*Warning: May contain mild-spoilers. Proceed with caution.
A New Start
Imagine being a fresh graduate from a sub-urban Nagoya, Japan. You love fabric and textile and after a relentless job search that ensued after your graduation, you landed your first job at a chíc, small, and yet well-known store that looks straight out of a fairy tale – And not only that, the store is located at Tokyo’s well known high-end shopping district in Ginza. You’re excited, eager, determined to make it big and learn from the readied professionals that will now be your superiors. You wonder what kind of people they’d be!
“You bring me so much discomfort, do you know why? because you’re not beautiful.”
Those were the first words that was uttered from the protagonist’s boss, Mayumi Nanjo on her first day working at the up-scale lingerie design studio, Emotion. Despite her soothing and velvety tone, the actress, Miss Mao Daichi, is disdainful towards our protagonist; Mayuko’s “tacky” and “cheap” outfit choice of a simple grey suit and common white shirt being a point of contention. It definitely cuts through the hopeful thoughts of a fresh-graduate straight into the reality of working life.
Or rather, perhaps it’s straight into the reality of what it’s like to be a woman in the fashion industry. Yikes.
Introduction and Production
“Atelier” (or also known as アンダーウェア [Underwear] in it’s original Japanese title) is a 13 episode Japanese TV Series Drama created by Fuji Television for Netflix. Originally aired in 2015, the series follows the protagonist, Mayuko Tokita’s, as she ventures into the world of lingerie design. She struggles to learn and find her place in the new workplace; the made-to-order lingerie design house, Emotion run by Mayumi Nanjo. Miss Mayumi, being an industry legend well-known for her headstrong, enigmatic yet demanding artistic presence – she carries her ideals of beauty into her craft and work. Mayuko quickly realizes that her perception of beauty and her own determination to make her mark brings her to a constant head to head with her new boss, alluding to the constant debate of what ‘real’ beauty is.
Production wise, “Atelier” definitely had the upper hand of gorgeous set designs and occasional glimmers of brilliance within the series that made me hold my breath a little, though overall, it was honestly average in terms of cinematography and execution. Not that it’s a bad thing perse, since it definitely helped me focus solely on the characters and storytelling with far more clarity. Though, if you’re not used to J-Dramas, you might find it’s choice of music a little tacky. Then again personally, I wasn’t expecting much from the J-Drama standard for OSTs and music. Overall, the series stayed within the realm of expectation to what I consider an average J-Drama – so as a fan, I didn’t find myself disappointed with it. The production value doesn’t hinder the powerful scenes that happened throughout the series, finding it adequately agreeable on those accounts.
The cast itself, were strong in their acting chops, especially the crew of Emotion. Their heated debates and arguments packed a punch in comparison with other J-Drama’s I’ve watched before and I was very pleased to see they’ve addressed the balance of strong women and matured men very well.
“Atelier” may come across as your run-of-the-mill, uneventful J-drama based on it’s physical production alone. However, the true value lies in its core message and strength in execution of those said messages and ideas.
You can watch “Atelier” on Netflix
The Tasteful Execution of Portraying Woman in Power.
One of my favorite movie plot type is particularly about ones that portray strong women in power. There’s something inspiring about seeing women in a position of command and needless to say, it advantageously makes for an instant compelling story. Though a concern is that often times, I find many filmmakers tend to portray the women to be needlessly abrasive. Shows like “Empire (2015)” and “The Devil Wears Prada”, as wonderful as they are, thrives on this narrative style. Arguably, there’s the shock and entertainment value to be considered, but I find myself far more taken with stories where the women are mature, sure of themselves and are able to resolve conflict without overdramatising it or even having to have the men around those said women to be portrayed as inferior to them.
And this is something “Atelier” particularly excels at.
It would’ve been easy, or dare I say, acceptable, even for a character like Mayumi Nanjo to be mean to those around her, especially as the character has been pointed out to bear a striking resemblance to US Vogue Editor, Anna Wintour. The same person that was rumored to be the inspiration for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her character, Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”. Instead, they portray her in a light that showed you don’t have to be emotionally damaged and broken to be a powerful woman in the fashion industry.
They addressed the balance of strong women and matured men standing side-by-side very well. There wasn’t an overexertion to “glow-up” the women without justification and the male cast seem to be just as strong in presence as their female counterparts. It was refreshing to see women portrayed as head-strong, decisive and powerful without the men around them feeling inferior or need to overcompensate by being given overly masculine traits in exchange. This is a struggle I have with most (notably), western series.
If a man works for something perceived to be feminine like a lingerie design studio or the fashion industry, they are often times portrayed as the perfect playboy, a ‘hunk’ by most definitions or flat-out gay. Being any of the aforementioned types isn’t a problem, but the exclusivity of it being only those types of men seems to shout out how men that don’t fit either of these typecasts have no place in an industry made for women. The fact that “Atelier” addressed this without making it out to be a big deal was something I find charming. To see that Saruhide and Himeji didn’t feel overly conscious about their jobs being in a lingerie design house (the former more than the latter, notably), was definitely a breath of fresh air over the question of masculinity for straight men in the industry.
The fact that the creator, Daisuke Sekiguchi, didn’t feel the need to dumb down the men in order to have the women shine makes me feel more connected to the story. I believe that true strength is one that can be done without stepping on others and perhaps that is what gravitated me towards “Atelier” and its’ message about being in power as a woman.
Not to mention, the numerous relationships that the female characters have about supporting one another is surely one that had me feeling good at the end of every episode. I felt it was truly befitting that Emotion is a lingerie design house instead of anything else. It is a craft that is made for women, by women who support and push each other for the best. “Atelier” really pushed for the core theme without wearing out the viewers to feel like they’re being lectured for it should they feel otherwise.
As a female creator myself, I often time rely most on my female friends for advice and support that I might need due to circumstances that only a fellow female creator might understand. I often dread seeing women in industries trying to tear each other down, especially when we’re already outnumbered by the most part. It was nice to see the series advocate to a message I believe in to a broader audience.
Atelier’s discussion of the Importance of Aesthetics.
Right off the bat, the series starts off with the the ultimate question of “What is Beauty?” when both Mayuko and Mayumi brought the debate to light. It seemed painfully obvious that Mayumi detest Mayuko’s justification about downing aesthetics in favor of comfort whenever this question comes into the conversation. Especially as Mayumi prides herself about the importance of Aesthetics, making it the core of her craft and Emotion, to hear a young, naive University-graduate was definitely a vein-popping experience.
And it’s easy to say, it is a universal debate that is often times highlighted with women. Especially feminism being a constant topic of debate in society today, the discussion of how beauty standards are formed through societal pressures has often times been pointed out to be something that is instilled in us through a patriarchal society. This can be harmful and demeaning to women, especially when it affects living conditions such as employment opportunities or bully cases. And they are certainly all valid concerns, ones that I share myself., but I did notice the conversation has, overtime, shifted to demonizing self-grooming and beauty as something virulent for women. More often than not, I saw more bashing of women who value beauty as a reflection of their own self confidence than healthy discussions of how to handle our perception of beauty aptly. Somehow dressing up and wearing make up turned into an accusation of being ‘unnatural’ or worse, amplifying the toxic message perpetrated by our previous generations. I can’t help but feel that there must be a better way to go about this conversation where there is a balance for both sides; to be able to appreciate beauty without it being a crime.
Thankfully, as time passed since this debate is brought to light, there are more and more women that understand the importance of grooming themselves and making sure they are aesthetically taken care off without having to sacrifice their sense of self. Especially as a hijabi myself, it made me like wearing my hijab more when I learned to balance both sides of the arguments in my philosophy and understanding my own beauty.
As someone who grew up being taunted whenever I wore something as simple as a skirt or mascara, my 15-year-old self definitely resonated with Mayuko’s arguments however. Not that I’ve completely changed, but I definitely have come a long way from justifying my sloppy appearance under the guise of placing Comfort as a bigger importance. As women especially, being able to dress smart or adequately groom yourself is important. It affects the way you feel about yourself, how you carry yourself. A pair of heels may not change any gut-wrenching self esteem issues one might have, but being able to dress well will definitely help you fortify yourself against anything that comes your way. It’s not about looking beautiful or being any certain type of body type. It’s about harnessing your inner beauty to reflect on the outside. As visual creatures, you will feel good about yourself when you bring aesthetics into consideration. Inner Empowerment starts when you take care of yourself.
“Atelier” brings this discussion to an intricate level as you can see Mayumi Nanjo emphasize that it isn’t for the men that the aesthetics are there, but rather, women from all over the world have seek beauty because it is what it brings out. The discussion certainly held many layers and I felt that it took the viewers through them with thought and care, especially when it’s seen through Mayuko’s perspective.
Like a mother teaching her child, Mayumi took Mayuko by the hand and taught her from scratch about the importance of dressing well, especially in the industry. Particularly, the scene where she berated the Assistant Editor of Conscious, a women’s magazine for convincing Mayuko to enter an important socialite fashion event without dressing appropriately was one that was rather powerful to me. The fact Mayumi stood her ground and put the Editor back in his place for even thinking he has the right to have opinions about what women should wear certainly breathes new life into a scene about feminism. And I felt this demonstration was crucial, not just to Mayuko to understand the importance of how beauty is a woman’s weapon, but also to the viewers to think more about the concept of beauty beyond a superficial value.
And even for a veteran like Mayumi, the series showed her progress by charting her growth and own understanding of what beauty is. The two women have differing opinions about beauty but they respected and learned from one another. It shows that beauty is not a concept to be constrained on a surface level, but something that is multi-faceted, dimensional and is true as it is different to everyone who pursues it.
“Atelier” makes a powerful statement to about the idealization of Beauty with ease and it will definitely leave you thinking more than you’d expect by the end of the series.
Business and Branding: A Megaphone Shoutout to what Content Creators Need to Think About
Often times, as new creators, little passes our mind aside from bringing your creation to life. It is the exhilarating part of creating after all. To see your ideas go from mind to reality is often times, why creators choose to pursue their line of work.
But it is a common problem that creators tend to be less motivated or even undermine the other half of marketing your ideas: the Business aftermath. There were numerous times throughout the show that I felt it was highlighting the importance of this through the rollercoaster ride that Emotion’s members are taken on.
Mayuko progressively falls in love with creating throughout the series, but she is made to painfully realize the importance of Branding and Marketing to creators firsthand when she took on the PR job for Emotion upon their decision to do their very first Runway Show. From having their samples rejected outright, to watching how other companies bring free samples to model shoots in order to gain favor, it felt as though I was learning about how marketing took a lot more than I anticipated through Mayuko’s challenges. The struggles she went through was amplified when they’re one man short in the company but the challenges that are portrayed definitely showed how marketing and branding needs to be be given more than just a passing thought, especially to today’s Entrepreneurs and Creators. It’s speed, strategy and proper planning. What you communicate to your potential clients is what comes through with marketing; that’s how they know how much you care about your creations.
It is not enough to build a career out of it, if all you’re focused on is solely on the creation process.
We are lucky enough to be living in the world of globalization where the internet has made marketing so much easier. Today, marketing can start with a simple creation of an Instagram account but the core value of hard-work, human relations and networking or meeting your customers’ demands remains the same. Emotion has remained a custom made-to-order business prior to the protagonist’s appearance and there certainly are merits to that. I definitely related deeply as an Entrepreneur myself; being able to have a direct relationship with your customers adds a more human touch to business but I can’t deny that being able to balance that relationship and still amplifying your sales is a work of art. I’ve seen many successful Entrepreneurs achieve this but it’s always puzzled me on how it is done. And it seemed Emotion as a company struggled just as much as I did in understanding what is the perfect balance to achieve that.
This was particularly highlighted when the talk of expanding their business to a more commercial line had Mayumi decide on Emotion’s second line, Em. The crescendo of the arc with how it eventually turned into a battle between an exclusive design house versus a prêt-à-porter conglomerate company was a strong reminder that you can’t forsake one for the other. Especially how Mayumi, has once hastened herself to mass production, only to have it meet failure once. It led her to run Emotion as she does now. It shows that in a world where we’re used to instant gratification, it’s important that we understand that this isn’t something advisable for businesses. The sunburn-flinch-reaction that Mayumi has to her previous bad experiences was definitely something that made me think a lot. It’s not easy to see everything you build go down to the ground, it’s understandable that she was so adamant against having it happen again but staying stagnant isn’t something that is good either.
It certainly left me with a lot to think about where my own business is concerned. I’m someone who focuses heavily on the Production phase but after watching “Atelier”, it definitely left me with a higher awareness to add more care in how I market and brand my works. And no doubt, I hope that my fellow creators would consider it as well.
A Creator’s Love
Mayumi Nanjo is, no doubt, a strong presence in the series and a show stealer, but I definitely can see why “Atelier” is a story that came from Mayuko’s point of view as oppose to Mayumi or any other of the character in the series.
Mayuko is the only character that can highlight all the core messages that “Atelier” has without it coming off as too forceful for the viewers and one of it’s strongest narration is the story about a Creator’s relationship with their creations. Through Mayuko’s search for her role in Emotion, her passion for creating lingerie bloomed as did her questions involving creating something of her own. Like the Zero at the bottom of The Fool’s card, Mayuko was a blank canvas, eager to make her mark as she learns the importance of what it takes to go from the drawing board to a successful Runway.
But of course, the show wouldn’t have worked with just Mayuko’s perspective and discovery alone.
On the other hand, you have Mayumi. An industry veteran who has reputation and the portfolio to back up her heavy packed charisma. Her years of experience has already taught her what kind of creations she’s wanted to put out in the world and many times, succeeded in doing so. She is firm in her position at Emotion and leads the rest of the company without hesitation with her creations. If Mayuko is “The Fool”, then no doubt, Mayumi would be “The Temperance”; constant, sure and prideful.
The Love that goes into creating something you’re passionate about is something that’s amplified into the story. Mayumi herself has placed emphasis on Emotion remaining true to their call and to provide for paying customers. Even as stubborn as she is about making things the way she wants to, she wouldn’t even bat an eyelash changing designs should a customer ask for it; a feat that Mayuko herself witness during the course of the series.
Both Mayuko and Mayumi, often times seem to be two halves of a whole to make “Atelier”‘s narrative complete especially in the topic about Passion and Creators. They are “mother” and “child”, beginner and veteran, naivety and experience, admiration and adoration. It certainly was easy to see how neither of these characters would’ve made “Atelier” as intriguing without the other. Their disputes weren’t just written to create drama or turmoil but it was constructed to voice these different ideas and debates and it certainly was done effectively.
I find myself particularly fond of Mayumi as the series goes on, especially seeing that Emotion wasn’t just a design house to her. It was more than a company. It is her home and the staff are her family. Having had a broken marriage in the past and a fear of reconciliation with her family members, it wasn’t hard to see that lingerie creating to Mayumi is everything that made sense. Having being able to put her all into her creations gives her a calling to heed. It gave her a place in the world when she felt abandoned and discarded. Safe to say, that her reasons for devotion to her craft hits home for me a lot.
With that said, the contrast of Mayuko trying to find her place within Emotion was also something that’s hard to ignore. These two characters butt heads, arguing about their what is their ideals for Beauty but all the same, the work seamlessly side by side. At times, Mayuko becomes a valuable teacher to Mayumi herself and it was such a delight to see how their situations tend to reverse themselves- carrying a heavier weight than you’d think.
You see, the series highlights that both women can have different objectives and opinions to what beauty is and still pursue their idealization of it without putting each other down is something I felt, should be highlighted more by shows in mainstream media. With the age of the internet, it seems that the public more often than not always have complaints about what is being put out in the creative industry. It seemed universal and this is one of the things that has always been off putting to me, where engaging with the masses are concerned. The fact that it’s becoming common for individuals that feel entitled to send death threats to creators if they dislike how their creations turned out, is something that is devastating to me.
Everyone’s a critic, but not many have the perseverance to create themselves.
Mayuko’s relationship with her desire to create what she perceive is beauty is definitely a small whisper of reason to those that find themselves in that situation. That sometimes, to see what you want to see in the industry, all you have to do is create it yourself. Put into the world what you wish to see. Channel that frustration into something you can make because only then will you truly understand that love alone is not enough.
Dedication is perspiration as much as it is passion.
Overall, I felt that “Atelier” became a series that I loved more than I anticipated to. What started out as a curious pick turns into one of the best things I’ve seen in recent times, at least one that is themed around fashion as “Atelier” is. This was definitely how I would have prefer to feel at the end of “Devil’s Wear Prada”.
Often time, I admit, I’ve felt a little jaded with the Hollywood style of overly-aggressive and shock value-style of writing, which is why I often don’t delve into too many TV series that are from State side. It’s perhaps mainly personal preference, but I prefer stories to be told sincerely and with just enough dramatization to keep things exciting but at the same time balancing it out so it doesn’t become too much to watch without rolling my eyes. And “Atelier” manages to do quite a bit of that.
The series focuses all it’s story to highlighting the relationship between women in an industry. The importance of valuing your relationships with others, the strength and pluses of being kind, of putting people first in a business; things that aren’t usually highlighted by western media as strongly. There were truly moments where I felt this series really celebrated women of all ages and walks of life as they had episodes that center around stay-at-home-mums all the way to the elderly. They managed to tie in the human value of these women in a community to something like lingerie; something I admittedly wouldn’t have given much of a thought prior to watching this series.
I’ve seen a few reviews for “Atelier” mentioning how one of it’s drawbacks is that the series is too short. Though I think this might be due to the difference between western TV-series and Japanese TV-series. Unlike TV shows in most countries, Japanese Dramas usually don’t span further than 15 episodes. There are some that do but that is usually comes with the factor of high sponsorship and traction. Unlike American TV-series, Japanese Dramas are often pre-written and then shot on set as oppose to the American style of having different writers on different episodes.
I personally, prefer it this way since it doesn’t lead the series to the point of where it feels like it’s being dragged on for too long and the story turns stale before it ends, which is a problem I find myself having when it comes to American written series. Especially when the writers try to make things as explosively shocking and dramatic to shake the viewers back to interest, it cheapens the story value and thins my patience to see where they will take me. It usually feels like having a driver who doesn’t know where he wants to take you but insist you come on for the ride with him. It’s draining and even if I started out liking the series, I end up hating it when the final episode comes by (that is if I hadn’t dropped it altogether before).
“Atelier”‘s 13 episodes and slotted roughly 30-40 minute per episode style is the perfect slice to your everyday for you to follow without it feeling too consumed.
The series left me with a sense of purpose and empowerment and I found it’s relatability factor to be tremendous despite not being in the fashion or lingerie production making career myself. I could relate to President Mayumi’s desire to keep to her brand and quality but struggle with various external pressures such as your family, the expectations of others or even internal pressures like insecurity, self-doubt and age. And it was just as well as I could relate to the young Mayuko’s fiery desire to find her place in the industry she loves. To find something that only you can do and create and bring it to life, it is an uphill battle.
It is such a refreshing thing to see a story about empowered women pursuing their passions that still balances a good amount of human relations, the question about where they fit in society, and romance without discarding one for the other.
For those that feel like they’re in a rut when it comes to creating their content, especially my fellow Lady Bosses, I’d highly recommend watching “Atelier”. It might just open your eyes to perspectives that would help you see something more and most definitely, it will be a series that leaves you feeling hopeful and ready to go to leave your mark in the world.