Tidying Up with Marie Kondo recaps, Episode 2
On January 1st, Netflix released an eight part series based on Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and these are the recaps. Episode 1 can be found here.
Before the credits is a cold open: Wendy Akiyama hunting around her house for her Siamese cat, Mushu. There are a lot of places for Mushu to hide because Wendy’s house is full of teddy bears and board games and trophies and stuffed animals and Christmas decorations. She finds him near an enormous cat tree, scoops him up, and gives him a kiss.
A cat can be surprisingly helpful to people completing the KonMari process. For example, when author Elif Batuman had trouble deciding whether some old papers sparked joy or not her cat helpfully “urinated on them.” Decision made! So it would be a mistake to underestimate Mushu’s importance as we head into episode two of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (titled The Empty Nesters). Although we don’t actually see any of Mushu’s work, he likely chewed up a silk plant or vomited on an espadrille or provided some other form of decision-making support to the Akiyamas behind the scenes.
It’s time to properly meet this episode’s declutterers: Wendy and Ron Akiyama are an all-American couple. Wendy says she literally married the boy next door and 42 years and 3 kids later they are still together.
Wendy wants a ‘normal retirement’ now that her kids have moved out and she feels like the clutter is getting in the way. A quick edit shows different rooms in the house. Of all the Tidying Up episodes, this is the home that really walks the line with hoarding, and it’s sometimes unsettling. It’s funny how there are different kinds of messy homes. Some messy homes feel very happy, like everyone’s lives are spilling all over the place in a lively tangle. The Akiyama home isn’t like that, though. The piles of items everywhere feel abruptly abandoned, like a warehouse after an earthquake.
‘Hoarders’, reality TV, and ‘Tidying Up’
Although the Akiyamas have the most extreme clutter in the series, their home has a different quality than the ones featured on Hoarders (2009), which is probably Tidying Up’s best known reality TV cousin. Cultural critic Mark Greif wrote that Hoarders was “a documentary of ‘pathological’ people who [had] piled up possessions in their houses (often dated newspapers, tin cans, glass bottles, ‘recyclables’), then had them forcibly taken away under the guise of a mental health intervention.” The Akiyamas aren’t treated like that by the show. The shock Marie expresses at the sheer quantity of their accumulated stuff isn’t the same as it would be if she was confronted with a house full of dead plants, yellowed magazines, and rubber bands. It’s a more respectable kind of clutter.
Hoarders was part of a larger wave of junk-centered reality TV following the 2008 financial crash. Other variations, like Storage Wars or Antiques Roadshow were not about mental disorder, but simply stories about managing what Greif described as “the quantity of new junk…the skis, golf clubs, gas grills, televisions…‘tradeable’ junk in the guise of ‘memorobilia’” languishing in storage, leftover from shopping binges and credit card debt from the turn of the millennium.
Languishing new junk perfectly describes the Akiyamas’ clutter. If you look at individual items, they are clean and in good shape. Wendy’s clothing still has tags on it. Although Ron’s baseball cards are weirdly stacked in dusty cardboard boxes next to their bed, they have the propriety of being ‘memorabilia’. In recapping the items they go through, it’s hard not to notice how many of these items are children’s belongings. Although the episode is titled Empty Nesters, it’s not only their kids’ abandoned toys, but Wendy and Ron’s baseball cards and dolls that need to be let go of for them to move onto a “normal retirement”.
What is Tidying Up anyway? The format is very standard, but it’s really an odd duck the more I look at it. As Greif points out, reality TV shows generally document personal transformations which are measured against a professional standard: to cook like a chef, to look like a model, or to sing like star. The goal is to conform to a standard which is set by hosts such as Dr. Phil, Simon Cowell, or Donald Trump. A participant who fails suffers humiliation; but if they succeed, they transcend us. These heightened stakes provide the drama designed to keep the viewer watching.
Tidying Up only half-fits this model. Achieving a tidy house is quite different than becoming a top model or recovering from intense trauma. And although, like other reality TV stars, Marie Kondo has established herself as a professional, she doesn't dictate what an ideal home for her clients actually looks like. She directs their process.
For the Akiyamas, the metric of success is not a showcase home, or even a modestly minimalist home, but a space which accommodates their version of a happy life. In the episode, there are no extreme highs or lows, no tearful confessions, no confrontations, no surprise new bedroom suite. Wendy & Ron don’t stand to be recognized as special, but they don’t risk being humiliated or traumatized by appearing on the show either. If there is a second season, I will be curious to see if they maintain these impressively low stakes (something I’ve seen other shows, like The Big Family Cooking Show, abandon). I hope they do.
Okay, back to the show
However, attainable stakes are still stakes! And, to get back to this episode, Wendy claims to be very excited to tackle the tidying up. Ron seems apprehensive. But he does always seem to be backing up Wendy. She’s the engine of the home, charging ahead in the shots, while Ron cautiously follows behind (literally). But later in the episode he is assertive and engaged. They seem to be re-calibrating.
Back in the studio, we see Marie sitting among the pink cushions explaining to the camera how couples often wish to re-evaluate their lives after their children move out. She’s not only sitting amongst pink pillows, she’s now wearing a pretty pink, pleated, pillow-coloured skirt herself. If I were ever lucky enough to present design concepts to Marie Kondo I would definitely be using a lot of square shapes and Pantone 2365.
So, it is time for Marie and Iida to visit the Akiyama home. I am so happy to see Iida. Hi Iida!! Listen, find one still from this entire series where Iida is not smiling the loveliest and most sincere smile. I hope Marie appreciates having the world’s nicest person as her interpreter. Wendy and Ron’s son Russell is there to help smooth things over, because he thinks that Ron is feeling a little overwhelmed by the tidying ahead. Russell has a habit of worriedly pushing his glasses up on his nose in a very endearing way when he speaks. He seems to feel responsible for keeping the waters calm at home.
If I was writing fanfic instead of a recap, Russell and Iida get together for a beer during filming and there’s a lot of smiling and pushing up of glasses and me bumping into them and getting all the gossip from behind the scenes. And then Marie shows up and tells us all her skin care tips. But meanwhile (in reality) Wendy says she believes change is important but Ron likes things as they are. Wendy tells Marie she knows a little bit of Japanese and says the job ahead is going to be 大変 taihen (very hard).
Everybody tours the house. The first stop is the master bedroom which is filled with bankers boxes. Next door, Wendy has filled two of the children’s old bedrooms with clothes and shoes. Russell says he hopes they can transform his old bedroom into her office. There is a hint at a back story that Wendy would like support to pursue a creative goal, but they don’t say what.
They all head to the basement which they call a ‘rumpus room’. A rumpus room sounds like a lot of fun! However, the actual rumpus room is quite sad. It is filled with Wendy’s ‘Christmas Collection’ (decorations) scattered over a pool table, a couch and most available surfaces. Wendy says parts of the Christmas Collection right now are also in the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. It’s March.
For Wendy, Christmas was a really important part of her childhood, and something her mom worked hard to make special for her (and something Wendy tried to make special for her kids, too). She has a lot of emotion preserved in her Christmas decorations, but having the decorations spilling all over the house is stopping her from being able to use her space in the present. The way Wendy talks about her ‘Christmas Collection’ has some hallmarks of hoarding, although the show diplomatically works around that, and keeps it light and constructive. Not a bad approach and it seems to work for Wendy.
The Akiyama garage is… it’s pretty intense. It’s full of not only Wendy and Ron’s belongings but their three children’s and their four parents’ stuff. It’s not even stacked, it’s tipped together in a big pile. This is close to how my locker at school looked, so I’ll go ahead and temper my judgement here. But it’s an ominous task. Having professional support to take it on makes a lot of sense!
Marie gathers the Akiyamas in the hallway to greet the home. Wendy, Ron, and Russell all join in the greeting (kneeling and silently asking the house to co-operate with their tidying). It’s nice having everyone do it rather than just Marie.
[peaceful music playing]
The show often stops to focus on people’s hands rather than their faces. Ron’s hands are crossed protectively over his lap. Wendy’s are flat one to each knee and they never stay still.
There is a quick interstitial about clothing: Marie demonstrates piling all of a person’s clothes onto their bed before beginning. The point is to confront it all. Marie says she wants you to feel shocked. Marie!
The one who gets the shock is Marie Kondo herself, because Wendy’s clothing pile is the biggest she has ever seen, ever. Wendy cheers for herself for ‘winning’, but Russell, who has been carrying armfuls of jackets up and down stairs and stopping for water breaks and mopping his brow, is like, “uh, that isn’t how this works, Mom.” Wendy explains, “Whenever Ron and I would fight, shopping was a diversion, it was a way to, you know, just calm down, de-stress, um…maybe, you know, hit Ron where it hurts, in his pocketbook.” As Tracy Moore wrote for Jezebel in 2015, “If you rewrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up into The Life-Changing Magic of Actually Thinking About Your Feelings, you could just control-find-replace throughout and presto-chango and also sell three million copies I bet.” 10 million and counting now. It’s now Wendy’s task to sort through a pile of clothing/feelings that she and Ron call, ‘Mount Wendy’.
Russell asks Marie if the purpose is less to get rid of things, and more to “reacquaint yourself” with your belongings and pushes his glasses up his nose. Who does it remind me of when he does that? It’s…Clark Kent! Hmm, and he can carry around a mountain of clothing. I’m not saying he is secretly a superhero, but I’ve now seen some hard evidence to support it. And, Iida does kind of dress like Lois Lane. Right? Who’s with me? No, you’re trying to make this recap be about Russell and Iida. OK, fine. Marie suggests that sorting through items is about deciding which ones “you really want to take into your future.” Good advice!
Clothing sorting time! The home recording cam that guests of the show use to document their progress shows Wendy at 2:43 am considering how much joy she receives from floral blouses. Holy moly. Hang in there, Wendy. In a separate interview, Wendy describes how much she loved making clothes for her paper dolls as a child and now that she’s grown she is the paper doll.
Day 9. Pretty spring flowers blow in the breeze. Wendy is putting her discarded clothing into bin bags. Ron is helping and tells Wendy, “you can walk when you get to heaven,” which means, “hurry up” (I think). Mary and Iida arrive. Yay! Wendy tells Marie she’s discarded lots of ゴミgomi (trash — I am learning so many words this episode!). Discarding this much reveals to Marie a previously unseen room in the Akiyama home. I live in a tiny apartment, so I cannot even imagine this. I actually dreamt I found an extra room after this episode but it is sadly not the case, so I am typing out recaps in a closet. Anyway, Marie high-fives Wendy and praises her for working so hard.
It is time for 小物 komono (small items), and time to face the Christmas Collection. Marie politely asks Wendy if she find four rooms full of holiday decorations to be, uh, expedient. Wendy is like, “Oh, that’s such an interesting question, Marie, thank-you, but on the other hand NUTCRACKERS R LYFE!!!”. I rewind this sequence to just watch Ron’s face. He’s not touching this. Marie changes the subject. Smart. Never challenge hoarding behaviour directly (something I actually learned on Kitten Rescue, because yes, there are kitten hoarders and you have to remove their kittens in small batches or they freak out).
Marie suggests that Wendy not use plastic bags to keep the ornaments in so Wendy is not treating her beloved items like gomi, and they discuss how to store them. An interstitial shows Marie helping her daughter, Satsuki, choose and store her favourite Christmas decorations in clear boxes. Satsuki is ridiculously cute. Her cheeks spark joy. The Kondo family’s decorations are mostly wood and painted bright colours. Marie Kondo’s taste often surprises me, it’s not minimalist or very high-design, but more homey.
Back to Ron & Wendy, at 5 am on April 8, sorting through the Christmas collection. Since Christmas seems to be Wendy’s thing, let’s hear it for Ron for getting up at 5am to tackle this with her. Wendy’s Christmas decorations are heavily Nutcracker themed. I don’t know if she did ballet as a child or something, but it is interesting that she has such a strong emotional connection to a story about a heroine whose holiday toys come to life and dance for her in celebration of the love that she finds at Christmastime.
I need to declutter this recap, my goodness. Time to speed up.
April 10, 9am. Ron is sorting boxes and boxes of baseball cards. He says he “and the kids” have been collecting them for more than 30 years. It seems like maybe the cards were a way of connecting to his children that they’ve grown out of now so it’s time for Ron to decide if he wants to keep them for himself. I start humming Puff the Magic Dragon and some of the dust from Ron’s boxes gets into my eyes. Cut to: April 11 at 11:11 pm, the home camera shows Ron has fallen asleep with baseball cards in his lap. Aw.
Day 26 (it’s kind of confusing that they switch between dates and numbered days, but we are 26 days into their sorting in mid-April). Ron and Wendy are in the garage wearing baseball caps and tidying. Wendy breaks a plate. Marie and Iida arrive. Marie’s skin is glowing like mad. They could probably turn out the garage lights while she’s there. She is very impressed that she can see the garage wall now. She asks Wendy if she and Ron have learned anything about each other. Ron says that they have learned that Wendy is がさがさ gasagasa which google says means (1) “rustling” or (2) “a dry feeling” (rude) but I am guessing is slang for clumsy? Or maybe Ron is a poet. I mean, Wendy is kind of rustling.
It’s worth saying here that Ron is so happy! He is beaming away in the garage. Wendy says his creativity level has jumped onto the moon. I’m not completely sure what this means, since the show never explains what his creative outlet is. He does seem quite delighted to be sorting through some fishing rods. Interpretive fishing? It doesn’t matter. If Wendy is happy then Ron is happy. And if Ron is happy, then Russell is happy, and if Russell is happy then everything is pretty super, in my opinion. Marie and Iida also seem very delighted. My cat is the only one who isn’t happy, he’s stepping on my keyboard and trying to bite me. Hang on.
My cat has been covered in kisses and has catnip sprinkled all over his head so he is gotten into our happy vibe now. Let’s finish this! Ron is stoked about how they are working together. They are getting to the finish line. They have discarded 150 bags of trash. The way it’s bagged suggests that it’s going to charity not just landfills, but still. Do you ever walk through the aisles of a dollar store full and get the urge to call the environment police and turn our whole culture in? I get that dollar store dread in this scene. Luckily, Marie is about to soothe everyone with beautiful boxes and pink upholstery. Thank-you, you beautiful genius.
We cut to KonMari Lesson Five: Sentimental Items. The Konmari method is to sort sentimental items last, when your decision-making ability and joy-detection abilities have been strengthened by working through the other categories. Marie, in the Netflix bedroom, sorts through the photos one by one, sorting them into a joy pile and a discard pile. When deciding between similar photos, keep the one that sparks the most joy (Marie makes a little joyful expression to demonstrate). These interstitials have a similar quality to the safety demonstrations you see on airplanes before takeoff. I actually wish they would play these on airplanes instead of the videos that remind us of the worst things can happen a mile up in the air in a little tube. If there was an airline that would let me organize clothing (my nervous habit) during takeoff (my biggest fear) I would fly the heck out of that airline. This is pretty off-topic, but I’ll just jot these great ideas down here in case Richard Branson is a fan of Tidying Up and reads this. KonMari air, and the upholstery is pale pink? Passengers practice folding our suitcase contents during takeoff? Billion dollar idea right there, Richard, e-mail me, sweetie.
Marie says storing photos in a box is okay but surprisingly not her preferred method. She suggests storing photos in an album and then keeping the album on your coffee table or bookshelf. That does seem an obvious suggestion but don’t most of us keep a lot of our print photos in a box in the basement? We used to do that. After I sorted our family photos and put them in a bookshelf in my office, a corner of our basement flooded and we didn’t notice for a few months. I was relieved we had organized and moved them upstairs or we might have lost many of them.
Ron really likes looking through their sentimental items and learning about their family history. He shows Marie an entry in his father’s journal from December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbour. Marie’s mouth opens. The diary documents Ron’s family preparing to be interned at a camp: Santa Ana Racetrack. That’s devastating. Marie tells them the journal is an item which should definitely be cherished. I think this is a really interesting perspective on intergenerational trauma, and something I will likely be thinking about for awhile. They show a montage of more family items. Ron says the things they unearthed that were the most special aren’t worth anything to anyone else, but are just very valuable for them as a family. I didn’t know that Ron had a PhD in making me cry.
Last Marie and Iida visit. As Ron goes to open the door (wearing a shirt with a fish pattern) the camera pans over a mounted fishing trophy with a plaque underneath that says,
“CAUGHT BY WENDY AKIYAMA
Well, go on, Wendy! These guys are so old-school with their fishing rods and pool cues. I can totally imagine them jamming out to Jimmy Buffett.
Marie enters the garage and cries, “WENDY-SAAAAAAAAN” like Oprah. She is very impressed with the garage. They show Marie a large display of 小芥子kokeshi — wooden dolls— that they found in one of their cupboards and made a display for in their garage. Marie loves the tiny ones.
Next, Wendy shows Marie her office, which looks like, well, an office now that it’s not stuffed with floral co-ordinates and ankle boots. Marie is stoked and just says, “Wendy-san!” again. She is really happy for her. There’s an easel in the office. So I think she draws or paints? Somebody should hire her to do a line of Christmas cards. Richard, are you writing these ideas down?
We also see the bedroom and Ron’s office. This is really not a knock on Ron & Wendy’s home when I say this: the post Konmari house doesn’t have a showroom quality. There are scuffmarks in places and it doesn’t look professionally decorated. It looks like a real home. It’s cool that their achievement isn’t about having an Instagram-perfect home. That doesn’t mean their home isn’t very nice, though. Just that it doesn’t look, like, fake.
Downstairs in the rumpus room they all agree it feels lighter and more positive now. Wendy says she feels less stressed and she seems less stressed. Marie is close to tears and says she is very moved and tells Ron, “[you have] confronted not just your possessions, but your own lives and yourselves as well.” Ron says that Wendy has always been his girl and always will be his girl. Wendy feels very supported that Ron went all in on the project. Then she makes a very long speech about how great their experience has been. Ron says, “Ditto,” and they laugh. Iida tells them they have passed. They did it!
Congratulations to Wendy, Ron, Russell, and special guest star Mushu.
Special thanks to Iida’s smile for sponsoring this recap.