Monday, October 19, 2015

Review of "Hirugao ~ Heijitsu Gogo Sanji no Koibitotachi" (Summer 2014)

In the past, the summer season was usually the most neglected or should I say, the least interesting in terms of the drama offerings from the Big 4 i.e. FujiTV, TBS, NTV and TV Asahi. Traditionally, it's been said that TV stations tend to focus a lot on the spring offerings because that marks the beginning of the fiscal year for most companies in Japan so if they get off to a good start in spring, it should bring better things ahead. As for autumn and winter, the general feel is that since the weather is colder, people tend to stay indoors and that helps to boost the viewership to a certain extent. This theory doesn't seem so true these days because you can do a lot more things at home e.g. surf the Internet or watch DVDs or cable TV rather than stick to the usual offerings on TV. Besides, a lot of people actually record the shows to watch later or use on demand services these days to watch on the go. Summer is seen as a season when most TV stations tend to slack off a bit because there are the summer holidays where students, children and families go out on vacations and there are lots of summer festivals going on. People tend not to be at home during the warm summer months or so it was believed to be. However, I think this way of looking at the seasonal offerings is somewhat not so relevant in this era as there can be lousy and half-hearted type of dramas in any season now. And if this old theory still holds true, "Hanzawa Naoki" would have never made it as the ratings king in the summer of 2013. I think "Hirugao" probably can be considered another unexpected success because it too was shown during the hot summer season, saw its ratings go consistently over the 15% level in its last four episodes and got lots of people including celebrities talking about it as the plot heated up.

Perhaps FujiTV didn't expect this to be a big hit after all. Before the season started, I would say that this drama probably didn't get a lot of attention because FujiTV was more focused on promoting "Hero 2" rather than its other offerings. Besides, a drama about people having extramarital affairs isn't new at all because there had been countless dramas like this in the past. Even if it was not the central theme of the story, infidelity subplots were quite common too. No doubt there was some pre-season anticipation about Ueto Aya shedding her usual pure and innocent image to take on the role of a straying housewife, Kichise Michiko being sexy as usual and a temptress this time to lure Ueto into the dark and exciting world of adultery and the two male leads Saito Takumi and Kitamura Kazuki being very popular with the female viewers, there still was something quite lacking in the whole package which I couldn't really place my finger on. However, when you do get started, you will find that it's not really as simple as it seems on the surface.

Before beginning with my review, let me give a summary of the story. As usual, the disclaimers first - if you do not wish to know the story, please skip this review as there will be many spoilers ahead.

Sasamoto Sawa (Ueto Aya) has been married for 5 years to Shunsuke (Suzuki Kosuke) and works part-time at a supermarket near her house. Although marriage life has been generally smoothsailing for Sawa, she feels that there is something lacking and craves some excitement deep inside. Her husband is more concerned with caring for his looks and pet hamsters rather than focus on Sawa, In addition, the fact that the couple have not been intimate for some time suggests that there is something not quite right about their marriage and Sawa wonders if this is due to her lacking in feminine appeal.

One day, Sawa steals a bright red lipstick from her workplace out of impulse and happens to be seen by Takigawa Rikako (Kichise Michiko) who has just moved to Sawa's neighbourhood. That same afternoon. Rikako's car is vandalised by a senior high school student at the carpark near the supermarket thus resulting in both her and Sawa being called to the police for the investigation. This causes Rikako and Sawa to be bound by mutual secrets i.e. Rikako's affair with a younger man and Sawa's shoplifting. In addition, Sawa meets Kitano Yuichiro (Saito Takumi), the form teacher of the high school student involved in the case and the two of them strike up an unlikely friendship which gradually escalates into mutual attraction for each other. Despite Sawa's initial reluctance to go down the path of Rikako who tells her that having an affair can actually be beneficial to the marriage, she finds herself sinking further into the romance with Kitano who is also married to Noriko, an assistant professor older than him and is more concerned with her research rather than taking care of the household.

On the other hand, Rikako who is living an envious life of a housewife living in a big house with a successful husband and two daughters, is leading a double life. She sleeps around with strangers in a bid to regain confidence and seek affirmation of her womanly charm from other men as her husband keeps putting her down as a woman with no brains who he married for the sake of her looks. During a party which her husband hosts for his colleagues and working partners, Rikako meets an artist named Kato Osamu (Kitamura Kazuki) and becomes attracted to him because he seems to be able to see through her true self and the loneliness she is feeling while playing the perfect wife role. Even though she always claims to be emotionally detached from the men that she had slept with, Rikako becomes so absorbed with Kato to the point where she is willing to give up the good life and her daughters and even become a bar hostess so  to be with a poor artist like Kato.

Personally, I think what's very interesting about this story are the unexpected twists and turns. Unlike most stories about people having affairs where you can get the drift of the story very quickly, this story doesn't stick to a traditional formula or preach about what's right or wrong. For example, no doubt that Rikako had a reason of her own to seek "external excitement", the fact that she had to desert her own children for the sake of her happiness was relatively downplayed rather than being blamed entirely for her selfishness. At the same time, it seemed that Rikako was such a player that her relationship with Kato was probably going to be not much different. In fact, she even went out of the way to seduce him even though he did not take her seriously at first. However, the relationship between them became such an intense thing until he was willing to sacrifice his future just to make sure that there is no turning back for her when she went back to her family in the end. This was somewhat not in line with his seemingly aloof attitude towards her since he looked as if he was less besotted with her than vice versa.

On the other hand, in Sawa's case, I was sort of expecting that her relationship with Kitano might last a bit longer although a happy ending might be pretty impossible in Asian society since adultery is still pretty much frowned on. However, things went downwards really quickly for them after their mini "elope-adventure". In particular, I was expecting that Noriko would not tolerate her husband's pining for another woman and not take him back but it turned out that she was so bent on keeping Kitano that she went to extremes. Conversely, Sawa's husband Shunsuke seemed more like someone who would hold on to her for the sake of his pride but he unexpectedly gave in after seeing how Sawa reacted when she almost burnt down their apartment. As such, I think that this defying of expectations was what really kept the viewers hooked throughout the season because you've got to keep watching the drama in order to know what will happen to the lead characters.

Besides the engaging story, the acting by the cast was also something worth checking out. Ueto Aya showed a different side of her usual bubbly onscreen image where she had to play a plain housewife who was struggling with her boring life, a not-so-loving husband and a nosy mother-in-law. Sawa's emotional struggles to fight against her desire for an exciting romance and what's right morally was conveyed in such a compelling way that the viewers can see for themselves how she felt. On the other hand, Rikako's inner world was probably not described in such great detail because of the lack of monologues but inferences can be made from the actions she took throughout the course of the story. The male leads too were not described at great length so it was a bit difficult to judge how much they loved Sawa and Rikako.

Among the supporting characters, I felt that Noriko's role played by Ito Ayumi was the most compelling to watch. Noriko started off with being friends with Sawa and later found that she was seeing her own husband so the feeling of betrayal swept over her to the extent that she did drastic things to the people around her and herself. One of the best scenes was when she caught Sawa and her husband in a library and the tension during the face-off scene made such a huge impression. Even after realising that her husband's heart was already not with her, Noriko didn't want to let her husband have his way and even resorted to legal means to stop them from being together. Perhaps different people might have varying opinions on this but personally, I thought that it was pretty meaningless to cling on to a person who stopped loving you but I guess for Noriko, she probably doesn't see it this way because marriage to her is for life and she won't just settle for a divorce easily.

The theme song deserves some special mention here too because I thought that it was such a clever pick to coincide with the drama's genre. The song "Tanin no Kankei" was actually first released in 1973 by Kanai Katsuko and was the No.31 song in the Oricon annual ranking then. Hitoto Yo did a remake of this song in her 2012 cover album of hits in the Showa era but the version used for this drama was a new one specially made with SOIL& "PIMP" SESSIONS who were picked by Hitoto herself. The jazzy tune of the song with the really suggestive lyrics clicked with the "scandalous" theme of extramarital affairs and Hitoto's rendition of the song meant that it was easy to remember even after hearing it just for the first time during the ending credits which was another piece of work full of visual impact with its use of nudity or seemingly so with body paints of vibrant colours. I liked the fact that there was some thought in picking a suitable song for the drama and that efforts had been made to the ending credits section unlike most dramas which tend to be rather boring of late.

And my ratings for this drama...

Story: 9.5 out of 10 (The unpredictable nature of the story created much excitement for viewers so that they could stay tuned right to the end. And that's precisely what's lacking in many dramas in recent years. )

Acting: 9 out of 10 (The ladies i.e. Ueto, Kichise and Ito all did well in their roles but the guys seemed under-explored so there was hardly anything to like or dislike about them especially Saito Takumi whose character's fate ended in such a disappointing manner.)

Theme song/BGM: 9 out of 10 (Nice BGM during critical scenes plus the catchy theme song which is hard to forget)

Visual effects / Scenery: 8 out 10 (There was some slow motion shots used to highlight the intensity of the emotions felt by the characters e.g. when Sawa almost burnt down the house and when she was in the forest with Kitano. The tension in the air was hard to miss and made the scenes more memorable.)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 7 out of 10 (Although Ueto and Saito are a nice combination to watch, I felt that Saito's character was too one-dimensional so it always felt that we knew how Sawa felt about him but his level of involvement in the relationship seemed unknown. Similar problem between Kichise and Kitamura where his side of the story is relatively unexplored. As such, the chemistry seemed to have suffered a bit. Contrary to this, the ladies seemed to enjoy better chemistry among themselves.)

Total: 42.5 out of 50


junny said...

Hmm, this sounds interesting, I will try to hunt it down and give it a go. I've been slowly warming up to Kichise Michiko after not having liked her roles in Nodame and Guilty. Similarly, not overly fond of Ueto Aya but she was fine in I'm Home. I do like me some Kitamura Kazuki, he was so cute in Neko Zamurai.

Thanks for the heads-up! Would have passed on a good drama otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the drama. It was engaging and the 3 leads are indeed eye candies.... More interestingly, the issues reflected are very realistic and real. While the society frown upon affairs and online meeting sites, they happen, even to those who frown upon them! Affairs is not a thing for men only. It is more and more common among women who want independence and are more exposed to other men at the work place, online chats, social media, etc. So let's not pretend they don't happen.

Before I go on, I should categorically state that affairs are wrong and very damaging to families. Affairs do not start only when sex is involved. They start when there is emotional attachment, even in the mind and hearts.

Women like Rikako exist. They are bored at home and just want some excitement without strings. However, while this is theoretical, it is probably not possible to control her heart completely to draw a line between one night stands and having an emotional attachment. Women are probably wired differently from men, who generally need love (albeit a little attraction) before they enter into physical relationships. There may be exceptions too I guess. In her case, Rikako eventually mixed up both and went beyond her own line. She could not be as detached as she thought she could be.

Sawa is an interesting character. While she looked docile, I noticed that from the beginning she has been the one who took initiative. She cycled to the school to see him, she made the first move to kiss him, etc... Love gave her courage. On the contrary, the most handsome man in the drama, Kitano, was very passive. He was attracted to her but did not make the first move and tried to control his emotions (him being the rational one).

In both women, we saw how they became very vulnerable when they fell in love. The natural confidence melted when they were not sure how their respective men feel about them. For Sawa, she was unsure whether Kitano will chicken out after the first date.. and yet she wants to be cool in front of him. These feelings are very real and I can identify with that.

Anonymous said...

I do agree to some extent Rikako's statement that most men will not break up with their wives to live with their mistresses. When they are found out, most men will just give up the affairs and go back to their wives. Kitano's reaction was unexpected....

I am encouraged to see Kitano finally came out of his shell to say he wants to be with Sawa and took steps to persuade Sawa's husband and his own wife. When Kitano left the forest house, it was likely that that was perhaps the last time they saw each other. He could reconcile with his wife after talking to her (and seeing her cry whatever...) or he chicken out after a few days away from Sawa. But I agree with Sawa. Just to see that he wants to be with her is good enough as it meant that he was serious about her. A love to remember even if she went back to her husband eventually.

From their respective spouses' perspective, their reaction to the news of the affair was realistic too... everyone has different response.... most would possibly fight, yell, resort to threats and violence (like what Noriko did), some would choose not to face the reality and probably others would just give up quickly knowing that it is no use keeping the spouse who has strayed.

So, did the couples have their own issues before the affairs? Yes they probably certainly did but were they only excuses? Is it not better to sit down and discuss the issues and hopefully commit to work through the issues if both are committed to the marriage instead of looking out?

Shunsuke probably is not in any better position to yell and shout when he found out about Sawa's affair. He was flirting with the young girl too. His lack of interest in sex was not fully explained (in my view... was it erectile dysfunction?? hahha) but sex is only one aspect of marriage if he was committed to the marriage. But probably not... he was spending time late at night with the woman at work... and what's with the facial cream and funny hair band? Weird man to begin with... what did Sawa see in him to marry him?

The way the 2 women felt when their affairs were exposed were to me, realistic too.... first they felt shame and then guilt towards their spouses (and kids) and families. The "love" they had from the 2 men gave them courage to sort out their own marriages. This was portrayed as the "right thing to do" in the drama. I'm not entirely sure from the ethical point of view.... But I can understand why they want to end their misery in their own marriages and be selfish to their own hearts, hurting several people in the process.

Overall the drama is a good one. I've not watched the last episode yet (leave the best for last) but have so much to say that I can't resist jotting down my thoughts after reading this review. Enjoy the drama! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh one more thing. It is very hard to be in an affair in the first place. You have no control over the other (since you are married or committed to another person in the first place), you can't get jealous (but you definitely do, tons of it!!!), you can't track or ask him/her where he/she is, what he/she is doing, etc.... all those feelings of possessiveness have to be managed as affairs are supposed to be with no strings attached. It's certainly easier said than done. The more serious party is often burdened with feelings of lack of control over the other party, jealousy, guilt, having to keep track of his/her own lies to his/her spouse/partner, frustrations, loving but yet can't be together all the time and having to check his/her own feelings because the affair can end anytime when found out... and having to clear up the mess when the affair is found out. While affairs can be exciting and dangerous, they are almost very draining and painful to some extent even when the affairs are still kept a secret when parties involved get serious.

Chiaki said...

Hi Anonymous, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about this drama.

I think one of the biggest reasons for the success of this drama (other than its eye-catching leads) would probably be the story which defied stereotypes or what viewers could have expected. In a lot of the adultery stories in the past, a wife who was dependent on the husband financially would generally not dare to leave a marriage even if the husband was unfaithful and choose to suffer silently. Rikako who had a celebrity wife's lifestyle and two daughters to think of, chose to give up her riches and even went to become a hostess for the sake of the man she loved while Sawa who probably earned little in her part-time job, was prepared to leave her stable life and bear with the stigma of being a third party. On the other hand, Noriko who was well-educated, had a prestigious job title and clearly proud of her workplace achievements, could very well have been depicted as a wife who couldn't bear with her husband's infidelity and initiated a divorce in no time but she went the exact opposite way to cling on to her husband because divorce was a greater shame she couldn't bear and she didn't want to let her husband have his way. That's what made the drama more exciting to watch.

Although the ending credits clip was a bit explicit with the somewhat concealed nudity, the actual drama itself was quite "chaste" considering the theme. Kato and Rikako did have a pretty "intensive" scene but comparatively, Sawa and Kitano's first kiss which did not go well because the latter backed off was more suggestive than lewd. They were alone in that forest and could do whatever they wanted but didn't. Even their first bed scene was pretty mild. I think this arrangement was probably meant to emphasize the romance rather than the sex between the lovers and not position it as a sex flick.

Shunsuke didn't seem to have any issues with sex but rather, it's his disinterest in it that seems to be the problem. There's been discussion of this trend of herbivore men (soushoku danshi) who are more keen on things other than romance, women and sex. They tend to be a bit passive about such things. Shunsuke was more concerned about his pets and maintaining his appearance than paying attention to his wife who did try to do something to salvage the situation. It could be boredom or he was so used to Sawa's presence that whatever she did would not really make him sit up and pay attention. However, when he met that female colleague who was out to seduce him because he was married (he might not have caught her eye if he was single), he was excited and scared at the same time. Someone was showering him with a lot of attention which he clearly enjoyed and yet he was fearful that he might cross the line. On Sawa's side, this clear lack of disinterest from Shunsuke pushed her to seek attention elsewhere and Kitano came in at just the right time.