June 25, 2012

The Housekeeper


Tolstoy was wrong. Unhappy families--especially unhappy television families--are pretty much all unhappy in the same boring ways. Seen Ordinary People, seen them all. Nothing is more frustrating than a enjoyable genre series that runs out of material and resorts to characters screwing up their lives with angst and stupidity.

Even House waded one too many times into this Dullsville. The whole arc with Cutty went on so long it started to repeat itself; she should have been written out of the series several seasons earlier. Though House was smart enough to find a way to make lemonade out of all the melodramatic lemons. (Chase's promotion at the end was perfect.)

So at first glance, Nippon Television's "I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper" (Kaseifu no Mita) sounds intolerable: Mrs. Asuda has committed suicide, leaving behind her sad sack of a husband (whose office affair gets blamed for it), four cute but angsty kids, a bumbling but well-intentioned aunt, and one pissed-off father-in-law.

Except that into the picture steps Mita, the newly-hired housekeeper, whose ruthless efficiency can only be described as a cross between Data from Star Trek and the Terminatrix. In fact, the strange old lady at the housekeeping agency warns them not to jest with Mita about killing anybody because, you know, she probably will.

The bizarre premise of hiring a borderline sociopath to work as a housekeeper saves the show. The spooky air of unreality gives the viewer permission to not take all the hand-wringing too seriously. It's easier to tolerate melodramatic psychobabble given less Dr. Phil and more Supernatural (true of science fiction and fantasy in general).

The series traces two dramatic arcs. The first has Mita solving everybody's psychological problems in her unconventional manner, as when the eldest daughter throws a "Just kill me already!" hissy fit and Mita tries her best to really kill her, Psycho-style.

In the second arc, having fixed the kids, the kids take it upon themselves to fix Mita, starting with the goal of at least making her smile. This disappointed me initially. I liked the idea of Mita as a primeval force, a manifestation of the family's collective id. Positing her as "fixable" breaks the spell and turns her into just another head case.

What makes it work is Nanako Matsushima as Mita, who holds this expression for ninety-nine percent of the series (I'd love to see the blooper reel), and yet conveys a surprisingly wide spectrum of emotions. Her crazy-as-a-fox performance elevates Mita into a delightfully demented Mary Poppins.

Thankfully, the last episode resurrects the more surreal aspects, though accompanied by spoonfuls of goopy sentimentality that make Touched by an Angel look dark and dystopian by comparison. It's a Christmas episode, no less. Again, Matsushima's restrained performance just barely saves it (and she turns out to have an absolutely radiant smile).

Plus there's a clever tie-in to the seasonal setting, as the kids observe that Mita's name (三田) can be also pronounced "Santa," and the strange lady at the agency doesn't disabuse them of the notion. It also helps that the script pays off every single plot point, and Mita doesn't end up getting so much "fixed" as stabilized.

The show has its problems, to be sure, and not just the awkward descent into weepy melodrama. Most Japanese series follow an HBO schedule, a dozen shows a year often ending after a single season. This means they have to throw away a lot of promising material, sacrificing "show" for too many monologues of "tell."

For example, it would be far more interesting for our Scooby Gang of child social workers to do some actual investigating instead of pestering adults into revealing their secrets.

The father (ably played by Hiroki Hasegawa) is initially made such a convincingly pathetic loser it's hard to imagine the hottest OL in the office falling into bed with him. And the sheer irresponsibility of abandoning four kids and committing suicide after an awkward affair equally strains belief (and sympathy).

Yui, the eldest daughter, (Shiori Kutsuna1) never answers for making a bad situation far worse. Her father was a jerk, but her mother had some screws loose too. Apparently, loose screws are inheritable. Mita should have given them a little tightening, the way she gets the bumbling aunt to grow a spine.

The very last scene has Mita showing up at the doorstep of what, from the decrepit state of things, must be another messed up family. "I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper" was such a big hit in Japan I'd expect a sequel to be in the works, though none is planned. It is an idea ripe for a Hollywood ripoff, though.

Kazuyoshi Saito performs the theme song. The opening guitar riff very effectively starts playing during the cliffhanger at the end of every episode rather than during the credit roll. By the end of the series, it practically triggers a Pavlovian response.


1 Shiori Kutsuna played Princess Sen in the historical drama Gô. She had tons of issues with her father too, though Tokugawa Hidetada really did kill his daughter's husband, stepchild, and all her in-laws.

Update: now streaming on Crunchyroll.

Labels: , ,

Comments: