Almost a decade after its production, I get to watch Orange Days. A pretty popular drama, I bet, judging from the amount of love showered to this series. If you look for its review, pages and pages of it will pop up, nearly all raving it as one of their all-time favorites. While I understand why they feel that way, I beg to differ.
Here I’ll discuss why the magic failed to entrance me. It did have spark, but soon flickered and withered. Let’s start where it all began…
A princess was musically talented, loved by many; she studied in Julliard and performed on vast grand stage under huge bright spotlights. The privilege was snatched when she lost nearly all of her hearing abilities due to a rare illness. She was 17 then.
Now, the 21-year-old dethroned princess lives a quiet life in Japan, communicates through sign language, and needs classmates’ help with the lecture materials. Life sounds difficult, but she’s holding up just fine. Seemingly. She has one friend only, Akane (Shiraishi Miho), who has befriended her since high school. She can lip-read, but only a fraction of people can sign. She builds impenetrable thick wall around her through her refusal to speak and her ill-mannered attitude towards others. And her name is Sae (Shibasaki Kou).
That’s our lead girl. Cold, rude, cranky, and difficult. The portrayal makes her not likeable, but she’s conditioned in a way that will make viewers root for her. That her strong front is a façade to her vulnerability. She faces identity crisis. She no longer has the confidence to stand before a crowd like she used to as she gets a feeling that people are mocking her inability to hear and speak. She too keeps wondering “why me?” – why her when there are lots of other people who are far less talented and significant whom it could’ve happened to? Music is her lifeblood, but she’s on the brink of giving up.
However, she’s such a lucky girl that many people are there to support her through the dark times. Maho, a member of sign language club, is assigned to assist her, who in turn asks Kai (Tsumabuki Satoshi), her boyfriend of three years, who also happens to be able to sign, to help her out with the task. The favor that she might regret later on. Unbeknownst to Maho, Sae knew Kai beforehand thanks to her violin. (Which then brings her to know Kai’s two buddies, and two plus three* they become Orange Society. With whom she gets to experience best moments of college life, friendship, and love.)
*Is five (two girls three guys) the magic number in Japanese youth dramas? Because ProDai and HachiKuro
(and to a certain extent HanaDan) also used this combination, whose stories also revolved around college life, love triangles, and enviable friendship. The bond and depiction are so warm and genuine they never fail to make me covetous.
Not only does Maho’s request bring Kai-Sae closer but also endangers her relationship with Kai. Not because Kai’s unfaithful or swayed, but she’s burned with jealousy. It’s a natural reaction if your guy goes all-out on another girl – feverishly defends her, covers for her acts of misconduct, swoops in to save the day, and even sides with her against you. And because Kai’s such a nice boy-next-door guy and Maho isn’t the mean girl you’d wanna punch in the face, there must be way to break their tie clean without making Sae the instigator. Although she’s undeniably the root of the problem.
I like when characters are placed on grey-zone rather than black and white. Because everyone has their good and bad sides. So we get to judge/like/dislike a persona by their action and behaviour rather than their character. That would mean/source less angst, conflict, and drama, but it’s more realistic that way.
Backtracking, sweet Akane, cheerful Keita (Eita), and flamboyant Shouhei (Narimiya Hiroki) round up the group of Sae’s benefactors. They are so empathetic and considerate they’d strive to make things easier for her and do something with her best interest in mind. They all learn sign language so they can interact with her, and agree to use it as much as possible when she’s around so she doesn’t feel left out. Even Shouhei once wishes he knew more of it so he could talk more to her.
However, the problem isn’t with him or them, it’s hers. Usually people with disability long to be seen and treated as normal. But she deliberately alienates herself from society by relying solely on hand gestures as a means of communication. She doesn’t mind others signing to her – and questions why Kai for a moment doesn’t – despite her perfect ability to lip-read. Her resistance to step up the ladder when others have gone down to her level is a bummer.
It’s not as if she cannot do it, she merely refuses to. She isn’t deaf from birth she sure knows – or knew – the sound in this world; she just cannot enjoy the privilege anymore. Yet she gets defensive when Maho encourages her to talk again without knowing the backstory of what caused her mutism in the first place. I was thus enthralled when Kai points out Sae’s selfishness, thinking only of herself and wallowing in self-pity, tells her straight to the face that “others also have emotions, situations and their own problems. We all have hard lives, not just you!” Darnit it’s so spot-on it must’ve hurt being told that.
Alas, it isn’t a strong enough force to blow her off. She remains voiceless – I wish there’d be a pressing situation that spurs her to talk – for far too long the momentum is eventually lost. Another beef I have is OD’s lack of character development – except for Shouhei. Sae continues being the immature, mulish, irascible brat who makes one-sided decision and does what pleases her. Kai puts up with whatever action and choice Sae makes, backs her wholeheartedly, and is always the one who initiates rapprochement. And a third party is always necessary to step in and clear up misunderstandings between the two.
Which leads me to the next beef – my biggest pet peeve actually. I can see why a character likes another except Kai to Sae. Kai’s benignity, astounding patience-meter, and earnestness is so apparent and palpable it’s so obvious that Sae would fall for him. Akane’s attraction towards Shohei is comprehensible, also what makes Shouhei have eyes for her. Let’s just skip Keita’s initial crushes on both girls as it’s soon dropped. But the reason – logical or illogical – why and when Kai starts to develop romantic feelings towards Sae is utterly unrealistic. I still can’t buy it.
We viewers can sense if the characters have chemistry or if they’re better as lovers or friends or brother-sister. I don’t see a spark in Kai-Sae’s relationship – they look great as friends, but unconvincing as lovers. And although I didn’t initially welcome it (because Shouhei blatantly hits on Akane despite knowing his buddy Keita develops a deep crush on her first), Shouhei-Akane’s pairing offers a much cuter and more interesting storyline to follow – stabler, more mature, more honest, built on trust commitment. I got giddy during the courtship and felt fuzzy throughout.
Fortunately, romance isn’t everything OD was all about. As seniors, they have to discover what to do after graduating and deal with adulthood and the corollaries it may have on kinship and current attachment. In addition to one’s backstory and conditions outside campus. Each aspect was portrayed so believably it’s easy to relate. Another thing that OD did well was its ability to end every episode on a high note. That no matter what happens in the middle, how draggy and boring it can get, it invariably picks up right at the end.
I’d groan as the orange falls into Kai’s hand because I so wanna know what happens next. Every closing scene got your one foot on a boat when somebody yells, “CUT! Let’s stop here and continue tomorrow.” Scrambling to play the next episode, my mind would stay occupied for several minutes before tuning out and got bored by subplots that overcomplicate the situation.
As for impersonations, this drama cannot be used to accurately justify the actors’ current capability as it’s shot way back in 2004. However, I can tell that Tsumabuki Satoshi is a naturale. There’s such an effortlessness in his acting that his eyes sparkled when he spoke and even a slight twitch on his face conveyed meaning. Eita also personified Keita well that his bubbliness didn’t feel fake or overacted. I haven’t checked out their more recent works though. Shiraishi Miho was so-so, and I never quite like Narimiya Hiroki’s acting.
Shibasaki Kou was the weak of the bunch. I do commend her and everyone’s effort to learn sign language that it seemed like second-nature, but she had difficulties to emote well nonverbally. It’s always the same expression – pouting, brows furrowed, lips pursed – as if she focused too much on regurgitating the hand movements she forgot to work on her expression lines. And when Sae does smile, her happiness and perkiness isn’t natural. That being said, she did well in Galileo (2007 drama) and Ooku (2010 movie), so the Shibasaki Kou we saw here was just her younger and less inexperienced self.
Orange Days is a light, laid-back series; nothing’s too serious or dramatic here, if not flat. It’s not really about overcoming adversity, but doing something with what you have to the best of your ability. Not necessarily a feel-good drama, but was gorgeously filmed. Its relatively slow pace, mundane plot, and winding roads the leads gotta travel to reach finish line might as well drive you bonkers. If you can get past those, OD can be enjoyed leisurely without much thought. To its credit, OD is a good media to learn Japanese as the characters drawl out their speech and enunciate word-by-word whilst signing.
Cast: Tsumabuki Satoshi, Shibasaki Kou, Narimiya Hiroki, Shiraishi Miho, Eita
Genre: J-Dorama, Youth romance drama (11 Episodes)