(kounodori) at the heart, it’s people

“When drama narratives meet empathy and human-centric design.

(May contain spoilers of episodes)


Not too long ago, I have completed Kounodori 2 just before the end of 2017, and coincidentally, I had watched the first season at the start of 2017.

It’s no surprise how jdramas have stronger tendencies in writing sensitive and tactful human-centric stories, and so it Kounodori is not a rare case of thoughtful stories worthy of drawing lessons from.

Kounodori’s story revolves around a group of doctors and medical staff at the OB-GYN department of a hospital called Persona, which ties all the stories of their patients and a diversity of issues regarding childbirth and parenthood together.

Given the nature of its premise – about welcoming new life and people learning to become parents, it is indeed a tearjerking drama – which attempts to inspire its audience to treasure life and highlight some of the societal issues which comes with building new families.

However, what truly stood out to me in this drama is its core value of empathy and taking a human-centric approach. Albeit it being told from the perspectives of medical professionals, it speaks to me as a designer – and should speak to anybody as a person as well. (I haven’t watched many medical dramas, so I will not be comparing them with other medical dramas, but solely drawing on my thoughts on Kounodori independently.)

Our titular protagonist (his surname is a word-play on “Kounotori” which means storks in Japanese), Konotori Sakura is like a typical saintly character of any happy and inspirational drama. A very gentle, sensitive, and peace-loving guy, Konotori is idealistic, but a very reliable and skillful doctor. The best episode which exemplified Konotori’s seemingly endless boundary of patience is a particular episode which he patiently reassures a young and naive expectant mother, who couldn’t help but erroneously overworry over childbirth superstitions.

His “antagonist” is his colleague and best friend named Shinomiya Haruki. (Though they may not easily admit they’re best friends.) He’s stoic and cool on the surface, and a very pragmatic man, who is not afraid to voice his opinions – even when they are unpopular. And also equally an accomplished doctor like Konotori.

Konotori and Shinomiya often get into debates with each other during report sessions, because their values and take on what is best for their patients can take polar opposites. Yet, they both share the same vision of considering the best for their patients. Konotori emanates his heart of gold outwardly, while beneath Shinomiya’s seemingly cruel and apathetic words, he has a warm heart – which is often acknowledged by their colleague Komatsu.

Having both of their contrasting views and approaches, but with the common intent, elucidates the simple fact of it is to do your job with heart and passion.


Particularly in season 2, the variety of perspectives being emphasised on, was most representative in an episode which ponders about the issue of expecting parents who are faced with the dilemma of keeping or aborting their babies who have been diagnosed with Down syndrome before birth.

Two different sets of expecting parents, with two different family circumstances, faced with the same dilemma:

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The Tsuji family: a middle-aged couple who is currently raising their kindergarten-aged daughter and also tending to a small store with a lack of manpower, have decided to have an abortion after learning about their second child’s Down syndrome diagnosis.

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The Takayama family: a young working class couple who is expecting their firstborn, have eventually decided to give birth despite the Down syndrome diagnosis.

This definitely concerns a very controversial topic of whether we have the rights to choose lives, and especially when it comes to children with birth defects and developmental disabilities.

In one of the meetings discussing the matters of the two families, Konotori gave a speech about the importance of respecting the choices of the family even if it may be conventionally unacceptable and politically incorrect.

 

Goro: “If she (Mrs Takayama) already decided on abortion, why would she still care enough to wish to hold her child? (…) What rights do we have to allow pre-natal medical tests to choose life? How would we, as doctors face all the issues, once these tests become common?”

Konotori: “Goro-sensei, this is a question I don’t have an answer to. Childbirths are miracles, and every child is a miracle. We never had the rights to choose lives which are meant to all have equal rights to live.

But I’ve been feeling very conflicted. We’ve all been restricted by the phrase, ‘choosing lives’, but nobody is truly concerned with the true matter at hand. Every life is born out of a different reason, and some of these families which would be nurturing it have chosen for abortion. This will sadden people, and it’s difficult to accept. But it was a decision that they’ve come to after much pain and thoughts, and they’re reaching out to us for help. So that’s why we cannot simply leave them in the lurch. The mother (Mrs Takayama) might come off as self-contradictory, but if we do not care for their feelings, who will? People who took the test, those who didn’t; those who chose to give birth or those who did not – there is not a choice which is wrong.”

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The “important matter” I believe Konotori was referring to, is the people.

And when it comes to respecting choice, it is clearly related to empathy. Without empathy, you will not be able to respect anybody’s choices – when they may make perfect sense to them but not apparently understandable to you.

The episode also presented the voice of a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, who has learnt to live and accept with her child’s condition, and view the condition very differently from the expecting parents. “(It would be a pity) if this world will see lesser and lesser children with Down Syndrome,” said she.

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Yes, it may seem cruel and undesirable, especially to such parents who have grown attached and love their child for who they are. But the truth is, it came with a price of very difficult decisions to make and enormous effort paid. And not every family can afford or is suitable to live through such an experience to derive at the mother’s perspective, just like the Tsuji family. It might have worked for the mother, but unlikely, or at least appeared to be unachievable in sight for the Tsuji family.

And that’s the beauty of the drama, it presented the scenario and issue in a diversity of contexts, showing that there is not one single, fixed understanding or approach to solving a complex problem – but what remains at the core of the problem-solving journey is the conscious intent to empathise for and value the feelings and thoughts of the individuals you’re working with.

It would not be effective problem-solving without empathy, the power to understand what your target audience truly needs and is suited for.


When we look at the entirety of Persona’s OB-GYN team, the best example of their humanistic approach is season 2’s opening episode with Konotori and the team’s interactions with an expecting couple who are both deaf.

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The Hayami’s
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Hayami Mana politely requesting for Konotori to maintain eye contact during conversations.

To overcome the challenges of working with the deaf, they created visuals to communicate – by writing notes, making placards, and truly listening to the individuals to adjust oneself like speaking slower, even if it meant making mistakes like Konotori did. These little changes can create enormous impact in creating a more inclusive environment for PwDs, just as any seemingly small changes is not always too insignificant, and can make a difference in someone’s life. That is design – the conscious intent to make a change.

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Instructional placards
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The medical team doing a cute little congratulatory sign with the birth of the couple’s baby!

A little tidbit here.

人性化设计的椅子!
A chair of human-centric design in Kounodori S1.

I took this screencap when I was watching season 1 because of the chair pictured in it, which the Bilibili timed comments were exclaiming how “human-centric” it is.

The form of a chair, which makes it “human-centric” is simply the little cranny at the top of the chair’s backrest, which allows its users to hang their bags on more securely. It is something so seemingly negligible which could improve the experience of a user who might be carrying an unstructured handbag – for them to place their bag neatly, instead of placing it on the ground, which might even obstruct the way of passerbys. Little considerate designs like this can help to declutter and iron out our daily routine, and make it a bit more delightful.


Besides the OB-GYN’s prioritised consideration for their patients, the narrative is human-centric in itself as not to neglect the side of the stories to the doctors and medical staff themselves.

Not only were the stories focusing on its patients, but also the challenges of new blood and manpower shortage faced by the the OB-GYN discipline as a whole, as well as personal struggles of each team member – younger doctors such as Shirakawa, Shimoya, Goro particularly encounter new challenges with their own ambitions and professionalism, while the more seasoned doctors and medical staff like Shinomiya, Komatsu, Imahashi, contemplate on the balance between their personal lives and their professional calling.

When we design solutions for the community, it is the most straightforward to think of beneficiaries being the individuals and communities directly involved with a certain challenge. But it is also important to consider the people around them – their caregivers, their loved ones, and other stakeholders in the sociopolitical environment surrounding issues of their community. Nothing exists in a vacuum on its own after all.

With such an all-rounded narrative, Kounodori fulfills another level of its human-centric approach of storytelling.

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don’t lose the heart

I’m writing a paper about Singaporean drama industry for a module on local creative industry, and after my research, what I can say is: the future is bleak, this industry is rotten, and we’re doomed. 🙂

I never had much faith in local dramas nowadays, and this article I’m reading right now which is pretty much an exposé about the bullshit deep dark workings going on in our local TV industry scene, just reinforced my loss of hope for it.

I’m not just criticising local dramas as someone who haven’t watched Ch.8 in eons – I’m still exposed to local dramas on TV daily because my family turns on the TV to tune into Ch.8 every night. (Does it mean we’re that interested? Nah, it’s just that we don’t really have alternatives this accessible.) I still have a good grasp of they’re up to, and I don’t have to necessarily watch every episode to judge the quality. I cannot agree with pretty much all the later productions marketed as “blockbusters”. There’re decent ones in recent years from MC like 祖先保佑 and Missy先生, though productions like the latter are underrated.

This is also coming from someone who still fondly recalls the local dramas I watched while growing up (major shout out to 阴错阳差, 凡间新仙人, 喜临门 etc.), and the only marginally watchable dramas nowadays are mostly from Wawa Productions (表白Wawa良心制作!).

We may argue, maybe it’s merely nostalgia at work? Not quite. About 2 years ago, I tried watching one of our major classic dramas, 早安老师 from the 80s, and I had quite a good impression of it. There’s just something better and more natural about the storywriting and even the acting (TBT when Li Nanxing can actually act!). After finishing the first episode, I instinctively wanted to go for more. The production value might not be that high up, given that period it was produced in, but it’s not all that makes a drama good. I don’t believe that big budget is necessary for good productions. You can make critically acclaimed dramas with simple stories but executed with sincerity, not everything has to be a Korean idol drama. 好的艺术家要洞察人生。

There are actually far more complex reasons why our drama productions are so bad (which I will not delve in here), but I think the industry has already lost a fundamental core for the sincere drive to make good honest productions in the first place. This is then further worsened by the socio-political and commercial environment it exists within.

Make productions with your hearts, and the audience will answer.