Dorama review: Atelier

Atelier

This Japanese drama series, also known as Underwear, is a 2015 Netflix and Fuji TV co-production set in an exclusive lingerie boutique in Tokyo. The trailer looked a little ridiculous, but I was pleasantly surprised once I started watching.

A bit like ER, Atelier opens with a new employee’s first day, but she doesn’t remain the lead character in every episode. The newbie is Takita Mayuko (Mao Daichi), a recent textiles graduate who is excited to be in the very fancy Ginza district for her first day. But she isn’t an obvious fit for the fashion world, being more interested in fabric development than haute couture.

Mayu’s comfortable shoes and ill-fitted suit, not to mention her tendency to speak her mind, particularly stand out against the elegance of Emotion, the boutique that hired her as a general assistant, and its renowned chief designer/owner Nanjo Mayumi (Mirei Kiritani). Nanjo-san initially seems cold and modelled on Anna Wintour (on day one she tells Mayu that she is not beautiful, which considering Daichi is a model is clearly ridiculous) but she and Mayu develop genuine respect for each other.

I must admit that I liked the first few episodes, while Mayu is floundering, a lot more than after she finds her feet (and discovers tailored suits, demonstrating her own brand of elegance). There’s a sweetness to how all her colleagues want her to succeed, despite how poor a fit she initially seems. I like her friends outside Emotion too, whose roles sadly shrink over the course of the series. And the hint of potential awkward romance with Himeji Sousuke (Dôri Sakurada, who was also in Good Morning Call) was sweet and comical but firmly in the background.

Atelier screenshot
Mayu and Nanjo do not initially seem like a pair who will work well together.

This series is ultimately about Mayu figuring out what she wants from her career, and I like that it centres her work, but considering there are only 13 episodes, there’s some odd filler and switches in tone. Some lead characters disappear part-way through, as if this was conceived as two even shorter seasons, or the producers lost faith in Daichi and decided to centre Kiritani instead. For a few episodes it becomes a drama about a woman in her 50s at a crossroads in her career, which is normally something I’d celebrate, but it’s a major switch from a coming-of-age drama.

For a TV series about underwear, even the few scenes of customers being measured or models wearing Nanjo-san’s custom designs don’t have the titillating aspect I would expect in a Western equivalent of this show. It’s all very polite and respectful, with a few speeches about the value of underwear being each woman’s private decision.

I’m a little sad that this series didn’t live up to its early promise, but I still enjoyed it to the end. The lead cast are all women, with the men firmly in supporting roles, and those women are all ages and marital states, but their careers are important to them and that’s where all the drama is. Definitely worth a watch.

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