My Boss, My Hero Review

Here’s a show that seriously crept up on me. I really thought I was not going to like it for several reasons. Instead, I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. That show is “My Boss, My Hero”.

The title explains a lot of what the show is about. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best English-named show in the history of J-Drama. I’m going to go even further and say this might be the best use of English for Japanese people in the entire country, for anything.

See, the title plays on the double meaning of the phrase. Depending on how you read it it could either mean “My boss, who is also my hero” or it could mean “My (person X) boss, and my (person Y) hero”. See how that works?

So, the question you immediately ask is, “which one is it?”

The answer is both, which qualifies this for the best English title in Japan. I’m not sure who came up with this title but 1) give that person an award and 2) pay them some money to redo all your horrible translations everywhere else in the country.

Makio Sakaki is second in line to take over a powerful yfamily. He’s the strongest member in any yakuza family and is rightfully feared. The problem is he’s also the dumbest member of any yakuza family. He fights so well people call him “tornado” for being able to wipe out entire rival gangs single-handed. He also destroys really good negotiations single-handed.

Therefore, his father makes a deal. Makio must return to high school for the senior year and graduate or else he will find another person to take over the clan when he steps down. Makio, loving the yakuza, grudgingly accepts.

For those of you born long ago enough that you remember Adam Sandler as a good comedian, this might remind you a little of Billy Madison. And I think that comparison has some merit. Certainly, the plot follows much the same structure as Billy Madison.

I had high doubts as to whether I would enjoy this one.

Not only am I not a big fan of the Billy Madison theme, this drama plays on a lot of typical J-drama tropes I’m not a fan of. It centers around high school life, it resorts to “Japanese humor”, the lead is a long-hair Japanese pretty boy. Usually I make it about 60 minutes – 10 minutes per above situations present. That would normally make this one a 30 minute drama experience.

Yet, it works. First, Makio’s facial expressions are hilarious. Yeah, they are juvenile, but they are hilarious. It’s really the first thing that got me to enjoy the drama.

Furthermore, the show is about more than just high school life. It really does a good job at showing the personal growth of an individual when confronted with a situation contrary to their character. There are many touching moments and the character growth of Makio is fun to watch develop. In fact, Makio essentially develops 2 personalities: “Makio” and “Makky”. Makio himself undergoes the transformation through language use, tone of voice, hair style change, and clothing changes. The highlights of the show are when these two personalities clash or need to appear at the same time.

There are two things I’m not overly fond of in the drama.

First, the romantic relationships never develop. They are teased at but that’s about it. I’m not necessarily a big fan of romantic relationships all over the place but these seem a little weird. It’s almost as if they were half written and then forgotten about. I would have liked to see at least each person dealing with the resolution of a romantic interest not developing as hoped. One love interest in particular is hinted at and teased for 3/4 of the show, only to have it disappear as if it never existed.

An aside to this is Makio’s love interest. Now, you forget often during the show that Makio is supposed to be 28 years old when he returns for school. His girlfriend is 17. This never feels weird or odd in the show, but after everything ends you do tend to start thinking about that. I’ll let you decide how that stands with you. (Note: the actress who plays this part will appear more prominently in my next show review)

Second, the final episode is pretty bad. It’s really just a ceremonial reunion show. Japanese shows seem to have the “let’s overview the entire show” format for final episodes, which puts them at a disadvantage, but they can still be done alright (see Tokyo Love Story – the most difficult to watch last episode I can think of). This one is just bad. It leaves you feeling unsatisfied with the entire experience almost. It’s hard to say what they could have done differently seeing how the episode begins, but it would have been nice to have a better send off.

Japanese Level: Standard to extreme

Makio is a yakuza boss. This presents several problems. First, he speaks like a yakuza gangster. This is not normal Japanese. It’s very gutteral, very guyish, and uses tons of curse words and other forms you would never hear anywhere else in Japan. Yakuza speech to Japanese people is instantly recognizable, and there’s a reason. Second, it also means his underlings have a tendency to use very elevated speech when speaking to him. There’s even a small comical part when one uses standard politeness and Makio threatens to kill him for not addressing him with the proper respect. This requires very good Japanese skills to stay with the politeness shifts and different vocabulary used.

On the other hand, when Makky is in school it’s pretty standard Japanese. Nothing too difficult here. There’s some “high school talk” here and there, but overall I think it’s manageable.

Final Thoughts: A highly recommended show. Perfect for anyone who likes watching characters struggle with immense personal growth, the battle of destiny over desire, or pretty-boy Japanese guys.

Final Verdict: J-drama Watch-o-rating =  In the upper tier, but not the premium tier. Watch.

Densha Otoko Review

Let’s talk about one of the more popular J-dramas out there, 電車男, or Train Man.

Densha is purportedly based on a true story about an otaku guy who saves a woman far above his level from harassment on a train, and consequently enters into a romantic relationship with her. From what I can tell the story is flimsy at best, and my best guess is that it had trace elements of truth with a lot of embellishment from the real Otoko.

That doesn’t subtract from the show, mind you.

Yamada is a normal Tokyo otaku. (For those of you who don’t know what an otaku is, picture any Japanese-obsessed person you know who shouts out random Japanese like “kawaiiiiiii” and talks incessantly about various anime or manga.) His hobbies include anime, manga, action figures, looking at models ankles, tight pants, rolled cuffs, and glasses. He is also deathly afraid of women.

One day he sees a beautiful woman being assaulted by a drunk on the train. As the only man with suspenders holding up his tighty-whities he feels he’s the only person around capable of stopping this hooligan. He does, and much to his surprise he is thanked by the beautiful woman.

He calls her Hermes after the thank-you present he receives.

So begins a love affair that involves a lot of Hermes saying “sorry”, Densha stuttering apologies during 90 degree bows, and them both using insanely polite language simultaneously while holding hands.

I’m going to skip the situations they get into because it’s fairly easy to guess based on these two facts: he’s an otaku, she’s a wealthy person living in high-class world.

Why does any of this work? Well, let me briefly explain.

First, there’s the fact that these two characters feel real. Yes, they feel like stereotypes to some extent but at the same time they could be someone you know. It helps create a sense of attachment to the characters.

Then, there’s the real reason: Densha and his friends.

Densha, for lack of better English at the moment, is completely lovable. He’s annoying as all get out, but for some reason you never get tired of his constant shtick of apologizing, bowing, whimpering, chickening-out, and acting like a 13 year old asking Angelina Jolie out to prom. He’s so damned sincere, his heart so apparent, that you can’t help but root for him.

Densha comes with friends. Lots, and lots of friends. However, these are internet friends whom he has never met. The relationship formed between Densha and these chat-room homies, the way the show explores said relationship, and the importance this plays on the story will most likely have tears rolling down your cheeks at times. It-is-beautiful.

The intro music is “Twilight” by ELO. It fits perfectly and by around episode 4 you’ll have that “YEAH!” feeling when the music kicks in at the beginning of each episode. Densha is a master at making you feel good about things.

It involves some standard J-drama tropes but doesn’t go overboard with them. This is one of those shows that really shouldn’t work when described but somehow pulls it all of better than most shows you’ll watch.

Japanese Level: (Remember, this is all in the context of “native level”) Surprisingly, not that bad. Densha and Hermes spend so much time speaking to each other formally it makes the Japanese portion of things pretty easy. Densha’s friends can be quite difficult to understand, depending on who is talking. If you are up on your “very guyish” speaking you’ll survive these parts. There is also quite a bit of Tokyo slang and otaku slang used. References to anime/manga/otaku culture are numerous; however, I feel missing these (as I did) doesn’t subtract from the show. Knowing them would probably add something to the show.

Final Thoughts: Densha is perfect for someone looking for an accessible drama where knowledge of human beings rather than knowledge of subtle Japanese culture provides context for the friction between the protagonist and his love interest.

At heart, Densha is the story of love. Not romantic love, but instead human love. It’s a story about how love can lift us to heights we never imagined we could achieve. It’s the story about being true to yourself and how good things will always result from that. It’s the story of chest high, tight pants.

Final Verdict:  J-drama watch-o-rating =   MUST WATCH!

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.