Drama Review (Part 1): Ninkyo Helper (Fuji TV, 2009)
by Ender’s Girl
Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Natsukawa Yui, Kuroki Meisa, Kato Seishiro, Yabu Kouta, Igarashi Shunji, Yuki Jutta, Ukaji Takashi, Naka Riisa, Osugi Ren, Yamamoto Yusuke, Matsudaira Ken
In a Nutshell:
Six mid-level yakuza gunning for a coveted promotion find out that to qualify for the post, they must first hurdle their toughest gig ever: as undercover care workers at the Taiyo Nursing Home.
(SpoilLert: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you… heh heh)
[Recommended companion track: “All My Soul,” Ninkyo Helper OST]
Deconstructing Mr. Tsu
It isn’t easy being Kusanagi Tsuyoshi.
For starters, you were never as popular as other members of your manband. Yes, you’re part of a manband — one that used to be a boyband, but considering most of you will be 40 in a few years, your group can hardly be called that nowadays. Still, you belong to Nihon’s preeminent pop group S… M… A… P…, with a string of sold-out concerts, hit singles, TV and radio shows, a bajillion CMs, and a googolplex of magazine covers accrued over two decades — and counting, if you include the years before your official debut. No other boyband/manband has enjoyed the same level of success or staying power as SMAP, or has even come close. But for how much longer, is anyone’s guess.
Being part of a manband means there have to be some things you’re marginally good at, a few perfunctory talents up your sleeve to lend a semblance of credibility to your J-Pop icon status. Singing? Oh, you don’t have a terrible voice — not as bad as your mate Nakai’s, which could be mistaken for rapping — but yours won’t stand out in room full of people with real vocal talent. Sure, you can play a couple of instruments like the piano, but virtuoso you ain’t. Dancing, then? Oh no, no no no, your dancing is even worse, and you know it — painfully. No matter how hard you try, your stiff, gangly body always ends up doing these herky-jerky moves devoid of any iota of musicality or grace.
You wish you had some other talent to fall back on in lieu of the singing and dancing, like maybe Nakai’s terrific hosting skills, or Shingo’s slapstick comedy, or Goro’s wine connoisseurship… okay, maybe you could do without Goro’s wine connoisseurship. But most of all you wish you had Kimura’s… well, everything. The capable singing, the insane dancing skills, the “Ratings King” epithet, the athleticism, the confidence and charisma, even those effin’ AnAn “Best Jeanist” citations. You wish you had all those, but instead you have your… Hangul fluency. Oh, your flair for the language has won you a lot of fans on the other side of the sea, but it’s still a niche market, and you know it. The whole country knows it.
The whole country also happens to know all about your well-publicized battles with your inner demons. For years you’ve struggled with low self-esteem and alcohol abuse, with things coming to a head in that “public display of indecency” — as the courts called it — in April 2009. In the face of the resulting PR nightmare (the lost endorsements, the media fallout, the tarnished image) you’ve apologized profusely for your meltdown, though it remains to be seen just how much damage your career will sustain in the long run. Still, you’re grateful that SMAP closed ranks around you while you tried to pick yourself up, as the group has done for other members in times past. Your… condition has been an open secret within your unit and management agency for years, and although one or two members may have — privately and publicly — derided you for it, you’re still thankful that for the most part, the dudes got your back. You just wish you had the fortitude and self-control to overcome your personal failings. But simply wishing just won’t cut it.
As far as public personas go, you’ve always been seen as the tractable, timid Tsuyopon, someone who’s treated with a great deal of affection, but not as much respect. You wish you could be as tough as that well-conditioned machine of unfeeling professionalism aka Kimura-kun, and your biggest fear is that you’ll be remembered more for the things he could do but you couldn’t: couldn’t sing as well, couldn’t dance for sh*t, couldn’t climb Fujisan for a SMAPxSMAP challenge (and of course the cameras had to catch you huffing and puffing up the mountain while your climbing buddy, Kimura-kun, strode on tirelessly before you, and of course he later just had to mention on-air that you had been drinking the night before), couldn’t cook fast enough on Bistro SMAP, couldn’t pull off a cool solo number on your last concert tour, that you just had to beg Kimura-kun to include you in his, couldn’t sober up for good even if you tried, couldn’t keep your clothes on that one wasted night in April. It goes on and on, this list of things you couldn’t do, or couldn’t do well enough. And so you often wonder what the future holds for you, the not-the-most-popular member of an aging boyband moving towards the brink of cultural irrelevance.
But there’s one thing you know you have, something that comes effortlessly to you as if driven by pure instinct. You can ACT, and you know it.
In fact, you’re the best damn actor in SMAP. Hellyeah, maybe in all of Johnny-Ent.
And you just proved to everyone else that the best way to bounce back from scandal is to deliver an unforgettable drama performance that will blow viewers away, silence the harshest of critics, and win back the fans whom you have let down.
Deconstructing Mr. Hikoichi
Ninkyo Helper is a return to form for Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Actor as he plays the part of Tsubasa Hikoichi, uh, Gangster. Which is a challenge in itself because, well, it ain’t easy being Tsubasa Hikoichi. (Oh man, what a character.)
Despite your rough childhood (mum ran off with another man, pops drank himself to death), your story is nothing special, which is why nobody particularly cared that you grew up aimless and rootless, living the life of a typical street punk until it was but natural to turn pro and join the big league, the only place where your criminal proclivities were not just accepted, but rewarded — richly, if you were assiduous enough. Getting recruited by the Hayabusa Group is an honor you’ve tried your best to live up to, and a debt to which you’re bound for life. So you diligently earned your stripes — or body ink, rather — and rose through the ranks to run the Group’s loansharking operations in the Roppongi district. The moneylending business is semi-legit; it’s the scamming ring that isn’t. And your victims? Nursing home pensioners, especially those with no nearby relatives. Your modus operandi? Swindling them of their life savings on the pretext of a family member’s accident. The racket is virtually foolproof, as everyone knows that old people are the easiest to dupe, having gotten so dependent on others that they’ll readily swallow any lie you tell them and cough up any sum you ask. And you know this can get only more lucrative, given Japan’s rapid demographic shift towards retirees. Business has been good, and your underlings both fear and idolize you (and your wicked-looking tattoos). And though you never show it, you live for their respect because it validates what you do and who you are.
And yet you know that this isn’t exactly the life you once thought you had signed up for. As you gaze out the window of your cramped “office” — a room filled with cigarette smoke and the rustle of papers coming from your small platoon of con men barking into their handsets — you look down on the streets of your own little fiefdom and realize for the nth time that the gangsta pride that you thought would come with your… profession, those glorious nighttime battles in the rain where you’d vanquish the rival gangs for your clan’s honor… are all in your head. And in the movies. But you’re not one to complain, you never were. You know this is as good as it gets, an enterprise built upon usury and fraud. But everyone needs to make a living, and that’s the simple truth. In your own words: “If you don’t want to starve and die like a dog, you can’t be too choosy.”
And then the Godfather kicks the bucket, leaving one of his “caporegimes,” Takayama (Matsudaira Ken) to assume leadership of the Hayabusa Group. But before the Grand Old Man’s funeral is even over, Takayama broaches a strange proposition to you and five other yakuza: one of you will be chosen to inherit his former post. That you made the short list doesn’t surprise you at all, and after checking out the competition you’re all the more convinced that no one else is better qualified for the promotion. You know the move up is in the bag, except for one little hiccup: the boss requires all of you to do time at a nursing home before he makes the selection — for what conceivable purpose, you haven’t the foggiest. But you’ll be damned if you lose out to a bunch of old-timers in a rundown care facility on the outskirts of the city. You’re here to win, and win big, and if it means having to change a few soiled bed sheets or wheel around a few drooling imbeciles for the next how-many-days (and maybe even mooch a few bucks off a couple of them) — piece of piss, baby. If you can just keep your act together, you’ll be out in no time, and the (under)world will be ripe for the taking. “Dog eat dog?” More like “yakuza eat aged.” The prospects of power feel obscenely gratifying and you laugh out loud, knowing your geriatric wards will be too deaf to hear you anyway. A few weeks in the Senile Slammer should be child’s play… right?
The Strange Case of Mr. Tsuyoshi and Mr. Hikoichi
The opening minutes of Ninkyo Helper take us into the yakuza fantasy in Tsubasa Hikoichi’s mind: Hikoichi cuts a terrifying figure in the rain, coiled and deadly and ready to strike. The rival yakuza come at him in slow motion, aiming for his head with pipes and wooden planks. Outnumbered, Hikoichi turns to face them snarling, and though armed with only a knife and his patent (but famously vicious) headbutt, he does not rest until his enemies are vegetables — or worse. The silhouetted forms slugging it out on the rain-pelted mud evoke the gritty, noirish feel of a Hong Kong gangsta movie. And oh my soul, that glorious, glorious “All My Soul” refrain with its distinctly Negro spiritual vibe, ties the whole sequence together and elevates it to one of the most memorable drama openers ever. I actually hit the pause button just to make sure I had popped the right disc into my player, and not some Johnny To crime flick, lol.
My initial reaction to the opener was: WTF! Someone killed our sweet, mild-mannered, couldn’t-hurt-a-cricket Tsuyopon and left this menacing mobster in his place! The Kusanagi Tsuyoshi I adored from the “Tsuyoshi’s Midsummer Night’s Dream” sketch (my fave SMAPxSMAP skit like, evah!), in which he makes the other members act out a script he wrote, where he’s the real leader and not Nakai or Kimura (lol, how meta can you get?), the gentle, smiling Tsuyopon from a slew of other SMAPxSMAP episodes, concert videos and PVs, the Tsuyopon who still gets tongue-tied around his longtime crush, Matsu Takako, that Kusanagi Tsuyoshi was nowhere to be seen in Ninkyo Helper.
My second reaction was: Madre mia! THE GUY CAN ACT. I knew what people had been saying about him in the various forums, about how he was the best actor in SMAP, etc., and I remember posting somewhere that should I end up forming the same opinion — that Tsuyoshi can out-act even Kimura — then I would be very happy for him. And so I am.
Not to detract from Kimura’s ascendancy as a Romantic Lead (because really, nobody comes close), but KimuTaku’s biggest criticism as an actor is that he doesn’t have much range, that he’s always played various facets of himself, etc. My take is this: Is Kimura a great performer? Yes, the best there is. Is Kimura a good actor? Yes. Is he a great actor? No, IMO, he lacks the versatility. (He came close to it in Bushi no Ichibun, though.) But how come nobody complains when he takes on roles like Halu or Sena or Kuryu, if they’re just regarded as extensions of himself? Because, paradoxically, that’s exactly why they work, that’s why we love those roles. Kimura’s at his best when the role is congruous with his persona (which happens about 95% of the time anyway, so it’s all gravy, baby). It’s the character that has to conform to Kimura, not the other way around. And when the writing fails the compatibility test (Mr. Brain, anyone? anyone? no? lol), then the performance, needless to say, isn’t as effective.
On the other hand, Kusanagi Tsuyoshi is the type of actor who can disappear into a role no matter how dissimilar from his true nature. In Ninkyo Helper, Tsuyoshi slips into Hikoichi’s tattooed hide until all you see is the character – how he thinks, what makes him tick, what he most aspires to be. The fuzzy-hearted, crinkly-eyed, weedy-voiced SMAP Idol? Gone. Obliterated. Kaput. And it’s on account of this remarkable talent that Tsuyoshi truly shines when playing complex and emotionally disconnected anti-heroes. In this regard, I suppose you could call him the… Anti-Kimura, lol.
On the surface the Anti-hero lacks conventional heroic attributes such as nobility and courage, so the challenge in playing such a part would be to balance this moral handicap with enough vulnerability and likability. The Anti-hero isn’t a Villain, and to toe this line separating the two archetypes requires a complete understanding of the character, plus the emotional authenticity in your performance to back it all up. Unlike the Villain, the Anti-hero is still redeemable – and therein lies his main attraction. He’s flawed, yes, but not hopelessly so, and in fact has some noble worth (a lot of it, actually) simmering underneath the baggage. It’s the journey he takes and the relationships he forges along the way that ultimately redeem the Anti-hero and set his path aright. You see the incremental changes in the person as he begins to live for something greater than himself – be it a cause, or a relationship worth fighting for. The second challenge is how to make the character transformation organic and not forced, and to do so in a way that resonates powerfully with the viewers. Tsuyoshi did all these in Ninkyo Helper — and more. He didn’t just nail his character, he hit a freakin’ home run.
Gangsta Day Care
Watching Ninkyo Helper may give you a Jdorama déjà vu feeling, and understandably so. This drama shares certain elements with three others (although there may be more):
(1) Engine (Fuji TV, 2005) – Selfish, apathetic hero uprooted from a completely different world finds himself living in a small (but happy!) facility beset with money problems. (FYI: A few episodes of Engine and Ninkyo Helper share the same director.)
(2) My Boss, My Hero (NTV, 2006) – Yakuza going undercover in the Least Dangerous Place on Earth (i.e. high school <=> nursing home) must act the part of exemplary role model as a precondition for promotion. (Funny, but the actor who played Nagase Tomoya’s valet/advisor, is the Taiyo administrator in Ninkyo Helper. Osugi Ren seems to be at home playing these stoical, multi-tasking, service-oriented characters. Love him!)
(3) Plus a smattering of Gokusen (NTV, 2002/2005/2008) moments – Good-hearted yakuza beating up random baddies in random city locations to save their “precious” wards.
As a drama, Ninkyo Helper actually operates on three thematic tiers: first as a garden-variety yakuza caper, second as a social commentary of our times, and third as an exploration in human relationships. Let’s tackle them separately, shall we?
The yakuza premise… didn’t work for me. It just felt like an excuse to get a bunch of idoru to dress up and act cool. Of the Hayabusa 6, only Tsubasa Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi) was believable as a gangster actually capable of heading a criminal organization. Big Boy aka Nihonbashi (Ukaji Takashi) may have been old enough to run a district branch, but his lumbering, cat-loving character just didn’t have the drive, the faiah! and the ruthlessness that Hikoichi possessed. The other four — Mikiya the Slacker Playboy (played by And! Yet! Another! Hey! Say! Jump! Critter! <good grief, how many ARE these kids?> Yabu Kouta), Smarty-Pants Masato (a bespectacled Yuki Jutta), Street Thug Goro (Igarashi Shunji), and Tough Chick Riko (Kuroki Meisa) — painfully lacked the maturity and credibility, not to mention the “field experience” (lol) required by the job. And for a mere chit of a girl (Riko) to preside over the Yomogi (a vassal clan of the Hayabusa Group) and to later nab the coveted underboss post, was really, really, really pushing it. *ROLL EYES!*
The youth factor was obviously a commercial tactic to woo the attention-deficit teen audiences, as well as a contrivance to keep the material as anodyne as possible. As with The Gokusens (feared oyabun downgraded to Yankumi’s kindly old ojiisan! the in-house gangsters downgraded to a merry band of buffoons fighting over Yankumi’s affections!), the makers of Ninkyo Helper undoubtably sought to dull the realistic edge by laying a glossy, nontoxic sheen over the yakuza image. Even the very title suggests the story’s ulterior motive (one of the motives, at least), which is to bring viewers back to what the yakuza CLAIM TO BE their Founding Fathers’ original intentions, i.e. to fill in for the failings of Government in protecting the welfare of its citizens. Ninkyo, translated to chivalry, is a moral code that values helping the weak and upholds the ideals of honor, courtesy, justice and courage. Or so the yakuza like to tell us.
Which brings me to one glaring contradiction: The yakuza’s much-vaunted altruistic origins are an extremely spurious claim, considering their organization grew out of social opportunism more than anything else. The smuggling and gambling operations and hired thuggery in the Edo period later diversified into a whole smorgasbord of illicit activities while riding on the economic swell of the times. (So, yes, Virginia, yakuza are people, too. They just like to make money off — oh, you know, the sex trade, human trafficking, gunrunning, narcotics and extortion from time to time.) The yakuza calling themselves ninkyo dantai (chivalrous organizations) must be some kind of inside joke (unless they’ve actually swallowed their own BS), because the so-called philanthropy and social concern are just one side of the patronage/protection system, the parasitic twin of the sprawling criminal network that preys on the very society it claims to defend from the ineptitude and apathy of Government.
In Ninkyo Helper, the new oyabun Takayama (Matsudaira Ken) maintains a very Zen approach to the training he requires of his Hayabusa 6, dismissing their confused queries with cryptic statements and smiles and more exhortations to “go back to work!” The boss seems confident that his trainees will arrive at The!Answer! in their own separate epiphanies — which they do, sorta. But it never becomes clear just what the damn Answer is supposed to be, what the training is supposed to teach them. To be… better? Be better scumbags? Lol. So they’ll still be yakuza, only… nicer? The Hayabusa 6 actually come to this realization in Ep. 11 after Hikoichi chews his fella gangstas out: “Don’t you get it? Once we’re done with our training, we’re going to feed off them again,” he says of the elderly in their care. “Suck them dry, then throw them out. We’re going to be yakuza again.” Well… uh, DUH? We know, Hikoichi. We kind of got that like, 10 EPISODES AGO. Durrr.
Anyway, at the very end, the Hayabusa 6 take away different things from the training: (1) For Smarty-Pants Masato: Ripping off helpless old people is WRONG, even though we’ve been doing this forever! Instead, build them a residential enclave and provide assisted living with a zero-interest payment scheme! (2) For Big Boy Nihonbashi, Mikiya the Useless, and Tough Chick Riko: Go back to the underworld, but it’s time for an image revamp! Deal drugs with a smile! Extort kindly! Lower loan interests from 30% to 20%! And ask borrowers nicely three times to pay you back, before beating them into a pulp! Set quotas on sex worker imports from impoverished Asian and Eastern European nations! Because! The! Yakuza! Care!
But only four of the six actually stayed with the Hayabusa Group in the end, which means the boss got zero returns for his investment on Goro the Thug and Headbutt Hikoichi, who both wanted out of Tokyo Below at the close of the drama. But did the boss foresee this? Was he happy to lose Hikoichi and Goro to the Light? (lol) Like I said, he was very Zen about, well, everything, so who knows what he was thinking? And if SYSTEMIC REFORM was Takayama’s ultimate pipe dream er, brass ring, then WHAT A JOKE. The only way to expunge Bad Values from, well, a criminal organization, is to re-boot the Matrix, NOT send a few yakuza (among what – thousands?) to Old People Appreciation School. Because that ain’t what ninkyodo is all about. True ninkyodo is shutting down the gambling dens for good. True ninkyodo is sending those poor sex workers back home. True ninkyodo is ending the cycle of extortion and bribery that targets government officials. True ninkyodo is NOT sticking a motley crew of gangsters in a do-gooder environment and then expecting them the change the world.
The rest of the yakuza-related plot developments just didn’t work for me. Some were just lame-ass sappy, like the night in Ep. 1 when Hikoichi exposes his ornate body art and Riko holds sparklers (WTF!!!) to light his brocaded back and arms, because the poor granny whom Hikoichi was bilking wanted to see some cherry blossoms! I was LMAO the whole time. So stooooooooopid, migawwwd. It served no other purpose than to give the kid Ryota (Kato Seishiro, more on him later) the opportunity to discover Hikoichi’s true gangsta nature. (Which is another FAIL! in itself because – WHY THE HELL WAS THAT KID WANDERING THE CITY STREETS WAAAAY PAST HIS BEDTIME??? IN EVERY EPISODE?????) And really. Sparklers? Sakura tattoos gleaming in the moonlight? Hahahahahahahahahahaaaaa *dies laughing*
Then there’s that “little” logic hiccup when the don of the rival Washizu family (Ryu Raita) gets dumped in the Taiyo facility by his lieutenants as part of an elaborate hatchet job to supplant him as oyabun. I loved the character of Washizu Kanji, really I did, and his relationship with the old bedridden geezer Natsuo was among my favorite sub-plots in the whole drama. But the way Washizu was introduced into the story felt so contrived because he wasn’t even senile for Pete’s sake, just paralyzed, but with all other faculties intact. Besides, he was rich enough to hire a battalion of therapists and caregivers to provide home service. A rundown nursing facility would be the last place on earth to send a wealthy crime lord still hale enough to do everything else except walk.
Still, Washizu’s funny and bittersweet interactions with his roommate Natsuo proved to be one of the most touching subplots in the drama. The twin episodes (8-9) that revolved around this subplot were a terrific interleaving of hilarity with sobriety: the feared crime boss Washizu turns out to be no more than a crotchety old man, recoiling from the retirees’ eating habits in the mess hall, taking a look at his bedridden, vacant-faced roommate and asking the helpers, “Are you sure he’s not dead?” (LOL!), and later bonding with Natsuo over one-sided conversations, tales of his yakuza exploits, chess games (and Haruna pointedly reminds Washizu not to cheat => LOL!), and their shared love for old enka ballads. Washizu and Natsuo are never visited by those who are supposedly family (for Washizu, his yakuza underlings; for Natsuo, his son and his family), but they realize that it’s the people who care for you the most, who share their time and presence not out of duty but out of a genuine desire to be with you, they become your family.
I have mixed feelings about the fight scenes, though. Sometimes the choreography was so unbelievably lame, like the scene on the beach in Ep. 1 where the Washizu bruisers give Hikoichi the sissiest beating I’ve ever seen, halfheartedly prodding Hikoichi’s prone body with their shoes => HAHAHAHAHHAA so stooopid. And the big warehouse fight scene in Ep. 9 was so Gokusen-fake. Some brawls throughout the drama were convincing enough — especially when they didn’t involve twiggy little Mikiya the Useless. Of course, the most convincing moments were when Hikoichi got ready to rrrrumble!!! I swear, whenever he started stalking down some random alley in search of his foes, eyes and cigarette blazing ominously in the dark, I felt physical FEAR, lol. (But I’d feel sorry for Hikoichi, as all those headbutts will probably give him Parkinson’s disease down the road, tsk.) And holy rutabaga, when those eyebrows started making an angle of 75° with the horizontal, I wanted to scream at his enemies, Be afraid!!! Be very afraid!!! (Run away!!! Run away!!!) LOL. I also found myself thinking HOW COOL it would be if Hikoichi could go beat up anyone who likes to bully the real Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, hahahaha. (Be afraid, KimuTaku, be very afraid… Hahahahahahhaa)
Anyway. The yakuza premise was my least favorite because it came across as both frivolous and superfluous, unlike the other aspects of this drama which were not only integral to the narrative, but also were able to connect with viewers (i.e. ME!!! ME!!!) on a very personal level. Take away the gangster slant and make the story about a bunch of ordinary misfits forced to help out at a nursing home, and the drama would’ve worked out just the same. The whole idea was stupid in the first place. What oyabun in his right mind would assign a group of nasty thugs to bathe and feed helpless old people, anyway? And this setup was too chancy to begin with, the risks of the Hayabusa 6 having their cover blown way too high.
And whaddaya know, their cover DOES get blown in Ep. 10, thus incurring the ire of the local residents, the press, and the Nation of Japan. Times like these I wanted to scream at the oyabun, “What the BLOODY HELL were you thinking???” Blerg. Plus, the Hayabusa 6 get outed in the absurdest possible way, because apparently some photojournalist just so happened to be embedded with the Washizu unit that had kidnapped Tough Chick Riko and Mikiya the Useless, and got to take quite a few pictures of the ensuing rumble (or rescue ops, depends on which way you see it, lol) between the Washizu and the Hayabusa 6. And of course this embedded photojournalist also happened to be wearing the Cloak of Invisibility, otherwise how the ruddy heck could he have taken those incriminating shots from all possible angles? LMAO! I won’t even try to figger out the answer, because I’m OBVIOUSLY not SMART enough. DOH!
No Country for Old Men? Uh, Not Anymore
[Now Showing: Soylent Green (just kidding!)]
On to the second tier: the social commentary. To be honest, I was expecting Ninkyo Helper to be a sometimes-funny mental flatliner in the same mold as My Boss, My Hero and The Gokusens — or any other drama that comes to mind when you hear “yakuza!” + “undercover!” + “comedy!” in the same sentence. What I didn’t expect was a thought-provoking critical analysis of how modern society views and treats the elderly. The writing probes the various issues on aging and eldercare with refreshing sensitivity and respect, interweaving the factual, statistics-based aspects of the eldercare industry with heartfelt personal stories anyone can relate to.
This drama could not have aired at a better time, Japan having the world’s highest proportion of elderly citizens: 1 in every 5 Japanese are 65 years or older; come 2055, the statistic will be 2 in 5. Birth and death rates in Japan already equalized a few years back, causing zero net population growth. In a few more years, mortality will have overtaken natality. And if the trend continues, the next few decades may prove to be an economic nightmare for the country with the world’s second largest GDP, as having more people above 65 will translate into an unprecedented labor shortage and a spike in retirement benefit claims. And that’s just the picture told in broad, macroeconomic strokes.
Ninkyo Helper is one of those dramas that will make you feel and think at the same time. Its message is really an uncompromising indictment of our society, particularly of the way we treat the aged. Government, the eldercare industry, families — we’ve all been remiss in some way, the drama is saying. Government (represented by Jinnai Takanori’s character, working for the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) fails when the bureaucratic wheels grind too slowly to address the needs of the growing 65-and-over demographic, when it doesn’t protect the old from abusive relatives and caregivers, when it cannot effectively crack down on unlicensed fly-by-night operations and scamming rings. The eldercare industry fails when facilities lose the heart for service in their bid to increase profits. And WE citizens fail when we treat our aged family members as if they were dead weight, when we renege on our filial obligations, and when we never find the time to develop close, meaningful relationships with those in their twilight years.
Sometimes the treatment gets a bit didactic in bringing home the message, the most obvious example being the overstated disparity between the Taiyo nursing home and the Heartfull Bird Corporation, a high-profile luxury chain that franchises Taiyo when the small nursing home finds itself in dire financial straits. (Before I go any further, lemme just say this: Heartfull Bird??? HEARTFULL BIRD???? LMFAO!!!!! Is that a heart with a bird inside it, or just a bird with an enlarged heart? Ahh, Engrish, you never fail me. *dry-heaves*) As I’ve mentioned, the writing sometimes tries too hard to make Heartfull Bird the eldercare industry’s poster child for Big Bad Business, where facilities are just ritzy prisons and caregivers are really androids in scrubs. In terms of paradigm and business ethic, Taiyo and Heartfull Bird Corp. (which I will refer to as HBC from now on, thank you very much) actually represent two antipodal approaches to eldercare: Personal vs. impersonal, comfort vs. efficiency, homely vs. clinical, people-driven vs. profit-driven, process-oriented vs. results-oriented, and what it really boils down to: care vs. management.
Even the CEO of HBC, Hatori Akira (the stunning, unbelievably classy Natsukawa Yui, more on her later) is a picture of starchy professionalism — in contrast to Sonozaki Yasuhiro (Osugi Ren), Taiyo’s oft-harried, low-key ojisan who treats his 30-room facility like an extended family and constantly reminds his yellow-clad staff to render service with a smile. I love Sonozaki to bits, I love his big heart and his firm but ever-cordial refusal to “streamline operations” HBC-style by allowing sedatives, physical restraints and forcibly worn adult diapers in his domain. Not under his watch, he tells Hatori over kakigori — a particularly touching scene. Sonozaki reminds you of those social workers who slog on in their dinky little offices and get paid close to peanuts, but who unflaggingly work to improve the lives of the old and the infirm, the marginalized and the oppressed, out of a genuine heart for service. (Later in the story, escalating adversity prompts the government to shut down the Taiyo home. One unforgettable scene is the one at the very end of the drama, when Sonozaki bikes over to the boarded-up facility and decisively rips down the notice of closure from the main doors. I actually pumped my fist in the air with a squawk of approval. The drama could not have ended on a better note: Fight the good fight!)
Another inconsistency, though: Given the corporate setup of HBC, it isn’t very believable for Hatori to be at Taiyo ALL THE TIME and take disproportionate interest in how that ONE particular facility is run, when there must be at least a dozen other franchise holders – and that’s not even counting the actual Heartfull Bird branches, the exorbitantly priced ones. I get how Taiyo being the newest franchisee would initially need direction from the mother ship, but couldn’t Hatori have sent a regular grunt in her place? Why did she have to personally inspect Taiyo – not only at the onset, but for almost every episode afterwards? For the HBC CEO to micromanage a place like Taiyo went against the streamlined, impersonal corporate ethic that HBC so assiduously upheld. I get that it was really to give Natsukawa Yui more screen time and to make her character more involved with the main plot. But from a logical standpoint, it was very iffy.
Two of the Taiyo staff are given substantial parts in the story: The pigtailed Haruna (Naka Riisa) is the ideal helper: cheerful, brimming with moxie, and empathetic without being condescending. Naka Riisa is a revelation in this role, and worlds away from her pea-brained turn on Kami no Shizuku (NTV, 2009) (okay fine, everything about that drama was wrong – including Kame – and not just her). Naka Riisa’s shining moment is in the fire scene in Ep. 10, when her character, already pushed beyond exhaustion by the snowballing events (the Hayabusa 6 get outed, the other helpers quit, Taiyo is forced to take in more retirees, etc.), blows her top at a granny she’s trying to help out of the burning facility, and then breaks down before Goro, sobbing “This is all your fault…” Good acting moment there.
The other helper Izumi (Yamamoto Yusuke) has a very interesting backstory: Later we learn he’s a double agent (lol), a Hayabusa yakuza who serves as the oyabun’s eyes and ears at the nursing home. Yamamoto Yusuke (who just missed out on being conventionally cute) is credible as Taiyo’s scowly, no-nonsense Head Boy, but as a yakuza? Nope. You also wonder how the hey the Hayabusa 6 failed to recognize Izumi, when they were supposedly high-ranking enough to have interacted with most of the key players in their organization. Still, I like Izumi’s ambivalence towards his underworld roots and the nursing home where he has worked for the last five years, where he has stayed long after his own training was over.
Intimations of Mortality
This drama also tackles the reality of aging through the stories of the nursing home residents: An obasan who’s losing her mind falls prey to a fraudster posing as her son (yes I’m looking at you, Hikoichi). An intractable geezer adamantly resists diaper use while struggling with his own incontinence and failing strength. On a visit to his old judo sparring partner (who has lost all mental and physical faculties), he comes face to face with the inevitability of senility. A sad old widow silently endures the beatings from her drug-dealing grandson because he’s the only family she’s got. “You visit me because you say you’re my friend,” she tells a concerned Riko, her voice dulled by pain. “But I can’t be sure you’ll always be my friend.” An elderly woman (Hikoichi’s mother, in fact) tires of caring for her sick-abed but demanding husband, and attempts to end her own life. (I literally gasped when Hikoichi’s mother puts her head through the noose — but when her husband suddenly wakes up she freezes in the act, indecision and despair racking her face, her mottled hands still clutching the rope, her toes still teetering on the stack of dusty books. What a moment.)
A lecherous old bachelor reunites with his first love – a sickly widow suffering from dementia – at the nursing home, but the budding romance is tragically nipped when she never recovers from her pneumonia, leaving him to wait on a park bench in his brown pinstripe suit and matching hat, the unused museum tickets limp in his had, on this first date that was never meant to be. An elderly woman suffering from cataracts and paralysis almost drives her unmarried daughter over the brink of sanity with her imperious demands and overdependence. An unresponsive, bedridden ojiisan receives flowers every morning from family members who never visit, but still manages to scratch out one last “thank you” note for the ones who truly cared for him in his last days on earth.
Touching? Extremely. Close to home? Without a doubt. My one objection, though, would be the episodic treatment these stories were given. This was especially true in the first half of the drama, and I really did not like the cursory manner in which the elderly were disposed of. So the old lady in Episode 1 suddenly gets carted away by her son and daughter-in-law, who have conveniently decided to move to the country? So the judo-loving curmudgeon in Ep. 2 gets shipped off to another facility because his unruly behavior broke some conveniently placed rule in the Heartfull Bird eldercare handbook? And the bunch of old people whose bank accounts Scammer Girl (Yamada Yu) had been secretly dipping into – what happens to them after Ep. 4? Or what about the wheelchair-bound geezer, after he finds out his long-lost ladylove has died – what happens to him after Ep. 6?
Contrast the Ninkyo Helper setup with that of Engine, where you really got to know the kids at the Kaze no Oka foster home because they weren’t expediently jettisoned at some point in the drama. And although each episode would focus on one kid’s backstory (and corresponding Socially Relevant Issue), the other kids still got to interact with each other and with the foster home grownups (e.g. Koyuki et al.), and most of all with the big kid who was always so mean to them (i.e. Kimura, lol). With Ninkyo Helper you never get the feeling that the nursing home residents were an integral part of the cast. Instead, they were treated more like object lessons for each eldercare issue the writer felt needed to be addressed, and once they had served their… edifying purpose, you never saw them again.
Gripes aside, it’s impossible to watch Ninkyo Helper without being moved on a deeply personal level. We all have someone who’s currently going through what the retirees in the drama were experiencing. And we know that one day – and for some, that day will come sooner than for others, or it may not come at all – it will be OUR turn to grow old and die. Aging is never “pretty” or “graceful” despite the obvious sentimentalism attached to it. How can it be, when your body breaks down — cell and tissue, muscle and bone, when the dementia creeps in, robbing you of memory and cognition, when the impairment and incontinence tighten their stranglehold on your life. The final dignity stripped from you is the ability to take care of your basic needs and functions, and with this comes a forfeiture of personal choice. As you become more and more dependent on others to bathe and feed and clothe you, the less alive you feel. For what is life without freedom – freedom to move and speak and eat whenever you felt like it, as you have done for most of your life? “No one enjoys being cared for,” the diaper-averse ojiisan tells the Taiyo helpers resignedly as they discreetly clean his soiled clothing.
And I think of my own beloved ojiisan, who turns 86 this month. 2009 was a critical period of adjustment for him, being the year he made (what will likely be) his final overseas trip, and the year he had to give up driving because his reflexes just couldn’t keep up anymore. Since we live far apart I only get to see him once or twice a year, and each time he looks more frail and less like himself. He now shuffles about with a cane, and although his body has weathered epilepsy and diabetes and prostate problems for years, his lawyer’s mind is still razor-sharp. His acerbic quips, delivered with that trademark cackle, never fail to crack up clan get-togethers, and his favorite pastime has not changed: those epic chess duels lasting hours. His love for the game is a lifelong passion that has spilled over into the rest of our clan and even encouraged a few relatives to play competitively. (He still beats me every time; sometimes I come really, really close, but no dice. My brother and cousins think they have bragging rights just because they have a better win record, but somehow I think my grandpa likes it most when we play, because we have the same style: unhurried, deliberate, with a tendency to overanalyze — just like what I’m doing with this drama review, lol.)
So I think of my ojiisan and wonder when our last chess duel will be. It may be several years down the road; or it may have already passed us by. (I don’t think he would still want to play when the mental lapses have kicked in, or when he’s too weak to move the pieces around.) I know he has to die someday, and when he finally leaves this world and his withered shell of a body to meet his Maker, I know I will miss him very much. Him and our chess matches.
Ninkyo Helper also got me thinking about other things, about questions to which there are no easy answers: When elder abuse happens outside the jurisdiction of a nursing home, how much intervention is appropriate, and where should the boundaries be drawn? If an elderly patient is brought to a facility against her will, and the tradeoff for the physical abuse is their rapid mental/psychological deterioration in the strange new environs, can the state (or the family) rest easy that the right thing was done? How much personal latitude should be given to elderly persons, especially when it comes to matters such as dating and sex? If a nursing home resident is never visited by family, is it right for the staff to lie a little — just to make them feel better? And does it make you a bad son or daughter if you consign your aged parent to a facility because caring for them at home has become unhealthy for the both of you?
A 2007 oncology study explored how terminal patients in Japan defined conditions for a “good death.” The results were really not that different from other cultures’ perceptions: the top considerations were physical and psychological comfort, being able to die in a “favorite place,” and maintaining healthy relationships with family and caregivers. Towards the end of Ninkyo Helper, Hikoichi and Haruna discover an unregistered rathole of a “nursing home” and see the inhuman conditions the old have to endure in such a place. And as a viewer you realize what the drama’s unequivocal stand has been all along: that personalized but competent care is the best kind of care. And that this responsibility rests squarely on ALL our shoulders: Government, the health/eldercare industry, and us family members. When the old man Natsuo is rendered comatose in Ep. 9, his son decides to withdraw life support and return him to Taiyo for palliative care. The guilt-ridden son asks Sonozaki if he has made the right choice, and the Taiyo chief replies philosophically: “We will never know the answer. We who send off the dying will never now how the dying one feels. But even though we may never know, we must care for him with everything we have.” How true, ne?
The third and final tier of Ninkyo Helper is the part I love best. And as this review has gotten a bit… unwieldy (7,364 words already, ai caramba!), I’m continuing it in a second post. If you stuck around this long, maybe a bathroom or coffee break will do you good, lol. See you after the jump!
Photo credits: blog.eiji.net, blog.reuters.com, boycottbananas.livejournal.com, crunchyroll.com, hamsapsukebe.blogspot.com, harriat.withlovee.com, japanzone.com, jpopmusic.com, kur07tsuki.wordpress.com, mauli-d.livejournal.com, and extra thanks to misslonliah and yanie @ D-Addicts.comJ-Drama & Film comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.