The following contains spoilers for Netflix’s Rea(L)ove, Season One.
If you ever get tired of typical reality dating shows featuring gorgeous models and 20-year-olds with their own “brands” living in amazing houses, then Rea(L)ove deserves a spot on your Netflix binge list.
The show brings together a group of 18 misfits who’ve had bad luck in love due to some mysterious dark secret. Presumably faced with no other option (and/or a desire for TV exposure) they’ve placed their romantic hopes in a budget reality show filmed in Okinawa. Over three days the participants live together doing group activities and going on dates to get acquainted. The basic premise — and what makes it such addictive watching — is that each of the participants’ dark secrets are exposed one by one at the most excruciatingly inopportune moment. This is all designed to sabotage their search for a romantic partner and goal to perform kokuhaku (a love confession) in a fake church in the ninth and final episode of the show.
With its raunchy hosts, dirty language and free-flowing drinks… honestly, it positively reeks of trash television. But as you get to know the participants, Rea(L)ove stars to make for some compelling viewing.
So what makes Rea(L)ove different from other Japanese reality dating shows? For me, there are a couple of atypical features of the show that explain why.
The hosts of Rea(L)ove are refreshingly mean
Forget the standard dating show celebrity hosts who bring class and smart insight into the program; the two hosts of Rea(L)ove are rude, crude, and straight-up offensive at times.
One is ex-playboy Atsushi Tamura, a comedian quick to reprove the contestants and make a joke of their intimate secrets. For Tamura, no topic is taboo and he has no problem calling out participants, slut-shaming and generally being an asshole. He even gives them nasty nicknames based off of unpleasant character traits. An example is the simple yet damning “クズくん” meaning “trash boy.”
His harshness is somewhat balanced by ex-idol Mari Yaguchi, a former member of famous girl group Morning Musume with a dark secret of her own — getting caught in the act by her husband who found her lover hiding naked in the closet. Perhaps due to her own secret getting exposed in the tabloids, she has more empathy for the show participants than Tamura.
Most of the dark secrets are genuinely dark
The secrets themselves feature a wide range of themes including sex work, addictions, and even criminal backgrounds. Some of these secrets are met with disgust or judgment by the hosts and other members, while others are quickly brushed off. What’s particularly compelling is that some of the participants do eventually find a way to accept the dark secret of their love interest (or fellow participant) and invest in a relationship in spite or even partly because of it. The hosts, too, go through their own process of empathy (albeit with limitations), ultimately showing a bit of kindness and respect to the participants in the final episode.
In a country where shame culture can be prevalent and anything out of the ordinary gets swept under the rug for the sake of saving face, the very fact that eighteen individuals were willing to come on the show and confess their secrets is a remarkable break from the status quo, and indeed, very real.
So what are some of the dark secrets?
Confessor: Konatsu Kawamura
Secret: She is a transgender woman
With the recent Supreme Court ruling in Japan maintaining that transgendered individuals need to be sterilized to change their lawful gender, it’s no surprise that Japan remains extremely ill-equipped at handling trans issues. Between the hosts’ constant remarks on Kawamura’s gender and the fact that her so-called “dark” secret translates to “Gender Identity Disorder,” we did not have high hopes for a positive reaction when she confessed during a one-on-one date.
At first, her date is taken aback and isn’t sure how to react, but in the end, he decides it’s no big deal. This sentiment is echoed by the other members, reflecting most young Japanese peoples’ positive attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. On her next date with the same guy, he says, “I’ve heard lots of confessions so far, but I still think you’re the best.”
Confessor: Yuko Nakao
Secret: She is ¥1.2 million (approx. $11,000) in debt
This girl is in her own world, which confounds some while attracting others. But when her dark secret is revealed to be ¥1.2 million of debt, the reactions were brutal. In an effort to bring attention to exploitative “black company” practices, she paid out of pocket for a music video that performed horribly. Then when her CD inevitably also failed, she had to buy them all back landing her even deeper in debt.
Upon first hearing the news, one member cracked up and said, “She paid for her own music video? That’s unbelievable… I’d kill to see that video.” Well, there’s no need to go to such extreme lengths. You can check it out on YouTube below.
Confessor: Taku Fujii
Secret: He is a former sex addict
Like Kawamura, Fujii was on a one-on-one date when it was time to reveal his dark secret: that he’s a former sex addict who’s slept with over 150 women. Reactions included a member calling him “a real piece of trash,” and another commenting, “I’d hate it if the guy I fell for was a sex addict.” However, the girl who invited him on a date wasn’t concerned, saying that as long as he was not actively sleeping around right now it was not an issue.
The lesson we can learn from Rea(L)ove
A theme throughout the show is the emotional release experienced by telling everyone the secret. While sharing secrets is a scary part of dating and friendships, it’s also what brings people closer together. It’s certainly the binding force for everyone on Rea(L)ove. While the hosts poke fun, confessions often lead more to sympathy than repulsion, and catharsis over shame.
This is particularly true for people like Yuko who hadn’t told even her friends or family about her debt. After confessing she said, “I feel relieved but embarrassed at the same time.” Tamura also comments repeatedly how relaxed the members become after telling everyone their secret.
Just like telling your own secrets, watching Rea(L)ove can sometimes be painful; the show doesn’t shy away from dark pasts and gut reactions to them. But you’ll emerge from the nine episodes knowing that having a secret you’re ashamed of doesn’t mean you can’t have real love and acceptance — even if it’s just from you to yourself.
Rea(L)ove is available with English subtitles on Netflix.