Sunday, 28 March 2010

Recommended: The Quiz Show

Only a few days after I watch the last episode of Untouchable and think to myself "that was odd", I am reminded again of how downright peculiar Japanese dramas can be.

This series takes on the format of a quiz show in which the contestant aims for their "dream chance" - an opportunity to fulfil their life's ambition, but in doing so have to answer increasingly personal questions, eventually uncovering a terrible secret at the end. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that the presenter suffers from amnesia concerning some terrible event, and that each of the contestants is involved somehow. Each show is overseen by the producer, who calmly allows the host to embarass the contestants.

The series, despite its sombre sub-text, is very funny. Especially episodes three and four which feature an astrologer, Smiley Kitamura (pictured) whose predictions are constantly debunked by the wiley host.

The slow drip-feeding of information regarding the show's central theme is also nicely handled as each week's contestant moves closer to the host's personal life and we slowly hone in on the secrets behind his amnesia.

The acting is great, especially the host (Katagiri Jin), whose unbalanced mania grows increasingly erratic with each passing show and as each piece of the puzzle is put in place. The producer is clearly behind it all, for far from becoming concerned for the host's health, takes great pleasure in this and insists that the show continues.

With such a lengthy build up, it was obvious that the finale would throw up some suprises. Even so I found myself a little confused at how to react at the end (which I suppose is a good thing). Finally, I found myself unable to sympathise with either the host or the producer. I can't explain why without giving away spoilers but suffice to say by the end I found myself thinking "what just happened?"

Friday, 26 March 2010

Why Japanese pop matters

Today the Guardian newspaper took a rare dip into the world of J-pop, with a piece written by Teresa Nieman about five notable female artists. Leaving aside any comments about my opinions of the music, and the impossibility of capturing J-pop with just five artists, it’s worth noting that of those five Shiina Ringo seems to be the only one on the list who’s genuinely influential. And even then her work is pretty challenging and perhaps not where I’d advise people to begin their journey into Japanese pop music.

Reading her article reminds me of the ropey quality control that J-pop seems to have. The writer admits that most of the artists she lists have released duff material. While it’s a shame that an article designed to celebrate J-pop has to mention the failings of it, but perhaps it’s for the best. You don’t want people buying Shiina Ringo’s latest album and then wondering what all the fuss is about.

Including Tomoko Hawase on the list is certainly interesting. I like Brilliant Green but I’ve not head her side-project Tommy Heavenly6 – perhaps because I was put off by Tommy February6 – and I’m now inclined to give it a go.

As for the rest, they all sound intriguing, except for Ayumi Hamasaki who I already knew about. But it’s nice to see some coverage of J-pop written by someone who clearly follows the scene and isn’t just cobbling together a bunch of oddities to fill a few hundred words in a "isn't Japan weird" type story.

I tried to work out which five female artists I’d chose and decided on Hitomi Yaida, Yui, Shiina Ringo, Kimura Keala and possibly Mai Kuraki, whose recent Hellenic goddess image is a hypnotising slice of pop perfection.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Just finished: Untouchable

Well, that was an odd ending. Not surreal or unexpected, but just… odd. It was as if the series had put so much effort into creating a convoluted storyline, the writers wanted to explain every last detail before the series ended. As such, the last episode was mostly people explained what had happened rather than anything actually happening.

The storyline follows a similar template to One Missed Call – ambitious journalist gets demoted to a trashy magazine only to stumble upon a huge storyline that puts her life (and the lives of others) at risk. Although One Missed Call is clearly a horror from the start, Untouchable begins in a lighthearted way and turns darker as the episodes tick by.

Apparently it was a bit of a rating’s flop in Japan, and it’s difficult to see why. Certainly in the first few programmes, the mix of Nakama Yukie, amateur detective work and mysterious secrets give it a very "Trick"ish feel, and that was a big old success.

Having said that, something odd happened while I was watching this. At the start, I was happy to plough through the episodes at a rate of one every couple of days, but as time went on, my enthusiasm waned such that it was a couple of weeks before I got round to watching the final part.

Which makes forming any opinion on this a bit awkward. While there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s something missing to really keep you going until the end. While I recommend it, especially if you liked Trick (I really must get round to writing about that one day), I can’t guarantee it’ll have you on the edge of your seat.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Just finished: Densha Otoko

I’ve just finished watching this entertaining series from 2005, and while the storyline may be gossamer-thin, it carries you to the end with its camaraderie and optimism.
If there is a down side to the show, it’s that you have to keep your cynicism firmly in check. A recurring theme is that if you love someone enough, they’re bound to love you back, and it’s not one that I necessarily agree with but within the confines of the story it works fine. Perhaps another down side is the lack of progress made by the main character and his attitude to the woman he loves. Even by the final special episode, he’s still a nervous wreck in her company. You’d think after a while he’d relax a little.

But the show is mostly visual comfort food. It makes no demands on the viewer other than to be led by the hand and not think about things too much. It’s all about love and friendship and trust and belief, so don't worry, everything will be fine.

The fast cut-aways to the many people posting advice on the forum gives a nice sense of community and before long they supply most of the laughs as you start to empathise with them too. In fact, the special after the series has ended focuses on these people, and makes for a perfect end to this show.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Electric Town versus Electric Town: FIGHT!

Okay, so this isn't about two seperate dramatisations of the same story, but is instead about two parts of Japan with the same name. Well, nearly. Akihabara apparently has the nickname "Electric Town", while Den Den Town in Osaka could be called "Electric Town", since Den means Electric... see? Okay, so it's a bit tenuous. Never mind.

Akihabara is the shiny home of everything new and geeky, with every item of software and hardware stack as high as you look. Clusters of people stare at posters advertising the latest... well, I'm not sure was it was. But whatever it was, the woman on the poster seemed delighted about it. Meanwhile, cosplaying women had out leaflets for nearby themed cafes, and the thrum of the latest arcade game bleeds across the street, competing with the tinny SNES music from the retro shop a few doors along. It's quite an experience just walking through the streets, and you can't help but be caught up in its endless rush towards tomorrow.

Den Den Town, meanwhile, is like the Bizarro Akihabara. It feels like when it was built it was probably the pinnacle of modern leisure but nobody has bothered to update it since. This covered network of arcades offers up enka karaoke bars, street vendors offering faded VHS cassettes, cheap bento lunches (200 yen, if you can ignore the hygeine risks), and a rather seedy unwelcoming air. Compared to Japan's usual immaculate image, it's something of a relief to find somewhere which has escaped any attempt at being nice for visitors.

Walking past an old man asleep on the floor, sitting beside a cardboard box with two video tapes on them, surrounded by crisps, it made me regret how timid I was with a camera. This area offers more photo opportunities than the rest of Osaka put together - one bar had two rows of tables, one entirely occupied by old men playing Shoji and the other by old men playing Go, while displays of garish t-shirts with nonsensical English slogans featured at one particular crossroads. It's a beautiful and oddly optimistic place. The nearby Shinsekai Tower epitomises this "once upon a time in the future" air, as its grimy husk is the most geniune piece of steampunk architecture you're ever likely to see. Certainly a contrast to the black monolithic office block that looms over Akihabara.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

I am success

Wow, has it really been a week since I last posted? Since then I've been to and come back from Tokyo, where I found a second hand (but pristine) Camouflage for around seventy five pounds. I can't see it getting any cheaper than that.

And I went to Akihabara, as if the rest of Tokyo wasn't enough of a sensory overload, and found the little shrine that they use in episode one of Akihabara@Deep.

But perhaps most surprising of all was when I was sitting in a park, when I realised that a reflection of a crane in a building looked like Godzilla!

Friday, 5 March 2010

In Kyoto

Arrived in Kyoto a couple of days ago, and on the first day I decided to go for a little walk along the river. After a little while, on the other side of the river, where two schoolgirls, one practising the trumpet. It kind of reminded me of a scene in a j-dorama. The girl, disheartened by her experiences in the school band, plays for her friend by the river and the mix of natural settings and encouragement from her friend gives her new heart and courage to overcome her difficulties. Something like that, anyway.

I've also been lucky enough to catch Quiz Hexagon II and Tokyo Friend Park 2 "live" (as it were) on TV. It was nice to watch them in a decent definition for a change. And with adverts, which sometimes approach the level of blipvert, such is the speed and energy that they give out.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


That's what this blog needs: a bit of art.

Got hopelessly lost in Osaka today trying to find Den Den Town (described in the travel guide as a seedy, retro entertainment spot) and while heading along a main road I saw a sign advertising an art gallery down a side street. It was called "gallery maggot" which didn't inspire confidence, but I thought I had nothing to lose by just popping in.

The gallery was just a single room on the seventh floor (the lift only went up to six, and I wondered if the advert wasn't some situationist prank to get people to come in and then get lost or confused when there was never a gallery at all) and it was full of large black and white prints of Japanese city life from the past thirty years. It was a bit of a lucky find, as they were in turns beautiful and funny and poignant. I bought the book (which I don't have with me just now so I can't actually tell you the photgrapher's name!) and a couple of postcards.

As an idea, I also took a couple of snaps of pictures from the book, so you can see what I'm talking about.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Breakfast TV and late night drinks

Today I watched a bit of breakfast TV. I turned on just in time to see that Aoi Yu has a new sponsorship deal. I didn't get the brand name - it's a kind of drink.

Then I watched the morning unfold with sports news (the Olympics are over) and something about the Japanese Wikipedia not being as big as the English one (this is news?) and an awful lot of celebrity bits. One story seemed to be about an actor who'd died. I heard the word "shinde" as they were talking about it, but when they showed the newspaper article the story was taken from, I couldn't see the kanji for "shinu" in the headline. Plus, the story in the paper beside it seemed to be about a girl wearing a bikini punching the air, so I was kind of distracted.

Apart from that, I've found a nice bar near my hotel. I've been in both nights so far, and they seem to be a friendly bunch. Last night I sat beside a very drunk salaryman who ploughed through several whiskies and veered from English to Japanese and back again as he spoke to me. The staff are friendly too, although the owner doesn't like Bump of Chicken: "too pop", he says. But his unfeasibly attractive girlfriend, who was working there last night, does like BoC so what does he know?