Drama Review: Change (Fuji TV, 2008)
Take Me to Your Leadah! Leadah!
by Ender’s Girl
Kimura Takuya, Fukatsu Eri, Terao Akira, Abe Hiroshi, Kato Rosa
In a Nutshell:
Mild-mannered schoolteacher Asakura Keita takes over his late father’s Diet seat and is swept into power as Prime Minister of Japan — but soon finds himself at the center of a political plot hatched by a powerful few to gain control of Government.
(SpoilLert: Moderately spoilerish, but nothing to lose sleep over, haha.)
Politics for Dummies (…and Jdorama Viewers, Too!)
Hmmm…. This drama is riddled with all the ineluctable loopholes of a political fairy tale, and as much as I wanted with all my might for Kimura’s character to succeed in that cutthroat world of politics, the implausible situations had me rolling my eyes most of the time. I mean, c’mon: nerdy and naive schoolteacher becomes premier of Japan, and single-handedly (oh, not single-handedly, but aided by a ragtag crew of housemates-turned-“political advisers,” oh my!) attempts to turn the tide of corruption and greed that has permeated the highest echelons of government — AND tries to run the world’s second largest economy in his spare time!!! Whoopee.
Maybe this drama bit off a tad more than it could chew, as most political fairy tales are prone to doing. I read a comment somewhere saying that Change felt like a 10-year-old schoolboy had been given a textbook on Japanese politics, and was told to go write a script. Hehehe, I’m rather inclined to agree. I think a major stumbling block for me while watching Change was that Asakura Keita (at least in the first half of the drama) was too… dumbed down to be believable, looking so out of his depth in the legislature — despite his earnest efforts to cope with all his parliamentary obligations. The first half of Change mostly has Keita wandering the Diet corridors looking all… dazed and confused (wink, wink) and asking his secretary Miyama to “explain things to him as if he were a 5th-grader.” He also spends far too much time helping Random Disgruntled Citizens who straggle into his office with their personal sob stories, than doing any actual legislation. (That scene in Episode 3 where the pigheaded cat owner detains Keita for hours when he’s supposed to be at some secret powwow with the Seiyu Party bigwigs–major ROLL EYES!!!) The writing plays up the Underdog-Zero-to-Hero archetype to the hilt, but the same tack which worked so perfectly in 2001’s Hero simply misfires in Change. (Curiously enough, Hero and Change were penned by the same screenwriter, Fukuda Yasushi. Does not. Compute. Does not. Compute… *self-destructs*) The drama would have benefited from better writing, IMO — and a longer run that would more smoothly chart Keita’s transformation from bumbling do-gooder to a shrewder, more experienced player in the political arena.
I pretty much hated Change’s reductionist approach towards politics. You think you can run a country armed only with Good Intentions and a crash course in Statecraft 101? Man, this really is a fairy tale. And the odds stacked against Asakura Keita & Co. are just too high to be convincingly hurdled within the drama’s short run. Given his inexperience and — well, his obtuseness, Keita is a sitting duck from Day One — I mean, c’mawwwwn — it’s POL-IT-ICS after all. *rolls eyes* And Keita trying to micromanage each thorny issue he comes across–like that jellyfish infestation in Episode 4, or the pediatrician shortage in Episode 6 — NOT believable in the least. (Sure, Keita, how… assiduous of you to take home those boxes of files to pore over, never mind you go sleepless for two straight days — here’s an “A” for effort. But what about the other 934,982 needs of your constituency also demanding your attention, ne? You gonna make ALL of them your homework too? You gonna pay a personal visit on every sick kiddo in Tokyo? Durrr…)
Can starry-eyed ideals still make a dent in the moral morass of realpolitik? Just how far are you willing to go, how much heat can you take, how much of your beliefs are you prepared to compromise, how big a part of your soul are you willing to sell — to get the job done, to bring real Change to governance? Okay, good questions, good questions (lol). Then you remember that politics is really one labyrinthine snake pit that swallows you up for not playing by The!Rules!–just as easily as it lavishes power and privilege on the more… politically savvy. The sad truth is that people like Asakura Seita are just the type of quixotic fools who get eaten alive for breakfast by the more seasoned, worldly-wise politicos — then spewed out for the dogs to fight over. Sorry, but Prime Minister Asakura wouldn’t last a day in El Mundo Real.
From Zero to Hero, or Why Nerds Rule, Baby
Still, underdogs ARE underdogs, and as a viewer you find yourself cheering on this lovable, unassuming teacher man with the Mojakura hair (or so dubbed by his precioussss 5th-graders) as he matches wits with Kanbayashi the Kingmaker, that goatee-sporting, deliciously crafty little man (and de facto leader of the ruling party) whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering would put Old Nick Machiavelli (and even Rasputin, heh) to shame (ahhh, Machiavelli — now that’s someone I’d vote for Prez in this day and age, lol). The earnest and good-hearted newbie public servant vs. the puppet-meister of Japanese politics (J-Pol? hahaha)? Mojakura hair vs. Machiavellian goatee? Hmmm… no contest, right? Right…?
“What decision can a puppet make?” Kanbayashi sneers early on, right after engineering Keita’s instatement as head of government — albeit as an unwitting pawn in a ploy to keep the ruling Seiyu Party in power. The Party’s image has just taken a blow after the incumbent Prime Minister — a lecherous old fart — is forced to resign in the wake of a sex scandal. Kanbayashi, ever the consummate political (party) animal (haha), sees in Keita the perfect crowd-pleasing figurehead and potential image-booster for the Seiyu, Keita being young, (relatively) good-looking, wholesome and untainted by scandal, and possessing an impressive political pedigree… plus he’s a NERD, and we all know that nerds are the most pliable, agreeable creatures in the world, right? Because nerds are naturally insecure and will do anything to gain acceptance with the “in” crowd, right? Lol.
So how does Asakura Keita outwit, outplay and outlast Kanbayashi the Kingmaker? What’s interesting is that for somebody so devious, having left all bases covered and no stone unturned in his scheming, Kanbayashi’s single (but fatal) miscalculation is that in his hubris, he sorely underestimates Keita — as do most of his party mates. But such is the magic of Asakura Keita, whose hard work and sincerity win over the most cynical of his political enemies and even his own advisors, these career bureaucrats and technocrats who initially write Keita off as a political (and intellectual) lightweight. Change being in the same mold as Hero, the path that Keita takes from Underrated Everyman to Hero of the Day is not a smooth one, but the way he slowly inspires such loyalty and respect in his staff — even without meaning to — can truly tug at the heartstrings.
It may have taken me a few episodes to warm up to the story and the characters, but about midway into the series I was Team Asakura all the way, baby. I suppose such is the charm of this drama, that it slowly erodes your defenses until you have no choice but to capitulate in the end. Both Change and Asakura Keita seem a bit of a joke at first, but somehow they just… weirdly grow on you, lol. Why? Because like Keita himself, this drama has HEART. A whole lot of heart. There’s a scene in Episode 6 where Keita pushes for revisions in the supplementary national budget — revisions that will alleviate the pediatrician shortage in the country. But he does this with an unprecedented audacity that leaves his uncooperative Cabinet flabbergasted, and causes that sneaky snake Kanbayashi to rethink his next line of attack. I was… impressed, lol. I still think of Change as a (rather ambitious) political fairy tale, but an engrossing and enjoyable one, nevertheless.
The Tipping Point, or Why Nerds Really, Really Ruuule, Baby
You really do feel for Keita as the pressures of office, and frustration after frustration take their toll on the man and drive him to the brink of exhaustion, disillusionment, and self-doubt. Being Prime Minister can be the most lonely place in the world, and as the cookie crumbles, Keita finally sees the ugly side of politics in all its unclad (in)glory. Everything starts to snowball from Episode 7 onwards: Kanbayashi shows his hand at last — and exposes Miyama’s own complicity; the country’s pediatrics crisis claims another indirect casualty in somebody close to Keita; then he learns the truth of his father’s part in the bribery scandal… and in the process uncovers a few skeletons in his own Cabinet… And when all of these come crashing down on his slim shoulders, he could just as well be carrying the weight of the whole world. Keita’s near-breakdown at the end of Episode 7 is so painful to watch, because this is the moment he realizes that he is really, truly alone. Oh, Keita. I loved that whole sequence — and oh man, the devastating STILLNESS of it all, while the camera just focuses on his BACK. Wordlessly, he returns from Kanbayashi’s lair to his own office, sagging against that heavy oak desk while his aide breaks more devastating news. Later that evening we see him padding about the darkened house, the air heavy with his grief. Keita’s composure finally shatters inside his father’s study, where we see him slumped on the floor while clutching that blue Frisbee, and sobbing as if his heart would break… and you know all too well that it already has. Oh, Keita.
How Keita turns the tables on Kanbayashi and his flunkies makes for a very compelling watch. And that televised address he makes in the drama’s finale… well, it bowled me over, to say the least. Filmed as one continuous shot (clocking in at a staggering 22:20 minutes!!!), this landmark speech is undoubtedly the highlight of the entire drama — and a conversation piece for years to come, lol. This truly is Asakura Keita’s (and the drama’s) finest hour: you don’t see a politician attempting to justify his actions, or an embattled head of government making a last-ditch effort to stay in power. Instead, you see a man pouring his heart out, speaking with such candor and simplicity that you just instinctively KNOW that what he says is the honest truth. Keita, FTW!!! I actually replayed the whole scene just to watch and see if Kimura would periodically fix his eyes on any one point — a giveaway he was using a TelePrompter. The thing is, if there WERE certain spots that had visual cues (and I’m sure there were; if not, either he must have rehearsed the speech two dozen times, or he’s a genius with a photographic memory), either way, Kimura sure had us fooled; the entire shot was a study in seamless perfection. Great job in acting + directing + writing + editing.
So Keita takes blanket responsibility for his administration’s screw-ups (and boy, I wish more politicians were like him), but makes sure that he DOESN’T go down without a fight. His last act before stepping down as premier is to dissolve Parliament — a bold move that nobody saw coming, not even the viewer, and most of all not Kanbayashi. Game reset, baby. And as the Winds of… Change begin to sweep through the Diet, Kanbayashi concedes defeat with characteristic stoicism, knowing full well all his cards have been dealt, and there are no more aces up his sleeve. Keita’s parting words to him are unforgettable: “Thanks to you, I was able to squeeze the pus out of the political world.” (Mwahahahahahha I love this line!!! And I love you too, Keita!!!) But to Kanbayashi’s credit, he receives this potshot with nothing more than an ironic, if slightly rueful grin. Keita, FTW!!!
State of the (KimuTaku) Nation
Kimura’s acting in Change is a tour de force, and further underscores his range as an actor. He’s the best thing about this whole series, and whether the scene calls for comedy or drama, Kimura brings it — and nails every emotion, every nuance and technique required of the character. (Now for my quibble: I didn’t like how Kimura would always twitch his mouth and nose. He’s done it in his other dramas, but here in Change the frequency of it was just so distracting. Dunno if he meant it to be a physical attribute of Keita’s character, but every time his face twitched, I wanted SO badly to go up to my TV set and shove a carrot through the screen. Not kidding.)
From a purely superficial, looks-driven point of view, this drama is probably Kimura at his… grossest, lol. The nerdy specs and that Afro (or Jap’fro? hehe) hairstyle scream “I’m a deglamorized dweeb!!!” at every turn, hahaha. (I even refused to believe his curls weren’t a wig until I actually read the BTS info. Still, you gotta hand it to the guy for insisting his precious tresses be subjected to that crazy perm!straighten!perm!straighten! switcheroo for each frikkin’ episode.) But man, geek glasses and Jap’fro aside, Keita looked so trim and stylish in those three-piece suits he’d wear to work, heh heh heh. (Sure beat the crap outta those hideous costumes you wore that same year to the SMAP concert tour, eh KimuTaku? Heh heh heh.)
Going Straight for the… Jocular (hahaha)
Kimura does grrrreat comedy throughout Change, and his scenes opposite Abe Hiroshi are a joy to watch because they go beyond slapstick humor and cheap laughs. There is real intelligence and purpose in these two men’s repartee-laced dialogue and even their very physical brand of comedy. “That man is funny in a sharp way,” declared my cyber-friend Peggy of Abe Hiroshi, and to this day I have yet to read a more spot-on description of the guy. Bossy, brusque, and brimming with braggadocio, his character Nirasawa is a battle-scarred veteran of electioneering who inspires both awe and exasperation in the people around him — a formidable Frankenstein on perpetual Fight! mode. Nobody does deadpan humor better than this man — NOBODY. Abe Hiroshi, may you live forever!!! *Vulcan salute*
But but BUT, I didn’t like the clumsy attempts of the writing to cobble in the slapstick humor with the more serious issues in the first half of the drama. Case in point would be the time the U.S. trade envoy, Bingham, visits Japan for official talks. But after negotiations break down, a visibly PO’d Bingham pays a surprise call on Keita (home on his day off), hoping to get Keita to override the Japanese trade panel’s decision. At exactly the same time, Nirasawa’s feisty daughter comes a-calling, with her loafer of a boyfriend close on her heels. A little family drama unfolds (with Keita on hand to referee, natch), while Bingham and his wingman are left stewing (literally, haha) in the next room, Japan-U.S. relations be damned! Honestly, what a flimsy, unconvincing excuse to cause such a serious diplomatic SNAFU. (Honestly, Keita, HON-EST-LY.) I cannot believe the drama devoted one entire fraykin’ episode (Ep. 5) to this egregiously unfunny “comedy” of errors. The chaotic situation was obviously contrived to force a few laughs, but Keita shuttling back and forth between his two sets of visitors—was just… SOOOO inane, and felt tedious after — oh, 3 seconds. Despite Kimura and Abe Hiroshi’s valiant efforts to keep things interesting, this whole sequence was an abject Writing FAIL!!! (Let’s also throw in: Conflict resolution FAIL!!! Geopolitical sensitivity FAIL!!! Keeping-unsavory-visitors-from-the-Prime-Minister’s-house FAIL!!!) Sure, I’m aware of the Jdoramaverse’s penchant for the uber-slapstick, but J-drama writers ought to remember that screwball comedy that does NOT serve the purpose of the PLOT becomes nothing more than a farce.
Though I MUST single out the burly white dude who played Bingham: his florid, expressive face and obvious comedic talent had me in stitches! It’s so hard to come by Caucasian acting in Asian productions that DOESN’T make you cringe, so I was pleasantly surprised that Bingham turned out to be such a natural. He certainly knew how to camp it up without letting his character become a cartoon. Good Caucasian cameo, good Caucasian cameo. *wipes away tear* (The actor playing Bingham’s wingman was pretty hammy, but at least he’s fluent in Nihonggo, ne?)
Dave vs. Keita: Teh SmackDown!
Watching Change inevitably brings to mind comparisons to that OTHER political fairy tale from Hollywood, the 1993 movie Dave, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. Kevin Kline plays Dave Kovic, a presidential double who finds himself installed in the Oval Office after the real Commander in Chief is rendered comatose from a stroke. Dave’s true identity is kept secret by a couple of self-serving senior advisors who wish to keep the White House status quo; even the president’s estranged wife (the tough-as-nails Sigourney Weaver) is kept in the dark. At first Dave just plays by their rules, a voiceless accomplice to this cover-up. But the advisors soon realize they’ve gotten more than they bargained for, as Dave learns to use his newfound power to do some real good for his country.
Dave is obviously a comedy, but the main difference between this film and the drama Change is that the humor in Dave is so seamlessly written in, and succeeds in enhancing the narrative flow instead of disrupting it. There is also a more believable dynamic between Dave and his Secret Service detail (played by the hilariously gruff Ving Rhames), who utters what has to be the most touching line of dialogue: “I’d take a bullet for you,” he tells Dave towards the end of the film. Dave isn’t a great movie, but it’s a lot more consistent with the comedic overtones than Change is. Check it out and see the difference in treatment.
(Love) Affairs of State, or The Politics of Romance
As Asakura Keita’s spirited secretary Miyama, the wonderful Fukatsu Eri is the next best thing about Change, and the whole time I was like, yeah! YOU be the frigging head of government someday! Girl powah, women rule! Lol. The unsentimental, no-nonsense professionalism of the KeitaxMiyama relationship echoes the KuryuxAmamiya team-up from Hero, and in both dramas, the romance is tangential to the main plot. But while the romance takes a backseat in Hero, in Change you could say it’s… barely hanging on to the exhaust pipe, lol. Not much romantic fireworks, although Keita and Miyama DO have some cute moments together — like the time she brings him those Beverly Hills Donuts, or the time she drives him back from Fukuoka, or the near-kiss in Keita’s foyer (aieee!!!), or the — ehem-political merger (hihihi) forged in that lovely rooftop garden in the last episode (dammit Keita, ya shoulda kissed her, you nerrrd!!!).
But my favorite KeitaxMiyama moment would have to be the one in Episode 8, when a visibly shaken Miyama returns to Keita — and he takes her back, just like that, without censure or condemnation. The two share a rare moment of intimacy inside Keita’s office, a pocket of calm while a political storm rages outside those massive double doors. In this brief interlude, they are no longer Prime Minister and secretary, but simply man and woman. In the inner space of Keita’s arms, Miyama pours out all her pent-up disillusionment and remorse while Keita simply holds her — a gesture as tender as it is emotionally charged. (Oh, Keita, such an admirable display of self-control! Lol.) Then I remember Kimura and Fukatsu Eri from 2002’s Sora Kara Furu Ichioku no Hoshi — rrrowwwrrrrr!!! Oh what… different characters they played back then, hihihi.
But what I didn’t like was Miyama sacrificing HER dream to give way to Keita’s. Is it wrong for a woman to nurse political ambitions — especially if she’s smart and competent and has a heart for public service??? Granted, it isn’t wrong to reorganize one’s priorities vis-à-vis a major personal life change (like, oh, falling in love, lol) — and I do hope Miyama believed that this self-effacing, argyle-sweater-wearing, cauliflower-haired, hopelessly clueless, chain-smoking political greenhorn was bloody well worth giving up her, uh, Diet Dreamz for. But it really was a letdown to see Miyama’s political career go up in smoke, before it even began… for now, at least. Well, I figgered she could always do a Hillary later on, hahaha. So yeah — I guess it’s all good, baby.
Overall, Change ain’t a bad drama. Uneven comedy treatment and logic loopholes aside, I think the other major limitation of Change is the J-drama format itself, which has to cram everything into just 10-11 episodes. Whereas I can imagine this kind of story enjoying more space to breathe and develop within the 16-24-episode K-drama format. I mean, a plot this ambitious (and potentially rich ‘n’ meaty!) works best when accorded the appropriate number of episodes, IMO. But still… not a bad drama. You’ll probably enjoy this if:
1) You’re a Kimura completist
2) You’re an Abe Hiroshi fan
3) Your G.Q. (geopolitical quotient, haha) is below the norm for your age group, haha. Which means you won’t get too peeved by the oversimplified approach to politics, yay!
Don’t watch this is if:
1) You’re a political science student, or a political analyst by profession;
2) You’re a REAL politician, haha.
KimuTaku 4 Prez!!! (…or maybe not, lol)
Artistic & technical merit: B
Entertainment value: B