Haikei, Chichiue-sama starrs Ninomiya Kazunari (of Arashi and Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima) and is a gentle drama about a traditional ryotei (Japanese restaurant serving kaiseki or traditional Japanese cuisine) in Kagurazaka, a part of Tokyo that retains its old-world roots, traditional restaurants and geisha houses. It is often called hana no machi or flower town (pleasure quarter) where there is an abundance of bars and drinking spots run by retired geishas.

Ninomiya’s character Ippei is a young itamae (traditional Japanese chef) who has been apprenticed to Ryu-san, a legendary itamae at the ryotei Sakashita, for seven years. Sakashita is run by Ritsuko who has taken over the reins from her mother Yumeko, a forma geisha.

The drama begins when Yumeko’s danna (common-law husband and Ritsuko’s father), the main figure behind Sakashita and a powerful minister, collapses and is taken to hospital. With his demise, the real estate developers who have had their eyes on the old and venerated property move to buy the restaurant’s land, and Sakashita’s world is turned upside down as it is forced into the 21st century. Ritsuko who has been trying hard to keep Sakashita afloat is torn between staying true to her mother’s dreams of keeping the restaurant as it is and fighting to save the restaurant in whatever necessary form.

I was particularly touched by the scenes in which Yumeko has to deal with her danna’s death. As a mistress, she and her family are unable to officially attend his wake and can only watch the proceedings from a respectable distance. Yet after the funeral, she receives a visit from his wife to thank and acknowledge her role in the life of the man they both loved. In a society where everyone’s role is specific, respected and acknowledged, it was a very poignant moment, although it is a situation which I would find difficult to accept or understand. Yet I somehow felt deeply touched by it.

While this is happening, Ippei’s new assistant Tokio arrives straight out of juvie but willing to learn. He also has to deal with his mother Yukino, a former geisha who runs a nearby bar.

Haikei, Chichiue-sama (loosely translated as Dear Father) is how Ippei always ends the narration of each episode, as imaginary letters to a father he has never met. It’s a wonderful drama series and harks back to a bygone era where a man’s worth was measured by his dedication to his chosen path, the integrity of his intentions and his loyalty to the people around him. We follow Ippei as he stumbles through the uncertain future of Sakashita, falls in love with a girl who will only converse in French (Kagurazaka is a Francophone town) and his search for his father whom his mother refuses to name. It’s a glimpse into the watery world of Japanese entertainment and pleasure, and the silent and sometimes harsh rules binding the people who live in that society.

I really enjoyed this series and there were several episodes which made me cry. It’s a heart-warming story of a Japan that is slowly slipping away.

J-drama: Gokusen

9 November, 2009

Gokusen 1

I had my whole weekend cleared so that I could concentrate and catch up on my embarrassingly low word count for my Nano novel for Nanowrimo and what did I do? I spent most of my waking moments watching some fine Japanese tv drama, more popularly known as J-drama or J-dorama, on my favourite website Kimamaniyoutube. I’ve only realised the site is in Japanese, but the drama has English subtitles.

This time I got hooked on Gokusen, a tv drama adaptation of the manga by Morimoto Kozueko. The beauty about the internet (and DVDs) is that you don’t have to wait a week for your next fix, you can watch it straight away. The downside is that eight hours can pass and you don’t notice. The shock, the horror, the shame… Of course I told everyone that I was busy writing…but still, eight hours?? And what was even more scary was I ended up with a serious crush on an 18 year old high school tearaway, waaaay too young for me. I love you, Matsumoto Jun!

Matsumoto Jun

Anyway, this is making me sound like a crazy person, but J-dramas are very big business in Japan and Asia. My sister and I were obsessed with them when we were living in Japan and would sit in front of the tv come rain or shine once a week waiting with bated breath for the next episode of the drama we were then watching. When we left Japan, we would treasure the videos my mum and friends would make like the precious gems they were and watch them again and again, crying, laughing and discussing them all throughout the holidays.

Now, I watch them with a sense of nostalgia. I can smell the chill crisp of autumn, the hazy heat of summer, the delicious steam of a proper ramen, and it brings back memories of growing up in Japan. What can I say, I am seriously missing Japan!

Gokusen follows the trials, tribulations, tears and laughter of Yamaguchi Kumiko aka Yankumi, a rookie teacher who is put in charge of final year class 3-D of Horikin High School. The students in 3-D are the worst delinquents in the school: rough, violent and troubled. What they, and the rest of the teachers, don’t know is that Yankumi is no ordinary teacher. She lost her parents when she was seven and was taken to live with her grandfather, the head of the Oeda yakuza clan, and is the fourth generation heir to the family business, although she has decided to leave the path of the yakuza to pursue a career in teaching, a decision which leaves some of her clan members unhappy. Naturally she needs to keep her family connections a secret or she’d lose her job. We follow Yankumi as she gains the trust of her students, slowly bringing them out of their shells and teaches them the value of friendship, family and the difference between fighting for something you value and violence. Her aim is to get them to graduate together. Will she do it? And will they let her?

The casting in Gokusen is inspired. Nakama Yukie as Yankumi is seriously funny and touching at the same time, her trademark tracksuit and glasses covering her ethereal beauty. Her students are a group of misfits who are blamed for everything that goes wrong in and out of school and she is the only who believes in them, and their acting is superb. But my favourite scenes were those of Yankumi’s home life where she is the treasured daughter of the house. The way she scares all the big, strong yakuza men is hysterical.

Gokusen is short for gokudo no sensei or yakuza teacher, and Yankumi’s name, Yamaguchi Kumiko is a nod to the Yamaguchi Gumi (Kumi means clan), the largest underworld clan in Japan.

As you can probably tell, I loved this series which had me in stitches and in tears. If you have a chance to watch it, please do! Of course, I have a soft spot for Japanese high school delinquents, such as in the movie Crows Zero, but Gokusen is not that violent and focuses more on change and the important things in life such as family and friends, rather than becoming the strongest dude in the school.