Asian dramas and women through the ages: Sungkyunkwan Scandal and The Glass House

For some reason, several of the dramas I’ve seen recently have tackled, whether as the primary topic or as a secondary one, the question of the role of women in society. They were set in vastly different times, and arguably conveyed similar messages about what women — and men too — should always try to do: something they love and can take pride in. Admittedly, this can seem difficult, especially in societies where financial stability is often placed above happiness. But whilst both dramas land on the same side of the debate, the way they were crafted produced different experiences for this viewer, one that I will look back on nostalgically, and one that I would rather forget.

The famous Jalgeum Quartet
The famous Jalgeum Quartet

The first of the two, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, is set in Korea in the late 18th century, when women were not allowed to be educated or employed. During the final years of King Jeongjo’s reign, a young woman disguises herself as her brother in order to support her mother and sickly brother, her father having died some years earlier. One of the odd jobs she takes on does not go as planned, and she finds herself enrolled in Sungkyunkwan, the Joseon Dynasty’s highest educational institution, whose students mostly graduate to take their places in the elite bureaucracy. Struggling to hide her gender (if found out, she faces execution) whilst navigating the tricky politics of both the student body and the bureaucracy and government of the day, she forms several strong relationships with three fellow students — the four of them becoming known as the popular “Jalgeum Quartet” — and finds herself involved in the King’s quest for his grandfather’s rumoured will, which will change the politics of Joseon forever…

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How goes the journey that leads from powerlessness to glory?

Sungkyunkwan Scandal was a lot of fun to watch, particularly because I saw it with my housemates. One episode in particular had me laughing so hard that I kept pausing the video, much to the chagrin of my fellow viewers! I also liked how each of the main characters had a definable character arc that was heavily connected with the questionable institutionalised discrimination that was so prevalent during the Joseon period — not just with regards to the place of women in society, but also with regards to class and the role of the bureaucracy. However, I felt that the ending was neither here nor there in terms of what seemed to be the most important question, the one about the role of women. Whilst I understand that history cannot be changed, the strange limbo that Kim Yong Hee would have found herself at the end makes no sense to me. Was she living as a woman whilst teaching at Sungkyunkwan, even though the restrictions that women faced remained in place for many more years? Or was she fated to spend the rest of her days pretending to be a man, except to a select few? The former is just strange, whilst the latter belies the potency of the message that the drama seemed to want to convey.

The second show, The Glass House (Glass no Ie), has us witnessing a forbidden love that begins the newly married Shibusawa Rei comes to live in the house of her husband, Kazunari, a successful bureaucrat in Japan’s Ministry of Finance. They met by chance when visiting the memorial to a plane accident off France’s Pointe de Pen Hir, which claimed the lives of Rei’s parents and Shibusawa Miyuki, his first wife and the mother of his two adult sons, who still live at home, obedient to their father’s guidance. But there is only a seven year age difference between Rei and the older son, Hitoshi, who soon finds himself falling in love for the first time… At the same time, Hitoshi finds himself increasingly drawn to Muraki Yousuke, a politician who has been advocating reform of the bureaucracy as a first and necessary step for getting Japan out of its decades-long economic slump. This puts him at odds with his father, who is aiming for one of the posts that would be cut if Muraki were to come into power…

Once she moved in, the once happy household turned to glass...
Once she moved in, the once happy household turned to glass…

This drama was recommended to me by one of my friends, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was based around what I would call a ‘political family’, a family heavily involved in Japanese bureaucracy, thus making it an interesting glimpse into the world of Japanese politics, my current focus of study. It was a little light on the politics, though I did hear some interesting terms and phrases as I was watching it, but it nevertheless presented a quick glimpse of some of the views about the bureaucracy that have been held in recent times. As people who followed the rise and fall of the Democratic Party of Japan would know, one of the things that the DPJ did when they came into power in 2009 was to do away with the vice ministerial meetings that were perceived to be the mechanism by which Tokyo’s top bureaucrats controlled policy. However, the prime ministers and their cabinets, who were in power for the first time, had too few links to people in the bureaucracy that could actually help them carry out their policies. Whilst I also think that the vested interests of bureaucratic officials (and heck, even of elected officials!) can be a barrier to effective policy-making and implementation, reality shows that solutions are never as straightforward as the idealistic vision that Hitoshi committed himself to.

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And how does this submissive woman take charge of her own life?

The second reason that this drama was recommended to me is that it addresses some views about the roles of men and women in society that people in Western societies probably don’t really encounter these days, but which apparently still have a significant presence in Japan. I’ll admit that this was quite an eye-opener for me: Kazunari’s efforts to dominate both his wife and his sons had me gaping. Showing jealousy over the slightest showing of skin, showing possessiveness by banning Rei from part-time work and refusing to speak to her about his work — he really shouldn’t have been surprised when she finally succumbed to the loneliness of her situation and resolved to leave and regain control over her own life… However, even though I found it quite thought-provoking, the presentation of the drama spoilt it for me. In particular, the music was overbearingly intrusive at times, and especially in conjunction with the long closeups, made it all seem a little melodramatic. I would have preferred a more realistic presentation, so whilst I did learn a few interesting things about some parts of Japanese society, I was incredibly glad when I was finally done with this show. Needless to say, it’s one that I won’t be watching again.

P.s. Change, a drama from 2010 that’s much more focused on the Japanese political scene, is probably a better choice for the student of Japanese political language!

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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