JDrama Review – Innocent Love (2008)
Watching Innocent Love I can’t help but recall that hoary old Hollywood cliché that child actors have it tough when they attempt to transition to more mature subject matter. I’m sure you could start a list of famous kids who earned much praise and kudos for their earlier work only to find their careers careening into the abyss as they start to age. For every Ron Howard, Leonardo Dicaprio, Jodie Foster, Elizabeth Taylor or Drew Berrymore there’s a Macaulay Culkin, Edward Furlong, Gary Coleman or Dana Plato. I could go on for hours but you get the point.
Now here’s Horikita Maki one of Japan’s youngest rising talents attempting a much more traditional and mature role but somewhere along the way something has gotten lost in the translation and instead of delivering an earnest and tortured portrayal of a mentally scarred girl with a horrific past she instead slides into the usual Japanese maternal archetype and overplays her hand by forcing a performance keyed almost entirely around demure glances, wayward defeatist body movement and over-exaggerated grins.
This is surprising as she’s certainly nailed other personas before that run the gamut of emotional range from a downright introverted social outcast in Nobuta Wo Produce, to the ebulliently perky girl who enters a boy’s school to meet the guy of her dreams in Hanazakari No Kimitachi E and even to an angst ridden young woman suffering dual personalities of both gender in Tokyo Boy. Her resume is certainly impressive for a young talent so watching her shuffle meekly around the scenery in Innocent Love is actually off-putting.
As Jdramas go Innocent Love falls firmly into the five hankie-tear jerker category with a setup chock full of genre melodrama consisting of multiple love triangles, a fiancée in a coma, an older brother accused of parricide, a closet homosexual yearning for love, an evil nun/church helper, a bleeding heart newspaper journalist, disdainful employees and most of all, child molestation. It’s as if screenwriter Asano Taeko has made the conscious decision to pile all these elements together to get audiences to weep uncontrollably as these characters trudge their way through multiple hardships.
Right from the get go the viewer is made abundantly clear that this is going to be one rocky romance. Horikita Maki is Akiyama Kanon, a young woman who lives in constant fear and dread all stemming from the rather ungainly and socially repugnant fact that her brother Akiyama Yoji (Fukushi Seiji) has been tried and sentenced to jail for the murder of both their parents six years ago. Kanon has spent her life as a kind of social outcast and no matter what she does cannot escape her family’s tortured past.
Everyone in her home town knows who she is and her brother’s parricide and shuns her as a pariah thinking that she’s inexorably linked with a murderer. Try as she might even with her cheery outlook and appearance she can’t hold down jobs for long as her employers terminate her contract as soon as they know her sordid history. Making matters worse, the town’s citizen’s routinely throw insults by placing signs and placards on her property telling her that she is not welcome.
Frustrated that no matter what she does her past will always haunt her she decides to head off to the big city (Yokohama) to hopefully start a new life amongst people who are oblivious to her quandary. There she lands a job as a simple maid and meets Nagasaki Junya (Kitagawa Yujin), a kind musician who immediately strikes her fancy. Of course, as we are soon to find out, he’s got his own issues most importantly being that he home cares his comatose fiancé after she apparently overdosed the night before their wedding. As you can tell, finding a way to bring Kanon and Junya together in a romantic relationship is going to require some nifty writing.
As a reviewer you have to take into account and acknowledge the simple purpose of these drama shows is merely to tug on your heart strings. There’s just no conceivable way to introduce this much soap opera into the story that is in anyway believable thus you just have to sit back and see how they manage to fit all these pieces together. However, even if you take everything with a grain of salt Innocent Love never really gathers momentum nor is it particularly adapt at weaving multiple storylines together.
Part of this emotional disconnect comes through the various performances. As stated earlier, Horikita Maki gives a surprisingly eclectic performance shuffling through scenes with an incredibly subdued seriousness that suddenly explodes into quick bouts of overacting. I’m not sure if this is the fault of the directors or Horikita herself but Kanon as a character, once all her secrets have been revealed, should not be this well adjusted. This is a woman with deep psychological scars and a giant chip on her shoulder bearing the load of a murderous sibling. You can tell Horikita is trying her best to present the typical stalwart yet gentle motherly female figure but at 20 years old she’s still far too young in appearance to pull it off with much credibility especially when you realize her achingly tragic back-story.
Not helping matters is Kitagawa Yugin as the equally tortured composer Nagasaki Junya who, if you can believe it, manages to out mug everyone involved with broad grins that make Horikita’s overblown facial expression seem restrained. There’s no issue with gentle smiles or beaming grins but the duo must be competing for the “Biggest smile which makes you look like a clown” award here. Considering the subject matter excessive smirks should be the last thing on their minds. It’s also plainly obvious that Kitagawa Yugin is not a natural actor. Indeed he’s singer who somehow landed this prestigious role but he’s clearly working a few rungs below his co-stars. Horikita isn’t firing on all cylinders here but compared to Kitagawa she’s Meryl Streep to his block of wood. Kitagawa is like a light switch with only two expressions, one being wide grin the other being deadpan serious. He’s either on or off with very little range between the two.
As a couple the chemistry is lukewarm at best and though the story is manufactured to ram Kanon and Junya together it’s inherently stilted and filled with plot elements that sometimes just don’t follow logical thinking. What is clear is that the filmmakers really are attempting to show how these two people with coloured pasts manage to find solace and then finally love with one another yet both of these characters aren’t particularly likable due to some grating character traits. Kanon is not only typically demure but she’s totally defeatist and meek. When she’s presented with a situation where her colleague has stolen money but instead accuses her of the deed Kanon doesn’t take a stand and backs off thinking her boss will never believe her due to her past. Junya, on the other hand, is one of those characters whose singular trait is just being nice. We’re never given a deep look at him as the filmmakers gloss over his background and inner turmoil making him feel like a cardboard cutout.
The supporting cast is nondescript as well although Narimiya Hiroki as Junya’s best friend Segawa Subaru manages to make the most of his little screentime by affecting a layered performance as the unwanted part of the love triangle while Kashii Yu as the villainess Sakurai Mizuki is a complete non factor.
Still, wonky performances aside, Innocent Love never truly clicks even though it has enough story material for 500 episodes. This is incredibly surprising as the parricide and comatose girlfriend angle alone should be enough to carry the series but the addition of other details is clearly flubbed with telegraphing reveals that make no secret of what is to come. It would have been a much better idea to present these as a sort of CSI / Law and Order investigation that leads up to the nasty twists that come but the filmmakers here, in what appears to be an attempt to blunt the subject matter, tip their hand far too early. It’s as if they are afraid that the giant reveals will be too shocking for audiences and thus shoot themselves in the foot by removing suspense.
With nearly all the mysteries resolved early the audience can only watch these characters plod forward in their efforts to solve the puzzles but it’s done so flippantly and without a sense of purpose that it makes them feel weak and absent minded. What is supremely amazing for all the wrong reasons is that with so much subject matter material to present that the show moves at a snail’s pace as if it’s stuck in 1st gear. Camera shots linger too long on actors staring and looking dejected or tracking over scenery for no apparent reason other than to add running time. Episodes drag on as information is slowly divulged to the characters although the audiences has been aware of it many episodes before.
Into all of this is mixed a healthy dose of Christianity in the form of cross necklaces and Junya’s participation with the church. There’s nothing wrong in including the Divine but the film’s morals and inherent message is used like a baseball bat here to brow beat audiences at every turn – it seems no one received the memo on the definition of subtlety.
Innocent Love is an unexceptionally rocky series filled with suspect acting and a plot conceived entirely from every soap opera cliché imaginable. As the first real mature project for Horikita Maki this is a disappointment as there’s nothing here to really show her acting chops aside from shedding buckets of tears. It would have made the entire production more believable and emotionally exciting if Kanon was written as a completely introverted angst-ridden basket case with emotional troubles than as your typical sweet girl next door. It’s as if the filmmakers have over-compensated the family angle here by making the brother a violent brute with a suspect conscience and forced Kanon to be the polar opposite to balance things out. Watching a nice guy like Junya fall in love with say Horikita’s tormented Night character in Tokyo Boy would have been infinitely more rewarding and would have provided extra oomph to the romantic storyline. As it has been constructed Innocent Love is both plodding and exceedingly bland and isn’t worth the time unless one is an ardent fan of Horikita Maki.
** out of ****
2008, Japan, 500 Minutes, Fuji TV
Directors: Kato Hiromasa, Matsuyama Hiroaki
Screenwriter: Asano Taeko
Producer: Nakano Toshiyuki
Music: Kanno Yugo
Akiyama Kanon: Horikita Maki
Nagasaki Junya: Kitagawa Yujin
Sakurai Mizuki: Kashii Yu
Akiyama Yoji: Fukushi Seiji
Segawa Subaru: Narimiya Hiroki
Toono Kiyoka: Uchida Yuki
Ikeda Jiro: Toyohara Kosuke
Father Yoshimichi: Naitou Takashi
Akiyama Seitaro: Hirata Mitsuru
Akiyama Junko: Tsuji Chiharu
Young Kanon: Sawaki Ruka
© 2009 The Galactic Pillow