In a nutshell: An absolutely delightful drama that manages to take a plot so standard you’ll know how it ends as soon as it begins, but tell it with such a light and careful touch it feels like a restrained coming of age tale. (Well — relatively restrained. There’s enough comedy to tie the drama firmly to its shoujo-manga roots.) It’s filled with characters drawn so broadly they verge on caricature, but given emotional beats so honest they feel real and relatable. It’s an easy watch, a fun watch and, most importantly, a satisfying watch. Based off of a hugely popular manga, several drama-versions have already been made. But, even if you’ve seen every other version out there, do not miss this one.
The Plot: Girl sees Boy. Girl falls head over heels for Boy. Boy doesn’t realize Girl exists. But fate is quite mischievous and pushes Boy and Girl onto a pathway towards each other. (This isn’t a spoiler, by the way; I’ve pretty much outlined the opening credits.) In many ways this is a fantasy-tale custom made for any girl who’s ever had an impossible crush. (So, pretty much all girls ever.) It’s a universal story that the drama keeps compelling by keeping it simple.
There are a few big twists of fate but it’s not the plot-twists that bring the viewers to the yard. On the contrary, the plot slips quietly past moments that could have tangled into melodramatics, focusing instead on the simpler, more human aspects of the story. It’s our two main characters and their journey into love and adulthood that create the pull.
The simple directing style is a great help there as well. The camera stays on our characters as they go through big emotional beats — keeping our focus on their faces. So we get to fully witness and feel their realizations and resolutions, their pains and their joys.
The Girl: The heart of the drama is Aihara Kotoko — a bright and friendly girl. She’s not the best student, more for lack of discipline than lack of ability, but she’s refreshingly optimistic, amusingly enthusiastic, and deeply caring of her circle of friends and her widowed father. We’re with her as she grows from high school student to college student, transitioning from child to adult.
It’s easy to relate to Kotoko and the challenges she faces: nursing an impossible crush, stressing over college entrance exams, figuring out her place in the world. Each challenge brings its own mix of laughter and tears, struggle and growth. Actress, Miki Honoka was sixteen at the time of filming and she brings a clarity and honesty to her role. Even at her silliest Kotoko felt real. It was that realism and honesty that made her failures hit so hard and made her victories feel so sweet.
The Boy: A much less forgiving role is that of perfect student and ice prince, Irei Naoki. He begins the drama as more an ideal than an actual person. All of his achievements come easily — he’s a top student who doesn’t study, a top athlete who doesn’t train. And he’s apparently without goals or dreams or attachments. Where Kotoko is all too human, Naoki is all too divine. It’s easy to see why he’s desired but it’s harder (at first) to see how he could be loved.
Meeting his family is a giant first step. They are completely unlike what you’d expect: a jolly and friendly father, a delightfully ditzy mother, an adoring yet snarky little brother — they provide the personality Naoki lacks himself. But as Kotoko wriggles into Naoki’s life, his personality begins to shine through in little bursts and glimmers.
Actor, Furukawa Yuki, helped provide the next steps. Self-contained with quietly restrained reactions we only get brief glimpses beneath the mask, but Furukawa makes the most of those little moments. Which build into bigger and bigger moments as Naoki melts into a real live human being. When he does have emotional scenes it feels like it’s Naoki relaxing into his true self, rather than Furukawa jarringly breaking character.
Fate’s Path: In many ways, the larger journey is Naoki’s as he transitions from icily perfect to warmly human. A journey he’s only able to make because Kotoko is there nudging and challenging him on. But the central journey is definitely Kotoko’s as she begins to figure out who she is and what’s important to her.
It’s a common journey in that it’s one we’re all on, but it’s not a simple one and the drama treats it with the care and respect it deserves — not dressing it up with unnecessary flairs and flourishes. It can, however, be a warm and empowering journey as fun as it is frightening, and the drama doesn’t forget that either. There’s much more laughter than tears to this story.
Love Triangle: There is, however, a love triangle. It’s a common aspect of this kind of tale, something I consider a (sometimes un)necessary evil. I didn’t love it’s inclusion here, mainly because it means someone’s heart will be broken. However, I can (begrudgingly) see why it was necessary. (If any boy needed sexual jealousy to prod him along, our ice prince was that boy.)
Ikezawa Kinnosuke (or Kin-chan) is the forever friend-zoned leg of the triangle, crushing on Kotoko as hard as she’s crushing on Naoki. Yamada Yuki plays the part with a clownish brashness but also a deep and abiding loyalty. He’s a male version of Kotoko and he’s a wonderful friend and support to her and, at times, a much needed kick in the ass for Naoki. His character is neither wasted nor forgotten — but he could possibly break your heart.
In Conclusion: Beautifully written and directed and excellently cast, Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo is a fun and fluffy coming of age, romantic comedy that manages to root itself into something earthy and substantial. The story is nothing new, with characters that could easily slip into stereotype. But the journey is refreshing and the characters remain real and relatable. It’s easy to digest but it’s a story that will stick with you. Definitely one to watch.