I have always considered Japanese television drama to be mostly anaemic affairs, and have come to expect on average only one series per year that has a genuinely interesting and original script. In 2012, there was Legal High [リーガル・ハイ] by the screenwriter Ryouta Kosawa [古沢良太]. In 2013, there was Saikou no Rikon [最高の離婚] by Yuuji Sakamoto [坂元裕二]. 2014 was a dry year in terms of original screenwriting, though I quite enjoyed the adaptations of two jousei manga – Shitsuren Chocolatier [失恋ショコラティエ] and Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu [きょうは会社休みます].
The year 2015, however, was a different story. There were no less than 3 television dramas I have a high opinion of, as well as a host of other titles of lesser artistic merit that I nonetheless enjoyed.
Mondai no Aru Restaurant [問題のあるレストラン] by Yuuji Sakamoto
The first of these three is Mondai no Aru Restaurant. The screenwriter Yuuji Sakamoto is active in a number of fields from movies, manga, anime, live theatre to games. Mondai no Aru Restaurant is, in my opinion, his best work on television to date. It is much more polished and thought-provoking than his earlier work Saikou no Rikon.
The story is about an eclectic group of young women launching a bistro restaurant in chic part of Tokyo and their fight for survival as a business. Some have called this the female version of The Seven Samurai, in the sense that this group of women, who are each marginalized by society in her own way and have “issues” of their own, combine as a team to become a creative force with unpredictable results.
There is never a dull moment in the show. There are funny moments and then there are heart-wretching moments – often the two are amazingly combined in the same scene. I am especially impressed by the acting of Mayu Matsuoka [松岡茉優], who delivered an excellent performance as a girl suffering from a Japanese culture-specific syndrome known as taijin kyofusho [対人恐怖症]. I found myself watching and rewatching a scene she had with her estranged mother in the story. That was some soulful acting!
Kokoro ga Pokitto ne [心がポキッとね] by Yoshikazu Okada [岡田惠和]
While the scripts of Yoshikazu Okada are usually not a hit with me personally, this particular story has an unspeakable, dreamlike, alchemical quality – I cannot explain it but it has registered in my head as something in the same frequency as C. G. Jung’s The Red Book. The plot is about four people whose “minds have fallen ill” [心が病んだ] – not to the point of being certifiably insane but certainly borderline nutcases. Two of these two people used to be husband and wife and their marriage had ended in a bad way; but fate has bought them together again as they struggle to engage in new love affairs with the other two younger people in the group. This is their story to recovery and self-knowledge through minor funny humdrum annoyances and tiny moments of revelations in life.
There is never a dull moment either, even though the story is weaved around the minor and tiny stuff of life. You may have heard other stories of heartbroken people going off to India to shoot tigers or something, but nothing dramatic like that happens in this story. It is as though one has stepped into a different stream of time as one watches these characters self-repair. This stream of time is slow-moving, yet packed with meaning and mystery – as though the Dreamtime that aboriginal Australians speak of has come to Tokyo under a modern guise.
Date ~ Koi towa Donna Mono Kashira [デート〜恋とはどんなものかしら〜] by Ryouta Kosawa
After the tremendous success of Legal High, Ryouta Kosawa followed up with this romantic comedy between two unlikely lovers. The hero is obsessed with the liberal arts while the heroine is obsessed with the sciences. Moreover, the hero is a layabout hikikomori who has not set foot outside his home for 10 years. Seeing that his mother with ill health may not be around forever to sponsor his lifestyle, he decided to find a wife who can support him as a house-husband. The heroine, a government researcher with a stable income, is his target, but she turns out to be a severe case of geekiness…
Resolutions of polarities is a common theme in Japanese television drama – a character grows by becoming the opposite of who he or she was at the beginning of the story. In fact, all three dramas above follow this set formula. Instead of plots in which protagonists vanquish some external foe and “stay true to themselves,” Japanese stories tend to emphasize the fluidity and malleability of personalities as time flows and circumstances change. You may start off as a square but you will become a round circle after you rub off other people for long enough.
This reminds me (of all things) of W. B. Yeat’s own brand of occult philosophy that an individual must create a mask, a new personality, in order to attract his or her Daimon or fate. In Anima Hominis, he said that “the Daimon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite” and elsewhere he said that one must find “a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks, and it may be dreads, and of that only.” In other words, before your fate can come to meet you, you have to first become the exact opposite of you.