Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful day – I had a hot date with a bento box and teeny tiny can of Asahi, which make perfect companions to my first ever Top 5 Dramas Watched in 2012 post. I couldn’t rank them – so, instead, I’ve broken them down in to categories, and aren’t neccessarily dramas made this year, but ones I have watched in 2012. Because I’m completely behind the times 98.4% of the time.
Click the cut and let’s do it!
1. THE OBVIOUS
History of the Salaryman (2012)
Simply: History of the Salaryman is amazing. With a little tweaking (and a lot of editing), I could see it running on Western TV as an example of Asian drama that has the ability to cross over and still tell a great story, regardless of subtitles. I honestly don’t have much to say about it as a whole, because it is just that good – sure, it has its moments of groan-worthy writing and “well that’s Korean drama at its best” – but the sparkling comedy, suspense, growth and genuine moments of WTF mixed with fantastic acting leave a lot of that to dust. Lee Bum-soo is phenomenal, easily running the gauntlet from Average Joe With a Heart of Gold ™ to Sassy Businessman (and all the steps in between). And Jung Ryu-won solidifies herself as one of my favourite actresses from her first scenes, perfectly matching Bum-soo at each step.
Extra points for the use of Propellerheads & Shirley Bassey’s ‘History Repeating‘ throughout the entirety of the show, too. But let’s be honest – with a “trailer” like this – was it ever not going to be brilliant?
I honestly could watch that eighteen thousand times and not get bored, especially when Ryu-won pretend-plays the keyboard so badly, but with such soul. And the dancing. And, well, the whole thing.
2. THE PLEASANT SURPRISE
Shiawase ni Narou yo (2011)
This drama? Ain’t brain surgery. In fact, I don’t think it’s all that great, technically – Kuroki Meisa‘s acting is so-so, the writing cliched, the ending jdrama-standard awkward – but boy, oh boy, did I enjoy it. I laughed, I cried, I imagined a montage set to a Coldplay song, I met my dorama twin in Naka Riisa. Romantic dramas for me are hit and miss – mostly miss, if we’re to be fair, especially if there’s no epic banter-bickerin’ that I love so much.
But Katori Shingo did something that made me sit up and list this as one of my favourite watches for the year – he made me forget he was a member of SMAP. In terms of idols-cum-actors, Shingo’s got the goods. He made me smile like a loon, my heart break through nuanced acting (no, really) that pulled up his role as an advisor at a marriage introduction service from being “meh” to “MY LIFE DEPENDS ON YOU BEING HAPPY, SHINGO”. He’s probably not going to win an Oscar any time soon, but his acting brought a lot of honesty to the screen. And his earnest chemistry with Meisa helped to detract from a lot of her acting shortcomings – the Moment of Declaration had my cold, black heart melting (just a little).
If you’re after something easy and unashamedly soppy, Shiawase ni Narou yo could be right up your alley. Just don’t forget the crackers to go with all the cheese. bah-dum-tish!
3.1 THE GENRE MIND-CHANGER
Yokai Ningen Bem (2011)
Things Expected When Going Into Yokai Ningem Bem: it’s (technically) a kids show, based on a well-loved anime from the 1960s. Starring a Johnny’s idol. About monsters who want to be human despite humanity hating them. Familiar territory, enjoyable but – eh, y’know. I gave it a burl on my dear blogger-friend Asayakei‘s suggestion, especially after she started posting pictures of the leads - Kamenashi ‘Kame’ Kazuya, (Watanabe) Anne and Suzuki Fuku - basically being the most adorable family on the face of the damn planet:
I know, right?! And there’s plenty more – enough to make me dump whatever I was watching to get some of this adorable goodness. And what I got was so much more – let me lean on a cliche for a moment – as Yokai Ningen Bem actively seems to want to subvert any idea of what you thought the dorama was going to be. There are moments in the show that are just beautifully crafted – three monsters, wanting to be human and who can never die? Easily, it could have deteriorated into mindless angst or cheesy CGI; but Kame, Anne and Fuku (this kid is a revelation) take three very different characters with one main focus and mould them into living, breathing, dynamic personalities. There isn’t a moment that isn’t deliberate, and the world that helps to create is rich and, simply, a joy to watch.
There’s no happy ending here, folks. Fair warning, but once you get to the last episode and how it will bleed into the movie that’s just been released, you realise that in all honesty? You don’t want one. The horrible reality is that these guys are monsters, but their saving grace is each other. That’s where Yokai Ningen Bem finds its metaphorical feet and makes it truly different – not in crime fighting monsters who want to be human!, but in the family unit that Belo, Bela and Bem create. The writers and directors use a human family – headed by the wonderful Kitamura Kazuki - to frame this beautifully, and both families learn and grow from each other in a gloriously natural way. As natural as a bunch of monsters descended from goo can, anyway.
I can’t say there isn’t cliches or groan-worthy moments – this is a dorama, after all – but I just really enjoyed Yokai Ningen Bem, and recommend it wholeheartedly for the whole damn family. They’re also really attractive and half-naked a lot of the time. Bonus?
3.2 THE GENRE MIND-CHANGER (OR, HOMAGE TO A WESTERN SHOW I ADORE)
Atami no Sousakan (2010)
“Quirky” is a word thrown around in jdrama a lot. “Inspired by the world of Twin Peaks” could be either brilliant or eye-poppingly dire. Luckily for everyone, Atami no Sousakan manages to rise above its Lynchian cues to create a drama that was always going to either embrace or alienate its audience – and from what I understand, it’s pretty 50/50. Personally, I loved it. It ran on the right side of homage, and there are some scenes that radiate the energy of Twin Peaks while still keeping it fresh for a 21st century audience. There’s never a moment you feel the show is being weird or quirky just for the sake of it; it’s incredibly organic, and I think that’s where Atami no Sousakan‘s strength lies.
Odagiri Joe and Kuriyama Chiaki headline this boat-load of small town mystery, and both put in wonderful performances – in fact, I think Joe should win accolades based on his face alone. The ending is something that you’ll have to experience to have an opinion on – like the majority of the show – but I think it leans on the right side of frustrating (think more The Sopranos, less Mop Girl). It’s ambiguous without being obtuse, and obvious without being shoved down the viewers throat…and I’ll leave it at that, because no spoilers for this ride. And the use of Erik Satie’s ‘Gnossienne No. 1′ will have you swooning.
4. THE “WHY AM I SO OBSESSED WITH THIS STUPID SHOW”
Nazokoki wa Dinner no Ato de (2011)
(Cue everyone to hear Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor‘ in their heads)
Well. Huh. Um. It has a great theme song, thanks to Koda Kumi, tied in with a fantastic opening sequence! And. Um…Shiina Kippei! He’s pretty great!
Okay, okay. I technically watched this at the tail end of 2011, pretty soon after it aired. But I’d void this entire list if I didn’t include it, because it managed to gobble up a significant part of my dorama year. I rewatched it (twice!), awaited the Special Episode with bated breath (a cheek kiss!) and am now following any spoilers from the forthcoming movie with great excitement and frustration (August 2013?!).
The hundred bazillion trillion dollar question: WHY.
It’s literally the same episode over and over:
1. Simple crime
2. Shiina Kippei eats some scenery
3. Reiko goes home to glam up; eat dinner; pretend to fire Kageyama
4. Kageyama treats her like shit and solves murder despite her obviously being able to do it if she’d just, y’know, think
5. They Solve Crime; Shiina Kippei falls for the Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent ruse and chews more scenery
6. Kageyama teaches Reiko something or other, ‘Meikyuu Love Song‘ plays, they look at each other and smile, ~le fin~
Kageyama (portrayed by King Jerk himself, Sakurai Sho) is a smug piece of work you want to throw into a river. Reiko (Kitagawa Keiko) is frustrating and silly, despite all evidence pointing to her being a potential Feminist Icon (an heiress who ditches the frills to be a detective?! Yes please!). He’s terrible, she’s a let-down – but somehow, some damn way, they’re both charming and wonderful and disgustingly good together. Despite a script that goes in circles, cases that you could solve within the first quarter and some epic cockblocking, my heart is full of Heiress/Butler. And I want to punch myself for that alone.
Because if there’s one thing I love? It’s chemistry. And boy, oh boy. There isn’t another word for it, but it’s oozing from the screen. If Keiko and Sho weren’t playing this as part extremely-aware-campiness and part three-seconds-away-from-a-kinky-porno, I will go out and buy a hat for the sole purpose of eating it. And the worst (best?) part – aside from the missed opportunities that rain from the original series – is that the writers and directors walked into the Special Episode and made fun of all the things I listed above like they were actually aware of these things. ‘Meikyuu Love Song’ running gag! Kageyama falling for Reiko’s twin (PSYCH! As if that cheek kiss we teased you with for months wasn’t Tsutsumi Yukihiko levels of cockblock)! The world’s most boring case forming a back bone for two hours of bantering and bickering!
If the movie isn’t two hours of making out, I swear. I SWEAR. In closing, don’t watch Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de, in case you become overly invested and end up writing a “review” that’s actually just a thinly veiled attempt at regaining some cred or semblance of taste in the eyes of your readership. Which leads us to…
5. THE ONE YOU SHOULD ACTUALLY WATCH
Strawberry Night (SP: 2010; Series: 2012)
(Trigger warning for rape)
Procedurals are my life blood. Fucked-up cops are my favourite, especially if they’re one half of a fucked-up cop partnership. And if they’re a fucked-up female cop in a position of authority in an all-male workplace with an all-male team; who carries the pain of a heavy trauma in a $35,000 Hermes Birkin and keeping herself focused by checking into business hotels to avoid her family? Well.
Strawberry Night‘s protagonist is Himekawa Reiko, played with quiet control and absolute beauty by Takeuchi Yuko. Heading a team of blokey-blokes in a classically misogynistic line of work – homicide – we’re introduced to the gang of family men, tearaways and broken hearts first via a TV Special (2010) and then by a full series in 2012 (with a film being released next month). This isn’t your typical Japanese cop show – yeah, okay, in a lot of ways it is, because it is a Japanese cop show – but in all the ways that actually count, it’s not. Reiko’s scars are well-hidden and only shown to the audience as a way to complete the picture. Raped and stabbed in teenagehood and holding an oath to become the best female cop she can (no spoilers), she fights the man and leads her team to victory through the shark pit that is Homicide – but with an air of dignity and sharp internal pain that leaves her at arms’ length from her co-workers, despite them all trying to get close. It’s a character you don’t see every day, because never once does she, or the writers, use her rape in an exploitative way – it’s there, because it’s a part of her. Like her choice to live and dress simply, all with a hideously expensive handbag on her arm – Reiko’s a woman, but she’ll not let you decide at what point she’s allowed to be one.
The love interest angle is juggled fantastically, with Nishijima Hidetoshi‘s Kikuta bumbling along trying to stop the sometimes overemotional force of motion that is Reiko. It’s never really verbalised whether Kikuta and the rest of the team are aware of her past, but Kikuta’s “feelings”, if they can be verbalised as such, are only ever shown after reading her cues and never, ever letting her feel attacked or intruded. There’s a moment, one of those actually emotionally strong moments in dorama that doesn’t feel overengineered or saccrine, where he welcomes her home to a business hotel after a rough day. It’s simple, and there’s even a refreshingly awkward scene the next day. It’s not about love, or even inevitability, like most cop partners – it’s actually about a dude wanting a woman he likes and respects to feel safe. And that’s pretty damn cool.
The writing is stellar, and it looks amazing. It can be a rough watch in parts, fair warning – but Reiko’s team as a whole are worth the price of admission alone, as are the secondary characters, including her at-odds family and the other cops she’s constantly butting heads with. Namase Katsuhisa is wonderful as a nice touch of comedic relief (but that’s as normal as night turning into day) and I enjoyed the relationship between Reiko and Takashima Masahiro‘s Imaizumi every time they were together on screen.
If I were to choose my favourite drama of the year, it probably would be Strawberry Night – it’s just a great example of Japanese TV done well, and all with a fantastic female lead. If it seems like it’s something you’d enjoy, I encourage you to give it a go – but I make no apologies for wanting a deep red Hermes Birkin, okay?
SPEC ~Sho~ & ~Ten~ (2012)
This is one of those ones I really don’t have to explain, do I? 2012 saw the release of the TV Special and film follow-up to 2010′s Keikoku 2: SPEC – two welcome additions to Tsutsumi Yukihiko’s Keizoku-verse (also known as My Favourite TV Canon Evar). I was lucky to be in a position to see the film when it was on general release in April, and even with my terrible Japanese, I could tell it was worth the wait. So when subs became available in October for the film, tying it together with the SP, the series and Keikoku before it left me with more than a few headaches and a helluva lot of love. Without a doubt, the Keizoku-verse would be my first port of call for anyone wanting to get into Asian drama – it has the humour, the quirkiness, the brilliance, the frustration, the originality, the beauty and the feelings that make Asian drama so damn addictive, all in one neat package. No ifs, ands or buts - just watch. (And today came the annoucement of two more entries to the Keizoku-verse via a new SPEC film and SP prequel. I may have needed a lie-down after reading about it, okay.)
Honourable mention as I am still currently watching it – but I’m having a ball doing so. Katori Shingo turns up for the second time this post as a vaguely sociopathic genius cop with a love for randomly appearing and grinning like a maniac, all while Solving Crime. It’s nothing new, and I doubt it’s going to sustain the premise for much longer without wanting to throw my laptop out the window; but Shingo? Baby? I think I love you.*
(Also, I unashamedly love the end track and the homoerotic ode to Ridley Scott’s Alien-themed PV. Oh yes. [I sense a 'What Did I Just Watch?' post in my future, and it's wearing double denim.])
*not SMAP though okay
The Quiz Show (Season Two) (2010)
Just because it brought this gif into my life:
Perfect post end!
So! Did you guys watch anything this year you’d love to share/cry/squeal about in the comments? Have feelings about the ones I loved? Want to express your dismay at NazoDi’s inclusion on this list despite everything I wrote above suggesting it shouldn’t be? Do it!