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".