Throwback Thursday: My First Drama

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Mei-chan no Shijsuji (2009); Source: wiki.d-addicts

I have had an interesting Asian entertainment journey as my horizons continue to expand. I started with manga sometime in high school. Anime seemed like the sensible next step. It was a predictable jump from there to dramas. And now 10 years later, I venture into different genres and languages. But this is where it all started.

Mei-chan no Shitsuji (Mei-chan’s Butler), was my very first drama. I watched it around when it first came out. I was completely drawn in by the live action version of this shojo manga. The story was so unique and unlike anything I had ever seen. The totally unrealistic plot was understandable in manga form but when I discovered that this was translated into a real live action drama, my mind was blown.

For those who have not heard of this show, Mei-chan no Shitsuji is about a poor, orphaned girl who ends up in an elite high school. It is an all-girls school where all students are in training to become “ladies”. The best part is that each student has a handsome, male butler. The school is set in a ridiculously large campus where students are transported by helicopters. The drama explores Mei-chan’s journey as she goes from being an outcast to a well-loved classmate.

I was in love since the very first episode. This drama introduced me to three of my favorite Japanese actors, Nana Eikura as Mei-chan, Hiro Mizushima as her butler Shibata Rihito, and Takeru Sato as Shibata’s younger brother and aspiring butler. They do not get a chance to completely showcase their abilities. But these are the same individuals who went on to capture my heart in N No Tame Ni, Hana Kimi, and Rurouni Kenshin, respectively.

As one might expect, this show is a comedy. There is a little bit of romance and a love triangle. For me the highlight of the drama has always been the stories behind the lady-butler relationships. Every episode focuses on a different pair and their challenges. This might sound odd but they are some of the most touching stories I have encountered in drama. They really emphasize the loyalty of the butlers but they also show that it is a two way thing. The ladies are equally concerned about the well-being of their devoted butlers. The drama highlights a few different relationships; friends that grew up together, a butler who is essentially a bodyguard, and another pair who are lovers.

After having watched many dramas since my first experience with Mei-chan, I have come to accept that strange things do happen in drama-land. Our heroines are often poor and forced into strange situations where they have to interact with the ultra-wealthy. Most romantic relationships include a love triangle or two, and our leads can always use their charms to save the day. My first drama was not all that odd.

I have learned that I tend to love the live-action adaptations of shojo mangas. In fact, I seek them out from time to time. In the midst of watching realistic dramas like Valid Love, and Candy House, I crave dramas like Mei-chan and Hana Kimi. In fact, these are two of my most re-watched drama. They are both funny, unrealistic, but heartwarming stories of relationships and community. They are simple stories that take me back to a time when my own life was more simple.

As I said in my last post, there is a drama to fit every mood and every life situation, it’s just a matter of finding the right one when you need it. There has never been a time when Mei-chan no Shitsuji has failed to lift up my spirits. I hope that all of us find shows that fits our moods and make us feel better.

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Just What I Needed: Secret Forest

 

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Secret Forest (2017); Source: AsianWiki

It’s been a while since I last posted. I have been job hunting and that consumed all of my brainpower. Now that things are falling into place I can get back to writing about all the things I actually love. During my time away from the blog, I did not have the chance to watch much drama. I have not completed a single drama in the past 2 months (not including re-watches). I was surprised that it was in the midst of all the stress and lack of interest that I found one of my new favorites.

Dramas have been a part of my life for many years now. It has provided me with entertainment, stress-relief, food for thought, comfort, and connections with new friends. A week ago I, once again, looked to dramas, to take a break from the job hunting process. I think there is a drama that fits every mood of mine and its just a matter of finding the right one for the right time. This time I decided to try Secret Forest aka Stranger. I had read good things about it and it was a detective, investigation drama so I was pretty sure it would not be terrible.

Secret Forest is everything I needed and more. It is K-Drama at its best. It reminded me that there are always great new dramas to discover. Secret Forest is just excellent television. I am not sure how well this show did in Korea but it seems to be pretty popular with the international audience. Some might say that Signal is the best drama ever made but, for me, Secret Forest is even better. But I cannot quite put a finger on what makes this show so remarkable.

Writing interesting reviews are not my thing but I wanted to mention the two best things about the drama, the acting and the pacing. The acting is brilliant. This was a great introduction to both the main leads. I had not heard of Bae Doo Na until this show.  We have definitely been missing out in dramaland. This is her first drama in 7 years. I think she picked an excellent show for her comeback. Her acting chops combined with her awesome character has quickly made her one of my favorite leading ladies in KDrama.

I was equally unfamiliar with Jo Seung Woo, the star of the show. He plays an emotionless prosecutor tackling corruption in the South Korean justice system. His ability to go through sixteen episodes with no emotions, save two smiles, was impressive indeed. I can only imagine how good the man would be when given a role where he actually had to emote.

If one were to go by plot alone, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about this show. As with many Korean detective/ law shows, the focus is corruption. But it is not an episodic procedural. What is worth mentioning is the flow. At no point did I feel like the show was dragging or that I was beginning to lose interest. It is very rare that I go through an entire drama without skipping at least bits and pieces of it. I watched every minute of this one.

Not only did the show maintain a constant pace, it also managed a great ending. It is an intelligent show. It required my full attention. But it didn’t leave me pondering the meaning of life. Neither did it leave me with that hollow feeling after having binge watched a great drama. I didn’t leave feeling unsatisfied and wishing that the show would keep going. The sixteen episode format was what drew me to Korean dramas and this was a perfect example. I was absolutely content. I don’t need a second season.

The problem with a drama like Secret Forest is that it completely changes my expectations for dramas. Last night, as I updated my drama list, I had to re-rate some of my other top dramas and re-organize my top shows as I had to make a spot for a new favorite. Now I have a drama that’s giving some serious competition to my all time favorite Cruel City. I do not expect or even want all my dramas to be this good but I keep wondering when I will next come across such a gem. What if I never get to it because it got buried in my long list of plan-to-watch?

After watching this show I realized that a lot of how much we enjoy a drama comes from what makes us feel good at that given moment. I like my fluffy romance when I am pretty stress-free myself. Nothing makes me feel uplifted like a good Japanese slice-of-life. On “normal” days, I do enjoy the messing-with-the-mind type shows. At this time in my life, Secret Forest was just what I needed. Now I am ready to start a new job and get back to enjoying my dramas.

Cruel City (2013): A Masterpiece

This review does not contain spoilers. 

Today, I wanted to go back and review one of my favorite dramas. If I look at, my list on My Drama List, I have Cruel City aka Heartless Cityas my highest rated drama of all time. I wonder, if I were to re-watch this drama, today, would it still be my favorite. My tastes have changed but more importantly, I have watched many great dramas (not exceptional) since then. Unfortunately I cannot test my love for Cruel City because there is no way I could re-watch this drama and go through the emotions all over again.

I watched this back in 2014. At the time, Cruel City was like a breath of fresh air having mostly watching only romance. This was my introduction to crime dramas and I had definitely not watched anything as dark as this. I did not expect to be able to finish this drama because I was told there was a lot of violence. But within the first few episodes, I was sucked in. I could not stop watching this terribly disturbing piece of work. I remember my heart being crushed when Cruel City ended. Partly because of how it ended but partly because I was not sure I would watch anything as good ever again.

I am confident it is still an amazing drama and would still make it to my top 10 but the fact that I cannot re-watch it reduces it’s appeal slightly. I am finding that there are some dramas I can multiple times and enjoy it every single time. Should re-watch value be reflected in my drama ratings? Oh, some pretty bad, comfort shows, would go up in their rankings… I am looking at you I Need Romance 3.

I would describe Cruel City as a wonderfully deep, dark, and twisted noir with slick and stylish directing. The plot is gripping, the acting is remarkable, the cinematography is unbelievable, and the OST is perfect. I cannot say these many positive things for very many K-Dramas.

Cruel City is about Seoul’s underground drug/ crime scene complete with drug lords and undercover cops. One is quickly absorbed trying to figure out who the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. However, do not expect any answers by the end of the show. And I think that’s the point, it’s never that easy.

Lets talk characters. I think most people who watched this show would agree that the best part about this show was the remarkable performance by Jung Kyung Ho as Jung Shi Hyun aka Doctor’s Son aka Paksa Idil. This is what many would consider to be his “breakthrough” role. With this one performance he went to the top of my favorite actors list. This is the Kyung-ho that many viewers, including myself, want to see more of. I think, his recent romantic comedy ventures seem to be a waste of his skills.

Doctor’s Son is often on viewers’ lists as one of the best K-Drama characters of all time. For me, he is THE best K-drama character ever. His character is dark, mysterious, messy, complicated and even gruesome. Oh, but his charisma and crazy knife skills make him a very attractive, magnetic man. Very often, we like characters that are relatable, and realistic. Doctor’s Son is neither. He is just a messed up guy that we cannot empathize with but can feel sympathy for. In fact I could write a whole review on what makes Paksa Idil so appealing.

Thankfully, romance was not a focus of the show because Nam Gyu Ri as Soo Min was the weakest link in terms of both acting and character. Doctor’s Son was good at keeping his work and personal life separate. That allowed for his character to make (mostly) rational decisions without acting like the “noble idiot.” But the best relationship was the friendship between Paksa and Soo (Yoon Hyun Min). Who needs romance when one can have K-Drama’s best bromance. The best friends have some close calls, as to be expected, in a world where one moment of weakness could mean death but their bond survives it all.

The writing was solid and stayed true to its theme. There were no filler episodes and the pacing was just right. I also loved the great action scenes. There were some very awesomely gruesome knife scenes, very well executed by Kyung-ho. This is why I like cable dramas, there is a lot more they can show without having to worry about the ‘family audience.’ But you cannot completely escape the censors. They still blurred the knives and tattoos(!?) for reasons I do not understand.

Then there is the outstanding OST. It was dark, painful music that fit the theme of the show. The entire album was worth listening on repeat with ‘Hurt by Kim Yong Jin being the highlight. I cannot say enough about the impeccable cinematography. They stayed true to the noir genre and did it well. The lighting, the props, and the ambience they created was perfect.

In my opinion, this is not a drama suited for a beginner drama watcher. Most of us get into dramas with shows like Boy’s Over Flowers and You’re Beautiful and continue there for a while and stay or decide to branch out. Part of the appeal of Cruel City is watching something this dark when that’s not what you expect from K-dramaland. Only watch this drama if you are prepared for something heavy and dark. Expect lots of violence and really cruel characters. There aren’t well defined heroes and villains. Be ready to cry because there is no happy ending.

I must say that writing this review made me realize why this is one of my top dramas. The problem with a drama like Cruel City is that it raised my expectations for Korean dramas and I haven’t found very many as good . As I mentioned, I will not re-watch this one because it is emotionally exhausting. It stayed with me for a few months after completing it and, even today, 3 years later, it is gives me the “feels.” This is a 1 in a 100 sort of a drama and I am very glad I went out of my comfort zone and tried it.