Review of the Japanese drama We Married as a Job!
Cherish Watton recently published an insightful piece on the representation of gender dynamics in the ITV historical drama, Victoria. Although I have not yet watched the drama, Cherish argues that Victoria is a nostalgic work rather than a historical documentary. In other words, the compromised representation of Queen Victoria as a female sovereign and the flattening of American feminist Lucretia Mott is reflective of our inability to accept female agency in popular culture. It is on these grounds that I analyse the Japanese drama, 逃げるは恥だが役に立つ (We Married as a Job!), with this article forming a cross-cultural dialogue with Cherish’s review. It should be said, however, that due to my limited understanding of Japanese culture, my analysis stems from a Taiwanese perspective; further, I ought to stress that the hyperbolic representations characterizing this drama are not realistic reflections of contemporary Japanese society.
The drama starts with the dismissal of Moriyama Mikuri – whose graduate degree in psychology and psychological practitioner qualifications have amounted to only contract positions in a run-of-the-mill Japanese corporation. Unemployed, Mikuri subsequently works as a cleaning lady for Tsuzaki Hiramasa, an introverted engineer in a high-tech company. Mikuri’s caretaking and her gentle personality impress Hiramasa, and for the first time Mikuri feels satisfied and gratified by her employer. In order to extend the employment contract, Mikuri boldly proposes a marriage contract to Hiramasa – in the name of marriage, she would provide the domestic service in exchange for monthly payment and permanent abode. After calculating the cost of dining out and the accompanying health issues, Hiramasa agrees to Mikuri’s marriage proposal. Her story unfolds, as the patient and gentle Mikuri guides the inexpressive Hirasama from a strictly professional to spousal relationship.
The drama was warmly received in Japan, and Chinese-speaking audiences gave positive feedback. In some of the Sinophone online news media, the drama is dubbed a ‘re-imagination of marriage’, which reveals ‘the economic value of women’s unpaid housework’.
Unanimously, reviewers observe that the drama exposes to audience that marriage is nothing more than a legal and economic contract, between men and women. Still, this perhaps does not account for the ways in which We Married as a Job! places cliché subjects within contemporary Japanese subtext. For those who are not familiar with contemporary Japanese popular culture, the word 草食男子 (literally ‘herbivore men’) was coined by 深澤 真紀, a Japanese essayist in 2006. The term refers to contemporary Japanese young males who have little desire for forming a relationship – or even sex in general. ‘Herbivore men’ invest most of their time and money into their hobbies, which is why they are sometimes associated with ‘otaku’ – the Japanese for ‘geek’. A complicated social phenomenon in itself, the decrease of Japanese men’s carnal appetite is mainly attributed to the long-term economic recession. Since capitalism relies precisely on stimulating desire, the decrease of purchasing power leads to the generation of little desire.
As such, the inarticulate and de-sexualised Hirasama forms a sharp contrast with the charming Lord Melbourne and the eloquent Albert, portrayed in Victoria. The seemingly unflattering character of Hirasama nevertheless proves attractive to Mikuri. Since not only men but also women are affected by the economic recession, the Japanese woman’s ideal husband has also changed. It has gone from involving ‘three highs’ (high degree, high salaries, and high figure) to ‘three averages’ (average appearance, average salary, and average temperament). Men who fulfill these three averages are said to provide more security than outstanding men. Therefore, in the eyes of Mikuri, Hirasama is more attractive than her suitor, Kazami Ryota, who is arguably better looking and possesses more social skills.
This altered, masculine ideal opens up the possibility for different gender relations. Inversely correlated to the growth of herbivore men, Japanese women become more ‘carnivorous’: that is, acting as the pursuer in the relationship. However, the drama doesn’t quite fulfil its potential when it comes to representing these power dynamics. Despite Mikuri being the lead, she must not be domineering. Her agency is compromised because Hiramasa is the only breadwinner in the household. As such, Mikuri has to put up with Hiramasa’s emotional distance, and persistently attempt to communicate. As a qualified psychological practitioner, Mikuri rarely loses control of her temper but rather seeks an effective method of communication when she is frustrated with Hirasama. When Mikuri is upset with Hiramasa’s rejection, her anger can only be dissipated when she fantasizes about angry outbreaks. Instead of a spouse, Mikuri becomes more of a mother-like figure who carefully nurtures Hiramasa’s life from preparing the food, taking care of his health, to helping him develop social skills with others.
The excessive demand on women as the nurturers in the household is nevertheless cleverly naturalised by the scriptwriter. The director also use Hiramasa’s interior monologue to make him a sympathetic character – implying to the audience that his distant attitude towards Mikuri is due only to his natural shyness and should be understood as a positive character. The sociable Kazami is implied as a shallow womanizer whereas Hirasama is a silent yet reliable man, the true Mr. Right for Mikuri. The appreciation of alternative masculinity, however, becomes suspicious considering that communication problems between the housewives and the silent husbands tired from long hours working are the main cause for divorce in contemporary Japanese society. Moreover, communication is by definition a two-way process, and women certainly should not take up the responsibility alone.
Primarily, We Married as a Job! takes discussions about traditional gender roles (such as women’s housework), and places them within the framework of contemporary Japanese society in new and thoughtful ways. When men increasingly depart from the traditional masculine ideal, the husband-wife relationship becomes conflated with a mother-son relationship. However, my analysis shows that the phallocentric construction of power and economics remains unchallenged – men remain at the center of the relationship and women continue to play an auxiliary role. The popularity of this drama in Japan and Chinese-speaking areas, I would argue, reflects a nostalgic longing for traditional gendered division of labour in a self-conceived postfeminist age, while true gender equality still has a long way to go.