Japanese Love Story Review

I have made the decision to switch my American drama viewing habits over to Japanese drama viewing habits.  What better place to start than the genesis of quality Jdramas and one of the most popular Jdramas of all time, “Tokyo Love Story”.

Tokyo Love Story was a mega-hit back when it aired in 1991.  I’ve been trying to think of an American show that might be its equivalent but can’t.  First, for the most part American shows are the only shows that have tons and tons of seasons all containing 20+ episodes.  Tokyo Love Story is a “show” of 11 episodes.  There are no seasons, no spin-offs, and no movies.  Maybe it’s a bit like Star Trek, only if Star Trek became an internationally famous love story that people to this day still talk about and GO ON TOURS TO SEE THE LOCATIONS OF THE FILMING!  Yes, people still go to see places like “this is where they met” or “this is where they talked about x” for vacation.  After watching the show, however, I can see why.  Basically, this thing was Huge not just in Japan but all over Asia.  The popularity it gave to the main actress actually forced her into retirement because she couldn’t go anywhere within Asia without being swarmed by fans of the character.

Also, this is the show that changed Japanese approach to dramas.  There is essentially a “before Love Story” and “after Love Story”.  This issued in the golden age of Jdramas, raised the acceptable standards of a “good” show, and ushered in an influx of dramas based on mangas (Love Story was originally a manga).

So, I started with this.  I figured, I can’t stand Japanese TV so if I don’t like the cream of the crop, I have no hope.

Despite it being made in 1991 the movie doesn’t feel too dated.  First, Japan hasn’t changed that much in 35 or so years, and second the characters, story, plot, conflicts etc. are timeless.  People have dealt with these issues for much longer than the 20 years since its airing and present day.

Ok, one thing: Cell phones would have changed a lot of the show’s conflict moments.  There are a lot of “missed opportunity” situations because people just miss each other while out in the city, which all would have been absent with cell phones.  However, I for one enjoyed this as it made everything more human.

Tokyo Love Story is a story of 3 friends and their love triangle plus a new girl who enters the scene.  More specifically, the title refers to the meeting and subsequent relationship of the two main protagonists, Kanji (KAAANCHI!!) and Rika.  Most specifically it might simply refer to Rika and her feelings/thoughts on everything.

This girl

Honami Suzuki plays Rika, a vivacious, energetic young woman who was raised abroad (this isn’t revealed until much later) and doesn’t follow many of Japan’s strict society customs.  She freely expresses herself, follows her heart in all things, doesn’t stress out about pesky things like what tomorrow may bring, and lives her life with joy and wonder.  The character without a doubt moves the show.  It’s almost impossible to watch the show and not be instantly in love with Rika, feeling every emotion she feels and being with her the entire ride of the show.  In terms of memorable characters in the history of television, there may be equals to Rika but no one beats her.

Yuji Oda plays Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!), a recent arrival to Tokyo from the rural prefecture of Ehime.  He’s completely indecisive and in love with his good friend Satomi, whom he has known for a long time.  Also, he has a great heart and is totally incapable of hurting anyone.  He spends most of the show trying to do what he thinks is right for other people but being completely lost as to what he wants.  Rika sums up his personality at one point in the show saying (roughly) “I have someone who is so sincere, he can’t forget the other woman he loved.”  He meets Rika and the two embark on a Tokyo Love Story.

There are two other main characters I’m not even going to bother introducing properly.  Mainly, the show is the story about these two.  Briefly, the other two are Satomi (previously mentioned) and Mikami, both best friends of Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!!) from long ago back in Ehime.  Yes, they do play their parts and have their own storylines the show follows, but really at the end of the day you’re watching Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!) and Rika’s story.

What strikes you immediately about the show is that in the realm of television these people are as close to real people in real situations with real feelings as you can get.  You can feel Rika’s love, pain, joy and sorrow.  You know what Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!) is going through because it’s quite likely you’ve been in a similar spot.  We all know someone like Mikami, possibly our best friend as well.  The show is a story that takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and it works spectacularly because you can empathize with the characters completely.

Another thing I personally enjoyed was that the show doesn’t shy away from adult themes.  One night stands, asking someone you like to have sex with you, talking about watching some porn for a date night with your boyfriend while at work, getting drunk with a crush and staying up all night despite having to work early the next day, all of these things happen in real life and so to in the show.  There is no magic moment where one character kisses another and suddenly in the next scene they wake up next to eachother in love.  That’s not real life; that’s not this show.

What drives the show is summed up later by Rika: “I knock on the door. Knock, knock. Hello Kanchi, are you there? Knock knock.  It’s me, Rika. Knock knock. Do you love me? I knock and knock, I keep knocking but he doesn’t answer.”  Rika loves Kanji (KAAANCHI!!!) with all her heart, completely, fully, and impossibly.  It reminds me of a quote from the great book Lolita, “It was love at first sight, love at last sight, love at ever ever sight.”  However, regardless of her efforts Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!!) is hesitant to return her love fully.  There is no doubt that he loves her, but he can’t give himself completely to her.  For someone like Rika, who admits she knows no other way than to love someone with everything she’s got, this creates a lot of conflict within her.  Can she be with someone who can’t equal her?  Also, for someone like Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!), who can’t help but think how someone else feels, it creates issues for him because he knows what she’s going through.  As a viewer the joy, pain, frustration, inspiration and assortment of other feelings you go through watching these two sucks you in and keeps you glued to the TV.

***** MINOR SPOILERS ******

The show is divided into a few different sections.  I was hooked immediately by Rika’s character.  Also, the dialogue and other characters really made me care about the show in a way that I don’t care about most shows.  I NEEDED to watch this show to find out what these two people were going to do with each other.

At first just to see the characters, next because Rika and Kanji (KAAAAANCHI!!!) made me want to see their love story unfold.  Then, when they hit some roadbumps I was glued to the TV because I wanted to see them work things out.  Finally, in the last few episodes to see what they would finally decide to do about each other and how things would play out.  I was literally obsessed with watching the 11th episode after the 10th and my download site crashed.  A late night DVD store run happened because I NEEDED to get closure on the relationship/story line.  I felt like I was in my own relationship where things were up in the air, left unsaid and uncertain for the future.  I needed some kind of closure one way or another with these two.

A few paragraphs ago I mentioned how this is a real show with real people.  This is what makes this show one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, one of the most unforgettable, and one of the most awful in terms of watching what transpires on screen.  When a character is in pain, you feel that pain as well.  It makes for one of the most vicarious viewing experiences I’ve ever seen.

**** SPOILERS READ WITH CAUTION *****

I’ve debated on what to include and not include in this part.  I don’t want to give away too much of the resolution of the story, yet it’s that resolution and the path to it that makes this such an unforgettable show.

I guess I’ll bypass the actual plot and just talk about my reaction/feelings on it.

To be parsimonious: I cried.  A lot.  I’m still crying (well, holding back tears at least).  In the pantheon of sad television moments this show has 2-3 that rank at the top and at least one (the “train scene”) that if it fails to make you cry, you are likely a robot.  Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Atonement, and any others like these are like watching a Disney Movie compared to the heartbreak you might go through with Love Story.  As I said, it’s not just the story but the attachment that you feel for these characters that makes this all so real.  It sticks with you like your own best friend just went through this show.  For the past 3 days I’ve literally had heartache like I just experienced an unwanted ending to a 5 year relationship.

The thing is, the ending isn’t that bad of an ending.  The last last 5 minutes or so of the show are in many ways rather happy.  Yet, they still bring tears to your eyes and not necessarily happy tears.  By all measures everyone is happy as the show closes and everybody has had closure with the show’s plot.  I’ve heard the ending described as “beautiful” and I might be inclined to agree.  It’s a “real” ending, and that’s about all there is to say about it.

Ultimately, the point of the show is the same point the manga held.  In the author’s explanation it’s about showing the beautiful yet transient nature of love.  Rika at one point referring to her name carved in wood next to Kanji’s says “You mean it will disappear? That’s ok.  At least I’ll remember it was there.  That my name was next to yours, if only for two seconds.”  The show is about capturing the moments of true love between two people, be they transient or everlasting.

****** SPOILERS OVER ******

Overall, Tokyo Love Story is a fantastic show.  It is well acted, written and directed.  It tackles mature content well and makes you believe the characters are real people with real feelings.  It’s also very accessible to Western audiences as the conflict within the plot is universal.  What do you do if you love two people?  What if your heart says person A, but your head says person B?  Whom do you choose?  Is it better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all?  How do you feel if you mean the universe to someone but they only mean the world to you?  These are understandable no matter who you are or from where you come.  Best of all, the show rarely descends into horribly cheesy hollywood love moments.  As I’ve said throughout, everything feels real here.  Rika is a little over the top but none more than at least one person you’ve known in your life.

There are minor Japanese aspects to the show but none that would detract from the experience (i.e. why does Kanji get so embarrassed about saying “I love you” while walking down the street?)

Tokyo Love Story also gives you perhaps the most memorable character put on TV in the last 25 years, or ever – Rika.  You’ll never forget her character or the way she says “KAAAANCHI!!” 200 times an episode.  You might even find that you’ve known (or dated!) someone like her and felt the same way as Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!).

I would recommend Tokyo Love Story to anyone over the age of 21 (the older the better here as a lot of the show’s situations come from years of love experience) that owns a TV.  Guy, girl, cold, sentimental, it doesn’t matter.  I think the story and people are real enough to warm anyone to them.  Also, the universal language of “boy meets girl” makes it accessible to everyone.

How to watch:  I would say just go straight to Amazon and buy the DVDs.  You can get them with English subs included.  Otherwise, you can download them from fan sites with some fansubs included.  You could also find the Japanese DVDs and watch them without subs, although you would miss a lot of the dialogue that will make you cheer out loud and rip your heart out.  You could still understand the story, however.  If you need d/l link recommendations let me know.

FINAL RATING:  10/10  Possibly the best drama I’ve ever seen in terms of how well you can relate and connect with the story.  I feel like this review isn’t enough to do the show justice.

Note:  The following is actually just to make myself feel better about the whole thing.  Anyone really interested in Japanese manga might look into this though.  Info on the manga is hard to find.  It appears that either the show overshadowed the manga, or that the manga was never very popular to begin with and that the show just happened to change it enough to become a giant hit.

In the manga, Rika is a bit different of a character.  Apparently she’s much stronger of a personality (hard to believe) and is actually TONED DOWN(!?!?!?) in the show.  Also, in the show she was having an affair with her boss but it stopped sometime before the show began, although it still does bother Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!).  In the manga, this affair is ongoing and is actually one of the causes for her problems with Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!).  She actually becomes pregnant with his baby, which does nothing to help Kanji’s feelings on the situation.  In the show the two develop problems almost solely based on Kanji’s issues in his heart/head.  They do try to pass some blame on to Rika, saying her love is “too heavy” but I was never quite sure what they were getting at.  Maybe it was that she needed 110% just like she gave to Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!!), and that his 80% just wouldn’t quite do.

To be sure, in the show there is NO way that she could have continued the affair with her boss.  Her character as portrayed in the show won’t even sing a duet at karaoke unless it’s with her Kanji (KAAAANCHI!!).

Also in the manga the two of them don’t quite mesh well from the start it seems.  When they later develop bigger issues it’s more of a continuation of what was going on before.  While this is present in the show, the show has a few episodes where the two of them are pretty much completely happy with one another – which makes the later episodes so frustrating to watch.  It’s described as an entangled love story of 5 people.  The show is the entangled love story of 3 people that just rotates around a little to vary which 3.

In regards to KAAAANCHI!! – watch the show.  This is the “you had me at hello” of Jdrama, except it’s repeated enough to make it stick in your head like an 80s pop song.

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Happy Real Spring

After a month layoff, I’m back.  Not too much has happened.  I had some physical ailments that not only caused me to miss ju jitsu (except one class that I was at 50%) for a month, but also had me out of work for a few days.  I made my first trip in Japan to the physical therapist.  Now I can say I’ve been just about everywhere within the Japanese healthcare system.  Exciting! 

Maybe one change is that I’ve decided enough is enough with using English as much as I do.  I’ve switched over to trying to watch Japanese shows/movies, write my emails in Japanese (when appropriate), and speak Japanese to Japanese people even when they know English.  Yes, some of this I did already but it’s just SO easy to use English when the other person understands English better than you speak Japanese.  Well, enough is enough.  I made a goal that all of my business meetings will be strictly in Japanese come next March.  Time to go from “capable” to “great”. 

And no, I will not be taking any JLPT tests.  Maybe I’ll post on why I disdain these sometime.

The weather is starting to warm up.  This means snowboarding season will come to an end soon, sadly.  I hope to get one or two more good trips to the slopes in.  Also, over the weekend was a somewhat big Japanese holiday that I will cover in a soon upcoming post.  The school year will end next week.  I’m planning a big Skype project with the 6th graders and the details still haven’t been flushed out.  Well, they have but coordinating with the 3 different classes and then people overseas takes a bit.  Hopefully it comes together well. 

Today I want to post another review.  I will be doing so in its own post for sorting purposes.