Drama Review: Tatta Hitotsu no Koi / Just One Love (NTV, 2006)
by Ender’s Girl
Kamenashi Kazuya, Ayase Haruka, Toda Erika, Tanaka Koki, Hiraoka Yuta, Kaname Jun, Saito Ryusei, Zaitsu Kazuo, Yo Kimiko
In a Nutshell:
He’s dirt poor, she’s filthy rich; he’s the family breadwinner, she’s the crown princess of a jeweler chain; he has a sick younger brother and a boozy hostess of a mom, she was raised in a happy, loving home; he’s world-weary and cynical, she’s fresh and innocent; he has his whole life ahead of him, she’s battling a life-threatening disease. Both are twenty, and they fall in love.
(SpoilLert: Nothing major, so you’re in luck!!! No way I’m mucking this up for first-time viewers. I’m saving all the spoilers for another post, heh heh.)
[Recommended companion tracks: “Bokura no Machi de” by KAT-TUN; “Cool Whispers” by Ike Yoshihiro]
“I saw two beings in the hues of youth
Standing upon a hill, a gentle hill…
And both were young, and one was beautiful”
– Lord Byron, “The Dream” Stanza II
Does it matter if a story has already been told a thousand times, in a thousand different ways and in a thousand different settings? Does it truly make a difference if the conflicts and situations are all but variations on the same refrain, all shifting permutations of the same formula? The answer is easy to come by: no, it doesn’t matter, not really. Because we are all suckers for a good yarn, whether that yarn has been spun over and over again in a myriad of patterns, regardless of cultural milieu or historical context. The faces and places may change, but the narrative blueprint is immortal: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Adversity threatens to drive them apart, whether it’s society, their own families, or some form of tragedy. Boy and girl strive to overcome the odds stacked against them. But — will their love be enough to keep them together??? Well, WILL IT????
Such stories are timeless, their universal appeal reverberating through the ages. But the key to retaining their luster and relevance is the treatment they are given: the best versions out there — “Romeo and Juliet!” Ian McEwan’s “Atonement!” anything by Nicholas Sparks! (lol, scratch that) — limn this well-worn template with freshness and creativity, so that the characters and circumstances feel like you’re knowing them for the very first time. But placed in lesser hands or with a limited vision, the same archetype can readily regress into soap-opera hell and taste as stale as a week-old wasabi burger (yum!).
One permutation in particular strikes a deep and vibrant chord in all of us. The recipe for it is really quite simple: You take the classic theme of Young Love and crossbreed it with another romance paradigm, that of Forbidden Love — with its generous sprinkling of meddling relations, class tensions and social incompatibility — and crown it all with the great blood-red cherry of Life-threatening Illness. And voilà! — a sumptuous, intoxicating brew of Tragic Young Love, this mad swirl of romantic devotion simmering under the pall of immeasurable loss, a heady concoction as effervescent as youth and as darkly potent as death. Ah, Tragic Young Love, is there anything like you in the whole world? The tragedy makes the love more urgent and desperate; the love makes the tragedy more meaningful and poignant.
Because really, no one quite loves like the young. There’s nothing like falling in love for the very first time, from the dewy first blush of infatuation to the raw and rapturous emotions stirring to life as you go off on that wild ride of passion and heartbreak, careening from the sublime to the agonizing, from the exquisite to the exhilarating. Regardless of how long the relationship lasts or even how it ends, that first time will always be special, and you’ll never forget how love became this primal, life-sustaining force that superseded social mores, defied conventional wisdom, and breached carefully drawn loyalty/family lines. You’ll remember how it filled you with a feeling of invincibility, this galvanizing confidence to take on anything, anything at all — even if the whole world dared get in your way.
But for all its gung-ho recklessness, young love is actually more fragile than it looks on the surface, and there’s no guarantee that it will weather the storm and stress of Life. More often than not, it won’t — and if you’re old enough to know this, then… well, you’re old enough. There are certain conflicts (usually exterior) that are endemic to young love, the young being more vulnerable to the pressures of the existing social order: the pressure to stick to your “own kind,” to yield to parental authority, to buckle under duress. When the universe conspires to drive a wedge between young lovers — whether it does this through human interference, sickness or sudden death, it almost always succeeds. Almost.
Yet, Life will go on: that is something everyone learns eventually. And as people get older, the intensity of their first love will not likely be replicated in later relationships. No, there’s nothing quite like the first. But time does have a way of dulling the vividness of such youthful memories until all that’s left is a “cool whisper” of a feeling, a lingering sensation of something you used to have that was beautiful and bittersweet, and which, for a moment, you believed with your whole heart was unshakable.
It is this rich emotional wellspring of First Love that screenwriter Kitagawa Eriko taps into as she spins her own unique take on the timeless story of two young individuals who find each other, and find love — as countless others have done before them. The course that the drama Tatta Hitotsu no Koi takes actually strays very little from the beaten path, and viewers will find that the dilemmas and situations explored here all tread familiar ground. Thus, THnK is perhaps the most conventional drama of Kitagawa’s celebrated oeuvre (at least, of what I’ve seen), but is ultimately one of the most satisfying.
I’ll even be so bold as to say that Tatta Hitotsu no Koi is one of the better made ren’ai from the past decade. And it’s a straight ren’ai at that, which is a refreshing sight amid a Jdorama glut of dime-a-dozen procedurals and youth comedies where romance is but ancillary to the action. So, yay for rabu-rabu. And not only did I find the story of THnK deeply romantic and emotionally involving, but I was truly impressed by this finely crafted piece of entertainment — from the writing to the acting to the direction and execution of the other elements.
The visual appeal of this drama cannot be gainsaid. From the very first scene we’re treated to a breathtaking panoramic view of Yokohama Port and Tokyo Bay, this sprawling hub of transport and commerce where cutting-edge industries commingle with ancient culture and natural beauty. I’m a big fan of aerial shots, and director Iwamoto Hitoshi puts these to good use in evoking the dreamy, romantic feel of this drama: in the opening sequence the camera swoops over skyline and harbor, while the score’s lilting strains skim over Hiroto’s (Kamenashi Kazuya) pensive voice-over as he begins to recount his first experience of love.
Compared to Nobuta wo Produce (which Iwamoto also directed) the cinematic techniques are less avant-garde in THnK, which only suits the more classic and conventional feel of this ren’ai. But Iwamoto applies the same deft hand and meticulous approach to the crafting of scenes here in THnK. The familiar long shots are there, e.g. the camera panning the length of a bridge as the main characters move in transit, or focusing on someone in the background while a train streaks across the screen. And the location shots in Yokohama’s Minato Mirai 21 reclamation district are a character in their own right, and make the story come alive as they alternate between travelogue-pretty (e.g. Harbor Café, the Cosmo World theme park, etc.) and downright squalid (i.e. Hiroto’s boatyard) — the second category perfectly capturing the grimy, industrialized side of Yokohama.
The soundtrack by Ike Yoshihiro has a decidedly Celtic quality with its use of Irish whistles and strings, and even the insert track “Cool Whispers” echoes the traditional English ballad “Scarborough Fair” and the romanesca “Greensleeves” at first hearing. On the surface the Irish-sounding music may seem ill-matched for a drama set in modern Japan, but the nautical flavor of the score actually goes well with the Yokohama environs. More importantly, the strange incongruity of music and setting is actually a good tonal fit because Tatta Hitotsu no Koi does feel like it comes from a different time and place, one far removed from the present reality of the narrator — wherever he may be now. The whole drama is really the main character’s (Hiroto) recollection of that time long past, when he was twenty and in love for the very first time. This is his story told in retrospect, and which (perhaps) is now little more than a distant memory tinged with a little sadness and regret.
This is the story of Kanzaki Hiroto (Kamenashi Kazuya), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for college girl Tsukioka Nao (Ayase Haruka), who with her wealth and pedigree may just as well be from another planet. Hiroto is no saint, but he’s hardy and hardworking, good-hearted and responsible, if a little cynical — to wit, the quintessential working-class hero. And there’s always something incredibly attractive about a still-waters-run-deep kind of guy, with his calm and sensible mien concealing not only a passionate and complex nature, but also a brooding sense of danger simmering beneath the layers of his personality.
But it sucks to be Hiroto. No, I mean it really, really sucks to be Hiroto: with the whole deck stacked against you, life could not possibly be any worse than it already is. Just picture this: your father died some years back, leaving behind a struggling boat repair business that’s now THIS close to going under. Your undependable lush of a mother (Yo Kimiko) works at a seedy nightclub just to make ends meet, while your only brother Ren (Saito Ryusei) was born with a weak constitution and needs a wheelchair to get around. You all live like sardines in a tinny shack overlooking the boatyard, and every yen you earn goes to paying the bills and Ren’s health expenses. And you’re just freaking twenty. And the greatest indignity of being poor? Is that you can’t even afford a cellular phone. In freaking Japan. Welcome to Kanzaki Hiroto’s charmed life. Welcome to his sh*tty little world.
Given his family situation it would be easy for Hiroto to stay mired in a mindset of poverty and disgrace. Instead he soldiers on with dignity, swallowing his pride before sneering customers and uncomplainingly assuming his filial duty to his mother and brother, and even to his dead father’s much-maligned legacy. So what you feel as a viewer isn’t just sympathy and understanding, but also a growing sense of admiration for this young man who takes life as it comes with equanimity and resilience. It’s impossible NOT to root for Hiroto and hope that all his dreams come true someday. For they’re nothing grand or complicated, just simple dreams, good dreams, not so much for himself but for the people he loves: to save enough capital to rehabilitate the boatyard, to see Ren through university, and to give his mother a life free of money woes.
But for now, Hiroto must put those dreams on hold and stay the course, working his fingers to the bone just to keep the business afloat — even as their long-time customers are turning to the bigger, more modern factories in the area. His only respite from the daily grind of life are the illicit fishing jaunts that he and his two blue-collar buddies from high school, Ayuta (Hiraoka Yuta) and Ko (Tanaka Koki), regularly pull off at a nearby power plant where the nutrient-rich waters teem with fish. This is more than just a madcap moonlight caper by three restless youths, for it really is a way to augment their meager income as they later peddle their catch to the tony restaurants in and around Yokohama.
One of the restaurants is on the crest of a hill overlooking the city and accessible by a long flight of stairs. It is during one of their trips to the summit that Hiroto runs into Nao — like, literally, lol — as she herself is rushing off to class at the nearby Yoko Jyo women’s college with her best friend, Yuko (Toda Erika). It isn’t exactly love at first sight for Hiroto and Nao — actually more like, First Encounters of the Fishy Kind, lol, and when Nao’s dismay at her soiled dress is met with Hiroto’s curt contempt, the sparks (or water droplets, heh) that fly between them can hardly be called romantic. But of course this is a ren’ai, so of course the two will have to meet again – somehow, someday.
In fact, that “someday” is sooner than they/we think, because that very evening Hiroto, Ayuta and Ko gate-crash an exclusive mixer for Yoko Jyo college and elite Keio University. The boys are only there on account of a mistakenly given invitation earlier that morning, but seeing that everyone at the party assumes they are Keio students, the three gamely fake it as they wend their way through the small talk and lavish buffet spreads, knowing full well that this fantasy will fizzle out when the clock strikes twelve. Through the jaded eyes of Hiroto (and to an extent, even Nao’s friend Yuko), the soiree is nothing more than this ritzy meat market, a glorified goukon where potential mates size each other up, hoping for a suitable match in social class and educational attainment. The whole rigmarole of the affair disgusts him even as the ostentatious display of pedigree and privilege rankles in his heart. But Hiroto plays along for the evening, mingling with the guests and collecting phone numbers as he moves from one coquettish, bubbly-sipping quarry to the next.
So when he sees Nao across one of the function rooms amid the clink of champagne glasses and strains of chamber music, to him she’s just like them, she’s one of them: just another pretty young thing to be trifled with, the only difference being he has met her before — albeit under less charming circumstances. Watching her from behind a large glass installation (so lovely with the flutes of water bubbles; it takes you back to the aquarium scene in the 1996 film William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet… well, kinda… okay not really, lol), Hiroto can sense Nao’s discomfort as she stands by her lonesome against the wall, nursing an empty wineglass and clearly feeling out of place in her jeans and tunic (her dress was ruined that morning, remember?). Maybe she’ll give him her number if he asks for it, Hiroto thinks. Maybe he’ll take her out a few times, then when he gets tired of the whole thing he’ll dump her, and his one-upmanship — over her class, her status, her college-going friends – will be complete. And so will his satisfaction.
She notices him staring, which creeps her out a little (lol), and the look of alarm that mars her composure draws a little half-smile out of him (which in turn made my poor toes curl so violently they nearly broke off, ouchy!). But she does something unexpected — she marches up to him and bluntly asks why he’s been ogling her. And so begins their first real conversation since that awkward encounter earlier in the day. She doesn’t try to flirt with him; she’s too forthright for that. But she naturally assumes he’s a Keio boy, and whether that *small* detail matters to her or not, he cannot tell. But he’s taking no chances, and assumes that it does matter to her, so he fibs about his major at Keio… Although in fairness to Hiroto, he did initially (and truthfully) mention he was a (part-time) fisher, only Nao in her naïveté thought he was joking (tsk).
Then she loses her beaded purse and he goes off in search of it (otherwise, there’d be no more reason for them to stay together, ne?). They end up by the pool talking, and in this relaxed setting away from the noise and swirl of the party, Hiroto and Nao can more keenly feel the growing tendrils of attraction between them. But the verbal sparring doesn’t end: he chides her for her bluntness, which can be off-putting, while she scoffs at his claim to have a wad of Yoko Jyo phone numbers stowed away in his pocket (at which point he suddenly remembers that he just threw them all away, lol).
Inside the glass-walled main hall, the party organizers raffle off all-expense-paid trips to Bali, plus other fabulous prizes. The winner is announced, and from out of the ensuing revelry a stray firecracker whizzes towards Nao (okay, but that sparkly thingy was just CGI FAIL in every way), thus triggering The Great Poolside Mishap in which both end up very, very wet. And sneezing. Romantic? Uh, think again…
To be honest, I was totally LMAO at how this moment was sucked dry of every last droplet of lovey goo. The director clearly went, uh, overboard (heh heh) in giving us the hard sell on this scene. Ten different angles of Ayase and Kame falling slowly – slowly – slowwwwwlyyyy into the pool!!! So slowly that Kame just seems to be leaning into the water rather than actually falling, bwahahaha!!! In the midst of my eye-rolling mirth I couldn’t help recalling a similar incident in William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet (is Iwamoto Hitoshi a Baz Luhrmann fan or something??? whaddup with the homages huh? lol). But whereas the pool scene in R+J was incredibly sensual — steamy, even — its THnK counterpart only achieved a mildly comical effect without really intending to. I mean, what were you thinking, Iwamoto-san. Scene execution: FAIL. Thankfully this is the one time in the entire drama where the director overdid it.
Later — Hiroto decides he’s had enough of their little fancy-schmancy pretense, and so he leads Ko and Ayuta away from the swanky venue and back to their own world — on the wrong side of town. But it is Nao’s impulsive streak and forthrightness (go Nao go!!! run Nao run!!!) that earn them both a second chance to resume their rudely interrupted evening. So Hiroto asks her out, a little cocksure she’ll say yes (watch me score a date in 10 seconds, he tells the guys under his breath as he watches Nao running towards him – tsk, tsk Hiroto!). Nao shyly acquiesces… but instead makes it a group date come Halloween, outside the church on Oka Hill. Hiroto misinterprets this as a rejection of his own invitation, but agrees with a polite smile, knowing in his heart he’ll stand her up anyway. “Why am I rejected by someone I don’t even like?” he testily asks Ko and Ayuta a few nights later, when the three of them do a post-mortem of the party on his boat. (Lol, oh Hiroto)
So will Hiroto show up at their Halloween rendezvous? Will he and Nao respond to their growing attraction for each other? Will their chaste conversations and tentative overtures ever blossom into full-blown romance? And young as they are, will they truly fall in love, deeply and passionately in love? You know the answer is yes, yes, and yes. For this drama is really all about two individuals who do just that. And as Hiroto and Nao feel themselves succumbing to the breathless rush of First Love, you know it isn’t so much a slow burn as a swift dive into madness… madness and bliss, and everything in between.
When a romance story is done well, it provides a vicarious, cathartic escape for the rest of us rabu-rabu-starved suckers mucking about in The Real World, lol. And Tatta Hitotsu no Koi delivers not a light appetizer – a sip here, a nibble there – but a full-course meal of Young Love, of Forbidden Love, of Tragic Love. This is the complete anatomy of a relationship, encompassing every swell and ebb of emotion, every conflict and complication therewith. As a viewer you fall in love not only with Hiroto and Nao, but also with the very act of falling in love. You’re completely invested in their story, in the trajectory of their relationship as they navigate the choppy waters of their interspecies – er, I meant interclass romance (lol).
And no, you know their love will not come easy, its course will not run smooth. This will be no bed of roses, no walk in the park. After all, froth and confection do not make a full-course meal; you must learn to take the meat with the gristle, the easy with the tough, the good with the bad. Despite the undeniable pull between them, Hiroto and Nao get off to a rather rocky start. After breaking some ground with that lovely (if at times comical) Halloween hilltop semi-date, the budding romance hits a snag when Nao realizes that Hiroto isn’t quite the rich Keio boy she had conceived him to be. When she ferrets out his address and visits him at the boatyard, for the first time she sees the kind of world he inhabits. (And Hiroto doesn’t make things easier when he meets Nao’s terse accusation – “Liar.” – with unapologetic sarcasm: “Too bad we’re not Keio students.” Tsk, Hiroto!) But the ironic thing is that Nao’s issue is not with Hiroto’s social standing, but with his lack of honesty about it (but, c’mon Nao, can you really blame the boy for not wanting to disabuse you of your own mistaken assumption?).
So this initial phase of their nascent relationship becomes an awkward courtship dance that is less a graceful pas de deux than this jerky, staccato cha-cha, where every step forward is countered by another setback. Good thing their friends – Ayuta, Ko, Yuko – act as the catalysts that speed things along, i.e. the Halloween rendezvous is a success: 1 step forward! => Hiroto’s Keio cover gets blown: 2 steps backward! => <friends conspire!> => they all get together at the town festival, where fireworks happen in more ways than one (wheee!!! LOVELOVELOVE THIS WHOLE SEQUENCE): 3 steps forward! => Hiroto sees Nao’s picture in a magazine article (uh, gravure? lol, just kidding) and realizes just how wealthy her family is (Star Jewelry! 35 branches nationwide! a mansion in Motomachi!), so he stops contacting her: 2 steps backward! => <friends conspire!> => but to no avail, as Hiroto is preoccupied with work-related things: status quo! => Hiroto is resolved not to pursue Nao romantically, and gives her the very sensible cop-out, i.e. “let’s stay friends” crap, lol… but she wants all or nothing (go go GO, Nao!): status quo! => <friends conspire!> => their first real non-pseudo date happens at a Chinese restaurant, followed by a MAJOR SQUEE-WORTHY MOMENT with the Cosmo World Ferris wheel lighting up the background: 5 giant steps forward!!!!!!!!!! => Hiroto’s ex-GF Yuki shows up (ohnoes!!!ohnoes!!!): 2 steps backward! => etc. etc. etc.
And this is ALL before Episode 4 ends, baby. Whew! But oh boy the obstacles have to keep coming, don’t they? Because as Hiroto and Nao’s romance deepens, a new set of impediments crops up – this time much, much closer to home. For this no longer becomes a simple case of class incompatibility, because now they start to feel the heat from both families. But it’s very believable that family plays the single biggest factor in how their romance will ultimately work out: Hiroto and Nao are just twenty after all, and remain very much attached to their respective home environments – Hiroto being the breadwinner, and Nao being the pampered only daughter.
Again, put yourself in Hiroto’s shoes: How can you sustain a viable romantic relationship when eking out a living consumes your time and energy, and your two dependents require constant supervision and care? And the home situation is just one half of the story, because the boatyard is your responsibility too, whether you like it or not. This is Hiroto’s predicament, which becomes even more glaringly inescapable when certain… developments cause him and Nao to consider taking more… drastic measures. But when you’re the one putting food on the table, the one cooking dinner because your mother has to work nights, the one diligently recording Ren’s vitals before tucking him in come bedtime; when you’re the one who must contend with disgruntled employees (who are all much older than you, and do not fully trust in your ability to keep the business afloat), as well as creditors and difficult customers — on a daily basis; when this conflation of pressures and obligations rises up to meet you every morning, then a Happily Ever After for yourself and Nao seems as unattainable as ever. Suddenly, the unassailable power of love becomes this pipe dream, somewhat ludicrous against the relentless advance of… The Real World.
As a viewer it’s very easy to sympathize with Hiroto’s family, although they’re more of a cliché than Nao’s family is. (You can just imagine Kitagawa Eriko sitting before her laptop and staring thoughtfully into space, mulling over how she could make Hiroto’s background as horribly tragic as possible.) But I am extremely fond of Ren and the relationship between the two brothers. I love their chemistry, and how Hiroto’s devotion to Ren never comes off as sappy. Ren (good child actor, this Saito Ryusei!) deals with his poor health with a cheerful matter-of-factness that just breaks your heart… and I’m glad he becomes really close to Nao later on, because in Nao the boy finds an outlet for his own unvoiced frustrations.
But then there’s Hiroto’s money-grubbing boozehound of a mother, who’s a far more complex (ergo, less likable) character than Li’l Ren-Ren. Yo Kimiko generally does a good job in bringing her to life, but overdoes the frazzled, I’m-so-tired-of-my-sh*tty-life bellyaching in the first few episodes. She’s much better in her quieter scenes in the latter third of the drama. I’ve seen Yo Kimiko in other stuff (Byakuyakou, Okuribito) and boy, she can be GREAT, but this role in THnK pales in comparison. Still, props to Yo Kimiko for portraying a character who elicits exasperation, revulsion and… yes, sympathy from the viewer — all at once. She’s like… Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, whom you want to hate, but just. can’t. So I look at this woman’s clownish makeup and tacky nightclub outfits, the gaudy baubles and teased hair; I see her shambling about in a fog of cheap perfume mingled with her own desperation and self-loathing, and I see a woman beaten down by life, who must have loved once and been loved in return, but who just could not rise above her tragedy and heartache; I see a mother whose only redeeming value is her dysfunctional love for her two sons.
As for Nao, her family tensions are of a different kind: Her parents and older brother frown on her relationship with Hiroto not because he’s poor per se, but because his family situation is simply too… messy and complicated at the moment. When Nao’s dad commissions a background check on Hiroto, that can’t possibly yield anything good, can it? Because on paper, the Kanzakis ain’t exactly a paragon of familial bliss: dead, disgraced father! boatyard business mired in debt! eldest son never went to college! sickly younger brother! a ho for a mother! and the last straw regarding Hiroto: consorts with hooligans!!! So you don’t fault Nao’s family for their overprotectiveness, not at all.
But I like how Nao’s dad, mom and brother are nothing like the rich ‘n b*tchy stereotypes in so many other poor-boy-rich-girl stories. They’re decent, gracious folk, but never indulgent, and always acting on behalf of (what they believe to be) Nao’s best interests. That said, despite their niceness I wouldn’t put it past them if they secretly thought Hiroto and his family beneath them — I mean, you don’t reach that station in life without inwardly believing that when Nao’s… fanciful dalliance with the factory boy is over, she should eventually settle down with someone of Their Own Kind… but of course they’re just too classy to show it.
And I like Nao’s dad the best, I like how their relationship is developed throughout the drama (whereas Nao’s mother is little more than a gentle force of affection and caution hovering in the background). Nao’s dad is actually a GREAT dad: solicitous and paternal, but never one to spoil his daughter, never one to lavish her with trinkets from their flagship store (you must work hard for them, he gently reminds Nao in the first episode), yet you know that for him, nothing can stand in the way of his only daughter’s safety and wellbeing, not even (puppy) love. He loves her too much, this bright apple of his eye, precious beyond words, and whose only fault is that she believes the best of other people… even if their own motives may not be the purest. So even if it means tightening the leash on Nao with economic and security sanctions (lol), even if he comes out looking the villain in The Ballad of Hiroto and Nao, Tsukioka-san will protect his family at all costs. And nobody can deny him that.
But I’m glad that Hiroto and Nao’s dad get to have That Talk midway through the drama, when, having resolved to stay committed to his relationship with Nao (go Hiroto go!!!), Hiroto goes to see Mr. Tsukioka at work with the question that many a poor but earnest young man in love has uttered since fathers-in-law were invented: “What should I do to win your approval?” (Oh Hiroto.) And Nao’s dad gives the equally timeless response: “You believe that with love, you can get through anything. That’s the kind of world you’re in right now.” (It sucks to hear this, but it’s actually very true. *sob! Oh Hiroto*)
The elder Tsukioka then asks Hiroto point-blank if he is prepared for the eventualities and complications that may arise from Nao’s illness: the physical and emotional hardship… the medication and doctor’s fees… her inability to bear children… and the ultimate clincher: the possibility of death. What then, asks the father of Hiroto, will your love still be enough? And when Hiroto answers Tsukioka-san, you can see how he wins Nao’s dad over with his solemn pledge to love and protect Nao no matter what. (Go Hiroto go!!!) What I love most about Nao’s dad is that he comes this close (SO CLOSE!!!) to accepting Hiroto for who he is, because he can see in this young man the honesty and sincerity he has been looking for. It’s just A BLOODY SHAME that it’s the people near Hiroto whom Tsukioka-san cannot trust — and with good reason.
Nao’s family wouldn’t be complete without her dorky (but cute!) oniichan Tatsuya (Kaname Jun). It’s a less meaty and pivotal role than the other Dorky (but Cute!) Oniichans from Kitagawa Eriko’s more acclaimed dramas — like Takenouchi Yutaka in Long Vacation and Watabe Atsuro in Beautiful Life — but the same affectionately overprotective brothering style is definitely there. Tatsuya and Nao are as close as siblings can be — maybe even closer, because she wouldn’t be alive if not for him (and, uh, his bone marrow). It is Tatsuya who is the most hostile towards Hiroto, for his brand of protectiveness still has none of the percipience of his parents — although that too will come with age. When Tatsuya pays Hiroto a visit one afternoon, the withering contempt he has for this… lowlife, is enough to make you wince. (And for Hiroto, nothing can be more demeaning than learning that in the eyes of someone whose respect and trust you so wish to earn, you’ve been reduced to a grasping hand that demands dinero. Watching Hiroto suck it all in out of his love for Nao while Tatsuya reams him out — will drive hobnails into your heart.)
My only issue is with how Tatsuya uncovers certain aspects of Nao and Hiroto’s relationship. When Tatsuya gets wind of Nao’s new sweetheart from a friend who just happened to see them sharing an intimate moment on the sidewalk — that’ll make you roll your eyes in disbelief, but you’re still willing to attribute this to mere coincidence. But in a later scene, Tatsuya just so happens to drive by the exact spot where a tussle involving Hiroto, Nao, and three hoodlums is taking place — now this just smacks of contrivance used to advance the plot.
Barring these minor flaws, Kitagawa Eriko expertly weaves her tapestry of highly engrossing, emotionally charged situations and memorable characters that hum with life and color. The greatest achievement of a drama writer is to make the viewer care deeply for the protagonists and the life choices that they make, and Kitagawa pulls this off quite beautifully in Tatta Hitotsu no Koi. She’s a very sensitive, intelligent wordsmith whose main strength is in crafting the dialogue for the main characters, because it always feels organic to their personalities and motivations. Her reliance on tropes and imagery works to less success, however — i.e. how she uses the whales-communicating-across-great-distances analogy for Hiroto and Nao’s own efforts to stay in touch. (Whales, huh. Um, okay. Lol)
But the interesting thing about THnK is that although it squarely falls under Melodrama Canon — with the highly emotional themes, family conflicts, hardship and illness, etc. — the melo in the drama is actually very restrained, and never regresses into, uh, Suffering Porn. Although the possibility of Nao dying at the end of the story is a cloud that hovers over the viewer, her illness is never given inordinate importance compared to the other plot elements. The treatment is kept unsentimental and clean, and the sadness is tempered with moments of dryness and light humor, so that you never feel like you’re being sucked into a maudlin morass of death and doom from which there is no returning. Which says a lot about the writing, since I’m sure that by now, most of us have become so hypersensitive to gratuitous tearjerker plots that the merest sniff of CANCER! sends us into anaphylactic shock.
And I appreciate how the reality of Nao’s condition isn’t some earth-shattering, jack-in-the-box revelation that bamboozles the viewer; instead, Kitagawa Eriko lets these little hints slip through, but not all at once, so you’re left with a general feeling of unease for the first few episodes — e.g. Nao’s dad gently asks her how she’s been feeling lately; then in a later scene, Nao’s father and grandmother discuss her health without exactly spelling it out for the viewer. Even Ren’s condition isn’t introduced to the story with a bold dramatic flourish; instead, when you see Ren’s wheelchair parked outside the Kanzaki abode as the family is having dinner, you can just pick up on such clues and piece them together on your own.
Kitagawa Eriko certainly is a master at building mood and anticipation, I’ll give her that; even the whole tenor of THnK is one of wistful reminiscing hinting at a bygone love. However — and it’s an emphatic however — I did feel that Kitagawa Eriko overplayed the sense of foreboding throughout the drama. She sets the viewer up to expect a tragic conclusion to Hiroto and Nao’s story by besprinkling Hiroto’s retrospective monologue with telling lines that just draw up short of being all-out spoilery (she used a similar tack in her classic 2000 drama Beautiful Life). One example comes right after an especially romantic moment in Episode 3, when Hiroto shares with the viewer, “But that was the beginning of our tragedy…” — which naturally made me go, “WhaaaaThaaaFaaaaaaahhh?????? *$#^%%$%” And OH EHM GEE, even that final shot in the end credits of each episode (see above photo) co-opts the last line from “Romeo and Juliet” — “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of… Nao and her Hiro-towww” — ahahahahaha. Oh crud.
Um, yesss thank you Kitagawa Eriko for not glorifying Nao’s disease, but what is UP with all these “Sad Ending: 2 km ahead” giant signposts? The mere fact that such things as leukemia and poverty and disapproving rich parents and venal, scheming mothers figure in this drama’s plot — is enough to give you that presentiment of tragedy. We don’t need to be reminded every bleeping episode of what the worst-case scenario is. The pitfall to this approach is that a happy ending will make you go, “Argh, you gave me ulcers the size of pizzas from expecting the worst, and it was all for nothing!!!” *shakes fist at Kitagawa Eriko* On the other hand, a sad ending will make you go, “Argh, I expected the worst because the writing all but spelled it out for me, and now the worst really happened!!!” *shakes fist at Kitagawa Eriko* So it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The best thing would’ve been to NOT condition the minds of the viewers for either possibility. (And no, like I said, I’m not spoiling things for the readers here — I hope! Eeep! Lol)
The writing also puts much emphasis on how the other three friends jump-start Hiroto and Nao’s relationship. But I personally wasn’t bothered by the collaborative intervention from Ayuta, Ko and Yuko, because firstly, it wouldn’t have been consistent with the personalities of Hiroto and Nao if the impetus had come directly from either of them — at least, in the first stages of their relationship. Secondly, I loved those Superfriends! Because I actually believed their friendship was real, and wasn’t just a token mise en scène against which the main characters’ love story unfolded (*cough* Proposal Daisakusen *cough*).
The boys make convincing lifelong best buds whether they’re fishing in off-limits waters, or gate-crashing a soiree, or exchanging blows in an empty wharf, or just hanging out on Hiroto’s boat, looking up at the stars and talking. And I like how their bromance friendship comes first before many other things; the loyalty lines run deep for these boys, and nothing can tear them asunder — neither hookups nor breakups, nor pretty girls in wool coats and boots (ohhh Ayuta… *sniffle*). In fact, I always felt that the drama’s theme song, “Bokura no Machi de” (“In Our Town”), with the lyrics — “In this small town, we’re living in this moment / When we first met on that dazzling summer day / We’re always looking to tomorrow / Trying to reach beyond even just a little” — better suited the five friends instead of just Hiroto and Nao. The song also happens to be my favorite KAT-TUN music video — because they’re all just so damn normal here, lol.
Hiraoka Yuta gives a fine performance as Ayuta: with that boy-next-door appeal and sensitive handling of all matters Hiroto-Nao related, it’s impossible not to admire Ayuta and wish him true happiness in life. And I won’t even try to imagine where Hiroto and Nao would end up without Ayuta’s unstinting, steadfast support.
Tanaka Koki plays the Funnyman Card as Ko, although this role is really no different from… uh, Tanaka Koki himself, lol. In all fairness to Koki he’s better in his more dramatic moments, but when he turns on his funny shtick, mugging for the camera and all — well, it rarely is funny. Feels out of place, actually. I think I lost count of how many times I said “OH FOR FERK’S SAKE” *roll eyes roll eyes* whenever Koki pulled yet another one of his cartoon (KAT-TUN II You! lolz) faces. (I also must confess that my best friend and I call him “Kokey” in private (well, it ain’t private no mo’, haha), Kokey (rhymes with “okay”) being this alien life form resembling a friend orange prawn ball who befriends little children then eats ‘em! jez kidding in one of our local prime time soaps a few years back. I look at Koki and I think of Kokey; I look at Kokey and I think of Koki… but I digress, lol.)
However, the little sub-plot involving Ko and Nao’s BFF Yuko is very sweet and touching — and even a little sad. I never expected romance to sprout between Ko the Wage-Earning Truck Driver and Yuko, Daughter of Doctors and a Future Doctor Herself. At first Ko seems like a welcome diversion to Yuko, who isn’t really looking for commitment and only goes out with him because she’s flattered by his adoration. Their first date is quite memorable — he’s so bumbling and nervous and sweet in his rental car, while Yuko… isn’t exactly being a b*tch but kinda, fiddling with her phone and answering Ko in monosyllables. I love how Ko is no fool and can sense this right from the start, eventually asking Yuko: “Are you trying to make me hate you? If you hate me just go and say it.” Yuko then realizes that what makes Ko so different from the rich, bratty boys she’s dated in the past is exactly what makes him so endearing. It is also at this point that she considers a more serious involvement with this funny, self-effacing boy. (And their newly announced dating status triggers Ayuta’s indignant reaction: “Why am I always alone? I’m the most good-looking of us three.” Lolllll oh Ayuta.) I also like how Yuko and Ko’s relationship progresses and… runs its natural course. (See? No spoilers!!! hahaha)
And I saved the best for last: Hiroto and Nao — I mean, MAN I JUST.LOVE.THEM. Much good can be said about how their characters are written, but due credit goes to Ayase Haruka and Kamenashi Kazuya for portraying these two individuals with remarkable depth and pathos — but without shifting the weepy gears into overdrive. Ayase and Kame deliver well-matched and even-toned performances, never given to hammy excess despite the obvious emotional and physical hardships their characters go through.
I just love Nao! I love that she’s got a good head on her shoulders despite having been raised in comfort and affluence. So she’s pampered and sheltered, yes, but not a spoiled brat: “My parents are rich; I have no income,” she tells Hiroto simply in Ep. 3. I love how she values her relationships, both platonic and romantic, and that she’s the type of girl who keeps a very small but tight-knit circle of friends, the type who doesn’t date around but is built for long-term partnerships. I love how naïve and absent-minded she can be at times, and how she has her moments of both shyness — and raw, spontaneous honesty. I love how she gets close to Ren — for they can understand each other in a way that others can’t, and can bond over their shared frustrations over not having had a normal childhood. And most of all I love Nao’s endearing mix of innocence and inner strength, vulnerability and true resilience.
And Kame, Kame, Kame. The boy can certainly rise to the occasion and allow his dramatic talent to shine given good material and expert direction. The only sad thing is that such lucky breaks have been more the exception than the rule for him, with Nobuta wo Produce (2005) being the other bright star in his five-year drama career. But as much as I’ll always reserve a soft spot for the character of Kiritani Shuji in NwP, it’s still vaaaastly different seeing Kame in a more adult, romantic-hero kind of role here in Tatta Hitotsu no Koi. I mean, this role got me hard — like, in the freakin’ solar plexus hard. (Totally random NwP moment: “E.G. SHOCK!!!” “E.G. DOWN!!!” lol, sorry) But egads — WHO KNEW you could be a credible romantic lead, Kamenashi Kazuya?????? *eats shoe* I never thought it possible, but Kame in THnK caused my viscera to reach a roiling boil in a way that his fellow JE princeling, YamaPi, could never accomplish even with 29,846,461 racy AnAn photo shoots (hahahaha *fond tear @ RamboPi*).
Kame is without question at his cutest in this drama — okay, so by “cutest” I mean “least repulsive,” lol. In fact, he looks soooo good that at times I found myself swearing in languages I didn’t even know existed, hahaha. Now I don’t care if he was still his old bony 2006 self here (in case you noticed, his cheeks unnaturally got… rounder in 2008; man, those cheekbones all but disappeared! damn you, dermal fillers, damn you!!!), but I liked him with his old face anyway. Nowadays I look at his puffy, girly-girl face and weep for times long past. And his body obviously wasn’t as buff back in 2006 as it is now, but I really, really liked his overall look in this drama. Because in THnK he’s just so… normal, like a normal guy, a real guy, and nothing like the ghastly little creature we saw on-stage at a past KAT-TUN concert doing the Water Dance, or like the randy cake boy twirling a Hula Hoop on Cartoon KAT-TUN while his whole face/body/aura screamed “I am a sexu addict-o!!!” (*dry-heaves at the memories*)
But there’s a sensuality to Hiroto that isn’t flashy or impulsive, but more like this smoldering maleness that’s far more irresistible than anything that Kame has done before or since. No Gheyboi Kame in sight-o!!!!!!!!! I mean, DAYYYYUM, but he and Ayase DO have CHEMISTRY and SEXUAL TENSION between them — and I KNOW I’m not the only one who saw it!!!! And I love how Hiroto is very much aware of his own sexual attraction to Nao (as is she, hehe), but the fact that he keeps his urges in check bespeaks a maturity about him, and is in fact way sexier than any bed scene (and I’m so thankful this drama keeps things wholesome… okay maybe not TOO wholesome, hihihi). It’s inevitable for the topic of sex to crop up as Hiroto and Nao’s relationship progresses, but the way they address it is actually very sweet. Their <wait for it> MOMENT aboard Hiroto’s boat in Ep. 6, where Hiroto’s like, “Yeah I want to DO it with you alright, but let’s wait until we’re ready,” is honest and awkward and damnright sexy, but also very, very sweet. (Yeah I said that already, lol. Will STFU in a sec.)
*takes a moment*
In Stanza II of his trippy, idyllic 1816 poem “The Dream,” Lord Byron inscribes a lush and lovely vision of “two beings in the hues of youth.” This could just as well apply to Hiroto and Nao; the beautiful, nostalgic tone of the verse is also in perfect consonance with the whole feel of Tatta Hitotsu no Koi. The young man and young woman in Byron’s vision do not necessarily find their Happy Ever After, and there is no guarantee either that Hiroto and Nao will not share this fate. For what this drama seems to say is that when you’re young, when you’re just twenty, the future seems at once both possible and impossible, both hazy and absolute, both within and out of reach. Whether that love relationship you had at twenty works out or not, is of lesser consequence than the fact that it happened at all, and that it changed your life — hopefully for the better. Be thankful, this drama tells us, that for one brief moment you held it in your grasp, a thing so precious and wondrous and real. And your one comfort is that although it may later flicker and die in the Real World, this memory of First Love will forever “burn like a fire” in your secret heart of hearts, bright and imperishable.
Artistic and technical merit: A-
Entertainment value: A+
“Cool Whispers” by Ike Yoshihiro
Cool whispers drift from the north on the night
Yet you warm my heart for we hold the light
The land must fade from green into white
Hush my heart this love is a fire
This love will burn like a fire
Lie side by side in the soft winter white
Hold me close to you as we brace for flight
In time I pray they’ll see what we feel
Gentle love this pain won’t retire
This love must burn like a fire
Close your eyes and dream what I see
Peace for a moment the future unclear
Hand by hand as we stand on the wire
The ending so near our start close behind
Light bends through trees, leaves spiral and wind
We’re far from here and frozen in time
Cool whispers drift from the north on the night
Yet you warm my heart for we hold the light
The land must fade from green into white
Hush my heart this love is a fire
This love will burn like a fire…
Aaaaand somethin’ for the KAT-TUN fans (well actually it’s just KT-TUN as Jin was on hiatus): “Bokura no Machi de” music video (credit: kenshue @ Youtube.com). <non-KAT-TUN fans of THnK go, “heyyyy… Hiroto is singing! with Ko in a hat! and there’s a long-haired guy with a nice smile and a goofy-looking boy, and there’s a girl, too!”>
To follow: Favorite Hiroto+Nao Moments
Photo credits: beingshannon.blogspot.com, breesphotoshot @ photobucket.com, crunchyroll.com, de.divxklip.net, drama-sukida.over-blog.com, drama.watchanimeon.com, fat_boy213 @ photobucket.com, inkandpaperaddicts.blogspot.com, japonizates.es, last.fm, nicokun.wordpress.com, pinkwapish.xanga.com, riila-fancraque.livejournal.com, riko-san.livejournal.com, sanqirensan.blogspot.com, sellvcd.com, sharethefiles.com, thehetre.vn, tokidoki.animeblogger.net, tubeonline.com, tv.rayrac.co.jp, uisceros.livejournal.com, wawa_usagi @ photobucket.com, xpress.dk. And extra thanks to crimsonspell.livejournal.com for the THnK wallies.