Friday, 30 July 2010

Still Watching: Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo

So, episode two is subbed and I'm pleased to say I'm starting to warm to the characters. Plus it does teach you a bit about Japanese. And it looks like each student will get an episode to themselves, so I'm interested to see what happens with English guy or the (French?) otaku.

Although the programme does highlight a problem I've noticed in other shows – getting foreign actors who can act in Japanese. For example, I can't tell if the student in this episode is supposed to be a cold Russian ice queen, or simply cannot act (although bless her for doing her best when singing enka). But I guess the pool of bi-lingual acting talent isn't that huge.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

I wrote this ages ago and put it up on my other blog, ersby, but I'm having a bit of a clear out over there, so I thought I'd bring this one over rather than just delete it.

The first series of this anime (quick synopsis: a teenage schoolgirl is a god, but she doesn't know it. Her school friends: an esper; a time traveller; a super-intelligent alien; and an ordinary school boy, are given the task of keeping her occupied so she doesn't accidentally summon up a monster to destroy the world because she's a bit bored) had its episodes in the wrong order. Pretty annoying, frankly, as I watched one episode wondering where this guy had suddenly come from and why was he friends with everyone, only to watch his introduction the following week.

Anyway, the second series has been equally brave/stupid. This time it is a set of episodes, all called "Endless Eight" in which the same story is played out each time. Different animation teams and directors mean that the style and voice acting is different, but apart from a few minor details, the events play out the same way each time.

This means that the smallest details suddenly become very important and meaningful. An aspect that would pass you by if you saw it just the once suddenly becomes fascinating. Why does that guy pick up and read the list of things to do in the coffee shop? Which bits are important for the conclusion of the story and which aren't? Which bits are pointing us to clues, and which are just the director trying to find a new way to portray a certain scene? That they should carry this out for all eight episodes is a remarkable act of courage.

At the moment I've just watched the seventh of the endless eight, which means this story arc should be ending any time soon. There's a strong doubt in my mind that the finish can do justice to the superb build up, but I live in hope. And taking the philosophy of the journey not the destination being important, this is already a great success.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Recommended: Puzzle (2008)

The reason for the year in brackets after the title is due to the unfortunate coincidence of there being another series called “Puzzle”, broadcast the previous year. I haven't seen Puzzle (2007), but the synopsis makes it sound a bit like Battle Royale, but with less blood and more jigsaws.

The 2008 series is about a corrupt English teacher and three of her students who investigate mysteries. These normally start out as a simple attempt to find treasure or win a reward (the teacher's motivation in these stories is always greed) before the body count starts to rise and there's a murder to be solved.

I'm a sucker for these kinds of shows and although, in the era of mobile phones, the idea of people completely cut off from help is kind of far-fetched, with a little suspension of disbelief these stories work fine.

Ishihara Satomi plays the teacher, and despite being ten years too young for the part, pulls it off admirably. Her comedy timing is perfect, and she'd carry the series by herself even if nothing else was worth watching. As it is, everything else is fine. The stories are (apart from a dip in stories 6 and 7) excellent and intriguing, and the supporting cast are great too. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that the puzzle in episode one is pretty obvious if you speak English. This may give the impression that the series is a straight comedy propped up by some weak mysteries, but the would be unfair. This is a smart, funny show that anyone who likes a bit of Trick/Jonathan Creek style sleuthing should try.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Currently watching: Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo

British people of a certain age will remember a sitcom called Mind Your Language, set in an English As A Foreign Language class, full of ethnic minorities recently arrived on the shores of the UK. Given the same premise, this show ("Japanese Words that the Japanese Don't Know", more or less) could bring back some odd memories of racial stereotypes from the 1970s, a time when saying things like "I tolerate coloured people" was considered the height of sophisticated multiculturalism. It's an unfortunate connection and perhaps a little unfair, but it's one I can't shake.

On the other hand, watching it did also bring back memories of when I was an English teacher, and being stumped when someone asked why a particular phrase is worded in such a way. Also, the idea that foreigners can't wash up properly reminded me of when my Italian ex-girlfriend explained how odd it looked to her when we English don't rinse our plates after washing, and just leave them on the draining board covered in soap-suds.

So, clearly, this show is well-observed and it struck a chord with me. But despite that, I found myself waiting for it to get better. I didn't really like any of the characters and some of the acting is a bit wobbly. I'll watch a couple, just to see if it just needs a while to get going but as it stands, this is pretty missable.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Just watched: Nodame Cantabile: The Movie I

Recently released by Sars Fansubs, the story of Megumi Noda continues with this – the first of two cinema releases. Well, I say the story of Megumi Noda, but this film focuses mostly on Chiaki-senpai, the conductor. All of the major plot points revolve around him with Nodame supplying light relief every now and again.

The broad physical comedy and over-acting are still in place. Now computer graphics are sometimes used to emphasise the more manga-esque moments, but there are also some bits where the use of dummies is not hidden at all, which nicely undermines the seriousness of the classical soundtrack, the Parisian location and the general big-budget feel as well as making some of the comedy violence more palatable.

The story is nothing new (Chiaki turns around the fortunes of a failing orchestra), and it is held up by a healthy chunk of flashback footage from the TV series. Being the first of two films, the ending can't be called satisfactory, leaving all the loose ends to be tied up during the sequel, but when it's funny, it's funny, and when it's serious, it's serious. And when it's over-the-top, it's pretty much absurd, but that's part of the charm, isn't it?

Plus, the audience's reaction to hearing a classical piece of music is still the same every time. I wonder if there are people in Japan who think that in Europe you're not allowed to applaud at classical concerts until someone stands up and shouts “bravo”.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Currently watching: Hammer Session!

This one almost completely passed me by. Despite having a well-known cast (Shida Mirai (Seigi no Mikata), Hayami Mokomichi (Zettai Kareshi) and Kohinata Fumiyo (Ashita no Kita Yoshio)) I hadn't really paid it much attention when reading about forth-coming series. In fact the only reason I downloaded it is because someone on d-addicts said their girlfriend did the subs to practice her English and I wanted to see if the subs were any good. Turns out they were.

This is the tale of a con man, “Otowa Yonko”, who is helped by a headmaster of a school to evade the police in return for being a teacher at his school where the headmaster thinks Otowa's skills of manipulation can bring order to an unruly class. And that's pretty much how the first episode plays out. The storyline is engaging and it was quite a relief to see that Hayami Mokomichi can act. He wasn't terribly good in Densha Otoko, and as a robot in Zettai Kareshi he didn't have any emotions to display. When I saw him as the lead character I did wonder if he could carry it off, but luckily he has enough charm and humour to steal most scenes he's in.

So that's good. An interesting idea, with a strong cast and a lot of potential. I don't know if that person's girlfriend feels she needs enough practice to sub the whole series (her English already seems pretty good), but I'll be looking out for future episodes, whoever picks them up.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Not yet watching: Hotaru no Hikari 2

Just a quick note: I saw this on d-addicts with no subs, but I figured I'd download it for when soft subs came out. It must be pretty popular because to my surprise there were more seeds and leechers than for that day's The Daily Show. A J-drama more popular than US comedy? That never happens!

At least, not the stuff I watch, anyway.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Just finished: Sunao ni Narenakute

Minor spoilers ahead. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Well, that’s that. The usual last-episode dash through half a year to the end of the story came as no surprise. And I give a big tick to any series brave enough to start any scene with someone exclaiming “Iraq?!” in an unashamed attempt at getting yet more distance between our unrequited friends. Sure. Send him to Iraq. Why not? He’ll be back after a montage or two.

What was disappointing was that Peach, who’d pretty much sorted herself out by episode nine, hardly appears at all in the series finale.

What really struck me was that, only weeks after I wrote about The Boys in the Band as a curious seventies throwback, this series gives us another storyline of the gay man as “noble yet defeated”, as if he is not allowed to have a happy ending. As for Doctor’s infatuation with Haru, that petered out in a far too understanding way. I mean, he didn’t even sulk or anything.

The show ends with Eita and Juri holding hands as they run across a bridge towards their regular bar. At least they didn’t end up being brother and sister. That particular sub-plot was done away with almost as an afterthought, when Nakaji’s dad asks Haru’s mum if he was her daughter’s father. She said no. That was it. As far as economic writing goes, you’d be hard pushed to find anything more abrupt, but at least it didn’t waste any more time on an idea that had already fallen by the wayside. Plus, it meant I was spared the humiliation of choosing to watch a drama that used a plot line that hasn’t been considered clever or surprising since Ancient Greece.

But, yeah. Not bad. Ho hum.

Just finished: Bloody Monday 2

* spoilers? You know it! *

A sequel that’s better than the original? In this case, I think so. While the final climax is something of a damp squib and relies a lot on people not dying when shot in the chest, the build up is pretty imaginative. The clear highlight being the episode where they have to disarm a computer-controller sniper rifle held in the arms of a cuddly toy panda which is motion-tracking a small boy’s head as he plays in his room. Genius.

The drawback is that as the stakes get higher, those members of the cast chosen for their youthful good looks seem to struggle with the more emotional scenes. Hornet, the evil hacker, is supposed to be deranged and dangerous but just comes across as contrary – the kind of opinionated teenager we’ve all met on internet forums. Meanwhile, even the main star can’t seem to get across any emotional gravitas.

So, we’ve got a curious mix of clever stories and unengaging characters. Certainly, I think it helped that I’d seen the first series: since I’d seen them go through all that, I wanted to stick this out to the end. Had I come in on the second series, I do wonder how long I would’ve lasted.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Currently watching: Sunao ni Narenakute

This tale of young adults who live, laugh and fall in love with each other meanders on to whatever conclusion it inevitably comes to. Heading into the latter half of the series and the twitter part has mostly been dropped. It’s served its purpose, and any interesting use of such a means of communication between friends has been replaced by the more traditional storytelling devices of having people turn up unannounced or meeting accidentally.

The one-sided love affair between Doctor and Haru is one of the more interesting aspects of the show, and Doctor’s gawky over-enthusiasm is nicely played. I’ll be interested to see how his obsession changes when the futility of his situation becomes obvious, even to him. Stalker or suicidal. Or he could be hideously embarrassed and apologetic, which is what everyone else in the show seems to do when they display any kind of attraction to someone else. Place your bets.