Ninkyo Helper comes as a breath of fresh air after a protracted encounter with a certain drama that shall not be named. I’ve only watched the first five episodes and while everything’s been enjoyable so far, I’d continue watching it for Meisa’s character alone (okay fine, her and Ryota) even if the script were to take a nosedive into WTF-ville. *mild spoilers ahead*
What’s this drama about? Long story short, the time has come for the Hayabusakai yakuza group to elect a new second-in-command. As it turns out, they have a slightly different way of handling these matters compared to the rest of their underworld associates, which explains why the candidates for the position soon find themselves trading in their yakuza threads for yellow polyester to work as caretakers (or “helpers” as they’re called) at the Taiyo nursing home.
I’ll admit I wasn’t enthusiastic about Ninkyo Helper‘s premise when I first read its synopsis (which also explains why the drama was collecting dust on my hard drive for such a long time.) I had assumed that it was going to be one of those syrupy dramas where the anti-hero grows a heart, develops a penchant for spouting inspirational bon mots and becomes the sworn protector of all living things great and small after his close encounter with the octogenarians of Taiyo. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out this was not the case at all.
Ninkyo Helper is Kusanagi Tsuyoshi’s comeback drama after his unfortunate drunken scuffle with the police and he couldn’t have picked a better vehicle to showcase his return to form. He plays Tsubasa Hikoichi, one of the leading contenders for the vacant position and a hard-nosed opportunist who has no qualms about scamming little old ladies out of their savings.
Hikoichi harbours no illusions about the fact that the yakuza are nothing but petty criminals (in one of the drama’s wryly humourous moments, it is revealed that all the candidates for the position are “money-lenders”.) Such is the nature of the world they live in. None of them would be able to afford to tar their lungs if they actually adhered to that feudal code of honour so often romanticised in the movies.
Now Hikoichi isn’t so far gone that he can’t tell right from wrong any longer but the years spent scraping the bottom of society’s barrel have disabused him of the romantic notions he used to entertain. For Hikoichi, his stint at Taiyo serves not so much to bring about a 180-degree personal transformation but to resuscitate those youthful ideals.
One of the challenges of playing a role like this is portraying the changes the character undergoes in a manner that doesn’t come across as contrived, and this is where Kusanagi shines. There’s no overacting (or shouting, thank god) here. Everything is conveyed in a very muted and understated manner as Hikoichi finds his calcified conscience getting the better of his insouciance. And maybe it’s the actor dipping into his own trove of personal experiences here — you don’t get drunk all by yourself and cause a ruckus in your birthday suit just for the heck of it when you’re a member of the most famous man band in Japan — but there’s also a latent weariness that makes Hikoichi seem that much more real as a character that’s seen it all.
Two other reasons you should watch this drama:
1. Its leading ladies are awesome. Ninkyo Helper gets extra brownie points for giving me not one but two ladies who rock. I don’t need my girls to be aggressive hardasses but as mentioned previously, I do like people who are independent, decisive and pro-active (this goes for the men as well) and Yomogi Riko is all three of these things.
Born into a yakuza family, Riko makes the decision to become its leader when her brother, who was the previous head of the group, dies. What makes her fascinating is the fact that she chooses to succeed her brother to maintain the family’s tradition of electing a successor from within, despite being told that she doesn’t have to do so. It isn’t a decision that she undertakes lightly — she’s fully aware of the discrimination and sexism that exist in their world — but once she makes up her mind, there’s no whining or turning back. She will outperform, out-tough and outlast the rest of them to claim that position. That’s how disciplined, driven and freaking fabulous she is.
This drama has plenty of Awesome Riko moments (the scene where she jumps up to restrain Hikoichi with a walking stick in the first episode is a classic) but this one is just ♥
You do not talk shit to Riko and get away with it.
Girlcrush, activate. RIKO FOR KUMICHO \o/
Adding to the awesome ladies tally is Hatori Akira (Natsukawa Yui), the elegant head of the Heartfull Bird Company, a firm (or rather, one-woman-operation) specialising in elderly care services that Taiyo engages to help it out of its financial funk.
Admittedly, unlike Riko, Akira isn’t a character whom you will root for immediately. One reason for this is that her character development is a little static right now — she’s mostly shown waltzing in and out of Taiyo with her two attendants in tow to dispense her clinical pearls of profit-making wisdom. Also, compared to Rico, Akira is in the less sympathetic position of being the ambitious corporate executive who is so devoted to her job that she has no idea what is going on in her child’s life (though this looks set to change as her plot thread starts kicking into gear.)
However it’s when you see her going head to head with Hikoichi during their many charged encounters that your ambivalence about her character starts to wobble. Flawed though she may be, one thing you can’t fault her for is a lack of steel. She may not throw punches like Riko, but Akira has, like the younger girl, had to make her own way in a male-dominated society and she’ll be damned if she’s going to stand around and let a man tell her how to run her business, yakuza or no.
Whoever decided to cast Natsukawa Yui as Akira made a really good decision. She’s a solid actress with a strong screen presence who gives her character the heft that her lines sometimes lack. Not to mention, her chemistry with Kusanagi BURNS like a house on fire. They’re practically just one barbed insult from ripping each other’s clothes off.
2. The bro-hood of Ryota and Hikoichi will melt even the sternest of hearts. Ryota is Akira’s son, a lonely little boy who’s the frequent target of bullies at school. With no friends or father figure to speak of, he turns to the yakuza films of old (yes, the very kind that Hikoichi scoffs at) to fill the void in his heart.
So you can imagine his delight (and Hikoichi’s dismay) when he finds out that the latter is as true blue a yakuza as they come. And so blossoms an unlikely bro-ship as Ryota follows Hikoichi around like a lost duckling, pleading with the older man to take him on as a disciple. Maybe I’m very easily swayed but his plaintive “Aniki~!” just breaks my heart.
Hikoichi, of course, doesn’t take to this too well and regards him as nothing more than a pest (and perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of what he used to be like in the past) at first. But try as he might to shake him off, Hikoichi is also a man who wears his sakuras on his sleeve and so you know it’s just a matter of time before he allows Ryota to enroll into the Tsubasa School of Tough Love. Lesson #1: Always carry spare change with you because you’re the shatei and it’s your job to make sure your aniki is well-hydrated at all times XD
While Ninkyo Helper is ostensibly a drama about the plight of the elderly in Japan, it’s the acting and the interaction between the characters that drive the show (though this is not to say that the stories about Taiyo’s residents are uninteresting; the first two episodes in particular are very well-written.)
I haven’t finished watching this drama yet and while it’s obvious that Hikoichi is probably going to reconsider his chosen career path at some point, I really do hope that the scriptwriter retains a fair bit of his anti-heroic sensibilities because I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see a character who’s not pure and doggone earnest all the time. Also, right now it looks like the drama is setting up Riko and Akira as rivals for Hikoichi’s affections. I think what’s interesting about this set-up is that it could swing either way, though if you ask me, my money’s on Akira simply because you could light a bonfire with their UST. But we’ll see.
And for all you Ouran fans out there, have an omake.