Chumon no Ooi (Around 40)
After watching Around 40, I find myself once again absolutely delighted by the ability of Japanese writers, directors and performers to bring such high standards to their work. This light hearted 11 episode work even manages to make a few cogent observations on the problems of women in the 35-40 years of age range as they try to balance the desire to love and nurture a spouse and children with the desire for a more satisfying and rewarding life outside the home. Or vice-versa, to balance a meaningful career with the desire to give and receive love in the setting of a family and home.
Three women are central to the story. Takeuchi Mizue (played by Matsushita Yuki) is a 39 year old married woman with a son who will be finishing high school in six years. She is so dissatisfied with her husband that she puts herself back into the work market, even against the strong opposition of her husband. Her plan is to establish herself in the work force and then divorce her husband in six years, after her son has graduated. When her son acts out in a very dangerous manner, and her husband reveals he has been laid off, all her plans change and she is forced to re-think her life.
Morimura Nao (played by Otsuka Nene) is a 35 year old single career woman working for a very upscale periodical. Even though she says she will never marry, she goes ahead with an ill-advised decision to marry a very wealthy business man. She would very much like to be a mother, but finds that she cannot conceive. Disillusioned with her life with her husband, she walks away from the marriage, only to discover, quite unexpectedly, that she is pregnant.
Ogata Satoko (played by Amami Yuki) is a highly respected 39 year old psychiatrist, head of the Division of Psychiatry at a Tokyo hospital. She is single and quite happy and satisfied with her lifestyle, despite the urging of her friends that her shelf life for marrying and mothering is quickly running out. She has a wonderfully supportive and loving family life with her father, stepmother, sister, brother in law and niece. Even so, they too worry about her personal life and urge her to look for a husband. She is the titular central female protagonist of the story whose apple cart is tipped over with the arrival of a new clinical psychologist at the hospital.
Okamura Keitaro (played by Fujiki Naohito) is a 33 year old fabulously good-looking clinical psychologist whose arrival at the hospital shakes up the comfort level of Ogata Satoko. He is brilliant at his work, possessing an almost uncanny ability to gain the confidence of his patients. He is also fearless when it comes to pushing the limits of the envelope regarding personal involvement with those patients. Children and teens in particular seem willing to open up and confide in him. He also happens to be obsessive about ecology. He is in bed every night by 10:30 so as to not use too much electricity. He uses permanent and washable chopsticks instead of the disposable type favored by almost every other person in the world. His idea of a date with Ogata Satoko is a trip to a local park at night to clean up trash. The two clash right from the start, but eventually their feelings turn to mutual respect, and despite their age difference and her much higher financial strata, to love.
The favorite hangout for the three central female characters is a western style eating establishment and bar whose most remarkable feature is that there is never anyone in the place except the three women, the bartender (also the chef), and the occasional person who may wander into the orbit of the three women. The bartender/chef is Ohashi Sadao (in a wonderfully understated performance by Tsutsui Michitaka), a lifelong friend and confidant of Morimura Nao. He frequently interjects his objective observations into the women’s conversations. Although they occasionally ignore him, many times his comments are absolutely spot on and cannot be ignored. His role in the show will grow as he sees Nao being mistreated by her husband. Much like the selectively mute bartender in the wonderfully funny J-drama, Hero, he is able to make the most amazing succulent dishes from seemingly nothing.
These three closely knit female friends, all middle aged women, trying to balance careers and love lives, provide the impetus for a funny, touching and heart warming story about life and love in all its wonderfully human ups and downs.
All three very attractive middle aged women . . . oh, hell, forgive my sexism . . . very hot middle aged women are absolutely superb in their roles. With her conservative wardrobe and hair style, Matsushita Yuki is perfect in the role of the middle aged housewife who gets no recognition from her husband and son for what she does for them, and begins a search outside the home for a more fulfilling life experience in the job market. Her husband and son are absolutely clueless regarding her intelligence and capabilities.
There is a very natural beauty and sensuality to Otsuka Nene as the insecure Morimura Nao, who has achieved a great deal in her chosen field, but feels pulled in two directions by her life’s work and what she may be missing out on as a wife and mother. She makes a bad decision to marry, but has the courage to admit her mistake and walk away from a bad relationship, even though, much to her surprise (and the surprise of her husband) she discovers she is pregnant after being told she was infertile.
Although Amami Yuki had been in the acting business for many years, it was not until her award winning performance as Akutsu Maya, the menacing sixth grade teacher in The Queen’s Classroom, that she gained the recognition she so richly deserved as a great actress. That role was a dramatically serious one. In this role, however, she demonstrates a very deft and subtle sense of comedic timing, combined with a wonderful sense of vulnerability. As is always the case, she brings great presence to the role of Ogata Satoko, a 39 year old (40 by the end of the show) psychiatrist who is highly respected by all who know her. It is wonderful to see this quite self-assured and accomplished woman blush and stammer like a schoolgirl while on an outing with Okamura Keitaro.
Fujiki Naohito in the important role of clinical psychiatrist Okamura Keitaro possesses good looks and a boyish charm which work to his advantage. His character is 33, but he appears even younger, which makes the contrast in ages with Ogata Satoko more dramatic. His obsession with ecology is wonderfully funny. He is an accomplished actor, who like his counterpart, possesses excellent comedic timing.
As an aside, Amami Yuki suffered a heart attack at a far too young age in 2013. I am not up on what is going on in her life, but I sincerely hope she has been able to return to acting. If so, Japan is all the richer for it. If not, her wonderful performances will be truly missed.
In summary, Around 40 is an absolute delight, populated by real people with all their very human foibles and faults. It is alternately funny, sad, heartwarming and heartbreaking. The writing and direction are excellent. Performances are also excellent, in paticular Amami Yuki in the pivotal role of Ogata Satoko. As is the case with most Japanese dramas, it is 11 episodes long. Every aspect of the show is good enough that it could easily gone on for many more. Very Highly recommended.