Sunday, 15 April 2018

Confidence Man JP

This drama concerns the exploits of a gang of three confidence tricksters and the way they rob from corrupt millionaires in exciting and entertaining ways.

That’s the premise, anyway. It falls a bit short, but more about that later.

On the plus side, the performances are fine and the show bounces along with a lot of energy and humour. I liked the opening section where they pay homage to the final scene of the 1973 film The Sting, but in a Japanese setting. By the way, if you like stories about con men and you haven’t seen The Sting, definitely watch that before you watch this because Confidence Man JP might spoil the ending for you.

On the down side, the story is a bit contrived. The problem is that since this is all about tricking people, the show itself has no problem with setting up a huge convoluted situation and then going “Actually, all that was fake.” I mean, that’s okay I guess, but I’m hoping they’ve got something more imaginative for later episodes.

So far, so good. But this didn’t have me gasping at the twists and turns as, say, Liar Game.

Oh, and the JP at the end of the title is to distinguish it from its sister shows Confidence Man KR and Confidence Man CN, both currently in production. I’m curious to see how the shows differ for each market.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Keep on running, man

About this time last year, the Korean variety show Running Man was in serious trouble. Ratings were low and showed no signs of changing. Gary had left at the end of 2016, yet the cast still kept making references to there being seven members in the cast as if they were still pining for the good old days.

Then, in March 2017, it was moved from the prime time slot of 6.25pm on a Sunday to the slightly less prime time of 4.50pm. This looked, frankly, like a demotion and an admission that Running Man could no longer cope with its competitors at peak viewing hours.

But in April 2017 three new people joined the team. A new PD Jung Chul Min came on board and brought with him some new ideas for games formats and two new cast members: Jeon So Min (who cleverly mentioned her lack of work when appearing as a guest) and Yang Se Chan.

These two immediately became a breath of fresh air, with Jeon So Min’s unpredictable outburst and Yang Se Chan’s constant undermining of relationships among the male colleagues was just what the show needed. The fact that they were both devious was a bonus.

Suddenly, the balance of power in the cast had shifted and the old team had a new lease of life. Ratings, too, started to creep up until they were occasionally hitting double figures. Running Man looked like it had saved itself.

Interestingly, though, something else changed. Guests have started to repeat far more often than in the past. It looks like the new PD is determined to make sure that there are always a number of possibles for new members should someone else leave. In fact, Jo Se Ho was considered for the role of the ninth member when he chose to join Infinite Challenge.

Lee Elijah

Jo Se Ho

Lee Sang Yeob

Lee Da Hee

So the show is back on its feet and looking forward to the future instead of banging on about its past. Considering that, at the end of 2016, it had effectively been cancelled, this is quite an achievement.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Matsue for the third time

I once read a tourist book that recommended three days for a thorough exploration of Matsue, so considering that by the end of this holiday I would have been here as a tourist for about two weeks, you'd be forgiven for wondering if there was anything left for me to do.

There were a few things, mostly personal things that you don't find in tourist guides. Things I'd noticed in passing at the time and had slowly grown into obsessions since then.

Two of these things related to small forests. One was in Yasugi: I'd stopped off here in 2012 on my way to the Adachi Art Museum and taken a photo of a tree-covered hill with a red torii visible through a break in the trees.

The photo I took in 2012

The other was actually in Matsue itself. A tree-topped hill that seemed to rise and fall out of the suburbs for no reason.

View of the hill, as seen from near the Shimane Art Museum

I had noticed it the first time I came to Matsue, but never got round to exploring it. This time, I was determined to solve the mystery of both of these places.

There was also the small issue of a Lantern Festival I wanted to see, as well as revisiting old haunts.

On my way to the hill in Yasugi, called Togamiyama Nagisa Park, I walked past this crazy beautiful house build in the style of a Japanese castle. But slightly ramshackle, and not quite right. But it was so amazing to look at, I can totally believe this was intentional.

And the park itself was quite an adventure. Especially if you hate spiders.

Plenty of these

The spiders would build their webs across the path, giving any walker the choice of ducking under them or brushing them aside. And, frankly, brushing them aside wasn't really an option. These weren't dry, wispy cobwebs I was used to, but they were strong, sticky and broke with an almost audible snap. I decided to avoid them as much as possible.

Found this on the hill

Not sure what this used to be

Success! A five year old mystery solved!

The hill in Matsue can be access through the back of the temple Enjou-ji. It's pretty small, but still full of spiders and mosquitoes and I got bitten quite a lot during this walk. I think it was worth it, though.

I saw a lot of these stone lanterns with these strips of paper attached to them

Not sure what they are.

Found an old cemetery

The Lantern Festival, held around the grounds of Matsue Castle, was very pretty.

Not only that, I also enjoyed revisiting places to see if they'd changed.

They still haven't cleaned this mirror

I also went to Suito restaurant, where I'd been on my previous two trips here and I was very pleased when they recognised me. I also went to Dorobou Bar, where I went on my first time in Matsue. The bartender who'd served me was still there. In fact, she was now the manager. She didn't remember me, though people tried. I don't know who “James” was, but he must have made an impression, since two people asked me if I was him.

Grapefruit! Karaoke!

Someone brought in grapefruit and shared it round, which was nice of him. And I even sung a song on the karaoke, after a lot of drunken persuasion from a salaryman. I chose Kaze Wo Atsumete, since it's the Japanese song I know most words to. People either ignored me or were politely appreciative.

Actually, I had arranged this trip with the idea that this'd be my last journey to Matsue, but I had so much fun (and I still haven't gone to Yaegaki Shrine) that I guess I'll go at least once more.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue

Is there a name for this genre of film? Lovelorn, confused and underpaid people struggle through their twenties in carefully framed shots of big city life accompanied by a well-chosen indie rock soundtrack. There must be. I've seen so many. This one, however, is one of the best. Even after just twenty minutes, I sat there and thought to myself "This film is brilliant."

The film is from Yuya Ishii, the same director as Sawako Decides, and it shares some of the same qualities. A slow dreamlike story progression and a deadpan, almost undetectable, sense of humour. The two films also concern themselves with characters who are psychologically off-centre. Embarrassed that they even exist, their attempts at reaching out are often clumsy and self-defeating.

The cast is brilliant. From the two lead roles right down to sniggering staff at a cheap late night restaurant, there isn't a bad performance among them. The main female character is a great performance from Shikuka Ishibashi and the male lead, Sosuke Ikematsu, is excellent. Likable enough that his air of defeatism doesn't become insufferable and he keeps you on his side.

The photography is very fine. Understated but classy. Like a fine white wine (I'm writing this in a pub. Can you tell?). Tokyo has been photographed to death, but it still looks vibrant and new here.

Finally, and I only discovered this after watching, the dialogue has an unusual source: the poetry of Tahi Saihate. This explains the sometimes florid use of language in the voice overs, but it definitely gives the film a distinct character. The poet in question hasn't been translated into English yet, so hats off to the translator for dealing with it so well (although someone needs to tell them that "... Not." hasn't been used as a way of being sarcastic since about 2002).

I was delighted to find this film and I had that feeling afterwards as if you'd just done something good for yourself, like exercise or reading a newspaper.

A fragile and slightly awkward gem.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Tokyo for the second time

In October last year, I visted Japan agin. This time I decided to spend half of my vacation in Tokyo. I’d been once before, but only for a few days which really isn’t long enough. This time I stayed for a week, which still isn’t long enough but is better than before.

I arrived during a heavy downpour and took a while to find my hotel. I felt a bit self-conscious as I booked in at reception, soaking wet, and left a puddle where I had been standing. Not only that but the rain got into my luggage and soaked my neatly folded clothes in new and interesting ways. In this photo you can see it looks like I’ve been wearing a wet bra under my nice dry jumper.

I went to Kamakura on one of the rare days of good weather to look at the temples and the Daibutsu. The place was full of tourists, but luckily most things you want to photo are quite high up, so they don’t get in the way.

Being the contrary type, I preferred the temples that were a furthest from the centre. My feet didn’t appreciate the walk there, but the Zuisenji Temple was a welcome relief from the crowds. It’s also quite unlike the other temples in that the grounds are not sparse and neat, but featured dense gardens making every pathway seem a bit secret and exciting.

I based myself in Nippori, north of Ueno Park, which is just next to Yanaka. This is one of the quieter pockets of Tokyo which has escaped too much redevelopment. I took a walk recommended in my 1980 tour book to see how accurate it still was. And for most of the time, apart from a couple of shops which had closed, it was still pretty much spot on. It lead me from one temple to another, ending up at the Nezu Shrine with its small but pretty pathways of toriis.

I also found this cafe, which I absolutely loved. Not just because I really needed a sit down, but also for the decor and the food which were both very nice.

Talking of Yanaka, I visited a very nice (and brand new) Sake bar Chin-nen, and I spent a nice evening trying different types of sake and chatting to the manager, who spoke some English (and a little French, too). I asked him what the name meant and he admitted it didn't really mean anything.

A few years ago, on my other blog, I wrote about my attempts at locating a Japanese street I found on an old piece of film footage.

Ever since then, I've always wanted to go back and see if anything at all remains from that day to this. Looking on Google Street View suggested that there wasn't but I thought that, since I was in the neighbourhood, I'd go and have a look for myself.

And I was very pleased to find something: The air vents for the underground system. I'm sure that the actual grills have been replaced, but this is an example of something with the same function in the same place after seventy years which, in a city that reinvented itself as radically as Tokyo, seemed pretty special.

Finally, just because it's one of those things I thought I should do at least once, I went for a night out in Roppongi.

It was very expensive, as I knew it would be, costing about £60 which is an awful lot for a few drinks at a bar and some live music. Good job I didn't order food. But I think I chose well, going to see a Beatles tribute act at the club Abbey Road.

The staff were very friendly and several came to chat with me, although I was a little embarrassed to admit to each one that I'd never actually gone to Liverpool despite my love of The Beatles. Plus, my last drink was free which was a nice gesture.

So those are the highlights of my trip to Tokyo. I hope to write more about my return to Matsue soon.

Super Mario gives no shits about the rain.