Posted by: asianfilmreviews | September 5, 2009

The Celebrity and Poor Taro (2008)

The Celebrity and Poor TaroThe Celebrity and Poor Taro – セレブと貧乏太郎

Producer: Tsuchiya Ken (土屋健)

Directors: Matsuda Hidetomo (episodes 1-2, 5, 8, and 11), Ishikawa Junichi (石川淳一, episode 3), Sato Genta (佐藤源太, episodes 4, 7, and 10), and Kitagawa Manabu (北川学, episodes 6 and 9)

Cast: Ueto Aya (上戸彩), Kamiji Yusuke (上地雄輔), Kuninaka Ryoko (国仲涼子), Kashiwabara Takashi (柏原崇)

(note: even though this is a Japanese drama, it will still be classified under Japan Film Reviews)

Ok, now THIS is going to be difficult. Anyone who is familiar with Japanese dramas knows that part of the fun of any particular drama (especially the romantic comedies such as this) is realizing that with a multitude of characters through the 9-12 episodes or so, some are bound to fall in love, and yet they never admit it until the next-to-the-last or the very last episode, sometimes in the last 30 minutes of the last episode. So I’m going to attempt to succinctly review this 11-episode drama without giving too much away, hoping that the silly premise of an insanely wealthy socialite befriending a poor-as-dirt nobody will be enough to attract readers to this review and viewers to the drama… because both are very good.

First off, I won’t mince words – I thought this drama was flat out fun. But yes, it is incredibly silly. Singer, actress, and the all around ultra-cute Ueto Aya plays Alice Mitazono, daughter of a wealthy hotel magnate who is herself a successful businesswoman, having started her own popular brand of clothing and fashion accessories (very Japanesely known in the drama as Love Alice). In fact, she’s so successful that her personal wealth is in excess of seven trillion yen. An exaggerated number no doubt, but it serves narratively to separate her from binbo (“poor”) Sato Taro, played by Kamiji Yusuke, who has less than a couple thousand yen to his name and is part of Japan’s working poor – a term which is used to describe individuals who have no steady income and instead have to grab what temporary (often physically demanding or demeaning) jobs they can to make ends meet. Compounding Taro’s situation is that he’s a widowed father with three children to feed!

Because of the night-and-day nature of the the two leads, there is ample room for comedy. Taro is an extremely dedicated and loving father, but because of his status and his work experience, he’s brash and unrefined, without a hint of delicacy or subtlety. Alice, on the other hand, is spoiled, privileged, and wholly egotistical. So the question becomes, are they going to become close acquaintances? Of course! Take a look at their first meeting:

This is one of the tenets of contemporary narrative – opposites make great characters (if they’re portrayed right, preferably as humans with whom we can identify). Think of Riggs and Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon. Not that their relationship is romantic or sexually charged in any way, however. Unless you read some sort of comedic homoeroticism in it. Anyway, in looking for a new job that pays better with the promise of long-term work, Taro applies to be Alice’s limousine driver. Naturally Alice’s servants think he’s a horrible choice, but when Alice decides to take this hiring matter into her own hands, she singles out his application and hires him. It’s not out of infatuation or admiration, but out of a desire to flaunt her wealth and success in front of this nobody, especially after their disastrous first meeting. Only when she sees how content he is with his meager existence and, especially, the love of his good-natured kids does their relationship evolve from employer-employee to a very bizarre sort of friendship. But of course drama relationships or even friendships are never that simple, and all of the above happens in the midst of the sudden return of Alice’s ex-boyfriend, Gotoda (Kashiwabara Takashi), and the increasing closeness between Taro and Sachiko (played by the lovely Kuninaka Ryoko), his childhood friend who has become a sort of mother figure for Taro’s kids.

This is, however, just the basic framework for the 11 episode drama. Outside of the lead characters is a veritable zoo of supporting players. You’ve got Taro’s friends, local business owners who are themselves struggling to make ends meet. There are Alice’s Love Alice employees, most of whom are opportunistic and shallow suck-ups, as well as her personal staff and her power-hungry mother-in-law. Then there are the colorful single episode guests such as the phony biographer (you just have to see it so understand how he fits in) that function as pure plot devices, teaching valuable lessons to the main characters and bringing the overarching story to its next logical point.

I honestly wasn’t sure how I would take this series while watching the first episode. It’s incredibly commercial stuff and just… really fluffy. If it got any lighter or any more idealistic, I might have thrown up. Many of the performances are also pretty hammy and perhaps a little too direct for some, but this is a tradition in Japanese culture and popular culture that stems from traditional theater where performances are more presentational as opposed to representational and, when dealing with film, characters’ feelings and intentions are specifically spelled out (EXCEPT when it comes to love – which is why this drama is 11 episodes and not three or four). But what got me hooked and sort of compelled me to watch (aside from Ueto Aya) is that the first episode firmly places this drama within the context of the recent economic downturn. Much like Tokyo Sonata, The Celebrity and Poor Taro is a dramatization of the effects that a worsening economy and societal expectations can have on individuals. Of course, it goes without saying that the former is a more critical look at those effects whereas the latter foregrounds comedy and romance over any sort of deep examination. So I was curious whether or not the drama would keep this context in mind, and to an extent it does keep it up for the remainder of the series, but like I said before, it is incredibly idealistic. For example, the downtrodden fight back against big business interests not through physical violence, but by getting down on their knees and professing their love for their neighborhood and the importance of local culture, and pep talks on the value of being true to oneself are thrown around like Mardi Gras beads. Luckily, the whole series is also incredibly fun! Ueto Aya no doubt had a great time poking fun at her own image (as well as others like Hamasaki Ayumi, Amuro Namie, and, to a lesser extent if you ask me, Kumi Koda) as a major celebrity and fashion icon and she plays it well. Likewise, Kamiji Yusuke is full of boundless energy as Taro, playing both the loving father and uncouth employee with ease.

So in the end, a grand ol’ time on Japanese television is to be had with The Celebrity and Poor Taro. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll no doubt be ashamed of yourself for having so much fun. Check out a few more spoiler-free clips below for a better sense of the drama’s style. Happy watching!


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