In a tale of two Akiras, let's see more Ai

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

For fans of the ikemen (handsome dude), Wowow’s new mini-series “Akira and Akira” is like manna from heaven. Kicking off July 9, it stars actors Osamu Mukai and Takumi Saito, and the hype at this point may as well be soundtracked by The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.”

As the title suggests, “Akira and Akira” features two guys with the same first name who start work at a major bank during Japan’s economic bubble era. Akira Kaido (Mukai) is the son and heir of a shipping mogul, while Akira Yamazaki (Saito) comes from humbler roots. In their own ways, the two Akiras struggle to change their destinies through work (how typically salaryman of them) and, by doing so, influence the lives of the company executives with whom they have dealings.

“Akira and Akira” has a top-notch pedigree, it’s based on a novel by Jun Ikeido, a best-selling author whose books fall under a genre known as keizai entame (corporate drama). They proffer lessons in Japanese finance, lay bare the workings of the nation’s manufacturing world and expose the shady dealings of Japan’s megabanks. Ikeido’s focus has always been on the salarymen and small business owners who toil endless hours to keep their jobs and support their families.

Having said that, “Akira and Akira” suffers from a symptom common to Ikeido novels — it’s all about work and money, leaving almost no room for relationships or psychology. That sentiment (regrettably) is also one of the defining factors of Japanese society but it’s likely to leave a viewing audience with questions (likely the same ones that go through your head during your commute to work).

Especially lacking is the portrayal of women. In Ikeido’s novel, Yamazaki marries Ai (who also works at the same bank he does) but there’s almost no prepping or back story to the event — it just happens. Later, she becomes a mere appendage of her husband with no agenda of her own other than supporting him on his climb up the corporate ladder. On TV Ai is played by Rena Tanaka, and I regret to report that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” initiative isn’t doing any better on the small screen.

This feels like a missed opportunity as ratings have shown that the most successful TV adaptation of an Ikeido novel is “Hanasaki Mai ga Damattenai” (“Mai Hanasaki Speaks Out”), which starred Anne Watanabe in the titular role. That character also begins her career as a bank teller but is later appointed to right the wrongs happening at the local branches.

Mai isn’t shattering any glass ceilings, though. True, she does her work out of a strong sense of justice and dedication … and away from the bank, she’s just a nice girl who pines for a husband. Japan may not have its “Wonder Woman” yet, but at this juncture in keizai entame, we’ll take what we can get.