Walked down memory lane the past few nights with my first ever drama and forever first love Jdrama, Beautiful Life. It’s surprising and ironic to realize that it’s been a good twelve years since this drama was produced (and hence, my involvement in drama-world) and that in the countless times I’ve watched it, this most recent watch – being more mature now, I reckon – has me really reflecting beyond the show.
One thing’s for certain still though: I love this show to pieces and if anything, my love’s both rekindled and grew tenfold through this recent revisit. I’ve been writing so much about new and upcoming shows and so have plenty other drama-bloggers (which I’m really just finding out is apparently aplenty – there’s a whole community out there!) but the truth is, it’s often the oldies-but-goodies which really seal the deal for me. For this reason, I’m attempting to walk down memory lane with shows I hold near and dear – primarily Jdramas right now because they are short, sweet, consistent and very relevant even if they were produced more than ten years ago. Take a walk with me! We’re revisiting one of my favorite love stories … Beautiful Life.
picture credits to: http://wiki.d-addicts.com/File:BeautifulLife.jpg
“Hey Kyoko, did I love you like I should have?”
1) The Premise
As aforementioned, Beautiful Life is a 2001 Jdrama written by one of my favorite Jdrama screenwriter, Eriko Kitagawa. To a degree, it’s really a slice-of-life show, telling the story of Okishima Shuji played by Takuya Kimura i.e. Kimutaku or also known here as The Man and his lady love, Machida Kyoko played by Takako Tokiwa. She’s “the girl in a wheelchair” and he’s the up-and-coming 20-something hairdresser, but the real catch is that she’s disabled due to an illness when she was 17, one which resulted in her unable to walk – the cause of much trial, tribulation and lots of growing up. By their side are awesome side characters in the form of friends, colleague and of course, family members.
2) The Characters
Just where do I begin? Both Shuji and Kyoko are two favorite characters of mine from both actors’ resume, by a mile. Shuji was simply all Kimutaku – his and no one else’s. I’ve watched Tokiwa in a number of shows following Beautiful Life and I can only conclude that similarly, I think that Kyoko is a character that’s meant for Tokiwa and perhaps her best, if not one of the best.
What I love about Shuji is the fact that he is depicted very realistically; not the wounded heroes Kdramas love so much, or the flower boys that’s in-season right now either. He’s flawed, imperfect – sloppy, selfish and at times egoistic – and clearly still trying to make a mark in his world. Shuji is portrayed so humanely real, for instance contemplating life-changing decisions, doubting the nature and direction of the relationship, bluntly admitting that he still has lingering feelings for his ex-girlfriend and have an obvious difficulty in receiving advice – which he denies, of course. These are traits which I’m sure we can identify with, regardless whether within ourselves or within our own respective circles; real. It’s refreshing because here’s the supposed anti-hero in Kdramaland but honestly, the real sort of hero in Real Life.
Likewise, Kyoko isn’t perfect either. She’s disabled yes, but that doesn’t excuse her from her personality flaws as Shuji pointed out so bluntly many times in the show. Her disability is both her armor and excuse and I love the fact that Shuji calls her out on it often; his ignorance in the beginning is not always right or considerate, I agree, but it is also the key that challenges her and eventually, changes her. Regardless, despite her spoiled nature and sometimes frustrating actions – pushing people away, but really, who doesn’t? -, Kyoko is incredibly endearing and brave.
The side characters are also of course, worthy of mention. I’ve always thought of Kyoko’s older brother, Masao played by Atsuro Watabe as super annoying but over the years through my rewatching, I’ve come to accept his awkwardness as something more endearing and that above all, his overprotective nature towards his younger sister as one that’s so moving and relatable. His other half who’s also Kyoko’s colleague and best friend, Sachie played by the wonderful Miki Mizuno is equally hilarious and endearing. In fact, I love her for being the voice of truth many times in the first half of the show and for being a true friend – one who listens but also tells it like it is and cries and laughs with and for her friend. Kyoko’s parents are also friggin’ fantastic TV-parents portrayed just as realistically as the rest; the mum especially, oh the mum. I can’t even, at the awesomeness. Respect.
On Shuji’s side, his colleague Takumi (played by the fantastic Ikeuchi Hiroyuki, now a household name by his own merit) is definitely a sweetheart and loyal to boot. I could do without Mayumi and Satoru quite frankly, but like everyone else, they were depicted like real people that while I may dislike them, I understood their motivations – it’s hard to hate, basically, when people are just being people.
The best thing about the characters though, is very simply that growth is so clearly depicted. Shuji’s internal conflicts which eventually led to his maturity and jadedness were pure gold; it’s pretty much like before versus after and this in itself has me feeling bittersweet until now. To a degree he really lost his naivety, but gained plenty insights and was so clearly changed by Kyoko’s brief encounter in his life. There’s a certain feel of melancholy, but it’s not tinged with sadness; rather a subdued sort of acceptance.
3) The Storytelling
What can I say? She’s sometimes hit or miss but dear God, this one was a winner through and through. The story unfolds immediately upon the opening of the show – Shuji on his bike, Kyoko with her crazy permed hair in her precious red car – and by the end of episode one, ties have been established. By episode three, romance has developed and by the middle episodes, the relationship has really traversed significant leaps. Kitagawa aces in establishing and portraying realistic romantic relationships where love alone between two people doesn’t and will not suffice. She gives us lots of sweetness yes, but she also challenges both her characters and audiences, asking and exploring questions that require both to pause, reflect, mull and then decide, stakes at hand. For instance, can one walk the line until the end if it will come down to something so life-changing? Is one prepared to lose certain things at the expense of the other? What is the relationship really sustained by and likewise, are these fundamentals static or dynamic?
All these were questions that came to my mind as I journeyed into Beautiful Life. It’s hard to say too much without accidentally giving away the bigger clincher of this show, so I’ll keep it brief by concluding that the exploration, portrayal and direction of the storytelling were realistic, thoughtful and moving. In terms of Kitagawa‘s obvious affinity towards narrations – something she really does quite often in all her shows and injects them randomly as opposed to every opening or closing of a show – in Beautiful Life the narrations were clear enough to be more in the present than in hindsight. Regardless of their timeline though, their emotional resonance hits deep and often, bittersweet. I love most, if not all, of the voice-overs be it whether Shuji’s or Kyoko’s, but my favorite is perhaps the one above, which opens this review.
4) Afterthoughts, Twelve Years Later
Considering I have watched a significant number of Eriko Kitagawa‘s work and her 2004 show, Orange Days being my all-time favorite, plus the fact that I rewatch both Beautiful Life and Orange Days plenty times already now, I’ve noticed similarities in both; certain plot devices or tropes, settings and the like appear in both shows for instance, but often, play different roles or carry with them significantly different meanings. So though they appear in both or many of her shows, I’m able to distinguish and make peace with this fact.
Another thing that I thought was both epic and surprising is the advancement of technology. Oh man, watching this show with their antenna cell phones and trading emails and such – aw man, I can’t even. It’s amazing to realize how technologically advanced the world is today, no kidding. But more than that, I’m more in awe and proud of this fact: good stories do not need fancy props. What gives value to the storytelling, characters and such isn’t the presence of smartphones, tablets or whatever have yous but very simply, heart and realism; everything else is bonus. Even yes, fashion!
However, what I do love in terms of that old-school feel is the usage of Western songs as the background music in plenty scenes. That juxtaposition – an all-Asian cast, fast-paced Tokyo as the setting and then playing ’80s and ’90s Western hits to complement the scenes … brilliant. The result, in my opinion, is a visual or tonal representation of modern day, subtle yet effective. Plus, the theme song “Konya Tsuki no Mieru Oka ni” by B’z remains one of my favorite OST songs ever, to this day.
When I first watched this show, I was 10, I think. It was my first drama ever and I was just struck by the opening – all white, a really cute couple and an upbeat background song – and growing up, my teenage girl heart squeed at the intimate scenes between the couple. At almost 22 that I am right now, I have indeed matured significantly; still finding myself gooey at the romantic scenes but understanding other scenes, characters and the bigger spectrum so much more. Similarly, where I used to feel so broken hearted at the ending, now I look back and smile, hoping that what’s depicted isn’t Shuji’s far future – that he’ll learn to love again someday, because Kyoko’s presence is indeed always with him.
In short, I can confidently attest that Beautiful Life is an insightful gem, both in terms of love and life stories. I’ll leave you with this – this short 2 minutes clip (with English subtitle!) that brought me to the drama world and pretty much everything I am today. I promise, it’s wonderful.
Final Verdict: 10/10.