It’s been a while since I watched a drama that lived up to its hype, and I’m glad to say this was the case for Saiai, which had generated a lot of buzz throughout its run and ended with pretty decent ratings. It’s always nice to see a drama tell its story properly without too many bells and whistles getting in the way.

Sanada Rio (Yoshitaka Yuriko), the young CEO of a pharmaceutical company, becomes a material witness in a series of murders. As her family lawyer Kase Kenichiro (Iura Arata) tries to protect her, Rio comes face to face with Miyazaki Daiki (Matsushita Kouhei), the detective who is trying to uncover the truth behind the murders, and with whom she shares a past…

Saiai is a story about love, and the lengths people will go to protect that love, perhaps even to the extent of burying the truth. On the surface it is a crime thriller, but at its heart are various entangled relationships one must unravel to realise what lies beneath and what is genuinely most important. It is a little difficult to talk about Saiai without spoilers, so there will be some past this point.

Generally, Saiai played to its strengths. It did not try to make the story complex or confusing, instead focusing on the key themes, and that allowed the storytelling to flow through in a way that captured the audience’s attention. The cliffhangers were done pretty well, pacing was good and It was not difficult to guess who was involved in what. There were some logic flaws (how did dad’s laptop not get checked out during the initial investigation process?) and some things were just too convenient in the overall scheme of things (Rio is almost always never involved). I also expected a certain amount of tension between the leads that did not quite materialise over time. That said, I thought the ending wrapped things up pretty well.

The past has an intense grip on how the characters behave in the present day, and any number of their actions are guided by the knowledge of what happened in Shirakawa-go 15 years ago on that fateful day, hence the numerous “black boxes” in between scene changes. There is always a certain fraught tension in how the characters relate to one another, given what had happened, and how the murders have caused both the past and present to collide in ugly ways. Many are still left counting the cost of what happened, and trying to come to terms with it – the starkest example of that has to be Tachibana Shiori (Tanaka Minami), whose past consumed her despite her best efforts to fight it, and her desperate cries for help that went unheeded then and now, resulting in tragedy.

I enjoyed the portrayal of various relationships. One of the strongest has to be the bond between Rio and her younger stepbrother Yu, which has survived deaths, separation, murder charges and his illness. One might expect them to be awkward when they reunite after being years apart, but they eased right back into where they’d left off and I liked how the strength and depth of their sibling bond was incorporated into the major relationship and story arcs of the drama. Thus it made sense that Daiki, as much as he loved Rio, also wanted to do right by Yu, and why Kase went to the lengths he did to protect both sister and brother even though he was just the Sanada family lawyer.

Daiki and Rio always cared for each other, even back during their time in Shirakawa-go, and I think there was also always that implicit trust between them. There was never any fear that Daiki would give up on Rio, even if he had to do his job as a detective and ferret out the truth. Even though Daiki sacrificed his job to protect Rio, it was because he felt he was doing the right thing and had no regrets. I also love the subtlety of Daiki and Rio’s quiet love. Generally, Japanese dramas are skimpy on outward displays of affection but I thought in this case it was appropriate that Daiki and Rio, while never openly expressive about their feelings for each other, always had that undercurrent of mutual understanding that they could go to each other for love and support. I loved it when they traded fond memories of their shared past together even as the shadow of the murders hung over their heads – those were rare moments when they could be comfortable with each other, smile and laugh like the old times.

Generally I am not a fan of the found family trope, as it can sometimes feel forced, but here, family takes on different shades and meanings, with Kase the most representative of them. As the Sanada family’s lawyer, he’s just expected to be there to get them out of legal trouble and do whatever dirty work there is. Yet, Kase’s own definition of family goes beyond his professional duties, and one can sense he really regards Rio and Yu as his kin. The drama teased the ambiguity of Kase’s role and feelings in a supposed love triangle, but the finale leans more to Kase having taken the place of Rio and Yu’s father in being the guardian and protector of these two, and what he’d given up in order to do so – his initial vow to help Rio because he considered her family now takes on greater significance because of what he’d done 15 years ago, and he has made good on that promise. Daiki and Kase had any number of encounters in the drama, and I liked that while it started off antagonistic, there came about a mutual understanding two-thirds in that both just wanted the best for Rio and Yu. Their best scene, however, was in the finale. I love that Daiki was the one who recognised the enormity of what Kase had done, and that his tears, while of gratitude and understanding, were also of grief for the man who had asked for nothing in return for all that he’d done and must now live the life of a fugitive. Kase’s secret has now become Daiki’s burden to bear, for the people they love whose happiness they must preserve.

Acting was generally solid and I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve always been lukewarm towards Yoshitaka Yuriko, but thought she handled the role well and could root for her Rio. That said, the way things played out in the drama meant that there wasn’t really a danger of Rio turning to the dark side or becoming twisted – Kase was there to keep her on the straight and narrow, and the determination to find a cure for Yu’s illness kept her going. I think I would have liked a couple more obstacles to Rio’s romance with Daiki, just to make her less damsel in distress and add a bit of unpredictability to the story arcs. In that vein, the drama could have built up their fraught tension in their first meeting 15 years later, where Yoshitaka pulled off the goth darkness, but that unfortunately fizzled out soon enough.

Iura Arata was a steady presence throughout, sometimes to the point of being dull, but that was probably Kase’s intention anyway. He was never meant to stand out, but rather hired to tidy things up efficiently and quietly. That said, one doesn’t cast Arata in a key role and not expect him to be involved somehow, so I always knew Kase was not quite who he seemed, and I thought Arata played his role with a fine balance of the duality that was well suppressed beneath Kase’s placid exterior. I hadn’t always been partial to Arata’s roles, but thought he did a very solid job in Unnatural and now Saiai. Takahashi Fumiya, who played Yuu, also showed promise and I liked his portrayal. I thought he was pretty good in the segment where he realised what dad had done for him, and he also seemed comfortable in his scenes with Yoshitaka, which lent credibility to the close sibling bond the characters shared. Mitsuishi Ken was a warm, comforting presence as Rio and Yu’s father Tatsuo, and I thought Tanaka Minami captured the haunted brittleness of Shiori.

The surprise find was Matsushita Kouhei as Daiki. I love his portrayal from start to finish and thoroughly enjoyed watching him on screen. I had only heard of Matsushita when he was cast as Toda Erika’s love interest in the asadora Scarlet, and it seems previously he’d been doing more of supporting roles, but he really stood out in Saiai for his performance as Daiki, whose quiet strength and determination shone through despite his sometimes gruff exterior. His adorable awkwardness around Rio was all the more endearing, as was his restrained longing for her that did me in from the get-go. Daiki was not a particularly expressive character, but Matsushita’s eyes said much more than his lines allowed, and his micro-expressions were done well. After I finished Saiai, I watched a random episode of Scarlet where Matsushita and Toda were adorable together. He’s definitely an actor to look out for and I’ll be interested to watch his progress from now on.

I was pleasantly surprised that part of the drama was set in Shirakawa-go, and I enjoyed the characters lapsing into Hida-ben whenever they could, especially during shared moments together to emphasise their closeness. This was evident in Rio’s scenes with Yu and Daiki, and I was pleased that just because they’d spent time in Tokyo didn’t mean they would lose their roots or the longing for their hometown, even if they hadn’t always visited. It was also fitting that the drama closed with a visit to Tatsuo’s grave in Shirakawa-go, and Rio and Daiki holding hands as they walked off.

I can’t say I was a huge fan of the OST, which is available on Spotify, but some of the instrumentals were pretty nice:


2 thoughts on “Saiai

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