Drama Review: Byakuyakou / Journey Under a Midnight Sun (TBS, 2006)

Road to Perdition

by Ender’s Girl

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The Cast:
Yamada Takayuki, Ayase Haruka, Takeda Tetsuya, Watabe Atsuro, Yo Kimiko, Yachigusa Kaoru, Kashiwabara Takashi, Izumisawa Yuki, Fukuda Mayuko


In a Nutshell:
Two children commit the unthinkable but manage to deceive the police — except for one homicide detective who stays doggedly on their trail. But old sins cast long shadows, and their original crime inevitably leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next…


(SpoilLert: Spoilers right off the bat! Tread carefully.)

[Recommended companion tracks: “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden; “Eclipse” by Pink Floyd]

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“Long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light;”

– John Milton, “Paradise Lost”

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These two kids, how they break my heart.

What makes a murderer? Does it really boil down to personal choice? Or is it when circumstances beyond one’s control present both the means and the opportunity to make that choice in the first place? And when a person takes the life of another, what does it do to them? What if this person were just a child?

When a grownup commits murder, it seems almost ordinary by society’s standards, and perhaps the more sensational ones (like crimes of passion) will merit a passing mention in the local news. But when a child commits murder, why do we feel so shaken right down to our very core? We often overlook the fact that children are capable of doing a lot more than we give them credit for. They can fight, they can hurt each other, they can defend themselves or those whom they love, they can think and feel and react, they can lie and steal — they can make moral choices. It is modern society that blithely looks away from this reality, choosing instead to view children with rosy-tinted innocence while denying them any smidgen of personal accountability.

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When an eleven-year-old boy sticks a knife in his own father’s chest, when a girl of the same age plots to gas her own mother to death — what does this do to them? And what does this do to us, as viewers? How do these young killers live with the implications of their crimes? What do they do to survive, and how do they deal with potential obstacles to their freedom?

Byakuyakou is the journey that these two children, Kirihara Ryouji and Nishimoto Yukiho, undertake together as they carry their burden of guilt and fear and shame through uncharted territory, hacking out their own road in this wilderness while leaving a trail of blood and lies and tears. For the story of Byakuyakou is also a journey deep into the human heart, this no man’s land of hidden valleys and dark, endless tunnels. There are more secrets to bury, more crimes to cover up before the statute of limitations expires — and beyond this, freedom.

The drama starts at the very end: a strange young man in a Santa Claus suit lies bleeding on the sidewalk, watching a young woman in evening finery walk toward him with a stricken face. The young man’s eyes film over while his life flashes before him — and so our story begins. Byakuyakou is this life told in flashbacks, as well as a whodunit told in reverse: it’s like looking at a murder mystery through the negative prints. The crimes that are committed remain a puzzle to be figured out by everyone else in the story — except the two protagonists, and the viewer. For it is the two kids who are the perpetrators of the crimes in this tale, both the old ones as well as the new. This is their story, their true thoughts and actions known to no one but the viewer, who must silently bear their secrets until the very end. But even as Ryouji and Yukiho keep commiting more crimes in their bid for self-preservation, how can the viewer judge them of their wrongdoings, knowing very well that these children were the original victims in the first place? When they scheme and manipulate and murder, when they willfully destroy lives to serve their own purposes, are they not merely fighting for their own survival? After Life has dealt them a most cruel blow, are they not simply making the most of the circumstances given them? But the drama offers no quick and painless answers, no easy way out of the moral quandary it has so cunningly thrust on the viewer.

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Byakuyakou may be a riveting suspense drama, but it also presents an excellent character study — in fact one of the best that I’ve seen — of Yukiho (Izumisawa Yuki/Ayase Haruka) and Ryouji (Fukuda Mayuko/Yamada Takayuki). The screenplay (adapted from the bestselling Higashino Keigo novel) is by Morishita Yoshiko, who also penned Yamada Takayuki and Ayase Haruka’s 2004 TBS drama Crying Out Love in the Center of the World. The writing of Byakuyakou delves into Yukiho and Ryouji’s characters with such an acute understanding of the human mind and heart. There are few dramas out there that are as psychologically rich as Byakuyakou, or as thematically provocative. From the start you can already distinguish the divergence in the personalities of the young Ryouji and the young Yukiho: Ryouji kills his father without premeditation, acting entirely on his protective instincts toward Yukiho as he walks in on this perversion caused by his own flesh and blood. Whereas Yukiho approaches the aftermath of Ryouji’s crime (and later, her own as well) more calculatingly, and right away thinks of a plan to turn this situation to their advantage. With this, the victim becomes the mastermind, and the rescued becomes the protector. Yukiho saves Ryouji’s life, but she never ever lets him forget it. Guilt can be a powerful weapon and Yukiho wields it with punitive resolve — on Ryouji as well as the other people she encounters along the way — while feeding off her own persecution complex.

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Ryouji and Yukiho’s relationship, which starts out with all the fresh innocence of pre-adolescent friendship, gradually morphs into this sick symbiosis of indebtedness, of ground-in guilt and codependency. And oh, how this destroys them in the end. They really have nobody else to cling to but each other, and you can only watch as they drag each other down through the mire, spiraling deeper and deeper into their own duplicity and despair. Ryouji and Yukiho have vowed to be each other’s sun, a guiding light in a world that has taken away everything and left them nothing. Two killers cast out of Paradise and cursed to wander for all time, denied peace and forgiveness, denied their own place in the sun. Images of this sun are used liberally throughout the drama (though too liberally, I must say; the director didn’t have to overdo the metaphor — more on this later). But instead of a warm, life-giving force, the sun is depicted as this terrible, almost deific presence (like the Egyptian god Ra) who watches Ryouji and Yukiho’s every move, waiting to expose their dark little secrets and burn away all their lies into dust. It’s easy to be haunted by the grimy bleakness of Ryouji and Yukiho’s industrial hometown, with the factory towers belching forth thick black fumes. And above it all, the indelible image of the turgid sun hanging in its blood-red sky, merciless and damning.

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But there is a third major player in this story, the drama’s linchpin whose very presence ups the ante almost exponentially. Tirelessly tracking Ryouji and Yukiho is Sasagaki Junzo (Takeda Tetsuya), the veteran homicide detective who picks up their scent even when the trail has long gone cold. Most of the drama’s eleven episodes revolve around The Hunt that takes place after Sasagaki uncovers a fresh lead that puts Ryouji and Yukiho’s exculpation in jeopardy. It’s a deadly cat-and-mouse game fourteen years in the making, and one whose ending can only claim more victims.

As a viewer, part of you wants Ryouji and Yukiho to keep getting away with their crimes even as Sasagaki steadily closes in on them; after all that these two have gone through, they deserve to be happy once the statute of limitations expires. But another part of you wants justice to be served: people’s lives have been destroyed by Ryouji and Yukiho’s schemes, and no matter how extenuating the circumstances of the first two killings, their subsequent crimes — multiple rape and blackmail, prostitution and necrophilia, the credit card fraud and the sending of the bank teller to her death, the killing of Matsuura, the murder of Yukiho’s adoptive mother — are simply indefensible. And so that part of you wishes SO BADLY for Ryouji and Yukiho to finally get caught, if only to stop this descent into utter madness, if only to salvage what little redeemable scrap their souls still possess.

You also find yourself rooting for Sasagaki despite his slightly menacing quality (kindly old gramps he ain’t!), because you understand the paradox of his relationship with Ryouji and Yukiho, acting as both their pursuer and their savior. It is the character of Sasagaki whom I love the most, this aging bloodhound with the doleful face and the bassoon voice. He is no Inspector Javert of Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” whose own misguided convictions and fanatical sense of duty to the law reduce his world to black and white. On the contrary, Sasagaki’s unerring sense of justice is tempered by his immense compassion for Ryouji and Yukiho; he truly wishes to help these young, damaged individuals, and save them from their worst enemies: themselves.

The collective level of talent brought to the table by the Byakuyakou cast is simply tremendous. Fine acting is the keystone of any ensemble drama, and when it comes to this particular company of players, their cup runneth over. The old geinoukai warhorse Takeda Tetsuya (best known for playing the quintessential anti-leading man on the classic 1991 Fuji TV drama, 101st Marriage Proposal) leads this diverse pack of industry veterans, character actors, and new blood — wonderful performers all.

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As Kirihara Ryouji. Yamada Takayuki (H2, Waterboys) gives the performance of his life. My goodness, what an actor — possibly the finest of his generation. He could retire tomorrow and go live as a cobbler on the Shiretoko Peninsula or something, and his role on Byakuyakou will stand the test of time. And judging from his diverse film and TV work, Yamada Takayuki seems to enjoy the best of both worlds: star power and bankability on one hand, and a character actor’s range and dramatic chops on the other. He may not have the looks or charisma of a leading man (the thick brows and heavy-lidded almond eyes set in those broad features make up a face that is sometimes attractive and sometimes grotesque, but always arresting). But what’s so mesmerizing about him is the sheer intensity he brings to this role, and that rare ability to dissolve into his character: a true thespian hungry for his Next Big Challenge. You look into Ryouji’s eyes and recoil from what you see: the anguish, the horror, the self-recrimination, the unbearable sadness eating up his soul.

It is Ryouji who’s the more emotionally vulnerable one of the two, although it is he who ends up committing the crimes at Yukiho’s behest. For he belongs to her and no one else — body, mind, heart and soul, and you see how it tortures him beyond relief, how this devotion eventually makes a monster out of him. In the first few years following their reunion as high school students you can still see how the guilt gnaws at Ryouji, you can still sense his ambivalence as he perpetrates these acts for Yukiho. Being the less damaged one of the pair, Ryouji at first serves as the voice of reason and restraint, still not fully convinced that this path is the only one for them. A few times he broaches the idea of the two of them coming clean, if only to stop hiding, to stop running. But as Ryouji’s voice continues to get drowned out by the vindictive squall raging underneath Yukiho’s tranquil exterior, so do his personal convictions change bit by bit, until they are reduced to this desensitized heap of ruthless pragmatism. Ryouji’s own point of no return is his act of intercourse with a dead woman — all being part of Yukiho’s sick game plan — and it is into that corpse that he pours the last drop of his conscience. (And ZOMG Yamada Takayuki, your eyes in that scene, your eyes…….. *shivers*)

So the only way for Ryouji to be truly free of Yukiho is through death. And death is what he finds at the end of this madness. But even with his passing, his bloodline lives on in his son from a brief liaison with the pharmacist, Noriko (Nishida Naomi). In the drama’s heartrending epilogue, we see Yukiho watching the boy from her park bench, while the child and his mother romp on the grass. Yukiho beckons to the boy and he toddles over on his stubby legs and puts his tiny hand in Yukiho’s tapered fingers, while Noriko watches with a quizzical expression — and you realize that even this child belongs to Yukiho still, and will always be hers. In this strange little way, Ryouji and Yukiho get their lifelong wish: to walk hand in hand at last under sun and sky.

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Ayase Haruka rises to the challenge of her bloodless character, proving that with a substantially written role and proper direction, she can truly shine. I’m really happy that she holds her own against that bundle of crazy-a$$ talent that is her co-star Yamada Takayuki. But oh, Yukiho. It is a terrible, terrible thing to be emotionally and sexually abused, to be pimped off by your own mother — a thousand times more if it’s done to a child. It is also a terrible thing to kill another human being — a thousand times more if that person is your own family. But what if both the victim and the transgressor were one and the same? And what if this person were a mere child? Byakuyakou takes this unthinkable, unconscionable scenario and flings it in the viewer’s face: you’re thrown into Yukiho’s shoes and made to see her life through her own eyes. So the broken, homeless, motherless girl grows up into this frozen young woman unable to love and receive love, who blames everything from God to her own family to life in general, so embittered by her past and resentful of others who are happy in their own right. And though you cannot hate her, you grieve for her, and for this soulless, conscience-free life that she has chosen. To be this pale and beautiful flower with “grotesque roots,” as Detective Sasagaki describes her… such is her fate. But she’s a born survivor till the very end, and if there’s anything one can admire about her, it’s her persistence, and her willingness to fight tooth and French-manicured nail to stay alive.

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The other characters on Byakuyakou are an interesting assemblage of sinners and saints, each one acting out their role in this twisted morality play. The inimitable Watabe Atsuro (Beautiful Life) astounds us once again with his portrayal of the oily scuzzbag Matsuura Isamu, the Kirihara pawnshop’s employee whose sordid affair with Ryouji’s mother is more out of opportunism than anything else. After the death of Ryouji’s father, Matsuura continues to sponge off their family, and (unsurprisingly) runs the pawnshop business aground within a few years. After sucking the Kirihara finances dry, Matsuura moves on to more ambitious undertakings, using his connections as a petty criminal to expand his operations to credit card fraud and male prostitution. And he takes the now-teenage Ryouji along for the ride, using blackmail as leverage. Matsuura may be a smooth-talking, money-grubbing, bottom-feeding parasite, but dumb he ain’t, having cleverly sussed out right from the start that Ryouji somehow had a hand in his employer’s mysterious death. Matsuura reminds me of Dickens’ Fagin from “Oliver Twist” — well maybe not physically, but in the way they’d both run their rackets while exploiting youths — in the case of Matsuura, Ryouji and his friend Sonomura. Both Fagin and Matsuura are exactly the type of villain you just LOVE to hate: cowardly, contemptible, rotten to the core — the very dregs of the underworld that leech off the weak while truckling to the strong. But Matsuura in a way becomes Ryouji’s surrogate father, his padrone throughout this dark picaresque. It is a strange relationship, for even as Ryouji both hates and fears this man, he realizes that there is much to learn from their illicit exploits. Watabe Atsuro plays Matsuura to smarmy perfection (with the fur coats and rock star glasses!!!). What an actor. So Matsuura later meets a fitting end — “Live by the sword, die by the sword” — but not before giving you a glimpse into his humanness, as all great portrayals of villainy ought to do.

One character that especially tugged at my heartstrings is that of Sonomura Tomohiko (Koide Keisuke, a darn good actor who always gives me something to rave about), the male hooker who becomes Ryouji’s sidekick/gofer/accomplice during their grifter days under Matsuura. Sonomura is the Jiminy Cricket to Ryouji’s Pinocchio, a personification of the conscience. It is Sonomura’s lighthearted optimism and uncomplicated (if simpleminded) nature that moved me so, being one of the few people who still had faith in Ryouji’s innate goodness. Echoing this unstinting trust is another player in the story — Tanigushi Mafumi (Yo Kimiko), the kind librarian who provides the moral core to Ryouji and Yukiho’s story, as well as the nurturing presence that these two children never received at home. To them she acts as lighthouse, repository of their secrets, and (in the more humorous moments) dispenser of love advice — all rolled into one affectionate package. These children have practically grown to be her own flesh and blood, and she loves them with a mother’s unconditional love — even though she is to realize much later how far they have truly strayed. Assuming a less pivotal role is Yukiho’s adoptive mother Karasawa Reiko (Yachigusa Kaoru), the elderly ikebana teacher who, despite her misgivings, chooses in good faith to love this strange, secretive daughter of hers — but later pays for it with her own life.

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The subplot that I enjoyed the most (well, as much as you can ever “enjoy” anything about Byakuyakou, lol) is the one involving the cute eligible bachelor Shinozuka Kazunari (Kashiwabara Takashi) who starts dating Yukiho in her college freshman year. Yukiho is flattered by his attention and a part of her (understandably) yearns for a normal relationship outside of this hermetic world she has shared with Ryouji for so long. This new development obviously does not sit well with Ryouiji, and soon it is his turn to fly into a jealous rage. But in a most unusual twist, it is Yukiho’s dumpy, myopic friend Eriko (Otsuka Chihiro) who unintentionally replaces Yukiho in Shinozuka’s budding affections. (I love how Shinozuka is not just another playboy cliché, but can see past appearances and really like Eriko for the warmhearted soul that she is.) This throws a monkey wrench into Yukiho’s mercenary designs (i.e. she needs to hook somebody rich so she can open her boutique, and what better catch than Shinozuka), and soon enough, her spiteful alter ego Psycho Yukiho strikes again. (Oh, Eriko.) I LOVE that Shinozuka begins to sense something off about Yukiho, a niggling suspicion that grows into full-blown distrust over the years — although (as with Detective Sasagaki) it is never fully confirmed until much later. And I love how Shinozuka later joins forces with Sasagaki in the final act of the drama, when they both uncover a telling pattern in the rape+blackmail cases and soon trace the common denominator to Yukiho and Ryouji. Kashiwabara Takashi (Love Letter) has dreamy good looks, and I’d put him in my top 5 classically handsome J-actors — if it weren’t for those snaggy little teeth of his, which could be used to fell a pine tree. (Ever heard of dentists, Kashiwabara my sweet? *nasty grin*)

I could go on and on about the wellspring of talent that is the Byakuyakou cast: Don’t you just love Sasagaki’s junior partner Koga Higashi (Tanaka Koutaro), the stouthearted family man with the chili powder addiction? Granted — he’s a bit of a cliché, the token “Brave Young Lawman Who Dies!” of many a crime thriller, and as soon as I noticed the father-son affection between Sasagaki and Koga, as soon as I saw Koga’s loving young wife and cute little kiddo, I had a baaaad, baaaaad feeling he wasn’t going to survive the story, tsk. But even clichés become real people you can root for when they’re written and portrayed well. After Koga’s death you can see how it devastates Sasagaki to the brink of giving up (that breakdown scene where he dumps chili powder into his ramen in the empty precinct corridor — aaaaahrhghghghgh), how Koga’s memory (OMG that framed family photo — aaaaarghhherhgrhgh) gives Sasagaki the inspiration, the burning drive to soldier on alone and get to the bottom of this deep-rooted mystery that has claimed his young partner’s life. Then there’s Hirata Misturu as Ryouji’s pedophile of a father (hey it’s Teppei’s boss from Love Generation! hehe); and Yukiho’s boozy pimp of a mother (Kawai Michiko); and Ryouji’s emotionally crippled mother (Aso Yumi), who utters what has to the most shattering line of the entire drama before she takes her own life: “The boy is still in the air duct…” And it kills you to know that had she waited a bit longer, she would’ve at least found something to live for — in Ryouji’s son. And I must mention Matoba Koji who cameos as Enomoto, the Yakuza boss who realizes Ryouji’s potential value to his own operations — with or without Matsuura acting as their broker, and even better without.

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And then we have those two kids, Izumisawa Yuki (as Young Ryouji), and Fukuda Mayuko (as Young Yukiho). My goodness. WHERE did they find these little marvels??? I’ve seen dramas with child actors ranging from the insufferably hammy to the insufferably adorable, but never before have I encountered a drama where kids have had to play individuals so damaged, so psychologically f**ked-up, killers for Pete’s sake! The first episode of Byakuyakou is so critical to the rest of the drama: if you don’t root for the characters as kids, you’ll never root for them as adults. And correspondingly, if you can’t see the continuity in the portrayal of the characters from childhood to adulthood, if there’s a disconnect in physical appearance and behavior from the child to the adult, then you won’t find yourself believing in the characters, either. These child actors playing Ryouji and Yukiho winningly provide that character continuity, and never once do they make you feel like they’re acting at all. Such naturally gifted performers are so hard to come by, and I sincerely hope we see more of these two in the coming years.

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For all its excellent qualities, Byakuyakou is not without its flaws. Probably the most glaring one of all is the drama’s excessive indulgence in visual symbolism. The “Gone With the Wind” paperbacks and Scarlett O’Hara fixation… The single white snowflake, the single white flower… The ever-watchful sun. These images have immense poetic potential (e.g. the single white snowflake/flower represents the moral purity that Yukiho inwardly yearns for but cannot attain, etc.). But imagery and symbolism work best with subtlety: a few allusions per image ought to be enough for one drama. But when the writer/directors jackhammer them into the viewer’s consciousness every bleeping chance they can use, when they have to spell it out that They! Are! Meaningful! Very! Very! Meaningful! To! The! Story! And! The! Characters!!! — then the constant references become stale right off the bat, not to mention counterproductive as hell. This isn’t emotional spoon-feeding, this is emotional shoveling-down-your-gullet-and-forcing-you-to-swallow (say “ahhh!”). Just let me make those mental linkages on my own, dammit. Case in point: Okay, so Yukiho feels this strange affinity to Scarlett O’Hara, I get it. But to set up a scene where she sees Shinozuka reading the same book at a sidewalk café? Coincidence — or plot contrivance? What — so she wouldn’t be attracted to the guy if the book had been a Tom Clancy spy novel, instead? Durrr. (And since we’re on the topic, I also hated how Ryouji and Yukiho would communicate via letters inserted in copies of “Gone With the Wind” at their hometown library — OH COME ON. It’s a public library. You don’t leave self-incriminating messages (e.g. “Dear Ryo, I killed Mummy. XOXO Yukiho”) when you’re supposedly doing all that you can to stay under the radar and — oh, I don’t know, maybe NOT GET CAUGHT BY THE POLIZEI??? Durrrrrr.) Why do you DO this to us, Jdoramas???? Can you not trust the viewers to think for themselves??!?1!!??#$^$#@?#@??# Don’t treat us like we’re stoooopid, for fraaaak’s sake.

Rant over. But wait — I have another bone to pick with this drama!!! And this time, it’s the direction that’s mostly to blame. I hated the overwrought treatment of two pivotal scenes that could have been brilliantly executed but ended up failing miserably. Scene 1: Yukiho’s iconoclastic hissy fit in the little chapel with a stricken Ryouji looking on, helpless to stop the uncontrollable madness surging through her as she trashes the church interiors while cursing God and the angels and the saints in heaven and organized religion in general. This scene marks a crucial moment for Ryouji, because it’s what finally impels him to go over to the dark side. But aaaaaahhaarghhghgh the scene was just too bloody loooong, and despite the sheer racket it must have made, the guards sure took their sweet time in “rushing over” to accost the two intruders/vandals. So there was no one else in the vicinity (roving guards or priests or churchgoers or passers-by?), no one at all who heard the commotion from outside? COME ON. And there were just too many shots of Ayase Haruka screaming at the stained glass and the giant crucifix, too many shots of her smashing up the religious paraphernalia. The first few seconds of the scene gave me goosebumps, and the expressions on the faces of Ayase and Yamada were spot-on, but apparently the director(s) wanted to spin out the scene to five times longer than it should have been. Stupid, stupid.

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Scene 2: This is the most crucial moment of all, but the director(s) messed it up just the same. I’m talking about Ryouji’s death scene at the start and close of the drama. The build-up to his death was terrific, though: Sasagaki finally confronts Ryouji and shows him the way out his personal hell, like a father entreating his prodigal son to come home. This scene breaks your heart because at the end of it all, the prodigal son rejects his last chance at redemption. So Ryouji falls from the bridge, the knife he has used again and again embedded deep in its final resting place: its master’s body (poetic justice, perhaps?). It also happens to be Yukiho’s Big Night, the opening of her R&Y boutique. She sees him gasping on the sidewalk, his lifeblood seeping through his Santa Claus suit. What to do, what to do? Should she go over and try to save him, but risk exposing their closely guarded relationship? Or should she walk away without looking back, knowing that this is exactly what he wants her to do? Now, it is Ryouji’s turn to raise that finger and point the opposite way, towards safety and freedom. This scene could have been great, really it could, but the direction was a disaster. Again, the scene was just so emotionally manipulative and long-drawn-out. Cut to Ryouji’s face as he smiles bravely at Yukiho, willing her to sever their last remaining bond. Cut to Yukiho frozen in her spot, indecision all over her face. (I have to say that Ayase came up wanting in this climactic moment. The only person you’ve ever loved is dying out there in the freezing cold, and you’ll never see him again, and he’s telling you to save yourself instead of trying to help him. What are you going to DO? Ayase’s expression lacked the agonized spasms that should have overlain her incertitude. I felt she should’ve given more.) Cut to Ryouji. Cut to Yukiho. Cut to Ryouji. Cut to Yukiho. Cut to the USELESS PEDESTRIANS who don’t lift a finger to help Ryouji or at least call for an ambulance. — Bad, bad direction, argggh!!!! It just wasn’t believable for the passers-by to look on stupidly while Ryouji lay bleeding on the street, a knife sticking out of his body. But the directors in their infinite wisdom apparently believed that more is more, hence their wonderfully astute decision to milk Ryouji’s protracted death scene of its last drop of sentimentality. Thanks for the melodrama overkill. Not.

The scene would have worked much, much better with a more realistic treatment, tighter editing, and yes — better acting from Mlle. Ayase. Just picture this: Ryouji’s fall causes a commotion on the sidewalk, with several good Samaritans stopping to see what’s wrong amid the crush of Christmas shoppers. And through the blur of strangers milling around him and disjointed voices addressing him in urgent tones, through the haze of blood and pain and falling snow, Ryouji catches sight of Yukiho, a vision in her silvery-white gown and fur coat, diamonds dripping from her ears and neck. She’s standing some distance behind the growing crowd of lookers-on, naked anguish on her ashen face. Their eyes meet. He uses his last ounce of strength to lift a blood-soaked finger and point away from himself, away from them, away from this “riotous madness” they have spawned together. Leave, he is telling her. And LIVE. So she turns away, the shame and self-loathing on her face mingled with — relief. For this is what she really desires, to be free of him at last. And he has just shown her the way out. Somewhere in the distance, Ryouji hears the old detective Sasagaki calling out to him in that plaintive bassoon voice, a sound that is soon drowned out by the roaring in his own ears. Ryouji sees his own life flash before him, the same wasted life we as viewers have witnessed through the course of this drama. Ryouji’s last memory is that of Yukiho’s slim form as she walks away — never looking back, a silvery phantasm gliding underneath a snowy, starlit sky, towards the dark side of the moon. The barest whisper of a smile hovers on Ryouji’s bloodless lips, before his own world fades to black.

***

The Byakuyakou theme song “Kage” (“Shadow”) by Shibasaki Kou, seems tailor-made for the drama. And the music video used in the end credits of the first and last episodes, featuring just the four actors who played Ryouji and Yukiho from childhood to adulthood, will make you weep all over again.

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Grade
Artistic & technical merit: A-
Entertainment value: B+
Overall: A-

[Related post: Read my review of White Night / Baekyahaeng, the 2009 Korean film adaptation of the “Byakuyakou” novel]

***

“Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden (Superunknown, 1994)

In my eyes, in disposed,
In disguise, as no one knows
Hides the face, lies the snake
The sun in my disgrace
Boiling heat, summer stench
‘Neath the black the sky looks dead
Call my name through the cream
And I’ll hear you scream again

Black hole sun
Won’t you come
And wash away the rain

Black hole sun
Won’t you come
Won’t you come

Stuttering, cold and damp
Steal the warm wind tired friend
Times are gone for honest men…

“Eclipse” by Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)

All that you touch / All that you see
All that you taste / All you feel.
All that you love / All that you hate
All you distrust / All you save.
All that you give / All that you deal
All that you buy, beg, borrow or steal.
All you create / All you destroy
All that you do / All that you say.
All that you eat / And everyone you meet
All that you slight / And everyone you fight.
All that is now / All that is gone
All that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

***
Photo credits: azndream.over-blog.com, dramauniverse.com, dramawiki.com, fizzlex3.wordpress.com, movie.zing.vn, nautiljon.com, vidom.org, sushi-bar-fansub.info, zdoramo.vox.com

Title credit:
“Road to Perdition” by M.A. Collins and R.P. Rayner (DC Comics, 1998)

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22 Comments on “Drama Review: Byakuyakou / Journey Under a Midnight Sun (TBS, 2006)”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Do you know they are making a korean remake of this.
    Not a series though but a movie with Go Soo and Son Ye Jin.
    I found the official pv to the movie :

    It does look interesting.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks for sharing!🙂 I had only seen the trailer that X posted over at Twitch (last week, I think), and I really enjoyed this music vid, it does look interesting. (Lovely song, too. Very apropos.) I gave a little gasp at 1:16–because I wasn’t expecting Go Soo to show such… intensity, lol. He’s cute and all, but a bit of a dramatic lightweight in my book (I thought he struggled with his Count of Monte Cristo-ish character’s supposed complexity on Green Rose, haha.) Good to see him back in fighting form after his military service, teehee. And I super like Son Ye-jin, so I’m definitely looking forward to White Night. T’would be interesting to see how the story makes that cinematic transition. Can’t wait!

  2. Jenny Says:

    I agree, I like how they balanced the light versus the dark. I think both Go Soo and Son Ye Jin(she’s one of my fave korean actresses) are very charismatic and I think in the characters they portray you need intensity.
    (and I love the song too it’s haunting and sad)

  3. dragonrider Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this review, you picked up on all the amazing things about this drama and have made me want to set aside all my uni work (which I will happily do) to rewatch this. I have been meaning to rewatch the drama, but I figure I need to mentally prepare myself for the despair and hate and grief and loss.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks.😀 Have you seen the Korean movie remake? I plan to in the coming weeks, just to compare them (though much of it probably has to do with that cutie Go Soo XD). But like you said, one has to be in the right frame of mind to watch (and fully appreciate) something like Byakuyakou. You must have a pretty tough stomach, because I don’t think I’d want to revisit this drama for a long, loooong time.🙂 (Kind of how I felt when I watched the Korean film Old Boy. Awesome story and acting, but it took a while for all the filth and guilt and madness to slough off. *shudders at memory*)

  4. charlie Says:

    It’s been a loooong time since I’ve watched Byakuyakou and I really enjoyed it because it was so dark. I super enjoyed reading your review on this dorama and I definitely agree with you about the ending and how Ayase Haruka’s acting could’ve been better (from what I remember I felt that throughout the series…) I think I might rewatch the series again too haha! To prep myself for the Korean movie😄 Do you think you’ll be posting the comparison???🙂 AND it was recently announced that there will also be a Japanese film adaptation of Byakuyakou too to be released 2011 and Horikita Maki (…noes!) will be portraying Yukiho (everyone else tba).

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the review.🙂 I’m so looking forward to watching White Night (which reminds me, I gotta borrow my best friend’s copy pronto!) and I’d love to do a review/comparison when I’m done. I mean, the material is just so rich that any adaptation should prove to be interesting in its own right. =D

      “Horikita Maki (…noes!)” = LOL!😀 Hehe my thoughts exactly. (And oh pls pls I hope they don’t get a Johnny to play Ryouji hahahaha) Well. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, eh? *rubs hands evilly*

  5. Jenny Says:

    I’m actually excited about the new japanese version. I’ve seen Horikita Maki’s movies and you should watch her movies instead, she’s a way better movie actress. She’s one of those actresses who do better with the proper guidance and right material. Tokyo Shounen was quite dark and a complicated part and I heard she was very good in memorories of a teenage amnesiac.

    Ryoji is rumoured to be played by Kengo Kora. the rest of the cast is still not announced even though filming has begun.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Hmmm… the only movie of Maki’s that I’ve seen is Kurosagi (hahahahaha LOL), and she barely registered a blip on the radar screen. But taking what you said into consideration, I’ll give her other movies the benefit of the doubt.😉

      Re Ryouji, one of the early rumors was that Nino would be cast. He’s uber-talented but I’m not sure he can play someone so twisted. I don’t know Kengo Kora, but hope he can pull it off should he bag the role.🙂

  6. Jenny Says:

    Really, Nino. I can’t see him portraying such a dark character like Ryoji.
    Kengo Kora is a new name to me too, I know he was in snakes and earrings(hebi ni piasu)and other films.
    Well I just hope it’s not a JE boy.

    Here is the trailer to Tokyo shounen, it’s bad quality though ><

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Hey thanks for sharing!🙂 Looks like a pretty dark film. That last shot of Maki was freakyyyy. So was that apple, lol @__@

      Maki’s character in this movie (well, from the trailer, at least) seemed to me like Nobuta after 5 years, if she had never met Shuji and Akira, that is😀

  7. doozy Says:

    E.G.,
    I read your review of Byakkuyakou when it was first published and found it to be excellently written, but at that time, I hadn’t yet watch the drama so your words and description didn’t really sink in.
    I have just finished watching this drama and the first thing that I wanted to do afterwards was to read your review. So, here I am.

    I remember you describing your process of writing reviews in one of your posts and you said something like how you would rewatch a show before you write the review. I hope you didn’t have to rewatch Byakkuyakou to give us this detailed, insightful, and meaty review, because as great as this show was, one time viewing is more than enough for me.

    On flaws:
    In addition to the ones you mentioned, two more loopholes that bugged me.

    1) How Ryouji was able to kill Yukiho’s adoptive mother by disconnecting what looked like her oxygen machine? But she wasn’t hooked up to a nasal cannula or was she even mechanically ventilated. So how was that possible? Did I miss something there?

    2) Sasagaki is one sturdy old man, equipped with a Ryouji-GPS because even after getting stabbed by Ryouji and apparently was bleeding profusely, he managed pull out the scissors blade from his back, free himself from the sack, trek up the bridge (with no passerby noticing???) to where Ryouji was standing, and said all those things that he was able to say, when previously, all it took to kill was one stab from that cursed pair of scissors at the hands of Ryouji?! But in the overall scheme of things, I guess Sasagaki needed to survive in order for Ryouji to be offered a second chance at redemption and for the drama to have that touching moment at the end.

    3) As much as I love Aysae, I too found her acting to be somewhat lacking at certain pivotal scenes, but overall, a fine performance. What a dramatic shift from adorable Hotaru to damaged, borderline psychopathic Yukiho.

    General comments:
    -Every time Yukiho bites her nails, I was nervous for other characters, like eek! what next?! They might as well play that track from the movie Psycho to accompany her nail biting.

    -The child actors are incredible! The circumstances that they had to endure, their tears and pain. I had a hard time watching those beginning episodes, and even the flashbacks. And where did they find a child actress who really resembles Ayase, especially the eyes?!

    -Yamada… I first saw him in the movie version of Densha Otoko and thought that he was decent. Then, I watched him in Lunch Queen as an undercover badass and thought that his character was likeable. And in Byakuyakou, he really impressed. What versatility! Like you wrote in your review, the look in his eyes after that dreaded act… the I-will-kill-you-if-you-stand-in-my-way-because-I’m-no-longer-human look. It was scary.

    Side note:
    I’m planning to watch Into the White Night next because I’m curious to see how it compares to the Jdorama and also because I adore Son Ye Jin. Am I crazy? Would my stomach and psyche be able to endure this story one more time?
    Have you seen it yet?

  8. doozy Says:

    Also, I’ve added Crying Out Love… to my to-watch list. I think Ralph would approve. (I’m really marathoning Ayase’s work prior to HnH 2, aren’t I? Heh.)

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Wow, an Ayase Completist in tha hauz!😄 Lol, Ralph would def. approve, he’s been trying to get me to watch it since forever.🙂 It’s def. on my queue, and I’ll watch it when I’m in the mood for something weepy. But I’d love to hear your thoughts about it when you’re done!

      Yikes, you read the Byakuyakou review without having seen the drama?😀 Maybe you had no intention of watching it back then, but later changed your mind (happens to me too). But it’s nice to know you thought of my review afterwards!😉

      Oh don’t worry about it, Byakuyakou was one of the rare dramas that I only watched once before writing a review. I took down notes in the course of watching, and I’ll admit to approaching this drama a bit more… cerebrally than others, perhaps because I knew it wouldn’t have much of a fangirl factor.😉 My best friend had already primed me for the story, so I knew what to expect (ergo, no surprises or major shockers). But you’re right, I wouldn’t have wanted to see this all over again, anyway. Too… heavy and twisted and dark.

      Hey, you noticed a lot more logic bugs! You got the eagle eye, girl!😉 No, I didn’t notice that Ikebana Teacher wasn’t properly hooked up to the respirator. Tsk tsk, the production team should’ve done a better job with these seemingly minor details, if that’s the case. Re Sasagaki, yeah, I was also like, geez, that old man should be dead by now… but then the emotional part of me also wanted him to live, so I was also like, please don’t die huhuhu. But I agree that Ryouji’s knife attack shouldn’t have been built up too much because in real life, there’s now way an ailing ojiisan could’ve survived that long — AND chased after Ryouji and all that. I guess Sasagaki’s will to live and bring Ryouji to redemption gave him that superhuman boost of strength. *shrugs*

      “Every time Yukiho bites her nails, I was nervous for other characters, like eek! what next?!” >> lololol so true!😀 And yeah, every time Yamada Takayuki started getting that crazy-eyed look, I was like, ohcraaaap, who’s he gonna kill now.

      Yeah, the kids were amazing, weren’t they?🙂 I’m glad Fukuda Mayuko (Young Yukiho — and you’re right, the physical resemblance is so uncanny!) is very much active in film and drama (she’s 16 now, all grown up! *sob*). Still looks like Ayase, though Ayase is way prettier and has a charm that Fukuda doesn’t. But Fukuda will make a GREAT character actress (at the very least) and that’s more than I can ask for someone of such talent.

      Re White Night — LOL, were you unconsciously sending me brainwaves or something? Because that’s just what I watched around dawn today!!! (I set the alarm at 2:30 AM to watch the Spain-Port. World Cup game, but woke up around 4:30 instead and found out I’d missed it, and I couldn’t go back to sleep so I ended up watching White Night instead, haha.) So anyway — yes yes yes, do watch it. The film’s POV and narrative structure are very different from the drama’s. And the detective was my favorite character here because the role was the meatiest (writing-wise), and also because Han Suk-kyu gave the most compelling performance (he made me go, whoa, I can’t believe he’s the same guy from Christmas in August!!! baby, now that’s an actor). I’ll stop here as I don’t want to color your judgment (or viewing pleasure — as if, lol). But I’m glad I got to watch the movie (for comparison purposes, at the very least) and I plan to write a short review when I get back from my Malaysia trip next week. In the meantime, do try to give the movie a spin, then we’ll pick each other’s brains after, ehh?😀 (But watch out for the typical K-movie crazysh*t nudie scenes, lol, ‘coz I counted — and fast-forwarded, they were just too freaky for my Jdrama-dulled sensibilities lol — 3 or 4 of ’em.)

      In case you’re interested, yanie @ LiveJournal has been translating and doing chapter summaries of the original novel, here. yanie also shared some of her thoughts on the drama vs. movie differences on pages 16&17 of the D-Addicts thread. (yanie is more of a Jdorama expert, so she wasn’t very familiar with the K-actors in the movie.)

  9. B.T. Says:

    I really don’t think Ryouji’s mind and body belonged to Yukiho. Something in him broke when she said that “the one who gets tricked is dumb” line. He no longer desired to ‘walk with her under the sun.’ His main objective became helping her get her store then dying. Although, he already started to think that way when he saw Yukiho with Shinozuka. He wanted to be free of her, because being with her hurt too much.
    Also, the most tender love scenes weren’t even with Yukiho, they were with the pharmacist lady. It really seemed like he wanted to stay with her, if not for his situation. He even became passionate enough with her to orgasm. I’m not all that sure any part of him belonged to Yukiho anymore, including his heart. He used the phrase “I liked you a lot” at the end, not “love.” I think he just felt like he owed her and they’d gone all this way together that he might as well finish.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Hmmm, I never really saw it that way, but your insights certainly put a new spin on things. I suppose the final events of the drama would also make sense when looking through that particular lens. But the way I saw it, even if a part of Ryouji wanted to be free of Yukiho’s manipulation, he was far too deep in their co-dependent relationship to truly wish to leave, knowing that in spite of everything he still loved her in that dark and twisted way.

      Anyway, I think it’s a testament to the complexity of Ryouji and Yukiho’s characters that their own thoughts, feelings and motivations are open to different interpretations. The same way that Shakespeare’s characters will have you analyzing and speculating on their actions without necessarily arriving at a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer.😉 (Wow I did not just compare Byakuyakou to The Bard, lol :O)

      • B.T. Says:

        I’m glad I can offer something new.

        Ryouji is a type of tragic hero akin to one of Shakespeare’s characters, who starts out with good intentions but meets a tragic end because of a fatal flaw [obviously Yukiho.. >.>].
        I love the complexity Yamada Takayuki brought to the character. I wouldn’t mind at all if he reprised the role for the movie =D Not to mention I’m completely in love with him and wants to see him in another blockbuster. But alas..

  10. karened Says:

    Will bookmark this until I’ve finished watching. I’ve been wanting to watch this for a while, because of Yamada Takayuki. But it felt too dark…now, with your A ratings, I guess I’ll go for it.

  11. diorama Says:

    Just reread your review (read it right after finished the drama a few months ago). I actually really enjoyed this drama; my friend tried and couldn’t take the darkness and misery, hehe. But I thought that even the necrophilia and murder and betrayal was well incorporated into the story – it was necessary for the narrative and character development (or degeneration?). Byakuyakou manages to combine a tight, engrossing detective story with a psychological character study, which many, many films and dramas I’ve seen can’t do. Props to the writers! (But I’m off to watch a fluff k-drama now, haha).

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Oh yeah, tell me about poorly written detective/spy stories, they’re a dime a dozen on either side of the Sea of Japan. So few dramas out there have taut and intelligently plotted mystery arcs, you’ll just weep in relief whenever you come across one. x__O

      (Hahaha, K-fluff is always good!😀 I just started watching SKKScandal and Dream High myself ;-))

  12. Eliza Bennet Says:

    I think your review is a lot better than the show itself. Thank you for your hard work.

    It was not very good to be honest but I was intrigued by the story and the characters so now I want to read the book but apparently there isn’t a translated version available.


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