I think I’m sensing a pattern here.
I wasn’t planning to watch this drama at all because a) its title gave me hives and b) the nine episodes of Rooftop Prince that I watched pretty much filled my quota of the bratty-chaebol-meets-poor-plucky-heroine romance trope for the rest of the year.
And that, I thought, was that till I came across various bloggers talking about the cliffhanger at the end of episode 1, plus random speculation about Ishihara Satomi’s character not being all that she appeared to be. So curiosity piqued, it was with extremely low expectations that I watched the first episode, and then the next and well…it’s been a while since Shut Up Flower Boy Band but boy am I glad to have another drama that fills me with glee again. *Mild spoilers ahead*
What is this drama about?
Oguri Shun plays Hyuga Tohru, the hotshot co-founder of Next Innovation, a tech startup that made its fortune in mobile games (specifically selling virtual goods to gamers.)
As you can imagine, he’s brash, cocksure and maddeningly full of himself — just think of him as a cross between Tony Stark and Mark Zuckerberg — but as an old dude once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” and let’s just say Hyuga is pretty damn powerful. I mean, just take a look at those arms..and those shoulders. Mmm… *___________*
Disclosure: I will grant you that Shun has talent and all but I have to confess that he has never done anything for me, looks wise. However this drama is starting to change the way I look at him. God knows how much I want to drag him by his tie to a dark corner. (Too bad Shun’s married…LOL) I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who wants to have my way with him.
Anyways, Hot Ass Hyuga is not without his eccentricities and the one that gives him the biggest headache is his inability to remember faces and names, save one (we’ll get to this in a bit.) I wonder if he’s ever tried to hit on an ex-girlfriend before. I can imagine that would be all kinds of awkward (not to mention hilarious XD)
Luckily for him, Fate sends him help in the form of one…well, let’s just call her Sawaki Chihiro (Ishihara Satomi) for now. Chihiro is the titular “poor woman”, a Todai grad who, like many others, is a casualty of the weak economy.
While her degree would have opened doors without her having to lift a finger more than a decade ago, these days, being a graduate of a prestigious university is no longer that big a deal. As she trudges from one recruitment interview to the next, Chihiro finds herself despairing, till she comes across a magazine profile of Hyuga…
I don’t think it requires any stretch of the imagination for you to guess that she eventually ends up working for him. She has something he needs — a memory like a Xerox machine, which proves extremely useful when it comes to memorising large volumes of data and remembering his business clients’ names — and he can give her something that she wants i.e. a job. The fact that he’s insufferably hot is, of course, a bonus.
So far so rom-com, right? The thing about romantic comedies is that they tend to follow a very similar trajectory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I think many (myself included) get a kick out of watching the down-on-her-luck heroine take the arrogant male hottie down a peg or two, as well as seeing the sparks fly between them. Because they are so formulaic, however, it’s also very easy for them to become a mediocre ‘romance-by-the-numbers’ dreckfest. Many dramas and movies of this genre are just an excuse to pair two good looking people on screen or boost an actress’s listless career (yes, I’m looking at you, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker), and the plot is often so flimsy and threadbare that it doesn’t even bother to hide the machinations of the script.
Done well, however, a rom-com can be good fun and Rich Man, Poor Woman has been very entertaining so far. You’ve probably come across people describing Rich Man, Poor Woman as a Japanese rom-com with K-drama vibes and it’s not hard to see why. It has a structure similar to the first-lead-second-lead one that you often find in Korean dramas. However Rich Man, Poor Woman has improved the formula by a) featuring a female lead who isn’t naïve to the point of stupidity (I would also like to thank the writer for not making her a vegetable seller who has no goals or ambitions), b) having fewer episodes than the standard K-drama 16 or 20, which (hopefully) means less filler, and c) having an actual plot that doesn’t just bank on the romance between Shun and Ishihara’s characters. There is a genuine story at the heart of this drama and their relationship, if it actually gets that far and develops into rabu, is just one part of it.
Unlike say Rooftop Prince, where the corporate shenanigans were a plodding mess created for the purpose of throwing obstacles in the way of the main characters, the business aspect of this story is very much an integral part of the plot. For someone who can’t remember much of his past save his mother’s name, Next Innovation is just about the only identity that Hyuga has. Or to put it another way, everything that he has, he owes to the success that he has achieved through the company.
Hyuga is arrogant, yes, but he has, in a way, earned the right to be cocky — He isn’t like the average K-drama chaebol who’s born with a silver spoon up his ass; Next Innovation is what it is because of his vision and hard work. Hyuga isn’t just talk. When push comes to shove, he’s able to roll up his sleeves, get his hands dirty and show people why he’s got everyone talking about him. I like that this drama doesn’t take the easy way out by slapping a “genius” label on him but actually shows him working and being stumped by problems he encounters.
In the eyes of Japanese society, Hyuga is a rebel who has defied all its conventions and his success is a subtle indictment of the system that has spawned thousands of unemployed graduates. By all accounts, Chihiro should be the one with the cushy job, not the high school grad who probably can’t even remember what he had for dinner the night before. But as they say, the times they are a changin. The system that served the country so well during its bubble economy days is now in need of a makeover, except that the powers that be don’t seem to realise this.
On another note, I wonder if the drama is trying to make a point, via Chihiro’s ability to memorise large volumes of data, about how the exam-oriented education system has produced rote learners who score well in tests but are unable to handle the curveballs they encounter in the real world. Chihiro, for example, goes to more than 30 of these recruitment sessions without much success even though she follows the instructions provided in her job-hunting guidebooks religiously. It’s only when she deviates from the straight and narrow that she is rewarded with a foot in the door at Next Innovation.
But back to Hyuga and the real reason I’m tuning in to this drama every week. As much as I find the chemistry between him and Chihiro cute, it’s the brewing conflict between him and his co-founder, Asahina Kosuke (Arata) that I’m more interested in.
I will confess now that Asahina is the character that I find most intriguing in this drama (it also helps that Arata is a very nuanced actor.) I don’t see him as a villain nor do I think he’s a scheming opportunist who’s just waiting to stab Hyuga in the back. What I see is a man who is becoming increasingly discontented with his role, a problem that is further exacerbated by their differing visions for the company: Asahina wants Next Innovation to be the best tech company in Japan; Hyuga wants it to be the best company it can be.
Asahina is an interesting guy because he is a man who’s caught in the middle of his desires. On the one hand, he wants to be a rebel and break free from the shackles that govern corporate Japan. That is why he quit his job to launch Next Innovation with Hyuga in the first place — because unlike the rest of his colleagues, he could look past the young man’s scruffy appearance and see the potential of his ideas. No doubt it was a huge risk for Asahina but it was also his chance to achieve something for himself instead of spending the rest of his life as a suited corporate drone.
Their partnership in the company’s early years was a success because they complemented each other so well. What many, including the snotty programmer in episode 3, don’t realise is that it takes more than creative talent to run a business. Hyuga is a talented programmer, yes, but he has a brash personality that doesn’t endear him to investors. Asahina, on the other hand, knows how to play the corporate game and with his experience and Todai credentials, he’s able to give companies the confidence to invest in their startup as well.
The scene between Asahina and the programmer is my favourite by far, not least because of Arata’s performance here. That little flash you see in his eyes as the latter confronts him about why he chooses to work in the shadows is a really nice little piece of acting from Arata. The programmer has clearly struck a raw nerve and as Asahina listens to his ex-employee insult him, you get a brief glimpse of a very different man — someone who isn’t the harmless, affable second-in-command that everyone seems to think he is.
(Btw, I was rolling my eyes when the arrogant little swot told Asahina he was just Hyuga’s cowardly sidekick. Bitch, please. STFU. Just wait till you start looking for investors. You’ll wish you had a partner with a similar background and business acumen. Man, I wish Chihiro hadn’t been so quick to help him. He should have been left to stew in his circumstances for a while.)
Whether or not you want to take the programmer’s words at face value is up to you, but I personally think he’s forgetting one crucial detail: Not everyone can (or wants to) be the public face of a company. In fact, some people actually prefer working in the background. The reason Asahina does so is not because he lacks ambition (if that was the case, he wouldn’t have quit his job in the first place) but because his personality makes him better suited to the role. Unlike Hyuga, he doesn’t, as he openly admits to his sister, have the charisma or force of personality that makes his co-founder such an attractive media magnet.
Earlier, I said that Asahina is a man caught in the middle of his desires. While he has a rebellious streak in him, he is also someone who has spent a considerable period of time working in the system. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, he has been conditioned by the environment that he wants to get away from, and this is obvious from his plans for the company. His idea of success is one that is crouched in the language of corporate Japan i.e. he wants Next Innovation to be a “first class” Japanese tech company, and he wants Hyuga to be the kind of charismatic and “ruthless” mogul who is respected — and feared — by his subordinates. And this is why he isn’t keen on the idea of Hyuga looking for his mother because of the impression it might give their rivals (i.e. that he is weak and emotionally vulnerable.)
That said, the fact that everyone regards him simply as Hyuga’s “sidekick” or “number two”, despite the fact that he shares equal status with Hyuga as a co-founder, is starting to rankle the older man. It’s clearly fueling his growing disenchantment with the company and it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen next, though I would like to believe that despite what his solitary angst-filled moments in the office may suggest, he still has a lot of respect for his partner. I think the simple solution would be for Hyuga to acknowledge Asahina’s abilities instead of taking it for granted that the latter will always be around to do what he has to do for the company. It’s just as Chihiro points out to him in episode 3 — he is someone everyone looks up to and admires, and just a simple word of encouragement from him can make a huge difference to them. The problem of course is that Hyuga doesn’t tend to notice these things on his own so let’s hope that someone else picks up on Asahina’s unhappiness soon.
As far as dramas go, Rich Man, Poor Woman has been very promising and watchable so far. I like its brisk pace and I’m glad the drama didn’t drag out Chihiro’s lie needlessly. The fact that she was outed so early means that it can concentrate on the developments that matter. Of course, we are not at the halfway mark yet so there’s still a chance that the story could go pear-shaped midway through. That said, I hope it doesn’t squander its potential because this story does have a number of interesting plot threads to develop:
• I think it will be interesting to see how Asahino’s relationship with Chihiro develops from here on. Does he, for example, view her as a threat, someone he can manipulate, or an ally? He’s always been very nice to her but has this all just been an act? If this were a standard K-drama, he’d have a more clear-cut role as the devious second lead who falls for the girl. But I’m glad that Rich Man, Poor Woman has left things ambiguous in this case. It’s a lot more fun when you’re not always 100 percent sure about a character’s motives.
• There’s also the on-going mystery of Hyuga’s mother: why doesn’t she want to see her son? (It had better not be a lame-o reason, is all I’m sayin’) Perhaps of more interest: What is Asahina going to do with the dirt he’s collecting on her?
• Aibu Saki’s character: I want to like Yoko and I do like her sunny, go-getting personality but I gotta say her character is the least developed of the main cast. Facts so far: 1) We know she’s an up-and-coming chef who used to work in the States. 2) We know that her male subordinate has a bone to pick with her because he’s a sexist loser. 3) She and Hyuga had a one-night stand nine years ago and she still has the hots for him. And the thing about meeting up once a year at the train station had me facepalming. Really? Once a year? That’s your claim on him? (this is *so* K-drama) 4) She is Asahina’s sister. I have no idea where they are going with #2 — either fire the bastard or do something about him.
And I don’t buy #3 at all, unless there’s more to their encounter that the drama isn’t telling us. Aibu’s chemistry with Shun is barely hot enough to melt ice and the idea of a woman pining for a man she met briefly so many moons ago is one that my cold, cynical heart finds hard to accept. Lady, ever thought about moving on?
• The preview for Episode 5 does raise questions about Asahina’s loyalty to the company. $64 million-question: Is he going to betray Hyuga? (God, I hope not. That would be such a dumb thing to do.)
In sum, if you’re looking for a light and zippy (but not brain dead) rom-com this summer, Rich Man, Poor Woman is well worth a try. [ETA: I’m afraid that my enthusiasm for this drama didn’t last beyond four episodes as my two other posts on RMPW will illustrate, so please ignore the part about it being “not brain dead” because it does hemorrhage brain cells as the story progresses. However if you’re picking this up for Shun, I guess you won’t have much to complain about…]
Related Post: Rich Man, Poor Woman Eps 5-7