Drama Review: JIN (TBS, 2009)
The Doctor Is (J)IN!
or, Love in the Time of Korori and Syphilis (and Penicillin, too!)
by Ender’s Girl
Osawa Takao, Ayase Haruka, Nakatani Miki, Uchino Masaaki, Takeda Tetsuya, Koide Keisuke, Aso Yumi, Kiritani Kenta, Kohinata Fumiyo
In a Nutshell:
A run-in with a mysterious patient leads to a freak accident that zaps Tokyo neurosurgeon Minakata Jin back through time and into 19th-century Edo, where he finds himself in the turbulent last days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Bent on finding a way to return to the present, Jin must meanwhile learn to survive in this strange world of samurai and courtesans, assassins and revolutionaries, cholera outbreaks and syphilis, and periodic city fires. But as the Edoites come to rely more and more on his “futuristic” medical expertise, Jin sees a new moral dilemma arising: should he continue saving lives with technology from his time, knowing full well his actions may alter the course of History forever?
(SpoilLert: Very spoilery!)
“Marvin, you gotta play. See that’s where they [Marty’s parents] kiss for the first time on the dance floor. And if there’s no music, they can’t dance. If they can’t dance, they can’t kiss. If they can’t kiss they can’t fall in love, and I’m history.”
– Marty McFly in Back to the Future (1985)
Ohohoho, time travel (or more accurately, space-time travel) — so we meet again! It’s the Ultimate!Cosmic!Conundrum! that every astrophysicist has grappled with but failed to fully explain (let alone prove). This concept — whether or not even possible in our universe — remains popular in fiction either as the central theme of a story, or just as a plot device. In my Proposal Daisakusen review I touched on the paradoxical loopholes and inherent inadequacies of time pretzels — although one will find a whole suite of theories to justify these loopholes, such as the many-worlds interpretation, or the Novikov self-consistency principle, to name a few. And although the attainability of time travel remains in dispute, its entertainment value cannot be gainsaid — especially when this motif is handled responsibly: i.e. when there is a real effort to explore its manifold repercussions, as well as open up new ethical predicaments for the protagonist/s to contend with.
JIN is one such example. Time travel isn’t merely a narrative device here, but the drama’s entire thematic scaffolding around which the other plot elements are built. JIN may best be described as a fusion drama in every sense of the word: a fantasy**-mystery-jidaigeki-romance-medical procedural hybrid that defies any pigeonholing. In short, there’s just nothing like JIN. For history buffs who don’t wish to sit through a 50-episode NHK Taiga but crave something longer than a chanbara movie, JIN can be your happy medium — a kind of jidaigeki lite, if you will. (And yes, I’m that kind of viewer, to be honest; as a K-drama watcher I have little patience for a sageuk that rambles on beyond 24 eppies; I like it short but meaty like MBC’s Damo, for instance. Which is also why the length of JIN — and of Jdoramas in general — holds great appeal for me.)
(** It’s science fiction when there’s a technology that facilitates the time travel, i.e. a time machine; otherwise it falls under fantasy.)
And if you want specifics, you could say JIN calls to mind various titles from a broad selection of literature, TV and film: Think Dr. Who (humanoid alien travels through space-time, fighting evil!) crossed with Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (physician ahead of her time tries to break social norms and traditional mindsets!) crossed with Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (uh, self-explanatory, lol) crossed with Quantum Leap (scientist jumps back and forth through time, helping people!) crossed with Medical Investigation (an elite team of pathologists and epidemiologists investigates public-health problems!) crossed with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebook series (uh, also self-explanatory) crossed with MacGyver (gun-eschewing dude resolves life-and-death situations using his Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and random everyday things!) crossed with — oh, just about every samurai jidaigeki set in the Edo period!
Admittedly, such fusion productions risk degenerating into a wild mishmash of genres, but JIN‘s writing (adapted from a manga of the same title), and direction, thankfully make the drama anything but, and are able to integrate the disparate elements into a smooth and engrossing piece of entertainment. Moreover, the fusion works because the overall style and tone of JIN remain consistent throughout. Notwithstanding the scattered WTFreako! moments (like Creepus the Plastic Fetus, more on it later, ugh) plus a few other instances of heavy-handed tearjerking, it’s the interesting mix of genres, well-written characters and terrific cast chemistry, an intelligent, absorbing storyline peppered with thought-provoking moral conundrums and insightful historical analysis, and very creditable production values, that altogether make JIN a highly enjoyable watch well worth your time.
Have Medical Kit, Will Time-Travel
Move over, Mr. Brain. Meet Dr. Brain himself, Minakata Jin (Osawa Takao). (heh heh) But the Jin we get to know at the start of the drama has been living in a blue funk of self-doubt for the past two years: his fiancée Miki (Nakatani Miki) lies in a coma after a life-saving operation that Jin performed on her went horribly wrong, and now he shies away from the same surgeries that he used to pull off so confidently, opting instead to man the relatively benign night shift at his hospital. It’s a very sad existence, really: he can’t move on because Miki still lives, and this has left him in a personal and professional rut that could go on indefinitely. (Maybe the timeslip proves to be providential, after all?) This backstory provides an emotional springboard for the rest of the plot, and although Miki’s character appears only in flashbacks and photographs throughout the drama, her influence on Jin’s life becomes a driving force for the choices he makes later in the story. He loves her dearly; not even time travel can change that.
But before the fateful quantum leap can happen, a series of bizarrely connected occurrences take place at Jin’s hospital. First are his Migraines!Of!Doom! which presage the appearance of a John Doe patient whose face and skull are smashed up beyond recognition. As the neurosurgeon on duty, Jin is forced to operate on the man’s brain (albeit reluctantly; ‘coz he’s lost the magic touch, remember?) — but discovers a potentially tumorous UFO (unidentified fetal object, hyukyukyuk) embedded in the patient’s dura mater. We can safely infer that by all appearances, this is a fetus in fetu, or a developmental abnormality that produces a mass of tissue resembling a fetus; such a formation could either be the parasitic (or vestigial) twin of the patient, or a teratoma — an encapsulated tumor with well-developed skin, muscle and bone but no functional internal organs. (Eeew)
So now we know that the little weirdo IS medically possible, and the writer didn’t just make it up. Jin extracts the fetus in fetu from the membrane and promptly dunks it in a jar of formaldehyde solution, aptly naming the pickled embryo (yummy! lol) “Formalin-kun.” (Not “Fo-chan”? No? lol) But man oh man, that fetus sure was creepy. “Spawn of Chucky doll” comes to mind — just picture it with a denim jumper, bloody hatchet and receding hairline. And if you noticed, Creepus the Plastic Fetus becomes much bigger after it’s placed in the jar. Did it somehow grow in size? Is it alive? Yecch. It must be, because every subsequent shot of Creepus shows it opening its eyes and staring at the camera. Egads, it is alive. And gadzooks, it’s sentient, too, because it keeps sending Jin these funky brainwaves that trigger his ominous headaches. (Ooooohhh!!!)
But uh-oh, in the dead of the night, John Doe fetusnaps (kidnaps a fetus, heh) Creepus/Formalin-kun, filches a medical kit (hmmm wonder why) and busts out of the hospital, but Jin chases him all the way to the fire escape! A mad scuffle ensues, followed by a nasty tumble down the stairs… The contours of time and space suddenly shift, and Jin slips right through the cracks — and down a wormhole that shoots him out into 1862 Edo. But the danger is far from over! When Jin regains consciousness he finds himself in a strange forest glade, an unwitting intruder into a fierce skirmish among rival samurai. (At first he thinks the men are actors on a movie set — then he gets sprayed with real blood, lol.) Oh no, what to do, what to do? One scary-looking swordsman espies Jin and nearly lops his head off, but a young samurai named Tachibana Kyotaro (Koide Keisuke!!!) saves him in the nick of time — but only to succumb to a nasty blow to the head, tsk.
(Quick comment: Man, the fight action was incredibly unconvincing, the stunts so clumsy and slow. So Kyotaro disables Jin’s would-be killer by tapping him on the shoulder with his katana? LMAO! And the “blow” that he sustains is more of a slash across his forehead — just a surface wound, and definitely NOT the kind that would cause a potentially fatal hematoma! Tsk tsk. Oh well.)
This calls for a job forrrrrrrr… Dr. Jin! Dr. Who? That’s Dr. Jin, Medicine Man! (lol) Props to the writer for keeping the tension in the first episode at fever pitch. Once you get past the Miki-I’m-sorry-I-messed-up-your-brain-now-we-can’t-get-married-no-more opening-sequence melodrama, the nail-biting action in Episode 1 never lets up — from the E.R. to the hospital rooftop to the forest clearing to the Tachibana residence, where Jin must convince Kyotaro’s mother and sister to let him do an emergency operation — or the lad will surely die!
I particularly love this part of the episode, because the sequence of events and Jin’s reaction to the timeslip are depicted so realistically: Before he can even begin to make sense of this inexplicable occurrence, Dr. Jin goes on autopilot as he rushes into the young samurai’s home, barking out orders for things like gauze strips and disinfectant (and with MacGyveresque resourcefulness, turns household implements into surgical tools as well). His rational self still holds at bay the utter absurdity of his situation while his surgeon’s mind methodically goes over the life-saving craniotomy that he must perform within the hour.
Just as natural are the reactions wrenched out of Kyotaro’s mother Sakae (Aso Yumi) and sister Saki (Ayase Haruka!!!), who run the gamut from initial shock and dismay at Kyotaro’s head wound, to fear, skepticism and distrust, to sheer horror at how a stranger can propose to drive a 10-in metal nail into their Kyotaro’s skull, and finally — for the mother, at least — to wary resignation, seeing no other recourse but to relent. Trusting this man is a leap of faith for both women, and you can almost taste their trepidation as they watch Jin at work: slicing open skin and tissue, cutting through bone, sopping up the clotted blood that has pooled beneath the skull. The tension in the Tachibana residence-turned-makeshift operating room would take more than a scalpel to hack through, but Dr. Jin handles his first 19th-century surgical case amazingly well and with the coolly professional, I-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing-so-get-outta-my-face aplomb solidified by fourteen years of training, by a thousand and one operations.
Brave New World
Even with Kyotaro now out of danger, the whole sequence of events still seems surreal to Jin and he convinces himself it’s all just a dream — albeit a startlingly realistic and abnormally long one. But he awakes the next morning and his worst fears have come true: he IS stuck in the past, maybe even for good. And at the end of a grueling second day in 1862, when the urgency and adrenalin rush of his two brain surgeries have abated, Jin returns to the place of his timeslip, on a bluff overlooking the endless rows of 19th-century abodes in this ever-growing city. Only now can he process the bizarre occurrences in the past 24 hours of his life, and force himself to accept the unthinkable — yet undeniable — conclusion: that he has indeed time-traveled.
All the exhaustion and frustration that have mounted from the previous night break free of the rational fetters that held them and fill Jin with an inexplicable but overwhelming sense of sadness. For the first time he realizes that he is truly alone, trapped in this land of heartbreakingly lovely sunsets and unpolluted air; a world of sneering nobles and scowling warriors, palanquin bearers and muddy rain-soaked streets; where antibiotics and antiseptic surgery — common in our time — are yet unheard of; a world that moves him to tears with its harsh, unadorned beauty; a world that holds no familiarity or comfort for a time-vagabond such as himself, but one that is terrifyingly, and utterly, real.
As first episodes go, JIN starts out strong: The pacing is brisk, and the writing covers enough ground and dangles enough baits to keep you hooked. There’s exposition, there’s mystery (i.e. who is Mr. Bandage and what’s the deal with Formalin-kun?), there’s the main conflict (will Jin ever find a way back to his own time?) and its attendant predicaments (how much intervention can he perform in the past without changing the future? etc.). Add to all that an interesting array of 19th-century characters both real and fictional: the Tachibana family, Sakamoto Ryoma, Dr. Ogata, Saburi, the Kiichi kid, Katsu Kaishu, and Miki’s own ancestor, the courtesan Nokaze.
View of Edo from Atago-yama by Felice Beato, 1865 or 1866 (detail from “Panorama of Yeddo from Otagayama”). The large estates belonged to daimyo. More pictures at oldphotosjapan.com
The rest of the series delves further into these conflicts (both internal and external) while providing rich insights into the time and place Jin must live in — for now. And oh boy, what a time, and what a place. Recall that the Edo of 1862 was the seat of power of the Tokugawa shogunate: a city that, in less than three centuries, had rapidly grown from a small coastal village to a sizable castle-town and finally to the nation’s consumer capital and one of the most populous urban centers in the world at the time — despite periodically weathering earthquakes, fires and epidemics. Edo was also a city of daimyo and their samurai, as the shogun required all his nobles and retainers to live alternating years in their own domains and in this de facto capital.
Such is the world that Jin finds himself thrust into, and during one of the most volatile times in his nation’s history at that. For this is also the Bakumatsu, or the waning years of Tokugawa ascendancy. The white men in their “black ships” have made their puissance increasingly felt, triggering pockets of violent resistance among the warrior class. Peasant uprisings and city riots are common, and two influential domains, Choshu and Satsuma, have joined forces to undermine the shogunate (or Bakufu) by fomenting dissent and defiance. Caught between Western aggressiveness and internal strife, the Bakufu have made a last-ditch effort to reassert their dominance by beefing up their navy — but the wheels of History cannot be deterred: change is a-coming, and the Meiji Restoration is a mere heartbeat away.
When Life Gives You Time Travel, Make TimeTravelade
But Jin is no fool, and I love how he intuitively grasps the gravity of his situation as well as the potential ramifications of each action, each decision that he makes — whether seemingly weighty or seemingly inconsequential. And even as he begins to adjust to life in 1862, learning to make do without the modern trappings we all take for granted — toothbrushes, flush toilets, etc. — he remains conscious of the inherent evils of “tampering” with History. He’s so careful that he even checks himself after correcting Saki when she refers to cholera as “korori,” and tries to withhold as much 21st-century information as he can from his Edo hosts. And yet — this is where his main overarching conflict comes into play — he cannot stop himself from introducing technology from his time to help save the lives of people. This self-awareness eats him up, leaving the burning suspicion that he, with his much-vaunted medical expertise, has become both a blessing and a curse to the lives that he touches — whether directly or indirectly.
This is what’s most interesting about Jin’s character: the moral tension is genuine as he wrestles with this dilemma, the distress it causes him almost tangible. Each new case he takes on is a catch-22, a balancing act between his duty to his patients, who deserve the best treatment he can give, and his obligation to the future generations of humanity whose lives may be irrevocably altered — or even negated — because the past was changed. Two moral and equally valid responsibilities that present no easy resolution — what to do, what to do? It’s a tortuous process of self-deliberation, especially when Jin realizes that there are events beyond his control — like the time Kiichi recovers from cholera only to lose his mother to a samurai’s blade; this causes Jin (and the viewer) to rethink the wisdom of intervening to save lives no matter how good one’s intentions may be. It does make you wonder, doesn’t it?
But what I like is that the resolution doesn’t happen in a single earth-shattering epiphany, but out of a confluence of validating factors — i.e. the encouragement he gets from Saki, Ryoma and Ogata, the grateful looks on his patients, and even his internal moral compass — that ultimately convince Jin of the rightness of his actions and embolden him to stand by the difficult decisions he makes along the way. Everything happens for a reason — including time travel, so it seems. The bottom line is, a life well lived is not one that is shackled to the past, or one continually fearful of the future. To live fully and without regrets is to live for others, doing what you can for them when you can, knowing that such an opportunity may not come your way again.
In Episode 8, there’s a scene — one of my favorite — where Jin, Ryoma and Kyotaro take a nighttime walk through a bamboo grove on the outskirts of Edo. It is in these two dissimilar men that Jin finds a renewed sense of purpose: “A vessel may be a flame of light in the darkness, and its strength,” Ryoma utters with his trademark perspicacity. This is where Jin comes full circle (or full pretzel, since he is in a time pretzel, lol): that by losing his way in his own world, he learns to carve a new path in this one.
As Minakata Jin, Osawa Takao delivers a textured performance that brings to the fore the many facets of his character: the convivial personality, the medical acumen, the no-frills dedication to the wellbeing of others, and yes, the struggle within himself. Osawa’s “muy simpatico” quality and physical attractiveness (in fact, he looks better for a 42-year-old than Kimura does for a 37-y.o., tee hee) bolster his stock as a bankable leading man. Osawa may not exude the same roguish sensuality as Kimura does (and he doesn’t make my spleen explode and all that, the way Kimura can. dammit!), but maybe that’s precisely why his take on Jin-sensei is very watchable, very accessible in a nice, wholesome, normal-guy kind of way. (Whereas it’s hard to imagine KimuTaku essaying the same role; I mean, when’s the last time he played anyone normal? Lol)
Admittedly, a small part of Osawa’s performance can be… manipulative to a degree. Maybe the reason we feel for him so deeply is because he’s so… openly emotional in almost every episode? There were times when I thought, oh great, does this guy have to cry ALL the time? Lol. Although given his circumstances, I certainly don’t blame Jin for getting choked up so easily. I mean, if I found myself trapped in the same Twilight Zone-ish situation, I’d curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep. And every time I’d wake up… I’d cry myself to sleep all over again, lol.
I haven’t made up my mind if this is something I like or dislike about Osawa, but his face is very… elastic. Whether he smiles or cries, he sort of looks the same: the eyes crinkle at the edges, the corners of his mouth stretch way past his cheekbones (lol, is that even possible). Sometimes he reminded me of The Joker from the Batman animated series. Ah, well. Minor quibble. (Or maybe I’m just so used to Kimura’s I’m-way-too-cool-to-make-the-corners-of-my-mouth-stretch-past-my-cheekbones characters. Ehehe. Well, at least Osawa’s brand of acting is animated and he makes full use of his role — instead of going about like a lifeless blowup YamaPi doll (wait… that’s redundant! lol) or some stuffy Physics professor (*cough Galileo cough*).
The League of Extraordinary Edoites
The rest of the cast add flavor to the drama with their spot-on portrayals of the men and women of mid-19th-century Edo. Historically authentic performances remain the keystone of any period drama because set pieces and costumes can only get you so far. The characterizations must remain true to the spirit of their era, or the production loses its legitimacy.
Jin finds himself literally brushing with history through serendipitous encounters with such factual figures as the ronin-turned-resistance leader Sakamoto Ryoma (Uchino Masaaki) and the pioneering doctor Ogata Koan (Takeda Tetsuya) — and to a lesser extent, the naval officer Katsu Kaishuu (Kohinata Fumiyo) and the civilian firefighter chief Shinmon Tatsugoro (Nakamura Atsuo). Even the fictional characters — Saki and her family, Nokaze and the Yoshiwara brothel folk, the medical students like “Scalpel” Saburi, lol — nicely round off the viewer’s Edo experience as believable composites of people who really lived in such a transitional — but pivotal — time in their nation’s history, in this still-nebulous birthing of a new era that would see the rapid, inevitable modernization and militarization of Nihon.
There are no real Baddies in the story, too. Petty and self-serving characters, yes, but not flat-out evil. The Choshu samurai plot to ice Ryoma because he plans to use penicillin as a bargaining chip for peace between the pro- and anti-Tokugawa factions. Even the Hondo physicians who order Jin’s assassination do so because they believe his brand of medicine will do society more harm than good. It’s a valid concern, and the drama touches on this tension between the practitioners of Hondo (traditional Chinese medicine) and of Rangaku (or Dutch medical arts), as well as the politics undermining the already precarious balance between these rival camps. Such is the reality that people like Ogata and his bald Hondo counterparts (and to a lesser extent, Jin) contend with throughout the drama.
It’s interesting to note that Western medicine was a relatively new paradigm compared to the traditional Chinese practices of acupuncture, moxibustion and other therapeutic interventions that were introduced in Japan in the 5th century AD. Rangaku only managed to trickle in through cracks in the 200-year national isolationist period beginning in the 17th century. But after 1853, this trickle quickly became a surging tide of Western learning that helped keep Japan abreast of the scientific and technological revolution that had taken Europe by storm. Needless to say, the Hondo physicians were none too pleased about this. Compounding this paradigmatic friction was the Confucian stigma attached to surgery; ancient Shinto beliefs also viewed inflicting, receiving and even touching of wounds as defilement of the human body. In short, it wasn’t going to be easy breaking down these well-entrenched traditional mindsets and cultural taboos.
Takeda Tetsuya could not have been a better choice to play Dr. Ogata Koan, the venerable Osaka physician whose erudition is surpassed only by his great compassion and humility. Part Gandalf and Merlin (all he needed was a wizard’s staff to go with those silvery locks and flowing robes, lol), part Avicenna and Albert Schweitzer, Ogata-sensei is one of my favorite characters in this drama, and his relationship with Jin has one of the most complex and interesting dynamics of the story. What I love most about him is his pure, unalloyed thirst for knowledge and his commitment to bettering the lives of his countrymen. He sees Jin not as a threat to his own revered standing in the medical community, but as someone he can learn much from, someone who possesses skills and gifts far superior to his own. It’s a testament to the man’s character that Ogata-sensei would invite Jin to teach at his school, and my heart went out to the old sensei sitting in class with his own pupils, his eyes bright with curiosity, scribbling down notes as Jin lectured on the manifold merits of, uh, Vitamin B.
The interesting corollary is that Jin remains aware that the knowledge he has brought from his time could never have been possible without pioneers such as Ogata: men who blazed a trail in their own time so that those who came after could achieve greater things. When Jin gazes into Ogata’s eyes so limned with love, laughter and ancient wisdom, part of his embarrassment at the sensei’s show of esteem towards him lies in knowing he is not really better than Ogata, or any other doctor from that time. Jin knows that he is only able to share his modern-day marvels because he himself is “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Thanks to the tireless, groundbreaking efforts by physicians like Ogata, Japan was able to make rapid progress in scientific medicine following the political upheaval in 1868, and its institutions and teachers are now among the best known in the world.
But more than being just another Edo icon, Ogata-sensei becomes a real living, breathing human being. And Takeda Tetsuya brings that all out. There’s a wonderful acting moment in Episode 7 when Ogata quietly surveys the smoking ruins of the medical school he so labored to bring to fruition. This was his life work lost in the conflagration, his hopes and dreams reduced to ashes, and you feel the staggering sense of loss reflected in his eyes. But who knew that within that graying body racked with consumption, lived a spirit so indomitable, a heart so resilient? So you cheer for him and his beloved students when they determine that Jin’s strange new wonderdrug must be produced at all costs, even if they have to do it in a… soy sauce factory.
A less conventional choice for an actor is Uchino Masaaki as Sakamoto Ryoma. Casting Uchino was a much bigger risk than Takeda Tetsuya for Ogata because for one, here was a 42-year-old actor playing a 27-year-old man. But that inconsistency aside, TBS was right on the money because, simply put, Uchino steals the freakin’ show with his career-defining portrayal of the maverick Ryoma. He’s my favorite character of the whole drama. (And I must say the Heiwa fansubbers did a terrific job in translating Ryoma’s slang parlance and colloquialisms.)
We already know from the history books that Sakamoto Ryoma cut a striking figure on the streets of Edo with his untidy appearance and penchant for matching his samurai garb with Western footwear. We also know that beyond appearances, he was a shrewd negotiator and one of the key figures of the Meiji Restoration. Uchino Masaaki builds on these traits and chews up the scenery with a performance so multifaceted, so in-your-face, channeling various personalities from John the Baptist to those stock samurai characters straight out of a Kurosawa. I must confess that I used to think so little of the actor after he played Kimura’s dullard oniisan in Love Generation, hahaha. Well, I guess everyone deserves a second chance, ne?
Uchino’s Ryoma is one of those larger-than-lifers that the history books cannot do enough justice to: bluff and outspoken, caring little for personal comfort or reputation, his overgrown topknot bobbing inelegantly with each expansive stride, and to round off the package — that “cockney Nihonggo” drawl and boisterous, belly-busting laugh. But unwrap the scruffy package to find his cunning intelligence and Occam’s-razor practicality, his egalitarian spirit and astute understanding of the political reality of his time, and above all, a great, big heart that beat untiringly for his own people. Like Dr. Ogata, Ryoma was a true visionary, a man ahead of his time, whose life work (though tragically cut short) would prove pivotal to the snowballing events that ultimately overthrew the powerful Bakufu and ushered Japan into the Meiji era.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that both Ogata and Ryoma, at different times, would intuit on their own that Jin was not of their world. Perhaps only true visionaries would have the uncanny gift to see patterns beyond what is apparent, and the plasticity of imagination to think out of the box and believe that anything IS indeed possible. Even time travel. And when these two men inspire Jin to put up a hospital in Edo, you realize how deep and far-reaching their impact has been on Jin’s own life.
My only quibble with Ryoma is that we don’t get to see much of his involvement in events outside Jin’s own situation. I know the drama isn’t about Ryoma, but he’s still a major character and you’d be interested in just how he helped build a navy for Katsu Kaishuu, or how he negotiated the tenuous alliances among samurai in such a tumultuous time as this. Makes you wonder where he got all the time to help his buddy Jin-Jin — er, Jin, out of his various scrapes. There are a couple of shots where Ryoma walks pensively on the beach… but what about the navy? What about the tricky politicking? I wanted to see more of that.
It is true that there is no too small a role for a fine actor, and Koide Keisuke and Aso Yumi prove that all to well. (Hey… with Ayase and Takeda Tetsuya, we could have a Byakuyakou reunion right here, lol.) Aso Yumi as the uber-traditional Tachibana matriarch cuts an interesting paradox, her love for her son and daughter expressed through flinty stares and… carefully packed onigiri balls, lol. Love her! And Koide Keisuke, who never disappoints, brings to life Tachibana Kyotaro, the young samurai doing his best as the head of their retainer family while grappling with his own issues of loyalty and love. I only wish there had been more time to fully explore his character — i.e. how he reacted to the public’s growing disaffection with his Bakufu masters, which would have been very telling of how the warrior class coped with the political and social upheavals that were rippling through the nation. At least Kyotaro gets his “own” episode, where he experiences falling in love and getting his heart broken in such a short time, and where his true mettle as a man is tested when his ladylove Setsune contracts sepsis from a botched abortion.
(Also notable is the actor who plays the kabuki star Tanosuke who completes the Kyotaro-Setsune love triangle. Tanosuke’s preening affectations and heavy-lidded, spiteful face reminded me of Kame’s Water Dance act from the 2009 KAT-TUN concert tour, hahahahaha. Great actor, btw. I meant Tanosuke, not Kame, lol.)
The Time Traveler’s Wife (I wish!) Okay, make that “Assistant” (blerg)
Ayase Haruka rocks the role of Tachibana Saki, giving an already well-written character extra depth and that fresh, winsome quality I’ve always loved about her. Ayase is actually one of the younger J-actresses that I haven’t gotten tired of following. I know she can deliver, she’s proven it before: she gave performances that were darkly compelling in Byakuyakou, quite good in Tatta Hitotsu no Koi, and downright adorable in Hotaru no Hikari. And after seeing her wasted in Mr. Brain just two seasons before JIN (a fluke I’m sure we’d all like to forget), it’s so gratifying to see Ayase in a meaty, interesting and extremely sympathetic role as Saki.
Saki is neither ditz nor wilting flower, directions that lesser interpreters of the role would have taken. Rather, she transcends these stereotypes, showing a young woman with courage and spirit, and yet there’s nothing anachronistic about her: every last inch of this lady is period-appropriate. This is what I love most about her: that she’s very much a product of her time, having been raised in a traditional samurai household and hemmed in by all the constraints and expectations of her class. In the context of her world, Saki is the ideal daughter: dutiful, demure and respectful of her family’s standing and honor — to wit, perfect wife material. But she’s also bright, curious and teachable — qualities that, when coupled with her inborn pluckiness, also make her the ideal helper to Jin. And, may I add, a most winsome drama heroine. (And I’ll bet Saki can kick those 21st-century Code Blue kiddos’ heli-riding asses without breaking into a sweat, hahahahaaha. That’s how you perform a craniotomy, Rambo-Pi and company!)
What I also love about Saki is that the romantic feelings she develops for Jin — for this kind, wonderful man so determined to help others — grow simultaneously with her own blossoming as a person. What Jin awakens in her isn’t just love, but true inspiration. By gazing into his eyes she sees a whole new world of possibilities that she never knew existed before she met him. At the end of Ep. 3 Saki tells Jin: “Sensei… you changed my destiny: I want to be a doctor too.” But Saki, who is of marriageable age, also begins to see this emerging dichotomy of life choices: the Way of the Sensei is not the same as the Way of the Wife — at least not yet. How she resolves this within herself is enough to warm your heart and root for her all the more.
One of my favorite Saki moments (and believe me, there’s lots of ‘em) is the first time she assists Jin in an operation in Episode 1: Wearing a white kerchief and improvised face mask, and witnessing Jin do the impossible to her brother, her eyes shine with wonder and awe. She’s willing to suspend her own disbelief because she can sense something extraordinary unfolding before her — in the here and now. This is perhaps the deciding juncture in her life, the moment the thought hits her: “When I grow up, I want to be like Sensei.” (lol) Many times I wanted to hug Saki and tell her: Girlfriend, if only you’d been born in the 20th century, you could be anything you wanted to be!
Operation: Love… the One You’re With
What makes the romance in JIN so atypical is the fact that Jin’s True Love, his fiancée Miki, is left in the present while Jin spends most of the story in the past. And the two Edo women who fall in love with Jin compete not with each other, but with the lady in the photograph from a distant time in the future and who technically isn’t even born yet. All throughout the drama he remains faithful to Miki even as he gets to know his new assistant Saki, and Miki’s ancestor (and doppelganger) Nokaze, on a more personal level.
Though trapped in his space-time bubble, Jin still speaks to Miki, narrating to her the day’s strange events just like he used to during his daily visits to her hospital bed. I love this about him, I really do. For it is less out of habit than out of the desperate need to hold on to the last fraying ties that bind Jin to his former life. Fittingly enough, the drama’s theme by MISIA, “Aitakute Ima” — I want to see you now — captures Jin’s sense of longing not only to return to his own world, but to the woman he has left behind. The lyrics — “I’m missing you now / There’s so much I want you to hear… I’ll always be thinking of you” — hold a poignancy mirrored in the stirring, elegiac strains of the song. Beautiful.
Now if Miki had a song for Jin, it would probably be “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper:
After my picture fades and darkness has turned to gray
Watching through windows you’re wondering if I’m ok
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you I’ll be waiting
Time after time
You said go slow, I fall behind
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you I’ll be waiting
Time after time…
Also beautiful is the characterization of Nokaze (Nakatani Miki), the oiran (or courtesan of the highest rank) whose steely stoicism and disillusionment with life hide a heartbreaking fragility, and a heart so tender and easily moved (except, perhaps, by that bumpkin Ryoma, lol). Nakatani Miki is a fine actress who nails all these qualities about Nokaze, and still manages to portray Jin’s Miki very differently. All catlike grace and cryptic half-smiles, she isn’t splashily beautiful (but then neither is Ayase), but her fine, elegant features and geisha-like aura bring out her loveliness all the more.
Nokaze is perhaps the drama’s most tragic figure: a prisoner in her own domain, doomed to walk the streets of Yoshiwara or become a concubine to the highest bidder. Even more tragic is how she falls for Jin, who in a moment of weakness comes close to reciprocating, but ultimately shuts the lid on his growing attraction to the alluring oiran. What keeps the Jin-Nokaze dynamic so interesting is how Nokaze’s life is inevitably intertwined with that of her descendant, Miki. Jin finds himself in a unique situation: the more he interacts with Nokaze and the more his actions impact her life or sphere of influence, the bigger the ripple effect gets, so that even Miki’s very existence comes to hang in the balance.
I was so intrigued by how this arc would play out, particularly when Nokaze’s breast tumor (whoa, didn’t see that coming) throws Jin into a new dilemma. How he resolves the conflict between his love for the still-unborn Miki and his own conscience makes for a gripping final two episodes. Nakatani Miki’s best acting moments are in this final stretch: Take the scene in Ep. 10 where she leaves Yoshiwara for the second time in her life, having agreed to undergo a mastectomy, and she slips out of her towering platform slippers to feel the earth underneath her feet, looking up at the endless blue sky and perhaps remembering what it is like to be human. Another noteworthy scene is Nokaze’s farewell following the successful operation (thanks, Jin. yay!), where Jin tells her, “I am happy that it was I who got to save you.” (Awwww!) Nokaze leaves the place with no family or possessions (and no husband, after rejecting Ryoma’s marriage proposal — LOL oh Ryoma), but you know she’ll be all right. For her, it’s no tragedy that she must start all over again — how can it be, when a whole world of possibilities awaits her? (Damn, but this scene just moved me to tears.)
But fond as I was of Nokaze and Miki, at the end of the day my heart belonged to Team Saki. “Love the one you’re with” has always held more appeal for me than OTPs and soulmates, and Jin and Saki had such wonderful chemistry throughout the story that was so enjoyable to watch. What’s so great about their dynamic is that trust relationship rooted in their very first meeting over Kyotaro’s hemorrhaging brain, lol. The mutual trust between them during this first operation is both instantaneous and instinctive. Later on, Jin opens up to Saki about Miki, and about his time travel; another person would’ve scoffed at him, but Saki — again more from instinct than hard evidence — somehow knows that he speaks the truth.
And even though no romance blossoms between them, they still get to share enough moments to keep you hopeful. There’s a nice scene in Ep. 4 where Jin teaches Saki how to bore a hole into the skull using a rotating chisel and a block of wood. They share a moment on the family porch, and if it means much more to Saki than to Jin, he is too much of a gentleman to show it. (I wish Jin had been more, ehem, hands-on with Saki and turned their little moment into something like the Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze pottery scene from Ghost. Oh, my eyes! My eyes!!!) In a later scene, Saki (through Nokaze’s warning) saves Jin from a would-be assassin. They hide out in the forest — a heart-stopping moment — clutching hands, daring not to breathe. Even after the danger has passed the air between them is no less charged.
And I love how well they work together, as a team. Even without the love stuff, Jin and Saki would still make a great medical tandem. It’s only natural that Saki would fall for Jin (it was probably love at first sight, heh), though he simply has too much on his plate to realize it before it’s too late. Saki’s rare outburst in Ep. 10 — “Sometimes, medicine exposes not only the body, but the heart as well. I have clearly exposed my heart, but you don’t see it.” — just cuts you up, doesn’t it? (Although Jin’s reaction here is pretty LOLLLL) Still, I’m glad the writer included the moment where Jin is operating on Nokaze and he automatically says, “Saki-san, scalpel…” only to look up and realize that she isn’t his assistant anymore, and that it’s her betrothal day today. (Ohhhh Jin. And oh, Saki! *sob*)
The drama runs at a good pace for the most part, although it does flag at certain moments when the writing chooses to be a little emotionally overindulgent. Case in point would be the latter half of the cholera outbreak (Eps. 2-3). There are just too many lingering shots of patients writhing in their makeshift cots and heaving over their slop buckets, that the gravity of the situation and the distress of the patients lose some of their impact. And that blubbering kid, Kiichi only made the scene more overwrought than it already was. He probably thought that scrunching up his face until his bulbous head turned blue was considered “good acting.” (It’s not that I hate Kiichi; but he did tend to overact in this drama. And I don’t dislike him the way my best friend does; now her feelings for the kid are verging on murderous, lol.)
The drama gets extra manipulative in a later episode where Jin gets into a disagreement with Shinmon Tatsugoro, the local fire brigade chief (and community leader-cum-mafioso, according to the history books) who pooh-poohs doctors because they, uh, run away from a fire? Ohh-khayyy. This leads to a nasty verbal exchange of “Yo’ momma” slurs on the streets of Edo, lol. Okay not really. But this episode just felt too contrived, too didactic in showing how doctors and firefighters are, um, created equal and Must!Therefore!Be!Respected!Equally!!! Edo’s history of fires could’ve been a great topic to explore (since the city was periodically visited by conflagrations major and minor; the great Meireki fire of 1657 claimed 108,000 Edoites, yikes), but the writer spoiled the chance with heavy-handed and somewhat juvenile conflict resolution. Honestly, seeing Jin & the Docs and Shinmon & the Firefighters come out of the smoldering remains of Edo to form a mutual admiration society where the first order of business was, er, patting each other on the back, made me want to break out singing “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” from Sesame Street.
But I must hand it to the drama for the verisimilitude of the surgery scenes: the messy symphony of vital fluids, severed arteries and perforated craniums under Jin’s orchestration remains realistic without being gratuitous. And each medical operation is presented with a matter-of-factness that does not sensationalize the pain, or glorify the invasiveness of the procedure. Admittedly they’re not for the faint of heart and queasy of stomach, but having been weaned on shows like E.R. and Chicago Hope, and having dissected frogs, cats and baby sharks (oh my!) back in my university days, I never felt disturbed by all the coagulated blood and tissue bits flying about, lol. In short, I enjoyed the medical stuff. A LOT.
And perhaps there’s more to these scenes than just medical authenticity; it’s as if the drama wished to emphasize the gravity of what Jin was faced with by operating in a pre-modern world, without the luxury of computerized equipment or trained staff. It ain’t no joke to bore a hole into someone’s skull using crude (albeit sterilized) household tools, or to do so without the aid of anesthesia. It takes guts and fortitude to do what Jin had to do, and if that alone doesn’t torque up your respect in the man, I don’t know what will.
The science geek in me was thrilled no end to see what “avant-garde” methods Jin would be introducing to 1862 Edo. So he performs antiseptic surgery five years before Joseph Lister would announce it to the world, instructs the residents in the germ theory, and advocates the benefits of oral rehydration salts and intravenous drips. Much of the drama is devoted to the considerable feat of culturing penicillin 65 years before Fleming’s serendipitous discovery, and using the antibiotic drug (or a prototype thereof) to treat common diseases such as syphilis.
The whole penicillin experience is a veritable microbiology lesson, and it was interesting to witness Jin walk Ogata and the students through the process of extracting from the Penicillium mold, preparing the culture medium, inoculating with the syphilis suppurations, and incubating and later testing the penicillin samples for their efficacy. Even more interesting is how Jin goes about it without modern microbiological equipment: his resourcefulness shines through as he makes do with the relatively crude implements at his disposal, substituting ceramic bowls for petri dishes and oil for the extraction solvent, etc.
It sure was engrossing to see the medical students go about the arduous process with such admirable tenacity and esprit de corps, but the geek in me couldn’t help questioning the feasibility of such an undertaking. There’s no way Jin et al. could’ve worked under germ-free lab conditions. Not in their time, at least. In my old microbiology lab classes we had to sterilize everything in the autoclave (which is a mean little chamber shaped like a mini vault), and we weren’t even allowed to fully open the petri dishes when inoculating out of mortal fear of contaminating the culture. Without an effective sterilization technology, microbes would have been able to worm their way into the penicillin cultures and make it exceedingly hard to isolate the antibiotic. So even if the whole process was entertaining, it wasn’t very workable from my experience. /end of geeky rant
The soundtrack has moments of greatness, like the haunting instrumentals and the sweeping theme song by MISIA that capture the whole jidaigeki vibe so well. The score is less effective in the suspenseful scenes, where the sound effects jolt the viewer into knowing that Something!Exciting!Will!Happen! The sound director clearly went overboard in this regard: when a scary/critical moment is coming, I want to experience it on my own; the music should only serve to enhance the mood of the scene and not dictate or even preempt it.
The End is the Beginning is the End…
The closing scenes of JIN (barring the WTF! moments) have a sweet poignancy to them. Jin attempts to tell Ryoma of his own fate, but the revolutionary brushes him off philosophically: “The days’d still come with the dawn… step by step, we’ve no choice but t’move forward, you ‘n’ I.” And for Jin, who does not know whether his own fate lies in the past or in the future, this is a thought that comforts him deeply. What will happen will happen, so it’s best to just take life as it comes; to live in the present, whether your “present” is in 1863 or 2009; to live with no regrets and waste no opportunity to do good to your fellow man; and to simply keep hoping for the best, for a better future. For are we not all jewels inside one great kaleidoscope, giving off different hues with the changing patterns of time?
The seasons pass and Jin finds himself walking the streets of Edo, soaking in the sights and sounds of the city he has now learned to call home, and observing the people as they go about their daily lives: Kiichi selling rice cakes on the sidewalk, women gossiping on a bridge, a man unloading farm produce from his boat. The montage includes shots of the other characters in the drama: Shinmon and his underlings building Jin a new hospital, Nokaze trying to find work as a private tutor (or governess?), Katsu in talks with a visiting diplomat while Ryoma prances about in the background with a new pair of leather shoes (lol), and Kyotaro receiving — a marriage proposal, LOL.
Everything is going great at Jin’s makeshift clinic (and Saki is still his assistant, woohoo!), when he just has to fall from a stool — OH NOES!!! But his eyes flash open and he realizes that he hasn’t been zapped back to the future, and he’s still in the same room with Saki (yay!). Which gives me a faint little sliver of hope: perhaps nothing happens to Jin after all, and he stays in that time period for the rest of his life. Which is where I want him to be, anyway. (Hopefully, he’ll fall in love with Saki and marry her, class distinctions be damned.) But it doesn’t explain why his headaches are back, for they usually portend another timeslip. Blerg. Can. not. compute. Can. not. compute.
I think the whole Nihonjin nation was up in arms following JIN’s finale. And rightfully so: I mean, sheesh kebab, WTF was that? We still don’t know the cause of the timeslip, or who Mr. Bandage is and his relation to Formalin-freakin’-kun. I hate it when a drama raises too many mysteries without providing enough answers during its run. You’d understand that a series like say, Lost can afford to hit us with some baffling cliffhangers, because at least these Western shows are built to run for multiple seasons and only get cancelled when the ratings plummet.
I’ve heard the following reasoning for the open ending: “The manga on which JIN is based isn’t finished.” But that excuse doesn’t fly because whether the material is original or adapted, every drama should stand on its own, dammit. Manga readers and drama viewers are NOT identical sets of people, hello! And another thing: from the way TBS has been shilly-shallying about a season two or a movie sequel, I’m not holding my breath for either one. It’s clear they went ahead and produced this drama without a definite roadmap for a sequel, and yet they allowed the ending to be this half-baked and unsatisfying.
Updated 8 June 2010: It’s official — according to TokyoGraph, TBS has just announced a sequel for the Spring 2011 season. Osawa and Ayase are definitely back on board, along with Nakatani Miki and Uchino Masaaki, yay! Thanks for settling the matter once and for all, TBS.
The only thing the drama’s finale is clear on is that Jin does get to change the future because: (1) the photograph disappears, and (2) there’s a split-second shot of Miki not as a doctor, but as a teacher motivating her students with the same line she shared with Jin (and, unwittingly, half the people in 1862 Edo, lol): “God gives us challenges so that we may overcome them.” Which means that even if Jin gets to return to his present, the Miki that he knows won’t be in a hospital bed, trapped in a coma (yay!).
So, just who is Formalin-kun, really? Jin’s descendant? The spawn of Jin and Saki (hihihi) that somehow crawled into some unfortunate dude’s brain? And as for Mr. Bandage… I never really believed he’d turn out to be Ryoma. My guess was Jin himself, because Mr. Bandage reminded me too much of The English Patient — y’know, an anonymous burn victim swathed in gauze who relates to Juliette Binoche (playing a hospital nurse) the tragic story of star-crossed lovers Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas… and then lo and behold, The English Patient turns out to be — Ralph Fiennes himself!!! So anyway. Does Jin somehow change Mr. Bandage’s fate because of his timeslip? Is Mr. Bandage even real? Is Formalin-kun real? Am I real? Are you? lolll
Ah crud, now I’m the one getting a headache. Could this mean… could this mean… Well. I’m SO ready for my timeslip, Formalin-kun!!! Hahahahahhaha NOT.
Oh, and speaking of that confounded fetus, I’m signing off with the music video of “Teardrop” by Massive Attack. It’s one of my favorite tracks from the ‘90s, and if the title (or Massive Attack) doesn’t sound familiar, maybe the melody will ring a bell: it’s used for the opening sequence of the drama series House, M.D. Every time Formalin-kun opened its weird saucery eyes, I couldn’t help thinking: Man, the fetus from “Teardrop” will TOTALLY WHUP. Your. Sorry. Plastic. Ass!!!! Hahahaha. And not only that, but the “Teardrop” fetus smiles, too. And sings. (Beat that, Formalin-kun you little sucker!!!)
Disclaimer: the CGI used in the video is relatively primitive (it came out in 1998, after all), but still WAY more lifelike than in JIN. Enjoy!
Artistic & technical merit: A-
Entertainment value: A
Photo credits: aramatheydidnt.livejournal.com, crunchyroll.com, dangermousie.livejournal.com, dipity.com, doramaworld.blogspot.com, hey9 @ d-addicts.com, maniakku.wordpress.com, Matahari_Biru @ soompi.com, mysoju.com, oldphotosjapan.com, rapidshareindex.com, semi-fly @ soompi.com, thirdofnovember.blogspot.com
Video credit: gpantelli @ youtube.com