Sunday, 28 February 2010

First day in Osaka

After only three hours of sleep, I'm feeling a bit wired and I have an unfamiliar Japanese keyboard to deal with. Took me a while to work out how to turn off the automatic hiragana stuff.

One of the things I'm here to get is the boxed set of Camouflage. It is on the internet for an arm and a leg, so I thought I'd take the chance to see if I could find it for cheap in a sale or something. Had a quick look today (am in Osaka) and tried a DVD shop called "I love DVD". But the first rack of DVDs I saw on entering was porn. Rather an odd first impression to give people, I thought, but decided the TV dramas must be somewhere else. Second rack I looked at: more porn. I got the message, made my apologies and left.*

The next DVD shop I went into, I was more confident of because (a) it was on the ground floor, (b) it also sold books, and (c) a woman went in just before I did. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it, but it's still early days. I also went to look at some CDs to see if I could get something by Bump of Chicken or whoever. This was when I finally regretted me not learning the Japanese alphabet. I had no idea what order it was in, so I could barely find anything.

* this is just a saying. If I had actually apologised, it would've made the situation far more awkward for everyone concerned.

Friday, 26 February 2010

If in Japan

So, in about four hours I'm going to head out on a journey that involves taxi, coach, plane and train that'll take me to Japan. After about a decade of following Japanese culture, it's finally my chance to see it up close. At last I get to see how accurate the TV presentation is. Are all women really that attractive? Do all dour-faced father-figures secretly harbour a soft side? Is Japan really full of high-school student geniuses on both sides of the law?

Whatever. I'm trying to keep my expectations in check. Expecting Japan to be like the version you get on the internet is like me expecting to fall into a Four Weddings and a Funeral type adventure on my way to work every morning. People who've been to Japan say I'm going to have a wonderful time, so that's nice. I'll try and keep this place updated as much as possible, but I'm kind of hoping it'll be so awesome, I won't have a chance to get to an internet cafe.

I'm not looking forward to the flight, though.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Recommended: One Million Yen Girl

I’m on a bit of an Aoi Yu trip at the moment, what with Dr Koto’s Clinic, Osen and now this film, One Million Yen Girl and the Nigamushi Woman. In this, Yu plays a woman who gets a criminal record after she’d removed all of her flatmates possessions in revenge for him throwing a cat out of the flat, which then died.

Rather than put up with all the local gossip about her, she decides to travel from town to town, looking for work so she can save one million yen to get her own place. So the film is episodic in that each of the three jobs she does has its own little story. During her travels she writes cheerful letters to her younger brother, unaware that he’s being bullied at school.

While the central theme is at first appealing – no ties, free to wander, the horizon is your next destination etc, by the end the film is clear which of the two lives it considers more worthy: the brother’s inability to leave his problems behind lead to him facing them square on. When Aoi Yu’s character receives a letter from her brother and learns about the troubles he’s had, she decides to return to her family.

It’s a low-key drama or, if you prefer, an even more low-key comedy. It’s similar to Camouflage (and the TV channel WOWOW had a hand in producing both) and in fact, Aoi Yu’s character in this film makes an appearance the TV show too. I really enjoyed it - the episodic nature meant that no story outstayed its welcome, and the ambiguous ending (was her last line meant for her ex or for the audience?) left me pondering for some time.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Just finished: Liar Game 2

This techno-driven semi-surreal drama closes on a cliffhanger for the forthcoming film. With this in mind, it could hardly have a satisfying ending, but even a fan like me felt a little disappointed about the way things wound up.

The final two games were beaten mostly by manipulating people rather than probabilities and so didn’t offer the same level of geeky joy as series one. Plus, I’ll be honest, I had a hard time following the last game. I just let all the double-crossing wash over me while I watched the advantage swing back and forth. It was a little let down that the last game was won by exploiting a flaw in the game rather than exploiting the game itself but I suppose there’s only a limited number of mathematical theories that lend themselves to storytelling.

On the other hand, it is very addictive and I watched the last three episodes in one evening because I had to see what happens next. Luckily, the final chapter Liar Game: Final Stage is released in Japanese cinemas while I’m actually in the country! While I’m tempted to go, my Japanese is nowhere near good enough to follow the storyline. The best I could hope for is to watch people getting happy, then angry and then happy again, and try to work out why.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Avoid: Remote

I'm saying too many nice things. So to redress the balance, here's an unlovable show that I tried soon after I watched the first Liar Game and wanted something a bit similar.

Remote is a crime thriller in which a traffic warden is promoted to a position that no one ever stays at for too long – specifically: working with a detective genius who refuses to leave his cellar and communicates through the phone.

The traffic warden is girly and emotional, perhaps to contrast from the cool, detached detective. In the event, she ends up looking daffy and ineffectual, while he has all the charisma of a sack of potatoes. It's hard to feel any sympathy for a detective who tells the police woman to calm down while she stumbles through a dingy warehouse, while he can barely make it out of his room. His brooding silences are supposed to indicate some deep troubled past, but only make him look tongue-tied and dumb.

I'll be honest I only watched one and a half episodes, so there's a chance that it gets better after a while, but face it, food poisoning gets better after a while – doesn't mean you shouldn't avoid it in the first place.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Just finished: Osen

Going by national stereotypes, you'd be hard pushed to find two more dissimilar countries than Italy and Japan, but in some ways their cultures parallel each other closely.

The most obvious of this is their attitude to food. A constant bemoaning of modern methods and a nostalgia for what used to be, coupled with an almost orgasmic appreciation for the food itself means the two are, to my mind, very similar.

As such, while watching this programme, I found myself thinking this would work very well on Italian TV. It's a cosy, warm-hearted show set in a top-of-the-range restaurant intent on preserving the old ways despite the constant pressures to modernize. Aoi Yu stars as the drunken yet respected owner who bumbles from one event to the next, dispensing wisdom along the way. She leads a band of devoted kitchen staff, including a stern head chef, enthusiastic new boy, and frustrated assistance chef.

The writing is pretty formulaic. At least the writers are aware enough of this to put in a scene where one character (who's threatening the restaurant) is about to eat, and he says something like "I suppose this food will be so delicious I'll change my mind?" which is exactly what happens.

It's a reassuring cup-of-hot-cocoa kind of show that tells its viewers that however grey and bland modern life may be, there is another way. A simpler, more noble way, where everything took ages but was worth it in the end. Which is more than can be said for the show. Apart from Aoi Yu being a cute drunk, there's not much to recommend it. The supporting characters are all pretty bland, although it does get better as the story goes on and it ends on a fairly bleak note.

I'm not sure what to make of the show's central theme. I'm all for the Slow Food movement, but I do wonder how practical it is. And the restaurant was at the high end of the market, so preserving these traditional foods would seem to benefit only the wealthy. Still, leaving the socio-political debate aside, this is a well-meaning, rose-tinted drama that should appeal to foodies.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Just finished: Bloody Monday

So, just in time for the second series to begin (part one already subbed and up on Silent Regrets – fast work!), I watch the end of the first. Entertaining enough, and the false finale of episode nine was a good way to set up the last two episodes.

The fact that I knew there was a second series did kind of dampen any tension as you can guess that most of the main cast make it through to the final credits in one piece. Plus, I think the terrorists spent more time killing each other than they did the police which was a convenient way of making them appear threatening without losing too many of the main characters.

Overall, it was enjoyable. Darker than your average piece of J-drama, and it kept on at a decent pace throughout. Sometimes you could be thinking the fast narrative was a way to paper over some of the more flimsy plot points but that’s overly cynical. It is, after all, meant to be a rollercoaster ride through a tale of subterfuge and lies. It never gets too close to any social commentary. Well, apart from the idea that the Japanese masses are socially inept drones and, as such, expendable. I know I’m not supposed to take that seriously, but I’ve seen it used as a plot point quite a few times now, I wonder if some writers out there mean it.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Death Note versus Death Note: FIGHT!

Minor spoilers ahead...

This is the first in a (very) occasional series in which I compare the same story as told by different media. This one compares the anime and the film versions of Death Note.

First, the good news. Both are excellent. Or, at least, the original story is excellent. The son of a police officer finds a note book in which he can write people’s names and they will die. He anonymously begins to kill criminals, becoming a folk hero and causing problems for the police. And sometimes killing them, too. Cue genius detective L who unwittingly asks the killer to help him, and the battle of wits begins.

The anime, being by far the longer, has more time to tell the story and fill in the details of the characters. This, it turns out, is to its disadvantage. The film version, even though it is split into two, has less time on its hands and therefore cuts out a lot of unnecessary filler.

The film's bravest move, and this is what puts it ahead of the anime, was the removal of the orphanage bit towards the end, with the arrival of another detective genius kid. While it kind of works as a plot line in the anime, the fact that the film keeps the two main protagonists against each other until the end with fewer distractions makes it more interesting.

The film faithfully represents the gods according to the original manga designs, and the actors too fill their roles well. Matsuyama Kenichi is a convincing L, but Fujiwara Tatsuya seems a little too nice to be a killer.

In the end, I think the live action version wins over the anime, simply thanks to leaving out that entire second detective genius from the orphanage. Actually now I think about it, in the anime there's a third too. The film is more focused and coherent than the anime and while I recommend both, when put side by side, the film tells a better story.