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In Atelier, a fabric-obsessed country girl named Mayuko starts a job at Emotion, a haute couture underwear shop in Tokyo's upscale Ginza neighborhood. There, Mayuko learns about the biz from Ms. Mayumi Nanjo, Emotion's founder and lead designer. Mayuko calls her "the boss." The boss is styled after Anna Wintour — from glossy pageboy haircut to pointy slingback heels. In any American piece of media about workplace leadership, from The Office to The Devil Wears Prada, we'd see her underlings talk shit about her for half of a thirteen episode arc. That doesn't happen in Atelier. Mayuko unequivocally respects her tough employer.
In the past couple of years, I've found myself devoted to a handful of Korean and Japanese dramas that have become crossover hits in the United States and Latin America. Like any red-blooded American, I love watching hot people in soft lighting use tiny cell phones. But what I love most about dramas from east Asia is how distinctly foreign they feel to me as an American girl roughly the same age as most of their protagonists. Geum Jan Di of K-Drama hit Boys Over Flowers may be headstrong like I was as a teenager, but she works hard on behalf of her parents above all else. The same thread runs through Atelier. The show is polite and deferential to its elders, concepts that I've never seen executed without some sinister motive on TV here.
In a lot of senses, I'm like Mayuko. I don't work in fashion, but I am a Midwesterner who is trying to make money as a writer in New York City. I'm not a native, and I'm certainly not as refined many people in the same industry. Unlike Mayuko, some of the things I've said about my bosses are too unspeakable to even allude to here. At one point, Mayuko apologizes to her boss for being late to the dress rehearsal of a fashion show after hitting her head and going into a coma. If I fell into a coma on the job, I'd probably tweet about it and then immediately pursue legal options. I complain a lot, and I've gotten drunk with co-workers too many times. Mayuko would never deign to do either. Atelier is primarily a show about taste — what it means, who doesn't have it — and my American proclivities are vulgar.
That's the particular charm of J-Dramas like this one. They're intense, but there's no bad-mouthing, no nudity, no violence, no drugs, and no rock and roll (Atelier's Lite FM-style credits theme is almost unlistenable). At one point, the viewer thinks there might be sex between Mayuko and her intern, but the entire romantic arc ends in a short series of text messages about believing in each other's business acumen and fabric dye-ing abilities. The world built in Atelier is minuscule and complicated, mostly concerned with whether or not the lingerie business should expand into a mass-produced second line. There's a lot of paperwork. But despite all those knocks against it, I stayed hooked.
Some elements of Atelier were deeply confusing to me, American or not. The final three episodes, in which we discover Nanjo has a son that she gave up for Emotion, seem at once drawn out and tacked on. A Carolina Herrera salesperson becomes integral to Emotion's success after an already-successful runway show. Mayuko is repeatedly called frumpy and classless, even though she's gorgeous and passionate. Japan's hottest fictional fashion magazine Conscious devotes an entire issue to a single brand. There's some dialogue about spending time with a pet cat that appeared to be sexually suggestive and wholly elusive to me. Emotion's famed lingerie was just meh. Mayuko's own line of jersey-cotton camisole and boyshort lingerie-hybrids is downright ugly.
Atelier is sometimes boring, but it's a treat to watch a workplace show without malice or a mean spirit. Ultimately, the series empowers its viewers to understand that what others cannot see (like our Underwear, which is the Japanese title for Atelier) is the actual, truest reflection of a person. Fans of sports bras and bustiers alike will enjoy the gentle support of its primary message.
Claire Carusillo is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.