Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Magerarenai Onna

From the way it was described, you'd think it was another shigoto drama but it's not. What it is really, is a drama about a 32-year old woman who has the unyielding resolve to lead her life the way she wants.  It's about having the conviction to pursue one's dreams, the courage to make a change and how having friends who believe in you can make a world of difference.

This show caught me by surprise, didn't expect it to be that funny or endearing, but then I really didn't hold much hope for the dramas that came out this winter season. It's been a while since I watched something without j-idols in it so Magerarenai Onna comes as a welcome treat. This drama makes you want to believe in the power of friendship... and who would have guessed? It's also a tribute to the healing effects of the music of the King of Pop. 
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Ogiwara Saki (Kanno Miho) is an aspiring lawyer who has flunked the bar nine times. She's disciplined and methodical, keeps to a stringent study schedule, and doesn't think twice about correcting someone when a word is misused or mispronounced. She works as a paralegal at a big firm in Tokyo where she's discouraged by her boss from retaking the bar, derided by her co-workers for being unsociable and envied by some for dating senior associate, Sakamoto Masato (Tsukamoto Takashi).

Note that taking the bar in Japan is not easy. The passing rate for post-war Japan fluctuates from 2-3% and prior to 2004, there were no graduate schools in place or any requirement for hopefuls to complete a law course except for a general undergraduate law program. Preparing for the national bar exam meant that the aspirant had to study and digest the law on his own. In some ways, it's said to level the playing field such that anyone who had the determination and the capability can be admitted to the practice of law (that's why there are characters like Hero's Kuryu Kohei), but then again, those who attempt to take it and actually pass were sadly, notoriously few. So before the country instituted reforms by establishing a law school system and placing a cap on how many times the exam can be taken, it was normal for people to take the bar four, five times before actually passing it.

Under the old system, the bar examination was taken in three stages. There's a multiple-choice test covering constitutional, criminal and civil law; an essay examination which included commercial and procedural law; and an oral examination which could have topics from any of the five major subjects. All three exams were taken over the course of a year, so an examinee would have to spend almost every waking moment reviewing for it. 

So imagine all that hard work and effort placed into achieving that one dream that continuously eluded Saki  year after year. This would be her tenth attempt and if she failed, decisions had to be made. She currently lives on a shoe-string budget since she's only a temporary employee, her mother's sick and people have been giving her less than subtle hints that maybe she's not meant to be an attorney... and they wonder why the girl has all but shutdown completely.

Saki is depicted as someone who hardly smiles, she's almost like a robot set on auto-pilot, a monotonous drone. Everyday, she rushes home from work, picks up some groceries, studies till half past one and promptly wakes up at six only to go through the same routine. She's somewhat a sad creature, someone whose way of life is misunderstood. Saki knows that it's about time for her to give up and settle down but abandoning her one goal in life ain't part of her vocabulary.
Life takes on a different turn when Saki bumps into an old high school classmate, Hasumi Riko (Nagusaku Hiromi), who takes on a peculiar interest in her life. This self-proclaimed, happily-married housewife gets herself an invite into Saki's home and bulldozes her way into meddling with Saki's personal affairs. Things start to get more interesting as our duo is joined by smooth-talking police officer, Aida Kouki (Tanihara Shosuke), whose Don Juan stylings and pick-up lines fail to impress Saki and he finds this very unsettling.

Magerarenai Onna is almost like a coming of age story, a drama about an unlikely friendship formed between three disparate folks. It's funny and heartwarming, it's a show that celebrates friendship and the power of dreams. More importantly, it's a reflection of the reality that true friends are really hard to come  by, no matter what age bracket you're in.

Ogiwara Saki is but one of many strong and independent-minded female characters of late, but what really distinguishes Magerarenai Onna from other dramas is screenwriter Yukawa Kazuhiko's clear and obstinate vision of what his characters should be like and where they're supposed to go. The triumvirate in this series grow and change without any marked inconsistencies. The characters behave in accordance with their known attributes and viewers never lose that emotional connection or get disgruntled over major plot points when one of them acts out a certain way.

The protagonist, Saki, might appear stoic but she's really the most perceptive and emphatic person in the said group. Her cool demeanor plays off as a defense mechanism to protect her from the criticism of the naysayers and busybodies who were forcing her to quit on her dream. Saki is the type that approaches her target with tunnel vision. In her mind, there is no room for doubt, no need to second guess what she has set out to do,  no possibility of compromise. Furthermore, she's oblivious to the consequences of her decisions-- she would quit a job that she's had for nine years just because of a difference in ethics and would break off a decade-long relationship so as not to be forced into marriage.

And it's this stubborn streak in Saki that Riko and Kouki find fascinating. At first, she's their source of entertainment, someone whose actions and words alternately baffle and amuse. They say that watching her life unfold is like watching a bad drama on t.v. but what really draws them to her is the latter's ability to forge a path of her own; something which the two did not have the confidence to do nor the courage to seek.

Riko's the well-provided for but ignored housewife in a household that's run by her indomitable mother-in-law. Her husband cheats on her and her two kids avoid her, so she resorts to lying and pretending that everything's okay. Kouki on the other hand, is the police chief who acts more like a figurehead and is not regarded highly as a superior. He got assigned to his post because of his influential father; he's a pacifist disguised as a law enforcer. Both of them lead lives that society find acceptable, both of them also happen to be unhappy and uncomfortable. They hang around Saki allegedly to console themselves, but the truth is, Saki is the type of person that they wish they could be-- she's that proverbial nail that sticks out, but as life  would have it, she refuses to be hammered down.

So as Riko and Kouki slowly wheedle themselves into Saki's life, the three eventually form a strange fellowship. It's the kind of friendship that sees them through good times and bad times,  a support system that allows them to look out for each other and be reminded of their worth,  and it couldn't have arrived at a better time... because growing up isn't easy. Being an adult does not exempt a person from growing pains but having friends you can depend on sure relieves the pressure. And that's pretty much what the three did, they did a lot of growing up together.

At the heart of Magerarenai Onna is the relationship between these three people. There's nothing like having a friend around to tell your woes to, someone to grapple a pen with when you're about to deface your mother's death poem, someone who would cook you meals and eat with you, someone who'd dance around to Michael Jackson no matter what the situation and someone who'd care enough to give you a slap in the face when you need it the most. There's a reason why songs like Lean On Me and Stand By Me are a classic. So it's no coincidence that the theme for this series Modorenai Ashita by aiko has an opening bar that suspiciously sounds like that Bill Withers song.

This drama's theme of self-affirmation and empowerment rests on the strength of Saki, Riko and Kouki's friendship. It was when all three came together that each one was able to sum up the courage to make a change in their lives for the better. There are a lot of funny and touching sequences in this series but perhaps the most memorable of all is the one wherein Saki realized that part of the import of having friends is to know when to ask for help, that living for yourself doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be on your own and bear things alone.  

Magerarenai Onna is one of those feel-good, guilt-free series that can make you laugh and cry without insulting your intelligence. It's written as a character study and a buddy comedy, all wrapped up in a post quarter-life crisis scenario that's just brimming with old school charm and humor.

This drama has a winsome cast, with the ever reliable Kanno Miho leading the pack as the titular unbending woman. Portraying an expressionless, mechanical shell of a person could have easily alienated an audience, but Kanno Miho made Saki into a character that others can relate to. Her face might as well have been etched in stone but her eyes conveyed a lot of meaning. Saki had a number of tics and pet peeves to let us know that there was more to her than what we're seeing. Meanwhile, Nagusaku Hiromi played bubbly and nosy Riko as the perfect foil to Saki's calm indifference.  She was the one who always stirred the pot, the one with the infectious smile and the mischievous glint in her eyes. Nagusaku Hiromi played the desperate trophy wife to perfection, one who's on the brink of breaking down but always in denial.

Tanihara Shosuke as Kou-chan in this series was simply brilliant, this is just one role that fit him like a white, sequined glove. His turn as the womanizing cop whose advances have no effect on Saki provide much of the comedy and doki doki moments in this series. As the lovestruck, bumbling and sensitive Kouki, Tanihara Shosuke finally got the chance to play to his strengths, displaying his gift for comedy and his potential to play a romantic lead. He never really achieved that balance before, often cast as the token pretty boy (Miseinen, Gokusen 2), the ambivalent boss/man (Mop Girl, Love Shuffle), or the annoying buffoon (Ryokiteki Kanojo), not to mention his endless list of cameos. In Magerarenai Onna, he got to be more than the comic relief and his character in this one was disarmingly sweet and funny.

The weakest link in this series would have to be Battle Royale techie guy alumnus, Tsukamoto Takashi, who was apparently working way out of his league. His character, Masato, had very little screen presence or chemistry with Saki that it was impossible to make believe that they've been together for ten years. He was the odd man out in an exclusive group of three. Maybe it was intended that way, but his supposed history with Saki did not have the expected emotional pull; he was just no match for kind-hearted Kouki. There was absolutely no competition, he was that much of a non-entity. Masato might have been as uncertain and clueless as the others but his character wasn't given enough time to shine. The fact that Tsukamoto Takashi didn't have the draw or foresight to make something out of his character made Masato less of an alternative and more of an appendage, a vestige of Saki's past.

One thing about this series that others might get tired of seeing is that every episode usually has Saki having one of her outbursts as a magerarenai-onna fanfare starts playing. It's when her so-called shutter comes up and she starts spouting off platitudes about  the value of living and how the law should protect the weak-- in a half-screech, staggered manner, sort of like firing short rounds of ammunition. If you've seen dramas like Great Teacher Onidzuka, Hero and Gokusen, then having the main lead preach at you would be nothing new, but the last round of indignant-speech fire in this one turned out to be really long and rattling. Don't worry though, Kimutaku's 21-minute lecture on the structure of government and good governance in the drama Change still holds the record.


  1. A very nice review! I enjoyed reading your analysis of this dorama! It's much as I experienced this one. Magerarenai Onna was a perfect showcase for the magnificent talent of Kanno Miho. One of the finest actors in Japan! I'm convinced that she IS the strong independent woman she portraits so many times!

  2. Thanks! I really enjoyed watching Magerarenai Onna and I hope somehow that more people would see it. I also find Kanno Miho to be a fine actress, she's been very consistent with the projects she's done year after year. :)

  3. i love this drama! miho kanno is great! every episode i was waiting for her to explode and also the "Michael Jackson" moment. haha.. if it wasnt for your review, i might not be able to see this.

  4. Cool. I'm glad that you enjoyed watching this drama and I'm happy to hear that I had some part in getting you to watch it. :) It's really one of those feel-good shows that strikes an emotional chord and at the same time tickles your funny bone. Oh and the Michael Jackson bits were really amusing-- it's also a dead giveaway of the characters' ages.

  5. reminds me of kekkon dekinai otoko. i guess this is the female version of it and the guy with dimples is one of the cast in kekkon as well. although im having trouble of differentiating her from a robot to a human, a human to robot or android. anyways, i really love the characters. plus the doc from love shuffle took a different turn. pardon me, im not good with names. maybe after watching this drama, i think miho kanno is the only name i can remember.

    hows the free movie? davao is 8 hrs away from my hometown and cebu is half day sail away. im so jealous of you.

  6. It is similar to KDO in a sense that both shows feature eccentric lead characters. One of the things I like about this drama, too, is you get to like all three/four characters equally. They all have their good points and you the drama ends without having you hate any one of them.

    Oh and don't worry, I'm rather bad at remembering names as well. As for Tanihara Shosuke, I really like that he stood out in this series. He's the type that pops up in a lot of dramas but seldom does he have a lead role.

    I won't be seeing any of the films till tomorrow and Saturday. Tomorrow is Quezon City day so I have a day off work, perfect timing to catch the movies scheduled. I'm sorry to hear that the filmfest venues are inaccessible to you. At least there's the internet, so the movies are still somehow available to you. :)

  7. until now i still cant type the title of this show. magagaarrae onna.. hahaha...

    i already like the love shuffle doc. i think it was the effect of the drama that i ended loving the characters.

    well, thanks to the internet. i miss the big screen. last movie i saw was transformers. haha.. i miss the old days where me and my homies watch a movie as an excuse of getting drunk later.

    oh by the way, miho kanno and pia hontiveros are not related right?

  8. Yeah, the title is really quite a mouthful... este a "typeful". :)

    Transformers, huh. Probably one of the many drawbacks of being a hikikomori. Well, I hope you do find reason to go out of your dungeon soon or at least get to have your moteki moment.

    Lol. I don't think Kanno Miho and Pia are related.

  9. Great review. I really loved this drama and it's nice to see someone review it thoughtfully.

  10. Thanks! All things considered, Magerarenai Onna turned out to be better than I expected. It is quite good compared to the others that came out that season. :)