Drama Review (Part 1): Nobuta wo Produce (NTV, 2005)
Time of Your Life
by Ender’s Girl
Kamenashi Kazuya, Yamashita Tomohisa, Horikita Maki, Toda Erika, Hiiragi Rumi, Natsuki Mari, Okada Yoshinori, Takahashi Katsumi
In a Nutshell:
Popular boy Kiritani Shuji secretly joins forces with class goofball Kusano Akira to give a new student — a troubled girl with zero social skills — a makeover. Hell-bent on “producing” their subject as the school’s newest it girl, Shuji and Akira soon realize that their social experiment is turning out to be nothing like they ever expected.
(SpoilLert: Very. Spoilah powah, chunyuu!)
[Recommended companion track: “Graduation Song” by Vitamin C]
“Youth is, after all, just a moment, but it is the moment, the spark, that you always carry in your heart.”
– Raisa M. Gorbachev
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of teenage angst, it was the season of puppy love; it was the spring of maturity, it was the winter of childhood; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
God bless his soul, but Mr. Dickens must be turning in his grave this very minute knowing that his iconic opener from “A Tale of Two Cities” was hijacked by some slush-brained Jdorama fangirl, and then bastardized into a paean to the Universal High School Experience. Even worse, imagine his horror to find this piece to be just a pretext for a long and gushy tribute to a rather unsightly pair of Japanese teen idols — one scrawny and effeminate, the other looking perpetually lobotomized — who, by their performances in the drama that’s about to be dissected, have effectively clinched said fangirl’s undying affections (pure and, uh, otherwise). If our esteemed Victorian novelist only knew that his classic lines would later be co-opted into a rhapsody about a couple of Johnnies fer gawdssakes, he wouldn’t just be turning in his grave by now, but doing freakin’ somersaults while chewing on his elbows or something — or worse, gyrating furiously to the “Seishun Amigo” chorus. (Sacrilege!!! Is nothing sacred now? Not even Dickens???)
I know it may sound funny (and even counterintuitive), but “sacred” is exactly what I hold this drama to be. Admittedly, Nobuta wo Produce hardly looks impressive on the surface, and can be dismissed by the casual observer as just another idoru vehicle set against the disposable backdrop of high school — with the fluff, the stereotypes, the puerile laughs — only to be swallowed in a sea of other mass-produced Jdramas of the same teen-wanking formula… But no. This one is different. Because once in a while we drama fans are gifted with a viewing experience so transcendent in both style and substance, a triumphant synergy of directorial creativity, of writing deep and resonant, and of characters so heartbreakingly authentic.
Nobuta wo Produce is the Jdrama that is closest to my heart, the one that means the most to me out of all that I’ve watched (and re-watched). (And you thought it was something Kimura had starred in? Close, but no ciggy.) Although I cannot speak for all fans of this drama, I know that many, like myself, have come to love its three protagonists — Shuji, Akira, Nobuta — with a fierce allegiance, and can identify with their own feelings of disquiet and trepidation as they stand, inevitably, on the brink of adulthood. This is a deeply personal drama to watch — and that, for me, is what makes it sacred in no small way. Just as we all — whoever and wherever we are — inwardly uphold as sacrosanct the universal themes that this drama explores to rich, rewarding ends: the painful reality of growing up, the strange duality of alienation and friendship, and the “self-revelatory odyssey” of finding yourself as you make your way through life.
Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times had this to say about another seminal teen drama from the other side of the world that remains, in my opinion, the best of its kind to ever be spawned by Hollywood — and also, regrettably, one of the most underrated and short-lived. The title? My So-Called Life (ABC, 1994).
“Every so often in the collaborative art called television a little miracle happens. There is a meeting of minds, a confluence of vision, a gathering of particular talents. The planets align, the cards fall into place, and something is born whose worth is instantly apparent to all involved, not as a generator of revenue — at which it might fail completely — but as an ennobling refraction of some little bit of the Truth, of what it means, or could mean, to be alive. Each department pushes the others a little bit harder; excellence from one corner prompts ambition in another. What might have begun as just the next greenlighted project or available job becomes a sort of holy mission, even if none of the participants would ever dare call it that — this being, after all, only television.”
These words also captured all that I felt about Nobuta wo Produce and had hoped to articulate in my own inadequate way. And the stars did seem to align for myself and this drama: a few minutes into the first episode I knew that something extraordinary was unfolding on my TV screen. There was no way this would turn out to be just another teen drama. Nor did it feel like an “idol drama” in spite of its cast; I saw no idols playacting for the paycheck, but three regular high school kids in a coming-of-age story that was all at once funny, heartfelt and bittersweet. NwP isn’t an outstanding high school drama, but an outstanding drama, period.
Another reason for quoting the above passage is that tonally, Nobuta wo Produce evokes the realism of My So-Called Life in contrast to the inflatable gloss of such teen escapist fare as Gossip Girl or (shudder!) One Tree Hill. NwP is at turns subdued and pensive, somber and dark, lighthearted and exuberant, but always remaining true to the emotional core of the story — to this raw and honest portrait of adolescent friendship.
Based on the novel by Shiraiwa Gen, the screenplay by Kizara Izumi serves as the backbone of the whole drama… and oh my goodness, how can I NOT gush about THE WRITING — it both warms and pierces the heart. And it’s so… HIGH SCHOOL, y’know? It gets it, as in it really gets what high school is all about, that different planet we’ve ALL been to, where the drama and the heightened emotions and the clique wars and the desire for validation and the puppy love and the tortured ruminations matter more than they ever will by the time we’re these Big Old Boring Grownups. Nobuta wo Produce is about Becoming and Belonging, and about finding fast and true friends who will help you along the way.
The Great Pretender
A seventeen-year-old boy stands on the roof of his apartment building, brushing his teeth and watching the sun come up. It’s his morning before-school ritual, the one time of the day he can be by himself, and BE himself. A few minutes later he emerges from the ground floor of his building, wheeling out his bicycle into the street. The school uniform has replaced the jersey and sweats, the rubber-banded topknot has given way to a looser, more kicky hairstyle. One last-minute preening in a sidewalk mirror before he pushes off on his bike, well aware that by the end of the short trip to school he will have morphed, right on schedule, into Mr. Cool, Mr. Popular of Section 2-B — the boy everyone likes, and wants to be like. After all, image is everything; life may be just a game, but he’s already playing like a pro.
The Boy Who Could Fly
Another boy skips down a flight of stairs, flapping his arms and burbling inanities all the way while slurping from a carton of soy milk. Coming from his usual spot on the school’s roof deck, he’s always been the solitary type, friendless practically since birth — though not entirely by choice. Somewhere in his mind’s perpetual fugue of made-up words, nihilistic quotes and other oddities, the awareness of his outcast status niggles him — but only vaguely. Perhaps it’s the grating hyena chortle, or the esoteric jokes that no one seems to appreciate, or the utter disregard for the personal space of others, or all of these — that, in the collective mind of Class 2-B, only validate his reputation as the class pariah, the village idiot. But this hardly fazes him, for there are OTHER matters of more world-shaking import than peer rejection — like running out of soy milk, for one. Or turning eighteen.
A girl shuffles up the stairs, dragging her feet through the corridor as if what waited at the end were an execution chamber instead of a typical high school classroom. Her clothes are drab and shapeless, her shoes scuffed, her uncombed hair falling in a thick black screen to obscure her features — the slightly widened eyes intent on the 1-sq. m of flooring before her, the small, trembling mouth, the pallid tone of her skin. She stops right outside the door, hands clenched at her sides and head still bowed. The homeroom teacher who so kindly escorted her from the principal’s office has gone inside to address his 2-B pupils, forgetting to introduce their new classmate left in the doorway. Relieved to put off the agony for a little longer, she surreptitiously scans the room, knowing she need not look past the unreadable faces of the students to know they are just like the others who came before. This may be a different school, but the outcome she can predict with unerring accuracy: the taunts, the jeers, the intentionally unintentional shoving and tripping, the smirks of disdain — they will all come, if not this day then the next. The bespectacled sensei blinks absently, then remembers the girl and beckons her inside with a brief, reassuring smile — as if to say, “It’ll be all right.” But this is high school, and it will NOT be all right. That she knows too well.
Nobuta wo Produce has given us some of the most memorable characters in Asian television, and personally my favorite teenagers ever: Shuji, Akira, Nobuta. Three different individuals, three lives decussating at this ephemeral — but life-defining — juncture called adolescence. A random occurrence, perhaps? Or, as I prefer to believe, “korete… DESTINY?” And really, you won’t find a more compelling on-screen coming-of-age story involving two guys and a girl since… Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. No — scratch that! Scratch that!!! I meant, uh… Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! (Phew! hehe)
Kiritani Shuji (Kamenashi Kazuya), both the main protagonist and narrator of the story, is the most normal and well-balanced of the three principal characters and the one you can relate to the most. He prides himself in thinking he’s above it all, above the fray, refusing to buy into the silly high school dramas and pairing games, the juvenile joshing, the artifice and posturing, the trendy catchphrases and slavish observance of fads and social rankings. Here is Shuji the self-aware, Shuji the secretly sardonic, who with the worldly-wise cynicism of a Hollywood producer or a political broker, treats everything in life as a game. The difference between him and everyone at school is that he’s the only one who knows it’s a game.
And since every game requires a game plan, his is to act cool, be Mr. Congeniality, be in the know, keep equally cool friends and an equally popular girlfriend. From the drama’s onset only the viewer is made privy to Shuji’s little deception: the act he puts on at school, the affable mask he wears as he lies through his teeth, the glib excuses he uses to deflect social commitments — a date with his girlfriend, a karaoke night out with his classmates — without having to look bad himself. He’s an old hand at this and knows it.
Everyone loves Shuji – from his teachers right down to his peers, from his coterie of “bye-byecycle” homeboys to their simpering, magazine-flipping counterparts, from the resident toughies to the nerds and outcasts. And he lives for their acceptance, he craves their admiration, he likes to be liked by everyone… Well, maybe not everyone, because if there is one person he simply cannot stand, the bane of his high school existence, it’s this boy, the Weirdest Human Being Shuji has ever met. There simply is nobody else on earth quite like… Kusano Akira (Yamashita Tomohisa).
If Pinocchio were a special child and had magic mushrooms for breakfast every bleeping day of his life… then add a few more embellishments like the bleached hair and rolled-up shirtsleeves, the baggy pants and wallet chain, the spacey giggling and face-pulling, the repertoire of funny voices and horribly infectious expressions — bakayaro! kon-kon! Shu-uuuji-kun! sukebe! – and a partiality to quoting Nietzsche while incongruously flailing his arms like a gooney bird… voila! Kusano Akira, Resident Freak of 2-B. And the worst thing about this little creep? Is that he seems to harbor an unhealthy liking for… Shuji. (Oh NOES!!!) (Ohhhh YESSS!!!! Hehehe)
So what on earth makes this unlikely twosome team up for a common cause? Shortly after the new girl’s arrival, Shuji and Akira chance upon a particularly nasty case of girl-on-girl bullying coming from inside the ladies’ room. The victim turns out to be that odd little transferee Kotani Nobuko (Horikita Maki). Reluctant to get involved, Shuji stays outside the washroom while Akira goes inside to try and reason with the bullies. With no image to protect, Akira has nothing to lose by sticking up for someone like Nobuta — even if it means getting hosed down himself. For all his flakiness and irrational fears, Akira is no coward.
Shuji devises a ruse to get rid of the bullies Bando (Mizuta Fumiko) and the Bandettes, and he and Akira bring the girl up to the roof where she can take a breather while her clothes dry. Here, Shuji hatches a plan to transform Kotani Nobuko into the most popular girl in school. The makeover will seem all the more dramatic given Nobuko’s utter lack of social capital to begin with. The task is daunting, but promises to make high school history should it succeed. Because for Shuji this is really his vanity project as much as an experiment in social psychology. This is his chance to finally prove what he has known all along: that under the right conditions, people can and will be suckered into buying anything you set them up for.
Producing Nobuta, or Marketing 101
I like how the writing gives the viewer a comprehensive crash course in product development, brand marketing and image management. I have no background in this field, but still found this stuff incredibly fascinating. And there’s a certain *wink, wink, nudge, nudge* aspect to this drama, given that Shuji and Akira’s marketing strategy parallels how the entertainment industry manufactures, packages and sells celebrities, be they TV/film stars or recording artists or — yes, teen idols. (I really do wonder if Messrs. Kamenashi and Yamashita ever realized how meta the whole “Producing Nobuta” story line was. Did they ever look up from the script during one of the read-throughs and go, “Huh? But this is US!” Heh heh.)
As the self-designated Mr. Producer, Shuji follows these principles of marketing management with admirable savvy:
PRINCIPLE #1: Analyze market opportunities and select target markets.
Market segment: Students of their high school, beginning with Class 2-B.
Demand analysis and sales forecast: Shuji feels confident that his project will succeed: he knows his classmates all too well, knows how their minds work and what makes them tick.
Variables: Project success will depend on Kotani Nobuko’s participation, and how far she is willing to go to become popular. An even bigger variable is the galling presence of that nutso Kusano Akira, the loose cannon in Shuji’s marketing plan. (When Akira excitedly talks to him about what course of action they ought to take, Shuji dryly replies, “We? Aren’t YOU the one who should be produced more?” LOL!!!)
PRINCIPLE #2: Develop marketing strategies.
Brand development: Shuji and Akira come up with a catchy nickname that will serve as Nobuko’s brand: they christen her “Nobuta,” a portmanteau of her given name and the word for pig. (Go figure, but it is catchy.)
Product redesign and repackaging: This means giving Nobuta a new haircut and a new (albeit misguided) fashion sense (oh those boys!!!). There’s this scene where the three discuss what particular image Nobuta should project, and Shuji cites a single haircut – i.e. the buzz cut – that can be worn several different ways, depending on the wearer’s personality: stylish, bumpkin, sporty, or toughie. In another scene, Shuji clinically scrutinizes Nobuta from across the classroom, trying to pinpoint exactly what makes her different from normal high school girls. He realizes (in a funny burst of inspiration) that not only does she not conform to current trends, but she also lacks “boy communication skills” like fluttering her eyelashes, making cutesy moues, and swiveling her torso at the waist (like that “drum technique” from The Karate Kid-II).
Publicity campaign: To launch their new project, Shuji taps into Akira’s boundless credit limit and arranges for Nobuta to be allowed to read inside Delphine’s uber-exclusive bookstore. The following day, she is the talk of the school with her photo tacked to the bulletin board. Later, Shuji and Akira try to enhance her, uh, brand equity by hawking Nobuta keychains while spreading the rumor that these trinkets can grant a wish. The scheme works brilliantly – for a time.
Creating the demand: In Akira’s own words, “being produced means to become something that everyone wants.” So to boost Nobuta’s stock (= desirability), Shuji sets her up with her secret admirer, who turns out to be their classmate Shittaka (Wakaba Ryuuya). Although the date ends in disaster, Shuji rather cynically presses Nobuta to carry on with Shittaka, but she adamantly refuses. (I don’t quite like how this particular arc was left hanging, though. The fact that Nobuta and Shittaka belong to the same class would make their future interactions at school inevitable, but the drama does not factor this in. After Episode 5, his part to play in her story ends rather abruptly; I would have wanted to see some closure between them in later episodes.)
PRINCIPLE #3: Manage marketing efforts and troubleshoot unforeseeables.
The producer and assistant producer encounter a few snags along the way, but are determined NOT to let these hiccups interfere with their mission. For example, when Nobuta at first balks at getting a haircut in Episode 2, the boys win her over with a most unexpected gesture that will make you go “awwww” and “bwahahahahaha” at the same time. (I mean, who can ever forget Shuji in the green zebra top and bright orange harem pants, and Akira in that pink and brown leopard-print ensemble??? Ahhhh good times, good times…)
At this point, the biggest perceived threat to the Nobuta Project is the bullying and intimidation that she endures at school. When the terrorizing escalates (in a disturbing, heart-pounding sequence where Bando and the Bandettes chase Nobuta through the school campus and neighborhood streets), Shuji and Akira decide to step up their efforts in mitigating the situation, all the while believing that Bando and her borg army are the enemy to beat.
But the real enemy has in fact been pulling all the disruptive strings in the background, biding her time until the perfect moment. She operates in the shadows, launching one calculated countermove at a time that always manages to throw a monkey wrench into Shuji and Akira’s little victories: hate messages scrawled on Nobuta’s desk or smeared on her school uniform, malicious insinuations portraying Nobuta as a skank, and the all-out destruction of the work of Nobuta’s hands, be it haunted house props or Nobuta power keychains.
The writing sets the story up so that only a truly spiteful spirit could be behind the demolition job, with the perpetrator’s anonymity fueling the mystery/suspense atmosphere of this main arc. But my beef is this: when Nobuta’s pseudo-friend Aoi Kisumi (Hiiragi Rumi) is later unmasked as the saboteur, her identity fails to match up to the expectations set throughout the first seven episodes. As much as I appreciated the mystery angle of this storyline, the Ultimate Baddie is simply too evil for this drama. And hers is an evil with no convincing raison d’etre — a true “motiveless malignity” if you will.
Aoi’s torment of Nobuta is not in the same league as Bando’s mean-spirited bullying; this is pure, unadulterated malevolence, jarringly out of place in the high school setting. Aoi feels less like a real person than this omnipresent elemental force bent on Nobuta’s annihilation. It isn’t even very convincing how she was able to sneak up on Shuji/Akira/Nobuta undetected and take incriminating pictures on numerous occasions, never mind how she was able to plaster the entire school from top to bottom with mimeographed poison fliers without having her cover blown, etc…
And I didn’t like how the writing takes Aoi over the brink of villainy, only to force a resolution that feels… pat. Perhaps it’s the vindictive streak in me that wasn’t too happy she didn’t meet a messy, excruciating end in some dark alley, or at the bottom of a well. After everything she did to Nobuta, anything short of that simply did not feel… just. I did not want her to be okay. I did not want her to be okay with Nobuta.
Kotani Nobuta: Girl, Interrupted
The one disappointing aspect of Nobuta’s character is her sketchy backstory, as the writing never bothers to flesh out her family: step-otosan appears in one scene and a few other flashbacks, while okasan is simply non-existent. Nor is it ever made clear how she turned into this self-destructive, suicidal misanthrope. The cold indifference Little Nobuko received from her stepfather could’ve been an interesting plot element to expand on, but its understood impact on her emotional fragility gives insufficient basis for her many maladjustment problems.
That out of the way, Horikita Maki’s portrayal was pitch-perfect despite her character being the most thinly written of the three. Maki amazed me with her performance, not only because she consistently captured all the nuances of Nobuta’s persona — the husky voice and halting speech, the shuffling gait, the hunched-up posture, the shadows in her eyes — but also because she went deep into her character while taking the viewer along with her. She became Nobuta, wholly and painfully Nobuta, with a heartbreaking vulnerability offset by that sweetly tenacious spirit. (My only quibble: sometimes I caught Maki smiling unguardedly (during an instance of Shuji-Akira horseplay in Tofu Guy’s living room, for example), and it was a Maki smile, not a Nobuta smile, lol. Other than that I find no fault with her portrayal; it was right on the money.)
The most interesting thing about Nobuta is that she doesn’t beg for your sympathy; she’s too complex a person. Her outward passivity in the face of torment bespeaks not Cinderella-esque meekness, but something dark and festering, more of a cold, vengeful hatred towards her harassers. When the bullying gets out of hand, Nobuta is not above wishing Bando and Co. ill, that they be “gone from this world.” But in this dark hour she is unexpectedly shown a glimmer of hope (when she discovers that the willow tree lives! and is about to cross the ocean!), and of kindness (when Shuji stitches a pig patch onto her school tie… awww!!!). This is a watershed moment that makes her repeal her earlier curse, and so she vows instead to face her fears and to “live in this world where Bando lives.”
Releasing this pent-up animosity is Nobuta’s first step to wholeness, and in many ways it is a giant leap forward. She realizes that the best way to win is not to repay Bando’s brutality with her own, but to stand her ground and engage this bully with understanding and compassion. In Ep. 4 Nobuta confronts Bando and tries to get her to see that she doesn’t have to live this way, as both a victim and a victimizer. Instead of fortifying her defenses, Nobuta builds a bridge and offers Bando a way to redeem herself, a chance to become a better person.
What I love the most about Nobuta? That she TRIES her damnedest despite the whole world telling her she’s a loser. Once she gets past her misgivings about the makeover project, she endeavors to go along with whatever Shuji and Akira ask of her. And she genuinely wants to become more socially agreeable, to interact with her peers even at the risk of ridicule and rejection. When she comes to school in that frumpy skirt and cream blazer with an enormous corsage (ohhhh those boys!!! what was Nobuta thinking, asking fashion advice from a couple of Johnnies, lolz), you can see how terrifying it is for her to muster the courage to go up to teachers and classmates alike (even Bando & Co.) just to say a “good morning.” And yet you know, as does she, how much this small victory means to her in the day-to-day battlefield that is high school. Credit goes to the writer for laying Nobuta’s thoughts over this scene, so that we see her true self raring to break free of her unwanted, unattractive shell, desiring nothing more than to be able to race up the stairs and shout from the rooftop, “I’m right here! Good morning!!!”
And what’s so admirable about Nobuta is that she knows where her personal limits are: she’s cooperative, but with a mind and will of her own. Case in point: she consents to a date with Shittaka because she wishes to please Shuji and Akira who have “worked so hard” to make her popular, but draws the line at going out with him again after Date No. 1 ends in disaster at the aquarium park (and the look she gives the poor schmuck when he recoils from her soiled hand after the ojiisan collapses => great acting moment there, Maki).
Nobuta’s biggest heartache comes in an act of treachery from her first real female friend. What sickens me the most about Aoi isn’t so much the physical as the psychological sabotage, how she insidiously tries to turn Nobuta against the two boys using half-truths and emotional blackmail. That, for me, was her unpardonable sin, far worse than trashing a haunted house or cutting up a lovingly edited videotape. Several times I felt like screeching at my TV screen, “GTF away from them, biyaaatch!!!!!!! #@$%^%&**&^.”
But in the midst of Aoi’s subtle insinuations against Shuji, and his own willingness to take the fall rather than hurt Nobuta (dammit Shuji, couldn’t you be more selfish this time?), she knows deep down that Shuji, her Shuji, could not have done these things Aoi accuses him of. So she works out her doubts and chooses to believe Shuji, and believe IN Shuji. And the much needed confirmation comes from Vice-Principal Catherine, who wisely puts things in perspective: “You don’t believe something because it’s the truth, but it becomes the truth because you believe it, get it?”
Although Shuji and Akira try their best to shield Nobuta from Aoi’s betrayal, the inevitable happens – and it is something she must go through alone. For Nobuta, the effect is nothing short of devastating, making her retreat back into her shell and draw the blinds, wanting never to come out again. And this time, the boys fear the worst: that she is shattered beyond all recovery. For a moment there, you fear it too. What reels Nobuta back from the edge of that dark and all-too-familiar chasm is something neither boy can accomplish by himself: it takes the whole class of 2-B to show her just how much they all have come to accept, want, and even love her for who she is.
So, was the makeover project successful or not? It’s wonderful how the outward change in Nobuta is actually very minimal (so she got a haircut and a slightly better fashion sense, but that’s just about it), and is hardly the point of this story. What matters is her inner transformation, the blossoming of her soul: Nobuta metamorphoses from a suicidal teen into a unique adolescent who has learned to like her self, whether alone or with peers; to give love and receive love; to smile (oh her smile!) and put a smile on others’ faces. And that, as she herself realizes, is not a bad way to live in this world, not a bad way at all.
Kiritani Shuji: Hey, Mr. Producer!
And oh, Shuji… As the drama’s most fully developed character, Shuji is a person you really get to know not only from his internal monologue that undergirds the drama, but from the brief but telling directorial touches that texturize his portrayal — like the time he looks at his reflection in the washroom mirror minutes after lying to his pseudo-girlfriend Mariko for the nth time. It’s details such as these that fine-tune the Popular Boy archetype into a character that is complex yet fully accessible, familiar yet completely like no other.
For all his lying, you can’t hate Shuji because he essentially is a good guy, a kind person. Beneath the insincerity is a genuine desire to be liked by people, to belong. I love how he goes out of his way to help his classmates indiscriminately — sewing costumes for the acting club, taking photographs for the fashion show, playing guitar (and vocals) with Sebastian-sensei and Yokoyama-sensei (lol! oh those two dorks). At home he’s Just Shuji, the oniichan, the son, wearing his favorite ponytail-topknot, mending socks and ties and whatnot.
The conflict within Shuji is real, believable, relatable – and therein lies his sympathetic appeal. You don’t condone the pretense, but you understand it just the same. And you’re completely engaged by his story arc, and cannot wait to see when and how this con artist (as opposed to Akira the “kon-kon artist,” lol) will finally show his, uh, Real Face to others (*waits for KAT-TUN fans to snigger* heh heh). And I love how in his own cowardly way, he still tries to deflect the bullying and ridicule away from Nobuta by doing what he does best: changing the topic.
A crucial point for Shuji comes in the Valentine’s Day episode, where he must choose between showering Nobuta with flower petals, or dousing her with cold water. The first option will spell kryptonite for his Cool Guy status, while the second will undoubtedly break Nobuta’s heart. What to do, what to do? As much as I wanted to wring Shuji’s neck for vacillating through most of the episode, you understand how much it means to him to put his popularity on the line.
This episode builds with delicious suspense — will he, or won’t he? — and concludes with a most unexpected twist. Damn, but when Bando (as a last-minute substitution, as per Nobuta’s request) pulls the cord and those petals come raining down on Nobuta, I frickin’ cried my eyes out. What’s more touching is when Nobuta realizes that Shuji, after an agonizing night of soul-searching, had in fact played, and played, and played a random eeny-meeny-miney-mo game until he finally arrived at “flower” instead of “water.” (Awwww, Shu-uuuji-kun!)
This is also the point where Shuji realizes that he likes Akira and Nobuta as friends, and he likes who he is when he’s with them: for he can be himself, no artifice and no masks. When the Nobuta Project officially ends in Ep. 7 (around the time Nobuta joins the Video Club, with Akira promptly following suit, lol!), Shuji feels an unexpected rush of regret, and realizes just how much he misses those two. And as he tries to get back into his old rhythm — hitting the karaoke joint and bowling alley with the 2-B gang — he knows he has indeed changed… In fact, he cannot even remember what the old Shuji was like. And so it comes as no surprise that it is Shuji who seeks Nobuta and Akira out first, and not the other way around (and this is the scene where Akira is just about to confess to Nobuta, lol!!!).
Shuji’s fall from grace is the unavoidable consequence of his own doing, while at the same a time a much-needed maturing experience. When his classmates’ disappointment and disgust snowball with Aoi’s vilification, he realizes that the worst thing in the world isn’t NOT being popular, but having nobody believe you. This experience is also a baptism of fire for Shuji’s friendship with Nobuta and Akira, whom he realizes are the only two people in school whose opinions truly matter: “I don’t care if no one believes me. But I need to know that these two believe me. And that they will, forever.” How ironic that it is from these two weirdos, these outcasts, that Shuji learns the value of friendship, and of being true to who you are.
Kusano Akira: I Can Has Kon-Kon!
Oh Akira, my existentialist ewok, my dear little deviant, my sweet bird boy, channeling the fruitiness of Gonzo crossed with the squishy cuteness of Fozzie Bear (“Wocka wocka wocka!!!” lol)… Akira, kon-kon-ing his way through life, who fervently wishes for world peace with an old desiccated monkey’s hand, then immediately checks the TV channels for breaking news of it… Akira my Akira, who cannot even choose between two slices of cake, let alone decide how to plot the rest of his life, and whose highest aspiration is to be “a dime on the street…” Akira who tucks his pajama top into his pants to keep his “pon-pons” warm, and calls this his “life standard” (LOLLLL)…
97% of the drama’s humor emanates from this singular bundle of goofy laughs. And Akira’s screwiness is surpassed only by how bloody endearing he is. You come to not only tolerate his foibles, but embrace them — because as a viewer you can look past appearances to see his good, stout and true heart. He may be off the wall (actually WAAAY off the wall, lol), but Akira is the Real Deal. He is also the perfect voice for an entire generation of aimless, unmotivated youngsters trying to make sense of, well, everything. “I dunno what youth is all about,” he bleats to Shuji on the rooftop in Episode 1. “I don’t have anything I want to do, and I don’t want to do anything.” (To which Shuji replies: “Isn’t everyone like that?” Hmm, good point, Shuji.)
If Shuji and Nobuta’s personal bugbears are dishonesty and low self-esteem, respectively, for Akira it is growing up. In Episode 6 he promptly leaves home to escape his dad’s mounting insistence that he take over the family-run company someday; and for the boy this is a most horrifying prospect, a life that will not only saddle him with a staggering load of adult responsibilities, but also take him far, far away from what he most holds dear. He tells Shuji before drifting off to sleep (having crashed the Kiritani home after a violent disagreement with his dad) “I don’t wanna go back home. I like that tofu guy and I can drink ‘mame chichi’ and be with Shuji and Nobuta everyday…” (Oh, Akira.)
And I love how he’s the one who names Nobuko “Nobuta,” the one who teaches her the “Nobuta powah, chunyuu” mantra+dance, and the one who feels the most protective of her — perhaps due to their shared status as outliers. (LOL @ when he drops by Shuji’s home and literally punches home a “don’t break Nobuta’s heart or I’ll break your twiggy little body” warning using cement tiles and his formidable karate chops!!!)
Bizarre Love Triangle: Shuji x Nobuta x Akira
So… Akira falling for Nobuta? In-ev-it-a-ble. This is unquestionably one of the sweetest and funniest love arcs I have seen in a drama. (Ikuta Toma coming to grips with his own feelings for Maki’s character in Hana Kimi also pops into mind – there, I’ve finally said something good about that dratted show! Lol) Akira’s moment of realization when forced out of him by the Hontou Ojisan — “Akira, IN LOVE?!?!? Akira, SHOCK!!!” — is hilarious and heart-tugging on so many levels. And it just gets better, because now he has to deal with this awareness that has thrown his entire universe in a tizzy, and there’s no turning back.
All these raw emotions, so new and unfamiliar to him, sweep from denial, to mortification (as if liking Nobuta were a shameful betrayal of their friendship, awww), to dopey debilitation (LOL @ how he can’t go near Nobuta during their before-school rooftop confabs!), and then to mopey jealousy when Shuji sets Nobuta up with Shittaka — and later, when he tails them on their double date, wearing a ridiculous disguise that would make *ehem* Kurosagi proud.
I’m glad Nobuta and Akira have their moments: the after-school sessions working on their school festival, the times spent in the video club room, a balmy afternoon playing catch, the long walks taken in comfortable silence, and my favorite: the ambulance ride in Episode 5 where he puts her vomit-caked hand to his cheek… and of course he realizes the intimacy of his gesture only when he gets home, so he spends the rest of the night freaking out under the covers, punishing his offending hand – LOL!!!
Akira’s pure, wholesome love for Nobuta will make you cheer for him wildly while flailing your own arms, lol. My heart truly went out to Akira, and between him and Shuji of course I would’ve wanted him for Nobuta. It didn’t take me long to realize I was wholly, completely rooting for this weirdo. When he squares off with Shuji at the bicycle shed, you know what he says is a challenge as much as an admission: “I want to quit producing Nobuta, it’s too painful. I want Nobuta to just be mine. To be honest, I don’t even want others to LOOK at her.” (Go go GO, AKIRA!!! Akira FTW!!!!!)
Akira has the best lines when he’s at his tortured, lovesick worst. When Shuji the Cynic asks him what his immediate plans are — “What are you going to do? Confess to her, and then go to the zoo on a date, or something?” — Akira mulls it over a second, then answers: “What I want to do the most is… MARRY HER!!!….. How embarrassing!” (Then Shuji dryly comments via voice-over, “His reality goes way beyond my imagination.” LMAO!!!! Man I love those boys. *tear*) So, you don’t wish to deny him his petty fits of jealousy, like attempting to throw away Shuji’s short film – with insanely funny repercussions: “Akira DOWN!!!” (Lol!!!) Then, “My heart hurts…” (Awwww…) But he can’t keep his wrongdoing a secret from Shu-uuji-kun, so he confesses right there on the video room floor: “I’m the worst guy. The WORST.” To which Shuji quietly replies, “I’m the worst, too.” (Man I really, really love those boys. *tear*)
It’s just too bad that Nobuta doesn’t reciprocate his feelings (though she never rejects him either, good girl), because it was Akira who loved her first, who loved her best, who thought her special and beautiful when everyone else saw this silent, unattractive heap of gloom ‘n’ doom. The time Akira gets the closest to an all-out confession is also the moment he has resolved within himself to give her up: “There will be days when I’ll make her cry. I don’t ever want her to cry, but I’ll still make her cry. You’re not allowed to make a girl cry.” (NO don’t stop trying, Akira!!!)
Closure for Kusano Akira comes in the form of a speech blaring from the public-address system of an empty school campus. (Thanks, Best Friend Shuji! *flying kiss*) The Akira Farewell to Love Speech will bring a lump to your throat: “Nobuta, I love you! I like the book that you read, I like the sidewalk that you walk, I like the rooftop where you are, I like everywhere that you are!” Then he sings a song in that clogged-sinus voice of his. And the background music? The sound of a little weirdo heart breaking in two. *sob!*
As wonderful as it is that Nobuta and Akira have their special something, I also like how she shares a strange kinship with Shuji that belongs to them and them alone, and that predates even her own friendship with Akira. Her short but surreal first meeting with Shuji in Ep. 1 is one for the Jdorama books: When Shuji discovers his beloved woody friend the willow tree is gone from the jetty, he freaks out (even cool guys have their irrational boyhood beliefs, ne?), and then she suddenly materializes a few meters away and spooks the bejbbers out of him. The scene is pretty priceless — he asks her if he’s the willow tree fairy (lol!) and she freaks him out all the more by attempting a smile (lol!) – and the encounter ends with *one* of them hightailing it on his bike as fast as his legs can churn the pedals. (LOL!)
I love how the willow tree becomes Shuji and Nobuta’s own little thing. (I mean good heavens, can you just imagine the trauma the poor tree would sustain if Akira had found out about it? Lol.) Some of Shuji and Nobuta’s best moments are because of the willow tree, for it means something special to both of them, this life-affirming assurance that whatever happens, at least there is one thing in this world (and for Nobuta, this f*cked-up world where nothing good ever happens) that will still feel right. The afternoon when she and Shuji catch sight of the willow tree embarking on its transoceanic voyage, can bring tears to your eyes. And as they stand on the berm watching the barge sail out of sight, carrying their beloved tree with it, they know deep down that if the willow will be all right, so can they. And so will they.
Oh, but the heart is an untamable, unpredictable thing, is it not? For it is Shuji with whom Nobuta falls in love, something she realizes at the end of their double date in Ep. 5 while watching Shuji and Mariko leave the promenade arm in arm. (Ohhh, Nobuta.) It is Nobuta who understands Shuji best of all, who can see past the gregariousness and popularity to recognize his loneliness and inner malaise, and his ultimate reason for lying to others. “What Shuji likes is people,” she observes to Akira as they observe Shuji from the school balcony one morning. “He looks cool, and yet he loves people. He probably cares a lot about others, and that’s why he lies and holds back his feelings.”
But the clincher, or what’s really, really unusual about the Shuji-Nobuta-Akira love triangle, is that the real OTP is between… the two boys, heh heh heh. But I get ahead of myself. More on that in my next post, heh heh heh.
Okay, that’s enough for now.
Stop it, E.G.
I said stop it!!!! STOP IT!!!!!!!!
*flaps arms and gurgles*
So Nobuta ends up with neither boy, and strangely, I am fine with it. Because the drama isn’t about that. The love triangle, though sweet and moving, isn’t really the point; the friendship is.
Power of Three
[Now playing: “Best Friend” and “Tomodachi E (Say What You Will)” by SMAP, lol]
This is what it’s all about, baby: THE FRIENDSHIP. In contrast to Hana Kimi (now why do I keep coming back to this drama? lulz), the friendship theme of Nobuta wo Produce is deeper, stronger, more complex, more genuine. Although each bond in the Nobuta-Shuji-Akira triangle has a unique stamp all its own, the sum is far greater than the individual parts, and I love how the synergy of their unexpected friendship helps them through the pain and awkwardness of adolescence.
That the early stage of their friendship is conducted in secret (collaboration is a better way to put it, since they don’t realize what they have is friendship until much later), actually gives their inchoate fellowship space to breathe and grow. They find their little pocket of privacy on the rooftop, free from interference, away from the rigid social order of their high school, away from the judgment and expectations of their peers. While most high school cliques are based on shared social standing and image, theirs is rooted in a strange affinity for one another despite having little in common.
So what does true friendship look like? Picture the indelible image of two boys racing up the schoolyard steps and down the hallway, their pants emblazoned with the words “Baka” and “Show-off” in thick yellow paint strokes (guess who was who? lol). It is a touching show of solidarity with Nobuta when the uniform issue is blown out of proportion – and to think at this point, they are not even that close to her yet. For doing what they did for her, I’ll love those boys forever.
Picture three pocket planners with a pig sticker on each cover. Picture a giant cake in the schoolyard, drawn in colored chalk and offered from the heart. Picture a popular boy leaving school with his cool buddies, then turning his bike around to race back to the classroom, where his two friends are making props and costumes all by themselves. Picture a busy city intersection where three youngsters part ways silently, awkwardly, against the rich warm glow of the setting sun. Picture three clay pig figurines that have just crossed an ocean, and three matching miniature dolls given on Christmas Eve. Picture three loops of yarn – red, yellow, blue – joined together in a magic trick performed before a stunned, silent class.
Picture a young girl putting in extra hours of service at the village shrine so that her prayers for her two friends may come true. Picture a photograph hidden deep inside an earthenware jar with other bad memories: a tormented boy’s cross to bear, but one that he willingly bears in silence. Picture the same boy uttering these words to his biggest enemy, the same enemy who has sought at every turn to drive a wedge between him and his two friends: “Inside me, Shuji and Nobuta come first. I’m second. I want everyday to be fun, so I choose that.”
Choose. It’s a word that crops up a lot in this drama. Shuji and Akira choose to produce Nobuta, and their lives are never the same again. Shuji chooses the high road after Aoi hurls him all those terrible accusations before Nobuta and Class 2-B. Akira and Nobuta choose to believe in Shuji when the whole school has turned against him. Shuji chooses to leave town with his family even when the more appealing option is to stay behind to finish high school, and be with his two friends. And I may choose to believe that Shuji, Akira and Nobuta’s magical year together was pure destiny, but those three will probably beg to differ, and say that their friendship was a choice. Their choice. Or could it be that… making that choice in the first place, is part of their destiny?
“If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye…”
– Holden Caulfield
It is this ability to make such choices, and to take responsibility for them, that spells the difference between immaturity and maturity, between simply growing older, and growing UP. If Nobuta wo Produce recalls the drama series My So-Called Life in its realistic depiction of the high school experience, it echoes the J.D. Salinger novel “The Catcher in the Rye” in its exploration of this theme of growing up.
Salinger’s angstily f*cked-up hero Holden Caulfield fears becoming one of those adult “phonies” whom he detests so much, and instead envisions himself a catcher standing on the edge of a cliff, intercepting little kids as they come through a field of rye. In Nobuta wo Produce, Shuji, Nobuta and (most of all) Akira grapple with similar feelings as they face the terrifying inevitability of growing up. In this sense, both “Catcher” and NwP run counter to conventional Bildungsroman lines because the characters try to resist this process of maturity. It is only later that they learn to accept, and embrace it as part of life.
NwP is chock-full of these soul-stirring vignettes, and I’d like to include a few here. One unforgettable moment is a shot of Shuji and Akira on their bikes, pausing in the middle of a tree-lined road and turning to watch the adult pedestrians, these working stiffs in suits, hurry past in the other direction. Shuji: “I thought about how we’re gonna become like those boring-looking people someday.”
And this obviously pushes That Button inside Akira, sending him into Spaz Mode: “I don’t wanna be like that! Don’t wanna, don’t wanna, don’t wanna be like that!” (LOL oh Akiraaa)
In a later episode, when their homeroom teacher Yokoyama passes around career evaluation sheets for the students to fill out, the three rebel against doing something so decisive and final as writing down their future plans. Shuji: “How I can I choose my future in a week?”
So the three fold their blank forms into paper airplanes and conspiratorially launch them from the rooftop. They watch the planes glide over the edge, over the buildings below, silenced by the endless sky arrayed before them. Beyond the horizon they know the future looms, and Shuji concedes this fact in his voice-over: “Yeah, we can’t be doing stupid things forever. There’s only a little time left for the three of us to enjoy this view of the sky.”
So true, ne?
For me, the scene that best captures the halcyon feeling of youth is found in Episode 3, where Nobuta and Akira visit a wheat field after school.
Akira: “Well for me, no matter what I’m doing, I’ve never felt it was fun while I was doing it.”
Nobuta: “The fun was thinking about it afterwards.”
Akira: “Years later, do you think we’re gonna remember?”
Nobuta: “About what?”
Akira: “Early in the morning, making dolls, the three of us… at sunset picking flowers… do you think we’re gonna think back that these years were fun?”
They sit on in silence under the warm afternoon sun, amid the tall grasses rippling in the breeze, in these Fields of Gold…
“You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of gold…”
(Lyrics by Sting)
Here ends Part 1 of my Nobuta wo Produce review. Part 2 is where I count down my fave Shuji-Akira-Nobuta moments, discuss the other characters, tackle the motif of magic realism and the technical elements, and wax rhapsodic about a *certain* pair of Johnnies.
Photo credits: alypotato.multiply.com, anime.tedfox.com, babyj0sette08.multiply.com, blog.juno3.com, bura @ listal.com, burndvdburn.blogspot.com, cheesemon.livejournal.com, crunchyroll.com, darkeyedwolf.livejournal.com, dumbotaku.com, enmatehllama.blogspot.com, flickr.com, goddesscarlie.com, haraheta.wordpress.com, jamaipanese.com, japanator.com, keizou.blogspot.com, lezette.wordpress.com, listal.com, lungga.blogspot.com, mms @ d-addicts.com, omgasians.wordpress.com, protocolsnow.com, skyofblueberries.blogspot.com, tokidoki.animeblogger.net, tvrage.com, vesperholly.wordpress.com. Special thanks to Sambalici @ JDorama.com for the Nobuta gif.