Japanese TV is making some progress in writing broader female roles

by

Special To The Japan Times

One of the best things to come out of the rise of streaming websites overseas has been an increase in productions that have featured great roles for women. This year alone we’ve seen some phenomenal acting from Elisabeth Moss on “The Handmaid’s Tale” and powerful ensembles on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and “GLOW.”

With streaming services stepping up their game in terms of broader representation, the major networks have been feeling the pressure to follow suit, and that pressure seems to be extending across the Pacific.

Japanese actresses regularly have to deal with stereotypical roles on prime-time TV, appearing as mothers and daughters with heavy familial duties, as love interests and hopeless romantics, or victims that need saving. Online productions and co-productions, however, have had a bit more luck breaking free from those constraints allowing women to be funny, ambitious, subversive and, importantly, just plain normal.

“Fictitious Girl’s Diary” (“Kakuu OL Nikki”) is a co-partnered production between the Nippon Television Network and Hulu.jp among others. The first-person narrator known as Watashi (I), a bank employee in her mid-20s. She’s your typical OL (an abbreviation of “office lady,” which Japanese use to describe women who work at companies) who lives with her parents in a Tokyo suburb and has an hour-long commute in a jam-packed train. Her days consist of gossiping with co-workers in the women’s locker room, lunch at the employees’ cafeteria and shopping at the train station mall after hours (always with her OL squad in tow). The catch? Watashi is played by male comedian Hidetomo Masuno, aka Bakarhythm, a short 41-year-old with a severe bowl cut.

I know what you’re thinking, is this my example of how streaming is helping Japanese actresses? Well, it helps that Masuno has an uncanny ear for female dialogue. He created the character for a blog he wrote between 2006 and 2009. If you’ve ever wondered what the OLs say to one another out of the earshot of their male co-workers, this is your chance to find out.

His writing resonated with readers, and that’s down to just how authentic he made it. There are no raunchy elements that slide into male fantasy or melodramatic scenes of heartbreak — it’s just real life.

The “Fictitious Girl’s Diary” series is similar. The writing is droll and exceedingly dry but, unlike many stories about women that make it to the screen, there’s no pressure for the character to get married, have sex or adhere to stereotypical notions of a woman’s happiness. Boyfriends? They’re mentioned, but not enough to become an issue.

The main character’s co-workers are a big reason why the show works. Tomoko, Sae, Noriko and Maki (played by Asami Usuda, Ryo Sato, Maho Yamada and the singularly named Kaho) don’t miss a beat when it comes to treating Masuno like one of the girls. They revel in their normalcy, a sense of contained contentment that filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu loved to draw on. Now it seems Masuno has quietly taken up the baton by shedding his maleness completely and disappearing into the fold.

“Fictitious Girl’s Diary” offers up your run-of-the-mill Tokyo office worker, but “Tokyo Girls Picture Book” (“Tokyo Joshi Zukan”) shows us the woman on the other side of the Yamanote tracks.

Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, the series’ main protagonist, Aya (Asami Mizukawa), is an ambitious small-town girl from Akita Prefecture whose singular desire is to succeed in the capital. She does this by finding men that can help take her to the next level — or, at least, the next trendy neighborhood.

Based on a novella that ran as a series in the restaurant and lifestyle magazine Tokyo Calendar, this story charts Aya’s steady acquisition of the city’s perks — weekly match-making parties, birthday dinners at Yebisu Garden Place — as she moves apartments. She starts out in cozy Sangenjaya, where she has a well-meaning boyfriend, then moves to the more glamorous Ebisu with a well-off salaryman before ending up in posh Ginza, where she tumbles into an affair with a married kimono shop owner. Each area represents a new life stage, challenges and emotions for Aya — it’s also a great guide to the geography of Tokyo’s social ladder.

The men are almost afterthoughts, though. Aya doesn’t want a permanent relationship, it’s Tokyo that she’s in love with. Directed by filmmaker Yuki Tanada, “Tokyo Girls Picture Book” is spot-on in its observations of how another type of Tokyo woman conducts her life. Men and jobs are always replaceable, but the city is forever.

Another Tokyo-centric series is “Are You Sure Kichijoji Is the Only Place You Want to Live?” (“Kichijoji Dake ga Sumitai Machi Desu Ka?”), a TV Tokyo production now airing on Hulu.jp that works as a guide to the capital.

Based on Hirochi Maki’s manga of the same name, this series is about plus-size twins Tomiko (Miyuki Oshima) and Miyako (Natsu Ando) Shigeta. They run a small real-estate agency in the neighborhood of Kichijoji, which is consistently ranked among the top five most popular locales in Tokyo. There’s no shortage of people wanting to live there, but after speaking to their clients the Shigetas redirect them to other neighborhoods like Kagurazaka and Kinshicho.

The series plays out like apartment hunting therapy. The clients are, at first, reluctant to leave Kichijoji but the twins’ enthusiasm for local restaurants, parks and shared artist spaces proves infectious. There’s also mention of rents that are not exorbitantly high in some areas. For example, a French freelance journalist (Bryerly Long) visits the twins’ agency and is taken to Jujo, where she lands a very decent space for ¥65,000 a month (though the real prize here is a landlord that will rent to a foreigner).

The Shigeta sisters have no hang-ups and are completely liberated from traditional notions of how young Japanese women should look and behave.

The show itself is kind of like a real estate version of TV Tokyo’s dining show “Solitary Gourmet,” which was popular due to the philosophical musing of its self-styled restaurant critic. That series, which is now streaming on different websites, allowed a glimpse into the life of Japan’s Everyman. It’s great that we’re getting that same glimpse into this country’s Everywoman.