Sunday, May 22, 2016

Koi (2013)

This TBS drama special based on Koike Mariko's award-winning novel has two things going for it. First, it has the notoriety of a bestseller that has for its subject, a crime of passion, and second, it has a strong and recognizable cast of actors able to render this tawdry affair into an unforgettable piece of melodrama in spite of being a crime-exploitation. As a period piece, the special leverages a soundtrack designed to capture a decade marked by political conflict and changing social attitudes. In terms of motif, Koi highlights the reckless, sordid and ugly facets of that "one great love" which defies all reason and the early stirrings of misguided feminism.

This is a love story stripped of any conventional romance, and even though it manages to put across its heartfelt sentiment depicting strong emotional ties, it does not appear to operate within the boundaries of a prescribed thesis to support or justify its characters' choices. The special is full of characters that are hopelessly consumed by an amorous intensity that is rarely reciprocated.

Koi recounts one dying woman's summer of love and unexpected devotion to a couple whose relationship she saw fit to protect at any cost. Set in the early 1970s, the material has radical views pertaining to women, sexuality and marital relations, at times arguably championing a love that is fiery, relentless, and defiant---and by all accounts doomed. There are radical ideologies at play in this and an indication of an open relationship carried out behind closed doors, or in this case, offscreen.

Novelist Koike Mariko provides a heavy-handed dig on different kinds of love and its many complications, but for all its histrionic declarations and liberal mustering, refuses to offer a solid message or a word of caution regarding its premise. Is it simply because the heart wants what it wants? Or that love comes with its own set of shackles? Is one type of love greater than the other? If so, then the show has difficulty navigating this self-constructed, murky terrain, and in the end, the material in itself appears unconvinced of the worthiness of personal sacrifice in defense of such credo and the murder committed in its wake.   

A middle-aged ex-con, named Yano Fumiko (Harada Mieko), is tracked down by a non-fiction writer (Watabe Atsuro) interested in learning what drove her to murder a man in the idyllic resort town of Karuizawa in 1972. Choosing to unburden herself to a sympathetic stranger, Fumiko shares memories of her youth, recalling a time when student protests broke out in the streets, cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and how meeting a university professor and his wife for a part-time job would challenge and eventually alter her perception of love and marriage. As a young woman (Ishihara Satomi), she admits finding herself instantly enamored with the dashing Katase Shintaro (Iura Arata), who was about to embark upon translating an erotic novel, and equally in awe of the latter's liberal, free-spirited half, Hinako (Tanaka Rena), who shrugged off social convention. In her mind, the spouses make the perfect couple; she reminisces of happy, carefree days spent together at a time when they took a shine to her.

From hereon out, the drama special tiptoes around the actual formation of this ménage à trois as Fumiko transitions from an outsider to playing the part of friend, little sister and lover to the Spouses Katase. Scenes are cut to favor the depiction of young, unrequited love even though it is quite clear that the relationships between the characters are far more complicated than presented. This can perhaps be attributed to the limitations of the medium in which the story is told but there are enough clues within the show to insinuate that Fumiko's feelings extended to both Shintaro and Hinako. There are subtle reminders utilized to communicate this to viewers such as shots showing an impressionable student smack dab in the middle of a handsome, urbane couple, a seemingly chaste kiss goodbye, teary-eyed assurances and an appeal, entreating each other not to disrupt the existing unit.    

All the above elements make for a compelling if not scandalous piece of television, if it were not for the need to downplay the sexual relations and controversial views of its characters on love. There's little to no dialogue about how and why Fumiko regarded the Katases with such reverence, adjudging the relationship as inviolable and whatever alternative to it as dirty and unacceptable. Without the necessary dialogue or disclosure on the philosophy behind the foregoing relationships, the driving force behind the commission of the crime becomes ambiguous and the choice to leave or stay in the present state of affairs nugatory. It remains unclear whether or not the work adopts a liberal stance on marriage, celebrating the concept of agency with an underdeveloped feminist agenda as subtext.

Despite its theoretical shortcomings, Koi works because the actors in it sell the drama. In retro outfits, Tanaka Rena and Arata make a stunning, cosmopolitan couple believably worthy of envy and desire, while Ishihara Satomi channels both innocence and quiet rage, playing a young woman desperate to salvage a relationship. In conclusion, a working familiarity with the novel on which the show is based provides added complexity, whereas the intentional repression of any socio-political views render this drama special open to a number of interpretations. The viewer gets to pick which version they prefer.  

For those interested to gain more insight on the relationship between the characters and the perceived significance of the period and place in which the story is set, see Mina Qiao's analysis of the source novel entitled, Sexuality and Space: Tokyo and Karuizawa in Mariko Koike’s Koi. You can also download the pdf copy of the article sponsored by the Japan Foundation here



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