In a season saturated with cop procedurals (my least favourite J-drama genre ever), Kamo, Kyoto e Iku has, much to my surprise, emerged as my shining ray of crack.
I use the word “surprise” because when I skimmed through its synopsis, I thought it was going to be Gokusen set in a ryokan, with genius lady boss winning over her hostile employees one by one with her pluck and unconventional ideas (though after Rich Man Poor Woman, I now take the Todai credentials of J-drama heroines with a huge pinch of salt.) I also wasn’t sure what to expect from Matsushita Nao as I had never seen her in anything before and couldn’t glean much from her appearance on the April 4 VS Arashi special. If anything, she was so low-key there that I wasn’t sure she’d be able to carry this drama on her own. All in all, I didn’t have high hopes for it but decided to check out the first episode anyway to satisfy my inner
It’s a good thing I’m so shallow because I wouldn’t have known how wrong I was about Kamo, Kyoto e Iku otherwise. Nor would I have found out that Matsushita’s character is really a heroine after my own heart.
What is this drama really about?
I’ve seen some people compare this drama to Osen and while they share certain similarities, they are ultimately two different shows. Osen is essentially a food drama that’s set in a traditional restaurant in Tokyo. Aoi Yu was cute as hell as Handa Sen and while she did a fantastic job carrying the drama on her own, the story wasn’t about her but the place of traditional Japanese food pratices in a modern age.
Kamo, Kyoto e Iku, on the other hand, is a story of homecoming and reconciliation. Yes, it offers a glimpse of how ryokans are run but what lies at the heart of this story is Kamo’s estranged relationship with her late mother, caused by the latter’s single-minded devotion to her inn. Growing up with an emotionally absent mother, Kamo has come to resent everything associated with ryokans — Kyoto’s traditions, how her mother and the inn’s waitresses always seem to be on their knees catering to the whims of the inn’s guests, and the menial tasks they have to perform each day. Determined never to be like her mother, she makes the decision to study hard, enroll in the University of Tokyo and get a job where she’s the one giving orders, not the other way round.
Her departure is both a physical and symbolic one. When we first see Kamo, she’s ditched her accent and reinvented herself as a member of Tokyo’s elite. If not for her name, which is one of the few things that tie her back to her hometown, you probably wouldn’t think she was from Kyoto.
You can take the girl out of Kyoto but can you take Kyoto out of the girl?
However much she resents her mother, there are still certain duties that Kamo can’t ignore and when the older woman dies, she is obliged to return to Kyoto for the first time in ten years. When she realises that she’s inherited Ueba-ya, her mother’s debt-ridden ryokan, her first instinct is to sell it. After all, why would she want to hang on to the one thing that she hates more than anything else in the world? However a conversation with a friend makes her reconsider her plans. If she can reverse Ueba-ya’s financial fortunes by running it herself, wouldn’t it be proof that her mother was wrong about her not being able to handle the work at the ryokan? So Kamo, sets about introducing various cost-cutting measures to pull the inn out of its rut, and you can just imagine how popular that makes her with her employees.
In her zeal to erase the memory of her mother’s stinging remark (and show off her budgeting skills as a Ministry of Finance official), she overlooks the fact that the way of Corporate Japan is not always for everyone. Her reforms, though well-meaning, regard things solely from a dollar-and-cents perspective, ignoring the relationships that the inn has built with various merchants and artisans, as well as the intangibles that make Ueba-ya what it is. To Kamo, its fussy customs and rules — which she’s loathed since young — are outdated in a modern world. Who’s going to notice if the flowers used in an arrangement are artificial or real? But as Minegishi, the elderly manservant points out, taken on their own, these details might not contribute much to a guest’s overall experience but there’s a reason the inn’s owners have been observing these traditions for the past two hundred years. Getting rid of them is easy but will she end up losing something far more important in the process?
And so begins Kamo’s journey as an okami. As I mentioned earlier, this drama isn’t about Kamo winning over the ryokan’s disgruntled employees. Rather, it’s about her getting to know her mother, a woman she never understood, through the work that the latter used to do and the guests she encounters. It’s a steep and often humbling curve for Kamo, who soon learns that there’s more to the job than meets the eye, and while she might not realise it, it’s clear to the veteran employees at Ueba-ya that she is her mother’s daughter. They share, for example, the same work ethic and despite Kamo’s initial hiccups, similar views regarding the concept of hospitality.
What’s at the end of the road for Ueba-ya?
I am glad that this drama has chosen to focus on Kamo’s journey as an okami and kept the business acquisition sub-plot in the background. However with the revelation of how Kinugawa Shuhei (Shiina Kippei), the consultant tasked with getting Kamo to sell Ueba-ya, is connected to the ryokan, this part of the story has now taken an interesting turn. What is his agenda? Why would he want to help a foreign hotel chain take over a place that he holds so dear to his heart?
I am also intrigued by his relationship with Umegaki Suzuka (Wakamura Mayumi), the head of the okami association. She clearly knows him from way back but for some reason, Shuhei doesn’t recognise her at all (or if he does, he’s doing a great job playing dumb.) What does she know that we don’t? Does her interest in him stem from an unrequited affection or does she know what he’s actually up to? It’s hard to tell with such an enigmatic woman.
I’ll confess that I didn’t think much of the supporting cast at first and as such, wasn’t expecting them to form such a cohesive ensemble. Even though the drama doesn’t delve into most of their back stories, they come across as real characters and not mere spectators waiting in the background to deliver their lines (which, incidentally, is one of my criticisms about Osen — the supporting characters were weakly drawn and I hated Uchi Hiroki’s character.) The actors and actresses playing Ueba-ya’s employees have created a very believable world and while Shiina Kippei may not be most fangirls’ idea of a leading man, he’s a very effective character actor who reels you in with his charm as the mysterious Shuhei. If this were a K-drama, we’d be seeing a lot of bickering between him and Kamo before they inevitably fall in love. In this case though, apart from the fact that they’re both trying to take advantage of each other, their relationship is far less straightforward and it’s anybody’s guess how Shuhei really feels about her.
What I can say with a fair degree of certainty though is that she’s unlikely to end up with Kyosuke (Daito Shunsuke) simply because he needs to
grow a pair man up first before he has any business courting her. Daito explains their relationship pretty well (many thanks to Ichigo Kurimu for providing the translation here. I love that he’s so honest about Kyosuke being “kind of useless” XD) and while I do enjoy watching Kamo bully him (if only I had a Kyosuke on my speed dial as well *sigh*) their little moments together, I too would like to see him be more than her dogsbody and, er, surrogate girlfriend.
That said, I’m not really bothered if Kamo doesn’t end up with anyone at the end of the show because this drama isn’t about having it all. In fact, forcing a romance to happen at this point would not only be contrived as hell, but it would also suggest that her success isn’t complete unless she has a man in her life. SHOW, YOU HAVE BEEN DOING SO WELL. PLEASE DO NOT GO THERE.
As I mentioned earlier, I started watching this drama for shallow reasons but am now committed to finishing it because of my girl crush on Kamo, which I did not see coming at all. I will confess that I find the portrayal of a lot of so-called “strong female characters” in Asian dramas slightly off-putting. It’s as if to be seen as “strong” or “real”, a woman has to behave belligerently, act like a slob and/or be a tomboy. (Note: I have nothing against people behaving like tomboys but I don’t buy the suggestion that a character is strong just because she behaves like one.) What I like about Matsushita’s portrayal of her character is that even though Kamo has a forthright and stubborn personality, she isn’t obnoxious. She may have her differences with Shuhei and her staff but she always carries herself with dignity and grace.
I’ve lost count of the number of Japanese dramas portraying women as marriage-hungry individuals, so without giving too much away, episode 5 was a breath of fresh air and (I thought) very nicely executed. <spoiler> Her rejection of her fiance’s proposal symbolises two things: a) that she finally understands the extent of her mother’s own sacrifices and b) the reversal of her initial attitudes. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t ever want to get married — it’s obvious that her decision wasn’t an easy one — but that she is making the commitment to stay in Kyoto, a place she always thought she hated, to continue her mother’s work. Whoever she marries will need to understand what being an okami means and more importantly, be okay with it. And if I’m not reading the signs wrong, this drama’s already given us hints as to who this person might actually be. </spoiler>
A City in Bloom
Among the directors helming this drama are Nagayama Kozo, a veteran who’s been involved in many of the last two decades’ hits (e.g. Soredemo Ikite Yuku, Love Generation and Long Vacation) and Namiki Michiko (Saikou no Rikon, Soredemo Ikite Yuku). I’m no film expert but while watching the drama, I did notice how certain scenes had been filmed to show instead of tell. Also if nothing else, this has to be one of the year’s prettiest dramas, though I don’t think you can do any wrong when you’re shooting in Kyoto at the height of cherry blossom season.
Kamo, Kyoto e Iku’s ratings haven’t been stellar and frankly, I’m not surprised because it isn’t the kind of drama that’s ever going to be a runaway hit, no matter how much is spent on the costumes and props. The plot, if you want me to be honest, treads familiar ground and I’m not sure its subject matter is one that appeals to many. That said, if you enjoy stories about intelligent, entrepreneurial women and you like your dramas acted with heart, then please consider giving Kamo a chance. The first episode is a little slow but the pace does pick up once it gets past setting up the story.
I’m going to leave you with the PV of Shiina Ringo’s Irohanihoheto, the theme song for this drama. I was indifferent to it at first but it’s really grown on me these past six weeks and I hope y’all enjoy it too!