Arts and entertainment criticism of the sort practiced in the West is still relatively sublimated in Japan, where pop-culture hyoronka (critics) tend to be either pundits or PR flacks who rarely say anything overtly negative about the things they review.
The reason mainly has to do with relationships within the media. If you’ve got nothing nice to say about a movie then just say something dull, because it may have been produced by a studio whose subsidiary just bought a controlling share in a company that places ads in the magazine or newspaper you write for.
The woman who wrote a review of the Fuji TV drama series, “Yama-onna, Kabe-onna,” for the TV listings page of the Asahi Shimbun two weeks ago tied herself in knots trying to come up with something positive to say. She obviously didn’t know what to make of the show. Admitting that the plot premise was nonsense, she fell back on the view that it isn’t a drama meant to evoke a sympathetic response and simply recommended it to people who like to sit in front of the TV and grouse about whatever it is they’re watching.
The title of the series, based on a manga by Atsuko Takakura, translates as “Mountain Woman, Wall Woman,” but the modifiers don’t describe geographic or architectural circumstances. They describe anatomy: “Mountain women” have large breasts and “wall women” have, essentially, none. The advertising catch phrase of the series is “I may not have a chest, but I do have a dream.”
Misaki Ito stars as Megumi Aoyagi, who sells handbags in the fictional Marukoshi Department Store. Megumi is self-conscious about her small breasts. In the first episode, a construction worker comments rudely on her lack of a bustline. She is angered and offended, but some of her female colleagues are amused, especially Haruka Oyama (Eiko Koike), who is Megumi’s main rival in terms of sales. Oyama (the name means “big mountain”) has large breasts and realizing that Megumi is sensitive about her figure she teases her whenever she has the chance, thus intensifying Megumi’s body-image issues.
However, Megumi’s closest friend is Marie Mariya (Kyoko Fukada), who has the biggest pair in the store. Marie cheerfully accepts the ogling and the drooling double-entendres from every male she meets because she’s used to it. “I’ve been getting that ever since elementary school,” she says without the slightest hint of impatience.
“Yama-onna” is a comedy that makes fun of our obsession — both men’s and women’s — with a certain media-reinforced idea of feminine allure, but as the Asahi reviewer implied, it doesn’t have an agenda that you can latch on to. In the second episode, one male supervisor starts utilizing the yama-kabe contrast in his conversation and Megumi reports him to the section manager for sexual harrassment. The manager organizes a seku-hara (sexual harassment) seminar where it’s revealed that the women in the company are indeed offended by uninvited physical contact and suggestive comments from male colleagues — unless the male colleague happens to be hot.
Megumi is convinced she’s not hot and frets over her lack of a boyfriend. At a matchmaking event, she hooks up with the young president of an IT company, who invites her to his weekend home on the beach in Izu. Megumi purchases a two-piece swimsuit with extra padding in the top, but it doesn’t make any difference. During dinner in an expensive restaurant, the IT guy reveals his real intentions: He wants Megumi to introduce him to Marie.
Megumi is crestfallen, but when she informs Marie that the IT guy was really interested in her and not Megumi, Marie surprises Megumi by saying he’s not her type. “He drinks pink cocktails,” Marie says with a shiver of disgust. The point is that while Megumi is offended by men’s breast fixation she herself is willing to “sell herself cheap” to any rich guy who looks at her approvingly, and will even falsify her figure to do so.
This thematic element has some romantic-comedy potential, but overall the world depicted in “Yama-onna” has very little in common with the one we live in. The material situation of the saleswomen doesn’t feel logical or credible, but, moreover, the general psychological atmosphere is just bizarre. Though almost all the men are obsessed with breasts, this obsession seems to have no sexual basis. Like preadolescent boys they are simply mystified by mammaries. When Marie walks by, they stammer and sweat. It’s as if by getting close to her they think all of life’s secrets will be revealed.
“Yama-onna” is less interested in exploring sexual politics and perceived notions of attractiveness than it is in exploiting them. But the kyonyu (big breast) fad is so 2003, which is why Eiko Koike’s participation draws special attention. Koike was one of the most popular kyonyu idols when they were all the rage earlier this decade, but because of her quick wit she soon graduated to conventional talent status, meaning she could appear on talk shows without having to show cleavage. For no obvious reason except maybe to promote this show, Koike has recently been turning up again in low-cut get-ups, joking good-naturedly about her endowment on variety and quiz shows.
Though Koike will probably never want for work, any talent or actress identified by the heft of her bosom is always going to be limited in terms of type of work.
Oyama resents Megumi because Megumi is considered an elite employee while Oyama is not. In a similar way, Misaki Ito will always get the lead roles in these kinds of romantic stories while Koike will play the heavy or the comic relief. Don’t forget, Audrey Hepburn has always been much more popular in Japan than Marilyn Monroe, and it has nothing to do with acting.