The Ties That Bind
by Ender’s Girl
[Read Part 1 of review]
Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Natsukawa Yui, Kuroki Meisa, Kato Seishiro, Yabu Kouta, Igarashi Shunji, Yuki Jutta, Ukaji Takashi, Naka Riisa, Osugi Ren, Yamamoto Yusuke, Matsudaira Ken
(SpoilLert: Ze zpoilerz continue! Allez allez!)
[Recommended companion track: “Sotto Kyutto” by SMAP]
“Freely we serve,
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall:”
– John Milton, “Paradise Lost”
They say that relationships change you – for the better, or for the worse. But for Tsubasa Hikoichi, there’s really nowhere to go but UP, right?
Ninkyo Helper is one of those dramas wherein the interactions between the main characters actually transcend the plotting. If you peel away the first two layers — a yakuza caper, and a commentary on aging and eldercare — you’ll get the beating heart of Ninkyo Helper, which is really a deep but empathetic exploration of human relationships. (Although funnily enough, it isn’t evident from the title — “Ninkyo” pointing to the yakuza angle, and “Helper” to eldercare.) I’ve realized while writing this review that I tolerated the gangster part, appreciated the social commentary, and fell head over heels in love with the main characters’ interrelationships.
Hikoichi and the Taiyo residents have an interesting dynamic: he relates to them in the same churlish, unchivalrous manner that he treats everyone else (lol). But Hikoichi shows them the gruff, tough side of love, the side that can tackle an elderly wheelchair-bound man to the ground to get him to walk again, and the side that tells a paralyzed and semi-blind lady off for riding her daughter too hard. Hikoichi’s stint at the Taiyo home is very much a journey of self-awareness, because now he’s on the other side, on the side of the old and the infirm, the weak and the helpless. A critical moment occurs in the final episode, when Hikoichi receives a call from a smooth-talking swindler posing as a lawyer, ready to suck a pensioner dry — and oh, how well Hikoichi knows this style, he’s done it a million times before — and so he sees himself for the conning monster that he is. Or was. He slams down the handset in disgust and can feel the room closing in, the air thick with his own guilt. He makes for the nearest window and sticks his head out, fighting for breath. Oh. My. Goodness. I loved this moment, I even gasped when Hikoichi gasped. (Thank you Ninkyo Helper writer, for showing and not telling.)
When the Taiyo staff and residents throw a surprise birthday party for Hikoichi in Ep. 7, you can tell it touches him deeply. This little moment is just one of many that build and build until you realize, along with Hikoichi, that the Taiyo home has become just that: his home. And from the troubled faces of the other yakuza – Riko most of all – you know they know they’re losing their aniki bit by bit, though he may not have realized it yet. It’s how Hikoichi was written, how you really get to know him, that makes the character immensely appealing and truly unforgettable. The moral tension is real, it’s there, an actual battle of wills raging within. And his quirks and behavioral patterns really feel organic, and not mere embellishments — like how he always drinks the same black coffee brand, how he lounges on benches chain-smoking (with one foot up, lol!), how he picks the veggies out of his food. (Super LOL moment in Ep. 4 — when Hikoichi crankily tries to get a veggie-hating geezer to eat the carrots in his beef stew, saying “Don’t waste food.” Hahahaha OH HIKOICHI!) And I especially LOVED it whenever he’d go “Huh?” with that matching I-don’t-give-a-sh*t face, LOLLL!!!! Like, he must’ve done it at least five times every episode. Oh Hikoichi.