TV

Ayumi Hamasaki TV drama stays on the right side of absurdity

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Nostalgia often results in an image of the past that isn’t quite right. For example, I’m pretty sure Ayumi Hamasaki’s rise to the top of J-pop didn’t involve nefarious secretaries sporting eyepatches.

“M: Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite,” a drama series based on the life of the pop titan made jointly by TV Asahi and AbemaTV, and which airs every Saturday night, isn’t really concerned about getting history right, which isn’t a bad thing. Rather than try to turn the story of Hamasaki’s ascent to the top into prestige TV, the folks behind this show are embracing spectacle. Disciplinarian teachers throw buckets of water in flailing performer’s faces, board meetings collapse into screaming contests, rainbows appear in the sky at climactic moments and we’re introduced to an agency employee who employs an eye patch to maximum sinister pirate effect.

It’s a dizzying and frequently goofy watch, but it’s never boring. “M” is part 1990s junk-food comfort, part real-world escapism and part of a greater push to help cement the image of one of Japan’s biggest stars.

“M” is inspired by Narumi Komatsu’s 2019 novel of the same name, which was based on interviews with Hamasaki herself. The biggest revelation from that book was that the pop star dated Max Matsuura, founder and CEO of talent agency giant Avex. While not entirely shocking — rumors had floated since Hamasaki’s first forays into the spotlight, complete with photos of the two canoodling — it was still confirmation.

The series focuses on Hamasaki (played by Kalen Anzai) and Matsuura (Shohei Miura)’s blossoming relationship as they navigate their way through the Japanese record industry. And though the story engages in what could sometimes be seen as fairy-tale cliches (again, the rainbows), it has proven a hit with fans thus far. Such fantastical elements may just be what people need amid a global pandemic, not the gritty and intense realism of flicks like “Contagion” or series like “Ozark.” “M” viewers have reveled in the ridiculousness of the production and acting.

While certainly tiptoeing toward the so-bad-it’s-good line, “M” is entertaining in the way a lot of Japanese dramas are, cushioning a love story amid zaniness and inspiration. The actors give 110 percent, but this ain’t an Emmy contender — it’s terrestrial Japanese television. I say, ham it up!

The biggest winner from this, though, is Hamasaki herself. “M” has her, Matsuura and Avex’s support, so there’s nothing too invasive or dark. Hamasaki hasn’t had an easy go of things as of late, between medical issues and attempts to stay in the spotlight as the music industry splinters and tastes change. However, “M” comes at a moment in which she’s trying to re-engage, having started her own TikTok account and sharing dozens of her own a capella tracks to in an attempt to encourage remixes.

But while those are efforts towards engaging with the present, “M” is a stab at recreating a time when she really did tower over the J-pop industry and created songs everyone in the country knew. Which, unlike the one-eyed Avex employee who harasses her on the show, genuinely happened.

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