TBS has spared no expense for it’s 60th Anniversary production Nankyoku Tairiku (Antarctica), a dorama that from the first frame tells you this is going to be a eyeball enriching period piece. I watched episode 1 yesterday, leaving me at times bemused, at times awed, and most of the time emotionally engaged. Which is to say: this dorama is geared 110% towards milking your emotions and then collecting your tears to water the plants. NT manages to take the true story of a broken post-WWII Japan’s journey to Antarctica as part of a worldwide scientific expedition and highlight every single dramatic element of this rousing quest.
It’s an underdog story of a loser nation uniting in pride and joy behind something groundbreaking, and an adventure yarn telling of how a group of men venture into an inaccessible part of Antarctica and live to tell the tale. The dorama is so darn earnest that the word might as well be tattooed on every character’s forehead. Raggedy gap-toothed children, packs of cute dogs, and a determined Kimura Takuya are all combined together to metaphorically shout: we are here to do our best to turn you into a blubbering mess of emotions so all you can do is cheer on the good guys in their battle against nature and the derision of the rest of the world. Done and done. NT manages to be both maudlin yet so sincere about it, you end up munching on all the cheese and then feeling rather satisfied with the entire meal.
You know this drama is serious when in the first scene, you have KimuTaku re-enacting the Tom Cruise opening in Mission Impossible 2, but in period costume. The year is 1955, ten years since Japan lost WWII, with the nation still picking up the pieces, both literally and figuratively, from having its entire moral, political, and cultural compass forcibly re-aligned. KimuTaku plays Kuromachi Takeshi, a professor at Todai (Tokyo University). The dorama starts with him climbing to the top of the mountain on the anniversary of a mountain expedition that resulted in a landslide and the death of some of his colleagues and friends. I suppose I need to make note of him having unresolved guilt towards being a leader that couldn’t protect his team members.
After Kuromachi returns to base camp, he’s met there by an old professor friend from Todai, Shirosaki Suguru. Professor Shirosaki presses Kuromachi to return to campus more for research, but Kuromachi looks a bit worn down. Shirosaki shows Kuromachi a letter from the World Federation for Antarctic Research, inviting Japan to participate in a global scientific expedition to chart the South Pole. This fires up Kuromachi, and we get the first of many “KimuTaku Looks Determined” expressions.
Kuromachi returns to Todai and resumes his lecture duties. While sitting in his office, he opens the drawer to see the picture of his dead wife. Check one for making Kuromachi’s backstory as sad as possible.
Kuromachi goes to a school where he is immediately surrounded by a gaggle of school kids, all of whom look dirty and in need of clothing without gaping holes. One kid in particular even piggybacks his infant brother, proudly saying that he’ll get an allowance for helping his mom. Check two for making Kuromachi beloved by poor angelic children. He brings them various exotic rocks, and explain that he’s headed to Antarctica on an expedition. The kids ooh and ahhh.
Which is when their teacher walks out, one very pretty Takaoka Miyuki sensei (played by Ayase Haruka). She immediately grows alarmed to hear Kuromachi is headed to Antarctica, calling him onii-chan (older brother), but shooting him very concerned looks. Kuromachi asks Miyuki if she can go somewhere with him.
They go visit the grave of Kuromachi’s dead wife, where big brother tells Miyuki that while she’s his god-sister (likely his father took Miyuki in as a god-daughter), he is concerned for her future. He tells her to go on matchmaking dates and find herself a husband soon, so he doesn’t worry about her. All the while Miyuki is staring at him with full on “I am in love with you, you moron” looks. Which Kuromachi can clearly tell but is choosing to ignore. Nice, this dorama has fauxcest!
Kuromachi and Shirosaki go to Brussels to attend the World Federation meeting, only to be ridiculed for daring to come when Japan is a loser nation from WWII. Love the blatant “make Western countries look like bullies” scene, but it’s effective in making Japan feel even more like they have something to prove. When asked if Japan even has the ability to undertake this journey, our two professors say YES, but then realize they haven’t really asked back home yet. Oops.
They go back to Japan and submit a detailed proposal to the government, but can’t even get it through the hands of a Himura Haruhiko, an official for the Treasury and Kuromachi’s old friend turned bitter quasi-nemesis. Everywhere they go, the two are told to stop proposing ridiculous expeditions that will waste what little money Japan has left.
Kuromachi remains determined, and he goes to eat sweet potatoes and chat with more raggedy munchkins. Their joy at the prospect of Japan reaching Antarctica confirms for Kuromachi that the Japanese people need and will want this quest to happen.
The newspaper publishes a story about the proposed expedition, and it slowly gets everyone’s attention. Turns out Kuromachi’s dad was a member for the first ever Japanese team to visit Antarctica over a decade ago. Check three for giving Kuromachi daddy validation issues.
Our two professors receive the letter from the World Federation which has parceled out to each participating country a location to land on the Antarctica coast. Too bad Japan gets a completely inaccessible landing point, the Prince Harald Coast, which is akin to a middle finger from the Federation. Team Japan not only had internal woes, even the external forces as conspiring against them to fail.
But never fear, cute munchkin children to the rescue to invigorate Kuromachi’s resolve. The kids from the school walk their way to Todai, with head munchkin carrying his infant brother behind his back, to give Kuromachi pennies for his expedition. They are donating to the cause, you see, never mind they are barely getting enough to eat at any meal. Kuromachi looks at the beaming faces of these generous and hopeful children and he is once again Determined. This dorama, it is not subtle in the least.
The nation of Japan kicks in overdrive in getting the public to donate money for the expedition, which finally clues the government in that the people really want this to happen. It unites the depressed citizenry in something they can all cheer for. So the government okays the funding for the expedition and now it’s time for some stuffy men in a conference room to discuss the actual specifics of the expedition.
Japan needs a ice-shearing ship, and must modify one of its existing ships because no foreign nation is willing to loan one to poor loser Japan. When asked how the team expects to trek the Antarctic mainland once they dock, frumpy professor Yoshino Eitaro joins the conversation and mentions they can use dog sleds to cross the land. When asked how Japan can get dogs who can weather the bitter cold, Kuromachi pipes up that Japan has those dogs, the famous Sakhalin Huskies from Hokkaido. His father’s expedition used them as well years ago.
It’s now time to get down to business. Let’s build that ship, Japan! And the professors get working on interviewing for the remaining members of their scientific expedition. Todai student Inzuka Natsuo (Yamamoto Yusuke) wants so desperately to go he claims to be able to train dogs. Hahahaha.
Kuromachi and Inzuka head to Hokkaido for the Summer, to amass their doggie collection for the trip and start training them to pull a sled in unison. The two go check on dogs like breeders checking out horses, finding quite a group of handsome and hearty canines.
Of course this story wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t have one family, complete with grandpa and cute kids, who own just the perfect Huskie to be the lead pack dog. They are reluctant to part with him, until it’s clear that the dog was born to run and get the other doggies to follow him.
Little girl tearfully hugs her dog and tells him to be safe and do his job. Kuromachi promises her that he will bring the dog back. Check four for Kuromachi making the unbreakable promise to a little girl over her beloved pooch.
Oh noes, the ship construction hits a snag and may not be done in time for the launch date. Brick walls are no match for the resolve of Kuromachi as he tearfully tells everyone they must find a way to overcome. Never fear, the nation of Japan is united, and workers and engineers from other companies arrive to pitch in. Awwww, cross-corporate unity and patriotism. Ship is finished on time and tested out to make sure it works.
Kuromachi says sayonara to his fauxcest god-sister, promising to return. Would it kill you to give the poor girl a kiss for the road, Kuromachi!
The day of the launch arrives and the port is filled with friends, family, and bystanders all here to see the Antarctic expedition off. Shirosaki and Kuromachi make rousing speeches about hope and beating the odds and success and faith. Everyone looks beatific and proud and excited. I’m already kinda tired and this darn expedition hasn’t even left the port yet.
The ship sets sail and they’re off! Suddenly Inzuka asks Kuromachi if he knows those kids running along the dock? Sure enough, the munchkins from the school have arrived a bit late to see Kurumachi off, but they are here now and waving a handmade banner to wish him luck. This is like the final little bit of encouragement Kuromachi needs to kick his Determination into super high gear.
But look who is behind them? But of course it’s their teacher and fauxcest god-sister Miyuki, who smiles and waves at her not-so-brother. Kuromachi looks stunned to see her, and then happy, as he finally gives into his repressed emotions for once and waves forcefully back to her and the kids. He’s probably thinking that if he makes it back alive from Antarctica, fauxcest or no, he’s getting some nookie.
With rousing inspirational music in the background, the Great Ship Soya sets sail for Antarctica, with cute dogs and the one and only
KimuTaku Kuromachi. So there you have it, your first peek at Nakyoku Tairiku. I don’t need a crystal ball to see that we’re getting some snow in the next episode. I love how fast episode 1 was, setting up so much with ruthless efficiency, but never forgetting in throw in the kitchen sink of emotions ranging from pride, love, skepticism, and dedication.
This dorama is meant to be a feel good story, and the presentation is marinated in heavy handed storytelling rather than nuance and grit. But like I said already, there is so much sincere earnestness in everything that it just makes you unable to dislike it. I’ve discovered that a bit of snark when watching livens up the spirit, and allows me to enjoy it with good humor and shed some tears when my heartstrings are tug from time-to-time.