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July 5, 2009

JDrama Review – Atashinchi no Danshi (2009)

by Master Pillow

There are odd setups and then there are totally bizzaro setups. Atashinchi no Danshi is firmly in the later group here. While I can give points for originality the narrative presented here is incredibly fresh yet totally far-fetched and off-the-wall. I suppose it can sort of function if one regards the show as live-action manga or some sort of weird fairy tale but originality aside the series itself has some truly gigantic issues that prevent it from being remotely successful.

Horikita Maki is Mineta Chisato, a young woman who spends her days hiding away in a homeless camp meting out a modest existence doing odd jobs like picking vegetables for profit. Motherless at a young age Chisato is further burdened with a bone crushing 100 million yen debt accumulated by her deadbeat father. As she’s been made accountable for this she constantly finds herself in an ongoing battle to elude her creditors, donning disguises and staying out of sight. One day these nefarious creditors find her and after a foot chase manage to corner Chisato on the top level of a deserted building.

With no manner of escape in sight things certainly look grim but out of no where a corporate helicopter lands on the roof and from it emerges a distinguished yet colourfully dressed man who introduces himself as Okura Shinzo (Kusakari Masao) current CEO and owner of Miracle Toy Company. He spies Chisato and makes her a deal – he’ll pay off her debt if she marries him and stays as his companion for one month. Why one month? Precisely because he’s been diagnosed with some terminal illness and thus only has limited time left in this life.

Chisato relents and true to his word she spends one month with him before he shuffles off into the next life. As she’s about to leave the estate guardians inform her that her work is not yet finished and show her the contract she signed and conveniently forgot to read as it clearly states that she must now be the mother to his six adopted kids and if she fails in this regard she will not inherit the 100 million yen. Needless to say, she doesn’t have a choice and tries to act motherly only to realize all six of his children are woefully troubled and rarely get along with one another.

Okay….

Yes, as I said, as setups go this one is very abnormal. Full marks for imagination although I have the distinct impression that the screenwriter was seriously mixing medication when he came up with this. The only real tactic to deal with such a fantastic setting is to merely convince oneself that even though everything looks real that it in fact takes place in some crackpot alternate universe. Still, as awkward as it sounds, there does seem to be ample opportunity for some good natured laughs amidst the usual family value sermons but alas Atashinchi no Danshi vacillates wildly from mildly amusing to downright interminable.

There are many issues foremost being that after such an elaborate setup the series is decidedly old fashion in its trappings as the audience can guess just exactly how it will unfold. With six brats of differing ages we instinctively know the formula – each episode will present one of the siblings and explain their problems whereupon Chisato, through either her inherent geniality or plain dumb luck will miraculously cure them and bring them back into the fold. No need to guess as this is exactly what happens.

Although this is a series where the tongue is firmly planted in the cheek, there’s an uneasy hollowness that permeates the entire production which can be attributed to the fact that there is just no emotional core or singular overriding morality play. I suppose that the filmmakers have intended to make it conservative family values and the wonderment of the family unit but in reality the episodes just become slapstick saccharine chaos that are rarely funny or effectual. Having the family jump rope all at once or having Chisato’s eccentric friends mug at the camera is plainly not funny or even worth a minute smile as the jokes are forced upon the audience without subtlety or sufficient setup.

Each of the brothers fits annoyingly into a pre-formed stereotype and even when helped by Chisato they rarely show much character growth. Thus we have: the cool and calculating older brother; the brother who dresses and acts like a wannabe gangster; the effeminate male model; the ladies man male escort; the brooding ex-magician; the brainy whizz kid who buys stocks.

With a cast of these six it’s no wonder the family has issues. However, as we are quick to discover, their issues are all solely based on their pasts, specifically the events that led to their adoption and their preformed prejudices that have been allowed to ferment over time. Most of these individual stories are glossed over or deal entirely with mistaken or misread information that has caused the six brothers to close their hearts. Still, since each of their pasts are basically resolved within the span of one episode they lose nearly all their emotional impact. Adding to this is the series’ penchant for extremely broad comedy that acts to defuse all forms of suspense and tension. For instance, just to be cute the youngest brother falls dead asleep at 9pm no matter what he’s doing. Is it funny? It is supposed to be but it just acts as another story element that is thrown in for fun with no rhyme or reason.

Then again, how much entertainment you are likely to experience rests solely on how well you appreciate the base level of humour or the performers themselves. Once again we have Horikita Maki doing something a bit different but in a way coming after Innocent Love she’s still stuck in that netherworld between teen fare and more mature material. Half of the time it feels as if she’s just stepped off the Hanazakari No Kimitachi E set and the other half from Innocent Love. In other words, it’s a kind of mish-mash where she can be perky and cheerful with a strong youthful drive in one scene and then suddenly morph into the more maternally demure but stately role as the head of the household. It just doesn’t work very well and though Horikita’s Chisato can act like a mother the very fact that she’s younger than some of her “sons” is actually eerie.

The six actors playing the brothers range from competent to concrete slabs of non-emotion most notably the youngest brainy kid Okura Akira (Okayama Tomoki) who does his best impersonation of how Harry Potter would be if he were a robot. Child actors are sometimes tough to direct but surely deadpanning vacant stares is not the correct avenue to go down. The two which make any sort of impression are Okura Takeru (Okada Yoshinori), the gangster wannabe and Okura Shu (Mukai Osamu) the male escort, as both gain copious amounts of screen time in which to gain much audience empathy. Takeru is your usual potty-mouthed lout who acts tough but has a heart of gold while his brother Okura Shu is burdened with some significant character issues that make him the most well-rounded and fully formed persona.

The final two brothers Okura Masaru (Yamamoto Yusuke) and Okura Satoru (Seto Koji) don’t get very much to do once their main storylines are resolved and basically act as eye candy for the young female viewers. Of the two Yamamoto Yusuke makes more of an impression precisely because he has the flashier role of playing and overtly effeminate man and I must say that purple eyeliner is creepily fetching.

At times the series seems to draw inspiration from Horikita’s previous slapstick romance, Hanazakari No Kimitachi E but while that one managed an almost perfect balance of silliness with its core romantic triangle, Atashinchi no Danshi has no such luck as it’s saddled with comedy sketches but no accompanying romance. That is not to say all dramas need a romance but they all need emotional resonance and family values as a motif just falls flat here with a one-dimensional cast that rarely ventures beyond their respective stereotypes. While portraying strong family bonds might be considered an asset this particular cinematic unit is never convincing enough to cheer for.

That is not to say that there is absolutely no romance and indeed such a subplot does finally emerge but not until well into episode 8-9 and even then it’s yet another instance of pure tinkering by the filmmakers who seem to have finally realized too late to include such a relationship. Horikita Maki is given precious little to do except motherly duties which she is clearly not yet accustomed to. I’m not sure why she or her agent is rushing her into more adult fair considering she’s only twenty years old and should in essence by playing girls of her age. It’s not as if once a woman hits twenty that she magically becomes mature and can lead a family.

Just watching the way Horikita handles her role in Hanazakari No Kimitachi E and here in Atashinchi no Danshi is like night and day and while she looked like she was generally having a blast in the former her performance lately has settled in to a kind of drunken stupor where she falls back on archetypes and has a generally more burdened and worried countenance than a woman of her age should really carry. It makes you wish she just dropped this insistence of acting older than her age and put on the old schoolgirl sailor suit one more time as she’s arguably done her best work playing younger characters. Heck, going back to horror movies which she did with much aplomb would be preferred than watching her force herself to act as a concerned mother.

Atashinchi no Danshi certainly has its heart in the right place and attempts something different than your rote rom-com (romantic comedy) but it’s replaced all the romantic trappings with stale family values that never really click. We’re meant to care about these characters but in the end the only audience desire is to reach for the channel changing remote. I didn’t think it possible but the much maligned Innocent Love with all its saccharine melodrama and stilted acting is still infinitely more watchable than this misfire that tries to make a more goofball Japanese version of the Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch.

*1/2 out of ****

2009, Japan, approximately 500 Minutes, Fuji TV
Directors: Matsuda Hidetomo, Sato Genta
Screenwriter: Muto Shogo
Producer: Moriyasu Aya
Music: Izutsu Akio

Mineta Chisato: Horikita Maki
Okura Fuu: Kaname Jun
Okura Takeru: Okada Yoshinori
Okura Sho: Mukai Osamu as
Okura Masaru: Yamamoto Yusuke
Okura Satoru: Seto Koji
Okura Akira: Okayama Tomoki
Okura Shinzo (company president): Kusakari Masao
Tokita Shuji (company director): Yamamoto Koji
Koganei Kyoko (legal adviser): Takashima Reiko
Kokudo Yutaka: Tsuruno Takeshi

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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