Sunday, 28 November 2010

Re-watching: Camouflage: Aoi Yu x Yottsu no Uso

Since it’s up on Silent Regrets [edit: well, it was while Silent Regrets was there...], why not write about it again?

This show from 2008 is a twelve part series containing four stories based on the theme of Lies. It’s the same concept as Ueno Juri to Itsutsu no Kaban, and perhaps is similar to this year’s Tofu Shimai, starring another upcoming actress, Yoshitaka Yuriko. I don’t know for sure because, despite my efforts, I can’t find it on the web anywhere. Sad face.

The format of each episode is that there's a short drama section which is between some interviews and specially comissioned photos. It’s a bit like watching the DVD extras of something before you’ve watched it.

Story one (episodes one to three) is great. It begins with the death of a boyfriend, and tells three stories based on the events that follow. Episode two, in which Yu’s character keeps herself asleep with pills so she can dream about him, is a favourite of mine and is an episode I keep coming back to. So is episode three, with Nukumizu Youichi as her cat who takes on human form.

While the first two are filmed in a naturalistic style, the third part is performed on a stage and filmed as a theatre piece. It neatly finishes the narrative, with the story explaining, from a cat’s point of view, the basics of being happy. I love these episodes – they’re beautifully shot and acted, and it’s interesting to note in the interview bit afterwards, Aoi Yu says she hasn’t acted in a theatre setting before so she was quite nervous.

Story two (eps four to six) has quite a different feel. It concerns itself with unrequited love – the boyfriend being unable to tell Yu how he feels about her. Meanwhile, Yu has a hobby (Is that the right word? How about “fetish” or “compulsion”?) of running as far and as fast as she can for ten minutes while inventing stories about why she’s running. The stories she comes up with are quite funny, and so is the bumbling boyfriend, but after the comedy the story ends on quite a tragic note. Or does it? I’m not sure I understand the ending, so I can’t really say.

Story three (eps seven to nine) is one of those pieces of drama which you don’t really like until you watch it again, and then you remember the good bits about it. The story is about three sisters who share an apartment. Episode seven is shot in the style of a sitcom, episode eight in the style of a daytime soap opera, and episode nine is supposed to be the final episode of a long running series.

It’s difficult to write about this one. The sitcom bit is funny, and the soap opera bit is over-acted (and why do they have such shiny faces in that episode?) which leaves the third part to be the sensible one, and it focuses on a confession about one of the sister’s love life. It doesn’t have much of an identity, and so it’s a bit forgettable. Until you watch it again.

Story four (eps ten to twelve) is almost as good as story one. From the same director as “One Million Yen Girl”, this is a sort of semi-sequel, as we see more of Aoi Yu’s character in the film. The first part is about a college student who is caught out on her constant lying. I really like this, not least because Aoi Yu does a bit of cosplay (as a raccoon).

The second is a real gem, and tells the tale of two of Yu’s co-workers who fall in love and, being poor, both try to sacrifice too much for the other’s happiness. The third is a tale about Aoi Yu splitting up with her unfaithful boyfriend, and not being believed when she tells people she’s not that upset about it. It’s shot in such a style that you can only Yu’s face when she's talking to others - they're shot from behind, or are standing up while she's sitting down, etc. It's quite disconcerting.

This series is certainly among my favourites. So much so that when I went to Japan, picking up a cheap (relatively speaking – it was still about £75!) DVD box set of this was on my list of things to do. By the way, that’s where I got the scans for this review from. This show is inventive and original and it's one that I often come back to, and it never gets old.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Currently watching: Himitsu

This is one of those body-swap dramas, in which an adult somehow ends up in the body of somebody much younger. Usually, this is played for laughs, but not in this case. A mother and daughter are both in a coach crash, but when the teenage daughter regains consciousness, the mind of the mother (who died) now inhabits the daughter’s body.

The story focuses on quite practical, realistic consequences of this very unlikely situation. The daughter’s friends are confused by her new middle-aged attitudes, and the presence of a boyfriend that the mother didn’t know about causes some awkward situations. Also, any sexual relationships between husband and wife have ended. Thankfully so, because that would be weird.

That this story doesn’t fall apart is partly due to the writing and also due to the performances, especially the two lead roles. Shida Mirai (Hammer Session, Queen’s Classroom) is perfect as the woman in a girl’s body, and Sasaki Kuranosuke (Shimokita Sundays) is great as the husband.

Halfway in, and with the body-swap story fully set up, it’s difficult to see where this can go next. And I mean that in a good way. So far, the only person who seems to suspect what’s happened is their nosy next door neighbour, but she’s too daffy to be any kind of a threat. The other storyline that is being developed is the reason for the crash, currently blamed on the driver falling asleep at the wheel. Whichever way it goes, I hope the good work in the first half of the series keeps on until the end.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Just finished: Lost Time Life

Or Loss Time Life. Whichever title works for you.

It’s taken a while, but the last subs are out. This was the first J-drama I watched, back in early 2008, and it was a major part in making me interested in Japanese dramas. I’ve written about it before, but I felt I couldn’t let its completion pass without some kind of mention.

Kuriyama Chiaki, Sakai Wakana, Nukumizu Youichi (episode 10)

The final two-part story is actually two different stories that happen to the same person. In the first, the person dying is a bedbound president of a corrupt company and so has to rely on his daughter (played by Kuriyama Chiaki (Atami no Sousakan, Kill Bill)) to fulfil his last wishes. This story involves a former employee Omoto Yuuzo (played by Nukumizu Youichi) who then, in the second part, is visited by his ex-wife who is also dying. She asks him to make noodles, like he did when they were together.

Eita (episode one)

The show remains, to the end, very tragic and sentimental. It isn’t afraid to pull at the heart strings such that we’re moved by the reconciliation between husband and wife in the last episode, even though we know it can’t last. It reminds us of the things we could’ve done differently if we’d known what was going to happen, and also it appeals to the desire to end our lives on a positive note: with loose ends tied up, and words of love finally spoken out loud.

Ueno Juri, Nukumizu Youichi (episode 4)

 It’s also interesting watching it again, since now I can recognise more of the actors involved. Certainly, now I understand what a strong cast it had. I’ve really enjoyed this series, and am grateful that this was the first J-drama I saw. If I'd chosen something else, I may not have continued. As it was, it made me eager to discover more.

Tokiwa Takako (Kabachitare) in episode 7

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Currently watching: Last Friends

Last Friends is one of those shows that I keep seeing mentioned, but never got round to watching. Well, finally, I’m making the effort to fill this gap in my J-drama knowledge. Released in 2008, it tells the story of five young Japanese adults and their difficult relationships. Eita plays a hair stylist, Takeru, who everyone thinks is gay, but he secretly loves Ruka. Ruka (Ueno Juri) is a lesbian motocross racer who loves Michiru (Nagasawa Masami) but she has an abusive boyfriend. That’s the backbone of the story, but there are other issues branching off from that.

First thing to note is how nice it is to see Ueno Juri in a role that really stretches her. She was okay in Nodame Cantabile and Sunao ni Narenakute, but it’s good seeing her really getting into under a character’s skin the way she does here. Nagasawa Masami is also great as the abused girlfriend, displaying the right amounts of neediness, guilt and affection for her husband so that it’s clear she always wants to give him a second chance.

I also liked having just the one storyline around which the others revolve. While it might be nice to know more about the other people, that would take away from focusing on the main plot. Recently I've seen a couple of shows which didn’t seem to know what they were about. No such problems with this drama. And the mix of light hearted scene with the friends together makes the darker more violent stuff more powerful and more uncomfortable to watch. I’m four episodes in and it’s really starting to pick up momentum. I’ve already read on the internet about the conclusion to one particular relationship, but I’m keen to see where the others go.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Recommended: Tiger & Dragon

I’d seen this mentioned so often on discussions about Unubore Deka, that I had to try it. Since it’s a bit old (2005) it took a while to find it, but it was worth it. Oh boy, was it worth it! The story is about a tongue-tied yakuza who wants to become a great storyteller in the rakugo style, so he takes lessons from a master who happens to owe money to his boss.

Each episode is loosely based on a traditional folk tale, and the way the narrative slips eaily between the two is a delight. In fact, it’s one of the few dramas where I’ve admired the structure of the show: The two parallel stories enhance and explain each other brilliantly. The script is very funny with some sharp dialogue and one-liners. I feel a bit sorry for the subbers who have to deal with so many puns and references, and you’ll find quite a few explanations in square brackets in some of the episodes, but that’s a minor complaint. For the most part, they’ve done a great job in turning this very Japanese show into something understandable by everyone.

The acting, too, is top quality. Nagase Tomoya is great in the main role, Nishida Toshiyuki is perfect as the rakugo master, and it was interesting to see Ito Misaki in a more challenging role than she had in Densha Otoko, when all she had to do was look nice in soft focus.

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this. Before I watched it, I thought it couldn't be as good as everyone says, but I was wrong. It even surpassed my expectations, and if you’re not moved by the final episode, well, I guess that means we can’t be friends. Now, I’ll have to try some more of the writer Kudo Kankuro's work.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Just watched: Love Exposure

Since both this film and Kakera were on sale at a local DVD shop, I’ve had a bit of a Mitsushima Hikari overdose recently. Both films are very good, and Hikari is excellent in both, but only Love Exposure had me scurrying to my keyboard to write a review.

At four hours long, I had planned to watch it over four days in one hour chunks. As it turned out, on the second day I found myself unable to turn it off and so watched the rest of the three hours in one sitting. And then the hour-long ‘making of’ documentary too.

The story is, basically, boy meets girl. That’s a bit of an over simplification, but it is accurate: this is a love story between two people. The main character is a schoolboy, played by Nishijima Takahiro, who’s also an expert in collecting up-skirt photos... the character, that is. Not Takahiro. This boy falls in love with the daughter of the woman who is seducing his father (a priest). Unfortunately, this girl (Mitsushima Hikari) thinks he’s a woman called Miss Scorpion who’s a martial arts expert. If that wasn’t complicated enough, his family has been targeted by a religious cult as potential recruits.

It’s a tribute to the director and writer, Sono Sion, that this film holds together. What could’ve been disjointed and episodic is actually a smooth story shifting easily from one event to the next, without ever seeming to be forced. The acting, too, is great. It’s difficult to find any fault with this. If I was being super-critical, perhaps we don’t need to know everyone’s life story, but to lose that would be to lose some of the more memorable scenes in the film.

If the Devil and Jesus ever got drunk one evening and decided to write one of those stories where you take turns writing one line each, it might turn out something like this.

Monday, 8 November 2010

It's the November the Eighth Awards!

So here we are. One year since my first post and because it's the anniversary of me starting this bog, I've decided to put together a list of categories to highlight the best stuff I've seen in the last year. I should stress that this includes TV shows and films that pre-date 2010. It's more a reflection of my viewing habits than of the current state of the industry, but I figured there are plenty of awards that already do that.

Best drama
Life Special Investigation Team
Ueno Juri no Itsutsu no Kaban
Ashita no, Kita Yoshio
Atami no Sousakan

That is one hell of a line-up, even if I do say so myself. Trying to pick one flawless gem out of this pile of treasure is almost impossible. I'd have to give it to Ashita no, Kita Yoshio. The gorgeous soundtrack, the slow unfurling of the storyline, the humour, the pathos. I think it's the most complete drama series I've seen this year.

Best Comedy
Jikou Keisatsu
Unubore Deka

This one's tough. Moteki is probably the weakest, and Akihabara@Deep is more about the energy and craziness than sharp dialogue. Which leaves Jikou Keisatsu and Unubore Deka. In the end I have to go for Jilou Keisatsu. While I love both to bits, Jikou Keisatsu just edges it with it's mystery elements. And Fuse Eri, of course.

Best entertainment show
Dasshutsu Game Dero
Game Centre CX
Nep League
Gaki no Tsukai

I know I haven't written about Gaki no Tsukai before, and I really should, but I couldn't leave it out just because of that. Meanwhile, the winner is Dasshutsu Game Dero.  Game Centre CX ran it close, especially since I found more episodes on Youku (alas, without subs) but Dero wins simply in terms of putting famous people in uncomfortable situations and making them solve puzzles. Easy to get the hang of, and there are a fair few questions that an English speaker could have an attempt at.

Best album
Veltpunch “The Black Album”
Yui “Holidays in the Sun”
Gomez the Hitman “Ripple”
Ellegarden “Eleven Fire Crackers”

No real competition here. Veltpunch's Black Album isn't just the best Japanese album I've heard this year: it's the best album, full stop. Loud guitars and catchy choruses are married to an indie/experimental sensibility so it never grows stale. Yui's album is full of bright, summery tunes and the other two are a little old (both from 2005) but I never pretended to be up to date. Gomez the Hitman's “Ripple” is a laid back, folky/bluesy pop album while Ellegarden's grunge is all about 100mph choruses crashing into each other.

Best actor
Uhm Ki Joon (Life Special Investigation Team)
Katagiri Jin (Quiz Show)
Kohinata Fumiyo (Ashita no, Kita Yoshio)
ARATA (Chase)

Quite a varied bunch. Between ARATA's understated menace and Katagiri's slow descent into madness, I think we have all bases covered. It makes this a bit tricky, but I've decided on Kohinata Fumiyo. Without his sympathetic portrayal of the suicidal loser, that series would've had a very different feel to it.

Best actress
Wakana Sakai (Koi no Mon)
Aso Kumiko (Chase, etc)
Shinohara Ryoko (Tsuki no Koibito)
Ueno Juri (Ueno Juri no Itsutsu no Kaban)

Aso Kumiko takes the plaudits, not just because of Chase, but also for Oto-Na-Ri, Instant Swamp and Jikou Keisatsu. It's hard to find a flaw in any of her performances, nor a point where she's anything less than convincing.

Best Anime
Time of Eve
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Pale Cocoon

I don't really watch that much anime at all. But out of what I saw: Time of Eve wins it. Easily. The Endless Eight episodes in Haruhi's second series were very brave, and Deathnote's convoluted storyline had you guessing to the end but Time of Eve had a depth and style that's often lacking in any story these days, live action or animated.

Best film
Castaway on the moon
One Million Yen Girl
Instant Swamp

Both Castaway and Departures made me do a tiny cry, so it's between them, really. I can barely chose, but I think for being slightly less melodramatic it has to go to Castaway On The Moon. Certainly, after I saw it I immediately wanted to watch it again, which is always a good sign.

Best soundtrack (TV and Film)
Ashita no, Kita Yoshio
Linda, Linda, Linda
Time of Eve

James Iha's haunting soundtrack for Linda, Linda, Linda is the winner here. The ambient guitar work that almost seems to hang in the air makes for a great contrast with Paranmaum's punk cover versions.

The “Safe pair of hands” award

This award goes to the actor who always seems to chose good dramas to be in. And it goes to Ikuta Toma, thanks to Unubore Deka, Akihabara@Deep, and Majo Saiban. And that's not including things I haven't written about, like Voice. If he's in a drama, you can feel pretty secure that it'll be worth watching. Clever man.

And that's it! Well done to all concerned, thanks to those sites I took pictures from when I couldn't be bothered to get a new screengrab.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Currently watching: Ogon no Buta

Well, I’m torn. Blinded, as I certainly am, by the lovely gorgeousness of Shinohara Ryoko, even I can’t help but worry that this show isn’t going to be particularly good. While episode one was engaging and funny, I’m now starting to suspect that was because most of the story was about introducing the characters.

The series is about an ex-con, played by Ryoko, who is forced into joining the Audit Office (or something) as part of her parole. In the team she’s joined is a naive newbie, a boss who’s hoping for a promotion, a cyncical career-minded type, and a guy who was previously conned by her. If that last one seems a bit unlikely, it does at least give a bit of spark to their dialogue.

Now, however, all that work’s been done. The situation is established, and the story can unfold. The trouble is that episode two, if you look closely, has no story at all. Without giving away what happens, it goes something like this: Establish an impossible-to-defeat enemy. Introduce a sad story. Make impossible-to-defeat enemy seem even more impossible. Remind people of the sad story. Get last-minute evidence from unlikely source. Defeat the enemy. Oh, and remind people of the sad story again.

There. I just saved you fifty minutes.

So, two episodes. One good. One bad. This could go either way. Place your bets.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Just finished: Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo

* spoilers, mmmkay? *


And so this series ends on an uplifting note after problems with the law meant that Haruko-sensei was unable to complete the course along with her students. But, luckily, she comes back for the next term and so do her class. So, despite nobody getting what they wanted at the start of the series, it all ends happily.

I'm still not sure about this show, though. It never seemed to know what it was about: the Japanese language, being foreign in Japan, or a straight comedy. The storylines were hard to believe, and so was some of the acting, but despite that I kept coming back. It must've had something to recommend it... but I can't quite put my finger on it just now...

One thing I will say: while I was watching this, I started thinking that there's a gap in the market for a sort of Japanese QI, which talks about all the quirks of Japanese culture in an intelligent and funny way. Sometimes Nihonjin no... is informative but then a few seconds later it tries too hard to be funny. Meanwhile Japanology is interesting, but too serious. If there was something in the middle, I'd be very happy.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Currently watching: Vs Arashi

I think the correct phrase is "fashionably late". I've seen this show talked about on forums for about a year and I always thought "Hmm, that looks interesting. I should try it" but I never did until quite recently. And I do feel a bit silly for not trying it earlier.

It continues in the style of brightly-coloured games that Japanese TV seems to live on, and it does it very well. Teams of celebrities, usually promoting a new drama, come on and challenge the boy-band Arashi in a series of games. From what I've seen, Arashi usually win, but that could be because they've been doing this for a while.The games are so easy to follow that the language barrier isn't important at all, and some of them are actually pretty exciting – my favourite being either the curling one, or Giant Crash (in which the floor supporting a large robot-thing is slowly removed until it falls over).

As a piece of shiny entertainment, it's hard to beat. The boys in the band all seem good humoured, friendly and fun to be with. Mind you, if I had access to a climbing wall and a plastic giant, I'd be fun to be with too.