Thursday, 30 December 2010

Just finished: Moteki

* spoilers, ne? *

It was the only reasonable ending, really. When Natsuki (Yukiyo's "one true love") ends up staying with his parents for five days, he finally gets enough time with her to understand his feelings for her a little better. As he explains to his friend, it’s like holding a funeral for is former self.

After twelve episodes of thinking about whichever woman he wasn't with, in the final scene Yukiyo is still single, riding a woman's bicycle as fast as he can. But it’s not the sad ending you may assume. He's not the same insecure person he used to be, and his idea of his perfect love is shattered, replaced instead with a more realistic idea about the woman he's been moping about all this time. And once that has changed, he can move on.

It's a pretty philosophical end for a love story (well, three love stories, I suppose) and I’m happy that the writers ended it like this, rather than forcing him to pick one woman. Plus, despite his self-loathing, he ended up being a positive influence on the women he got involved with, so he's not quite the loser he says he is. And the last line is strangely uplifting and optimistic. I thought so, anyway.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Recommended: Parade

Another film review, but this was nothing to do with the Zipangu Fest. I just happened to watch it recently.

This film from 2010 follows the lives of four people (two male, two female) who live in the same apartment. It could almost be called the opposite of Last Friends. While that was heavy on the emotions, this is more distant and cooler. There are no romantic ties between the housemates and, because that isn’t a concern, the film can tell a more original story.

There are two mysteries running through the film. One is about a series of murders that have happened in the local area, and the other is about what their secretive neighbours are doing. There are other storylines, and they overlap, get dropped, and then picked up again in a very naturalistic, flowing way of story-telling. Sometimes I wondered if any of this was improvised.

The acting’s great. Keisuke Koide is unrecognisable from his role as the big-afro’d timpani player in Nodame Cantabile, Karina convinces as a slobbish fag-hag illustrator, Shihori Kanjiya is perfect as the passive, forgotten girlfriend of a mostly absent boyfriend. And Tatsuya Fujiwara impresses in his role as the uptight one. I’ve seen him in Death Note, Snakes and Earrings and now this. He’s building up quite an impressive body of work.

Perhaps this film appeals to me because I was a part of generation X, and grew up with Nirvana, Love & Rockets (the comic, not the band) and Slackers and this film has exactly that quality. It’s somewhat emotionless (but you still like and care for the characters) and it avoids all the usual cliches of storytelling such as falling in love or loud arguments. Instead it prefers to give the viewer a slower, perhaps more disturbing, realisation of what’s really going on.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Just watched: Live Tape

The second film I watched from the Zipangu Fest was by the same director as Annyong Yumiko, Tetsuaki Matsue. I think I'm starting to get the hang of his work. He makes very personal films that, on paper, no one else would be interested in, and then he releases them to the world. I admire that.

In this film, we follow the singer songwriter Maeno Kenta as he walks around some Japanese streets, busking. That's it. The film is one shot, so there's a real sense of being there, and it also has a sense of intimacy as he walks down side streets and alleyways. Occasionally, the director speaks to him and he stops playing for a brief interview towards the end but, other than that, it's one man and his guitar.

The music is good, but at first it's the reactions of the people around Kenta that interested me. They’re unsure of how to react to the crew, with some shyly ducking out of shot, while others boldly walk through. Either way, Kenta continues to play, oblivious. At certain points, he is joined in a duet by another musician waiting for him on the street, and the film ends as he arrives at a park where his band is ready to play.

It's certainly original and fascinating. Almost hypnotic. I was quite sad when it ended – at one and a quarter hours, it’s shorter than most films – but I'm definitely glad I saw it.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Just watched: Annyong Yumika

A tiny bit of the Japanese film festival, Zipangu Fest, has come to Bristol so I'm making the effort to go and see a couple. The first I saw was Annyong Yumika ("Farewell Yumika") which is a documentary about the AV idol Hayashi Yumika who died at 35 years old. The film follows the director Tetsuaki Matsue’s attempts at finding out about one particular film she made, Junko, which was a Korean-Japanese co-production and has been largely forgotten.

The story that the film tells is interesting, but in truth, it's not really about Yumiko but rather about those she worked with. No friends or family appear in the film and anyone wanting to know more about Yumiko the person will come away unhappy. It's mostly about the porn industry, really, and there's a lot of reminiscing about how great the old days were and how pink films aren’t that good any more.

This is one of those films that you'll only get to see at a festival. I can't see it getting a wider release at all, and while it's not a bad film it's not particularly outstanding either. Best moments include the interview with the translator who worked on the film, who was bemused that anyone would care enough to interview him seven years later and who hadn't even seen the finished film, and the reunion of cast and crew to shoot the final scene of Junko which was in the script but never shot.

At two hours long it sags in places, but there's no denying the director's geeky enthusiasm for the subject matter. It works fine as a kind of cinematic love-letter to a woman he's never going to meet, but as a documentary about the woman herself, it falls short.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Just finished: Nodame Cantabile

And so, from its humble television origins in 2006 to its grand cinema extravaganza in 2010, I’ve watched Nodame's progress with interest. Although I never quite understood why it was so popular, with massive ratings, best-selling soundtrack CDs and the actors being treated almost like rock stars when doing interviews in Japan and abroad, but I did find it entertaining.

Now the last “episode” has been subbed by SARS. Released in cinemas early in 2010, it tells Nodame's story as she sees her friends entering competitions and improving themselves, whereas she seems to be making no progress at all. The start of the film is taken up by reintroducing old faces and giving them a happy ending, which is all fine, but it’s Nodame's slide into (and out of) depression that takes up most of the second half of the film. This means this is a bit short on laughs, but at least this story is about Nodame. She seemed a bit in the background in the 2009 film. The last scene – where Chiaki and Nodame play the same piece they played together in episode one – is a lovely way to end the series and gives it a nice symmetry as we end where we began musically.

An enjoyable show which grew into a phenomenon: its mix of clowning and culture introduced classical music to many people who otherwise wouldn’t have given it a chance. For that, it should be applauded, at least.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Sometimes watching: London Hearts

If there’s one show that highlights the gulf between my feeble grasp of Japanese, and Japanese as it is spoken, it’s this one. Barbs and sarcastic jokes fly back and forth, and even the kanji captions flashed up on screen seem to pass by faster than usual, meaning my attempts at following the action au naturel are pretty hopeless.

This is a comedy chat show hosted by the stand-up double act London Boots. It has a variety of formats, but the only one I’ve seen with subtitles is the Women’s Ranking Match. In this, a selection of ten female regulars on the show (models, singers, comedians) are ranked from one to ten about some question regarding how badly their life is going (for example “woman most likely to become unhappy”) according to a survey of the general public. This is just an excuse for the hosts and guest comedians to insult the panel of women, while they fire back insults of their own. This is stupid gossipy fun, with a bit of a mean streak.

The other episodes I’ve seen were the two sports days (one for men, one for women), which didn’t need any subs since it’s pretty clear from the context what people are talking about. It’s interesting to compare the two, with the women being supportive and cheering each other on, while the men spend their time arguing over the rules.

But game shows rarely get subbed and while this isn’t always a problem, without a good knowledge of the language London Hearts will just speed past without you. Pity, really. It always looks like they’re having so much fun.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Currently watching: Juui Dolittle

In this drama, Oguri Shun stars as an unsocial yet brilliant vet and Inoue Mao as a someone forced to work as his assistant when she’s unable to pay his medical fees for treating her horse. The show is your usual sappy nonsense about love, family and commitment, as each week owners bring in different animals to be treated. Then, facing the possible death of a beloved pet, they reconsider their relationships to others close to them. This is very J-drama-by-numbers: the plucky-yet-drowntrodden female lead role, the cold distant male lead role, and the threat of a big institution lead by an ambitious and slightly sinister older gentleman.

So far, so unremarkable. So why is it, seven episodes in, I’m still watching? It helps that Inoue Mao is very easy on the eye, of course, but I’m also interested in the sub-plot about another vet (a friend of Dolittle’s since University) who, depsite being great at diagnostics, cannot perform surgery and so his fame as a vet on TV is built on a lie. Narimiya Hiroki (who was 'J' in Bloody Monday) gives the best performance on the show, but that could just be because he has the best story line.

Frankly, I'm not sure if it's a good thing for a drama if a sub-plot becomes more interesting than the main story but, at the moment, it's the only thing keeping me watching.

Some good acting by the animals, though...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Still watching: We Got Married

After a recent bout of food poisoning (it was the home-baked bread, I think) I found myself stuck in bed and feeling pretty sorry for myself. Once I was feeling well enough to focus on words without getting a headache, I decided to watch some more episodes of We Got Married since it was inoffensive and lightweight and I didn’t have the strength for anything more demanding.

There are several different couples under the "we got married" brand name, but so far I’m only watching Jung Yong Hwa and Seohyun. It’s one of the most artificial pieces of television I’ve seen, but if you can get over the repetitive editing, canned laughter and captions, it’s an entertaining and somewhat addictive show. They make a lovely couple, and the cynical comments from the presenters add to the enjoyment.

Being ill, my sleep patterns had gone haywire so it was quite a nice piece of synchronicity when I was watching at 3 o’clock in the morning and there was an episode with them taking an overnight train and trying to stay awake so they can see the sunrise. I knew exactly how they felt.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Currently watching: Hyena

It seems like a while since I wrote about a comedy. Recently, this 2006 series from Korea was put up on Silent Regrets, and the synopsis seemed at lot less formulaic than the usual Korean comedies (and a lot shorter!) so I thought I’d give it a go.

It tells the story of four single men in their thirties, and the adventures (or perhaps that should be misadventures) with the opposite sex. The storylines won’t win any awards for originality but the show is a success mostly thanks to the four likeable heroes: Quick to build themselves up in front of their friends, but even quicker to crumble in the presence of women.

It’s advertised for over 19s only, but I’m yet to see anything too racey. Well, one sex scene, but that's it. So far it’s light hearted, silly and enjoyable.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Just finished: Shinzanmono

Unlike in the western tradition of murder mysteries, where murderers tend to kill for more selfish reasons, on Japanese TV murders are rarely done for greed or jealousy, or any of the other deadly sins. Often the criminal is trying to right an injustice of their own, or take revenge for a previous crime. Shinzanmono, however, takes this to extremes. It takes ten episodes to finally get to the murderer, and most of that time is taken up by finding out how nice the other suspects are. Their lies that attract the attention of the police turn out to be lies to hide how much they love their family.

This is all very well, but it means the series suffers from a lack of momentum. The worse case is in episode five, which didn’t seem to be about the murder at all. I admit I was stuck on this episode for a long time, before I sat down and forced myself to watch it to the end. Perhaps there was a clever twist in the end to make it worth my while.

And there was. There always is. This is, after all, based on a Keigo Higashino novel - the same writer who created Galileo so you can be sure that the secrets hide a nice little tale, and the overall conclusion to the murder is fairly satisfying, too. The trouble is, it seems like a 90 minute show stretched out to an entire series. It’s more like a series of unconnected short stories, with the murder mystery being brought back in for the final three episodes. It has a certain charm, but not much more than that.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Keizoku vs. Keizoku 2: FIGHT!

Before the recent drama Keizoku 2: SPEC was broadcast, I read a few comments by people who were doubtful that it could possibly do the first series any justice. I decided to investigate and found to my surprise that the first series came out some eleven years ago!

Both series are set in the same police department: a section that handles “unsolvable” cases. These tend to have a vaguely supernatural air to them, while the solution is usually ingenious but non-paranormal. The officers investigating are a socially inadequate genius female detective, and her cynical male colleague. So far, so similar, and the only regular cast member in both series is the head of the department, played by Ryu Raita.

The stylistic differences are quite marked. The original is played a lot straighter. In Keizoku, the female detective (Nakatani Miki) is socially inept, but she tries to do the right thing. In the sequel, the detective (Toda Erika) also has problems dealing with people, but this time cares little for the consequences of her rudeness. The second series has a broader sense of humour, with a fair amount of physical comedy which the first series lacks.

The other main difference is that the sequel keeps dropping hints about geniune psychic abilities, with the opening episode involving two scenes in which a criminal is shot by his own bullets. This is, of course, impossible and it remains to be seen if there’s an explanation by the end.

Episode two of Keizoku 2 had a brief appearance from another member of the original cast, which makes me hope that they’ll bring back Nakatani Miki, at least for one case. I hope so. Having the two detectives working side by side would be like one of those episodes when all the actors who played Doctor Who come back for one adventure.

So far, both are enjoyable but the first series definitely has the better stories and more believable characters. Mind you, I've not finished watching either series and there's still time for Keizoku 2: SPEC to improve.