Drama Review: Engine (Fuji TV, 2005)
Bless the (Sexy)Beast and the Children
by Ender’s Girl
Kimura Takuya, Koyuki, Ueno Juri, Toda Erika, Kaho, Ishida Hoshi, Ohira Natsumi, Arioka Daiki, Nakajima Yuto, Kosugi Moichiro, Sato Miku, Hirota Ryohei, Komuro Yuta, Sakai Masato, Harada Yoshio, Matsushita Yuki
In a Nutshell:
Former F3 hotshot Kanzaki Jiro returns to Japan and finds his hands full of an entire foster home of Troubled Children living under the care of his father and sister. While juggling his new (and unwanted) responsibilities as the home’s designated driver, Jiro reconnects with his old coach (and an old flame), hoping to reignite his racing career and get his life back on track.
(SpoilLert: All the way to the finish line! *waves checkered flags*)
[Recommended companion track: “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff]
“‘Ohana’ means family, and family means nobody gets left behind… or forgotten.”
“This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”
from Lilo and Stitch (Disney Pictures, 2002)
First, a Meta Moment:
Half the fun of whipping my
grossly underpaid elves into cranking out passable reviews for this blog down in their dingy little sweatshop… uh, uh, gomen. Let’s try this again: Half the fun of whipping up reviews for this blog… is thinking up — the title!!! (Yeah I’m shallow, SO WHUTT.) I think the reason I waited so long to write about Engine (and thus complete my Kimura as Tom Cruise “review anthology” yay) was that I wanted an interesting — and inspiring — enough title to get me all fired up to do the rest of the review, haha. None of the possibilities that had left the gummy interstices of my little blue brain to park themselves on the top left corner of my blank Word doc sheet, right above the byline — seemed to work.
To tick off a few: Daze of Thunder? Promising, and it was a riff on that Tom Cruise racing movie, but… who exactly was in a daze? Me? Kimura? Had not the faintest, so… pass. Dude, Where’s Your Car? Boarrring. And too strong a reference to Ashton Kutcher and that doofus from American Pie… KimuTaku: Cruise Control, then? I would’ve settled for this had my inspiration completely dried up, but the images that the term “cruise control” always triggers are from that ’90s movie where the unbelievably dhuh-hulllll Jason Patric tries to stop the sluh-howwwest moving cruise ship known to man from pluh-howwing into some unsuspecting seaside village. (And if you’re too young to remember Speed 2: Cruise Control, then too bad, ‘coz that would mean you’re also too young to remember a young ‘n’ hawt Keanu Reeves in Speed, ahahaha.) So, “Cruise Control” = no go.
Then I realized that I was barking at the wrong dog — er, tree, I was barking up the wrong tree. (Lol, these silly Eeenglish eeedioms!!! *shakes fist*) Why was I stubbornly trying to milk the racing/car stuff from Engine when that wasn’t even my favorite part? After all, it was those kids at the Kaze no Oka foster home who OWNED the show — and my heart. Not the actual “Engine-y” stuff. And even if an old Carpenters single entitled “Bless the Beasts and Children” (actually an anti-war protest song, lol) happened to be the only pop culture reference that perfectly encapsulated how I felt about the drama, then so be it. (And YES BABY YES, the “Beast” in question WAS definitely sexy! Vrrrrooom vrrroooom! See Stanza 4 of my “2009: A Kimura Odyssey” hahaha)
The Mirriyon Yen Question: Is KimuTaku Japan’s Tom Cruise, or Is Tom Cruise America’s KimuTaku??? (Answer: Like it even matters hahahahaha)
Aired in 2005, Engine concludes the Tom Cruise Trifecta (TCT), or the dramas where Kimura plays charismatic rogues engaged in such glamorous, high-octane professions as aviation (2003’s Good Luck), ice hockey (2004’s Pride), or motorsports (Engine), and where the stories come chockablock with thrilling action sequences (aircraft takeoff and landing! body-checking! formula racing!); impressive locations and set pieces (Air Nippon hangars! hockey stadiums! Fuji Speedway!); the requisite romance angle (i.e.“rabu-rabu makes me stronggg!!!”); and — oh yes, those indispensable Life! Lessons!!!
But the similarities end here, because while Kimura’s TCT characters are all talented and driven individuals, they’re shown to be at different points in their career trajectories at the beginning of each drama. In Good Luck!, Shinkai Hajime is a newly striped pilot whose career has just taken off; in Pride, Satonaka Halu is a cooler-than-cool pro hockey player at the top of his game; while in Engine, former All-Japan F3 champ Kanzaki Jiro is labeled a has-been after crashing out of an undistinguished run on the European circuit. (How many puns were there??? How many???? Lulz)
But closer scrutiny will show Engine to be a bit of an anomaly because the car racing aspect comes secondary to the happenings inside the Kaze no Oka foster home. Take the racing out of Engine and put Jiro in some other profession, and the drama would still stand alone. (Whereas in Good Luck! the pilot-y stuff is integral to Shinkai’s story; ditto for Halu and ice hockey in Pride. I mean, can you imagine Shinkai… the Grocer? Or Halu… the Accountant? No? No? lol) So the title of Engine is actually a misrepresentation of what the drama is all about; Fuji TV shoulda named this Orphan or Foster Child instead, lol.
Compared to the foster home stuff, all the racing scenes of Engine can be condensed into a single tanpatsu. Even the characters that populate the racing arc are thinly drawn: there’s Jiro’s intractable geezer of a coach, there’s Coachy’s personal assistant (and Jiro’s ex-flame!), there’s the team of auto mechanics who become Jiro’s friends, there’s them rah-rah pit girls, and — most especially, hatesss!!! – there’s the Arrogant Younger Star Racer harboring an irrational hatred towards Jiro. *roll eyes*
Basically, the “engine” part of Engine can be summed up thus: After a celebrated racing career in Japan, Jiro tries his luck in Europe, hoping to get noticed in the Formula Three circuit as a springboard to the more prestigious GP2 (formerly F2 or F3000) and – hellsyeah whynot — F1 categories. When the story opens it’s been five years since he left home, but the big break has yet to come – and realistically speaking, it probably never will. In fact, Jiro is plain miserable in Rome because one, he isn’t really the numero uno driver on his team, just the second fiddle (or second wheel? second tire?). And two, everyone in Europe is a mean, meeeeaaan b@stard apparently, because whatever Jiro does, those Evil Euro Meanies always find a way to take him down a peg or two, e.g. —
[Jiro prepares for launch from the car bay]
Evil Euro Meanie Mechanic: “This car costs millions of dollars, idiot.” *takes a swipe at Jiro’s helmet*
[Later on a test run, Jiro spins out of control and crashes out because he wanted to overtake Evil Euro Meanie Star Racer while singing his self-motivational “Moshi Moshi Mr. Turtle” song]
Evil Euro Meanie Coach (via radio): “Jiro your CAR is DEAD! There’s NOTHING you can do now. It’s. Your OWN. FAULT!”
[Evil Euro Meanie Star Racer gets out of his car and confronts Jiro]
E.E.M.S.R.: “WTF do you think you’re DOING??? LISTEN to me, I’M the First Driver, you are the SECOND Driver. YOU’RE the SPARE tire. Why don’t you act like one, TURTLE BOY?”
But nobody and I mean nobody messes with Jiro’s Mr. Turtle, so Jiro gets a-scrappin’ with E.E.M.S.R. — and loses his job two seconds later. He then flies halfway across the globe to try his luck in the Aussie circuit, but no company with any sense of self-preservation will sponsor a 32-year-old has-been. And apparently, even the children in Caucasian nations are evil and mean!!! When Jiro literally runs into a little white girl and her ice cream cone on the street (and his reaction here expositionally shows us that Jiro! Hates! Children!), the girl seems to return the feeling because —
Evil Meanie Child-Tourist (pauses, stares at Jiro): “You’re WEIIRRRRD.” *runs away* (lololol)
(Btw I did not make up the above scenes. They really did take place, further underscoring what caricatures the Caucasian extras were made to be in this drama. *shakes head at writer Inoue Yumiko*)
Thus does Jiro’s five-year international racing career crash and burn, leaving him with no recourse but to head back home and pay a visit to his old Formula 3 team (Team Ichinose), hoping to get his old job back. But Jiro’s wheelchair-bound coach, who is this creepy little tight-lipped fella perennially decked out in a red jacket, matching cap and dark glasses, and who sports a suspicious orange tan and goatee (which basically makes him Johnny Kitagawa — ON WHEELS!!! lulz), will hear none of it, and tells his former protégé in no uncertain terms that his days as a racer are done, that there are no openings on the team, and that even if there were, Jiro would still need to find his own sponsors to cover the stratospheric costs of his profession.
When Johnny-on-Wheels (henceforth to be known as the J.O.W.) tells Jiro to beat it (beat eeehhht), just beat it (beat eeehhht), Jiro tries another tack by appealing to the J.O.W.’s
caregiver personal assistant Tamaki (Okamoto Aya). But she coldly rebuffs his (rather desperate) feelers to hook up again. (Note that Jiro’s still a bit of an ass at this point, as it’s still early in the drama.) Eventually Jiro realizes that his love for the sport outweighs his own pride, so he sucks it all in and vows to do whatever it takes to jump-start his flagging career. Has-been or not, Jiro just wants to RACE, baby RACE, knowing there’s still plenty of gas left in his tank. The J.O.W. finally relents but makes it clear that the only time Jiro will ever get to see the inside of a car is when he’s doing a maintenance check — as a mechanic. (Ker-POWWW!!! J.O.W. – 1, Jiro – 0)
Only the maintenance guys, who idolized Jiro in his heyday and still regard him with some respect tinged with awe, treat Jiro like a hyoomin being. Ex-GF Tamaki, while not openly contemptuous towards her old squeeze (for as it turns out, it was Jiro who dumped her before vroooming off to Europe five years prior, tsk tsk), treats Jiro with cool professionalism and just a touch of disdain. The current star racer of Team Ichinose, Sugawara Hiroto aka Speed Racer (Aoki Shinsuke, who could pass for Abe Hiroshi’s nephew or summat) is the closest thing to the villain in this drama, but is so ludicrously one-dimensional that he reminds you of those cartoon baddies who are SO DUMB that they walk around with visible thought bubbles announcing their nefarious plans, i.e. “Hehehe… I’m so eeevil, watch me kick the toolbox over!!! Hehehe… I’m so eeevil, watch me sneer at Jiro and demean him muchly!!! Hehehe… I’m so eeevil, watch me tamper with his car on one of our test runs, so that he INJURES HIS FINGERS!!!” Mnghhh. Ohkkkay, racer boi. *gets rare brainwave* Heyyy… this dude oughtta shack up with The BoyFiend from Pride!!! Oh, the stories of narcissism, self-delusion and megalomania they’ll tell each other!!! lololol
Even the J.O.W.’s underlying reason for being SO MEAN to Jiro isn’t revealed till the final leg of the drama (and apparently it’s got sumthin’ to do with teaching Jiro to, um, race for something — or someone — other than himself *ka-ching!!!* hahhaha this dude should be a motivational speaker, a Life Coach!!! ‘cept that kids and adults will only RUN AWAY screaming whenever he rolls over to the podium, so no diiiice). But even then, it isn’t fully explained whether Jiro and the J.O.W.’s baggage-laden relationship was something they had always had — even during Jiro’s years as a brash young hot-rodder… OR was their coach-racer dynamic generally baggage-free until Jiro up and left for Rome? Because the script doesn’t bother showing us. No, wait, never mind. The less we know about the J.O.W. the better, ne?
The racing/car stuff in Japan was shot at the Fuji Speedway, a racetrack nestled in the scenic foothills of Fuji-san — how kewl is that huh? The facility was built in the Sixties and hosted Japan’s first ever Formula One race in 1976. For the next two decades it remained a popular venue for national motorsports events, the most prestigious being the annual Japanese F1 Grand Prix. However, the recent economic downturn caused major sponsors like Toyota (which was also battling its own corporate woes, remember?) to discontinue funding for the Speedway. (Which is also why the Japanese Grand Prix had to be shelved in 2010.) Still, what’s interesting is that even in the circuit’s heyday, formula racing never really seemed to be as BIG in Japan as it is in Europe — which is a bit puzzling considering that the Japanese practically invented all things… fast and compact and shiny, lol.
So it’s really no wonder that the actual racing scenes throughout Engine are few and far between. After all, racing is one sport that comes with an insanely hefty price tag — for the driver, for the team owner and for the sponsors. The bean counters over at the Fuji TV network probably decided they couldn’t afford to shoot more Engine-y scenes besides that Rome test run gone awry in Ep. 1, the initial face-off between Jiro and Speed Racer midway through the drama, a couple of test runs for both drivers, and finally the big race in Ep. 11 for the much-coveted Regulus Cup (which is like the All-Japan Cup, only fictitious).
“How Do You Solve a Problem Like… Ji-rohhh…?”
Jiro also discovers upon returning home that his estranged dad and sister have had their family house converted to a small-scale foster care facility during his absence, a group home bearing the whimsical name of Kaze no Oka (Windy Hill). The place is run by a cantankerous ojisan Kanzaki Takeshi (Harada Yoshio) lovingly called Enchou-sensei or Principal, who also happens to be — Jiro’s otosan! Assisting him is Jiro’s doting onee-chan Chihiro (Matsushita Yuki). Rounding off the full-time staff are two caseworkers, Torii Motoichiro aka The Finicky Teacher Man (Sakai Masato) and Mizukoshi Tomomi aka The Obligatory Love Interest (Koyuki), and one cool cook/cleaning lady Eiko (Takashima Reiko, I love her!). The staff oversee a houseful of twelve foster kids with ages ranging from 2 to 18.
Faced with zilch options regarding living and working conditions (he’s jobless remember, and therefore homeless as well), Jiro grudgingly shares a roof with the Kaze no Oka’s wards, and even (more grudgingly) takes on the designation of the home’s Official Driver (ohoho the irony!!! the irony!!!). And so does Kanzaki Jiro experience a dramatic downshift from his old world — with the high-stakes racing, the adrenalin and the crowds, the burning rubber on asphalt, the big bucks — and into this semi-permanent daycare center of nose-picking tykes and seriously messed-up adolescents.
Engine feels at times like several shows at once: The Mighty Ducks — arrogant child-hating hotshot finds himself saddled with a motley bunch of kiddie misfits, not knowing they will CHANGE! HIS! LIFE!!! and The Sound of Music — nonconformist adult with the mind of a child + large household of children = merry mayhem!!! The ending of Engine even recalls that ‘90s movie Cool Runnings, loosely based on the inspiring story of the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team: underdog becomes front-runner during major sporting event + mechanical malfunction during the Big Race + inspiring finish + life lessons, i.e. “it’s not about starting strong, but finishing strong!” or, “it’s not about winning the race, it’s how you finish it!” (Curiously enough, the theme song from Cool Runnings — “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff — is the insert song used in Engine.)
The common denominator to The Mighty Ducks, The Sound of Music and Cool Runnings is the classic “fish-out-of-water comes to shake things up” premise, and this alone accounts for half the appeal of Engine. The other half comes from the relationships and interactions that arise between Jiro and the Kaze no Oka children, who, just like the Von Trapp children from The Sound of Music, are ALL adorable and precocious, and come in a smooth age-frequency distribution (for easy remembering, natch!). Jiro as the male equivalent to the Julie Andrews character would in fact make a very credible Maria — that is, IF Maria had a wardrobe full of white slacks and pastel-colored shirts, got pissed off easily, liked to cuff the kids on the head, never listened to their problems or paid attention when there was an Important! Issue! being discussed, and was too self-absorbed to notice the tense situations (fights! messed-up parents! running away!) within the home. Lawl.
Suffice it to say that Jiro HATES KIDS, he can’t stand their whining and sniveling, their inability to grasp the concept of Personal! Space!, their dependence on others for their needs and wants, their needless expenditure of energy on fighting and playing. Jiro wants nothing to do with them, and yet he must put up with them for the time being until he lands a permanent racing gig, moves into a place of his own, and finally gets these kids out of his (thick wavy chestnut) hair.
The non-Engine-y part of Engine (read: the Kaze no Oka stuff) works so well because writer Inoue Yumiko finds that perfect balance between the crazy and humorous situations that Jiro’s disruptive presence creates in the little group home, and the more serious themes of parental abandonment and loss, childhood trauma and abuse, and dysfunctional family relationships that the children have experienced prior to entering the home. This sociological dimension serves to anchor the story to reality, so that you never get the feeling that you’re watching another forgettable episode of The JDorama Slapstick Hour. The personal stories get to you, and get to you deep.
For what powers Engine isn’t high-grade F3 motor fuel, but the hearts and souls, sighs and giggles, smiles and scowls of the Kaze no Oka children, who, young as they are, have seen and experienced far more than most of us will ever get to in one lifetime. And as cute and adorable as they are, you know that these are orphans and abandoned or neglected kids, kids who somehow fell through the cracks in society’s buffers and safety nets, and were left with no family structure to fall back on, no warm and cozy home to call their own, no parents to fight for them or hold their hand when they got sick. Kanzaki Takeshi aka Enchou-sensei, the director of the small group home, muses aloud at one point: “People always say to treasure your family because your family is the best thing to have… But what are those who don’t have one to begin with, supposed to do?” True, that.
“Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice…”
Once you get to know the kids through their backstories the way that Jiro does, it will be difficult to ever forget them. Throughout the drama we get these little vignettes of their everyday life, and in so doing we also get a glimpse of their distinct personalities. There’s Misae (Ueno Juri!), the eldest of the bunch and Kaze no Oka’s first ward. Her debt-ridden parents absconded when she was a child, and if you can just imagine coming home from school to a dark, empty house stripped of any reminder of their presence (and if you watched this scene, did it not give you goosebumps?), then you can imagine why Misae is the way she is. Bright and responsible though somewhat brusque and guarded, Misae becomes surrogate mother to the younger kids — although she herself had to get through childhood without her own parents. She dreams of going to college after her senior year, but doubts that she ever will as there aren’t many options available to “graduates” of Japan’s foster care system.
It’s only after Jiro matter-of-factly relates that he was adopted by Enchou-sensei after losing his biological family in an accident back in junior high, that Misae realizes that Jiro’s really just like her and the other kids, that she has no reason to be ashamed of her past, and that she is truly not alone anymore. (Ueno Juri’s acting in this drama is right on the money, as usual.) This becomes a pattern that repeats itself throughout the drama: each kid’s main problem surfaces, and Jiro inadvertently helps them get through it via some random and highly unorthodox act – much to the consternation of the Kaze no Oka adults.
Then there’s Harumi (Toda Erika), who’s a year younger than Misae and the girliest girl of the group. A bit of a coquette (lol @ how she likes to flirt with Jiro a LOT, much to his irritation and later, his fond exasperation), Harumi fits the template of the pretty and good-natured but neglected teen whose contentious dynamic with her skanky mother (and Mummy’s string of boy toys, tsk) drives her to seek emotional fulfillment in romantic (and potentially self-destructive) relationships, not knowing that by marrying young she’ll probably only end up in the same statistic as her own mother. But what really moves you is how Harumi’s a true romantic at heart, an innocent idealist whose only wish is to find stability and happiness with a good man who will love and cherish her for who she is.
When Harumi announces her plans to drop out of school and elope with her college-age boyfriend Takahashi (who turns out to be a two-timing douche bag anyway, surprise surprise), this naturally throws the entire Home into a tizzy – except for Jiro, of course, who’s just “oh. yeah, cool, whatevs” about the whole thing. (LOL) There’s this hilarious scene at dinner, when, in the middle of a heated debate between Harumi and the Adults (meaning Jiro ain’t included), the li’l boy Shunta (my favefavefave kid evar) interjects, “What’s marriage?” And Jiro, busy eating beside Shunta, answers nonchalantly, “It means you live in the same place, make babies…” before Onee-chan Chihiro hurriedly cuts him off with a very pointed look. LMAO!!!
And it’s kind of cute how the writer of Engine creates space for the Unrequited Adolescent Love Arc between Harumi and Daisuke (Ishida Hoshi), the scowly young punk whom the older Harumi only treats with friendly, siblingly affection (tsk, poor Daisuke). But despite his own personal issues, Daisuke is by far twice the man-boy Harumi’s sh*tty boyfriend can ever hope to be, and your heart breaks for how passionately he tries to defend Harumi’s honor — whether his actions are uncalled for or not.
Born to a white-collar family but banished to the Kaze no Oka Home for his behavioral problems, Daisuke may seem just another clichéd Troubled Teen seething with rage and resentment (his favorite sweater even has “Badboy” printed in large gothic letters, LOL). But like most of the kids in Engine, his story treatment is done well and the gifted young actor playing him (Ishida Hoshi, also in Hotaru no Haka) peels off all the layers to this character until all you see is a lonely, disconnected youth hungry for his father’s love.
And Daisuke’s dynamic with Jiro? GOLD. One of the best fleshed-out Jiro+kid relationships in the drama, I’ll say. Jiro’s the only one in Kaze no Oka who can handle the boy’s tantrums WITHOUT playing the dictator card (*rolleyes* @ Daisuke’s dad) or smothering him with parental concern (*rolleyes* @ Tomomi-sensei). I love how Jiro never patronizes the kid, and instead breaks through Daisuke’s sullen hostility by treating him as an equal. Which means having zero tolerance for Daisuke’s petty demands (and when the boy orders Jiro to buy him a drink at a convenience store, Jiro does just that – and gets him a bottle of viper juice [traditionally held to be a stamina-building aphrodisiac], LMAO) – but at the same time, it also means knowing when to be there for Daisuke when he needs it the most. (That breakdown scene on the bus where Jiro waits patiently in the driver’s seat while Daisuke, reeling from his latest rejection by his dentist-father, sobs his tough-guy heart out in the back seat – WHAT a TERRIFIC scene.)
There’s the brother-and-sister tandem of Toru (Arioka Daiki) and Aoi (the adorable Sato Miku), who must live with the nasty rumors circulating the neighborhood about the shocking circumstances of one parent’s death and another parent’s incarceration. Aoi was too young to remember the crime that changed their whole family, and Toru, being the protective older brother, will neither confirm nor deny it before the other Kaze no Oka kids’ frank — and sometimes prodding — curiosity. Toru and Aoi’s episode is one of the heaviest to take because of the subject matter and also because it tackles truth and shame issues in various contexts: so while the bespectacled Toru agonizes over how to shield his sister from the skeletons in their family closet, Jiro learns to face his own honesty dilemma after getting outed as a “mere” mechanic before a whole busload of Kaze no Oka kids at the Fuji Speedway. (He and little Aoi share a Moment inside an empty Team Ichinose garage that’ll give you major sniffles.)
Then there’s roly-poly Morio (Kosugi Moichiro) aka Mo-chan, he of the insatiable appetite for mayonnaise, chronic digestion problems, and trademark attitude-heavy, in-yo’-face frown, who stays at the Kaze no Oka Home while his deadbeat dad tries to get his act together. When Jiro is tasked to take Mo-chan to visit his father at their home some distance from the city, he spends the whole day whingeing about how this assignment will make him miss his crucial tryout race with Evil Speed Racer. But when Jiro resolves to help the boy meet up with his father, you know the kid has gotten to him in more ways than he’d care to admit.
Morio’s younger friend Akira (Hirota Ryohei), who gets ostracized at school for being a pathological liar (lulz), will also get to you when you realize (as does Jiro) that the kid keeps spinning those tall tales about himself out of the need to overcompensate for his own family’s lack of means, and also because he thinks that by exaggerating their financial status he’ll gain more friends and more attention. Love this kid! (Btw, Hirota Ryohei makes another appearance opposite Kimura in the 2008 dorama Change. Kewl, huh?)
There’s also the stocky, ever-optimistic Nao (Ohira Natsumi), who nurses grand dreams of making it as a J-Pop idoru. And there’s her BFF, the ethereally pretty Yukie (Kaho) whom everyone else feels protective towards because she’s fragile and timid and eats slow (lol) – or basically a J-dorama version of Beth from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Nao and Yukie don’t get as much screen time as the other foster kids, which is why I’ve always felt that Engine would’ve worked better as a longer series – maybe 16 episodes or more. Because I simply couldn’t get enough of these kids!
And yes, I saved my favorite kids for last. Shuuuheiiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!!!! Shuntaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!
Kusama Shuhei (Nakajima Yuto) is the precocious, solitary boy with a backpack whom Jiro runs into the minute he’s back on Japanese soil. And Shuhei has just run away himself – from the Kaze no Oka Home, surprise surprise. An orphan, Shuhei is practically a pro, meaning he’s used to the rootless lifestyle from getting shunted around so much, knows all the tricks of the trade, and packs and unpacks fast because he keeps few personal belongings. It also means that at his young age he has developed a rather cynical view of the foster care system, having seen the inside of more facilities than any of the other kids. He’s the type of child who makes grownups uneasy because he’s intelligent and self-aware, but also unsettlingly polite and emotionally distant. For this reason, adoptive parents can’t seem to “keep” Shuhei because he never warms to them – until… <all together now!> Jiro comes along and shakes! things! up!
Nakajima Yuto with his husky voice, fine features, and air of soulful sensitivity, reminds me of a young Barret Oliver in The Neverending Story and D.A.R.Y.L., or a young Wil Wheaton in Stand By Me. I remember making this comment in the past that I had high hopes for the boy coming into his own as a Serious Actor – and then I discovered that he was a Johnny’s Jr. and all my dreams turned to dust, lol. As much as I loved all the Kaze no Oka kids (how could anyone NOT?), I think Shuhei was closest to my heart because he reminded me a little of myself as a kid, haha. (My parents never weaned me on the baby talk, and always related to me as they would the other big ‘uns; I’m not saying it was necessarily a good or bad parenting thing — it just was.) Anyway, I was expecting Shuhei’s story to come full circle at the close of Engine, but it never does – which makes another good case for why this drama shoulda been longer than just eleven episodes.
And then there’s teeny-weeny Shunta (Komuro Yuta), that adorable nose-picking tyke from the cupboard whom I would take home in a heartbeat. IN A HEARTBEAT!!! (=> This coming from a girl with NO maternal instincts whatsoever, lulz.) Shunta’s backstory is another handerkerchief-wringer (his parents committed suicide – yikes), but even more moving is how the kid hates being pitied by grownups. When a pair of adoptive parents come to collect Shunta but keep clucking over the child’s misfortune, calling him a “poor thing,” he proves that tiny as he is, he does have a mind and will of his own – and proves this when he goes missing the following morning.
This is around the time that Jiro has barricaded himself in his tiny garret on the Home’s top floor, having just been rejected by the J.O.W. (remember him?) for the nth time. Jiro even tacks a “Do not disturb” sign to his door, but in language only an irascible 13-year-old would use: “Don’t you dare come in!!!” (LAWL.) Which the kids never heed, anyway. (Double LAWL.) But surprise, surprise – Jiro discovers that his No. 1 Enemy at the Home, the child Shunta, has done the same and locked himself in a closet in Jiro’s attic! And it’s SO FREAKIN’ hilarious how all the adults and foster kids hate Jiro for not lifting a finger to look for Shunta, not knowing that the boy is in the last place they’d think of looking, and that Jiro has promised Shunta he won’t out the kid. But during this bonding time it is Jiro who gives Shunta the strength to voice his feelings (“I’m not a poor thing!”), just as Shunta gives Jiro the courage to go back to the J.O.W. and accept a post on the maintenance staff, and start from the beginning. Of all the kids it is Shunta whom Jiro probably comes to love the most – and you’ll know it from a poignant farewell scene much later in the drama. (Oh man.)
Rounding off the Von Trapp – er, Kaze no Oka rugrats is little Nanae, the baby of the Home who was given up for adoption by her teenage mother. Nanae won’t speak, but forms a special bond with the gruff (and equally taciturn, lol) Enchou-sensei, who is amazingly gentle with the tot and carries her with him wherever he goes.
I cannot stress enough how terrific the child/teen actors were on Engine. These kids were the best. THE BEST!!! Not a single one of these youngsters missed a beat, or came across as annoying in a stilted, child-actor-y way. They were such NATURALS – each one of them, possessing just the right blend of physical cuteness and acting skill. I kept wishing they’d never grow up. Evar.
The Way of the Jiro
The theme song of Engine is Aerosmith’s “Angel,” which was clearly composed with a more… amatory purpose in mind (it’s basically ‘bout a guy huz lookin’ 4 sum1 2 share d sack widdim thru a cold ‘n’ lonely nyt – pref. an ex-GF… or 2, lulz). For this drama, however, the “angel” in question would be Kanzaki Jiro (surprise, surprise), come down from Europe to save the kids from their loneliness and hurt with the sheer force of his charisma and those pastel body-hugging shirts, lol.
As it turns out, Jiro is the missing piece that the Kaze no Oka Home needs the most, the extraneous variable who teaches the kids life truths — without really trying. In this sense Engine works excellently as a comedy of errors, wherein the Hero (Jiro) pursues his own agenda (read: get back on the racetrack) and wants nothing to do with the brats, but in the process unwittingly helps them (and the adults as well) to resolve their problems in ways that no one else would have thought of.
For Jiro is indeed the biggest kid of all, in fact even more immature and self-absorbed than the other children – and it’s hilarious how he’s so indifferent to their personal hang-ups and never pays attention to those intense, dramatic moments the kids often find themselves in. Take for instance the scene where Misae (Ueno Juri) makes her big “I’m not going to college” announcement and gets everyone – especially the Big ‘Uns – on edge, and in the midst of it all Jiro, who has a lot on his plate as well (literally and figuratively), goes, “Fish cake is so much better than steak.” And fifteen heads swivel towards him in silence while he continues munching thoughtfully on his food, LMAO. But instead of inflaming matters, Jiro’s non sequitur unintentially defuses the situation – as we see happening in many other ways throughout the drama.
One of my favorite scenes in Engine also takes place at the massive dining table. Konnyaku (a glutinous, fiber-rich Japanese health food that Jiro apparently hates with a passion) is served with their meal, and Jiro’s oneechan Chihiro calls out to him from the other end, saying:
Chihiro: “Eat your konnyaku. You’re an adult, riiight? You should eat your food.”
Jiro: “I’m eating it!” (stealthily slips a piece of konnyaku into Shunta’s plate when Onee-chan turns away, lol)
Shunta: (solemnly but loudly enough) “Arigatou, I love konnyaku.”
Jiro: (grindingly) “Not. At. All…” (shoots Shunta a dagger look, which the boy returns with equal measure – LOL!!!)
Jiro gels with the kids because they feel an affinity for him even though he always tries to tune them out of his zone, or kick them out of the attic storeroom where he temporarily resides (being the only place in the cramped house that isn’t occupied). For the children consider him one of them – and therefore never use the honorifics when addressing him, just plain ol’ “Jiro” – which never fails to piss him off, lol. (Jiro complains to his Oyaji: “I should be driving race cars, not this stupid beat-up bus. And why do I have to stand those little punks calling me by my first name!” LMAO) Each Troubled Kid sees a bit of himself or herself in Jiro – and this somehow helps them get through whatever it is they’re facing.
Kimura has amazing rapport with the kids. A-MAY-ZING. In Engine he displays that natural gift for dead-on comedic timing and physical brand of comedy that resurfaces a few years later in Change, another dramedy of his. His chemistry with the foster kids crackles and pops with childish roughhousing and quid-pro-quo bickering – but also resonates with tough love and genuine affection for his young friends.
Also interesting is Jiro’s dynamic with the adults at Kaze no Oka, particularly the fulltime caseworkers Torii-sensei (Sakai Masato) and Tomomi-sensei (Koyuki) who question everything about this brash, insensitive, kakkoi-looking dude who’s so full of himself and scandalously treats the kids like crap even if the poor things never notice anyway (lol). The caseworkers take issue with Jiro’s methods (lol, what methods?) which run counter to everything they’ve been academically trained is the Right Way to Deal with These Kids.
Torii-sensei aka Finicky Teacher Man asks their principal, Enchou-sensei one evening: “Do you think it’s really a good idea for someone with no skills to be interacting freely with the children?” And Enchou-sensei replies quite drily: “I’ve always thought that that idiot’s best trait is that he has no special skills.” (LOL Oh Enchou-sensei!) He goes on, “Teachers, nurses, counselors… these kids grow up with nothing but specially trained adults around them.” (read: he means YOU, Finicky Teacher Man! ahahahaha) “I think it might get suffocating for them, so sometimes I think it’s okay to have someone who doesn’t know a single thing.” (LOLOLOL Ohhh Enchou-sensei!!! And oh Jiro.)
I know the writer meant to use Torii-sensei and Tomomi-senseii as the staid, orthodox counterpoint to The Way of the Jiro, but their fears ARE valid, y’know. I myself would rather err on the side of caution because in the Real World, not everyone is a Kanzaki Jiro. Opening a group home to untrained and untested individuals could be dangerous for the kids. Just sayin’. Still, it was extremely entertaining to witness Jiro and Finicky Teacher Man’s mutual distaste from the very beginning, and oh-my-gosh the looks of loathing these two men would give each other => GOLD. Their two-way animosity really had less to do with both men’s growing attraction towards Tomomi-sensei and more to do with their fundamentally incompatible life philosophies. But it made for great entertainment just the same!
As for the mandatory romance between Jiro and Tomomi-sensei… umm… uhhh… *drags feet* (lol) Let’s just say I didn’t care much for the love part, as that wasn’t really the point of the story, was it now? The whole drama would’ve worked fine without the the buttoned-down (read: uptight) and somewhat naïve Tomomi character, who as a teacher realizes that she, too, has much to learn about… um, being a teacher. (Nothing against the comely Koyuki, but there’s sumthin’ about her that just makes me… so… sleepyyy… zzzzz.) I suppose I felt the same thing that Misae and the older Kaze no Oka kids felt whenever Koyuki – oh I’m sorry, I meant Tomomi-sensei came bouncing around the corner with another textbook solution to their adolescent problemos, heh heh.
Plot-wise, Tomomi was pretty dispensable – as was the love stuff. Sure, we got the expected cute rom-commy moments towards the end (after all, someone HAD to give Jiro some lovin’ after that crushing blow on the raceway), but overall, there wasn’t much chemistry between her and Kimura. No, make that – there wasn’t ANY chemistry between her and Kimura. Which was just fine with me because… the kids (Jiro included, natch!) were what it was all about, baby. And because… Kimura’s contractually obligated topless scenes happened anyway with no Tomomi in sight. Kimura changing into his racer suit in the first few seconds of Episode 1 – aieeeeeee! Kimura tinkering with a race car wearing a white tank top with a plaid shirt wrapped around his waist – aieeeeeeeeeeee! Kimura — *Matthew McConaughey voice* — takin’ his shirt awwfff in the attic right in front of the teenage Kaze no Oka girls, who can’t help gawking (and giggling, teehee) at his sexyback – aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I’ll take what I can get!!! I’ll take what I can get!!! Everybody — SING!!! “Baby, baby… You’re mah ayyyn-jell… Come and save me too-night… You’re mah ayyyn-jell… Come and take me all riiiiight….” (Stoppit stoppit E.G. you stoppit right now!!!)
Uh. Gomen, gomen.
Did I forget to mention Eiko-san (Takashima Reiko), Kaze no Oka’s cook/cleaning lady, whose good ol’ homecooked meals and shy – though sometimes sad – smile never fail to make the Home feel a little warmer, a little brighter? And oh, how I shipped her and Enchou-sensei SO BAD (hehehe).
I also enjoyed Jiro’s complex and complicated relationship with his Oyaji and his Oneechan, who took him in as a wayward teenage orphan and became his only family since. Not much is mentioned of Enchou-sensei’s deceased wife (and Jiro’s adoptive mother), but these three remaining members of the Kanzaki family, highly opinionated and headstrong persons all, are the glue that holds the Kaze no Oka Home together.
But troubled times loom large for the Home when the village association – actually run by a coterie of Stepford wives – gang up on the foster home’s inhabitants and even stoop to muckraking in a bid to turn the tide of public opinion against the Home. I dunno ‘bout you, but I didn’t feel that this sub-plot was handled well. Was a series of complaints from a few disgruntled neighbors enough to single-handedly close down a foster-care facility that was duly licensed and recognized by the state? This part just felt so rushed, because suddenly – BAM, as a result of the Stepford wives’ smear campaign, the landlord jacks up the rent and the beleaguered Enchou-sensei realizes they cannot continue running the facility and remain in the black. (Tsk, tsk.) Also wishing to avoid a protracted legal dispute with the community leaders, Enchou-sensei tiredly tells his son, “Jiro, in this kind of work it’s not just about winning. To protect the kids, I’ve lost.”
So the Home does close down and Jiro is tasked to drive the kids around one last time – this time to various foster-care facilities within the city. (Toru and Aoi he takes to the train station because their new home is out in the country.) So Jiro drops the kids off one by one, and one by one they bid him goodbye. This whole sequence is probably the most heartbreaking of all the emotional moments in Engine, because by now you’re left without a doubt that these scrappy little snot-nosed kids have indeed won the cool racer guy’s heart.
In the end, Jiro resolves to race for the kids as well as for himself, knowing that racing may be in his blood… but the kids are all well ensconced in his heart. (“If I give up racing, I won’t know how to be a man anymore.”) He enters the Regulus Cup, hoping to use the prize money to re-open the Home and get the kids back. The ensuing scenes are the stuff of Hollywood inspirational-movie fantasy: dramatic, nail-biting finish + life lessons learned + Leading Lady waiting in the tunnel with a warm embrace and celebratory kiss as the Hero’s reward. Whether or not Jiro actually goes on to win the danged Regulus Cup is beside the point. For in the eyes of those most precious to him, he is already a winner even before the marshall waves that green start flag.
I also appreciate how Engine doesn’t end abruptly after the race, but traces the characters’ paths about two years down the road. Some developments are heartwarming, some bittersweet, because, well – that is Life. We learn that the Kaze no Oka Home has re-opened and of the original foster kids, only Toru and Aoi, Shuhei, Yukie and little Nanae have returned. Misae has joined the workforce (presumably as an office lady), but attends night school to become a teacher. Harumi finished high school after all, married a cook, and now the young couple hope to open their own diner. Daisuke never really reconciled with his dad; he dropped out of high school to work as a mechanic. Nao and her family have returned to Kyushu but she continues to audition to be a pop idoru. Mo-chan moved back with his old man who now has a stable job. And Akira, who has since settled in nicely at his new foster home, plans to become a lawyer when he grows up (and he’ll make a fine one indeed! the kid can argue his way out of anything, lol). And Shunta, oh Shunta, he finally finds an adoptive family that sees him as a boy to be loved, and not just another charity case.
(As for Shuhei, one morning out of the blue, the J.O.W. wheels into Kaze no Oka, takes one look at the poor kid and barks “YOU!” The next thing Shuhei knows, he’s dancing atop some giant stage piece with a dozen other kids of his age and coloring, while all around them smoke machines go off and strobe lights pulsate to the cacophony of synthesizer music, horrendously high-pitched warbling (which seems to be coming from… them), and the maddening shrieks of 836,394 Hey! Say! JUMP! fangirls crammed into the Tokyo Dome… uh, uh – gomen, got carried away. Lulz. Ohhh Yuto. *facepalm*)
And the biggest kid of all? Like countless other pro racers before him, Jiro leaves the speedway in favor of a little more job security. The sad truth is that the eagle eyes and lightning-quick reflexes needed to win a race are now, sadly, the territory of a younger breed of hotshot racers. Which is why we find Jiro maneuvering a Toyota 4×4 over rough terrain in some tropical jungle as a test driver for the Legoas Research Center. (But guess whose photo is tucked into the corner of his windshield? Those kids!!! His kids.)
But this is when reality truly sinks in, when you realize that not all of the Kaze no Oka kids will go to college and become upwardly mobile professionals. Engine leaves you with a sobering reminder of the added challenges that await products of the foster-care system once they’ve left the auspices of their “jido yogo shisetsu” (or “child protection institutions”). In Japan, many of these former wards of the state suffer the stigma of being labeled “shisetsu ji” or “institutionalized child” by a traditionalistic society that still defines family by blood ties and marriage. Products of the foster-care system often experience discrimination when looking for a job, a place to live, even a life partner. Worse, the lack of adequate after-care provisions under Japanese law deprives them of the safety net they need to make that transition into full independence.
So not all of the kids in Engine will become “successful” in the way that the rest of the world defines success. But then that isn’t really the point of living, is it? For the true yardstick of success is not in wealth or accolades, but in the lives we touch and that touch us in return. Cherished relationships that give meaning to Life — these are what it’s all about. And that is always a comforting thought.
What is family? Or rather, who is family? In Episode 2 of Engine, Misae, the eldest girl of the Kaze no Oka household, figures this out while watching Jiro surreptitiously transfer his konnyaku to Shunta’s plate. The adorably snarky exchange between Jiro and Shunta follows, and then little Aoi exclaims, “Enchou-sensei is digging out his konnyaku, too!”
Enchou-sensei: (embarrassed) “That’s not it…” (LOL oh Enchou-sensei!)
Other kids: “He must hate it…”
Oneechan Chihiro: “How pathetic… like father, like son…” (LMAO)
And Misae, who at this point is the only kid who knows about Jiro’s adoption, continue to observe Enchou-sensei and Jiro as they wolf down their fish cakes with great relish at opposite ends of the dining table. And the comprehension dawns on her — “Souka…” It’s a fleeting moment and one that will probably slip your attention unless you were watching carefully, but Misae realizes that family is less about blood ties than about the people whom you share a roof, a dinner table, a home, your LIFE with… Family is the people who, despite your faults and foibles, love you unconditionally — though they may not always show it… Family is the people from whom you draw your strength from day to day and from year to year, and who will never ever abandon you when the chips are down. Family is the people who are there to sweeten your lemonade when Life gives you — well, lemons. Whether related by blood or not, these people, they become your family.
For Ralph M.
Artistic & technical merit: B
Entertainment value: A-
Photo credits: christblog.eu, doramanouchi.blogspot.com, jdorama.com, jdramazone.com, hyjoo.com, fansub.guckies.com, momiji-bunny.xanga.com, mono2u.com, mysoju.com, never-ending-music-power.blogspot.com, stellix.blogspot.com, takuyasworld.com, travelwebshots.com, tsinoy.com, ykosans.spaces.live.com,
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