Thanks to the uninspiring summer 2015 drama line-up, I had another opportunity to work on my backlog of dramas. This time, I dived back in time to the early 2000s, when skinship in J-dramas was as natural as breathing, and J-drama writers and actors were still pretty happy to experiment with anything and everything.
A young female university student is killed and the scene arranged to look like a suicide. A series of clues leads Detective Dojima Kanzo (Akashiya Sanma) to suspect Katase Ryo (Kimura Takuya), an enigmatic chef’s assistant working at a high-end restaurant called Reve. The pair have had run-ins, and each time Kanzo is left feeling unsettled as he uncovers more about Ryo, his obsessive girlfriend Yuki (Shibasaki Kou) and Ryo’s complicated entanglements with various women. But what worries Kanzo most is the developing relationship between Ryo and Kanzo’s younger sister, the beautiful Yuko (Fukatsu Eri)…
Sora Kara Furu Ichioku no Hoshi is a 2002 drama that came highly recommended from some quarters. I myself had also been interested in checking it out since it has Fukatsu Eri, whom I like very much because she’s such a versatile actress. The premise was interesting and I liked the hint of danger present in the complex web of relationships. Stuff like this, if done well, can be fascinating. Besides, screenwriter Kitagawa Eriko was known for works that delved deeper into human relations and the emotional psyche (see Long Vacation, Over Time and Beautiful Life) – she’d also worked with Kimura Takuya twice before this, so it was something of a hit-making combo.
The drama reinforces my opinion that Kimura did his best work before the mid-2000s. His Ryo was mysterious, intriguing and at times riveting to watch. You wanted to know why Ryo was this way, and at times, you even wanted him to best Kanzo, because he made the drama fun. His nonchalance, easy smiles that never quite reach his eyes, casual manipulation of women gave the drama the pace it was sorely lacking (and even then it could have used some tightening up of plot and characterisation). In a drama where I could barely connect to any one character, Ryo was one of two reasons I kept watching because I was at least invested in wanting to know about his past and how it shaped him. Ryo also reminds me a little of Yuki from MW, but while Yuki did what he did mostly for sport, Ryo is bogged down by a little pesky need to verify his existence, to fill the emptiness in his heart as a result of being abandoned from young. Ryo’s take on the self-made man is this side of perverse – there was no point waiting for things to drop from the sky, so he would get the results he wanted with the methods he chose. If that involved offing a few clingy women via other women, so be it.
Ryo keeps a little pet bird, which becomes a motif for his inability (or perhaps his refusal?) to open his heart to others. This is most often reiterated by Yuki, his obsessive girlfriend who is happy to receive scraps of affection from Ryo only because he is one of the few people who has been nice to her. The drama couldn’t be more obvious if it tried, having Yuko be the only one able to breach Ryo’s defences, along with the form of Miwa as a rich heiress stuck in her gilded cage/house, but at least it gave Ryo an interesting abode – a sort of utility room on the rooftop of a building, thereby reinforcing how he is seemingly untouched from even the reach of the law. Indeed, even until the end, Kanzo was not able to pin any sort of crime on him – I’m no expert on Japanese law, but it is entirely possible that Ryo’s actions would fall just short of instigation.
Ryo’s run-ins with Kanzo are actually pretty interesting. They are almost always casual, with Ryo sometimes asking questions that unsettle Kanzo, more so because Ryo never seems to get ruffled or worried that Kanzo is onto him. It’s a game where Ryo always has the upper hand and Kanzo knows it, which culminates in the desperate act of stabbing Ryo in order to prevent him from going on a movie date with Yuko. Even in the end, Ryo prevails, although perhaps not of his own design, and Kanzo’s character was such that I did not feel sorry at all for him for how things turned out.
Ryo’s personality naturally brings up many existential questions, such as whether he was born this way or shaped as such by circumstances. This can be neatly summed up via the opening verses of the Chinese San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic):
人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth,
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other)
Kanzo ultimately believes Ryo was born good (ironically, after spending the bulk of the drama calling him the devil incarnate), because he saved Yuko when they were both just children – it was an instinctive act done out of love for and protection of one’s sibling. The incident later wiped out both their memories and it was only natural they grew up with drastically different outlooks on life. But does one kind act erase (or at least somewhat excuse) the litany of manipulative acts Ryo has committed? It is debatable just how manipulative they are given that his victims were pretty willing and stupid – I have lost count of the times I cringed seeing bland and brainless Miwa on screen, and was tired of the Yuki arc because she got stale once Kanzo started messing with her. Sayuri was (too) smart but her mouth was shitty, so I wasn’t surprised she got offed. It also begs the question of whether that kind act is merely an aberration (or only extends to Yuko) and Ryo’s true nature is what he has demonstrated throughout the drama. If Ryo was inherently kind, how was it that the abandonment turned him into someone who decided he would have fun playing god? He does mention it as being a game, but then what had given Ryo the idea that messing around with people is a game? Ryo’s feelings for Yuko spice things up, but overall more could have been done to really flesh out the complexities of human nature – a voiceover isn’t enough to fill in the gaps, and Kimura isn’t skilled enough for a more layered, nuanced performance (though he tried and was mostly successful). He was pretty good at giving Ryo a mysterious, slightly darker vibe that hinted at something more twisted and explosive (that alas never quite came). A couple of scenes where I thought he excelled: the hint of malevolence when Ryo sees Kanzo waiting for him at Reve; and at the old house where Ryo rediscovers his memories. Kimura can play straight-up shady characters, but it’s a pity he’s never really done another drama quite like this since.
The supposed shocking twist wasn’t really shocking. The minute Ryo reveals he also has a burn mark, I knew he and Yuko had to be siblings, and I literally spent the rest of the drama waiting for my guess to be confirmed. I enjoyed the chemistry between Kimura and Fukatsu Eri, who was my other reason for persevering with the drama, and thought they had some crackling scenes. Their interactions grow from prickly and distrustful, with Yuko trying hard to hide her attraction, to intimate and tender – the scene where they sleep together was beautifully done, as was the one where he kneels down and seeks comfort from her. More time should have been dedicated to the shaping of this relationship, but the drama unfortunately dwelled too long on the Miwa and Kanzo trying to ‘save’ Yuki arcs.
It took a while for me to warm up to Yuko, because there’s a touch of high-strung about her that I didn’t quite like – reminds me of her character in Slow Dance – but as usual, Fukatsu managed to make it all work beautifully. Yuko is quick to jump to conclusions and, in a way, that sets her up well for the ultimate downfall. I think the drama tried to play up the fatal attraction thing by having Yuko continue seeing Ryo despite Kanzo’s objections and while Ryo was still in a “relationship” with Miwa, but it came off as weird that Yuko carried on with her friend’s ‘boyfriend’ just like that after Miwa died. She had her suspicions about their relationship, but Miwa and their friendship seemed like an afterthought once Yuko found out Ryo has a burn mark as well. In fact, it’s almost illogical how Yuko says she totally has Ryo’s back despite the allegations against him, then shoots him without even bothering to verify that he got close to her just to get back at Kanzo. I totally get that the writer wanted to end the drama with a bang and Yuko is protective of those she loves, but shooting someone is serious, so at least build it up in a logical manner. Kanzo wasn’t hurt, Yuko never struck me as the vengeful sort like Yuki, so for her to shoot Ryo and take his words at face value (after declaring she’d totally trust him) is truly baffling.
I have to admit as well that I did not like this “true love redeems Ryo” thing at the end, because I don’t think he was redeemed at all. It’s questionable whether what he feels for Yuko is love, and his trying to hide their sibling relationship from her was stupid rather than noble. Perhaps his self-sacrificial act was expected as it had echoes of the past, but when you make stupid choices, you end up with stupid consequences. It did surprise me a little that Yuko shot Ryo, and while what followed was rather cliché, fortunately Fukatsu rescued it with a powerful performance.
I don’t recall seeing Akashiya Sanma in anything prior to this, although he is a very popular talk show host in Japan. I think he was fine as Kanzo, but the character itself was not particularly sympathetic (other than his fondness for udon) and I had little interest in his mission to first pry information from Yuki and then later counsel her into reforming herself. I did like Kanzo and Yuko’s interactions, and it was believable she would be upset at the thought of someone trying to hurt her brother – but definitely not to the point of shooting said offender. Shibasaki Kou had an interesting turn as Yuki, who was not as obsessive as I’d like, but she was good when she was being creepy about Ryo. Rich people problems – aka Miwa and her obnoxious suitor – were one-note and although Miwa showed initial promise by exposing Ryo’s little game to fleece money out of her, she then fucks it up by being incredibly stupid and lovelorn (who the heck runs away from home, checks into a hotel and pays using a credit card that can be tracked??). When you’re given a brain, please use it.
Overall, I’d still recommend the drama, if only for a different Kimura and his chemistry with Fukatsu, which was fantastic. It does attempt to ask questions of nature vs nurture, and for what it was worth, I did like Ryo when he was being enigmatic. The cast was solid and acting was generally above-par, except for the actress who played Miwa. I also really liked one of the instrumentals, a piece called Revolver, which I felt suited the mood of the drama more than the theme song Smile by Elvis Costello. And there was skinship and people being naked. Good-looking people having sexy times is always a plus.