Drama Review (Part 2): Ninkyo Helper (Fuji TV, 2009)

The Ties That Bind

by Ender’s Girl

[Read Part 1 of review]

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The Cast:
Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Natsukawa Yui, Kuroki Meisa, Kato Seishiro, Yabu Kouta, Igarashi Shunji, Yuki Jutta, Ukaji Takashi, Naka Riisa, Osugi Ren, Yamamoto Yusuke, Matsudaira Ken

(SpoilLert: Ze zpoilerz continue! Allez allez!)

[Recommended companion track: “Sotto Kyutto” by SMAP]

“Freely we serve,
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall:”

– John Milton, “Paradise Lost”

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They say that relationships change you – for the better, or for the worse. But for Tsubasa Hikoichi, there’s really nowhere to go but UP, right?

Ninkyo Helper is one of those dramas wherein the interactions between the main characters actually transcend the plotting. If you peel away the first two layers — a yakuza caper, and a commentary on aging and eldercare — you’ll get the beating heart of Ninkyo Helper, which is really a deep but empathetic exploration of human relationships. (Although funnily enough, it isn’t evident from the title  — “Ninkyo” pointing to the yakuza angle, and “Helper” to eldercare.) I’ve realized while writing this review that I tolerated the gangster part, appreciated the social commentary, and fell head over heels in love with the main characters’ interrelationships.

Hikoichi and the Taiyo residents have an interesting dynamic: he relates to them in the same churlish, unchivalrous manner that he treats everyone else (lol). But Hikoichi shows them the gruff, tough side of love, the side that can tackle an elderly wheelchair-bound man to the ground to get him to walk again, and the side that tells a paralyzed and semi-blind lady off for riding her daughter too hard. Hikoichi’s stint at the Taiyo home is very much a journey of self-awareness, because now he’s on the other side, on the side of the old and the infirm, the weak and the helpless. A critical moment occurs in the final episode, when Hikoichi receives a call from a smooth-talking swindler posing as a lawyer, ready to suck a pensioner dry — and oh, how well Hikoichi knows this style, he’s done it a million times before — and so he sees himself for the conning monster that he is. Or was. He slams down the handset in disgust and can feel the room closing in, the air thick with his own guilt. He makes for the nearest window and sticks his head out, fighting for breath. Oh. My. Goodness. I loved this moment, I even gasped when Hikoichi gasped. (Thank you Ninkyo Helper writer, for showing and not telling.)

When the Taiyo staff and residents throw a surprise birthday party for Hikoichi in Ep. 7, you can tell it touches him deeply. This little moment is just one of many that build and build until you realize, along with Hikoichi, that the Taiyo home has become just that: his home. And from the troubled faces of the other yakuza – Riko most of all – you know they know they’re losing their aniki bit by bit, though he may not have realized it yet. It’s how Hikoichi was written, how you really get to know him, that makes the character immensely appealing and truly unforgettable. The moral tension is real, it’s there, an actual battle of wills raging within. And his quirks and behavioral patterns really feel organic, and not mere embellishments — like how he always drinks the same black coffee brand, how he lounges on benches chain-smoking (with one foot up, lol!), how he picks the veggies out of his food. (Super LOL moment in Ep. 4 — when Hikoichi crankily tries to get a veggie-hating geezer to eat the carrots in his beef stew, saying “Don’t waste food.” Hahahaha OH HIKOICHI!) And I especially LOVED it whenever he’d go “Huh?” with that matching I-don’t-give-a-sh*t face, LOLLL!!!! Like, he must’ve done it at least five times every episode. Oh Hikoichi.

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And of course, the cracks in his flinty exterior — we get to see them, too. A whole episode is devoted to exploring Hikoichi’s thorny past with his mother who abandoned him as a kid. Ep. 5 is one of the most difficult sub-plots to watch: there’s an emotionally searing moment in the hospital room, where Hikoichi sees his mother for the first time in 28 years — and he cannot look away. She doesn’t recognize him at first, and when she finally does, she gasps his name — and he’s out of the room like a shot, nauseated by the sudden rush of bitterness and animosity the sound of her voice has triggered. Later, Hikoichi visits the old man who has been his mother’s companion all these years she was apart from him. Once the object of his undying hatred, Hikoichi sees the old man for what he has become: a person too weak to stand or piss on his own. So Hikoichi takes him to the bathroom and leaves him on the toilet seat. Thinking Hikoichi is really a caregiver, the old man tells him: “More than anything, I’m glad that you have become a fine young man. I feel very sorry for taking your mother away.” And Hikoichi listens on the other side of the door, feeling the tears running freely down his face, and answers the old man: “Arigatou gozaimasu… for taking care of my mother. Please continue to give her love.” (ZOMG Tsuyoshi’s face in that scene — I have no words.)

But I loved the touches of humor that offset the heaviness in this episode, like the time the Hayabusa 6 eat dinner in the common room (the air is rather tense given Hikoichi’s situation), and one of them (Mikiya or Goro, I think) turns on the TV — but what’s on is some nature show about the “touching reunion” of a lioness and her cub – LOL!!! The ensuing reactions are so funny, but unlike typical slapstick Jdoramas, the comedy in Ninkyo Helper is more situational than pantomimic. I’m very thankful for the scaled-back humor in this drama, because it remains sensitive to the weighty themes and never lapses into My Boss, My Hero buffoonery.

Closure – or something leading to it — comes in the final scenes in this episode, where Hikoichi’s mother and her husband embark on a new life together at a care facility specially for couples. (But the nasty burn scar on the mother’s hand wasn’t necessary, IMO; as a viewer you believe she really did love Hikoichi — even without the “physical evidence.”) Back at the Taiyo home, the staff join the elderly and their visiting relatives in singing “Tabidachi no Hini” (“Day of Departure”), and watching the program, Hikoichi realizes that reaching closure is just another way of saying goodbye. The story resolution may feel a little too pat, but the heartfelt performances and indelible moments throughout the episode more than make up for this shortcoming.

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And oh my goodness, HIKOICHI and RYOTA. Just thinking about these two moves me to tears. It’s obvious that the kid’s immediate attachment to Hikoichi stems from the absence of any stabilizing male presence in his life, further compounded by the bullying he gets at school. So he lives out his tough-guy fantasy by watching gangster/samurai flicks, and when he chances upon Hikoichi doing his “yakuza thang” in Ep. 1, it’s as if one of his celluloid idols just became flesh and blood (although Hikoichi obviously sees the kid as no more than a nuisance at first). But Ryota finds out that he’s gotten more than he bargained for, because what Hikoichi offers isn’t protection, but true grit; not mollycoddling, but tough love. Hikoichi is extra rough on his shatei at the onset – perhaps unjustifiably so, though his unapologetic stance is also what I love about him – but strangely, it’s exactly what the boy needs. And there are these really sweet comedic touches to their aniki-shatei relationship, like how Hikoichi orders Ryota to buy him his favorite black coffee whenever the kid drops by (LOL!), or when Hikoichi sees a glum Ryota and he squeezes the boy’s cheeks in gruff affection while ordering the kid to smile (LOL!). But despite the lighthearted moments, there’s nothing cutesy about the treatment because the writing and acting are kept so wonderfully real.

I am SO IN LOVE with this boy – both the actor and the character. Despite the narrative loopholes (like how did he get around the city unchaperoned, he’s just eight for Pete’ sake, and how did he always seem to bump into Hikoichi, etc.), Ryota captured my heart from the get-go. This boy goes through A LOT in the story, but Kato Seishiro gets it ALL right.  Like Dakota Fanning’s character in the film I Am Sam (which parallels Ninkyo Helper in the child-cares-for-mentally-incapacitated-parent kind of way), Ryota shows a maturity and understanding beyond his young years. But there are enough moments of vulnerability in the drama that remind you of how frangible he can still be, and you realize that for all his precociousness, he is just a child. There’s a scene in Ep. 5 where Ryota blurts out to Hikoichi the word “gratin,” which Hikoichi does not comprehend at first. Then he gathers from Ryota’s tearful explanation that Hatori has made her son potatoes au gratin for two straight days. And in spite of Hikoichi’s couldn’t-care-less reaction, you KNOW from his troubled eyes that the boy has captured his heart, too.

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So the Taiyo home becomes Ryota’s refuge, most of all because his aniki is there. Caring for the elderly also becomes a cathartic exercise for this boy – at first to take his mind off the neglect at home and the trouble at school, and later as a way to cope with the progression of Hatori’s illness. When Ryota spends his summer days volunteering at the Taiyo home, you realize that much of it has to do with his mother. There’s a particularly touching scene in Ep. 7 where the ojiisan (the one who always goes outside to pee, lol) gets disoriented again, and Ryota patiently leads him back inside the facility. As they pass through the lobby, Hikoichi overhears the ojiisan muttering fretfully, clutching Ryota’s hand: “I want to go home…” The boy looks up at the old man, smiling reassuringly: “This IS your home.” OH RYOTA.

And your heart breaks for this boy, who will grow up with a mother completely incapacitated – or dead, given the shortened life expectancy of AD patients. After Hatori experiences a sudden breakdown in Ep. 10 and decides to commit herself to a care facility, you can tell that in spite of his brave front, this jarring development terrifies the kid. And the way he voices his inner fears to Hikoichi will just tear your heart out: “Aniki… can’t mom’s illness be cured? Will she ever remember me again?” Later in the episode Ryota is found to have camped out a few feet from Hikoichi’s room, sobbing quietly into his comforter. And Hikoichi responds with characteristic… well, Hikoichi-ness (lol): he goes into his room… and comes out a moment later with a blanket, plopping himself on the couch with the curt disclaimer: “There are mosquitoes in my room.” (LOL!!!!) Then Hikoichi does something that surprises even himself: wordlessly, he takes the boy’s hand and holds it, just like that. There’s nothing staged or schmaltzy about this moment, because it happens so naturally. And as Ryota’s crying subsides and he drifts off to sleep, you know that Hikoichi holding the boy’s hand may not cause all their problems to go away, but it helps make them a little more bearable, and enough to get through another day.

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But there’s a bittersweet tradeoff when Ryota’s relationship with his mother improves, because the less he comes to rely on Hikoichi emotionally. And what breaks your heart is that Hikoichi can sense it, too. In Ep. 8 Hikoichi and Hatori share this quiet rooftop moment where she mentions with pleasure how much closer she and her son have become. And Hikoichi replies almost wistfully, as if to himself: “So that’s the reason why he hasn’t shown up around here lately.” Arrghhh just say you miss the kid already, Hikoichi you idiot!!!!!!! I cannot stress how much I love that little scene, because it’s so bloody obvious that Hikoichi has come to love Ryota – even more than he loves the boy’s mother. And what I also love about that scene is how Hikoichi takes out a cigarette from habit, but stops himself from lighting it out of consideration for Hatori. And even after Hatori has left, he still doesn’t light the damn stick. OH HIKOICHI!!!

And… OH, HATORI. The first few episodes don’t tell you much about what Hatori’s like, except that she she’s a cold and beautiful workaholic with impeccable fashion sense and who cannot abide smokers. But her illness becomes the overarching storyline that interweaves the other events in the drama. Although her arc does not really take off until about Ep. 5, there are a good number of clues dropped in the earlier episodes, so that you don’t get blindsided when the diagnosis comes. And irony of ironies, she finds herself with her mother’s affliction, and the very disease that her own enterprise has profited richly from. But she draws unexpected strength from that recalcitrant, sour-faced helper who loafs about the nursing home smoking, and whom her young son seems to idolize — unfortunately (lol). You know their dynamic has to evolve in such a way that Hatori eventually discovers the truth of Hikoichi’s identity, but by the time she does, her symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s have changed the dynamic anew. So they strike a strange bargain on the bridge: she won’t expose his yakuza connections if he’ll keep mum on her condition. Fair enough, and he agrees. (But why oh why did Riko follow them? Or the question should be, how the heck did she get so close to them undetected? Durr.)

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But I love those Hikoichi-Hatori scenes in that shed by the beach (OH THAT SHED), like the moment Hatori tells Hikoichi how she abandoned her own ailing parents. This is when you realize what’s been driving her to put up all these care facilities: it’s one daughter’s atonement for her past sins. Ep. 7 is a turning point for Hatori because her own aides betray her and wrest control of her company. Her unraveling as she comes to terms with her own deteriorating condition is unsettling as it is painfully moving: the frantically scribbled notes in her planner, the anxiety attacks over her young son, the blanking out and erratic mood swings, the depression and self-destructive tendencies, and the prospect of a future too terrifying to even comprehend.

Natsukawa Yui could not have been a better choice for the role of Hatori. Two words: INCREDIBLE ACTOR. For a steely, self-made woman like Hatori to see her carefully built world crumble before her is a cruel experience one would wish on nobody. The dementia is a life sentence in itself, and in Hatori’s eyes, also the judgment due her past wrongdoing. But it is when her own strength fails her that she realizes how much more of it she can draw from the people who love her. Hatori’s relationship with her young son Ryota gets to the point where the roles become reversed, and so the child now has to care for the parent. In Ep. 8 Hatori, still agonizing over how to tell her son about her condition, comes home to find him painstakingly jotting down reminders and notes for her on Post-Its, and the boy turns around and says, “You don’t have to tell me. I just want you to do well at work.” And you hope — just as she hopes – that Ryota’s strength will be enough for the both of them.

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The end of Ep. 9 marks a watershed moment for Hikoichi, Hatori and Ryota because it’s the first time they actually go out as a family-in-the-making. This is the point where the different relationships (Hikoichi-Ryota, Ryota-Hatori, Hatori-Hikoichi), which heretofore have been developing separately, not only get to intersect but also converge. The lovely, lovely time they spend at the amusement park is all too brief (as Hatori experiences another relapse before the day is over), but I was just so happy they made the trip at all. (In fact, I squeeeeed my brains out, lol.) I love how Hikoichi makes a big deal of how he was arm-twisted by Ryota to meet them at the park, although he obviously WANTS to be there (hahahahha Hikoichi we can see right through you, hahahahah). And I love how Hikoichi doesn’t turn into a superdad overnight, but remains his same ornery self the whole time: reading the newspaper on the park bench while Hatori and Ryota try out all the rides, lighting up a ciggy only to be told by a park attendant it’s a smoke-free zone (and then getting splashed by a wave from a nearby ride — as if not being allowed to smoke weren’t enough of a damper, lol). Hikoichi is still completely himself, and yet he’s… different, which is one of the things I came to love about his character and the drama.

What’s so refreshing about the Hikoichi-Hatori OTP is that their falling in love is not the be-all and end-all of their relationship, but just ONE aspect of it. I suppose this is more grounded in reality than the love-conquers-all setup (although that DOES have its own immense appeal, um, hello PRIDE, lol), but the multi-dimensionality of Hikoichi and Hatori’s relationship lends itself well to the diverse ramifications of the plot. Love and romance aren’t something they can afford to think about 24/7 because sometimes, other things are more pressing — like Hatori’s dementia, or Ryota’s adjustment problems, or the troubles at the Taiyo home. But you want it to work out for Hikoichi and Hatori, you really do. And when the love blossoms between them, it’s hardly the earth-shattering kind — rather, it’s very unobtrusive and subtle. No dazzling epiphanies here, just the growing awareness of their attraction — and more importantly, of the attachment that they share, which goes deeper than attraction. But they DO have enough lovely moments to keep the viewer hopeful. (When Hikoichi operates the video cam for a befuddled Hatori in Ep. 10, I squeeeed my brains out — again! Oh crap, lol.) It’s a very mature kind of love, one tempered by the inevitability of Life and the vicissitude of the seasons. But hope springs eternal to help sweeten the pill — and at least for that you are grateful.

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My favorite Hikoichi-Hatori moment BAR NONE would have to be early in Ep. 11, when Hatori and Ryota prepare to leave the Taiyo home to transfer to another facility. (And thank you Riko, for giving that waffler Hikoichi a little push, lol.) Hikoichi says goodbye to the boy and his mother, and you know by now how much those two mean to Hikoichi. But what about Hatori, who has had no time to really sort out her own feelings in between the memory lapses and panic attacks? Well, she surprises both Hikoichi and the viewers by whipping out her camera phone for an impromptu photo op. “I might forget your face, you know,” she adds archly, causing him to grumble, “That’s not even funny.” (LOL @ Hikoichi’s expression here!)

So the picture gets taken, a moment framed in pleasant normalcy and showing nothing of the looming shadow of Hatori’s disease. As she’s about to board the car Hikoichi calls her back, and his face is racked with conflicting emotions — the indecision and loss and longing that you know are eating him up (ZOMG Kusanagi Tsuyoshiiiiii), and you know he wants to tell her more than ever, tell her NOW before it’s too late, only WHAT to tell her he isn’t completely sure, but she’s WAITING for him to say it. In the end, all he can muster is a mumbled “Hey… uh… take care of yourself…” (LOL ohhhh Hikoichi), and before he knows it she’s in the vehicle with Ryota and they’re driving away from the Taiyo home, bringing his heart with them. (Scenes like these, I’d literally squeeze my own cheeks to keep the tears at bay, but it never worked, lol. How can you squee and sob your brains out at the same time? If you watch this scene, you’ll know.)

But this is a Love Triangle, with Yomogi Riko (Kuroki Meisa) holding up the other vertex. Till the very end I wasn’t even sure how the love triangle would pan out, which is a good thing because that’s how you ought to write a convincing love triangle, unlike some dramas *cough* certain K-dramas *cough* that have these token second fiddles who aren’t even real people capable of rational, independent thought. With Ninkyo Helper, I never felt that the romance angle was rigged; this was definitely NOT a one-sided, cut-and-dried thing because I found myself rooting for Hikoichi-Riko as well. Hatori and Riko are strong in different ways, and vulnerable in different ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the love triangle play out because both Hatori and Riko were women I could root for, although they couldn’t possibly be more disparate: Hatori the cool, mature sophisticate vs. Riko the street-smart tough cookie. Chardonnay on ice vs. spiced hot chocolate. Alabaster complexion vs. sun-bronzed skin. Steel vs. fire.

Barring the inherent implausibility of Riko’s yakuza identity (which is really a failing of the writing more than anything), Kuroki Meisa did a fine job portraying her character. I love Meisa’s look; her face is more than just pretty, it’s arresting — with the dusky, exotic features, the smoldering gaze and the smoke in her voice. She made me believe in her spirit and intensity, but also in her raw vulnerability — especially in her scenes with Hikoichi. And I also love her honesty, for it is Riko who comes to grips with her feelings way before Hikoichi or Hatori ever do. Riko is the kind of person who’s attracted to strength and power — not so she can exploit them, but because what she really looks for is someone with a will that matches her own. In Hikoichi, Riko finds her equal, and they’d actually make the perfect couple because they understand each other so well, and understand the laws of the jungle: the laws of survivorship, ambition, ruthlessness.

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I really appreciate this dynamic between Hikoichi and Riko, and I’m thankful they’re given enough moments to make you believe things could swing the other way. For example, in Ep. 3, Hikoichi gets ready for a yakuza night out and finds Riko brooding on the couch (this episode being the one with the obasan and her druggie dealer grandson). Riko opens up, bouncing her thoughts off him while he drinks his water in silence. When she’s through, he walks toward the exit and pauses at the door, saying nothing except “Don’t stay up too late.” (Aiiieeeee!!!!) But oh, there’s more! In Ep. 6, Riko catches Hikoichi at his favorite spot: the rooftop. Now it’s his turn to be troubled (this being the episode with the gravure-loving ojiisan and his long-lost ladylove), and he asks aloud: “Why do the old have so many restrictions? You should be free to love no matter how old you are. Everyone has someone they love, right?” (I love how Hikoichi is so emotionally vulnerable here, obviously because: (1) he’s finally grown a heart (lol), and (2) that heart has started feeling *certain* things for *certain* people i.e. Hatori, wheee!) And Riko, oh Riko of the one-track mind (lol) asks him, “How about you? Is there something special in your life?” To which Hikoichi responds with typical caginess: “Don’t be stupid.” LOL!!!

So Riko finds herself falling for this man, although he does not seem to reciprocate, or even notice. And those little touches of Riko drinking from Hikoichi’s favorite black coffee (and grimacing afterwards), or taking a drag of his cigarette (and then choking on the smoke, lol) are so effective in showing us the heart of this girl. (nnnc at the D-Addicts thread called it an “indirect kiss,” LOL so true!) Because for all her tough-chick posturing, she really is just a girl… standing in front of the boy she likes, asking him not to love her (she’s too proud to beg), but to make up his mind already, argh! (LOL) She’s been observing Hikoichi at the nursing home and can feel him changing — ever so subtly, that he doesn’t even feel it yet. This change terrifies her in some way, because she knows she is not only losing him as a man, but as a yakuza. But she tries to make him realize all that he’s giving up, even telling him scornfully in Ep. 9: “You’re no longer a yakuza, you’re just an ordinary guy.” When she goes for broke in Ep. 10 and tackles Hikoichi to the couch (go Riko go!), I felt like cheering her on. And as she grinds out those words — “How long must I wait? Hurry up and make up your mind if you’re a yakuza. Don’t be so indecisive!” — your heart breaks for her, too. But this is what I love most about her character: her head-on resolve to go after something – or someone, no matter what the odds of winning may be.

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What also makes this love triangle so emotionally involving is what Riko and Hatori seem to represent. This arc parallels the agonizing indecision Hikoichi goes through in his personal journey, for his inner conflict isn’t just between the two women, but between two completely different worlds. The real struggle is between the only life he’s ever known, and a life he never dreamed he could have — until now. There’s a scene in Ep. 11 where Hikoichi visits Hatori in her new facility, knowing he needs someone to talk to (who isn’t an eight-year-old kid, and who isn’t a tough gangsta chick in love with him, lol), and even though Hatori seems to be asleep in bed, just being near her is strangely reassuring for Hikoichi, in this quiet, windless place where he can sort out his thoughts and emotions. He’s tired of straddling both worlds, and needs to make a decision very soon — although he seems to have already made that choice in his heart. He realizes he doesn’t want the yakuza position after all, or anything to do with that world anymore. (And Hikoichi’s reaction when he finds out Hatori is awake and listening => PRICELESS!) So when Hikoichi later declines the Hayabusa promotion, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt why he is leaving that world: because his heart no longer belongs in it. It belongs to an eight-year-old boy and his dementia-stricken mother.

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And we come to the end.

The final two episodes of Ninkyo Helper are a letdown (for the most part), plausibility- and editing-wise. For one, I already mentioned in my previous post how utterly ridiculous it was for the Hayabusa 6 to be outed through those incriminating photos. And the problems just keep snowballing!!! So in the midst of the media fallout and the picketing villagers and money problems at Taiyo, some shady nursing home operator arrives one night with a busload of retirees whom he just dumps on the Taiyo staff before taking off!!! And then a fire caused by some pyromaniac obasan almost razes the entire facility to the ground!!! And then a pneumonia outbreak virtually turns what’s left of the Taiyo home into a war zone!!! Grrrrreat. Just great.

Everything just happens so fast, and the scene transitions are so jarring and hastily strung together. All of a sudden, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare miraculously finds nursing home slots for ALL THE TAIYO RESIDENTS!!! Oh wow!!! (Thanks, Jinnai Takanori… NOT.) But A FEW DAYS LATER, the transferred retirees come crawling back to Taiyo because apparently, NOTHING CAN BEAT THE KIND OF CARE THEY RECEIVED HERE!!! This development could have been touching… if it weren’t so STUPID. I mean, what were those old people, cats and dogs? So Taiyo is a full house once more — but WTF! Cut to Riko and Haruna girl-bonding in some bar over sake and oysters, sharing their secrets and dreams! Again, this moment would’ve been really nice had it fit in with the narrative flow, which it didn’t. It was so out of place.

And just when you think you (and the characters) have had enough, it just. gets. worse! Because apparently the Hayabusa 6 — oh sorry, minus Masato, who has quit the training to start his own konsenchin venture named the Heartfull Smarty-Pants (hahaha), and minus Riko, who has just been awarded the promotion (ohyeahhh, I forgot all about that yakuza promotion, doh) after Hikoichi turns it down. So even though their license to operate has been revoked by the Ministry, the remaining Hayabusa 4 with the Taiyo staff barricade the nursing home (ehhh??? nandeeeee???), because… um… the retirees don’t want to go back to their NEW AND BETTER-EQUIPPED AND NOT-RAVAGED-BY-FIRE NURSING HOMES??? But good lord, barricades????? WTF??? Didn’t anyone tell them this was tantamount to hostage taking? No wonder the bloody National Guard (lol) were amassing outside with their truncheons and tear gas!

But what purpose did Hikoichi et al. possibly hope to accomplish by making this last stand? Taking a building full of regular people is bad enough, but THE AGED???!?!?!? What if those old folks died from a heart attack or had their fragile bones blasted to smithereens when the SWAT started knocking down the barricades??? Bravery without brains = stupidity, ne? This supposedly “climactic” moment in the final act of Ninkyo Helper was simply overkill, and what pissed me off the most was how utterly pointless it all was, because even without it I would’ve believed that the Hayabusa Helpers had undergone enough transformation to truly make them Better!People! They didn’t need a bloody Iranian hostage crisis just to prove that point. DOH. Had this sequence been excised, the drama could’ve used the precious 10 minutes (yes I timed it!) to make smoother transitions and lengthen the scenes that truly mattered. All this snafu really achieved was an excuse to buy more time in the storyline: the Taiyo home gets closed down, Hikoichi serves his prison sentence, Jinnai Takanori’s character bats for an overhauling of the government’s eldercare policy framework, Goro the Ex-Thug goes to caregiver school and finds a new girlfriend (Haruna, yay!), Smarty-Pants gets his company off the ground, Big Boy reconciles with his teenage daughter, Mikiya the Useless-no-more steps it up for his pops and swaps his neon tank tops for those funny-looking retro ‘50s suits, Izumi is accepted back into the (gangsta) fold, and Riko learns the ropes in running a criminal syndicate, Michael Corleone-style. (Good luck lassie, you’ll need it.)

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So when we find the newly released Hikoichi in his shiny gray suit looking out at the ocean from that little shed on the beach, you know what — or who — he’s thinking of. And you know there’s only one thing left that he needs to do. Riko’s unexpected arrival (with a whole entourage of black sedans and thugs, *roll eyes*) postpones his unfinished business for a little longer, but it’s okay because they both need this closure. When she takes a deep breath (here goes nothing, you can hear her thinking, LOL oh Riko) and drags him behind the shed to pounce on him (go Riko go!!!), when she grabs his lapels and kisses him with all the frustrated passion she’s had bottled up — WOW. Great scene. The kiss really was a lovely moment that caught the viewer (and Hikoichi! hihihi) completely off guard. It was a kiss from a girl, standing in front of a boy, telling him, “If I can’t have you, at least I’ll give you something to remember me by!!!” – LOL. (Thank you Ninkyo Helper writer, for giving me enough to invest in. Thank you for making me root for both Riko and Hatori.)

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FINAL SCENE:

SQUUUUUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
CRYYYYYYYYYYYY.
SQUUUUUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
CRYYYYYYYYYYYY.
(ad infinitum, dammit!)

When Hikoichi walks up the dirt road to the quaint hospice by the sea, you know who’s waiting at the other end. For what this really is, is a homecoming, a reunion between a man and his… family. Distill Ninkyo Helper to its very essence and you have a story about a man who regains his soul, a woman who loses her self, and a child who must find in his heart the strength for the days ahead. Man, woman and child. And you’re thankful that for now, at least, they have this little idyll at the edge of the ocean, in this Summer Country where memories may sleep — but never die. Flowers in hand, he walks past the signboard hanging from the pergola at the entrance, and sees them on the lawn. The boy spots him right away and runs up excitedly, calling him by the name he has come to love: “Aniki.” She watches them from her table under the white awning, looking so lovely in her lavender sundress. She does not remember him today, the boy tells him, but neither does she object when he draws a chair and sits across her. Ryota rushes off to get refreshments — ever the helper, Hikoichi thinks with a swell of pride.  He’s also brought her sunflowers — fresh and golden, in the perfect hue of health. She looks at them, then at him, and smiles. “It’s such a nice day today,” she opens in conversation, feeling the breeze on her face and in her hair. “Yes, it is,” he says, watching her. Today is a perfect day.

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He reaches into his pocket and draws out a cigarette. Old habits die hard, he thinks, and as he raises the stick to his lips, the movement catches her eye. She stares at the unlit cigarette as if trying to remember something — a distant fragment of memory, or a buried part of who she is. Then with a slow, deliberate smile, she leans over to remove the stick from his lips. He doesn’t know if she’s doing this because it’s second nature to her, or because she now can recall what she told him at their very first meeting, which seems so long ago. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but she utters the exact same words in that gentle, cultured voice he has always admired: “No smoking in this entire facility…” Old habits do die hard. And he looks away, smiling in spite of himself and thinking that if it were like this everyday, he could give up the stick forever. Ryota comes back with their favorite drinks — including the black coffee for his aniki, of course — but in his eagerness he trips and lands on the grass. Hikoichi gets up to salvage the contents of the tray amid the sheepish giggles of the boy and the sweet ringing of Hatori’s laughter. The camera pans out, leaving you with that one last shot of them on the expanse of green: Man, woman and child, in this Summer Country at the edge of the ocean, where memories sleep — but never die.

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But happy endings are for fairy tales. For Hikoichi, Hatori and Ryota, the road ahead will be far from smooth, and one fraught with more pain and heartache. The Dark Days will come, when she has completely lost her faculties for cognition and speech, and when simple tasks like chewing her food or walking have abandoned her one by one — until she is left with nothing. And when her tragedy is complete, death will take her, and it will be merciful. When that time comes, the man and the boy will have no one but each other, and their memories of better days. You know the best kind of life this family can ever hope for is one that is bittersweet. But you pray that each new day for them will bring a little less of the bitter, and a little more of the sweet.

***
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
not fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

– e.e. cummings

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

***

Photo credits: blog.eiji.net, boonorbane.multiply.com, boycottbananas.livejournal.com, hamsapsukebe.blogspot.com, harriat.withlovee.com, kur07tsuki.wordpress.com, mauli-d.livejournal.com, and extra thanks to misslonliah and yanie @ D-Addicts.com

Title credit: “The Ties That Bind” by Bruce Springsteen (1980)

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21 Comments on “Drama Review (Part 2): Ninkyo Helper (Fuji TV, 2009)”

  1. mauli Says:

    wow…..that’s such a long but great review you make….:D
    I almost agree with all your thoughts about this drama,and make me think after all ninkyo helper is the best drama I’ve ever seen, not only the deep story about elderly they uncover for us, but also deep relationship that this drama has brought that deeper than ordinary love….simple, pure, mature, and more heart-warming…<3

    Reading this is so enjoyful, and I'm pleased that it's just not only me that think like you…Ninkyo Helper is really great drama, not only because of the actors, story, and music, but also the messages they give to us about human life that nowadays not all dramas give such deep messages to the audiences…

    Great work!

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thank you very much! My drama reviews in general range from long to… uh, very long, so I’m thrilled to know that you actually read through (and enjoyed) my post.😀 Hope to see you around!😄

  2. random commenter Says:

    Hi! I came upon your review randomly tonight and I read it all! I just finished the drama last night and I must agree with a lot of what you said, especially about the Yakuza aspect and lack of realism + the two disappointing last episodes… (well, except for the KISS! SQUEEEEE! We were ALL waiting for that moment!) but overall like you I enjoyed a lot of it too. Peace out!

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks for plodding *merrily* till the very end!😀 I’m doubly thrilled when someone likes my Ninkyo Helper review because I’ll admit it isn’t the easiest to get through. So I really really appreciate your comment!

      So were you Team Riko or Team Hatori? Or both?😉

  3. inalaloca Says:

    I didn’t have any expectations when I decided to watch Ninkyo Helper. I’ve never watched any other drama with Kusanagi Tsuyoshi and upon reading the summary, I didn’t find this drama’s plot that interesting. Nevertheless, I was bored and I decided to watch it anyway since it had good reviews. Boy, am I glad that I did! I now consider Ninkyo Helper as the best JDrama I’ve ever seen. Kusanagi’s performance just blew me away! And being someone who knows nothing about SMAP or about Kusanagi, I assumed he regularly got tough guy roles. Your introduction to this review was a revelation, lol.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review. Thank you! Reviews normally don’t elicit any emotional reactions from me, but this one sure did. Not only did it make me laugh, that last bit got me all choked up (embarrassing as it may be to admit it!).😀

    By the way, I love the e.e. cummings poem at the end.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Woot, glad to hear you loved Ninkyo Helper! And thanks for reading till the end. From what my blog stats show, less than half the readers who viewed Part 1 came back for Part 2, which kind of sucks because Part 2 has all the best parts, lol. So… thanks for finishing the review!🙂

      And don’t be embarrassed if you got a little emotional. No shame in being moved by a good story, right?😉 To be honest I got all choked up at least twice myself — while watching the drama and while writing this review, lol.

      Love the e.e. cummings poem too. I was also going through stuff by other poets, but the second I read this one I knew it was perfect for Hikoichi and Hatori. *sniffle*

  4. Ellen Says:

    Gosh! Reading your review made me want to cry all over again. So glad I found this drama and Kusanagi – the actor – thanks to you! Unlike you I don’t over think too much about dramas inconsistencies. If they keep me interested and move me that’s all I ask for. I mean, there was no reason Kusangai had to go into the nursing home to rescue Hatori when the fire dept. was already there, but on the other hand, it’s a drama so HE had to do that.

    Thanks again for your reviews and recommedations. I am new to J-dramas but am SO lovin’ them. They are so much less predictable than K-dramas or their Taiwanese cousins. Wonder if you have any suggestions for dramas with Goro-chan or Nakai.

    Oh, and PS I have such a girl crush on Meisa. Love her in drag (and with the shades at the end)! Hoping she will fill out her uniform in Yamato in the same way!

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thank you! Knowing I helped a fellow drama fan find a drama they ended up loving is more than I could ever ask for. It’s awesome to know you enjoyed NH as much as I did.😉

      I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen any of Goro or Nakai’s dramas (me is a bad, baaad SMAP fan that way!), though longtime SMAP fans generally agree that Nakai does straight drama best (despite being quite the comedian in the group) while Goro does great comedy.

      Everyone I know who’s seen Shingo’s 2008 romantic drama Bara no nai Hanaya raves about his performance, so on the basis of their recs, I’d rec this one too. (A fellow blogger, zooey, gave me this drama on disc and I will be watching it soon.)

      If you’re looking for more stuff by Tsuyoshi, his 2005 drama Koi ni Ochitara is another strong rec. Even non-SMAP fans swear it’s that good. (I also have it on my drama queue.)

      Hope the recs help.😉
      p.s. Meisa is HAWT no matter what she wears — but I must agree that she looked extra fetching in her gangsta suit and shades and I’m sure she’ll be rockin’ her space suit with equal panache. Can’t wait for Yamato!

      • Ellen Says:

        Hi Enders Girl,

        I have become smappie against my will but I really love them now. Have seen Bar No Nai Hanaya and LOVED it. Shingo is fab. I’m not a Yuko fan but it’s more about him and the child so that’s ok. I have a sort of half crush on Shingo kun so… Seems like Goro’s dramas are all cop things and I am not a fan of that stuff so I guess I will have to keep searching. But thanks for the tip on the Kusanagi drama. Also taking your “recommend” on that silly Kame drama where Meisa plays a nun. Sounds like a stitch!

        Thanks again and happy watching. I know you’re going to love that Shingo drama.

        E.

  5. reviewbyme Says:

    Oh my, what a drama. one of the best one. really made me think deeply, congrat to tsuyoppon for making the right choice for his come back. and thx to kimura-sama for always (always = In like every time they meet) scolded tsuyoppon to work harder! Your “aniki” know that you can do so much better…

    i totally agree about 2 last eps, really bored me and i even fast forward eps 10 so i can see the last eps already.

    It is just me or Tsuyppon as hikoichi really look handsome!!!!!!! He’s glare, kakkoi attitude, and even his manly voice! (Oh my, so he can scream after all :D) and here i thought he’s got the most plain face of SMAP, but damn you tsuyoppon!! You make me fall in love with you just from watching 1 drama, even kimura-sama took me 3 dramas to really respect him!!😆

    Being their fan, i think SMAP is really the gem in JE, they just not an idol, they individually grow to be the best entertainer and actors. And their friendship is the best!!

    nb:
    i heard that there is NH SP, have you seen it?

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      “You make me fall in love with you just from watching 1 drama, even kimura-sama took me 3 dramas to really respect him!!” << ROFLLL x283273278!!!!!😀 Ahaha this gave me the major LOLs😀

      But I totally see your point (even if for me, it just took one drama to, um, "respect" Kimura lol). There's something about a well-written (and well-portrayed) character that takes you past looks or appearances. I never pictured Tsuyoshi as romantic-lead material, but — there you have it in Ninkyo Helper. =D

      Have not seen the SP but I’m obviously gonna watch it!!! (I hope the ending doesn’t make me cry… :-()

      “Being their fan, i think SMAP is really the gem in JE, they just not an idol, they individually grow to be the best entertainer and actors. And their friendship is the best!!” << Yeah, the SMAP boys have really come a long way, ne? They do have the best chemistry.😀 (Unlike KAT-TUN, who couldn't even last 4 years since their debut without breaking up with Jin twice, lol)

      • reviewbyme Says:

        Now now, why i get the feeling that you think i’m a 8 years old with some strange choice of word??😀 Or maybe is just my imagination…

        Well, your 1st drama i guess must be Pride. For me, Pride is my 3rd drama and Mr. Brain being the first.

        for KT, i can totally blame it to Jin, even his face shows that he’s a troublemaker.🙄

        Well, back to NH..
        I have the download link for NH Sp, but heard of some spoiler that one of the HikoichiXRiko and HikoihiXAkira (Won’t tell you which one!😉 but maybe you already know.. ) must be feel realllyyy dissapointed!! So i’m kinda hold to download it..

        And the ending will make you cry???❗ Arghh, really hate sad scene!!

        you know, when i finish watch this, i start to think that tsuyopon will really take the ichiban smap member that i like. But after searching kimura’s pic at kimura_a_day community in LJ, i just get my sense back and decide that even Tsuyoppon incredible acting can’t match Kimura incredible hotness!!! LOL

        Gomenne tsuyo, you’re back to fourth place again..😀

        • Ender's Girl Says:

          I don’t know how NH SP will end, but I’m bracing myself for the worst.😦

          “Gomenne tsuyo, you’re back to fourth place again..” >> Lol! This really made me smile.🙂 Don’t worry, I doubt that Tsuyopon would mind very much. I’m sure he’s quite used to it by now, heh heh😛

  6. Te Wan Kim Says:

    Excellent review! It was really long but entertaining to read. I watched Ninkyo Helper before I read your review and thought it was flawless, but now I see your point about episodes 10-11 feeling a tad rushed and some of the unrealistic plot elements (the warehouse brawl photos being taken in the dark at perfect angles). Nevertheless, this is one of the best dramas I’ve seen. And in case you wanted to know, I was rooting all the way for team Hikoichi-Riko, since I have a huge celebrity crush on Meisa and want to romance her, if not directly, then vicariously😛 Speaking of which, have you seen Shiawase ni Narou yo with Shingo and Meisa? If not, I highly recommend it! Also, have you seen the Ninkyo SP yet?

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks for dropping by and sticking with the review till the end!😀

      I actually wasn’t really planning to follow Shiawase due to my already kilometric drama backlog. But if it’s really that good then perhaps I can give the first episode a shot…

      As for the SP, my friend is loaning me her copy soon. To be honest I’m both raring and dreading to watch the SP for obvious reasons. I haven’t come across any spoilers other than “it’s sad!!! it’s so sad!!!” => which, if you read between the lines, is a huge spoiler in itself @__@

      Speaking of Meisa, she was hot in Crows Zero and Space Battleship Yamato. But then I’m pretty sure you’ve already seen those =P

      • Te Wan Kim Says:

        If you do decide to watch Shiawase ni Narou yo, I would love to see you write a review on it! I read your Crows Zero vs Volcano High series as well, and I must say, you definitely must keep doing what you’re doing, because I think your writing style is excellent! You’re articulate with the reviews and nail some great points, yet the read is entertaining rather than tedious.
        Anyway, you can just grab the hardsubbed SP here. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/12508026/%5BJDramaZone.com%5D%20Ninkyo%20Helper%20SP.avi?dl=1
        I’m looking forward to your review of it.
        And of course I saw Crows Zero and Space Battleship Yamato, along with like 75% of Meisa’s filmography😛 What did you think of Yamato, in a nutshell?
        But yeah, keep up the good work!😀

        • Ender's Girl Says:

          Wow, thanks for the link, I’m much obliged!🙂 Yup, I just downloaded the SP and gave it a spin. I’ll get around to reviewing it when my emotions aren’t as raw..😦

          What I thought of Yamato? Well, I just posted my review last week. In a nutshell? Cool VFX, but the rest of the movie felt like a big old worn-out cliche.🙂

  7. junkie Says:

    Hi! Just want to say it is really well-written review. I love the character development and the moving stories.hatori-hikoichi ftw! Due to my personal bias, I love the drama more bcos of the yakuza part lol. Though I know you disgree….I really hope you will write the review for the SP, will like to hear what you think of it:)

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Oooh a yakuza junkie!!! (So what did you think of the Gokusens? lol) But hey — different strokes so it’s all cool, ne?😀 Yeah, the character development of the leads was tops for me. Hikoichi was one of the most memorable dorama characters in recent memory. LOVE HIM!

      Yes, I’m definitely writing about the SP (how can I not?????) once I get around to watching it. Thanks for dropping by and hope to bump into you again!😉


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