The Real Thing (Japan, 2020) [SDAFF Spring Showcase 2021]

The Real Thing is a 10-episode TV drama adapted from a manga originally created by Mochiru Hoshisato. It was first aired by Nagoya Broadcasting Network in 2020 and later edited into a theatrical version. A romantic drama concerning a successful salaryman who throws his life away after he meets a mystery woman, it appears to be only the second time that writer-director Koji Fukada has adapted someone else’s work for the screen. 

Tsuji Kazumichi (Win Morisaki) is the handsome and self-assured rising star of the sales department of a small toy company in Tokyo. Having cultivated a good reputation with his colleagues and clients, his relatively straight-forward life is only spiced up by him being secretly involved with two women in his workplace, the older and more mature Naoko (Kei Ishibashi) and the younger and more wild Minako (Akari Fukunaga). Both are quietly pushing to make their relationship with Tsuji more serious but he’s just happy stringing them along. 

However, Tsuji’s days of plain sailing enter choppy waters when he rescues Ukiyo Hayama (Kaho Tsuchimura) from the approach of an oncoming train after her car stalls at a crossing. When the police show up, Tsuji finds the woman he just saved first blaming him for this near-disaster, then apologising and professing her helplessness to him before pulling a disappearing act. Confused, Tsuji tries to resume his normal routine but he has been shaken out of his existence by Ukiyo with a new sensation awakened inside of him. This sensation is love, the titular “real thing”.

Attaining it isn’t easy. Their first meeting sets the template for their interactions throughout the series. Ukiyo’s waifish persona places her in constant peril. This gives her a siren-like quality that lures Tsuji deeper into an ocean of trouble that includes huge debt, loan sharks, and more, all of which he takes on to find this mystery lady.

The story doesn’t spell out why Tsuji is driven to embark on an increasingly obsessive and dangerous search. Instead, it plunges us into his confusion and taps into our desire to know more about Tsuji’s reasoning and also more about Ukiyo’s background. It is slow but addictive as we learn more about their psychologies while seeing the scale of her troubles. Each new revelation acts as a cliff-hanger, capping each episode to create a propulsive narrative that begs the viewer to binge-watch the entire series in one sitting.  

Fukada, whose film Harmonium won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, may be working from someone else’s story but the material is very much what he specializes in – the stripping away of false masks to reveal the authenticity of a person. As such, this TV format mystery romance plays out in a more long-winded but just as satisfying way as his films. Long takes, static camerawork and acting that has the air of artificiality define the proceedings as we observe Tsuji gradually shaking himself loose from his humdrum existence. Uncovering love drives him to do dangerous things and, ultimately, find his more authentic self. 

If you think that this review has given the game away, fear not. The story features some gasp-inducing hairpin plot twists that make one wonder just how much more outrageous things can get. There is a supernatural quality to the early mystery surrounding that builds a sense of dread through fateful meetings, portentous warnings from bystanders, and the odd-acting Ukiyo coming off as a Junji Ito-esque creature that corrodes Tsuji’s existence like an apology-giving parasite. Yet the drama is firmly rooted in real life. As the story progresses, it critiques real-life misogyny in how the men treat women through revealing why Ukiyo is constantly on the run. It shows how she and the other female characters are treated or forced to adopt roles by society, and reveals the desperate expectations of Tsuji’s lovers Naoko and Minako when his duplicity is exposed.

While criticism of a patriarchal society that still disregards the feelings of women entails The Real Thing is full of #MeToo moments, what the series is really about is the impact of love on two very different people. We see how the effects shape the lives of Tsuji and Ukiyo in such dramatic ways that, from the first episode to the last, we simply have to find out if they will be together.

The Real Thing is showing as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase 2021 which runs from April 23 to May 2.