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Two people who have never met before are cast to live out a romantic storyline by following a rough 'script' in the diary that is handed to them containing only a rough outline of a story.NAOKI HARADA/Courtesy of Netflix

Okay, okay, I’m in. Give me love, give me hope and I’m a dope.

Recently, you see, I’ve been reading about a unique experiment in reality-TV dating that has emerged from Japan. It just landed on Netflix here and from what I’m hearing, it makes people upset. Not in anger, outrage or derision; instead, it’s the heartbreak of it all.

The Future Diary (three episodes streaming on Netflix) is both beautifully done and bonkers. We’ve seen all kinds of dating shows now, from the luridly mean-spirited Joe Millionaire back in the day (Fox has the nerve to bring it back in 2022), through The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchises, to the repulsive tackiness of Netflix’s Sexy Beasts. But we’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just so dreamily sweet, oddly constructed and, yes, there are hints of heartbreak.

Two young singles, strangers to each other, are told they will meet. Each is given a “diary” that sets out how their potential dating period will unfold. Step by step. It’s a map toward a relationship, with stops along the way for events that might be fun or be stressful. The hitch is they cannot contact each other outside of the step-by-step rules, and, at the end, they must part. The underlying question, one supposes, is this: Can true love blossom from this experiment?

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We meet Maai Nakasone, a 19-year-old student from Okinawa, when she is presented with the diary. It says, “On a visit to Yokohama, you will meet your soulmate out of the blue. After your joint project, there appears before you a single sunflower. The symbolism of the sunflower is ‘love at first sight.’” Maai is a bit taken aback. She’s very shy, clearly nervous and unlike any reality-TV contestant you’ve met. It’s like she’s got no knowledge of the genre.

The Future Diary is both beautifully done and bonkers. It’s just so dreamily sweet, oddly constructed and, yes, there are hints of heartbreak.Courtesy of Netflix

The same applies to Takuto Wakamatsu, 24, who is from Hokkiado and works as a chef in Tokyo. The diary given to him has the same instructions as those for Maai. He frets about shaving his beard and looks quite worried about making a good first impression. Off we go to Yokohama. (Now, I’ve been to Yokohama, spent time there and can’t say it’s the least bit romantic. But, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say in other places where I’ve covered soccer.) The meet-cute you might be expecting turns out to be more awkward than cute.

This is where you know you’re in a different kind of world. The pair seem genuinely timid, flustered and they are both trying to be very, very nice to each other. The dating situations assigned to them are incredibly old-fashioned. They go for a walk together to get a bite to eat, and Maai has instructions to hold hands with Takuto at the moment it feels right. There is formidable tension as we watch her reach that moment, and the two wary lovebirds look so enchantingly delighted that you want to cheer for them. Because they held hands!

In their other dating situations, there’s a lot of blushing and nervousness. But again, old-fashioned. Takuto suddenly has to cook a dinner for a large number of guests. Can he do it on the spot? Well, if Maai helps out. They rent a cute, yellow Volkswagen Beetle for a trip but, wouldn’t you know it, the car breaks down. Will they bond and work out this difficulty together? It’s like asking if kittens are cute.

The Future Diary is currently streaming on Netflix.Kyoko Yamashita/Courtesy of Netflix

Meanwhile, the show cuts away occasionally to a bunch of commentators who are ensconced, for some reason, in a huge library. Maybe all the books are love stories? They root for Maai and Takuto and do a kind-of play-by-play disquisition, but aren’t mean or nasty. It’s all very strange.

Lurking underneath it all is the concept that when the “diary” concludes, the couple parts and may never see each other again. But, but, what if they’ve actually fallen in love? Incredibly, you care. Because this experiment in reality-dating TV exists as a rebuke to years of tawdry shows featuring awful people who belong in the hell that is a reality-TV world teeming with braying narcissists. More episodes of The Future Diary will arrive weekly, and I’m in. I’m a dope for hope.

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