I only saw ten episodes of Umechan Sensei, but already fell in love with the opening. Well, if you play it on mute, that is.
I managed with my little knowledge, to cut the episode in order to only save the opening (it took me a whole afternoon though. Tech-savvy, I’m not). YouTube asked me right away to change the audio track, and I’m amazed at how swiftly they found the SMAP’s track. And also, I confess, kind of grateful.
You may think it’s clay animation, but it should rather be seen as an animated diorama, since it doesn’t move that smoothly. That said, I totally marvel at the meticulous attention they put to the smallest detail. I realized that especially after visiting the NHK website page for the drama.
Umechan Sensei (梅ちゃん先生) is the current 朝ドラ (AsaDora=Morning Drama) broadcasted on NHK since April 2. It depicts the life of Shimomura Umeko from her teenage years into adulthood, as she strives to become a doctor in the postwar Japan. Though not my favorite (that being the Taishō era: 1912-1926), I’m quite interested in the Shōwa period (1926–1989 ) which was particularly complex and immersed in sensitive issues which still impact the Japanese society today.
The drama is filmed in Takahagi, Ibaraki Prefecture, but the story is set in Kamata, Tokyo, during the time of reconstruction after the Second World War. I don’t know the budget for this drama, but they had enough to recreate the devastated Kamata at a large scale and the result is quite impressive. Horikita herself said that the set was so realistic that images of the Tohoku earthquake came immediately in mind, which I can totally understand.
“When I saw this scenery for the first time, all those images from March 11 (Great Tohoku earthquake) popped back into my head. It made me really sad again. However, Umechan is such a bright and clumsy character, who makes other people laugh. Being on this set now, it suddenly feels difficult to portray her cheerfulness.” (source: tokyohive)
Still, the character of Umeko (affectionately nicknamed Umechan) is really bright and full of life, as the story itself is so far. But I believe that the association to the disaster of March 11 can also work to deliver messages of hope: just like in the postwar reconstruction era Umechan lives in, the Japanese viewers have to recover from the blow they all suffered, and continue on living.
In that aspect, I think Episode 6 is the turning point in Umechan’s life, where she opens her eyes on what she can do to help others, which will then lead her to follow her father’s steps as a doctor. The last sentence narrated for the episode particularly struck me:
“Live. If you continue on living, then good things will surely come your way.”
After all the hardships Japan had (and have) to endure last year, these words come as an encouragement for those mentally exhausted and willing to give up on life. And the model of its own rapid revival and economic growth (called the Economical Miracle) is particularly relevant.
Laugh, feel down, cry, and laugh again.
Embodying the spirit of this time, the characters of Umechan Sensei, though very much stereotyped, are really engaging. In the opening song, we get a glimpse at the atmosphere of this period of reconstruction, with Umechan portrayed as a doctor, having fulfilled her dream. We follow her though a very cool and clever division of time and seasons: Monday is situated in spring, Tuesday and Wednesday are in summer, Thursday and Friday in autumn, and Saturday in winter.
During her walk within her district, Umechan greets people on her way. An important aspect of the series is represented by the bonds between Umechan and those around her. At that time (and more generally, in any difficult time), relationships were of particular significance. Aside from your family, you’re surrounded by various individuals who may (or not) have an effect, even little, on your life: your neighbors and their kids, the owner of your favorite pub, the shop lady, the wandering cat…
Each episode is the occasion to put the light on them, and to show how a life is developped through interactions with others.
Reading the interview of the team behind this diorama, I was in awe at how they thought to so many things and how many hours and efforts they put in order to create a 40 seconds video. Indeed, it’s so quick, and yet packed with subtle little moments, that you’ll be unable to catch them all at first. In fact, I needed the BTS to get all the details.
One of the team members said that they strived to recreate the looks of the old downtown area, somewhere in the late 1950s. Thanks to their work, nostalgia strikes hard and I could’t help feeling a bittersweet connection to a simpler past, when『紙芝居』- Kamishibai (Paper Drama) were a common street feature, when a hoop and some friends were enough to entertain kids, when women chatted around their wooden washboards…..WAIT, uh, maybe not feeling so nostalgic after all.
Back to the world created for Umechan Sensei, I completely loved the mutliple details and references sprinkled everywhere for you to grab. Take the Tv shop, for instance. All households weren’t equiped at that time, as Tv wasn’t your average fixture. So, it was common for people to stop at the display of the local electronic shop in order to watch the current programs.
Here we have two different programs, one broadcasted during the day, for the kids (the mythic『ひょっこりひょうたん島』- Hyokkori Hyoutan-jima) and the other scheduled for the night (an Imperial Tournament of some sort in Nagashima, as said in the interview).
But who noticed the lights of the tiny ramen shop? The silhouettes of the passengers in the night train? The blurry『風鈴』-Fūrin (Wind Chime) swinging gently? The cat wandering everywhere?
What’s funny is that even the artists know that nobody will notice those obscure points but actually, finding the hidden references is part of the game. Even the smoke coming out of the tiny chimneys have been carefully made, which is a real proof of the dedication of the team.
The use of a diorama makes the whole thing low-tech and vintage. Add a mix of a modern camera and a 1950 lens, and we’re all brought back to the Shōwa era.
All in all, I enjoy this Asadora, and I think it’s too bad it’s not subbed or available to watch with subs. Though I’m still lacking, I can manage to watch the episodes and understand the story as it unfolds. Still, I don’t have confidence enough to start recapping it, knowing my own limitations and also having an other project on my plate. But if you want to learn Japanese, or see how people lived at this period, this show is definitely worth the try.
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