Friday, 29 January 2010

Recommended: Time of Eve

A lot can be written (and probably has been written) about the Japanese and their relationship towards robots and, from that, their relationships with each other. Time of Eve is a brief six-part anime series based in a future where robots and humans are distinguishable only by a holographic rotating disc over the head of each robot. The media of the time is full of stories about how terrible it is that some people are actually creating relationships with these robots, and the story shows many examples of people's indifference to the robots. Given that, the viewer has almost no option but to empathise with the robots as a class of underdogs, downtrodden yet noble.

In this scenario we find The Time Of Eve, a coffee shop in which robots are allowed to turn off their holographic identifier (an illegal act) and be treated the same as people in this one small space - an oasis in a desert of hostility. Two schoolboys stumble upon this place and find their prejudices against robots challenged - once their ability to immediately tell the difference between human and robot is removed they find themselves empathising with people who turn out to be robots, and fretting over the robot-ness or otherwise of other patrons.

There are many ways to interpret this programme. A treatise on racism, possibly. Or slavery, at a pinch. A comment on the rise of technology and its inevitable moral implications, of course. Perhaps even a commentary on people's need to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, since the two most touching episodes involve older, obsolete, clearly not-human robots yet people inevitably create bonds with them. How human do robots have to be before we start treating them as human? All these questions are deftly touched upon and more in this finely written series.

As an animation, it's beautiful. A seamless mix of hand and computer animation gives the world a clean solidity and yet also a softness and humanity that you don't often see together in animation. The series was broadcast over a long period, with just one episode every two months, indicating that the production company knew that it had something that people would wait for. And it was worth it. Certainly, its distinctive look and thought-provoking content mark it apart from most other series and make it essential watching for people who like their storylines to linger in the mind long after the programme has ended.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Currently watching: Dr Koto's Clinic

So after a spate of brow-furrowed mystery shows, I now find myself watching lighter fare such as Densha Otoko and Dr Koto's Clinic. Honestly, I may as well be a girl.

Dr Koto's Clinic fits into that category of show, alongside Northern Exposure and Ballykissangel, where the location is as much a character in the story as anyone else. It's set in an island south of Japan, and features lingering wide shots of green fields and rugged terrain tumbling into crystal blue seas. The main character, Dr Koto, has a mop of floppy hair, puppy dog eyes and a measured, whispered way of speaking. It often looks like he's on the verge of bursting into tears, which I think is meant to convey what a caring doctor he is. Unfortunately, it's also what you'd expect from a small boy who'd just lost his penknife.

Perhaps I'm at a disadvantage since I'm coming in to this on series two, so I'm at a loss as to how the characters relate to each other. I only noticed it because it was noted on a blog that subs had just come out, so I thought I'd give it a go. It's strangely hypnotic - if the music isn't all pianos and string sections, then there's the omnipresent sound of the sea in the distance. Apart from the comedy fisherman (who are quite funny) everyone talks in a very delibrate formal way, while the storyline constantly tries to pull at your heart strings.

Aoi Yu features as the new nurse - hapless and rigid at first, it remains to be seen if she's accepted by the community in general (although I'm going to guess that she will) as a replacement for the old, played by Shibasaki Kou (Battle Royal, One Missed Call, Shaolin Girl) who has to go to Tokyo for a secret operation.

It's oddly enjoyable, although I'm only four episodes in. We'll see how long it keeps my interest.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Currently watching: Bloody Monday

I’ve seen this described as “Japan’s 24” and since it’s coming back for a second series I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a tense thriller based around a terrorist organisation getting its hand on a virus which they intend to use on the Japanese public. The police have enlisted the aid of a genius hacker who isn’t yet out of high school and whose dad, just to make things awkward, has gone over to the side of the terrorists.

It’s certainly a cut above the other suspense-led programmes I’ve watched such as Boss, Majo Saiban and Team Batista no Eiko (which I gave up on) for the simple reason that the main characters are under genuine threat, although you may want to wait until the cliffhanger is resolved in the next episode before discovering who has actually died.

Perhaps its only failing is the title itself. It’s certainly difficult to give any phrase a sense of evil portent when you’re so clearly mispronouncing it. But that’s a minor thing. Overall this is a compelling adventure, perhaps somewhat improbable at times but it’s certainly a lot easier to suspend disbelief than with others of the same genre.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Just started: Densha Otoko

After a run of detective series, I’ve started looking around for something lighter in tone. So, after not a great deal of thought I chose this show which I’ve known about for a while but never got round to seeing. In this series, apparently based on a true story, an emotionally stunted otaku (geek, for want of a better word) falls in love with a woman he meets on a train when he stands up to a drunk who is harassing her. His faltering steps towards some kind of relationship are helped and/or hindered by the advice he receives from an internet forum he frequents.

Episode one begins faultlessly, with the guy in deepest Akihabara with his geek friends, and her at a party on a boat which is so posh it has English waiters. Thus having set up the two entirely different worlds of our heroes, it launches into a theme song by the Electric Light Orchestra before the story proper can begin. Ten minutes in and I’m already sold.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Just finished: Boss

Spoilers ahead. Steady as you go...

After being fairly unremarkable for most of the series, the final two episodes of this series do make a valiant attempt at increasing the tension and, for a while, it does look as if some of the lead characters are in peril. Mostly, though, that peril only lasts for thirty seconds or so before disappearing.

So while everyone makes it to the end in one piece, the final scene is a fairly cack-handed attempt at building up suspense about the possibility of a second series. All of a sudden, the boss is going back to the US. Why? No idea. But wait – she’s just got a phone call! Maybe that’ll convince her to stay.

Or not.

In the end, it was an entertaining series, but somewhat underwhelming. I got the impression – with swooping computer graphics to set up scenes, and the occasional use of profiling and psychology bits – that this was originally going to be more based around crimes and detection rather than focusing on the characters before somewhere along the line it turned into something more light-hearted.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Recommended: Camouflage: Aoi Yu x Yottsu no Uso

This post is a lesson in why it's not a good idea to put things off. I meant to write about this sometime ago - indeed, the sole commentator on this blog to date mentioned it, so it's been in my mind for a while. However, I never did, and then I learnt that Viikii (the site currently hosting it) is about to go legit and carry only shows it has a licence for, so I figured any second now it'd disappear from the internet.

However, that was some weeks ago, and it's still up on Viikii (EDIT: no it isn't) so I thought I'd write about it, even though I'm quite sure that any day now it'll be taken down. Especially now I've posted about it.

Camouflage is basically a vehicle for Aoi Yu, in the same way that Ueno Juri to Itsutsu no kaban was for Ueno Juri. A TV station, WOWOW, takes a new acting talent and films a series of short dramas with them in the lead. Camouflage has the recurring theme of lies through its four stories filmed by four directors, and all are of such a high standard that it stands alongside Lost Time Life as one of my favourite pieces of Japanese TV.

Especially fine is episode two (the four stories are split across twelve episodes) which is a fantastic piece of drama. Aoi Yu's late boyfriend comes back to her in dreams, so she starts taking sleeping pills to spend more time with him while they slowly realise that hanging on to the relationship is unhealthy and they have to say goodbye. Obviously shot on a cheap budget, it still looks good and the performances are perfect. By some distance, this episode is my most-watched piece of japanese drama, and episodes one and three (which complete the first story) are also of the highest quality.

The rest of the series never quite reaches the heights of the first story, but they're all excellent and all quite different. Indeed, the directors often change styles from episode to episode - in particular one story begins as a sitcom and is then shot as a soap opera in the next.

Inventive and touching, this series is a must-see for anyone with a heart.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Just finished: Majo Saiban

I noticed this as a recent addition to Silent Regrets, so on a whim I downloaded the first episode to take a look. It's a story based on a murder trial of a woman who says she is a witch, in which the lay judges (or jurors, as we'd call them) are subject to bribes and threats. I enjoyed the first part and decided to watch the rest even though, along with Liar Game 2, Boss and Bloody Monday, I'm stuck in a rut of watching programmes containing ominous people in dimly-lit rooms.

Its first advantage is its brevity. At just thirty-five minutes per episode, the writing seems a lot tighter than usual, and there's little in the story which isn't essential. The plot is convoluted enough to make it interesting, although before too long almost everyone has at least one secret which strikes me as being quite convenient for the writers: they can get the characters to do what they want - either be brave and overcome their fear of the blackmailers, or acquiesce in a cowardly yet understandable way - without really taking the time to think up a proper reason for the way someone acts. Plus, there's a twist halfway through that stretches credulity and perhaps that's the reason why it's never really expanded upon. This particular coincidence was there simply to heighten the tension and leave one episode in a cliffhanger, and then they were unsure of where to take it.

Certainly, with so many sub-plots, it's inevitable that some things are still unresolved by the end. But for all that it's an enjoyable yarn, which should have you watching to the end. While the minor characters and their stories may be a bit hit and miss, the central premise of the murder case is strong enough to carry the series as is the performance of Ikuta Toma (who is also in Akihabara@Deep). He's convincing and likeable as the slacker who turns detective, which is fortunate since he's in almost every scene.

Japanese is possible, if perhaps implausible

Some time ago I downloaded some Japanese lessons from the internet called “Japanese is Possible”, and just the other day I got around to looking at them. Well, the first couple of lessons were about how great Japanese was, and then it went into some pretty basic grammar that I already knew.

Impatiently, I skipped forward towards the end of the course and found myself looking at a lesson with some of the most obscure example sentences I’d ever seen.

Akachan no fuusen wo ukabasete iru.
(He) is making the baby's balloon float.

midori sakana ni shinka shita ato, motto utsukushii datta yo.
(It) was much more beautiful after it evolved into a green fish!

daremo korosazu ni, sensou wo owaraseta.
Without killing anyone, he ended the war.

My guess is that in one of the early lessons I’d skipped there was an explanation for this kind of subject matter – perhaps they’re focussing on the sort of sentences you’d find in anime and manga. Certainly that would explain...

zenbu no uchuu seifuku sureba omae wo korosu zo!
If I conquer the whole universe, I'm going to kill you!

Which must be pretty difficult to use in everyday situations.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Currently watching: Tokyo Friend Park 2

About a week or so ago, I was looking for things about the film Virgin Killer Road (which I still haven't seen) when I found that the cast had been on this show to promote it. So I downloaded it, and found myself watching a game show in which famous people compete in silly games for prizes. I actually first heard of this show (without learning the name) a few years ago when I read about a Japanese game show in which contestants wore a special suit and flung themselves at a velcro wall for points - the higher the better. And the rest of the game follows in a similar vein, with a mix of physical challenges and general knowledge.

I enjoyed it, so started to look around for other episodes and found one with some of the cast from Bloody Monday. I usually see Kichise Michiko acting as a cold, impassive terrorist or as the cold, impassive Liar Game organiser so I couldn't pass up the chance to see her as a competitive, energetic normal human being. It turns out the Bloody Monday team were pretty good - I've seen a few episodes of TFP2 and they seem to be the best so far. So if I ever find myself needing to put together a team of celebrities to acheive a series of knockabout stunts for the chance of winning some golf clubs, I know who to ask.