Jdrama Review: Tohai Season 1

Tohai [凍牌] is a 2013 Japanese drama that revolves around high school student K [Maeda Goki] who is a gifted mahjong player. When his family ends up leaving Japan (I think his mom, dad, and sister leave for his father’s work), he remains in an apartment by himself and unwittingly gets sucked into the dangerous world of underground mahjong. At first he only seeks thrills, but he soon continues on when half-Japanese illegal immigrant Amina [Akane from Actry] comes into his care. This drama is based on a manga series of the same name by Shinasaka Koji which has a sequel and spin-off manga series as well. There is also a second season, but no complete English subtitles. How sad.

I’m not quite sure why I picked this drama up, but one weekend when I was feeling under the weather I started watching this and could not stop until I had finished the last episode. Since this drama is delving into yakuza and illegal gambling, the majority of episodes center around K playing mahjong and his getting chosen as a candidate to work in a gang as a representative player. Despite a heavy focus on actual mahjong games and tons of internal monologue, I did not find this drama boring in the slightest and was always awaiting the next game which would bring the next crisis our cool high school student will have to overcome.

Between this drama and Akagi, I really became interested in mahjong. Being an American, my game experience is relegated to common board games, card games (Smear, Hand and Foot, etc.), dice games (Yahtzee, Greedy), and of course Dominoes. I know nothing about mahjong (I have played computer mahjong games, but they were nothing like what was showcased) and was quite lost during the games. Sure, the inner monologues help to an extent, but when you don’t understand about tiles, points, and the overall rules, it does make games very hard to follow. So…I’d really love to learn how to play. I think it would be fun and interesting, although I’m not the best at games like these. It’s a testament of a drama or movie if you become intrigued in a game or sport and wish to learn.

Back to the drama. The acting on a whole was good with a few parts where we have overacting. With Amina…I’m not 100% certain on her acting. Akane overall didn’t have many lines and since she was from a foreign country, her Japanese wasn’t the best so when Amina speaks, the acting actually goes down versus when she just has to express her character silently. Maeda’s K was interestingly played. You can see the genius youth and his feelings of superiority and invincibility and you can see the storied mahjong player with ice running through his veins. Normally, Maeda needs to keep his cool and be expressionless and he does this very well without making it seem like he’s a bad actor. When K’s facade starts crumbling and you can see the emotions underneath, you realize just how great a job Maeda is really doing.

K, of course, has a fellow student who has a crush on him and is always trying to insert herself into his life. Her acting is very natural. Of course K doesn’t really want anything to do with her and he barely tolerates her advances. He does give her some advice on gambling, though, when she keeps losing a card game played during break. Of course, since K has found Amina, he doesn’t see anyone else but her. Amina was essentially K’s “winnings” from his first ever illegal game. Something in her eyes spoke to him and he forwent the purse and set her free from her prison. Of course the unsavory and intelligent Seki [Ichijo Satoshi] uses Amina’s existence and illegal status to pull K deeper and deeper into the world of mahjong. So yeah. From the get go, you know not to trust Seki as you can smell the deviousness oozing from his every pore. K does eventually realize that helping Amina to be safe is partly an excuse – he plays these illegal games for the thrill of not knowing what move will end it all (meaning his life).Maeda Goki as K/KeiAs brilliant as K his, his initial start in the underground world was full of missteps and naivety. He is lucky he came out on top. Since that rocky first game, he steadily climbed the ranks and became famous in the underground world for his cold and collected playing and his ability to freeze out his opponents. Along the way, K meets new and formidable players. One player is his first big challenge and essentially makes K break even. I really enjoyed the character of Dojima [Hidekazu Ichinose] who was the first to show K that while he’s smart and good at memorization, there are waves in mahjong that you need to learn to ride to achieve and even greater victory. After seeing the cold K, seeing him thaw and show his emotions and realize what is important is nice and Dojima shows us a great chink in K’s armor and playing.

Dojima is just as notorious in the underground world, but he is not necessarily known just on skill alone, but on how he sets out to completely annihilate other gifted players with his unique style. When playing games, Dojima is quick to risk it all and is completely not motivated by money as reward, but by the game itself and how well it ends up being played. His honor and willingness to prove himself by putting his own enjoyment and life on the line shows just how devoted and how much a real man he was.

So while I liked the drama, acting, and plot overall, there was a few drawbacks. Some of the crazier overacting outbursts were just too much, plus we have a little bit of violence that I can’t really stand, like the dismembered little toe and K deciding to prove his loyalty to the gang he only joined on Seki’s order to get Amina legal status in Japan by essentially gutting himself. That part wasn’t as much of a problem as the emergency first aid which involved sake and a stapler. I still shudder at that. I have a weak stomach and am not good with that stuff. One reason why I stay far away from horror and slasher films. Ah, another drawback was the overall plot with Amina and K. Our high school boy doesn’t really show any emotion to the girl until after the first half of the series. Given K’s personality, that’s not surprising and once we learn their back story, his connection to the girl makes sense. The problem comes with K’s manic drive to save Amina makes him blind to the fact that Amina has some very real health issues. Amina, probably not understanding K’s attachment and how deep it runs, keeps this all from him as she’s afraid he’ll kick her to the curb once he finds out. It’s frustrating.

Of course while this season has some resolution, especially with Seki’s master plan to takeover the gang K joined being thwarted by K, there’s still a cliffhanger. Our gang leaders mention that something has just started and we don’t know Amina’s fate. While K was playing the final game, she herself was doing even worse. So is she still alive for now? We don’t know. I’m sure we’ll find out in season 2. I can’t wait for subtitles to be complete.

The inner monologues during game play may turn some other people off along with the majority of concentration solely being on the playing of mahjong, but I recommend this drama. It’s a nice slice of suspense and, like I said, got me interested in learning more about the game being so passionately played.

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