Time to start the Summer 2014 drama season!

It was an interesting coincidence that I started this blog in the season where NTV began a long string of late-night dramas featuring Johnny’s juniors with Shiritsu Bakaleya Koukou. Since then, I’ve made a point of covering that time slot through strong dramas and weak ones. This season, the new drama in that slot is Kinkyori Renai (近キョリ恋愛), which is a romance drama, and that’s the one kind of story I have the most trouble with. That’s for a number of reasons, including the culture gap between my concept of love and that often found in dramas based on manga (as this one is).

That fair warning aside, there are some reasons I’m looking forward to this drama. Abe Aran-kun proved to be an engaging personality in the otherwise dismal SHARK Season 2, and I would like to see if he is as good an actor as I (and whoever decided to give him his first leading role) think he is. I expect Kishi Yuta-kun, Takahashi Fuu-kun, and Tajima Shogo-kun to bring a lot of energy and humor – something that was sorely lacking Sprout, the only other pure romance in this time slot. This will be Tajima-kun’s first foray in a drama, so we can make an initial assessment.

The drama begins, however, with a much more famous member of the Johnny’s agency – Yamashita Tomohisa-kun. He plays Sakurai Haruka at the age of twenty-seven while Abe Aran-kun plays the same character at seventeen.

We see Haruka as an adult – and an English teacher at that – first.

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He seems to have the complete attention of one half of the student body of the school he works at, which should be a bit uncomfortable . . .

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. . . but then when one of this students asks him – in English – if he’s seeing anyone special, his answer seems to be one of those doki-doki responses. In other words, it appears like he cultivates the attention of girls. Already I feel my stomach churning.

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And I’m not the only one who notices that Haruka has a way with the girls. A male student in his class (we don’t get his name yet) demands some love advice.

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I could probably give him one: don’t refer to yourself as an ikemen unless you’re joking.

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It doesn’t seem like he’s full of himself, though, since he calls himself an idiot in the next breath.

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Haruka tells him that it’s not possible to get into romance (or, I assume, in love) unless you’re an idiot. It was apparently something someone else once told Haruka . . .

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. . . which sounds like a good segue for some reminiscing about the old days . . .

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. . . and a flashback that will actually constitute the main body of the drama. Haruka used to attend the same school in which he works as an adult, and we see that he was quite popular with the girls even back then, but not as suave. They would say “ohayo” to him, and get all excited if he greeted them back.

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The introduction of Kanata (Kishi Yuta) was brilliant – he sneaks up behind Haruka, covers his eyes, and says “ohayo” in a feminine voice, but Haruka knows who it is instantly. We quickly get a good feel for who Kanata is, but I hope he will turn out to be more than just a sidekick to Haruka as the series goes on.

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From a pair of girls, they find out that their childhood friend Mirei (Ishibashi Anna) is about to hear a confession of love from a boy.

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The next scene, in which Haruka and Kanata intervene as Mirei is hearing the request for a date, was a great piece of acting and writing all around in terms of introducing the characters. It’s not an original scene, but it was executed well.

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Mirei has an interesting personality here. On the one hand, she’s legitimately peeved at their interference. On the other, you can tell that there’s a bond between her and them, and there wasn’t any deep resentment despite the faces she made.

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Other girls in class tell her that as long as she has Haruka and Kanata hanging around her, she’ll never get a boyfriend. Well . . . that sort of assumes that neither Haruka nor Kanata would become her boyfriend, and I think we all see a love triangle – or part of a love square – right before our eyes.

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For now, though, Mirei says that Haruka and Kanata don’t see her as a girl.

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The other girls note that Mirei is the only girl Haruka actually speaks to. Sounds like they’re jealous.

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Mirei already likes Haruka here, as we find out when she writes a note to him that she will not send. She acknowledges that this is unrequited love, and considers herself free to have the feelings even if they can never be properly expressed.

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We see a bit of how she normally interacts with her two longtime friends, as she joins them for a game of basketball. This is our first glimpse of Gaito (Tajima Shogo) and Mitsuteru (Takahashi Fuu) as well.

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While Mirei is content to remain in this unstable equilibrium in relation to Haruka for now, a new factor appears that might just through her off the delicate balance, and all the boys in the school rush out to see that factor come on campus (probably because she’s dressed precisely to attract this kind of attention).

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This is the arrival of Ririko (Adachi Rika). Now, I didn’t mention it earlier, but adult Haruka got a message from Ririko saying that she was going to get married, and that was part of what led to this flashback. There was doubtless no shortage of prospective suitors for her hand.

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Ririko is Haruka’s stepsister, but that doesn’t make Mirei feels any better as Ririko rushes up to embrace Haruka.

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Tajima-kun was amusing in this scene, and the acting from Kishi-kun and Ishibashi-san kept a smile on my face as well.

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That’s important, because I already get the feeling I’m going to hate Ririko as a character (and if so, that would be by design – so far the writers have been good about giving us a clear impression of each character).

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Haruka sure doesn’t appreciate Ririko’s manner.

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The writers did force the other characters to spout some exposition to give us a quick summary of the backstory, which is a bit sloppy but acceptable in order to move things along at a decent pace.

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Somebody looks worried:

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According to Ririko, she’s returned to Japan after living in New York because she can’t stand being in a long distance relationship, and wants to be close to whoever she’s with. Sounds like she’s been in a relationship for a while, so how does that fit with the way the story is shaping up?

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Another leg of the love triangle/square starts developing as we see Kanata has a thing for Mirei.

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It’s only a hint, but at least we get this moment between the two of them to show this is not just a Haruka-focused story.

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We haven’t really seen how Haruka is around girls in general, but he’s definitely at ease around Mirei and the opposite with Ririko.

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Haruka gets a message from his mother (in New York) to take care of Ririko – a sentiment he doesn’t really appreciate.

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He’s much happier receiving a call from Mirei. Suddenly, his energy level goes way up.

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With the ring of his doorbell, though, he finds out that he might have to take care of Ririko after all. She shows up asking if she can stay with him – we’ll find out the details in the next episode.

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The pacing of this first episode (always an important thing in a romantic series) was fairly good, but it’s easier to keep things moving quickly when there are introductions involved, so we’ll have to see if it stays this way through the rest of the drama.

The characters were varied and certainly showed a lot more energy than we saw in Sprout, so that bodes well. The three main characters have already showed a thorough mix of introspective moments, comical phases, and energetic bursts, so perhaps we don’t have to worry about them becoming two-dimensional.

We’ve only gotten a first taste of the acting, but I’m satisfied. Abe Aran-kun was both compelling and intense in the lead role, Kishi-kun has the energy and expressiveness that I believe are his best selling points (and which he didn’t really get to show much of in Kamen Teacher), and Ishibashi-san was accessible and credible in her key role, reacting subtly to things. It was sometimes interesting to see the mix of emotions from them (for instance, when Mirei is tearing up while watching the DVD and Kanata reacts to that).

The downside is that I’m a bit worried about the elder Haruka – Yamashita-kun’s part in this – based on the preview for the next episode. There are certain things I’m not interested in seeing trivialized, but I’ll reserve judgment until I see where they’re going with that side of things.

So my ultimate takeaway is that the aspect I was looking forward to – the acting – is still the highlight, but this is still not my kind of story, so I’m not going to make any predictions about the entertainment value of the rest of the series based just on this half hour.