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Year: 2009
Director: Yasuharu Ishii, Toshio Tsuboi, Akihiko Watase
Screenplay: Takayuki Takuma
Cast: Matsumoto Jun, Aragaki Yui, Nakai Kiichi

There is a plethora of Asian dramas out there, the majority of which suffer from the same ailments: weak, often completely nonsensical plot lines and an overindulgence in clichés and stock characters. The 11-episode Japanese dorama スマイル (Smile, 2009) has none of these faults, but sets itself apart with the pertinent as well as heart-wrenching story of Hayakawa Vito (played by a very tanned Matsumoto Jun), a hardworking half-Japanese, half-Filipino man who always has a smile on his face. Vito has only ever lived in Japan, speaks only Japanese and really knows nothing about Filipino culture yet has suffered from prejudice for being a ‘foreigner’ (‘gaijin’) since childhood. This discrimination makes no sense at all but persists in Japan to this day, with Sumairu courageously putting the issue of racism in Japanese society at the core of this drama.

The honest realism of the story is laudable. Characters are three-dimensional and relationships between them are developed slowly and convincingly over the course of the drama. The brotherly affection between Vito and his co-workers is infectious – particularly when they tease him about his budding love for the mute Hana-chan – , the solidarity of all employees at Machimura Foods comes across as genuine. Another reason why Sumairu works is that the main conflict of the drama is a real crime committed by Vito in a moment of utter despair – something that the drama never tries to deny but faces head on. The scriptwriter (Takakumi Takayuki, also known by his pen name Satake Mikio) may be the same as of the over-the-top manga adaptation of Hana Yori Dango (Boys over Flowers, 2005), but plot choices here make a compelling drama.

The acting in Sumairu also does not disappoint. Although the fangirls may be more interested in Matsumoto’s arrogant Domyōji character of the Hana Yori Dango series or the rebel airhead Sawada Shin of Gokusen (2002), Matsumoto shines here as he goes through a complete gamut of emotions. Matsujun, as he is affectionately known, is of course a major idol and member of the elite Jpop band Arashi in Japan, but has more to offer than celebrity status or his (undeniably) good looks. Dramas like Sumairu or the quirky Kimi wa Petto (2003) reveal his real talent as an actor. Aragaki Yui successfully creates Mishima Hana and manages to put far more personality into her voiceless character than actors with many more lines might do, while Nakai Kiichi superbly plays Vito’s lawyer Ito Kazuma. Finally, Oguri Shun, for once cast as Matsumoto’s opponent, portrays bad boy Hayashi Seiji with such conviction that evil and fear become tangible the very moment the viewer catches a glimpse of his crop of delinquent-blonde hair on the screen.

Rating: 10/10