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Monday, July 28, 2014

Review of "Arisu no Toge" - Spring 2014

Being Ueno Juri's first drama since her Taiga "Gou" in 2011, "Arisu no Toge" had attracted a fair bit of attention especially since her character this time was said to be a dark heroine out for revenge. Due to the huge success of Nodame Cantabile, it had somewhat worked against her when she was in "Gou" because there were talk of her being unable to shake off Nodame's image. As such, this drama was also dubbed as the best chance for Ueno to shake off the lingering effects from Nodame's success and show her ability to tackle serious roles as what she had been known for in the past.

Before I go into details about her performance and how this drama fared in my opinion, I would like to give a brief recap of the storyline. In case you haven't seen this drama and would not want to know how the story progressed and ended, it might be best for you to skip this review.

Mizuno Asumi (Ueno Juri) is a new doctor at Seirin University's affiliated hospital's gastrointestinal surgical department. Unknown to everyone, she has deliberately concealed her identity as Osanai Asumi, the daughter of Osanai Takao, a former doctor at the hospital who had died under mysterious circumstances 15 years ago. At that time, Asumi who was living with her father only as her mother had passed away long ago, was suddenly informed by the hospital late one night that her father had collapsed. Despite going through an emergency operation, Takao still passed away which sent Asumi's world crashing down on her. To make things worse, Takao was framed for taking kickbacks and had his reputation smeared by his colleagues such as Bandai Shuichi (Iwaki Koichi) and Nishikado Yusuke (Odagiri Jo) when news of his supposed wrongdoing made it to the media. Asumi never believed these incriminating reports and was angry at these people especially Nishikado for pushing the blame to her father who could not have done such heinous things and certainly didn't deserve to die under such circumstances.


Subsequently, Asumi received a copy of her father's surgical records from an anonymous person where the details on the form were different from the copy she had received when her father died. This suggested that someone had amended the original surgical record and provided Asumi the falsified version so that she would not suspect a thing about her father's death. Given the details on the original form, Asumi was convinced that someone was behind her father's untimely death so she changed her surname by becoming the foster daughter of her father's friend Mizuno Kazufumi in order to infiltrate the university hospital and find the true culprit.

She starts off by "recruiting" her first crony Ebisu Masato (Musaka Naomasa) with threatening him and soon finds her target Date Risa (Fujiwara Norika), an up-and-rising star in the same department who is aiming to be the first professor in the university. Asumi finds out from Ebisu that Date was the surgeon who did her father's operation and that she had no experience in a new type of surgery then but insisted on following through with the help of a textbook. That convinces Asumi that Date is the one responsible for her father's death but upon further probing, she learns that there are more people involved in this seemingly-simple case. Nonetheless, she does not let Date off for her involvement in causing her father's death and takes revenge on her in the best way that hurts Date the most.

At the same time, she reunites with Nishikado who recognises Asumi as soon as he sees her but she keeps denying having known him. Actually, the two of them had known each other 15 years ago when Takao was the chief physician for Nishikado's younger sister Yui so Nishikado and Asumi had often spent time together in the company of Yui and Takao then. Unfortunately, Yui had died slightly earlier before Takao and the subsequent actions of Nishikado i.e. confronting Asumi at the funeral hall about her father's misdeeds and writing about it in the papers caused them to be estranged since then. Naturally, Asumi would not want to have anything to do with Nishikado, not just because he had a part in causing her pain but also the fact he knows her real identity.

However, the cover is blown soon and Nishikado, upon knowing that Asumi is back at the hospital to investigate her father's case and take revenge, tries to talk her out of it. He also apologises for having misunderstood Takao back then and wrote an incriminating article against the latter after his death because he was apparently misled by someone then. Blinded by fury under the assumption that Takao's crime sort of led to his sister's death, Nishikado then wrote that heavily-opinionated article against Takao without doing his due checks. Much as Asumi hates Nishikado for having a hand in smearing her father's name and sort of taking the side of the baddies, the animosity between them is quickly gone as Nishikado promises to help her since he knows that he cannot talk her out of her revenge plans. Nonetheless, Asumi still doesn't trust Nishikado fully in the beginning especially as he is critical of her methods in taking revenge.

Despite having a tough time trying to locate the true culprits behind her father's death and taking revenge against these people who are in a higher position than her in terms of social status or wealth, Asumi manages to find solace in the hospital as well through Hoshino Miwa (Kuriyama Chiaki) and Bandai Yuma (Nakamura Aoi). Hoshino is a nurse who speaks her mind especially against Ebisu who is known for bossing the nurses around with his arrogant attitude and inclination to cut corners at work. Asumi and Hoshino soon become good friends even though Asumi is more interested in getting intelligence from the latter especially with regard to her revenge targets.  However, Hoshino's earnest and sincere attitude as a friend makes Asumi warm up to her which eventually leads to Asumi's reluctance to hurt Hoshino who holds a torch for Yuma.

On the other hand, Yuma is clearly besotted with Asumi from the moment he met her at the hospital. Asumi has no intention of getting romantically involved with Yuma even though she knows that he is an important pawn in her plans to take revenge against his father. This is also partly due to her consideration for Hoshino who has expressed her interest in Yuma to Asumi. However, due to the change in circumstances and the fact that dating Yuma would put her in a better position to find out more about Bandai's wrongdoings, Asumi has no choice but to betray Hoshino which turns the latter against Asumi in the second half of the drama. Later, even though Asumi makes it clear to Yuma that she doesn't love him and was just using him, Yuma's selfless act of love for her makes Asumi rethink if she should change her way of doing things so as not to hurt anyone during her pursuit of justice for her father.

As Asumi finds out that more and more people were involved in her father's death and how a seemingly surgical mistake was spurred by a huge and sinister conspiracy, Asumi experiences one failure after another as the mastermind (or so it seems) continues to outsmart her or preampt her moves before she springs into action. The sense of powerlessness sweeps over Asumi as she struggles to stay focused on her goal. However, with each crushing defeat, Asumi starts to lose faith and even plans to kill herself because of the number of innocent people who had been implicated by her revenge plans. Thankfully, with Nishikado's help, they finally track the real culprit down and seek closure in their own lives as they attempt to move on from this unhappy episode.

To be perfectly honest, I thought that the first episode started off pretty promisingly especially because Ueno Juri was back at her best i.e. portraying Asumi who seemingly was numb to the world after going through the loss of her father due to such unfortunate circumstances and yet had this tender and kind side inside which she had to keep under wraps in order to continue surviving. As she was confronting Ebisu on the rooftop, the coldness in her voice was quite chilling because it felt as if she didn't care at all what happens to her at the end of the whole saga. Asumi wanted justice and there was no other way around it besides seeking it on her own with her hands. However, with the appearance of Nishikado, Hoshino and Yuma, they were the ones who stopped her from going over the edge and losing her humanity. In a way, it made Asumi more human than she appeared on the surface and gave her the space to redeem herself at the end. However, this also meant that Asumi was never able to go full out for her revenge because the moment she appeared to step over the boundary, either one of these characters would make her regain her senses. That in a way, tested Ueno's acting skills as she had to switch between her cold and calculating mode and the kind nature in Asumi but I would have preferred that Asumi be a stronger or more extreme dark heroine for a while longer. I was rather dissatisfied with the fact that Asumi's good side was more dominant in the drama and thought that Ueno would probably do a great job with showing Asumi's darker side if the story had allowed for more development in this area.

Among the revenge stories in the drama, I thought the episode about Hyuga Makoto (Omi Toshinori) was rather exciting. Due to the fact that this guy was a smart lawyer who would stoop at nothing to turn something black into white, it was a battle of wits between Asumi and him as she had to outsmart him in order to bring him down. However, he still didn't think that he needed to repent for his actions so he ended up being poisoned to death at the hands of the mysterious mastermind because he still wanted to milk something from those involved in Osanai Takao's case after losing everything. In that sense, he had it coming so didn't deserve any sympathy. Asumi's showdown with Bandai was also quite exciting to watch e.g. when he got to the documents providing possible evidence of wrongdoing by Bandai in the kickbacks case earlier than Asumi but the way that he died was too anti-climatic.

What I didn't particularly understand in this story was how stupid or trusting Asumi could have been when she believed Arima too easily. There she was doubting Nishikado most of the time (I probably would have felt the same way) but she trusted Arima too readily which led to her initial defeat at his hands. This part was something which I thought did not appear too convincing and it felt like the story was deliberately twisted in this manner so that the rest of the developments would fall into place.

Talking about the ending, I think I felt the same way as I did when I watched "Koori no Sekai". How can someone who completely slipped under the radar and had no links to the case at all suddenly show up to be the evil mastermind? What's more, he didn't set out to be the baddie but simply became one due to his unintended action? Although it was quite apparent that this person could be the possible mastermind after pretty much everyone was dead or eliminated during this revenge process, it just didn't occur to me on how he could have fitted in the whole equation. As such, it felt a bit like a hard-sell to make this character the ultimate mastermind and is barely convincing when Asumi simply forgave him because he went to surrender himself to the police.

As for Odagiri Joe's portrayal of Nishikado, I thought it might be better to make him an ally-cum-enemy of Asumi rather than make him choose his side so early in the story. The air of suspicion hanging over his actions would have made his character a lot more interesting. The problem is, the scriptwriter made Nishikado expose Asumi's identity too early and could have made him keep Asumi on tenterhooks for a while longer. Throughout most of the story, Nishikado's role was probably more of an assistant to Asumi in her revenge plans and it made his character so predictable. I would have wanted more explanations on how he could have been deceived by Hyuga 15 years ago with the fabricated evidence against Takao. No doubt he was a young journalist then, surely he would have thought of doubting the evidence before him especially since he knew Takao personally as his sister's doctor. That was something which I could not really understand especially when you consider that Nishikado was not at an age when he could not exercise his own judgement.

As for the romantic side of things, I sort of expected that Asumi and Nishikado would not be able to get together, at least not at the end of this drama. Somehow, a lot of dramas these days tend to steer clear of very explicit endings where the male and female leads would end up together as a romantic couple especially since their interactions so far have been nothing but romantic. Having gone through the rollercoaster ride of taking revenge, it will probably take some time for them to come to terms to what had happened and get back to the normal state of things before they consider romance between them as a possibility. Well, that is something which viewers can only imagine and not get to see by the end of the drama.

And my ratings for this drama...

Story: 6 out of 10 (The last few episodes of the drama seemed to be in too much of a hurry to wrap things up that quality was uneven and I didn't like how the ultimate mastermind was crafted into the story. Using "Alice in Wonderland" as a reference in certain points of the story was not really necessary, in my opinion. This reminded me too much of "Maou" which used a similar method to warn people of their impending deaths.)

Acting: 7 out of 10 (Ueno Juri had the potential to go full out as a dark heroine but too bad the story wanted to keep her firmly grounded as a dark heroine with an humane side so she couldn't go all out with the coldness and cruelness caused by her circumstances. The remaining cast members performed credibly but nobody really stood out. Odagiri Jo was so bland in this drama after episode 3.)

Theme song/BGM: 8 out of 10 (I thought that the theme song was quite good and very easy to remember after listening to it a couple of times. BGM didn't leave as much of an impression on me.)

Visual effects / Scenery: 5 out 10 (Most of the scenes were confined within the hospital but there were some nice sakura scenes in the first few episodes.)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 5 out of 10 (Not much chemistry as far as I see. Ueno and Odagiri's characters were not really comrades in war nor lovers so there was limited opportunity for them to show great teamwork or chemistry.)

Total: 31 out of 50

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