Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review: Nigeru Wa Haji Da Ga Yaku Ni Tatsu

Television can do more than simply entertain us. It can inspire. This is the difference between a good show and a great one. By this standard, Nigeru wa haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (逃げるは恥だが役に立つ, affectionately known as 'Nigehaji') is a great show.

The setup is straightforward as ever. Mikuri is an enthusiastic unemployed young woman who ends up working as a maid for a nerdy programmer named Hiramasa. Mikuri is good at her job and Hiramasa comes to depend on her. When Mikuri's parents decide to move far away, the soon to be homeless Mikuri asks Hiramasa if she can live with him under a 'Contract Marriage.' The two would marry and present themselves publicly as a couple, but in reality their relationship would remain platonic with Mikuri continuing to work as a maid and receive a salary.

You can see where this goes. Mikuri over time becomes smitten with the mature and diligent Hiramasa. Unfortunately, Hiramasa is what is known as a 'Soshokukei Danshi', or 'herbivore' man. In Japan this basically refers to very nerdy guys who have no romantic interest in women. Thus Mikuri's affections are generally not returned without a lot of prodding on her part.

The pacing of the show is superb, at least until the last episode that is. The gradual evolution of Hiramasa and Mikuri's relationship feels slow at first but ultimately it makes each milestone more satisfying. The story takes the necessary time to develop the characters – to make the romance feel natural. Men watching the show understand why Hiramasa comes to care deeply for Mikuri. She is a thoughtful, bright, competent young woman who makes his life better. Women watching can understand why Mikuri falls for Hiramasa. He is hardworking, smart, patient, and most importantly, willing to grow and break out of his shell thanks to his experience with Mikuri. Nigehaji demonstrates a simple and ideal marriage: a man and woman working together to make a great home for one another.

This is why the show I think struck such a cord with Japanese society that news channels reported on mass depression when the series ended. It is just such a down to Earth story. Hiramasa, though smart and mature, is not some one in a million supergenius. Mikuri, though attractive, is not a Victoria’s Secret model. These are two ordinary people whose ordinary virtues – respect, kindness, hard work, conscientiousness – ultimately win them happiness in each other’s arms. Unlike much of what we see on TV, this truly is something we can all aspire to achieve in our own lives.

It helps that the lead performances are quite strong. Yui Aragaki shows great range and spirit as Mikuri. Gen Hoshino's portrayal of Hiramasa is also solid. He works as a great 'straight man' playing off of the energy of other characters. The only thing that felt lacking is that I wish the show had done more to flesh out his dedicated bachelor lifestyle.

It also helps that the show is just really funny. Every episode features some kind of parody or reference to another popular Japanese show. My favorite was the Neon Genesis spoof in episode four. Much of the humor comes from Hiramasa’s coworkers who offer some snappy comedic dialogue. Arata Furuta is absolutely hilarious as an eccentric senior engineer. Nigehaji includes a number of side stories that add context to Mikuri and Hiramasa’s relationship.

Most of these subplots are just icing on the cake. There is a running motif about an allegedly gay coworker that provides some humor and ends sweetly. There is the will-they-won’t-they relationship between the much older Yuri, Mikuri’s aunt, and cool guy Kazami, Hiramasa’s coworker. Their relationship feels sort of like fangirl shipping. Still, it has emotional weight and is well-developed. Finally there is Yassan, Mikuri’s housewife friend who ends up divorcing her cheating husband. Yassan’s story arch I believe is meant to serve as a foil – a demonstration of how things can go wrong in a traditional marriage. On that level it works. Personally I think it could have used more screen time as we never get the husband’s perspective. At the very least, they do not present Yassan’s decision to make her daughter grow up without a father as an easy one.

My biggest criticism of the show concerns its ending. I did not love the last episode or the last scene of the episode before it. Without spoiling too much I will just say it concerns Mikuri having a sudden change of heart about her relationship with Hiramasa. The two renegotiate their contract quite drastically and Mikuri ends up struggling to balance outside work and home duties. This period is perhaps necessary for her character as she ultimately comes to understand herself better and ends up appreciating Hiramasa even more. The problem is that they only had about half of an episode to process this huge change in their relationship dynamic. After 10 episodes of very deliberate, deliciously paced romance, this section felt rushed and awkward.

Ultimately the show ends in just as sappy and upbeat a way as you would expect. The last ten minutes of the series are charming and fun, if not exactly how I would have liked to see things end. More importantly, it does not ruin all the good that was built up in all the prior episodes. Great television is about showing, not telling. What Nigehaji shows is an enchanting and believable love story. It portrays marriage and gender roles in a way that shows respect to both men and women, with enough humor to keep the former entertained, and enough drama to keep the latter engaged. It is also a great show for non-Japanese looking for a light and accessible comedy.

Nigehaji is picturesque representation of contemporary Japanese romance. Given the declining population, there is much reason for cynicism about family life in Japan. However Nigehaji with its infectious optimism is a breath of fresh air when compared to western romantic comedies like Trainwreck or You're the Worst. Having watched hundreds of western shows where ugliness is presented as “being real,” it is a welcome change to see a story where people are just generally decent to one another, with no ironic post-modern snear behind it.