At some point I will have to stop calling the set-ups of these Japanese and Korean dramas odd. I’m sure a lot of my preferred English-language TV sounds just as strange when you summarise the basics. Maybe that’s just my taste in TV generally. But I did find the tone of Kimi Wa Petto (Fuji TV 2017) quite strange to begin with.
This show is based on Yayoi Ogawa‘s Japanese manga Kimi wa Pet serialized from 2000 to 2005. The comic won the 2003 Kodanisha Manga Award. It’s a largely predictable, slightly cheesy romantic drama, but enjoyable all the same.
Our heroine Iwaya Sumire (Noriko Iriyama) seems very serious and capable, but she is struggling to maintain a professional front after being dumped by her boyfriend of five years and then demoted after rejecting advances from her boss. Drunkenly stumbling home, she finds a young man (Jun Shison) on her doorstep who reminds her of her childhood pet Momo and offers to adopt him. He is homeless and has just been beaten up, so he gladly accepts.
Their relationship is initially cringeworthy (Sumire gets “Momo” to beg for food and other dog-like tricks) but when she learns that he is in fact Goda Takeshi, a ballet dancer of some renown, their relationship changes to…roommates? Friends? Siblings? They quickly become very affectionate and comfortable together.
Continue reading “Dorama review: You’re My Pet”
I am in two minds whether I can really call this a dorama, as it’s barely a drama at all. This TV series (a 2017 co-production of TV Tokyo and Netflix) is in essence a travel food show, with a thin veneer of comedic storyline to tie it together. It’s very entertaining, but also very weird. And it definitely made me want to go back to Tokyo.
The lead character, Kantaro Ametani (played by Onoe Matsuya) is not an endearing man. He is the prototypical salaryman – always serious, focused, hardworking, rejecting colleagues’ invitations to socialise. But he has a secret – he plans his working day around opportunities to “bunk off” for half an hour at select dessert restaurants and then blog about them under the pseudonym Amablo. In fact, he even switched jobs (a relatively big deal in Japan, where it’s common to stick with one company for life) so that he could live and work in Tokyo, closer to all those delicious sweets.
As part of his new job is sales visits to bookshops (cue lots of scenes in Tokyo’s many many bookstores), this is relatively easy. The bulk of each episode is devoted to one particular dessert or sweet at one particular real-life shop or restaurant. The dessert is described in loving detail with high-def slow-mo photography of it being made. And the restaurant also gets an introduction that has clearly been written by its owner or PR person.
So far, so entertaining and lots of note-taking about where to go when we save our pennies for another Japan holiday. But then it gets weird.
Continue reading “Dorama review: Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman”
by Banana Yoshimoto
translated from Japanese by Asa Yoneda
This is an odd book. I loved some things about it, but I didn’t love it. Which is a shame as it sounded so thoroughly up my alley.
Yoshie is in her early 20s when her semi-famous musician father dies in bizarre circumstances. Finding the family home overwhelming in her grief, she moves to the small, hip neighbourhood Shimokitazawa. She loves her quirky, arty new locale and her new job at a cafe there. But just as she is settling in, her mother shows up and insists on moving in with her.
Yoshie is having nightmares about her father, while her mother claims that their family home is haunted by him. The dead father is a constant presence through the book, necessarily so, as the whole arc of the story is the mother and daughter’s shared grief. (The significance of the title is that “Moshi moshi” is how you answer the phone in Japanese, and one of the plot threads is about the father’s mobile phone.)
The depiction of Shimokitazawa is wonderful – it really came alive for me and made me want to go there. There is an element of middle-class folk from a fancy neighbourhood playing at being poor and romanticising “the simple life”, but there is also something very enticing in Yoshimoto’s descriptions of the local shops and restaurants.
Continue reading “I can sense the border between when time dribbles on and stretches”
This Japanese TV show exists in many versions – largely with the same actors – but I am here referring to the Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (which is arguably season 4 of the show originally aired on MBS). Tim and I love this show so much.
It’s a simple concept: at a late-night diner (open from midnight until 7 a.m.) in Shinjuku, the chef-owner cooks whatever dish his guests request. The camera lingers on the cooking, but this is a drama about people. Each episode takes as its subject one of the regular customers. In this way, the episodes are largely separate stories.
Midnight Diner has a wonderful atmosphere – warm, cosy, but within the confines of reality. The acoustic background music adds to the sensation of being in a friendly backstreet bar where there is always gentle hubbub and subdued lighting.
Continue reading “Dorama review: Midnight Diner”
I have come full circle from a year ago – from Japanese TV dramas to Korean shows and now back to Japanese ones. Aside from confusing myself language-wise (I had just started to pick up some words in Korean), I found it really interesting to watch a similar teen drama to many of the K-dramas I binged last year, but set in a city I have actually visited.
Good Morning Call originally aired in 2016 on Fuji TV and a second season Good Morning Call: Our Campus Days was made a year later by Netflix. It’s a light-hearted romance set in Tokyo, where teenagers Yoshikawa Nao (played by Fukuhara Haruka) and Uehara Hisashi (Shiraishi Shunya) are both looking for an apartment to live alone for their last two years of high school. They are scammed into leasing the same apartment and, realising that they could not possibly afford such a nice place individually, agree to secretly live together.
Nao is a sweet, scatty, popular girl who feels things deeply and is incapable of hiding her volcanic emotions. Hisashi is a distant, clever loner who is good-looking enough to be fawned over by all the girls at school but has no patience with most people. They are not an obvious pairing and initially they fight a lot. But of course they learn each other’s virtues as well as flaws, not to mention their secrets. Enmity becomes friendship becomes…romance?
Continue reading “Dorama review: Good Morning Call”
by Min Jin Lee
This is an epic family saga spanning two countries and most of the twentieth century. It took some time to lure me in, but once in I really loved it.
Pachinko starts in Korea in 1910 – the year when Japan invaded and occupied the country. Lee briefly sketches the family background of the woman who is to become the heart of the book: Sunja. She is the only surviving child of a couple who run a small boardinghouse in a fishing village near Busan. Their tenants are mostly fishermen and their income is small, but their reputation is strong enough that even as times get tough in Korea, they manage to get by.
Sunja is poor, uneducated and plain-looking, and as such she doesn’t expect to marry, but circumstances conspire to match her with an educated man who wants to take her with him to Japan to build a new life, so in 1933 they emigrate. But in Osaka she discovers that there is a form of poverty that is far worse than the way she was raised – because it is based on and maintained by racism. No Japanese company will hire Koreans except for the lowest of menial tasks.
Continue reading “There is a tax on success”
Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata
translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
This is a fascinating Japanese novella about an unusual person trying to understand the world. It’s funny and empathetic and the Tokyo setting really brought back moments from our Japan holiday.
Lead character and narrator Keiko is a convenience-store worker. She has worked there since her first year at university and is still there 18 years later because it’s the one place where she feels she belongs. But as the years pass she feels increasing social pressure to conform. And her attempts to conform are at once hilarious, heartbreaking and unsettling.
“I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexibility in response. My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire. Taking the utmost care not to cause the customer any discomfort by observing him or her too closely, I swiftly move my hands according to whatever signals I pick up.”
Keiko is not just socially awkward. We are never given a formal label but she struggles to empathise with any human emotions or actions. She is alienated by her inability to truly feel and experience what others do, but she has learned to fake it by copying others. She copies how others dress, speak and react, choosing new people to copy every so often who seem appropriate for her (in terms of age and station in life). This can lead to unintentionally comically or extreme moments.
Continue reading “I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box”
The Sound of Waves
by Yukio Mishima
translated from Japanese by Meredith Weatherby
I picked this book up at the secondhand book market underneath Waterloo Bridge in London. I used to go there reasonably often and I swear it has shrunk since a decade ago. It’s really of more use if you’re looking for old maps or illustrations, but we always find something of interest.
This is a romance set on a small Japanese island where the main industry is fishing. The men go out on fishing boats while the women dive for molluscs. When one of the few rich locals brings his daughter Hatsue back to the island after she has lived on the mainland with an aunt and uncle for several years, local boy Shinji is instantly entranced. When he learns who she is he initially tries to keep his distance because he knows he will be judged as too poor and lowly to be a good match. But they keep bumping into each other and a romance quickly blossoms – one with many bumps in the road.
Continue reading “From far away the world came pressing in upon him”
Ms Ice Sandwich
by Mieko Kawakami
translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
I picked up this novella primarily because it’s Japanese and I am still excited about all things Japan. And the title is intriguing.
The story is narrated by a young man who, over his summer holiday, becomes slightly obsessed by the sandwich server at his local supermarket. She is aloof, never smiling, never engaging with customers, precise in all her movements. When he starts back at school, he hears rumours about his beloved “Ms Ice Sandwich” and they upset him.
“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer. There’s one more awesome thing about her – if you watch when she looks down, there’s a sharp dark line above her eyes, as if when she closed her eyes, someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway. It’s the coolest thing.”
Continue reading “Someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway”
I’ve already blogged quite a bit about Japan, including my holiday highlights, but the one glaring omission from that highlights list was the food. Because food was both a highlight and – well, maybe not a lowlight, but certainly stressful on occasion.
First: the highs. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city on Earth, so it’s pretty foodie. Before we went on holiday we did a bit of research and picked out two restaurants we really wanted to eat at that allowed us to book via e-mail. (One of them specified on its website that its staff was bilingual so we were able to book in English. For the other, Tim asked a Japanese friend to help us out.) Those meals turned out to be two of the best meals of our lives (albeit two of the most expensive).
Continue reading “Holiday in Japan: food”