Seeing double drama with Korean and Japanese TV: “Suspicious Housemaid” VS. "Kaseifu no Mita"

#Kdrama #SuspiciousHousemaid  VS. #KaseifuNoMita

Review / Comparison

Hello. This is a Korean in America. This is a multipart series of comparing Korean adaptations of Japanese Drama series and vice versa. For part 3, I'll go over the 2 versions of “Suspicious Housemaid”. Unlike the previous installments, I am doing this while the K-drama adaptation of “Kaseifu no Mita” is still being aired. While usually I would like to do an article after I have seen all the series of the adaptation. I do not feel it necessary in this case. The difference between the original and adaptation is so obvious from the start.

Suspicious Housemaid” which is an adaption of “Kaseifu no Mita” starts with a mysterious housemaid’s first day on the job at a new family. This particular family desperately needs some domestic help since the mother died not so long ago leaving a husband and several young kids. “Kaseifu no Mita” aired in 2011 and is seen as a classic J-drama. “Suspicious Housemaid” is a K-drama adaptation which is currently being aired. The adaptation generally follows the original’s plot but changes some character’s personalities and rearranges sequence of events to varying degree.

I have heard some say that this is a “Mary Poppins” setting with the Housemaid essentially taking the role of nanny in that famous book and movie adaptation. Just from the setting, this may seem a valid comparison. However, at its core, “Kaseifu no Mita” is the quintessential ant-“Mary Poppins” tale. 

What is “Mary Poppins” about?

It is the tale of an essentially supernatural being actively teaching the family about how to be a family and about love.  Not only are the children the recipients of these lessons but even the father who is an adult is not excluded from Mary Poppins’ teachings. On the surface, this seems to be nothing more to this story. But if you look underneath the surface, you see some philosophical finger prints of the early 20th century Americana. 

Mary Poppins is a teacher who teaches her students who are the family she is entrusted with. What gives Mary Poppins the authority to teach?
It is the sense of superiority in knowledge and wisdom that gives Mary Poppins the power to teach. Yes…The supernatural powers and, in the case of the movie version, catchy songs do also contribute to some degree. But the backbone of her influence is the sense of superiority.

And this is a well establish relationship in the area of education. Most educational institutions are based on this type of relationship between the teacher and pupil. However, as seen in numerous examples, there are issues with this relationship type. One of those issues is the placement of agency in the education relationship. It lies with the teacher and not the pupil.  Mary Poppins is the one with agency. The family is just the reluctant recipients.

Kaseifu no Mita and the surrender of Agency
“Kaseifu no Mita” basically flips this relationship on its head. The Mary Poppins standin is the one who lacks agency and the family are the ones with agency. More accurately, the housemaid “Mita” is totally void of agency as she surrendered all of her agency to avoid her psychological pain.  By following the orders of her charges without a hesitating, she becomes detached from all things. 

She becomes a servant.
She becomes a robot.
She becomes a golemA thing carved out of stone that has no soul and does the bidding of its master.

How does this fit in with the family? 
She becomes the facilitator of the family’s impulses, wants and needs. By acting upon orders based on these factors in an impartial manner, she creates an action that generates feedback and consequence. Because she is just a facilitator, this feedback is not for the housemaid. It is for the family members who ordered the action. It is their motivations. It is their actions. It is their feedback… And it is their learning.  The family members are the ones with the agency in the learning process.

The lack of students’ agency in the learning process has been an issue in Japanese for a long time. The hierarchical social structure and failure of that structure had caused a lot of social problem in Japan including the breakdown of the nuclear family. Thus, “Kaseifu no Mita” is a criticism of Japan at its core. In this way, it shares similarities with “The Queen’s Class Room” discussed in part 1 of this series.

The Queen’s Class Room” also emphasized the need for the students to take agency in their education and lives. However, the difference is that the teacher was still superior over her students. It was the students’ role to challenge her and retake their agency.  “Kaseifu no Mita” removes even this limited degree of agency from the housemaid character. It is the family who has agency and it is their responsibility to learn using it.
And they desperately need to learn.

Kaseifu no Mita and the family
When you look at the family in “Kaseifu no Mita”, they are not necessarily bad people. They are just immature. This includes the father. The self-centeredness, the avoidance of responsibility and the lack of consideration is a symptom of this immaturity. From the first episode, the relationship between the father and children is odd. Yes, the father seems to be barely above water. Yes, trying to be friends with your children is not a bad thing. However, the father acts like he is on his children’s level of maturity rather than trying to be friends with his children. Even the incident with his wife’s death and his adultery seems to originate from his immaturity rather than him being a bad guy. He simply was not mature enough to understand and accept what is means to be married and creating a family. In that area, his romantic relationships are at the same level as his oldest daughter’s relationship.

Why do I say that they are not bad people? It is because of how they react to housekeeper’s obedience. In some immature circles, having an obedient servant is a fantasy which leads to indulgence and abuse. The fact that housekeeper was not treated in this manner is clear evidence of the family’s basic good nature.
Yes, the children make housekeeper do some amusing things. Yes, the son asked the housekeeper to strip as challenge. Yes, the younger son asked her to kill his bully.
But this was more because they were child being curious and did not really understand that this had consequences. They all stopped her before anything serious happened. And once understood what the housemaid would do, they stopped giving her careless commands. They learned responsibility and to consider consequences.

This tale of growth and healing is extremely difficult to execute without the restrictions of the setup. It is easier to show teaching rather than the characters learning on their own. By turning the key to series into a golem, “Kaseifu no Mita” binds its hands, locks itself in a steel safe, drops the safe in the ocean and throws the key off a cliff. The fact that it is able to succeed is a miracle and why “Kaseifu no Mita” is a classic J-drama.

Elements that make Kaseifu no Mita a classic
There are several factors that make this possible.

First,  Nanako Matsushima who played the housemaid was fantastic. The housemaid character has several difficult requirements.

In regard to the character’s background motivations, the housemaid should feel like a person who suffered more than she could bare and decided to just turn off a switch in her head. She still sees everything going around her. She understands everything but just decided to not care beyond the instructions she has been given.

In executions, the character needs not to be invisible. In order to be a facilitator, you have to be present in the family members’ mind as a dangerous yet valid option and not just the help. At the same time, a piece of the old beautiful person still needs to remain in her in order for the family members to think about what their orders mean and generate a sense of reliability of the housemaid in their minds.

I would describe Nanako Matsushima’s portrayal as Mary Poppins after she was saved from a Torture porn movie without her powers. Her body and soul is in pieces but, if you look closely you can still see the shadow of the Mary Poppins… beautiful and damaged. 

Second, the characters were all tailored to fit their functions without any remaining fat. This means that they are not overly complicated beyond the story’s needs or just to create more drama.

Every main character other than the housemaid and the agency owner are obviously immature.  This includes even the father in law. It is wonderful to see that this is displayed as request for opinions towards the housemaid. From the first episode, every main character is in a rush to pass on his or her agency to the housemaid and the housemaid responds by shutting them down without hesitations.

At the same time, they are so desperate for something stable that there is no serious consideration regarding removing the housemaid even after she facilitates some orders with serious consequences.

Finally, the pacing of the plot is tight and is very insular. The plot starts with the introduction of the housemaid. Then, it speeds into the obvious issues and then to the more underlining problems exploding and being resolved. During this portion of the plot, the housemaid is just this mysterious being that the family quickly become accustomed to. The focus is on the family members learning. It is only at the end of the plot does the family member get to understand the housemaid and her story.

 The plot is fast, clean, and impactful. There is no distraction to the main theme of learning, growing, and healing. As a result, most of the non-family aspect of the plot is kept to a minimum.

“Kaseifu no Mita” is a Gothic fantasy with social commentary. Any disruption to the Gothic fantasy element destroys the audience’s suspension of belief. This leads to the social commentary feeling contrived or hitting the nose. Any off message elements included for superficial reasons deludes the social commentary. The combination of these factors keeps “Kaseifu no Mita” heading due north.

The K-drama adaption “Suspicious Housemaid”
None of these factors are in the K-drama adaption “Suspicious Housemaid”. Even the title is not suited to the theme of the J-drama original. It puts too much emphasis on a specific characteristic of the housemaid which is not an accurate description. The housemaid may be mysterious but she is not Suspicious. This conveys a negative connotation and an intent on the part of the housemaid. However, the housemaid had no intention in the original. The J-drama title, “Kaseifu no Mita”, can be translated into just “Housekeeper, Mita”. There is nothing to covey any hidden connotation.

More to the point, the fact that she had no intentions was the point in the original. “Kaseifu no Mita” was not a story about Mita the housemaid. It was about the family. The K-drama adaption “Suspicious Housemaid”, shifts the focus to the housemaid and away from the family. You have the plot cover the investigation and intrigue far more upfront and in detail than the original even before the family’s issues are resolved. As a result, the series diverts from the main theme of the original.

In addition, this subplot further divides the family rather than drawing them closer together by creating conflict without learning. The plot of the original moves forward by having the family members interact with the housemaid. This leads to learning cycle: action, feedback, and learning. The intrigue subplot does not initiate this learning cycle. So, the story does not have focus.

Changes to the family dynamic
One change that is very noticeable in the K-drama adaption is the change to the initial relationship dynamic between the family members. “Suspicious Housemaid” introduced the concept that the family was separated for a long time with the Philippine story line  This was not in the original.  In “Kaseifu no Mita”, the family was together while the father had his affair. By creating this separation, “Suspicious Housemaid” is trying to provide s justifiable reason for the affair and bring something topical into the story. The concept of “geese dads” who stay in Korea to earn money while the whole family goes abroad for education is very topical in Korea. However, in  “Suspicious Housemaid”, this seems like a copout and an unwillingness to push the theme by creating an excuse for the father.

In “Kaseifu no Mita”, the father acted in the specific manner he acted because he was immature. He represents the breakdown of social hierarchy and the blurring the gap between adult and child in a negative manner. “Suspicious Housemaid” is not willing to go that far. The father had an affair because of his circumstance.  The father acts in a certain way not because he is trying to abandon his position in the social hierarchy but because he is indecisive. Thus, there is no threat to the social hierarchy.

I do get that, since “Kaseifu no Mita” is a social commentary, adaptions require retooling of the commentary. However, the “Suspicious Housemaid” does not really replace it with anything else. This white washing is also evident with the children. Their issue and reactions are more muted and superficial than the original. Since the lows they sink to are less, the highs are less satisfying. This also affects that realism of the characters. Even with a longer episode run, “Suspicious Housemaid” has far less interaction between the children and the housemaid.  The interactions in the original between the parties consist of the children trying to experiment with pushing the boundaries starting from the little to the big.  By the children’s reaction to the housemaid’s obedience, you feel that the children are really children and that they are basically good kids.  In “Suspicious Housemaid”, you are more reliant on the series saying so. Thus, the characters feel less real.

Choi Ji-Woo portrayal of the housemaid
One the biggest problem is with Choi Ji-Woo portrayal of the housemaid. Choi Ji-Woo has done good work in other K-dramas. However, she is terribly miscast in the series. None of her previous work shows that she could handle this can damage to a character with the restrictions put on the tools she can use warranted by the series’ setup. As a result, her housemaid just blends into the background. While Nanako Matsushima had pain and tragic beauty behind her blank expression,  Choi Ji-Woo just seemed to have checked out. In addition, when Choi Ji-Woo’ housemaid gets a dangerous command, you do not really believe in it. She lacks the sense that this character could go off and do something because she now thinks differently from so called normal people. It just seems forced.

Talking about miscasting…, “Suspicious Housemaid” has a lot of them. Lee Sung-Jae who plays the father mostly plays middle of the road and bland characters. You may believe he would cheat but you would not believe he would actually learn as a character. The father in law played by Park Keun-Hyeong is portrayed to be much goofier than the original. Leaving aside why the character needs to be much goofier, Park Keun-Hyeong is an odd choice to play goofy since he is much well known for more serious adult roles.

While talking about the father in law, the agency manager character is also much weirder than the original. In the original, she was more of the sage grandmother who is kind but the gatekeeper of knowledge that only reveal the knowledge you require and no more. This is a common archetype in Japanese culture. Seeing that “Suspicious Housemaid” turn her into a crazy weird old hag, it is sad to think that K-drama only has a few old person archetypes and none of them are flattering. There was no story reason for this change. None so ever!

Another character who was miscast is the sister in law. In the original, she was a positive but naive character that was immature. She was one of the adults that fail to be adults. While she was a side character whose role was to disappoint the children and irritate them, she was a pure characters who if matured may become a great person. In “Suspicious Housemaid”, she is played by Shim Yi-Young. If you have seen her resume, you know she is miscast. She always gives out this damaged vibe behind her eyes. I would rather have her try her hand at the housemaid role than choose Choi Ji-Woo.

At the end
“Kaseifu no Mita” is a gothic fantasy with social commentary that is best done by J-drama. Almost every attempt of K-drama to get its foot into this genre was a failure. Personally, I think “The Lucifer” was the closest K-drama ever got. But that was still more of a revenge story common to K-drama. When you see “Suspicious Housemaid”, you see that the creative team does not understand the underlining theme and how the structure of the series, characters, and plot is tailored to that theme.

In adapting “Kaseifu no Mita”, the creative team of “Suspicious Housemaid” just extended the exiting plot which was tightly constructed and shoved a lot of K-drama tropes into it. So, it is not a leap to say that, as an adaptation, “Suspicious Housemaid” is a failure. As a K-drama, it is middle of the road series that does not have enough K-drama tropes to work as well as the true K-dramas.
At the moment, “Suspicious Housemaid” is on its first third mark of its run. From how the creative team approached the adaptation, I do not think my opinion will change.

Streaming Link
Kaseifu no Mita: Good drama net
Suspicious Housemaid: Good drama net

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  1. A Korean in AmericaOctober 9, 2013 at 1:40 PM

    I think I over did It! May be I'll update once the series finishes..

  2. I'll read it later. Sorry, but it is way too early for "Marry" instead of "Mary" - apparently, my tolerance for misspelling goes up as I wake up. :)

  3. Very interesting write-up! I'm enjoying your "Double" series so far. I'm not a fan of kdramas, so I'm really curious if you'll find a kdrama that is an improvement over the jdrama. I've heard The Devil and Hotelier are both better kdramas, but I really dislike the length of kdramas, and I've already watched the jdramas of both versions ^_^;;

  4. A Korean in AmericaDecember 28, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    yeah! Jdrama Hotelier is just poorly made.
    Thanks for commenting!
    preparing to do a Jin double article

  5. looking forward to JIN double article

  6. you'd try to watch TONBI if you like Hirakawa Yuichiro's doramas (e.g JIN1,JIN2, TONBI, Mr Brain )

  7. hi can you make a 'double' review between dragon zakura (jdrama) and god of study (kdrama) you're really good at giving comparisons and the reviews are great.