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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Review of "Ashita, Mama ga inai" - Winter 2014

Amid the bad press surrounding this drama when it was airing, I didn't have time to finish watching it so I was not too sure if it was really as controversial as the critics made it out to be. However, after watching the entire drama, the feeling I got was, "what was all that hoo-ha about anyway?". I'm not trying to belittle the concerns highlighted by the parties concerned about children living in and staff working in welfare facilities but honestly, this drama had nothing really drastically different from past dramas about children in less-privileged circumstances that warranted all that negative publicity. Certainly not to the extent of having the drama shortened or the sponsors pulling out their CM deals too.

Before I begin with my review, here's the usual disclaimer. If you haven't watched this drama and do not wish for me to spoil the fun for you, please skip this.

The story begins in this welfare facility called Kogamo no Ie (Little Duck's Home) which was established and is managed by Sasaki Tomonori (Mikami Hiroshi). As he's always dressed in dark colours, walks around menacingly with his walking stick and speaks harshly to the children under his charge, he is nicknamed "Maou" (Devil King) by them. The children who come to Kogamo are those who can't be with their parents for various reasons such as death, domestic violence or child abandon. Despite his cold demeanour, Sasaki always thinks of the welfare of his charges and tries to help them find suitable foster parents so that they may begin a new life. He even goes to the extent of partnering up with child welfare officer Mizusawa Kanai (Kimura Fumino) who brings the particulars of potential foster parents to Sasaki who then passes it on to the children to choose who they are interested in to be their foster parents. This is actually not allowed but apparently, Sasaki and Mizusawa believe firmly that children should have the right to choose who they want to be with rather than be selected by foster parents. Other than Sasaki, the only employee at Kogamo is a young man nicknamed Locker (Miura Shohei) who doesn't speak at all and goes about his daily chores of cleaning and cooking for the children.

At the centre of the story are four girls who will be known by their nicknames rather than first names throughout most of this drama i.e. Post (Ashida Mana), Donki (Suzuki Rio), Piami (Sakurada Hiyori) and Bonbi (Watanabe Konomi). Their nicknames have a lot to do with their circumstances e.g. Post was nicknamed as such because she had been abandoned by her parents and left in the child post box at a hospital. Donki didn't want to accept her nickname at first because she was called as such due to her mother using a blunt object to hit her lover and was arrested by the police for assault. In Japanese, a blunt object is called donki. As for Piami, her real name is Naomi and she plays the piano well (she used to be a rich man's daughter and learned to play from young) thus she is nicknamed as such. Last but not least, Bonbi got her nickname because the people around her thought that she was admitted to the facility due to her parents being in poverty. However, the real reason was that they died due to a natural disaster and their bodies were never found but Bonbi still refused to believe that they were dead so she would rather believe that her parents would come back for her once they had money.

To put it simply, the story focuses on how the children in Kogamo gradually get adopted one by one or return to their original families for one reason or another. No matter the outcome, Sasaki would strive to achieve the best for these kids. Throughout the process, there were times when he would reprimand the kids for being too wilful or not pandering to the foster parents. Actually, he meant well although the words he used could have been more carefully selected. Then again, if he chose to go soft on the kids, they might not listen to him. I guess it also has to do with the fact that Sasaki used to be a police detective and had limited exposure to children thus he might not have been able to talk nicely to them even though he may have wanted to.

If the kids insisted on throwing tantrums and not accepting the circumstances that they were in, chances are there won't be any foster parents who might be willing to take them in. Sasaki believed firmly that securing the best match between child and foster parent was the No.1 way of ensuring that both parties would be happy. As such, he would rather take on the role of a devil to force the children to understand the circumstances they were already in and make an effort to change their destinies. We cannot deny the fact that there is already discrimination towards children in such under-privileged conditions such as name-calling or parents telling their kids not to mix around with such children i.e. automatically assuming that the children would be bad people just because they didn't have parents or a complete family. To Sasaki and perhaps to Mizusawa too, they were probably of the opinion that by sending these children off to families which can truly care for them, that was going to be the best way out.

Of course, in Sasaki's case, the reason why he set up Kogamo was partly due to the fact that he wanted to atone for his sin of killing his own child. He didn't actually mean to do that but as his wife Kaori (Suzuki Sawa) was in critical condition while pregnant, he had to give up his child in order to save her. This led to the breakdown of their marriage thus Sasaki could only watch Kaori from afar now and did not dare to meet her for fear that she would run away again. In the end, the relationship between them is revealed and Kaori goes off again as she feels guilty towards Sasaki for being with another man to seek relief for the loss of their child.

As the children go off one by one, the only people left are Otsubone (Ogo Suzuka) who is planning to leave Kogamo as she's nearing 18 and will live at a boarding school to learn nursing and of course, Post. In fact, Post has been the longest-staying child in Kogamo since she was brought back as an infant by Sasaki. Although Post had a chance of being adopted by her teacher's family, it caused a lot of emotional pain for her. Seeing this, Sasaki decides to adopt Post as his own daughter which she gladly accepts in the end. In a way, she has also accepted her past because she's now willing to use her real name i.e. Kirara rather than be called Post.

Frankly speaking, if you have not watched this drama and simply heard about the controversy surrounding it, you might have assumed that this was some dark drama about children being bullied because they had no parents and how abusive welfare facility workers can be. This is absolutely rubbish! Especially towards the end, you can see how positive the theme has become with everyone seeking their own form of happiness. No doubt it may have to do with the fact that the direction of the story changed due to the bad press. However, even from the first few episodes, I still didn't see anything that was so controversial to warrant all those negative remarks. Sasaki may have been a bit harsh towards the children by calling them names but this is way too mild compared to some of the more controversial social-themed dramas in the 90s especially those from Nojima Shinji. And the bullying is nothing new, nothing that radically different from what I've seen in many other older dramas. As for the nicknames, they are not given out of malice (definitely not name-calling) but there is a valid reason for each of these names given. Especially in Post's case, she detested her real name Kirara given by her birth parents because it was not only very girly (unlike her strong character) and that she didn't want anything given by them. That is why she was perfectly fine with being called Post although some people may view it negatively.

Talking about Nojima's role in this drama, he was merely listed as script director while the real scriptwriter was Matsuda Saya. I think there could be a certain degree of influence from Nojima but this drama is comparatively more heartwarming and positive than many of his older works such as Koukou Kyoushi, Ningen Shikaku, Miseinen, Seija no Koshin, Sekimatsu no Uta or Lipstick. It is unfair to say that just because Nojima was involved in this project that this is definitely a dark drama. If you look at Love Shuffle, you can hardly associate the current Nojima with his style in the 90s. I don't know if there was any deviation from the original storyline as compared to the final product we saw but if there had indeed been changes made to react to the negative press surrounding the drama, I think that would have been a real pity because this drama had the potential to be great, not just average as how I feel about it. Before the season started, this drama looked too promising but I think the pressure on it somehow caused the drama to fizzle out in the end.

As for the acting, Ashida Mana felt like an adult trapped in a child's body. She was way too mature for her age which speaks volumes of her acting skills but it can be a bit too uncomfortable to see her being so much like an adult. On the other hand, Suzuki Rio reminded me a lot of the old Ashida Mana who was great in acting and yet retained that child-like charm. I wouldn't say that who is better than who because their characters are very different. It would be nice to see Ashida go back to looking and behaving more like her age in her next work rather than become a half-adult who gives a rather awkward vibe. I also like Watanabe Konomi's performance as Bonbi who really could strike a balance between providing comedic relief and being all serious when the truth about her parents were revealed.

As for the adults, Mikami Hiroshi's character was fleshed out only when his link to Kaori was exposed so for the first part of the drama, you would probably see him as a stern man who cannot bring himself to be nicer to the kids under his charge. When his vulnerabilities and his sad past were revealed, it makes him look more like a complete character and I like his subtle way of acting as well as his interaction with Ashida Mana. With regard to Kimura Fumino and Miura Shohei, they were both pretty "emotionless" throughout most of the drama so it's a bit more difficult for me to warm up to their characters or find them endearing. Nonetheless, having to maintain that cool face is already a challenge and I think they did reasonably well in that sense.

And my ratings for this drama...

Story: 7 out of 10 (I liked this drama for its positiveness that you had to take the initiative to change your circumstances rather than wallow in pity but there is this nagging thought that this drama might have done better if there was no controversy surrounding it in the first place)

Acting: 8 out of 10 (Great acting from the child actors especially but not all characters were evenly developed so some of them were less memorable)

Theme song/BGM: 5 out of 10 (The theme song did not leave much of an impression on me.)

Visual effects / Scenery: 6 out 10 (There were some nice outdoor scenes like the sunset on the bridge but other than that, there wasn't a lot to impress me visually.)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 8 out of 10 (The girls had pretty good chemistry together and I also like how Ashida Mana and Mikami Hiroshi interacted with each other.)

Total: 34 out of 50

1 comment:

dhisashi said...

I am a big fan of Ashida Mana so was very disappointed about the series being shortened by the in my opinion unnecessary complaints. Perhaps the character development might have been better if the series was not shortened.

Ashida's role was a bit too adult. She was only believable because she is such a good actress.