There are two sides to a coin. And there is always another perspective to every story we come across. Sometimes, we are so caught up in what we think is the correct version of the “truth” that we neglect to consider what the other party is thinking, or whether there is new information that sheds light on something and makes one reconsider what we think we already know. The good Japanese workplace dramas do that, without judgment as far as possible.
Shiranakute Ii Koto was not a drama I’d set out wanting to watch, but all things considered, I’m glad I did. The premise, which is about Makabe Kate (Yoshitaka Yuriko) realising that her real father may be the Hollywood actor Keanu Reeves, is a bit of a red herring as Reeves is rarely mentioned after the first episode. It does spur Kate to find out the identity of her real father – mass murderer Notoa Toru (Kobayashi Kaoru), now released from prison after a 30-year stint – but I actually consider this to be the subplot as the drama focuses on much more beyond that.
I had very little interest in the father search and the drama did not make it a central focus, though it was the “story of the week” for the last couple of episodes. What really reeled me in was the magazine setting of the drama. Kate works for a weekly publication called East, which is famous for its exposés of politician scandals, affairs, scams and the like. East pursues stories because of its never-ending interest in humans and what they are capable of, and if that means unsavoury incidents, so be it. East is much vilified for this, but makes no apology for its hard-hitting and no-holes-barred journalism style that is reminiscent of the tabloids in Hong Kong and the UK. That said, East prides itself on its determination to tell the truth without taking sides and the need for vigilante justice, which it says sets it apart from others. In that sense, Kate is very much representative of East – she is a go-getter and her aggressive, in-your-face interview tactics are not always welcome, but she produces results and is well respected among her colleagues. Kate is not an easy character to like, but a woman who loves her job and is great at it is so rare in J-dramas that she probably ought to be applauded for simply existing.
Having worked in a similar media environment, I loved the portrayal of the East newsroom and the whole cutthroat, adrenaline-high vibe. The newsroom is a hive of activity, a microcosm of a city that never sleeps. I loved the teamwork and camaraderie of the newsroom – in a place where you see and spend more time with your colleagues than your family, the close-knit atmosphere is heartwarming and comforting. The deadlines, the rush for a breaking story, haggling with newsmakers, stories getting pulled, going over proofs and checking copy, making changes to headlines, photo captions, layout and the like… all these brought back wonderful memories and I could relate to each and every one of these moments. I laughed with delight when the chief editor Iwatani Susumu (Sasaki Kuranosuke) kept asking his subordinate for a better, snappier headline – a bad headline can’t capture readers’ attention, and how to come up with a great one that encapsulates the essence of the story requires years of experience. These days, the need to put a thousand and one facts into the headline means brevity in headlines is a rare skill only possessed by the most savvy and experienced of editors. Iwatani is such an editor, with the boldness, shrewdness, precision and foresight necessary to steer a publication like East. He pushes people’s buttons like no other, and knows how to get the best out of his staff. Iwatani is my favourite character of the entire drama, and Sasaki Kuranosuke was brilliant – he was so charismatic and portrayed the character with such ease and flair that it was easy to understand why his entire team would be so devoted to him and trust his judgment and guidance in all things work and personal.
The various relationships are well played. Key among them is the romance between Kate and her ex-boyfriend Odaka Yuichiro (Emoto Tasuku), and the jealousy her other ex Nonaka Haruki (Shigeoka Daiki) feels upon seeing them together. Kate and Odaka worked together before he quit news photography and turned to wildlife photography, and he often pops by the newsroom and is still doing the occasional job for East. There is a special connection between Kate and Odaka that goes beyond their former relationship as lovers and colleagues – it is something that still ties them together, more so when Kate realises she was a fool for having given Odaka up over something trival, as he is now married with a child. It doesn’t help that Odaka is constantly looking out for Kate and going above and beyond for her (such as when he gets stabbed while trying to save her from a raving madwoman). While one could see the affair coming, it was how it was portrayed and developed that makes it perhaps worthy of understanding, if not sympathy. There is a lot of “inbreeding” in the media, legal and medical professions because of the long hours people spend working together, and I did not have problems with the affair because it is very typical of what happens when two people who have worked so closely for so long never made a clean break even though they thought they did. It is ironic though that Kate found herself tangled in an affair, for her mother was involved in one too, and East specialises in exposing adultery issues, among other scandals. That said, the development of Kate and Odaka was fairly low-key and did not seem to be romanticising adultery, even if it did make a compelling case for (or against) emotional (in)fidelity. If anything, one could probably call it collateral damage, especially given the ending where Odaka acknowledges their timing is always off and he and Kate presumably never cross paths again.
There are a number of father figures portrayed in the drama. Kate clearly regards Iwatani as the father she never had, for she goes to him for advice and guidance, and respects him both at work and out of it. Odaka too is father to a baby boy, and ironically is perhaps best placed to understand Notoa Toru as few had ever tried. Notoa himself never really speaks more than necessary, yet his presence looms large in Kate’s life and to some extent Odaka’s, given how interconnected they all are. There was much said about how Notoa chose to protect his family (or families, since Kate is the product of an affair), and how Odaka could empathise with that. Was it something that perhaps only a father could understand, or was it just human decency to want to shield those you love from greater harm? That of course does not explain the hurt that an affair brings, but I feel the drama wasted an opportunity by giving Notoa that out, that perhaps the whole thing was much ado about nothing if only someone had been honest 30 years ago.
The ending, which got some people in a tizzy (if they hadn’t already dropped the drama after the leads got into an affair), merely shows that in life, things rarely work out the way we want them to. Nonaka, after being such a snivelling low-life for the bulk of the drama, goes on to become a best-selling author. It is as Kate said, you are allowed one big mistake in your life, and his big mistake was being so hung up on Kate that he would try to ruin her life. It goes against the grain (in dramas, that is) that bad people always get their comeuppance, but it is true of life where bad people can still get away with stuff and even move on to better things. That said, Kate is not terribly worse off herself – by the end, she has become a copy editor in her own right, is guiding her juniors, and has seemingly made peace with Odaka not being in her life. I found it pretty realistic and not something to get your knickers in a twist about.
Acting was fine on most counts. Yoshitaka Yuriko was mostly serviceable, though there seemed an unnaturalness about her acting that lingered even after she settled into the character. She lacked a certain finesse and subtlety in her acting that would give Kate more layers, especially when compared to Emoto Tasuku. That said, they had decent chemistry, minus the times when they kept smushing faces (for heaven’s sake, kiss properly and slowly). It was nice to see Emoto in a mellower role, and I really liked his Odaka, even if I wasn’t sure his last-minute decision to get a divorce was him being right in the head. Odaka was mostly the voice of reason and there was a nice checks and balances thing going on with Kate that made their dynamic interesting, and Emoto brought out that steady, dependable side of Odaka well. Sasaki Kuranosuke was just fantastic throughout, complete with a funky hairstyle at the end. He is totally the kind of chief editor I’d be privileged to work for. I’d not seen Shigeoka Daiki before, but found him and his character annoying, so I guess he did his job. Kobayashi Kaoru did not have much to do as Notoa since he was mostly silent and sometimes rather forbidding and begrudging, but I did like the few scenes he had with Odaka.
Overall, I think this would be better viewed as a workplace drama, instead of the workplace being a subplot to a mystery or romance. In this case, the identity of Kate’s father was not really that much of a mystery, and the romance was part and parcel of workplace relationships. I do appreciate that the drama showed us another side of journalists and the media industry for it would be easier to understand, at least, characters like Kate who live for their work and approach things differently. They thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with getting scoops, getting under the skin of newsmakers and bringing stories and perspectives to life. The characters aren’t asking for sympathy – they are just there as they are, with all the resultant consequences that come from their actions. There are some things for which we are perhaps better off not knowing, but perspectives are what we make of it, for better or for worse.