Sunday, 25 April 2010

Currently watching: Sunao ni Narenakute (It's Hard To Say I Love You)

There's something exciting about watching a series around the same time as it's being transmitted. First, you have to be impressed by the skill and speed of the fansubbers, and also for the geeky thrill of being bang up to date and reading things on forums that refer to something that happened yesterday as opposed to several months ago which is how long it usually takes me to get around to watching something (e.g. Bloody Monday 2 - still haven't made a start on it).

This series sees Ueno Juri and Eita feature in a drama about a bunch of people who met on twitter, and meet up for a drink. Although I've only seen the first two episodes, it looks like being a tale of loves, laughs and lies with everyone having a secret burden to overcome while they tip-toe through these fledgling relationships.

It makes a nice change to see Juri in a normal role, after the oddballs she's recently played in 5 Bags and Nodame. Meanwhile Eita is playing a struggling photographer, just like he did in Lost Time Life, right down to having the same make of camera. Talk about being typecast!

Added to this is a Korean salesman (Hero JaeJoong) who can't seem to sell anything, a guy (Tamayama Tetsuji) being sexually harassed at work by his female boss, and a suicidal pregant woman (Seki Megumi). And some other stuff as well, but it's too early to say how they all fit together. But so far - just two episodes in - I'm enjoying it. The characters all have something to endear them to the viewer, and each episode definitely leaves you wanting more.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Avoid: Atashinchi no Danshi

Okay, so this series is for children (at least I hope it is) but I can't keep saying nice things about Japanese TV. It's just not right. So here goes...

In this series a homeless woman is chased by some hoodlums, and is rescued by a man in a helicopter, who she then marries because he's going to pay off her debts and besides he's about to die soon but she's tricked into looking after his family after his death. Even though his family are all fully grown adults and can probably look after themselves.

But if I were to pick holes in the story, I’d be here all day. Suffice to say, it makes no sense and lacks likeable characters, humour, narrative drive or any redeeming features at all. Horikita Maki is lumbered with the lead role which requires her to look baffled or annoyed while dumbly accepting her improbable fate. The emotional range required for this role is such that if she simply played the kazoo and slapped herself repeatedly on the forehead, she’d get more sympathy.

Meanwhile the rest of the cast, despite boasting an impressive number of familiar faces, struggle under the weight of the wretched script. For all the emotional connection I had with these people, I may as well have been watching some geometric shapes moving across the screen at random while the words "You’re wasting your time" flash on and off.

The parade of ill-defined stereotypes is too depressing to list, the directing is all over the place, the story is tedious, and before too long I found myself wistfully gazing out of the window before deciding life’s too short and giving up the ghost after one and a bit episodes. Perhaps the only reason for watching this is to experience how good it feels to turn it off and go and do something else instead.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Currently watching: The Queen’s Classroom

Downloaded on a whim, I’ve found myself quite entertained by this series (also known as Jyoou no Kyoushitsu) set during the last year of elementary school in a class lead by a manipulative, mean teacher (an inch perfect performance by Amami Yuki, also seen recently in Boss). By awarding favours to students who do well, and punishing those who don’t, she creates divisions and mistrust between the haves and have-nots and the story could potentially be the basis of some in-depth musing on society. Except that it’s played for laughs. And tears.

Since I’ve already watched Seigi no Mikata, it was a bit weird to see a younger Shida Mirai playing what is essentially the same down-trodden yet plucky character as she did in Seigi no Mikata. It felt a lot like a prequel in some ways. Which is no bad thing.

Perhaps the most interesting part is during the credits at the end when, as if the producers were worried that Amami Yuki's coldly perfect performance as the evil teacher might make viewers think she really is like that, she comes out of character, bows in gratitude to the crew while walking from the set and before you know it, she’s doing a happy dance in the playground! Almost entirely unnecessary, but then again… why not?

Recommended: Ashita no, Kita Yoshio

It’s always a relief when a series that starts so strongly doesn’t fall to pieces by the end. In this series a man decides to kill himself in eleven days’ time and, after telling his plans to a slightly shady character, he falls into a whirlwind adventure involving TV talents, night clubs, assassins, multiple personalities and life insurance fraud.

After eleven episodes our hero has acted selflessly in front of enough people for them to beg him to not to kill himself, and the message finally gets through to him in the final scene.

It’s a heart-warming story, and nicely shot as well. The recurring theme of Andrew Wyeth’s artwork surprisingly plays a major part in the closing scene, which I didn’t see coming at all. This twist, albeit a small one, makes up in some way for the predictable (but satisfying) end of the show.

This drama has some great performances but most plaudits have to go to the directors (mostly Shimoyama Ten, but a few others too). This is perhaps the first j-drama for a long while where I’ve found myself appreciating the photography and composition of some of the shots.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Akihabara@DEEP vs. Akihabara@DEEP: FIGHT!

I'll be honest, I didn't want to really like the film version. I have a king-sized soft spot for the ramshackle silliness of the TV drama, and wasn't keen on a flash big-budget version strutting around the place, giving it all that, and ruining my memories of the TV show.

As it was, I did enjoy it. It's a darker version of the story, with the film leaving out the whole crime busting plot line (and the zombies) and instead focusing on the battle against DigiCap and the search engine they'd designed. The characters are more sharply defined in the film version, too. Box's fear of women is more overt, and Page's stutter is so bad he can barely complete a sentence.

Trying to decide which is best is difficult. Akira is better acted in the film, by some margin, with Yamada Yu easily outclassing Kosaka Yuka. Then again, the head of DigiCap seems more malevolent and interesting in the TV series, despite the comedy trappings. Kitamura Kazuki gives the role a slightly deranged edge that the film lacks.

They're different enough that they don't tread on each others' toes and I think that disliking one won't effect how you feel about the other. The TV show is energetic and keen to be loved, while the film is a cool, distant, good looking version of the same story. But the televised version has the Daruma character, a better ending and a slightly more genuine otaku feel to it. So, on balance, the series takes the victory.

Hmm, you'd think they'd be happier about it...

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Just watched: Swing Girls

One of the abiding memories of my trip to Japan was when I was in Kyoto, going for a walk along the river that runs through it, when I heard the sound of someone playing a trumpet. I looked, and on the other bank (it’s quite a wide river) was schoolgirl practising with a friend sitting nearby. I thought at the time it was like something out of a j-drama, and I dawdled as slowly as I could (without it looking odd) so I could listen for a while.

Then, over this last weekend, I saw the film Swing Girls which, indeed, contains not one but two scenes of schoolgirls practising playing brass instruments by a river. So at least now I know what inspired her.

This film is a determinedly upbeat feel-good movie, caring little for plausibility, and it glides from one minor setback to the next without ever seeming like a happy ending is ever in doubt. But that’s not the point. It never pretends to be anything it’s not, so you can relax and enjoy the performances (Ueno Juri, in the lead role, steals the show but everyone is good) for ninety minutes and then walk away with a warm glow that’ll last until bedtime/you spill some food down your shirt/you remember you still haven’t paid the bills. Whichever comes first.

Currently watching: Ashita no, Kita Yoshio

Over the long Easter weekend a bad knee kept me from any healthy outdoor walks I may have had planned, and so I spent the four days sitting down watching TV. I took the chance to catch up on a few things I’d always wanted to see and, of those, this was by far the most interesting. Five episodes in three days are usually enough to make me thoroughly sick of a series, but this one is keeping me intrigued.

In this series, a man – Kita Yoshio – decides to end his life in eleven days, and immediately is plunged into the most eventful eleven days of his life. In this mix is an ex-wife who hates him and who possibly murdered her second husband, a guy who’s helping him out while at the same time trying to bump him off for the insurance, a TV talent who’s trying to get out of the business, and a detective investigating the first wife but then gets sucked into following the ill-deeds of everyone else, perhaps thinking they’re all interlinked.

The improbable storyline is nicely written and genuinely funny, with some great performances. In fact, the acting is gold all the way down, with even minor characters catching the eye. It’s based on a novel, so I’ve got high hopes that it’ll have a decent ending. But it’ll certainly have to be terrible to ruin what is, so far, a splendid story.