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Friday, July 01, 2016

Review of "Naomi to Kanako" (Winter 2016)

To be honest, I wasn't expecting a lot from this drama although the premise did pique my interest initially. I've always been keen on the investigative / thriller / suspense-type of stories so this story of a pair of best friends conspiring to kill the husband of one of them seemed quite interesting in the sense that the viewers are kept on tenterhooks just to see if justice will catch up with them. To my surprise, the drama turned out to be better than I thought although it also had its flaws here and there.

Before I begin with the summary of the storyline, please be reminded that there will be spoilers ahead so you may wish to skip this review if you don't wish to know what's going to happen.

The lead character Oda Naomi (Hirosue Ryoko) is a career woman working in the institutional sales department of Aoi Departmental Store. As Naomi has a curator's licence, she had joined Aoi because she wanted to work in its affiliated art museum. However, as Naomi is so good at her sales job, her transfer application has not been accepted thus she is frustrated at work. When Naomi was a child, she witnessed how her father was violent towards her mother which led her to leave her hometown in Niigata as soon as she could. As such, Naomi has very strong feelings against abusive men.

Hattori Kanako (Uchida Yuki) who is Naomi's best friend during their university days, is married to an elite salaryman Tatsuro (Sato Ryuta) and appears to be leading a very happy life. However, the truth is that Tatsuro has been abusive towards Kanako and she does not dare to leave him for fear that he might harm the people around her. Since Tatsuro flares up at the smallest thing and sometimes for no reason, Kanako lives on tenterhooks and can't even talk to Naomi about it. At the same time, Tatsuro's elder sister Yoko (Yoshida Yo) also thinks little of Kanako and has no qualms criticising Kanako in front of her brother who already thinks that his wife is having it easy at home as a housewife while he slogs in the bank and faces immense pressure.

When Naomi finds out about Kanako's plight, she is furious and worried and asks the latter to get divorced immediately because she sees this as the only way out for Kanako. Likewise for Naomi's mother, she only became free and happy when her husband passed away. However, Kanako refuses to do so for fear that Tatsuro will hurt the people around her even if she manages to escape from his clutches. While feeling frustrated with her inability to help Kanako, Naomi happens to meet a Chinese woman Li Akemi (Takahata Atsuko) through work and also bumps into Lin Ryuki (Sato Ryuta) who looks exactly like Tatsuro. Through interacting with Li, Naomi comes up with the plan of killing Tatsuro so as to save Kanako and make use of Lin to cover up for them. However, Kanako doesn't want to go through with the plan initially as she doesn't think that they will succeed.

The last straw for Kanako comes when Tatsuro's abusive behaviour escalates and he even forces himself on her. She finally agrees to Naomi's suggestion and the two of them plan how to go about executing their plan. They also arrange to meet Lin and get him to pose as Tatsuro to leave the country with Tatsuro's passport so as to give the impression that he has fled due to a bogus embezzlement case involving Naomi's client who has dementia. While making preparations, Naomi has to fend off the suspicious looks from Li who seems to be able to read her mind and know what she's up to.

Things do not go according to plan for the buddies as issues crop up time and again. Nonetheless, they manage to pull things off in each time and heave a sigh of relief as they look forward to the happy days ahead. However, happiness is short-lived as Tatsuro's colleagues, Yoko, the police and even Li suspect that things are fishy and start investigations into Tatsuro's disappearance. Naomi and Kanako try their best to deflect the mounting suspicion towards them especially from Yoko who refuses to believe that her brother would commit a crime and disappear just like that. Just when the situation is slowly getting out of control, Lin returns to Japan because he has fallen in love with Kanako who showered him with kindness which further jeopardises the buddies' position. Naomi and Kananko are at their wits' end as Yoko finds out the truth so they have to seek help from Li who make arrangements for them to skip town...

Although this drama is based on a novel, there are some key differences in the drama version:
- Naomi is the younger sister in her family but in the drama, she is the elder sister. As the elder sister, the drama describes how she feels guilty about not being able to protect her mother and younger sister from her father's abuse and leaving them to fend for themselves when she left home for university. In addition, she has mixed feelings when seeing that her younger sister is able to get married and have kids but she is so badly traumatised by the domestic violence that she seems to have little faith in love and marriage.
- Naomi's father was still alive in the novel but had already passed away in the drama.
- Yoko was Tatsuro's younger sister in the novel but she became the elder sister in the drama. Perhaps this change in the setting could explain why Yoko had such an overbearing air and was very assertive when she was investigating what happened to Tatsuro.
- Although the drama hinted at romantic feelings between Lin and Kanako, there was no such development in the novel. If Lin had not returned for Kanako, the situation might not have deteriorated so quickly for the buddies. On the other hand, if he had not returned, he might not have helped the women to run away in the last episode.
- In the novel, Naomi and Yoko were not acquainted but in the drama, Yoko met Naomi during the party held at Kanako's place and even worked together later though this was largely due to Yoko's insistence.
- Yoko set up a bug at Naomi's place in the drama but the bug was actually placed at Kanako's place in the novel. I thought it was a bit odd that Naomi let down her guard too much and she could have chased Yoko away for trespassing.
- In the drama, Yoko came to know about Tatsuro's abusive character when she was attacked by his former girlfriend after he disappeared. In the novel, Yoko was already aware of Tatsuro's behaviour before he got married to Kanako as his former girlfriend wanted to report him to the police for domestic violence. Yoko became aware of Tatsuro's abuse towards Kanako when she saw the bruises on Kanako's body during a family onsen trip.

Personally, I felt that the story was rather weak and unbelievable at some parts which really seemed too far-fetched and unrealistic:

- The method used to kill Tatsuro was too risky as he could have easily woken up at the slightest sound. I found it odd that the ladies did not put him to sleep using drugs before strangling him. Perhaps they could have used some other method which didn't require so much energy and effort?

- The venue where they killed Tatsuro was rather odd. By killing Tatsuro at home, they risked being seen by neighbours, security personnel and caught on CCTV. And it sure proved to be a huge reason leading to their scheme being exposed in the end. I'm surprised that they did not do anything to hide their identities like wearing masks or hats or glasses and didn't think about the security cameras on the highways as they made their way to the place to dump the corpse.

- The fabricated case against Tatsuro was full of too many loopholes given his status as an experienced bank employee so it was no wonder that Yoko and Tatsuro's colleague sensed something fishy.

- Naomi and Kanako were too eager to celebrate the success of their scheme that they went out to have a nice Sunday brunch and enjoy Kanako's new-found freedom. That was too careless of them and Kanako should have put up the pretense a bit longer to deflect the suspicion away from herself.

- Naomi going to meet Lin just outside the bank after he withdrew money from the ATMs was extremely foolish. Wouldn't she know that there are security cameras at banks and ATM lobbies? Couldn't she have gone to meet him at a place where she won't be caught on camera?

- Naomi and Kanako knew very well that Yoko and the police were hot on their heels and waited till it was dawn before making their escape. I thought that was really stupid because they might have been able to escape overseas if they left in the middle of the night after Yoko confronted Kanako.

Despite the loopholes in the story, I thought that what kept me engaged was how well the story was presented. There was a lot of scenes where the dialogue was worded in such a way that it built up sufficient tension to keep me on the edge of my seat and kept me interested to watch one episode after another. For example, here is the scene where Li gave Naomi the idea that the only way out for Kanako was to get rid of Tatsuro which I thought had a very good tempo and was witty at the same time. To put things in perspective, this was when Naomi and Li were having lunch together and Naomi was telling the latter how she has a friend i.e. Kanako who is suffering from DV from her husband but she can't seem to help Kanako:

Naomi: What if your husband was someone who inflicted violence on you?
Li: I would get back at him and will not let it rest like that.
Naomi: But a woman cannot match a man's strength...
Li: If you can't handle him on your own, get your parents and brothers to do it for you.
Naomi: If your family can't save you?
Li: Get your friends to save you. Isn't that what friendship is for?
Naomi: Friends?
Li: When you are in trouble and your friend can't lend a helping hand, why would you still be friends with that person?
Naomi goes silent which leads Li to ask what is wrong with her.
Naomi: Actually, I have a friend from my university days who is suffering from domestic violence inflicted by her husband...
Li: Kill him.
Naomi: Eh?
Li: That man has no value to continue living. A man who beats a woman should just be killed.
Naomi: But the police will arrest us...
Li: Then think of a way where you won't be caught. Tactics and lies to protect your own life are all considered as justified self-defence.
Naomi: I wish I can be as strong as President Li.
Li: You are the strongest Japanese woman who I've met so far but you just don't have the courage to use your strength.

With each unexpected turn in the story, it brings the two leading ladies closer to disaster. As I've pointed out earlier, Naomi and Kanako were actually too careless in their planning and execution of their scheme which led to these mistakes coming back to haunt them later. For example, they underestimated the persistence of Yoko who tried to find out the truth. They were also not observant to the fact that Lin had developed feelings for Kanako due to her kindness which was a key factor in their downward spiral. Just when I thought that they were doomed to be exposed, they were still able to survive by the closest margin. Honestly, I wasn't thinking that they will escape from the arms of justice but the way the story was crafted, it was meant to make the viewers sympathise with them for what they did and hope that they will be able to get away scot-free somehow. As such, it became a natural thing for me to wish that they might be able to get their freedom somehow.

The last episode was very intense as the ladies tried to leave Japan since the police and Yoko were about to close in on them. Although the drama did not specify whether they were able to get away in the end, the smiling faces in the very last scene seemed to be suggesting that they may succeed. However, if you think logically, there was no way that they could get out. The plane could be barred from taking off even after they managed to board it. Even if they did board the plane and made it to Shanghai, they could still be nabbed by the police over in China. As such, unless they had managed to get to China and left the airport, there was little chance that they might be able to attain the freedom they desired. That got me wondering if there was really a need for them to depart from Narita or Haneda where the police could get to them very quickly. Couldn't they have resorted to taking a ferry to another country or taken a flight from a smaller airport in another city? Then again, if they had been successful in leaving through another exit point, the last episode would not have been as exciting. I guess logic doesn't always work well in dramaland.

Despite the plot which was criticised for the loopholes, I thought that the cast's acting were instrumental in keeping the viewers engaged from the start to the end other than how the story was presented. Among the cast members, I think Takahata Atsuko definitely takes the cake for leaving the strongest impact on me personally. As she played a Chinese woman who manages a company in Japan, her spoken Japanese was somewhat in bits and pieces but still very comprehensible. Due to the way she spoke, it sometimes came across as comical but at times, there was this unspeakable sense of fear she inspired due to her ability to observe and see through what Naomi and Kanako were up to. However, she would not expose them directly and instead left remarks which made the female leads wonder how much she knew and that kept them on tenterhooks for a long time since they didn't know if Li was their friend or foe. This emotional tug of war between her and them was a key highlight in the cast's interaction.

As for the female leads, Hirosue definitely had a meatier role at the beginning because she was the one who initiated the murder scheme and appeared to be more aggressive and proactive than her friend. However, Uchida proved to have a stronger screen presence later as it became apparent that she had toughened up considerably in terms of her emotional state once she made up her mind to break free from her abusive husband. In fact, Kanako appeared calmer than Naomi at times when the law was catching up with them. As such, the relationship dynamics between them were quite interesting in the sense that the person who appeared tougher on the outside was actually quite vulnerable while the one who seemed to need more care and concern was able to take the lead when it mattered. In that way, it won't be so boring to see Naomi lead Kanako all the way and that made their relationship more balanced than it seemed.

Yoshida Yo nailed it as the persistent sister Yoko who was probably seen as the "baddie" standing in the way of Naomi and Kanako's pursuit of "happiness". Much as I don't think that most viewers will like her for that, I have to admit that Yoshida did well enough to blend into her character and made Yoko stand out in a strong manner. I haven't watched much of Yoshida's past works other than the last HERO movie and she was pretty negligible there but this drama has sort of thrust her into the limelight as a competent supporting actress who could steal the limelight from the leads anytime. In my opinion, the best scenes from her were probably when Yoko confronted Kanako about Tatsuro's murder and forced the latter to commit suicide as repentance for her deeds and when Yoko screamed in desperation at the airport as she thought that Naomi and Kanako were going to get away scot-free. I thought those two scenes were pretty intense but Yoshida didn't go too overboard with her emotions and left a deep impression on me.

Sato Ryuta didn't feature very prominently after Tatsuro died and Lin went back to China but he did leave his mark in the beginning and end of the story. My impression of Sato was largely restricted to the honest and goofy roles he used to play so seeing him change into that scary and abusive Tatsuro was an eye-opener. Comparatively, Lin was pretty forgettable in the beginning but he came back to make an impact later as a potentially-troublesome stalker for Kanako and yet helped the ladies to run away in the end instead of creating more trouble. I thought this drama was a good change in Sato's acting career so that he can go beyond the honest guy and goofy roles in future.

And my ratings for this drama...

Story: 9 out of 10 (Other than the loopholes I highlighted, I think that the presentation of the story and the directing made this into a better production than I expected. At the very least, it kept me on edge so many times and convinced me to keep going on watching each episode just to see how things would turn out. And that's an important achievement because if viewers lose interest halfway, they won't bother checking out the entire series and keep watching.)

Acting: 9.5 out of 10 (The actresses generally did much better here with Takahata Atsuko being fantastic with her portrayal of Li. Sato Ryuta also showed that he can do something different this time.)

Theme song/BGM: 7 out of 10 (In terms of the BGM used in the drama, I thought that it matched the story quite well but the theme song didn't leave much of an impression on me since it was played very briefly towards the end of each episode.)

Visual effects / Scenery: 7 out 10 (There was some nice scenery featured when the ladies went on their little trip and while they were out searching for a place to dump the husband's body.)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 9.5 out of 10 (Among the characters, they interacted very well and helped to push up the tension felt by the viewers e.g. the friendship between Naomi and Kanako, when Naomi and Li were talking and the latter seemed to hint that she knew everything, when Yoko was trying to sound Naomi out for why she was behaving strangely, the showdown between Kanako and Yoko or when Tatsuro was being abusive towards Kanako. In some dramas, the lack of chemistry between actors can sometimes turn viewers off so the cast here should be credited with helping to make this drama a lot more watchable than it could have been.)

Total: 42 out of 50

7 comments:

alicealc said...

Hello!
Nice to read your review about this drama.
I just watched the last episode today, and I agree with you, this drama was really interesting each episode, and the acting of the actors and actresses were good too.
But I'm really curious about the ending. This drama has an open ending, but yeah, if the police had already got the warrant, Naomi and Kanako would surely be arrested. I hope there will be twist like the body they found at the forest was actually wasn't Tatsuro or anything like that so Naomi and Kanako wouldn't get arrested. How about the novel? Can you tell me the ending in the novel? I'm really curious with that XD

Chiaki said...

Hi alicealc,

Unfortunately, I've not read the original novel so I won't be able to reveal the ending there. Glad to know that you enjoyed reading the review and watching this drama!

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Lanuiiohu Sukikiya said...

The Ending - Both women were arrested because they were still walking toward the plane.
If they make it on the plane, the airport still can deny the plane to depart......This drama tells that it's wrong to kill people even thought it's a spouse abuse case.

Mary Li said...

Umm.. how you know they got caught? It would end more gracefully if they lived happily after in Shanghai.

Chiaki said...

Hi Mary, please read my review again. I did not say for sure that they were caught but rather, I was pointing out the factors in reality which would have prevented them from escaping since they were still at the airport then. Even if they did make it to China, they would probably have been caught if they had not left the airport before the authorities got to them.

Granted that the drama's ending suggested that the two leads may be on their way to freedom and happiness, we all know very well that it's probably not going to work out as nicely even though we may wish otherwise for them.

Hope that this clarifies.