Atelier – Netflix & Fuji Television Original Series (Japan, 2015)

Atelier was a one season fling, 13 episodes of roughly 45 minutes each, produced in collaboration by Fuji Television and Netflix. On the surface, Atelier is a whimsical scripted drama about a fresh faced young woman, Mayuko (Mirei Kiritani) working for an intimidating boss, the magisterial craftswoman President Nanjo (Mao Daichi), at a custom lingerie boutique named Emotion. A parallel storylines involves Atelier’s two other designers, Mizuki (Wakama Sakai) and Fumika (Maiko), both occuping that that undefined place between youth and middle aged, a space as awkward as Mayuko’s coming of age. By the end of the series, anxieties concerning the nature of ageing and one’s legacy are as central as the questions of youth and middle age, making this series particularly compelling to women at all stages of life.

Called simply Underwear in Japan, Atelier is ultimately about much more than underwear and the Tokyo fashion scene. Throughout the season, Atelier reveals its layers and the ultimate message of values and deeper lessons on social responsibility and what it means to act with propriety in business and personal relations in contemporary Japan. Western audiences may be surprised by the code of the Japanese workplace and its inoculation against the culture of disruption and arrogance of inexperience. From the elegant manner in which business cards are exchanged to simple greetings and honorifics, Confucian ritual and tradition endure. Yet, boundaries are crossed and honor risked around the questions of how Emotion and President Nanjo remain relevant in the “numbers game” of sales while preserving their legacy and, hence, her dignity. Do the younger designers stand a chance of realizing their own self-actualization and get away with breaking tradition? This question keeps viewers engaged throughout the thirteen episodes in an editing style that is slower paced than similar western dramas.

In our age of corporate malfeasance and political scandal, Atelier is refreshing in its innocence and likable characters, free of the vapidity of celebritism and overt sexualility. As a rookie employee in the fashion world, “Mayu-chan” goes to work neatly attired but in a bland style more akin to school uniforms. She learns from her faux pas, becoming instantly sympathetic to any young tomboy who has had to adjust to a more grown up environment after graduation. The initially mysterious President Nanjo bears a surface resemblance, in her perfectly bobed harido and oversized sunglasses, to Anna Wintour, but under Nanjo’s initially gruff exterior lies a determined mentor to her young understudy. Nanjo’s backstory unfolds gradually, climaxing in the arrival of a lost family member and the revelation of the meaning behind a recurring symbol, her own Rosebud, a sculpture outfitted in a tiny bra and panty set.

The antagonists of the series, from the ultra snobby fashion magazine editor to the tight-laced baron of mass production, modulate between being power hungry, uptight, and conceited but never cross the line into downright illegality or corruption. These villains are species indigenous to the fashionable setting of Ginza. The more unsavory sorts, typically found in Tokyo neighborhoods such as the red-light district of Kabukichō in Shinjuku are absent in the world of Atelier, nor are they the archetypal Wall Street-style robber barons. Rather, the antagonists seek to be the apex predators of their own fashion realms.

Ginza, a district in in the Chūō ward of Tokyo, plays its current and historic role as a stage of westernized cosmopolitan consumerism, home to department stores, chic cafes, and elegant theaters, a natural habitat for Emotion. In this setting, Mayuko’s dynamic character transforms from an internal migrant, the provincial young graduate, to a hip young woman fitting in and taking her place on the stage of the Ginza chic. The opening close-up shots of Episode 4, “A Change of Pace,” focus in on her newly acquired fashionable accessories, segueing to a medium shot of her new work attire, a complete picture of a modern young woman in Tokyo and no longer the ingénue of the first three episodes.

The Tokyo represented on screen in Atelier is sanitized and idealist. As Mayuko grows into her role at Atelier and into Tokyo itself, she retains her charm and esprit de corps, eschewing the cynicism that might be predictable once she learns the ways of the world. Rather, she personifies an updated modern woman of Ginza, archetype of which is traceable back to the 1920s and visible through marketing campaigns of brands such as Shiseido cosmetics. The values of Atelier preserve the connection of consumer goods to the crafts and talents of the makers, symbolized by President Nanjo’s vintage 1978 sewing machine, an object uncovered by Mayuko as if she’s found dinosaur bones. Yet, Mayuko seeks to not merely disrupt but to win the approval of her mentor while designing the type of lingerie for the new modern woman.

The question of who fits in as a modern woman has not one answer but many. Ideas concerning the nature of aging, how women can retaining their beauty and dignity in later stages of life are relevant to modern feminism and ageism in entertainment. The treatment of the character, Mrs. Ono (Kaori Shima) is exemplary. She is a gorgeous septuagenarian who experiences a personal renaissance in the storyline spurred by Mayuko’s kind random encounter and her history with Emotion.

Atelier thrives in creating such multi-faceted dynamic characters who embody the show’s love for aesthetic values, also expressed in the setting and set design. The lovely mise-en-scène of Emotion’s boutique, accessorized by the typically Japanese synthesis of beautiful form and utilitarian function, represents a Japanese fascination and preservation of European storybook styles of art and architecture. Emotion’s aesthetic of interior design acts as foil to the antiseptically white set of Vanderbilt’s, a symbol of corporate emotionlessness and its mass production values, the “numbers game” in the show’s parlance. The sheer love of aesthetic may remind one of NHK documentaries such as Seasoning the Seasons and Begin Japanology. One feels a sense of contentment and grounding when Mayuko discovers the gorgeous art of traditional fabric dyeing from a surprising source that re-characterizes another of Emotion’s young employees. Little is exposed by mere first impressions in fictionalized drama and real life.

While the writing and shooting are lovely, yet conservative, experiments with non-linear plotting including in media res and flashbacks occur later in the season. Episode 7 is the sole example of some creative missteps. Mayuko hysterics disrupt the arc of character development and are simply annoying. Mr. Miki, a mysteriously glamorous man of ambiguous sexuality who eavesdrops on Mayuko at the chic and traditional (not an oxymoron in Atelier or Ginza at-large) coffee shop, Shikishima, becomes a more central character. But he’s also taken in this episode to the the same hysterics. Thankfully, this type of dialogue more akin to anime, is an aberration. In subsequent episodes Miki plays a more natural role as Tiger Dad.

Despite the occasional misstep, Atelier should endure for binge sessions and as an occasion to explore the commonalities and contrasts between Japanese and western work culture. Our philosophies and popular cultures have intertwined in ways rarely examined outside academia. The similarities between early modern western ideas of beauty and the Japanese aesthetic tradition are intriguing. Neoplatonic philosophy of the Italian Renaissance, a reconciling of classical era enlightenment and Christian through, saw beauty as a form of self-love, not mere externally beauty but also of the soul. This conception of love frees the beauty of female body from being objectified or finding value through the desire of others, replacing it with intrinsic appreciation of the beautiful. Translated into contemporary Japanese parlance, kawaii (cuteness) is something desirable to women of all ages.

Atelier series creators frame feminine values as a neoplatonic ideal in a way the Renaissance neoplatonic school would recognize as their own, emanating from a woman’s own dignity and appreciation of the female body and form. In the words of the fashion magazine editor scolding Mayuko: “Lingerie designers have a lot of confidence. Instead of decorating the exterior, they focus on the inside.” Concurrently, the characters embody the traditions of a Confucian society exhibited via the respect the young show to their elders and the consequences for violating the paradigm of collective values.

Kakuzo Okakura, early 20th century cosmopolitan and author, wrote in The Book of Tea that “teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence… essentially a worship of the imperfect.”[1] The ceremonial way in which the business card are exchanged, as seen many times in the series, reminds one of the everlasting influence of Confucian thought and the role of ritual in mannerly conduct in everyday life. Instead of tea, alongside and echoing the elegance and ritual of fabric, is the culture of coffee in Japan. While, the soundtrack is mostly unremarkable, one will notice the leitmotif of temple-style bells to signify the most tension filled moments of anticipation, another connection between ritual and aesthetics.

Overall, Atelier is a liberating and entertaining series, unfortunately cancelled after this one season. Season Two could have explored the outcome of the main conflict: how to incorporate young ideas with different conception of beauty into an established brand, while maintaining the quality and art of craft. The universally applicable lessons transcends fashion and the series itself. Despite the cancellation, the potential for scripted international shows of Atelier’s quality to reach western audiences is hopefully built upon. ‘East meets west’ may be a worn cliche, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented if Asian creators preserve something mostly lost from our shared western heritage.

[1] Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. 1906. New York: Dover, 1964, p. 1.