Monday, 28 December 2009

Currently watching: BOSS

So, in the mini-tussle between BOSS and Bloody Monday, BOSS won out simply because the files are smaller and quicker to download. Up to episode eight so far.

BOSS has turned out to be quite light-hearted in its characterisations and while this could act as a nice counterbalance to the weighty concerns of their job, the fact is the cases never seem to be too threatening. It's clear that none of the main characters are at threat which takes away any urgency, and even minor supporting characters seem to have remarkable luck when being shot at.

The cases rely very little on clever deduction, preferring instead the sudden discovery/revelation almost before its too late. So the story needs the interplay between the team to be sharp to keep the viewer interested. This is where the actors have to prop up some pretty drama-by-numbers writing. Amami Yuki is almost perfect as the beautiful career woman guiding her disparate band - when the mask slips and her vulnerable self appears it's never over-played.

But its Nukumizu Youichi who steals most of the scenes. After liking him in Lost Time Life, Camouflage, and the film Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, this is the first time I've seen him playing a regular character in a weekly serial. His self-depreciating humour is used well even with a script that doesn't make too many demands on him, and he makes a nice change from the endlessly perfect faces that populate Japanese TV.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Just watched: Kagayaku Onna Ueno Juri

Posting on Christmas Day? Disgraceful.

Anyway, last night I was watching Kagayaku Onna Ueno Juri, in which the actress visits the UK and talks about acting, her life etc, while discovering England and working on a farm. During her five-day stay on a farm, she lived and worked with a family, and it's quite a touching piece of documentary. Juri comes across as mature - both enthusiastic for the future and reflective about her past. I do wonder, though, if that family dig out that DVD every Christmas for people to watch.

The reason I feel compelled to mention it is because she visits Bristol. Juri's favourite book is set in Bristol, "The Great Blue Yonder" by Alex Shearer, and she visits the cathedral which is mentioned several times in the book. She's quite moved by the experience, which shows how much the book meant to her, and for me it made me think about the place where I live in a new way. It was quite odd to see places that I walk through every day treated as special or exotic, and when I next go out in Bristol, I'm going to try and see things through the eyes of a first time visitor, as I once was years ago. Can't let myself get complacent, you know, otherwise I'll never appreciate anything.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Currently watching: Shimokita Sundays

Between Liar Game 2, Boss and Bloody Monday, it occurred to me that I ran the risk of overdosing on po-faced looks and tense undercurrents so I decided to look around for something lighter to break the mood.

So I dug around on an old hard drive, and decided upon Shimokita Sundays as a nice antidote. It’s based around a university student who stumbles upon hapless theatre group at a happening they organise at her university (which involves sawing the lectern into pieces). Intrigued, she goes to a play of theirs and is so enraptured that she then joins them.

At its heart, it’s a fairly typical story of how youthful innocence can win the day. What sets it apart is the strong ensemble cast of oddities and outcasts. While J-dramas often have these misfits, they tend to be in the background ready for the occasional comedy prat fall. In Shimokita Sundays, they’re given enough space and time to become proper characters, with each one given an episode in which they feature. Every one, of course, carries a terrible burden which is overcome with the help of their friends, but although it’s predictable, it’s still entertaining.

The final episode is a bit of a shame, involving old friends finally reconciling in pretty unlikely circumstances, and a fairly artificial race against the clock to get to the theatre on time, but the eight episodes leading up to that are all little gems. God bless its little optimistic socks.

Tiny Joys: the jump rope section from Quiz Hexagon II

This year, this candy-floss of a quiz show has had a bit of an overhaul. A few new ideas have been brought in and, interestingly, a few of the people who always scored lowest have started to get higher marks. Have they been studying?

One of the new games for this season is one where all six members in a team have to answer general knowledge questions while skipping. They start one at a time, and if they answer a question they keep skipping. If not, they have to get out and try again. The idea of the game is to get all six skipping at the same time.

Apart from being funny, even if you understand no Japanese, I’m pleased by its balanced structure. The more intelligent ones are the ones who are least fit, so should go last (that way they don’t spend too much time skipping). But the less intelligent team members are more likely to get the question wrong and have to start again while the others keep going. Either way, the smarter you are the longer you’re likely to be jumping up and down on the spot.

This one is a particular favourite of mine, but frankly, they’re all good.

You can find more episodes of Quiz Hexagon II by looking through doughnutandcoffee’s videos on Daily Motion.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Just browsing

Now that I’ve finished Akihabara@Deep, I’ve started looking around for something to replace it. Recently, I’ve seen good things written about Boss and Bloody Monday, so I thought I’d download the first episodes of each to give them a go.

While I enjoyed them both, they have similar styles and along with Liar Game 2, there’s quite a lot of unexpected twists, close-ups of clever people looking thoughtful, an awful lot of Toda Erika (pictured) (Liar Game 2, Boss) and an enormous amount of Kichise Michiko (all three!). I’d previously only seen her in Liar Game, where her character is a cold emotionless organiser of the games. As such, her acting skills were never really stretched, so it was a surprise to see her smile, laugh, pick things up, etc.

The trouble is, with all three programmes based around people pitting their wits against each other, it could get quite samey. One’s going to have to be put to one side for now. I just have to decide which, though. Could be tricky.

Recommended: Lost Time Life

The premise of this show is simple. At the point of death, the action is frozen, and the person about to die has a certain amount of time to finish up whatever unfinished business he or she has, before returning to the scene to die.

Oh, and their actions are regulated by a referee and two linesmen and the fourth official who carries the board displaying the time remaining, while the whole thing is commentated on by two (unseen) sports commentators.

Despite the bizarre premise, it makes perfect sense once it gets going and before long you’ve stopped wondering about the technicalities of stopping time in a localised area and started cheering the hero on as they race against the clock to say their last goodbyes or fulfil final wishes.

The show is full of comedy and pathos. Obviously it’s very sad by the end of every show, and it’s not afraid to pull punches, emotionally speaking, with lingering last looks, weepy music and cruel fate reminding us that life is but a fleeting thing and if we don’t say or do the things we really want, tomorrow may be too late. But despite the sentimentality, its naturalistic portrayal of a surreal situation means this is perhaps my favourite of all Japanese dramas I’ve seen to date.


Sunday, 6 December 2009

Currently watching: Late Night Diner

Thanks to the subbers at not using You Tube as the host for these, I’m able to sneakily watch this while at work. What with all the office comings and goings, one half-hour episode usually takes a day to watch, but it certainly makes a nice break from arranging meetings and typing up minutes.

Set in a Japanese diner that opens during the night and the curious characters it attracts, it’s a low-key laid-back series. Each week is a different story and repeating characters are pretty few and far between, apart from the owner himself, who mostly stands behind the counter and looks stoic.

The lack of regulars is something of a drawback. It would be nice to focus on a core of characters, rather than having someone new each week. But for the most part this is a pretty interesting, if sentimental, show.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Just finished: Akihabara@deep

Well, that was a relief. Got to the last episode, and it had a proper ending. Or, at least, a final boss battle. While watching I didn’t know that it was based on a novel, which perhaps explains the pacing and satisfying conclusion to the story. I also noted that episode seven I mentioned last time wasn’t in the book: they just fancied doing a zombie story.

The end of season special was a “making of” which was interesting enough. Watching Yuka Kosaka (Akira) struggle with the acting wasn’t a surprise, nor was seeing Yuki Himura (Daruma) being the funniest between takes. I thought he stole most scenes he was in, although I guess the costumes helped.

I felt a bit sad when finished the final episode and I realised there weren’t any more. I wanted to see what happened to these people, more than just a quick round-up in an epilogue. Definitely a sign that this self-indulgent but entertaining series had got under my skin.

Not recommended: Nodame Cantabile

Just so this blog doesn't turn into a list of things I like, I'm going to occasionally focus on my less favoured programmes. I have mixed feelings towards Nodame Cantabile. Odd that, since everywhere else I look people heap praise upon it. It’s won awards, has now got two more TV specials being made for it and its soundtrack is Japan’s biggest selling classical music CD or something. So why am I so apathetic towards it?

I get the feeling that it helps a lot if you’ve read the original manga series. That way the characters won’t seem like a bunch of hysteric stereotypes and are in fact accurate portrayals of the comic. Certainly, the first episode had me scratching my head over some of the acting. What works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on screen (see also: the end of No Country For Old Men) but I suppose a less faithful rendition wouldn’t have been as well received. For me, who had never seen the manga at all, it was a bit like being thrown in at the deep end, and I simply had to accept their weird quirks without thinking about it too much.

The comedy, like the acting, is very broad and physical, which brings me to a dilemma. Both male and female characters are on the receiving end of comedy knocks which I should approve of, but I found it unsettling to see a woman punched in the face for not playing a piano just right, even if it was done in a cartoon-y style. Should I, in this post-post-feminist world be okay with such slapstick being given out to both men and women alike? Meh, perhaps I’m behind the times, but it bothered me.

On the plus side, the music’s good, with a nice version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in episode four or five (I forget), the acting (once you get used to it) is fine especially from the two leads, Ueno Juri and Tamaki Hiroshi, and the storyline does become more interesting and involved as you go. But that’s about it. I enjoyed it for what it was, but it’s not a title that’d spring to mind when talking about the best in Japanese TV.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Still watching: Akihabara@Deep

I usually prefer the more sedate, thoughtful side of Japanese TV series (Galileo, Lost Time Life, Ueno Juri no Itsutsu no Kaban) and films (After Life, University of Laughs) but every now and then, I find myself hooked on something broader. Usually in a week I don’t have time to watch more than a couple of episodes of JTV, but I’ve found myself making time for extra episodes which is a sure sign it’s got under my skin.

But even for a fan like myself, I can see it has its faults. For a start, the storyline goes all over the place. There are occasional references to a semi-sinister geek genius who runs a massively powerful IT corporation, but it’s still not clear where he fits into everything. Also, nothing really happens in episodes 2 and 7 (if a series of all-female cage fights or a zombie apocalypse can be described as “nothing really”) and while I admire this self-indulgent approach to storytelling, I’m expecting the usual last-episode crush where everything has to be explained as quickly as possible, usually involving some kind of amazing coincidence or previously hidden alliance.

Until then, though, I’ll be enjoying it for what it is. Loud, brash, nonsensical, and funny.

Currently Watching: Liar Game 2

So, I got hold of the subbed version of episode 1 from Sars Fansubs, and gave it a go. It more or less starts where the other left off, with its style of crash zooms, menacing electro soundtrack and constant drip-feeding of ever more ingenious explanations as to what’s really going on.

Just one episode in, and not much can be said about the direction the storyline is going to take, but I’d like to voice my approval of putting a future adversary in a top hat and black cloak. And to note that everyone seems to be exactly the same as two years ago, except that Toda Erika has nicer hair.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Waiting for: Liar Game 2

Fingers crossed that this one will scale the same heights of geekiness that the first series did. If so, this should be a real treat. While Galileo solved crimes with science, and Puzzle solved crimes with... well, with puzzles, then this uses probability and game theory to win the day. Based on the manga, the story in the first series revolved around a mysterious set of high risk games that our unsuspecting heroes are mixed up in.

I was a big fan of series one, despite the almost unbearable directing style. In an attempt to heighten the tension, almost every notable event was followed by crash zooms on each of the people in the room accompanied by an ominous exploding noise. If the room was full, this took a while. Still, I sat through them patiently to get to the explanations of the mechanics behind each scam, and was rarely disappointed.

The characters are, truth be told, fairly mundane. There’s the optimistic perky female and the brooding, enigmatic male who make an unlikely team etc etc. Although this allowed a nice twist in the first series is that the optimistic female finds her naïve trusting way of life is mathematically the most productive, as they discover that the only way for no one to lose the final game is if every one plays honestly.

Finished: Hotaru no Hikari

Well, that was pleasant. Not great, not terrible, but as a whole okay. Not very taxing on the mind, but it passed the time.

The last episode follows a pattern I’ve seen in a few J-dramas, in that the series starts at a leisurely pace and then in the final episode it’s as if the writer looked at his watch and thought “holy crap, I’ve got to get this thing finished”.

It zips through six months to arrive at the ending that you probably guessed in episode one. But it’s not the destination; it’s the journey, right? The journey in this case was a meandering stroll, but still it kept me going to the end. Or at least, close enough to the end that I thought I may as well watch the last few episodes.


Sunday, 15 November 2009

Currently watching: Akihabara@Deep

The knowing use of internet punctuation in the title should indicate the subject matter of this enjoyable romp. Set in Tokyo's technology-obsessed streets of Akihabara, it follows three social misfits and their female martial arts expert friend as they bust crime.

That's the premise, anyway. So far I've only watched episode one and it's usually quite difficult to tell which way a drama series is going to go after just the first episode, but early signs are good. The jokes are funny and the characters are likeable, although the storylines are implausible - a gang of thugs attacking otaku terrorises the streets, meanwhile two distant geniuses pull the strings from behind the scenes - and I'm not sure the gang's punishment (being scared off by sirens) fits their crime (assualt) but we shall see how things play out.

Coming Soon: Bump of Chicken

Possibly the best band in the world with the worst name in the world. With a new single out on the 25th November, "R.I.P./Merry Christmas" (it's a double a-side, in case you think that's the title of one song about someone dying while celebrating the birth of Christ) and I have to admit I'm excited. Their last album, Orbital Period, is one of my favourite albums ever, and the rest of their back catalogue is pretty special too.

Their sound is sort of stadium rock, I'd say, but with a simplicity and delicacy that means it avoids most of the worst excesses of the genre. The almost childlike quality to some of the songs means that you sometimes feel that this is something you've heard before. Not in a bad, plagiaristic way, rather listening to Bump of Chicken is like remembering something wonderful you'd forgotten a long time ago.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Currently watching:Team Batista no Eiko

This drama is set around the promising idea that there is a serial killer amongst the staff of a prestigious surgery team. Their previous excellent record in an extremely delicate operation has been ruined by a recent series of failures, beginning when a new nurse joined the team. Is she responsible, or is the killer using the change of staff to deflect suspicion from him or herself?

The main character, Tamaguchi, is the optimistic trusting soul who can’t believe there’s a killer. He’s been teamed up with a grumpy cynical policeman who doesn’t stand on ceremony and enjoys annoying the pompous hospital directors. The doctors themselves all appear to be hard-working saints. So far, so predictable.

I’m hoping that the murder mystery will take over. After episode four, in which nothing really happens, that’s a pretty slim hope but we shall see. There is scope for some nice double crossing and subterfuge but equally it could go completely the opposite way and it could end up as another “doctors are nice/everything’s fine” kind of drama. I’m not convinced by its handling of the two different styles: life-affirming hospital drama, and tense, suspicion laden murder mystery. The storyline veers one way then the next and neither really convinces.

Part of the problem could be that none of the leading characters are directly at risk. The only people being killed are patients, who don’t have time to establish themselves. The only way to get the audience to empathise is to use very obvious emotional touchpoints such as an estranged son, or doting wife, which leaves them pretty one-dimensional. Unless something happens soon to rachet up the tension, I can’t see myself seeing this through to the end.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Currently watching: Hotaru no Hikari, Quiz Hexagon II

Hotaru no Hikari is a comedy drama based around the (mostly imaginary but still traumatic) love life of a grungy office worker lady who has to share a house with her uptight boss.

It touches on typical concerns of Japanese dramas of love and modern relationships. I say "touches on", although "hits with a hammer" would be more accurate. Japanese TV isn’t known for it’s subtlety and this continues that fine tradition. Watching the main character freak out when she gets a text from someone she fancies, or freak out because she didn’t isn’t terribly deft storytelling. Then again, when I jokingly said to a Japanese friend "but Japanese women aren’t really like that, are they?" she looked non-committal and changed the subject, so it may be spot on for all I know.

In terms of quality, it’s not terribly high – I started watching it months ago and twice I’ve found myself putting it to one side in favour of other more interesting stuff. It’s entertaining enough, but if I was being honest I wouldn’t watch it if I wasn’t learning the occasional useful phrase, for example, the Japanese refer to texts as "mails" and I’ve heard "otsukare sama deshita" ("thanks for your hard work") so often I reckon my pronunciation of it must be prefect by now.

Still, I’m seven episodes in so I may as well see it through to the end. Even if it’s clear as day what the end is actually going to be.

Quiz Hexagon II

I stumbled on a couple of episodes last year on d-addicts, and enjoyed it, despite its lack of subtitles. The witty banter goes over my head, but the games are easy enough to follow and pausing to read the kanji captions flashed on screen helps me understand what’s going on. I especially enjoyed the game where the stupidest member of the team reads out questions involving complicated kanji. It’s nice to see native speakers struggle with the written language as much as I do.

These days I can follow it on Daily Motion. It’s bubblegum for the eyes, right down to the vivid artificial colouring, but I enjoy it. It’s making such an effort to be entertaining that it would be rude not to laugh occasionally.

Recommended: Ueno Juri to itsutsu no kaban

This series of five individual short dramas aired last month in Japan and was subtitled by some lovely translators at Viikii.

Slow-paced and thoughtful, each of the stories is based around a bag of some kind, although this link is often pretty tenuous. Ueno Juri takes the lead in all five episodes, and does very well. Always watchable, she takes the different roles in her stride. It bodes well that she can mix very commercial acting roles (Nodame Cantabile) with this more esoteric stuff.

The stories are semi-surreal vignettes, and are nicely underplayed, allowing what is not said to become as important as what is. Meanwhile, the music is a real treat, with the closing songs of episodes one and three being especially haunting.

As you’d expect from a collection of short stories, I enjoyed some more than others. At its best, it’s almost reassuring that there are programmes like this still being made: A more relaxed, measured kind of drama with a gentler style of storytelling.

By means of introduction

The first post in a new blog and I suppose some sort of introduction is necessary, especially since the idea of a man in his late 30s who’s "into" Japanese pop culture normally brings to mind images of a Morning Musume-adoring, upskirt photo-collecting, overgrown otaku. So this post is about me. I’ll keep it brief.

I was introduced to Japanese culture in the usual way – through videogames. I started learning the language so I could play new Japanese games without having to wait months for an official release. Ironically, though, the one game that made me want to learn Japanese was Animal Crossing on the Nintendo 64. When I finally got to play it (on the DS) I discovered I really didn’t enjoy it.

Anyway, after video games came music. At the time I was working for EMI in the archives, and noticed that we had all of Toshiba EMI’s releases too. I picked up a few CDs at random to listen to. I wasn’t expecting anything special: in fact my previous experience of modern Japanese music was amusing clips of salarymen trying to learn English by singing "My Way" very loudly. As it was, by happy chance, the first song I heard was "Vampire" by Tomoyasu Hotei. It absolutely blew me away, and turned my preconceived idea about Japan on its head.

Fast forward a few years, and now I plough through the internet, skirting the dangerous waters of the gory and the grotesque end of Japanese cinema, keeping a safe distance from Hello Project/Johnny’s Entertainment vapid girl/boy bands, in my search for the same shock of the new that I felt when I heard that song by Hotei. Sometimes, I find it: Bump of Chicken, Lost Time Life, and University of Laughs have all enriched my life, and I’m hopeful of finding more gems in the future.

Which is why this blog is called "If by Japan". Because if you were to ask me if I like Japan, I'd reply "If by Japan you mean extreme horror, manufactured pop, and anime about giant robots, then no. If by Japan you mean ghost stories, mysteries, honour and invention, then yes." Something like that, anyway.

Of course, people reading this blog may run away with the idea that my life is all about Japanese culture, when in fact it is just this blog which is about Japanese culture. I watch and listen to enough British/American/Italian stuff that I’m not going to start eating fish and chips with chopsticks and referring to myself as "gaijin".