tastebuds so princess-delicate they can pick out the taste of their father’s demiglace sauce or their grandfather’s cream puffs from among a million rivals, like picking out their mother’s face from a crowd of strangers. It’s yōshoku, so-called ‘western’ food, laid claim to as intimately Japanese; as something as personal, and as universal, as family.
…also I really want nanbu senbei now. :(

3. DRESS-UP VIGILANTISM
Here’s a fact well-known to all characters in japanese drama: the police ain’t gonna help you. If something goes wrong, if you’re swindled out of your life savings or have your friend kidnapped or someone writes some libellous graffiti about you on the school toilet doors, the appropriate reaction is never to call 110 and get the authorities in: no, no, what you should do is take on the criminals yourself, preferably while wearing a wig and sunglasses so they won’t know it’s you. Or, at least, you can rely on a class of people who spend their time doing exactly that. I’m talking Kurosagi, here, but also Yūkan Club, or Akihabara@Deep, or any number of older dramas. This is a huge class of drama: generally you can divide them into the wacky-played-for-laughs ones (like the borderline unwatchable Yūkan club) and the ones where the vigilante’s fighting their own demons, which are generally, like Kurosagi, a leeeetle boring. The problem is in the cognitive dissonance: either the wackiness makes the problems solved look silly, or the seriousness of the backstory makes the dress-up seem bathetic. Either you watched Kurosagi and thought “ah see he uses dressing up to escape himself and in the process becomes like a normal kid who’s having fun play-acting; but alas with each success must return to the blank slate of hate and vengefulness that is his base identity; how touching“, or you watched it and thought “this is super ridiculous, when will he take his top off again?”
Kudokan is really good at funny scenes that turn suddenly painful, embarrassment comedy that’s believably unwatchable rather than unwatchably bad. There is, in fact, an excellent family scene in episode five of ‘Ryuusei no Kizuna’ which switches in one breath from knockabout silly to sinister. But it’s a hard awkward line to tread, between family tragedy and wacky crime-of-the-week ridiculousfest.

4. SUPER TROPE BORROWING
Few dramas are original. It seems like everything’s based on a manga, a popular novel, a korean drama, the film of the anime of the book of the personal column of last year’s Asahi Shinbun. It’s not just a case of an imagination drought – though, you know, there’s probably an element of that. There’s something very satisfying about another sports story in which the combatants gradually increase in difficulty; another school story where slightly too-old boybanders in seifuku learn important lessons about the meaning of nakama and ganbaru; another OL story where the twin pressures of femininity and the office have to be balanced against one another; another mystery story where a series of rube goldberg murders can only be matched by an unconventional genius’ native instinct. Surely it’s even more satisfying when seifuku‘d boybanders of indeterminate age solve rube goldberg murders on an exponential curve of difficulty, while learning important lessons about hard work and companionship and the construction of personal identity within rival social pressures? Or maybe it’s just confusing.

Dramas – novels, manga, poems, rumours, things with plots or just with scenarios – are like myths, familiar things retold for whatever necessary purpose. Rather than a hundred different retellings of the Oedipus story, of Yoshitsune’s various travels and travails, we have a hundred, or a thousand, different retellings of the bullying narrative, of the passage to adulthood, of feeling powerless in the face of our own paranoia, of trying to resolve the bitterness of our lives. They don’t solve anything. You don’t read the Sōga Monogatari and thereby get over the umpteen-year-old injuries of your past; that sick slightly-admiring fear that true evil might really exist doesn’t go away when you watch a twisted genius’ last murderous machine dismantled five minutes before the end of the programme. But they provide clues, or maybe hints, or maybe the sense that this thing that you’ve been fretting at in a corner of your brain is a valid thing to be fretting at. They reiterate certain messages, certain morals, for us to take comfort in already believing.

The twists and turns of vengeance plots are savagely satisfying, but the Sōga brothers have to be put to death at the end or the whole thing falls flat: revenge stories can’t end until there’s no-one left to continue the cycle of retaliation. Family food stories need you to have already subscribed to their magical-thinking world of hypersensitive tastebuds and psychosomatic reactions for their mawkish plotlines to work. Vigilante stories require a fairly popular combination of cynicism and credulousness, a healthy mistrust of authority spoiled by a distinctly unhealthy tolerance for lone gunmen with motives either dangerously personal or worryingly callow. The three plot types at once? Surely this show must be hideously strange viewing for anyone who’s not used to the conventions of the medium? Am I only enjoying it because I’m a ridiculous formalist?

I can’t really tell, but here’s your spiel, cos the translated blurb on the d-addicts wiki makes it sound crypto-misogynist, and it isn’t (well, not in the way the blurb implies, anyway). It’s a family drama, it’s a food-nostalgiafest, it’s a revenge tragicomedy, it’s wacky vigilantism fluff. It’s written by, I think, the best j-drama scriptwriter around. It’s got Nishikido Ryo out of NEWS, Ninomiya Kazunari out of Arashi, and Toda Erika what was in various dramas I ain’t watched like Code Blue etc, and they none of them need to do any acting more complicated than “be quite likeable” to make this one work. So, you know, I’m a little bit confident: it’d be nice, this season, to get a drama that’s a little bit better than competent for once.

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Responses

  1. His drama hair is completely justified now. i am sorry for Trying It. Ryo-chan, I apologise. Incidentally, I will now share with you the fact that I cannot find a shortcut key to produce a macron (it is.. a macron isn’t it??) for the life of me. For that, I also apologise.

    You are further ahead that me with Ryusei no Kizuna but I am super-enjoying it as I said – if only because now I feel that I don’t need to bother watching Kurosagi (in which he took his top off less often than you’d think given his huge dressing up box).

    And BOY those child actors are quite good aren’t they? Better than the slightly TOO YOUNG boybanders in Scrap Teacher but I am still working myself up to post something about it, am going to wait for a few episodes more to see if it’s actually worth it. I suspect not. Poor old Nakajima.

    (And I watched the last episode of Code Blue on Wednesday! Don’t get me started on the universal bully figure – Shirashi out-wets even Maki. Hey – Maki and Gakky. A crime-fighting duo of mimpsy – they fight crime by wringing their hands!)

  2. Ooh I got one you missed – what about the old statute of limitations thing, the wierd fetishisation of the stopwatch effect on grisly murders has cropped up before but my hungover brain can’t quite pick up where it was (this is HUGE in Gyakuten Saiban which despite being a videogame is TOTALLY A DRAMA SHUT UP and in fact the first time I even heard that Japan still had a limitation period for murder – AND THE REST. Huge boggle).

  3. I did not know, that about the statute of limitations! I suppose if i’ve included it it’s under the sogamono ‘crime of the past’ rubric whatsit,

    I think one thing I missed about the yoshoku story – which became clear in whatever ryusei no kizuna ep i watched the other day – is the binary couple of supertaster/supercook. There’s a character, usually female, whose skill is having magical tastebuds, not so much superior discriminaton when it comes to food as emotional recognition of ‘the right taste’. And there’s a character, usually male, who is the perfect cook but nevertheless relies on the female supertaster for their emotional food connection. The odd thing is that in ryuusei no kizuna the supercook/supertaster couple is brother and sister: generally they’d be a romantic couple (e.g. lunch queen and some other drama i read the blurb for an age ago).

    I don’t think there is a shortcut key for the macron? well, there isn’t one on my mac, i have to open the equiv to charactermap and cut and paste. how hard, my life.

  4. NB the supercook/supertaster thing is interesting because it’s like the reverse-gender version of the ‘usual’ she-cooks he-eats, except of course this is in the professional sphere and therefore the cook is male and the consumer female.

    There is one reverse-gender version i can think of, where the woman’s considered a professional and the man’s strength is his emotional bond to food: whatsherface and her prettyboy erstwhile boss in ‘zettai kareshi’.

  5. I was thinking about this in the context of Proposal Daisakusen (“i will travel through time to every single set-piece you could imagine but my hair will be so shiny that somehow nothing matters anymore!”) which doesn’t have *any* of your tropes but in terms of the concious arranging-for-memories-for-our-old-age thing has every event supposed to resonate in ones life – the 2nd button, the pivotal sport event etc etc. Man, I sort of loved ProDai.

    Zettai Kareshi is also different because Riiko doesn’t cook for any family connection, in fact her family don’t approve of her cooking or any culinary ambition, so it’s the emotional connection that Soshi gives her cooking which pushes her forward and validates her – but it’s not *her* taste of home, I don’t think – it’s a *universal* taste of home that anyone can connect into yah yah yah – recently I got the manga of Zettai Kareshi! It cannot answer ANYTHING to do with food as it doesn’t even mention it. The only things with ANY link to the drama are the names and the fact that one of the characters is a woe-bot, so your super-recursive theme is EVEN MORE INTERESTING because where the heck are they getting half the plot from?!

    Speaking of which I cannot wait for Kame’s new wine-manga-based drama (there isn’t an English translation and I am not trying the Japanese. There’s a French translation though which I am debating – perhaps if it is cheap dans le ‘amazon marche-place’).

  6. from what I saw of prodai it is basically the evidence for my “you can learn romantic behaviour from japanese youth drama” assertion: all it is is the romance narrative! And shiny-haired Yamapi as the boy who wants to jump through all the hoops of romance, as opposed to real japanese boys who can barely be bothered to have sex with girls cos it’s too much bother.

    they are getting half the plot of zettai kareshi from THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS, where by ‘the collective unconscious’ i mean ‘other drama’. see also: the character of akira in nobuta! (nb i am not saying that the other characters were not equally uh recursive)


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