Series Review by David Cirone
Netflix Japan’s premiere original series Atelier (titled “Underwear” for its Japanese release) is an infuriatingly weak attempt to showcase the provocative world of lingerie. Cardboard characters, illogical plot twists, and episode-after-episode of junior-high-school idealistic speeches made this series a real challenge to finish. In truth, the story is over by episode 9, but the 13-episode commitment stretched this thin plot even thinner. It would have been much more fashionable for this series to leave the party early.
A self-described “fabric geek” Mayuko (Mirei Kiritani) comes to the big city to pursue her dreams of joining the fashion industry. All wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, she lands an intern job at Emotion, a small boutique shop in Tokyo’s Ginza district, with the lingerie world’s most renowned designer, Mayumi Nanjo (Mao Daichi). It’s not long before Mayuko starts making changes and making speeches about how Nanjo and her team of designers should view the concept of feminine beauty and change what’s been working for them so many years. She disobeys orders and causes trouble for the shop, jeopardizing Nanjo’s business and reputation so often that there wasn’t one single episode where I didn’t shout “You’re fired!” out loud at the screen.
There’s just no good reason for Nanjo to keep Mayuko employed. The vague but regularly mentioned “she sees something special in her” is a cop-out that’s never justified, and the more we learn about Nanjo’s hard-edged personality and her dedicated rise to prominence, the wider the gap grows between the accomplished and classy boss and her bumbling idiot of an intern.
Mayuko is a juggernaut of impulse and ignorance. In just a handful of episodes, she:
— stalks a customer who cancels order
— walks into a posh upscale industry party in her thrift-store office clothes
— presents a fashion magazine editor with her own designs during a meeting
— “organizes” and re-arranges her boss’s office and design materials without permission
— talks back to her boss in front of the staff — again and again and again
It’s tough for any woman to make it in business in Japan, and even tougher for a woman like Nanjo who’s showing her age. No business woman in her position would tolerate the public embarrassment and insubordination, but somehow writer Naoko Adachi (Shitsuren Chocolatier, Rich Man, Poor Woman), under the wing of Netflix and co-producer Fuji TV, has decided that this is what the international audience want to see. God help you if this is the first Japanese drama your friends see on television; it’s unlikely they’ll ever try another.
Mao Daichi’s naturally strong presence and skillful delivery is the show’s main strength, and her best episode comes early in the series when she handles that tense party situation with class and strength. That scene gave me hope — maybe we’re going to get to see the fighter spirit that got this woman to the top in the first place. But we never get to see that side again, and most episodes simply show Nanjo as passive, watching other others debate the worth and future of the business and brand she built from the ground up.
The supporting cast is kept in their place for the strategically-placed, plot-assisting one-liners, and there’s no trace of history or achievement in their approach to Emotion’s problems. Somehow Mayuko’s country sensibility has them all under a spell, and by the time the mid-season idea of “Let’s put on a fashion show!” takes over, Atelier becomes the high-school play it was meant to be.
Atelier on Netflix: