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September 29, 2008

JDrama Review – Code Blue (2008)

by Master Pillow

Code Blue is an average medical drama whose claim to fame is its trio of young stars Yamashita Tomohisa, Aragaki Yui and Toda Erika. While certainly photogenic they fail to impress since the narrative spends an inordinate amount of time on patients and medical procedure and makes the mistake of saddling the leads with pedestrian character arcs that are not even fully explored. In fact, the real stars of the show are the veteran cast headed by Yanagiba Toshiro who plays their mentor Kuroda Shuji and the actress Ryo as the veteran, though internally conflicted doctor Mitsui Kanna.

Code Blue has a simple enough setup featuring four young interns who join a hospital under the flight-doctor training program run by a strict veteran surgeon who initially despises his new charges. The drama chronicles the four as they attempt to adapt to the grueling pace and on the field training that comes with riding the helicopter as well as learning to come to terms with the very essence of life and death.

Once again current “it” actor Yamashita Tomohisa saunters on screen in total icy cool mode playing his initially arrogant character, Aizawa Kosaku, with less humanity than a walking lamp post. It’s gotten to the point that I’m having difficulty in writing the same descriptions over and over again but in all seriousness this trend in having introverted heroes who never emote but look uber cool in every shot has got to stop. Not only is it a ridiculous cliché but it also acts as a cover in which the actor in question can hide behind in order to mask the fact that they aren’t really performing but rather striking poses as if they were on a magazine shoot. I have no doubt that there are people like this in real life but having a mechanical doctor who rarely shows heart is someone no one would desire to meet in a real hospital.

It doesn’t help that Aizawa is a real cocky runt who bluntly lets his intentions be known to everyone that he only cares about doing as many operations as he can in order to increase his skill. Just watch as he only basically shows emotion when presented with tough operations although this usually amounts to Tomohisa excessively rubbing his fingers together to show his desire. To be fair Yamashita Tomohisa’s character gains some semblance of humanity as the show enters its final act but by then the audience is going to feel less than sympathetic or even downright indifference to his plight as the character is much too distant and inherently unlikeable. Fans of his might still swoon at his handsomeness but looks can only get you so far before it’s time to prove you have control of a full range of emotions.

Yamashita Tomohisa has been frequently compared to a young Kimura Takuya and there’s still plenty of time to prove that this is warranted but at this stage there’s no appreciable way anyone can expect Tomohisa to lurch into a totally convincing and heart-full emotional monologue like the one Kimura performs as the Japanese Prime Minister at the end of the drama Change which is filmed in a gigantic single take and lasts for over 15 minutes. Yamashita Tomohisa has got to talk to his agent to find new roles because this insistence of acting aloof and taciturn is plain off-putting as he’s basically playing the same person in every show he’s been in for the past couple of years and is certainly not challenging himself as an actor.

Unlike Tomohisa, Aragaki Yui certainly has more to do here but unfortunately for her the screenwriter Hayashi Hiroshi has made her character Shiraishi Megumi into an excessively demure goodie two shoes girl who speaks in a low monotone and constantly defers to anyone around her. This is plainly ridiculous as she’s so lacking in self-confidence that the viewers will never believe that she made it so far to be a doctor. Say what you will about the profession but having a doctor with no drive and trust in their abilities is a recipe for disaster. In this sense at least Tomohisa’s arrogant cocksure attitude is more assuring in that he trusts his ultimate skill rather than having someone who has next to no leadership abilities.

This sets up a woefully undercooked pairing between our leads where Yamashita Tomohisa says next to no dialogue while looking dapper in every shot and Aragaki Yui bowing her head or staring blankly almost as if she wants to fade into the background. Thankfully romance doesn’t pop up although at this rate it would have next to no spark anyways as the two rarely engage in any meaningful exchanges.

Toda Erika’s character Hiyama Mihoko is set up to be a more extroverted version of Aizawa in that she too makes it known that she is gunning to be number one and indeed wants more experience in the operating room. However, she occasionally wilts and gets flustered and thus never comes close to achieving her boasts and actually gets shunted aside as the series progresses becoming nothing more than window dressing.

As befitting any drama there’s also a character that provides comic relief this time in the form of a bumbling intern named Fujikawa Kazuo (Asari Yosuke) who goes around making a general ass of himself by talking behind peoples’ backs or believing in black magic. Moments of levity are needed in any medical show but this is not light hearted wit but plainly obnoxious attempts at generating laughs. Having young female patients tell him he’s ugly is not funny nor are the moments when he shows general incompetence in his abilities as a doctor. In short, there’s no appreciable way that anyone can be convinced that he made it past medical school making his character a total farce.

Maybe I am reading too much into the show but the series seems to perpetuate a rather disconcerting dichotomy between genders in that the male characters are simply overpowering with their skill and resolute confidence in their abilities while all the women falter or have emotional issues that hinder their performance. I can understand that Yamashita Tomohisa is the lead here but the show overcompensates in trying to show his skill by devaluing everyone else. This is not a very effective method as it just sets up situations where all the interns panic and always turn to Aizawa to save the day. The only instances when this doesn’t pop up are when their mentor Kuroda sensei is on the scene whereby they all differ to his judgment.

Like I mentioned earlier the focus of the show are on the group of interns headed by Yamashita Tomohisa yet the real meaty emotions of the series come from the mature cast who basically dominate and overpower their younger counterparts. Yanagiba Toshiro turns in a bravura performance as their mentor Kuroda Shuji who has charisma in spades. Whenever he walks into an operating room and begins to command people around there’s a real palpable sense that he’s a born leader who knows exactly what to do and how to get the job done. Just contrast the pure forcefulness of his voice to Yamashita Tomohisa and you’ll quickly understand the difference in performance level.

Although Kuroda’s story eventually lapses into melodrama his performance adapts admirably to his newfound emotional discord and it’s a wonder to watch him struggle as the show reaches the climax. In particular watch his scene when he’s tasked to do nothing but talk to his son who is undergoing complex brain surgery and take note of Yanagiba Toshiro’s performance considering all you can see is his eyes as his face is hidden behind a surgeon’s mask — the intensity and his glare and his use of his voice is simply captivating.

It is much more entertaining to watch the veterans on the show as their characters are the ones who have gone through many more battles and have the scars to show it. When it’s time to let out their bottled-up feelings the impact has much more resonance and it doesn’t hurt that the actors involved have much better control over their performing abilities. The Japanese actress Ryo’s character Mitsui Kanna is an example of this as well. Initially, it seems like Mitsui’s narrative arc is totally generic as she is accused of making the wrong decision which led to the death of a patient and her pregnant child. Although a subplot about a doctor being sued is not exactly original, Ryo handles this role with aplomb giving her character just the right mix of mental instability that eventually boils over into an outpouring of emotions.

Code Blue is certainly setup like any other medical show with each episode featuring new patients who have all sorts of life-threatening illnesses but when compared to other Japanese dramas with similar subject matter or even to American shows of its ilk Code Blue is clearly lacking. The show doesn’t have intricate personal relationships like in Grey’s Anatomy but it also doesn’t have strong dominating leads that are a wonder to watch. Our interns, Aizawa, Shiraishi, Hiyama and Fujikawa are given next to no past history with only little snippets of information that rarely are touched upon. The audience constantly hears that Shiraishi feels as if she’s been somehow pressured to become a doctor but we only see hints of her frustration. Aizawa fares somewhat better since there’s a subplot involving his grandmother and dementia but both Hiyama and Fujikawa are completely ignored.

Surprisingly the patients themselves are just as bland being defined solely by their illnesses rather than being fully developed characters. As such the audience will find it hard to empathize past the point of watching someone suffer enormous pain as they know next to nothing about them. Adding to the misery is the fact that the actual operations rarely have a pulse of their own as seemingly complex surgeries are over in a few minutes with next to no palpable tension created as the most the viewer is shown is a fluctuating heart beat on the monitor. Even though we’ve seen a thousand medical shows Code Blue is still incredibly sterile and clinical with minute glimpses into the actual diagnosis and treatment for each case.

The show never truly presents a compelling case that these four interns are comrades in arms or indeed friends as whenever they are all present the dialogue centers almost entirely on either hospital gossip or recaps on their various patients so when it comes time for one to console or give pep talks to another member it rings hollow. In a surprisingly turn of events our lead Aizawa basically exposes his soul more to a nurse Saejima Haruka (Higa Manami) then to any of his fellow interns.

As medical dramas go Code Blue can still be entertaining but that stems from the solid supporting cast and strong production values rather than the up and coming young actors and actresses. It’s thankful as well that the show basically jettisons the episodic format for a serialized final few episodes that really bring the show to life but also reminds us of the squandered potential of the first two acts. With a few too many filler episodes and less than engaging characters the show will only appeal to those who truly love anything that relates to the medical profession. Fans of Yamashita Tomohisa, Aragaki Yui or Toda Erika might be pleased in seeing their idols but I doubt their attention will remain stalwart enough to even finish watching the entire show.

** out of ****

2008, Japan, 11 Episodes, Approx 540 Minutes, Fuji TV
Directors: Nishiura Masaki, Hayama Hiroki
Screenwriter: Hayashi Hiroshi
Producer: Masumoto Jun
Music: Sato Naoki

Aizawa Kosaku : Yamashita Tomohisa
Shiraishi Megumi: Aragaki Yui
Hiyama Mihoko: Toda Erika
Fujikawa Kazuo: Asari Yosuke
Saejima Haruka: Higa Manami
Kuroda Shuji: Yanagiba Toshiro
Tadokoro Yoshiaki: Kodama Kiyoshi
Morimoto Tadashi: Katsumura Masanobu
Mitsui Kanna: Ryo
Saijo Susumu: Sugimoto Tetta
Kaji Toshi: Terajima Susumu
Todoroki Seiko: Yuui Ryoko
Anzai Yasuyuki: Hiwatashi Shinji
Ohara Sumiko: Ikeda Kimiko
Murata Kaori: Kaneda Mika

© 2008 The Galactic Pillow

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