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1 Litre of Tears: Heartwarming, Tearjerking,
but Somehow Still Fun

19/12/2009

You need to cry. This is so sad. Cry now, dammit. Are you seriously that heartless a bastard? If you don’t cry during this episode, *I’m* going to cry. This music cue should make you cry. I see those tears welling up. No? Please cry? Pretty please? With cherries on top? I’ll be your best friend if you cry… I’ll give you a foot massage…? Fine, be that way.

I felt like the drama 1 Litre of Tears was taunting me as such, every time I watched an episode.

But this show has reason to make you cry: based on the 1986 book by Aya Kito, 1 Litre of Tears tells the story of a 15-year old girl, Aya, diagnosed with 脊髄小脳変性症 (sekizui shounou henseishou, or Spinocerebellar ataxia), a neurological disease that leaves her mind intact but gradually robs her body of the physical ability to walk, talk, and eat by herself. The show focuses on Aya’s family and close friends, and how the disease affects their lives. Aya writes a diary for the entire duration of her illness, which helps her come to terms with the illness and reach out to her friends, family, and eventually a following of readers when her diary is published.

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By the time we meet Aya (played by Sawajiri Erika) and her adorable, wholesome family, her body is already acting up a bit. She drops things too much, she falls on her face, she spaces out during basketball games and loses her depth perception. Aya is supposed to be a typical 1st year high school student with good grades, two BFFs, and a senpai-love interest. She helps out in her dad’s tofu shop, makes peace between her rebellious younger sister, Ako, and the parents, and helps look after her younger two siblings. Mom starts noticing Aya’s acting funny, takes her to the doctor (Fujiki Naohito) and finds out what’s wrong before anyone else has begun to catch onto the fact that Aya isn’t just a klutz.

And then there’s Asou-kun. Played by Nishikido Ryo, this boy is the son of a doctor at the local hospital, and, to his father’s dismay, Asou-kun has no aspirations of becoming a doctor himself. Traumatized by his older brother’s death, Asou-kun spends his time in bio club tending to the turtles, avoiding human relationships. People all die anyway, he says, and he doesn’t care. However, he seems to keep ending up in the right place at the right time to help Aya out, and gradually a bond forms between them. He helps her up when she falls, knocking over a whole rack of bicycles. He runs to get her in the rain after she’s stood up for a date by a guy (basketball-senpai) who can’t handle the whole “girl in the hospital” thing. Eventually, Asou-kun’s attachment to Aya helps him overcome the death of his brother. His dad, however, is vehemently opposed to their romance as he doesn’t want his son to get attached, as it will inevitably lead to pain — Asou-kun’s dad goes as far as blatantly telling Aya’s mom that he doesn’t want his son anywhere near her daughter. Of course, Asou-kun’s relationship with Aya does finally inspire him to study medicine like dad always wanted.

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Asou-kun, telling Aya how he has a deadly disease. Not long to live. HA JUST KIDDING. What an ass. Good use of foreshadowing though, 1-Litre.

What I like about the pace of this show is that once Aya gets sick, her condition doesn’t deteriorate very quickly. They choose not to focus on watching her get very sick, and instead to center the show around the psychological impact of the disease.

Here were a couple of things that kept creeping up on you throughout 1-Litre (some people would call these “themes” I suppose):

You can’t actually keep this disease under wraps.
The number of characters who had to “figure out” what was wrong with Aya was kind of astounding. Aside from her neurologist (who should really be the only one who has to diagnose her), Aya herself isn’t told about the disease for weeks. Why does she have to take these strange pills every day, she wonders. She bets it’s not just for her dizziness. Mom also keeps the news from Dad, Aya doesn’t tell anyone at school, no one ever tells Asou-kun (but luckily he has a full library of medical books at home so he can figure out exactly what’s going on by himself). Possibly worst of all, Aya and her parents don’t tell her other siblings for an extremely long time, leaving Ako especially feeling even more hurt, annoyed, and untrusted in her family than usual. Pretty bad dynamics going on with all this secrecy.

The illness is not Aya’s fault. Or her mom’s fault.
This kind of should go without saying, but the show spent an incredible amount of time, effort, and metaphor showing us that no one in Aya’s family is responsible for her illness. She was an otherwise healthy girl, Mom always put plenty of effort into her daughter’s health and nutrition, etc etc. However, there was this subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) implication coming from everyone in the community that the disease was Mom’s fault, or at the very least, Aya was getting worse because Mom was holding a job, instead of being a housewife and looking after her children full-time (side note: the two-parent income in this family seemed to be mostly possible because Aya’s dad ran the tofu shop out of their home, and generally was far more involved in his kid’s lives than the average household.) 1 Litre of Tears certainly tried to emphasize that Aya was not, in fact, sick because Mom works.

Meiwaku is kinda bullshit.
Once Aya gets sick, she has to rely on others a lot more than she is used to – causing them a lot of meiwaku (basically “trouble” or “inconvenience”). Her friends help her walk to class, her parents drive her up to the school building (which virtually never happens at Japanese high schools), she has to borrow her friend’s notes, etc. etc. She starts to see her life as a big inconvenience to other people, and constantly keeps saying that she doesn’t want to trouble them (meiwaku kakechau to omou kedo…) but can’t get by without help with this and that. Aya suffers some massive guilt, and criticism from the community (especially the PTA at school) that she is just causing a lot of meiwaku and the school shouldn’t be expected to deal with it. Mom begs the other parents to give Aya a break for a little while longer, because she loves her school, but soon even the kids turn on Aya as well in a classroom-wide bitchfest behind Aya’s back, led by a girl who is jealous of Aya’s relationship with Asou-kun. She interrogates Aya’s two bffs, one who has undying loyalty to Aya, but the second cracks under the pressure, saying that she does things for Aya because they’re friends, but sometimes it’s so stressful, and… while everyone else (including the teacher) sits with downward-cast eyes, Asou-kun hits the desk, stands up, and tells them to stop being such hypocrites. If you’re so bothered by Aya’s condition, stop going out of your way to help her. If she’s just meiwaku like you say behind her back, don’t go on pretending and telling her it’s okay day after day. You people make Asou-kun sick.

It was an epic speech. Bravo.

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Asou-kun and Aya

All the actors did a fab job, and most of them are incredibly famous today (the parents, the kids, the doctor, etc.) Nishikido Ryo is a smashing success doing the jdrama/popstar thing, and then there’s always Sawajiri Erika (Aya), who went onto play another sick girl in Taiyo no Uta, and, in later years, became the center of the infamous “betsu-ni” PR incident (Japanese girl celebs looking pissed and “whatever”-ing the interviewers don’t go over so well!)

Overall, I’m not sure this drama deserves quite the credit it is always given. It was touching, it was sad, it was fun, it always made me want to watch another episode, but it’s not one of the top 5 shows I have seen. What gives? It’s near the top of almost all drama lists I’ve seen. Hmm. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a true story? Or perhaps the fans are just especially vocal? To those of you who enjoyed this drama over almost all others, what made it so moving for you?

Oh yeah, and about the crying…
In the end, it wasn’t the disease, it wasn’t the wonderfully portrayed tragic family that got me. It was a badly-scrawled love letter, breaking Asou-kun’s well-protected-yet-unmistakably-soft heart. A litre of tears all around!

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Slow Dance

26/11/2009

Get ready for one of the most awkward moments you’ve ever seen in your life:

Slow Dance is a 2005 drama, classic romance, with a great cast, amazing dialogue, and a few major flaws.

Flaw #1: The first episode.

It’s just boring. I smile at all the wildly famous, awesome actors that appear, but no one seems interesting enough to care about, and the soundtrack is kinda eh.

Flaw #2: Fukatsu Eri is the star.

She plays a 31 year old woman named Isaki, who just passed up a mediocre marriage proposal, and is realizing her loneliness and a lifetime of failures with the dudes. Her biological clock is ticking (not for babies though, she hates children). She falls for Riichi (Tsumabuki Satoshi), a younger guy (25) who is pining away for a stewardess, Ayumi, whom he broke up with 3 years ago.

But instead of pulling off a Long Vacation style romantically-agressive older woman with a younger guy type relationship effectively, Fukatsu Eri just continues to be as needy, childish, and obnoxious as she is in the very first episode when she meets Riichi pseudo-cutting in the cafe line, and tells him repeatedly to「順番を守ってくださる?」(which effectively means “get your ass in line” politely enough that it’s rude). She’s definitely no Minami-chan from Long Vacation.

Instead, she’s outshone by almost every other actor or actress in the show. I suppose this does elicit some pity, at least. Hirosue Ryoko plays her BFF, Mino-chan, who is typically the life of the party and the all-the-guys-like her kinda girl, despite the fact that she’s actually been pining away for a high school BF who went long distance to med school and promised to meet her and ask for her hand in marriage after a 6 year break (as if). Which brings us to:

Flaw #3: Too many characters pining away for too long.

Mino-chan and her 6-year med school “prince,” and Ayumi and Riichi who have BOTH been pining for each other for THREE YEARS since they’re both too scared to just, you know, ask each other what they think. I know this is love we’re talking about, but three years is a long time.

However, this brings us to the things that Slow Dance does completely right:
Strength #1: Jealousy.

First of all, in this rather incestuous love-hexagon, there is a LOT of jealousy. Riichi is perpetually jealous of his older brother, Eisuke (Fujiki Naohito) in both a sibling rivalry kind of way and a love-rival kind of way. He assumes all girls like his “more handsome”, more successful brother (if Tsumabuki Satoshi is worried he’s not cute enough… something is really off with his perception of reality).

Secondly, all the girl-on-girl jealousy is really well done. It’s perfect that Isaki, the sort of annoying lead, kinda gets in the way anywhere it’s convenient — when Ayumi is thinking of telling Riichi her feelings, oh, look, it’s Isaki. WHY IS SHE HERE? Or, when Mino-chan likes Eisuke, and she sees that Isaki is already chilling at his bar (it’s not a real drama unless one of the main characters owns a bar), and WAIT A MINUTE WHY IS SHE HERE?? Jealousy. Eisuke clearly doesn’t care about his former girlfriend, Yukie (played by Ebi-chan. He’s insane, who would GIVE UP Ebi-chan??)

I tried to pin down the jealousy relationships into a diagram. Arrows go from the jealous person to who they are jealous of, and somehow touch or go around who-the-jealous-person-is-jealous-over.

However, while the jealousy is going on in a major way, most of it is relatively realistic. Unlike in ridiculous shows like Strawberry on the Shortcake where jealousy is equally pervasive, the jealousy in Slow Dance does not leave the audience convinced that any particular character is COMPLETELY BATSHIT INSANE (unlike in SOS). Kudos.

Strength #2: Fujiki Naohito. This is the 6th drama I’ve watched with Fujiki Naohito, and although he has been gradually growing on me (starting with pure dislike), this is the show that tipped me over from ambivalence towards him into genuine fandom. Maybe just a timing issue, but Eisuke’s character was great, and the first time I’ve seen him be MORE than the stuck up asshole he always is (yes, every other role, he’s been the anal-retentive one about cleaning or the environment or he’s the douchebag the girl shouldn’t actually get with… etc). Here he was still a bit of an asshole, just because he was so popular (and if I were dating Ebi-chan I would let it go to my head too), but he was a good guy, offered interesting insight to all relationships and his own aspirations. Also, a good brother.

Strength #3: Great dialogue. Like in any romance, the characters are continually obsessed with their own love lives and analyze them to their friends and themselves constantly. But something about all the lines in this show just seemed much better, it was all carefully crafted and there were great lines in almost every conversation. A lot of it was Japanese dependent language that struck a chord. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m fluent enough at Japanese to say with certainty whether the writing was ACTUALLY very good (then again, that sort of thing is rather subjective anyway).

Here are a couple of favorite conversations:

「探るキス」(saguru kisu, or “investigative kiss”).
The idea is that when you kiss someone it might be either a) find out your own feelings for the person, or b) test the other person’s feelings for you. In either case, once the investigative kiss is over, assuming the kiss has passed inspection, there should be an immediate follow-up kiss. Right?

告白する vs. 告白される (kokuhaku suru vs. kokuhaku sareru)
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of kokuhaku, it is basically a love confession. In America I guess the closest thing is “telling the person you’re into them” but somehow it feels a bit more formal in Japan. Like it’s necessary to proceed. Anyway, during this part of the show, Mino-chan was feeling weird about pursuing Eisuke, since she had only ever kokuhaku sareta before (i.e. she had only had guys tell her they like her, but never the other way around) and Isaki responds that wow, she’s only kokuhaku shita (told guys she was into them, but never had a guy tell her he likes her). But now the time had come for Mino-chan to kokuhaku suru and she was completely out of her element, searching for the right words.

驚き・桃の木・山椒の木 (odoroki momonoki sanshou no ki)
Apparently this is a punny way of saying “SUPER FREAKING SURPRISED” in Japanese. odoroki=surprised, but it sounds like / rhymes with momonoki and sanshou no ki which would be “peach tree” and “pepper tree” respectively. Isaki says it to Riichi in an appropriate place in conversation. However, apparently this phrase was created by a Japanese comedian a long time ago, so saying it really shows Isaki-san’s age. Riichi warns her “don’t say that in front of young people… they won’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s kind of like the day my linguistics professor was discussing word structure and gave “Un-cola” as an anomaly/example from pop culture (har har) and then realized no one in the room had any idea what he was talking about. See all the wonderful Japanese you can learn from jdrama? With this phrase, Slow Dance almost justified my claims that “watching jdrama is like studying!” Well…sorta.

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LOVE MAKES ME STRONG

23/11/2009

Last time we talked about the show Buzzer Beat, it was July, and Buzzer Beat was still airing. We talked about how Yamapi had strangely colored outfits and embarrassing team colors for his basketball gig. However, I went on an inadvertent two-month or so hiatus from jdramas, yet another sacrifice to the Reflections | Projections Conference Gods.

So in November, I returned to Buzzer Beat.

And I’m *SO* glad I did. Why? Because I learned something important; I learned that Love makes me strong.

I learned this mostly through the subtle yet moving symbolism between physical strength and romantic love throughout the show. And the billboard in one of the three main sets of the show that says, “Love makes me strong” in giant bold letters.

To explain the show. (Warning: some spoilers to follow. But I really doubt they ruin it.)

We have Yamapi the basketball player and Natsuki (Aibu Saki), his cheerleadin’, schemin’ soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. And randomly, Riko (Kitagawa Keiko) the violin girl who happens to fall in love with Yamapi because she can’t contain her excitement every time she hears that damn basketball bounce on the court next to her apartment, where she lives with her awkward roommate, Mai. Riko’s supposed to be in love with the coach of the basketball team, though, Kawasaki-san.

The first few episodes portray the relationship between Yamapi and Natsuki as full of jealousy, insecurity, and a lack of passion, while Riko develops feelings for Yamapi that no one except her devoted roommate is aware of.

Devoted roommate and her questionable hairstyles:
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And then things heat up.

Natsuki cheats on Yamapi, and the middle episodes consist of Natsuki being a manipulative psychobitch, vying once again for affection from Yamapi, while continuing to shag his greasy teammate Yoyogi (until Yoyogi pseudodumps him for Nanami. Man I love those repetitive names.)

So let’s pause for a minute while I illustrate the middle couple of episodes with a mini-gallery of NATSUKI’S EVIL GLARE (juxtaposed with her charming smile, of course. She can flip between the two in under 3 nanoseconds.)

This is where Yamapi finds Natsuki macking on Yoyogi. THE LOCKER ROOM:
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But boy does she look PISSED when he says it’s over. Takes up smoking and alcohol so we know she’s the BAD GRRL of this show (Riko drinks once, but she can’t hold her liquor and adorably has to ride home on Yamapi’s back, where she passes out as he cleans up her apartment. Remember, vulnerability and innocence are becoming when paired with alcohol, and a girl who can’t keep her apartment tidy is just quirky enough to fly as a cute trait, as we learned in Hotaru no Hikari):
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Natsuki encounters Riko in the bathroom. But this is not a high school drama; she does not lock Riko in a stall. She pretends to befriend Riko.
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Bitchy look #34782017, courtesy of Natsuki
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Meanwhile (we are still in the middle three episodes), the coach Kawasaki-san proposes to Riko! What a catch.
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So I haven’t watched a jdrama with subtitles in a very long time. But I got my friend Matt hooked on this one, and he watched the subbed version to fill in the Japanese knowledge gaps. Apparently in one episode, the subber lost a little something in translation, and the line said that his aspiration was actually to become the best COUCH he could!
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BUT, Riko is not wooed by his couch-ly ways. Instead, she takes to COMPLETELY CREEPING ON YAMAPI and his basketball practicing. In fact, she stoops to the level of cell phone photography WHILE HE IS SLEEPING. If she wasn’t so cute everyone would be running for their lives.
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Several episodes later, Riko has FINALLY figured out she likes Yamapi, and yet still seems to be perplexed at the whole situation. Things get even hotter when Yamapi runs up to her room in a post-Romeo-&-Juliet reference from balcony to basketball court. Riko’s just a deer in the headlights, and, honestly so is Yamapi.
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Now here’s where the theme of the show really comes in. Riko is off practicing at some violin boot camp. Yamapi and his uncoordinated-yet-cute teammate come to the basketball court. And here is the dialogue that ensues:
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Teammate: Ever since I moved here, I’ve looked at that billboard and thought, “love makes people strong”
Yamapi: Dunno about that.

REALLY? How ever did you get that message out of _that_ billboard?! Extremely perceptive. Also, why hasn’t Yamapi caught onto it yet?

Anyway, the drama has exactly the ending we all predicted from the first five minutes of the first episode, but it’s cute and it’s fun. I think one of the great things about Buzzer Beat is that while almost all of the characters are incredibly stupid, they still remain very likable and somehow you’re rooting for the ill-fashion-advised Yamapi and the creeper-violinist Riko.

Another great thing is Aibu Saki being a bitch. She’s always slightly annoyed me in her sugar-and-spice roles in the past, but I wouldn’t have guessed she could have such a brilliant mean streak. She sort of blew it by actually being into Yamapi, but I suppose it was actually more realistic to see why she was actually so vulnerable, jealous, and manipulative.

And the third major good point of Buzzer Beat over many other jdrama, is that the kisses were convincing. Whenever two characters were actually supposed to like each other, they looked like they were genuinely enjoying kissing each other (crazy!) A lot of jdrama has very stiff, awkward-looking kisses that just makes you go “I waited 9 episodes for THAT?!?” but Buzzer Beat got it right! Props.
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And a final bitchy look from Natsuki. Enjoy.
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