I’ve just started to get back into watching Japanese dramas after a summer and fall filled with cracktastic Korean ones. Mmmm, City Hunter, Scent of a Woman, Me Too Flower. They occupied, and occupy, so much of my imagination and energy that when I got into watching Hungry! I had to readjust myself to watching a jdorama: one episode a week, not two; 45 minutes, not 72. And that got me to thinking about the differences between the two, and what attracts me to both.
The main difference between Japanese and Korean romantic comedies–and dramas in general–I think, is in tone. Korean dramas have a tendency to prioritize the emotional impact of a scene or story line over coherence or clarity, which can lead to a messy descent into sentimentalism. This is what characterizes makjangs, with their fantastical plot points and broad characters. They’re designed specifically to garner certain responses from the audience. Now, this is what all story-telling is essentially about: interaction between writer or speaker, the story being told, and the listener or viewer. When drama is well-made, like The Princess’s Man or Coffee Prince, you feel rewarded at the end because there was something sincere and genuine in the telling of the story: you can see the reasons behind what each character does, the story remains true to it’s original tone–overall it’s like when an arrow has been shot and it sails straight and sure from the bow.
The main difference between Japanese and Korean romantic comedies–and dramas in general–I think, is in tone. Korean dramas have a tendency to prioritize the emotional impact of a scene or story line over coherence or clarity, which can lead to a messy descent into sentimentalism. This is what characterizes makjangs, with their fantastical plot points and broad characters. They’re designed specifically to garner certain responses from the audience. Now, this is what all story-telling is essentially about: interaction between writer or speaker, the story being told, and the listener or viewer. When drama is well-made, like The Princess’s Man or Coffee Prince, you feel rewarded at the end because there was something sincere and genuine in the telling of the story: you can see the reasons behind what each character does, the story remains true to it’s original tone–it’s like when an arrow has been shot and it sails straight and sure from the bow.
In contrast Japanese dramas are much more even-toned: you can draw a line from the beginning straight to the end. The only Japanese drama I’ve watched that approached makjang levels of incomprehensibility was the Hana Yori Dango series, and I think that may have more to do with it’s manga source material than anything else. Even when the premise of a jdorama is inherently preposterous, like in Kimi Wa Petto, where a woman takes in a homeless guy as her pet and they eventually develop romantic feelings for one another (also based on a shojo manga), the story itself remains grounded and naturalistic. Kimi Wa Petto is heartfelt and has plenty of angst and tears, but it’s never overblown, and you never feel the inclination to roll your eyes. This may be because jdoramas tend to focus more on self-fulfillment and growth through work, like Natsu No Koi, or finding yourself within society, so while the romance is important, it isn’t paramount.
The problem I find with some jdoramas, though, is that they don’t have enough emotion, or, rather, the emotions the characters feel aren’t determined enough. In kdramas the characters have these grand, sweeping feelings that consume them. They long for each other, they persevere against all odds for one another, they wait years, they suffer for their love. That kind of intensity was what drove The Princess’s Man and it was glorious. It allowed you to immerse yourself in it’s world and be totally invested in these characters. It overwhelmed you, and you wanted it to. The jdoramas I’ve seen, and I’ve seen very few, are much more tempered than this; the characters feel what they feel, but they aren’t incapacitated by their emotions–they’re still able to function in society, no sudden fainting or walking around dazed in the middle of traffic. I usually appreciate this, but sometimes Japanese dramas are a little bit off on the romance. Korean romantic dramas, no matter how ridiculous the plot or perverse the character interrelations, always deliver on the romantic pairings. The Hong sisters dramas exemplify this, with their flawed heros and perfect second leads. Even though you sometimes want to bang your head against the screen and scream for the heroine to choose the other guy, the Hong sisters always manage to bring the lead couple together and convince their viewers that they’re meant-to-be. But Japanese romances sometimes fail at this. Absolute Boyfriend is one culprit. I blame that on the fact that the robot in this show was an actual robot, not a way of describing a character’s personality, a la Manager Kim in Wild Romance or Hwang Tae Hee in Ojakgyo Brothers. I was never convinced that our heroine was in love with this robot, and the robot never had the charisma of his human rival, played by the ever charming Mizushima Hiro. It’s almost as if some jdoramas can be a little too chaste, not in terms of sexuality, but in terms of emotional resonance. Another drama that almost succumbed to this was Buzzer Beat. It was a romance through and through, but you could hardly tell that from the first few episodes; our romantic leads didn’t even meet until the second or third episode, and it was excruciating for me to watch because all my OTP obsessed mind kept thinking was, “When am I going to start seeing their interactions?”
But the jdorama I’m currently watching, Hungry!, has all the wonderful qualities in which Japanese dramas excel: it’s set in the “real” world, no super rich men or dirt poor girls in sight, a slice-of-life kind of drama; our hero isn’t tortured to manpain levels; the plot knows it’s boundaries and so creates a complete little world with no loose strings; it has a great balance of levity and introspection; there is no villain with seemingly superhuman powers of aggravation; the concept and execution are both on point; it has a great soundtrack; the writing is self-assured and witty; and, best of all for me, it has a sweet, endearing romance. All in all, it reminds me of some of my favorite jdoramas, Zenkai Girl and Natsu No Koi; it’s fun without being trivial, and it has a light quality to it that gives the dramatic moments this bittersweet feel to them.
Hungry! is about Eisuke Yamate, a failed rock musician who opens up a French restaurant, partly to honor his mother’s memory, and partly because that’s the only other thing he knows how to do. Each episode deals with his struggles with the restaurant: how he wants it to operate, what he wants it to stand for, the strain it puts on his relationship. What first draws you in is Eisuke’s personality: he’s grumpy and violent and curses all the time, and Osamu Mukai plays him as a kind of crotchety anti-establishment type with a sweet heart, complete with hilarious exasperated facial expressions and an uncanny ability to be kind when you least expect him to be. Then we’ve got Chie Okusu, who’s got the best character description ever: she’s a girl who got a “love that started from her stomach instead of her heart.” She’s a farmer who loves to eat good food; always enthusiastic and cheery, she’s a sharp contrast to Eisuke. Throw in a trio of failed musician best friends, a bumbling and hilarious father, and great food, and you’ve got a show about a bunch of misfits who somehow find a way to create something special for themselves and for others. I feel an episode reflection coming up soon…