Recently finished Alice no Toge, Ueno Juri’s first drama after a three-year break from TV-land (her last being the 2011 taiga Gou). I generally enjoy revenge medical thrillers and this was a pretty good one to sink my teeth into. Hong Kong and Japan are fairly reliable in their procedurals (though I think Hong Kong has the edge), and at 10 episodes, Alice no Toge certainly burst off the blocks with a dramatic bang. Once it settled down, however, it had good pace and I found myself wanting to watch the next episode. Besides, it was refreshing to watch Ueno shed her iconic Nodame image to take on a very different role to showcase her versatility.
Mizuno Asumi (Ueno Juri) is a doctor at Seirin University Hospital, where her father was also a doctor fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, dad died because of medical malpractice that was covered up, and Asumi is determined to bring the matter to light to avenge her father. Initially, Asumi goes at it alone but gains an ally in the journalist Nishikado Yusuke (Odagiri Joe), who turns out to be her childhood friend. Together, they set out to unearth the mastermind(s) behind the cover-up and get more than they bargained for…
Ueno Juri is a very likeable actress on screen and most people know her as the adorable Nodame. However, Asumi is a very different character both in terms of personality and vibe, and I thought Ueno did pretty well in her portrayal. Asumi is bent on revenge and will let nothing stop her. She has spent the last fifteen years plotting how to get close enough to her targets to unearth the truth behind her father’s death, and there’s a dark determination about her that I could totally get behind. When Asumi gets to her first target, the nurse Ebisu, the way she stares down the horrified man from the top of the building as he’s left hanging in mid-air is pretty chilling. When you juxtapose those dead-fish eyes of Asumi’s to the bright, smiley ones of Nodame, the change is startling. Ueno’s natural voice is lower and that adds to her cool personality – she comes across as the odd one out in the hospital and difficult of approach, and although she smiles and does the necessary interactions with colleagues and patients, the walls around her are obvious and her guard is always up.
Asumi doesn’t really relax even around her adopted father, who is always at pains to make her smile with his food experiments. She has to be forced into making friends with the over-enthusiastic nurse Hoshino Miwa (Kuriyama Chiaki), and even her friendship with the shy intern Bandai Yuma (Nakamura Aoi) is also because he is the son of one of her targets. Asumi walks a lonely path and it’s shown in both her piecemeal interactions with others and her dwelling – she lives in a sparsely-decorated apartment and the only room of note in there is her study, where there are files and more files of detailed information on her targets. There’s only one goal – as she told Ebisu, she’s not a champion of justice. She just wants the truth.
Which is why I really enjoyed Asumi’s scenes with Nishikado – her growing trust in him and his joining her fight were very nicely done. They share a history that’s bittersweet – they were friends when younger as Nishikado’s sister Yui was a patient of Asumi’s father, but after her father’s death, Nishikado was misled into believing her dad had done bad stuff and had written an article “exposing his crimes”, for which Asumi bears a grudge until Nishikado puts things right in a quite spectacular way. I haven’t seen much of Odagiri Joe, but I did like him in this role – Nishikado is the gentler, more level-headed foil to the cold, hard-nosed Asumi, and I thought Ueno and Odagiri had very good chemistry. I have to confess, though, that in their first scene together, I had wondered how awesome it would have been if Tamaki Hiroshi had taken Odagiri’s role instead. I think he would have been able to pull off a gentler character like this, albeit with a different vibe. Besides, it’d have been a great opportunity for both Tamaki and Ueno to prove they can still share the same screen without audiences constantly thinking of them as Chiaki and Nodame (although that in itself is not a bad thing). Still, Odagiri did well as Nishikado and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from his performance. Those slow smiles, the sideway glances at Asumi, when he talks to her, when they’re planning and plotting, his investigations and journalistic bent… even though this is centred on Asumi’s revenge, Nishikado definitely made his presence felt. It doesn’t hurt that Odagiri looked pretty yummy in a suit.
Alice no Toge had a very dramatic start, as Asumi nailed three targets in three episodes. It seemed almost too good to be true, and it didn’t help that characters were saying stupid things like “You’re not a doctor unless you’ve killed three patients” and “you must never admit to any fault”. I’m pretty sure such doctors would never have been allowed to practise medicine at all. Then again, the closing of ranks within the profession does happen, so it’s not inconceivable the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, whether in hospitals, courtrooms or shiny offices.
Asumi does start running into problems with the third target when, despite Nishikado’s warnings, she goes at it alone in her own unorthodox way and stumbles, but Nishikado wraps it up beautifully for her, and this was when the drama started to grip me. Initially, he looked as though he was siding with the bad guy, the lawyer Hyuga who had helped cover up the medical malpractice, and that drew Asumi’s wrath on him. But it turns out that Nishikado got close to Hyuga to get the dirt on him and exposes the lawyer’s shady side with an article that hits the streets on the day Hyuga is supposed to declare his candidacy in the gubernatorial elections. Hyuga is crushed and Asumi finally realises that Nishikado would be more help than hindrance if they joined forces. In a lovely, quiet scene towards the end of the episode, she asks him why he acted on his own and Nishikado says he wants to atone for what he did fifteen years back (which he says was a betrayal of Asumi’s father). Asumi is clearly moved and thanks Nishikado, who is surprised, then smiles shyly. I love how it all ties in, and Nishikado being a reporter and using his journalistic smarts to outwit the crafty lawyer tickled me to no end.
The use of Alice in Wonderland as a backdrop and tool for Asumi’s revenge is interesting, if a little odd. In the drama, Asumi’s father kept repeating the mantra that “tomorrow will be a better day” and hoped his daughter would take in the lessons from the story. I’m not sure anything about tomorrow being a better day did appear in Wonderland, and I had to look up some interpretations of the story. I suppose the two themes that would be appropriate in this case would be the loss of childhood innocence and death as a constant menace. In the first, Alice feels frustrated and discomfort when she has to go through various absurd physical changes (akin to changes in puberty), while Asumi loses her father in a tragic incident, which effectively ruins her childhood As for the second, Alice experiences the threat of death when, for example, the Queen wants to lop off her head; Asumi herself is always at risk of retaliation from her targets, and death also features quite prominently in the latter half of the drama. Asumi also uses various cards of illustrations in Alice in Wonderland as a warning to her targets, thus giving the Wonderland figures a more sinister connotation. I also quite liked the plot twists in the later episodes, with the theme of family love taken to extremes in this drama.
The bad guys are fairly one-dimensional, but in 10 episodes, it’s probably difficult to give them any complex characterisation. I did appreciate that the drama bothered to give at least one of the targets a decent backstory that tied in with Asumi’s dad, and that this medical error was not committed by a string of professionals who didn’t give a damn about medical ethics or who died on the surgical table. I did like Fujiwara Norika’s turn as the ambitious Date Risa – the lady is still stunning even though she’s in her forties and I’d have liked to see more of her. Yuma was a one-note character and while I understand he’s the earnest, naive sort meant to be a sharp contrast to his more scheming father, the actor, Nakamura Aoi, wasn’t really able to lift Yuma above average. In the end, even though it took a death to make Asumi wake up a little and realise that her revenge does have collateral damage, I’m glad that she had Nishikado and Miwa to help her. Miwa did veer off track a little with her one-sided interest in Yuma, but Kuriyama Chiaki’s effervescent portrayal made it difficult to dislike Miwa even when she misunderstood Asumi. When Miwa did come round, she willingly helped Asumi and I’d like to think that once Asumi’s revenge is done and dusted, she might actually be drawn out of her shell more with Miwa and Nishikado’s help.
It’s a pity that the drama kept the subtle attraction between Nishikado and Asumi very subtle… as to be almost negligible. It’s fairly obvious that Nishikado likes Asumi but doesn’t dare to act on it due to (or in spite of) the history they share, and I think towards the end Asumi also realises she kind of feels something for him (in addition to her possible childhood crush on him). I wasn’t expecting a bloomin’ romance, but a hint that something might develop would have been nice. I certainly looked forward to their scenes and liked how they are complementary in the ways that matter. For example, Nishikado is always on hand to check Asumi if she is unnecessarily putting herself in danger, and by the end, Nishikado knows that she would be the one to pull him back if he veers off track. He usually acts as her voice of reason and even though she sometimes disregards his advice, he’s always willing to help her. I thought the character development for these two was nicely done and wouldn’t have minded an extra episode of them.
Part of the fun of watching dramas is discovering which pairings work and what sort of sparks and chemistry actors can generate. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to watch two good-looking people heat up the screen, whether they’re hunting down errant doctors or just sharing the same airspace. Asumi is generally cool to people around her, so it was a pleasure to watch how she gradually warms up to Nishikado, and he has such an unassuming, laid-back air about him that I totally dig. It doesn’t mean he isn’t serious about his work, it’s just that it’s nice to get male characters who aren’t on an alpha male streak and out to be as in your face as they can be. One day, I hope Tamaki and Ueno can reunite onscreen, but for now, I’m good with watching her and Odagiri sleuth their way to medical justice, friendship and possibly romance (Alice no Toge special, maybe? Heh).