And Now For Something Totally Different
Today’s entry is about a TV drama series from Japan. ‘I Am Mita, Your Housekeeper‘ that aired late last year in Japan.
I rarely watch TV dramas. I kind of get dragged to it kicking and screaming and walk away form the set when the scenes get too maudlin, sentimental or dragged out in anyway so that they can stretch the content out to get to the commercial breaks. I hate the feeling of not enough content to make up the time as opposed to the too much content squeezed in to the allotted framework you get in good movies.
So I was naturally very sceptical about seeing a show about a housemaid in Japan that garnered 40.4 ratings in Japan for the climactic episode. That’s right 40.4%, for a drama. It’s unheard of in most parts of the world. This is why I sat down to take in all 11 episodes across this weekend.
I think it did my head in.
What’s Good About It
The show is an indictment of a kind of social dream that has gone totally wrong. The nuclear family and myths of the “my-home” and even social cohesion are thrown into the blender for pulverising critique. The early episodes are a stand out in hitting society exactly where it hurts.
The characters are worked out in fine detail and the story spirals out of control at exactly the right way because of the way the story is knit together. It’s very good writing. Some of the performances are fine, others are not as good but it all pulls together to keep the rather wild fiction going.
What’s Bad About It
It’s not as if this series didn’t have the moments of groan-inducing sentimentality and tearful pleading.
Technically, I also hate the way Japanese directors cross the line of action just to get a different reverse angle – and it keeps happening through out this series, but it’s nothing isolated to this series. I hate the way characters suddenly appear in a scene just to cut to the chase because it may be convenient for the story but it strains credulity when it need not.
They also keep recapping key moments from earlier episodes and by the end of the series, you just want them to get on with it rather than recap those moments.
What’s Interesting About It
First, there is the psychological study of the family in a downward spiral. It is like Freud’s Oedipus Complex going out of control and unchecked, as well as Electra complex and a more obscure thing called the Ajase Complex.
The series starts with the aftermath of a mother’s suicide as a family struggles to deal with their emotions of rejection and dejection. It is into this context that a housekeeper arrives, and the housekeeper is as emotionally unresponsive as the Terminator. It then proceeds to build domestic drama upon domestic drama by dissecting the family members and their emotional vulnerabilities.
As hard as it is to imagine, the unfolding saga builds up a great deal of intrigue, and emotional complexity. The series in many ways an indictment and is no wonder that it garnered the ratings it did.
The Oedipalised emotions of the males in the family have tremendous force in this story. Firstly there is the father who has been having an affair with a coworker. It is revealed that he asked his wife for a divorce which led to the wife’s suicide. Once his affair is found out, his daughter then exposes it to the company with predictable results. The father keeps claiming that this woman is the only woman he has genuinely loved – and not his wife – because he was never certain of his feelings for his wife. Later on, he tries to rekindle his affair, only to find out the man who replaced his post at work has also stolen the woman. The ensuing humiliation is like Freud played out large.
The elder son who is in middle school becomes intrigued with Mita to the extent that his libido drives him to ask if she would do anything on command. She responds by saying that she would do anything within her power. He demands they fuck. She asks, “how would you like to do that?” He demands she first disrobe – and she is totally willing to have sex with the boy. It doesn’t quite come about because the eldest daughter walks in at the nick of time to stop it from happening.
Again, it is Freud played out large. The repressed eroticism constantly threatens to boil over. You sure don’t see this stuff in ‘Desperate Housewives’ because America’s not ready for this – but Japan is fine with this stuff. It’s bewildering.
The younger son is in sixth grade. He has to write a paper “in appreciation of mother”; even though he feels abandoned by her apparent suicide. The housekeeper Mita encourages him to write about the mother as if she died of an accident and express his fully blooming Oedipal-ised emotion.
The daughter is perhaps in a deeper problem because at once she is drawn to her father and then is betrayed when she finds out her mother ave committed suicide over the affair. In the absence of the mother, she asks Mita to kill her. It’s all Freudian once again when the children kick out the father and are left with the housekeeper to look after them.
Another layer of disturbance lies in how easily the characters choose death. Not only has the mother committed suicide, the elder daughter and father both try to die in the course of the series. Even Mita herself tries to kill herself in one of the later episodes. Death is everywhere, but most improbably it is because people are so willing to contemplate suicide.
One wonders if Japanese narratives naturally tends that way or whether this readiness is a function of a growing dysfunction of this era. In each instance what drives these characters is a deep sense of embarrassment that is disproportionate to what their real offenses might be. Throughout the series, the characters back away from suicide as they gain perspective – but while they lack any perspective, it makes for some harrowing viewing.
There’s so much suicide in Japan because suicide itself is seen as a kind of available option for kids. They jump off buildings, leap into trains, hang themselves, they kill themselves in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons that most people would see as trifling. My own view of it is that there is something about Japanese schools that hem the kids in so hard in the name of discipline when in fact they are grossly violating the human rights of the kids they have in their care – but more of that later.
The dour, seemingly selfless Mita persona gradually reveals itself to be a kind of masochism. The more we learn about her, we realise she too is labouring under a disproportionate sense of embarrassment and shame, and this drives her to the ultimate submission – she will do anything and everything that is physically possible, if ordered to do so. In parts of the series, this is milked for some humour, but in a overview sense, it is disturbing how she may well fit into some kind of sick fantasy. The infinitely pliable housekeeper who would submit to anything, can bring out the inner sadist in a lot of people.
As if to prove this point, once Mita takes on the role of ‘Mother’, she flips the switch and becomes an emotional sadist. She feeds the children less, demands more discipline from them and tells them that they are inadequate. She becomes the disciplinarian sadist towards the children; and as an audience we watch this with a great deal of pleasure because she brings out the inner sadist in us all.
What’s interesting is that in Mita, we find parental discipline and the sort of discipline you find in S&M porn sitting side by side. As viewers, we enjoy Mita disciplining these spoilt kids – but you have to question what that pleasure means. I felt oddly uncomfortable with how enjoyable these scenes of putting the shoe on the other foot were.
The film spends a good deal of time exploring the relationship between the father and his in-laws. What is apparent is that the father seems to have no parents of his own who are in the picture. That he has suddenly appeared into the world uncertain, and was made a father by his late wife; all of it vaguely against his sense of self. On that level he is Gen-X to a tee, but the series goes one step further: his children throw him out of the house and make themselves parent-less, just like him.
What is blindingly obvious is that problems of this family do not start with just the father or the mother, but sometime in the distant past before they even met; and I suspect this is why this series managed to reach people in Japan. There would have been many people who saw themselves in some way as that character.
True to the traditions of Japan, he is trying to put together the form of a caring father, but he does not know what it means or how it manifests itself in his life, even after having fathered 4 children. I imagine this aspect of the story would have hit Gen X in Japan pretty hard. The absence of proper adult supervision created a generation of lost men and women, all with the emotional maturity of three year olds.
The Disintegrating Nuclear Family
The way the father keeps retreating from responsibility is quite disturbing. If there is one character that much of the drama can be pinned upon, it is the father. Yet he constantly shows himself to be not up to any substantial emotional challenge, and spends a good deal of the last 4 episodes apologising to everybody.
While there is a tradition in Japanese film and TV of portraying the nuclear family as somewhat suspect, I don’t recall an instance of the repudiation running this deep. it makes the making up of the family towards the end oddly unbelievable. In many ways, what is most interesting is exactly how the family spirals out of control.
In a sense it’s not even the father’s fault that he comes into adulthood incomplete. The adults that brought him up essentially yelled at him (as his father in law can’t resist doing) and then vacated the arena of adulthood for him to simply step in. Armed with very little capacity to handle his own emotions, let alone expectations of others, he proceeds to vacate the lives of his children as his parents must have done before. As a likely explanation for why there is so much of this sense of social discontinuity is going on, it’s not a bad one. A peak rating of 40% suggests a lot of Japanese viewers agree.
The younger son’s teacher is a miserable man. He basically lets the bullying in his own classroom go on and pretends that it doesn’t exist. The sad truth is that there are way too many teachers like this in Japan, and they’re all protected from scrutiny by the social consensus that a teacher is a better class of human being.
Similarly, the aunt to the kids who is meant to be a physical education teacher is also a total and utter nincompoop. Schools and teachers come off really badly in this series, I suspect because there is now a total breakdown in trust in both the educational system as well as the educators.
It still makes for painful viewing because you those types of teachers exist, making kids lives miserable all over Japan, and they wonder out loud why there are hikikomori kids. The Japanese educational system has a lot to answer for, when it comes to those traumatised kids. For years, commentators have been wondering what they’re doing wrong. What they really should be doing is totally re-envisaging how they do education. For a start, those classrooms look like something from 100years ago, and stop cramming 40 kids to a class. They really need to see how the rest of the world does it; and they should sack all those children-hating sadistic teachers protected by the Japan Teachers Union.