Thursday, May 15, 2014

Drama Review: Majo no Jouken (1999)


Grade: A-

Category
Japanese melodrama

What it’s about
At twenty-six, Hirose Michi’s life seems perfect. She teaches high school math and has responsibility for her own homeroom class, and her longtime boyfriend has just proposed to her. But in truth, Michi feels trapped. She’s overwhelmed by her job and isn’t in love with her boyfriend. It isn’t until she forms an unexpected bond with a troubled student that Michi realizes that happiness is a possibility in her life. In spite of his bad behavior and even worse reputation, Kurosawa Hikaru is actually a sweet boy who’s eager to see what’s special in the world around him. The love that grows between Michi and Hikaru will destroy their lives—and save them.


First impression
So I’m starting to see the shape of things here—this is going to be like the Kdrama School 2013, if Lee Jung Suk hooked up with Jang Na Ra. (Maybe that’s what it would have taken to make me actually like that show?) We have an ineffective and disenfranchised young teacher who wants to prove herself, and a bullied rich kid who hates that the rest of his life is already planned out for him by adults. They both need to grow into their positions of power, or find a way to leave them behind.

Final verdict
This show is often compared to the Korean drama Secret Love Affair, and I can see why. Its lead couple are a teacher and student separated by differences in both age and outlook: He’s honest and open-hearted, while she’s uptight and prone to worrying about what people think of her. Both shows also have a quiet, contemplative vibe, and neither is afraid of the dark (either metaphorically or literally). For people who don’t have the patience for SLA’s arthouse pacing, Majo no jouken is probably a good substitute. Its story is fast-moving and full of unpredictable twists that constantly propel the characters forward.

In order to watch it, though, you have to get over one key stumbling block: The leads’ eight-year age difference. I normally don’t have problems with this sort of thing, but even I almost dropped the show when the they got together. We’re used to seeing twenty-somethings playing kids, but majo no jouken’s male lead was actually 17 years old at the time of filming, and he looked even younger. Seeing him with his 26-year-old leading lady can be downright jarring. They seem like they’re from different species—he’s boyish and adorable, she’s mature and graceful. Every kiss requires her to bend at the knee just so he can reach her, and that takes a lot of getting used to. On the bright side, though, they spend little time in the classroom together, making the student/teacher divide a little less squirmy than it might have been.

If you can make it past the significant ick factor, this series is a real treat. It’s full of over-the-top melodrama and grand romantic gestures, making it a close cousin to the Korean dramas of the early 2000s. (There’s even an episode set in the countryside that could have been torn right from the Autumn in My Heart script.) Michi and Hikaru fall slowly and sweetly in love as outcasts at school, and spend the rest of the series fighting to be together.

Most of its characters are nuanced and treated with respect—no matter what they’ve done or how wrong they’ve been, they can always earn redemption. Hikaru is a particularly fantastic creation. He’s capable of both realistically bratty fits of rage and profound insight into the sufferings of the people around him. When everything around him is self-destructing, he’s the kind of boy who can find comfort in a field of flowers. And that’s exactly why the female lead loves him: she needs to be reminded of that freedom and joy are always within reach. Unfortunately, she’s actually the only character that doesn’t fare so well in the course of the show. Michi is ever dedicated and kind, but also semi-insane in her improbable naivety.

Majo no jouken is a fun, compelling watch and holds up remarkably well for something this old. It’s definitely worth watching, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just not as special as Secret Love Affair. Its story is more traditional and less insightful, and its production is less thoughtfully staged.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. Although Korean dramas are my true love, I’ve also watched a few Japanese series. I’ve liked them well enough, but they’ve never really spoken to me—their humor feels dark and strange, and their romances are too bogged down by workplace shenanigans for my taste. But when someone says a Japanese drama is a lot like Secret Love Affair, my current fixation, I listen. Which is why I’ve decided to give this show a try. It originally aired way back in 1999, making it years older than the even most antiquated Kdrama I’ve seen.

Its story really does have echoes of SLA—a teacher gets entangled with one of her high school students after her boyfriend proposes to her. There’s extra squick involved, though; she may not be married, but he’s totally underage. Her position of power as his high school teacher immediately flirts with both moral outrage and statutory rape charges.

But then again, we all know I’m flexible about morals. It’s a good thing, because only a few minutes into the first episode, I already suspect I’m going to like this show a lot.

The male characters are already well-conveyed. Her boyfriend is a slacker who thinks “going overboard” is handing your girlfriend an engagement ring just as she’s sneaking out of your house after spending the night. He doesn’t even put on clothes—wearing rumpled boxers, he unceremoniously hands her the ring and expects her to swoon with delight. No matter what country you’re in, that generally doesn’t turn out well.

And of course her swain is adorable and rides a motorcycle like there’s no tomorrow, causing their first meeting when he almost runs her over. The surprising thing is that they cast someone who really looks like he could be a high school kid. As boyishly handsome as Yoo Ah in may be, it’s pretty obvious that he’s actually pushing thirty. This guy, on the other hand, looks fresh from the womb.

The one character we’ve seen too little of so far is the female lead—she’s been in every scene, but never had much to contribute. Well, except for immediately falling in love with the dashing younger man who practically killed her. When her boyfriend give her the ring, she didn’t seem to care. But when this stranger finds it for her after their near-death experience, it might as well be the first meeting of a Disney prince and princess. You can practically see rainbows flying out of her eyes.

Which, obviously, is awesome.

Episode 1. There’s clearly been a lot of cross-pollination between Korean and Japanese dramas. Practically everything that’s happened in this show has also happened in at least one Kdrama I’ve seen—and sometimes lots more than one. But MNJ has found one unique spin: Instead of always being stuck on the back of her young lover’s bike, this show’s female lead immediately gets to drive it herself. And with that, a quiet, needy character becomes daring and brave, and her relationship with her student becomes fluid and open instead of one based on status. Well-played, drama.

Episode 1. In this episode, our leads both lost something they didn’t really want.

Michi never actually accepted her boyfriend’s proposal, although she did take his ring. When she lost the ring during the motorcycle accident, she searched for it the way a person searches for something expensive that’s missing—not the way someone in love searches for a sacred token. She never even bothered to wear it until the very end of the episode, when everything had spiraled so far out of control that she had no choice. Her parents had heard about the proposal and she was beginning to think that life as a housewife might be preferable to a career as a teacher. But the show has never led us to believe that she loves her fiancé. He’s just one of the futures she could choose, not a human being that she wants to live with until she dies.

Hikaru’s cell phone is less like a communication device and more like the chain he wears on his ankle in the show’s opening credits. It’s his mother’s constant, intrusive presence, his responsibilities as her heir, and his lack of friends all wrapped up in one horrible piece of plastic. He’s glad to be rid of it when he throws it into the ocean, and does everything he can to prevent Michi from finding it for him. (And yet…cell phones and salt water don’t seem like the best of combinations. Would it even work?) Eventually, though, she restores the cell phone to him and promises that she’ll call him every day.

It’s so inappropriate, their relationship. And the fact that the actor playing Hikaru looks incredibly young makes it a little painful to watch—while I’m fully on board with a much bigger age difference in Secret Love Affair, this is different. Hikaru is a child, and Michi is a woman. Her willingness to throw away everything for him comes across as sad, more like a deep character flaw than the starry, romantic love of SLA.

In Hikaru, Michi sees a new way of living. It doesn’t have much to do with age—it has to do with giving the world a big “fuck you” and doing whatever you want. Michi hasn’t experienced that much; she says herself that she’s never even skipped school once. But all that freedom is really a lie. As a student with family money, he’s in a trap that’s just as bad as hers, if not worse.

Michi still has infinite choices, but Hikaru has responsibilities that he can’t escape.

Episode 1. Jdrama subtitles are extra-special awesome—not only do they translate theme songs, they give you a little transliterated karaoke scroll of them, too.


Episode 1. Whenever there’s a big age difference like this, “mommy issues” always come up. This show is already exploring them: After he has a dreamy moment looking at his teacher’s neck, Hikaru goes home and notices the same spot on mother’s neck. He then flashes back to seeing his mom make out with a colleague when he was hidden in her office. Which is…ick.

On another front, can I just say that I love the girl who always walks around with a book in her face? And no just a manga…a real, meaty novel. That’s my kind of kid.


Episode 2. Whoa, baby is that ever a great cliffhanger.

Michi is no Hye Won, but she does have her moments—as when she threw a glass of beer in her student’s face. I guess his mom is going to know exactly what he’s been up to.

This is only the fourth Jdrama I’ve ever watched, but I am sensing some patterns. Japanese television seems to be much darker and more contemplative than light, fluffy Kdrama. It’s not afraid of condoms, shoplifting, or unmarried women who have sex. And at the root of every character is a gloomy, existential angst that I can really get behind.

And an added bonus—Japanese dramas are short! With only eleven 45-minute episodes, this show will be over before I know it. (The question is: will I be happy or sad about that when the time comes?)

Episode 3. I didn’t catch it at first, but this show is continuing the reciprocity of its first episode. Michi wipes Hikaru’s bloody lip with her handkerchief, and then he uses it to wipe away her tears. It’s sweet, and makes them feel like people helping each other on a shared journey, not necessarily a teacher and her student.

On the other hand, Hikaru looks like a tiny little boy compared to Michi. If anything the show is playing up the size difference. When they’re talking together, Hikaru doesn’t stand a step up or do anything to lessen the disparity. Instead, his smaller size is just part of the shot, which makes Michi looks like a giant in comparison. This, I think, is why it’s so hard to overlook how much younger he is.

In close up, though, all this falls away. He’s handsome and she’s beautiful, and their mutual uncertainty and obvious attraction makes them seem fated for each other.


Episode 3. How many attempted rapes can each episode actually include before the censors step in? I think we must be waking the line here. (Also, shouldn’t you have called the police on at least a few of the offenders, Michi?)

It’s no wonder, though, that sweet, teary-eyed Hikaru would look awfully attractive after being manhandled by so many jerks in such a short period of time.

Episode 4. I can’t believe two things at this point. Thing 1: How quickly this all escalated. Thing 2: How calm Michi is about that.

Unlike the vast majority of Kdrama girls, she wasn’t ashamed or shy about what happened. And unlike the vast majority of people who aren’t certifiably insane, she seems to think that dating a 16-year-old is an acceptable life choice.

I must admit that I like Michi and Hikaru together, but I’m also constantly squicked by how wrong it is. Really, it’s all in Michi’s court—it’s one thing for a student to have a crush on his teacher. It’s another for her to encourage it. What she’s doing is going to break his heart, and hers too.

(And if Japanese dramas like to punish characters for misdeeds the way Korean ones do, one of them is almost certain to die at the end. My money is on reckless motorcycle boy, who’s clearly too good for this world anyway.)


Episode 5. If this is what all Japanese melodramas are like, I’m deeply disappointed that none of you told me I needed to watch one until now. Majo no jouken is is over the top like Dolly Parton’s breasts, like bacon on cupcakes, like a doubleheader concert featuring the Backstreet Boys and the New Kids on the Block. It’s so wrong that it’s completely right. I cannot believe the lunacy that’s transpiring on screen, or how deeply amusing I find it.

And about those “mommy issues” I mentioned earlier: I’m starting to get a feeling that mommy is the one who actually has them. (Ick.) And the female lead is such an idiot—she thought she could get away with her speech at the assembly without getting fired? In America she would have been arrested. The male lead is adorable, but they’ve had like five conversations (and one steamy night in the school library). What are these people doing throwing their lives away on the strength of that little time spent together?And what am I doing watching them when I should be going to bed?

Episode 7. I lose out for being fundamentally pragmatic when watching shows like this one. Right now, Michi and Hikaru represent freedom to each other. He’s her way out of marrying a man she doesn’t love and working at a job that isn’t what she expected. She’s his way out of his mother’s iron grip. All the drama about their union only intensifies their connection—it means they’re always thinking about how much they need to be together.

But if they really set up housekeeping and work at odd jobs to survive, how long will all this romance last? Can their love really survive being ground down by the dreary, mundane routine of everyday life in poverty? If this happened in real life, I bet they’d break up within a year. Hikaru would go home to Mommy dearest and Michi would get struggle through life on her own until her father died and she could return to her mother’s house.

One of the worst things about being a grownup is always seeing the loopholes in fairy tales.

Episode 7. The daring heroine races into an apartment to save a child who’s being abused…and stops to take off her shoes along on the way.

God, I love you, Asian drama.

Episode 9. There aren’t many Asian dramas out there that feature a mother who’s an ally, not an enemy. (Or super duper dead.) It’s refreshing to watch Michi’s mom struggle so hard on behalf of her daughter’s happiness, even at the expense of her own. This time around, it’s the dad that’s a massive jerk who’s more interested in his job than his child’s feelings.

Episode 9. Let’s make a deal, Japan. Once you’ve impregnated someone, how about you get to call them by their name? Because this “Sensei, mother of my child” thing is a little on the weird side.

Episode 11. What’s with the word witch and noona romances? A currently airing Korean drama called is Witch’s Romance, and this show’s title apparently translates into “Terms of a Witch.”

6 comments:

  1. Loved this drama and loved these two actors but the height difference between them was kind of awkward for me; It really made Hikaru seem so much younger than the teacher.

    If you haven't seen Loveholic (Kdrama), check it out. It's also about a teacher-student relationship but the student (Kangta) is so hot and tall. The main leads had great chemistry.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, I totally understand how you feel about J dramas after the warmth and down to earth quality of K dramas. I actually started in J dramas, so there are a couple of real gems I can recommend to you that won't disappoint you at all:
    Suika
    Hotaru no Hikari 1 & 2
    Nagareboshi

    There's a special atmosphere in these dramas in particular that attracted me. I still think about them from time to time, even though I've watched many dramas since. For more, you can visit my lists at koreandramalady.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad to hear you enjoyed this. I had major ick factors watching it too - but maybe that's why it's so good? I like my fluff and my improbable humor, but I'm so attracted to grit. Especially when I feel like most of the entertainment I watch deprives me of it.

    I loved the Autumn in my Heart cross reference scene - I laughed when I recognized it too.

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