Review of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix: self transformation you can’t see

I’ve experienced the transformational power of Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo’s philosophy. About five years ago, I KonMaried my underwear drawer, and now all my knickers maintain vertical integrity. And yes, I do experience joy every time I open my drawer.

But the new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, in which Marie declutters American homes, fails to inspire. Marie’s ethereal approach aimed at ‘sparking joy’, feels like it doesn’t belong in the robust storytelling realm of Netflix.

Tidying Up is vastly different from Queer Eye for instance, the hit Netflix series in which the Fab Five elevate the power of moisturiser and wallpaper to make-over jorts wearing, stuck-in-a-rut men. The Fab Five coax us to go with them as they cry, emote and be transformed by their make-over subjects. Marie doesn’t demonstrate such intense emotional engagement with her subjects.

Marie’s self help process is more about compassion and showing gratitude to our ‘stuff’ as we farewell them. Tidying Up is every day enlightenment that might reference Joseph Campbell’s philosophy, ‘find your bliss’. The series is devoid of human conflict, and is at best, lacklustre television, like a watching a gentle breeze.

And therein lies the paradox of Marie’s approach: getting rid of stuff that doesn’t ‘spark joy’ is hardly a gentle process. Whether it be discarding my Yohji Yamamoto suit that I  know I’ll never again fit into, or the Marge Piercy and Doris Lessing paperbacks that defined my youthful feminism, Marie’s method can be life changing, but also brutal, and the reason I have yet to KonMari my wardrobe or bookshelf. I’m not ready to face that internal shift.

Queer Eye on the other hand is about radical outward transformation – hair, clothes, decor. Despite being at its core middle class aspirational, Queer Eye is the stuff of great television. You’ve gotta love it when Tan lets loose on a daggy wardrobe or Bobby on a brown apartment.

Marie makes no judgement about anyone’s style or lack thereof. ‘Sparking joy’ is an intimate, deeply individual process that is mostly invisible. (Though I enjoyed the scene in Episode 3 when 12 year old Nolan rediscovers a hoodie long neglected. ‘How have I not worn you before? You give me so much joy!’ is his response. Emoji inspiring!)

Overall, Tidying Up felt like it was missing all the important dramatic story beats, like in Episode 2 when Marie visits the Akiyamas, a Japanese American family. In one scene, Ron Akiyama discovers his father’s diary documenting how life for Japanese Americans changed overnight in 1941, post the attack on Pearl Harbour. I wanted to know more, but Marie slides away from the topic because conflict and internal processes are not the subject matter of this series. Is that because internal processes are usually untidy?

Marie Kondo exudes tidiness. She’s composed, petite, sweetly nice, like a cardiganed elf. And that’s another paradox: the eponymous KonMari Method, trademarked and now a growing international commercial empire, is a big, bold feminist statement in Japan where misogyny is unashamedly rampant.

Is KonMari the vagina to Queer Eye’s penis??

In fact, the main theme running through the series is that tidying up is highly gendered. The emphasis on the internal rather than an external transformation (is KonMari the vagina to Queer Eye’s penis??) can also be perceived as feminist commentary.

While Tidying Up is not compelling viewing, the series (which I probably won’t finish) has prompted me think a lot – about gender, about self transformation, about my overstuffed bookshelves, and about being Japanese.

There is something distinctly Japanese about Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. It’s easy to say the series doesn’t really work in the American context because she’s doesn’t speak English, and there is an ‘otherness’ to Marie.

In fact, she ‘others’ herself in one scene in Episode 1 when a suggestion is made that tidying up together as a couple is kinda ‘sexy’. To which Marie responds, ‘それすごい何か、アメリカの方的表現ですね’, translated as, ‘that is a very American way of looking at it.’ Is it really? Achieving a domestic project with a partner can be rather sexy, in any culture, if you allow it, right?

But Marie’s slightly ‘other’ yet relatable persona is paradoxically, one of the best elements of this series. Marie never seems to show herself completely, and that’s such a welcome antidote to the first person industrial complex that has tainted nearly all entertainment today. Marie the person remains unknowable, while her KonMari brand and philosophy is at the front and centre of the series, and I respect that, even though my overindulgence in Netflix makes me yearn for something turgid, a dash of conflict, even gratuitous self revelation…

We don’t really get to know too much about Marie’s subjects either, except that most of them are really nice, average people. Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is a celebration of the ‘normal’ (phew, no hoarders here!), which is unusual for a reality TV show.

Last but not least, there’s the other Marie, the interpreter who calls herself by her surname Iida to avoid confusion. She is with Marie Kondo in every scene, and her interpreting feels perfect.

Occasionally, we get to eavesdrop on some casual banter between the two Maries, and I like those moments, because they point to another Marie Kondo, who you can only know if you understand Japanese. I’d like to see more scenes between the two Maries, not to reveal more of Marie Kondo, but to get to know Marie Iida. I’d like to know what she thinks about the ‘other’ Marie….

Here’s an interesting interview with Marie Kondo by Roland Kelts