A Japanese Atelier

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The word “binge” comes heavily into use at this time of year.

Alcohol and chocolate are common splurges, but relaxing activities of all sorts can become crazy bad habits  when you’ve got holiday time away from work. I’ve a confession to make: I’m binging on something I very rarely imbibe: television.

Murder Under the Mistletoe: one of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix
Murder Under the Mistletoe: one of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix

Typically, there’s so much computer usage in my day that I’m spent by evening and have no more interest in screens.  But during Christmas 2014, I forced myself to make use of our Netflix subscription. I fell in love with “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” from Australia—and to my regret was done with all episodes of the first two seasons in two weeks, including the infamous Christmas Special pictured above. Next I moved onto “Bletchley Circle,” a suspenseful BBC miniseries. International TV was better than I’d ever thought! As the holidays ended, I lost the time for my new hobby and returned to work.

This past Christmas Day, once the gifts were opened and papers and boxes captured for recycling, I got to work on my binge project. My requirements were lovely cinematography, an international locale and either humor or love.

Netflix suggested a series called “Atelier” based on my past, pitifully few selections.  Description: A young “fabric geek” lands a job at an upscale Japanese lingerie company and quickly discovers she’ll need help to survive.” Performed in Japanese, the subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish, opening the show to viewers in many countries. In Japan, the show title is bit more blunt: “Underwear.”

Mirei Kiratani stars in a an original Netflix series called "Atelier" worldwide
Mirei Kiratani stars in a an original Netflix series called “Atelier” worldwide

Before tuning in, I was suspicious the lingerie aspect might mean the show was exploitative, but I was happily proven wrong. Atelier is a 13-episode series featuring an awkward, plainly spoken university graduate named Mayuko who gets an entry-level job at Emotion, a legendary atelier (designer’s salon) specializing in custom-made lingerie.

In Japan, "Atelier" is titled "Underwear"
In Japan, “Atelier” is titled “Underwear”

Who is the oddball heroine? Mayuko explains to a co-worker that her first name is written with the kanji character meaning cocoon; this is nicely symbolic for a girl with a deep love for silk and other fibers—and a person who grew up raised only by a father who worked at a textile factory in the country. She’’s been entirely insulated from modern femininity. Mayuko wears the same gray business suit with a white button down shirt and black Mary Jane flats in at least the first three shows. Her boss calls it “tacky,” and this very typical Japanese business suit gets her expelled from a chic party on Episode 3.

Emotion’s team of six experienced professionals teach Mayuko about the mysterious power of style, the construction of garments, and providing the world’s best customer service when selling bra-and-panty sets for $1000 apiece. Mayuko makes lots of mistakes, but is forgiven by her formidable boss, Nanjo-san, who has a heart of gold behind all the lace and underwire.

Girl in a Box by Sujata MasseyI wrote an eleven-book mystery series set in Tokyo. In these novels, the young Japanese-American heroine Rei Shimura rhapsodized about Japanese customer service and lovely products she could not afford to buy. One of these books, Girl in a Box, is set in a fictional Ginza department store. When I was writing the first draft, I returned to Japan and tried to set up research visits at several department stores. I was always politely refused. The only way I could learn about Japanese retail was through my own shopping and secret interviews of retail employees at cocktail bars and restaurants! At the time, I was happy to get this stealth intelligence; however, what I’ve absorbed from watching Atelier is more illuminating.I had a glorious time living near Tokyo in the early 1990s. During these days, I was a devout visitor to department stores in Tokyo’s Ginza. I could tell if I’d been shopping too long by glancing up at the iconic Seiko clock tower atop the Wako department store–a lovely sight that is shared on Atelier. 

Ginza Wako Clock

I always felt safer when I was living in Japan: a fairytale lifestyle that was bound to end. “Atelier” has provided me a surprising return to that serenity, one hour at a time.

2 thoughts on “A Japanese Atelier”

  1. Hmmmm… how do I write about Atelier and not sound like a dirty old man? It’s the new collaboration between and Netflix & Fuji TV and I stumbled onto it the same way you did. It was “suggested” by Netflix based upon my “viewing habits.” It is NOT Fredricks of Hollywood and it is NOT Victoria’s Secret. It is somehow so Japanese and yet it is, as is often the case in Japan, a “refinement” of something quite Western. It is Western business, small business and it shows the two paths, one moral the other…. not. Maybe I should say one with honor and the other, well, profit at any cost. Sound familiar? So American.
    My wife and I own a small jewelry design business and have owned it for about the same length of time as Nanjo-san. 35 years and I find that we have wrestled with each and every issue presented in the 13 episodes that we happily devoured over two weeks of Christmas Vacation. Employees that soak up all that you have to teach and then feel they either “deserve to be a partner in the business” because of their so called ‘sweat equity’, though they risk nothing while being paid wages, vacations, health benefits, bonuses, and profit sharing; or employees that have continuous complaints about what is wrong with our business, but have few solutions. We have also experimented with how to grow the business without “losing the business” to a greedy department store and been sued and accused of stealing our own designs that they were happily copying. FYI: design patents and copyrights do not enforce themselves. It takes “money” and often comes down to who has more money and not what is necessarily right. Anyway, this series made us practically swoon and weep at the same time. So beautiful, so tasteful… so similar. I’ve been to the Ginza area of Tokyo, Japan and I will say: the women know how to dress. Wow! And it’s NOT in gym clothes or daytime pajamas. It’s feminine and it’s “beauty”… which we think IS the object of design. Not “novelty”, not shock, but beauty. Is it too much to ask? Cheers.

  2. I for one just love your Rei Shimura character and look forward to more books. I just finished Kizuna Coast, the first appearance by Ms. Shimura in many many years.

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