Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Re-watching: Liar Game

Just before Christmas I felt the need for a bit of geeky mathematics-related action, so I dug out Liar Game and watched a few episodes. It quickly captured my interest with its cleverly devised plots and endless double crossing. I started to regret watching it at half past eleven in the evening, because before I knew it, it was one o’clock and I’d seen the first three episodes, and I was eager to see more.

On the down side, a lot of the show's fast-pace is a bit of an illusion. For example, twenty minutes of episode four involves a long explanation of how one person cheated the game. Each revelation was accompanied by crash zooms on each of the competitors. This streches out a scene that could've been done in five minutes.

Apart from the constant stylistic interruptions, the storyline is intriguing. A mysterious organisation sets up a game of chance for randomly selected competitors that will either make them rich or put them into massive debts. As the stakes get higher, the opponents become more and more cunning. Each game involves clever manipulation of people and probabilities to ensure success in what seems like a game of pure luck.

It’s a huge shame, then, that the last episode should be a feature-length recap of the whole series before the final scenes are played. The first time I watched it, I was puzzled at why they started with such a long, detailed flashback until I realised it wasn’t a flashback – they were telling the whole story again. Nevertheless I do recommend this to people, if they like mathematics and if they can sit through the director's endless reliance on the same shots and zooms.

Then, today I discover that a new Liar Game film is being made: Liar Game Reborn, so I thought I should write about it so I look up-to-date and relevant. The last time I wrote about Liar Game, I expressed a wish that the film would be the end of the series. However, now there's a new chapter in the story, I'm quite excited to see what happens next.

Judging by the trailer, it looks like more of the same, despite the lack of Toda Erika. There are a lot of familiar faces in the trailer and the music and directing style seem identical to the original TV series. Plus, Lair Game Reborn also features Ashida Mana, who seems to be in more things than AKB48 these days!

Liar Game Reborn is released on 3rd March 2012

Friday, 23 December 2011

Looking forward

Reading the summaries for the dramas starting in January doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. There are a lot of brilliant but unconventional characters who annoy their colleagues but, in time, they grow to respect each other. The other recurring theme is that a death in the family prompts a career change. Either way, it’s pretty grim out there, with only WOWOW seemingly making an effort. Nevertheless, here are the shows which, at the moment, I’m looking forward to.


Number one on my list of things to watch is this series. An interesting storyline and a very strong cast have caught my attention. The story is about four women who, as children, witnessed a murder but couldn’t remember the man’s face. The mother of the murder victim blamed them for the murderer never being found and now, years later, those events are about to have their consequences...

I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like that. Aio Yu (Camouflage and lots more besides) and Sakura Ando (Love Exposure, Soredemo Ikite Yuku) head the cast. I’m excited by this. It begins on the 8th.

Lucky Seven

Eita and Matsumoto Jun star in this detective series. Again, the overall theme of the show appears to be a clash in styles of two very different detectives. But the two strong leads (and Naka Riisa too) give me some hope for this.

Honjitsu wa Taian Nari

Of January’s new dramas, this has the best storyline, at first glance. Five wedding ceremonies are to be held at the same venue on the same day. A message arrives demanding that they all be cancelled or receive “punishment from heaven.” Who sent the message and why?

This seems to be a slightly different take on a mystery theme. I shall keep an eye out for this.

Suugaku Joshi Gakuen

A male student with no interest in maths accidentally enrols in a maths class with some high-flying female maths students. I’m being very optimistic by recommending this one. It looks like one of those terrible romances where different women take turns in falling for the male lead, but perhaps there’ll be some maths in there too? I know, it’s crazy, but Liar Game was a success so maybe they'll try and tap that market. I’ll give this one episode to persuade me.

Stranger 6

This Japanese/Korean/Chinese production revolves around three agencies trying to stop a terrorist attack. It’s by WOWOW so hopefully it’ll be more sensible than Bloody Monday.

There are also new dramas for Nakatani Miki and Nagasawa Masami which I’m kind of interested in, but not especially. Nakatani Miki stars in Seinaru Kaibutsutachi a new hospital drama, and I don’t enjoy those due to them usually being staffed entirely by doctors who have piercing eyes and a habit of demanding that they save someone’s life, even if it breaks every rule in the book.

Nagasaw Masami’s drama, Bunshin, has the weakest storyline as far as I can tell. A woman sees another woman on TV who looks just like her. And so begins her journey into her family's murky past. That could go anywhere. It could be brilliant, it could be daft.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Just Finished: Nankyoku Tairiku

Dead dogs are sad.

That’s the main lesson I learnt from this epic tale of polar exploration. That, and the fact that everyone in Japan in the 1950s was noble and strong.

Cynicism aside, I did enjoy this. The true story of Japan’s attempt to rebuild some pride and stake a claim for a scientific base in the Antarctic was solid enough. It definitely seemed to be tailor made for Japanese TV, with everyone looking windswept and interesting as they battle the elements. And the star of the show was the location. The wide open vistas of the frozen wastes were put to good use, and looked great, even if they did make the CGI parts look a bit obvious.

And call me sappy, but I thought the scene when Kuramochi returned to the base and looked for the dogs’ remains one by one was quite touching. And the story often dips into sentimentality, even for a story as heart-warming as this. The cut-aways to the dogs’ adventures during that year were a bit silly to be honest. And as with all stories based on truth, I can’t enjoy it completely since I always wonder if a particular bit is true or added in for dramatic effect.

Otherwise, good.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Just watched: Spring Bears Love

A woman is sitting on a train reading a book about art that she got from the library. She finds a romantic note written in the margin with a reference to another art book. Later, she reads that and finds another note. She becomes convinced these messages are meant for her, so she tries to work out who the mystery writer is.

Bae Doona (The Host) stars in this lightweight romantic comedy from 2003. It’s enjoyable and Doona is great as the confused optimist trying to find her ideal man. Yoon Jong-sin (the permanently tired/ill singer from Family Outing) pops up as the librarian, which I wasn’t expecting. Of course, there are misunderstandings and lies along the way and she even meets another woman who also thinks the messages are for her.

It’s a romantic notion – a painfully shy lover of art trying to woo a woman with poetic notes written beside classic paintings. It has a mix of curiosity as to who this person might be and also the hope that perhaps he’s the one man she’s been looking for.

But the moral of the story is don’t let an image of a perfect man blind you from the reality of what’s in front of you. It also highlights the many problems with trying to get a girlfriend by leaving notes in a book. There must be easier ways than that.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Currently reading: Make Believe Melodies

I found the blog Make Believe Melodies after a long, meandering journey through various websites clicking links as they caught my eye. It started at Sparkplugged and their entry on the excellent new single by YeYe. I can’t remember what I did after that but it certainly involved watching Asobi Seksu videos on YouTube. But that’s not important.

What is important is I’ve found somewhere new to get news about Japanese music which is up-to-date and well-written. Make Believe Melodies covers everything from pop to indie to experimental electro odd-ness which makes it very useful.

Also, tucked away on the twitter feed on the right is a link to a page that links to a page about new indie bands which is all in Japanese, but has plenty of links to Soundcloud and Bandcamp audio clips so you can quickly get an idea of what they’re writing about.

Mmmm... Soundcloud and Bandcamp clips. It’s the new embedded video!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Just finished: Hyena

One year and three days after I first wrote about this series, I finally finish it. You may think that, since it took so long, that I didn’t really enjoy it but that wouldn’t be true. For a long time, after the demise of the website Silent Regrets, I couldn’t find it. Then I found it and started watching it again but not regularly. Just now and again I’d treat myself to the next episode of four single men in their thirties and their unlikely adventures with the opposite sex.

In the final episode, out of the five main characters, only one finds their true love. The others are left just as single as at the start. In the last few episodes, the show changed to a more emotional, less comical story. This was a shame, but understandable. If they’d remained humourous and light-hearted while hearts were broken and secrets uncovered they would’ve seemed a bit uncaring and cruel.

One character, though, remained funny until the end: Choi Jin Sang, the expert in one-night-stands who finally meets his match in a woman ten years his junior. He acts as some welcome comic relief from the other blossoming/failing romances that fill the last quarter of the series.

An enjoyable and silly series which was certainly different from my usual choice in dramas.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Just watched: Paco and the Magical Picture Book

After writing about Memories of Matsuko the other day, I decided to try more of director Nakashima Tetsuya’s films. I’d already heard good things about Kamikaze Girls, so I was tempted to watch that, but then the title of this film caught my eye.

I almost didn’t finish this film. Watching the first twenty-five minutes of this film is like patiently listening to a hyperactive child make up a story as they go along. While it resembled Memories... with it’s lush colours and carefully arranged scenes, there seemed to be little in the way of character or plot.

I persevered and, around half an hour in, some kind of storyline began. Put simply, this film is about an ill old man who resents being in hospital while his company does so well without him. He meets a girl whose memory is damaged such that she thinks it’s always her birthday, and she cannot remember anything that happened before. The two become friends, and the old man starts to reassess what’s important in life.

All of this happens in a vivid technicolour set with constant interruptions from the supporting cast. Eventually this style begins to make some kind of sense, but it’s hard going until then. In the end, it’s rather a touching film and it certainly tries every cinematic trick to try and make you cry.

This film is even more hyper-manic than Memories of Matsuko as it bombards the senses with images, music, and colours. This means the performances are somewhat swamped beneath all the costumes and make-up, but if you can get past the bumpy opening thirty minutes, you’ll find a film as sentimental and sappy as any you could ever hope to find.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Memories of Matsuko vs Memories of Matsuko: FIGHT!

I’m used to there being two versions of each story in Japan (whether it’s anime, drama or film) but I did not expect to discover a TV drama version of Memories of Matsuko. Trying to find it on the internet is impossible since searching for it brings up results for the film version. I did, however, find one user on YouTube who had put up some parts of the early episodes.

The riverside is a recurring theme in both versions (film, left. TV right)
Both were made in 2006, with the film coming out several months before the drama. Watching the TV series is a bit like watching an amateur production of the film. Gone are the dazzling bright colours and cinematography. Instead, we have what is a very mundane retelling of the same story. According to Wikipedia, the TV drama is more faithful to the original novel’s story, and I suppose over eleven episodes, it’s able to go into more detail but at the same time it loses a lot in emotional impact.

The scenes introducing Matsuko as a school teacher (film, left. TV, right)
The big problem with the TV series is that you can’t watch it without comparing it to the film. Nakatani Miki is sorely missed, and there are no musical numbers to illustrate certain scenes. And I think the screengrabs I've posted demonstrate the difference between Nakashima Tetsuya’s directorial vision, and the flat, muted greys of an average television drama.

The same argument (film, left. TV, right)
I do wonder if I had never seen the movie would I like the TV series, and I think I would. But I found it difficult to sit through the drama version without wishing I was watching the film version instead.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Just finished: Last Money – Ai no Nedan

I enjoyed this. At seven episodes long, it felt like the right length of time for the story. The first few episodes had one story each, and were a way to introduce the characters and the setting, and the last few episodes focused on the mysterious circumstances of the death of a friend.

* spoilers *

Found dead in his car, it looks like a suicide but we, the audience, know better: he wasn’t alone in his final minutes, he was with his lover. And despite being told that this woman can’t be trusted, I wanted her to be innocent. The sympathetic portrayal of this character by Takashima Reiko had me split between thinking she was an expert manipulator or just a misunderstood soul.

And it is her performance that really turned this drama into one of the highlights of the last few months. With no big names in the cast, this has probably passed many people by, which would be a shame. Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Currently watching: Watashi ga Dekinai Riyuu

This drama follows the love lives (or lack-of-love lives) of three young single women. There’s the hostess bar worker who’s cynical about love, the bloke-ish lighting technician who’s forever stuck in the friend zone, and an over-serious virginal office worker.

The three of them share a house and give each other advice about their attempts to find love. It’s all quite innocent and naive, but still quite compelling. The three main actresses are well cast in their roles: Karina’s basically playing a less obnoxious version of the character she played in Parade, which is no bad thing. Yoshitaka Yuriko is perfect as the alluring hostess who oozes confidence but can’t actually get what she wants. Meanwhile, perhaps because she’s been in AKB48 for so long, Oshima Yuko makes a very convincing virgin.

There is a fourth main character, if the opening titles are to be believed, although she hasn’t appeared much so far. She’s the wife of a man that almost had a fling with Yuriko’s character. Quite how she’ll fit into this is still not clear, although episode four saw the two of them becoming friends unaware of the link between them.

This is an enjoyable soap opera-type drama, where almost every conversation between a man and a woman has a sub-text and if a woman says "I'm over him," you can expect him to turn up at awkward moments for the next few episodes.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Toki o Kakeru Shoujo vs. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: FIGHT!

These two films are live-action adaptations of the original novel Toki o Kakeru Shojou written by Tsutsui Yasutaka in 1967. I’ve already reviewed the 2010 version starring Naka Riisa, and I was interested to see how the first film adaptation differed.

Well, I felt like it was me who leapt through time after I watched the 1983 version. All of the parts of Japanese culture that I’m used to have gone. This is an age where there are no mobile phones, no internet, no mp3 players, and everyone has black hair!

Also, the pace of the story is very slow. The story doesn’t really start to reveal itself until forty-five minutes and, although most of the early part of the film is important for setting up the story, it can be somewhat tiresome to sit through. I don't want to call it “old-fashioned”, because I can remember 1983, and if this film is old-fashioned then what does that make me? On the positive side, the slow pace means you can appreciate the slow dropping of clues along the way before the mystery really begins.

The differences between the two versions are pretty vast. In the 1983 version, the leap in time is only twenty-four hours, where as in the 2010 version it is several decades. Both films have a man from the future manipulating time for research purposes, but the 2010 version has more fun with the idea of time travel. Also, because the girl has leapt further, the 2010 film is somehow more emotional and more involving. The 1983 is quiet and distant. Even the final scene between the girl and the boy she loves is just like an ordinary conversation. The film's style is just too conservative for such an original idea.

I’d say that the 2010 version wins. It’s a more interesting version of the story, with more laughs and more tears along the way.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Currently watching: Youkai Ningen Bem

Three monsters (who normally look like people) live a nomadic life, moving from town to town each time their true identity is discovered as they search for a way to become human. We join them in the modern day living in the hull of an abandoned ship, as their search seems to be reaching a conclusion.

In the meantime, they solve crimes. They don’t mean to. They just sort of get caught up in things.

This series is funny and interesting and at least it’s trying to be different. The cast is good and the stories always move along quickly with little chance to be bored. Anne has a commanding screen presence as the female monster, but then she does have a cape, which helps. And the six-year old monster (Suzuki Fuku) falls just on the right side of childlike innocence, so he doesn’t become unbearable. Meanwhile the enigmatic one with the hat (Kamenashi Kazuya) looks suitably mysterious.

The moralising is pretty basic stuff. It’s either (a) why can’t people just be happy with who they are, or (b) just because someone looks like a monster, doesn’t mean they are.

And, er, that’s about it. It’s enjoyable, well-made, and the ratings are good so it’s clearly found an audience. Not much else to say, really.

But I will mention that, with a few scenes they've shot, I can’t tell if that’s CGI in the background or if they’ve just been very lucky with some dramatic-looking skies.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

It's the 2nd Annual November The Eighth Awards!

It's been two years since I started this blog, so here's my second post in which I highlight the best stuff I've seen in the last twelve months. You know, I spent most of this year thinking that I haven't enjoyed watching J-dramas so much as I did last year. And then I sat down to write this, and remembered all the excellent stuff I'd seen.

And just like before, this is based on things I've seen in the last year, not just things that have been released last year.

Best drama
Furuhata Ninzaburo
Jin & Jin 2
Marks no Yama
Soredemo, Ikite Yuku

Perhaps it's a little unfair to bundle the two series of Jin together, but that's how I watched them: I finished series one just as series two was beginning. And I adored this show. The adventures of a time-travelling doctor in 19th century Japan may not be the most challenging or thoughtful television, but it was done with wit and charm and the ending didn't disappoint. Furuhata Ninzaburo remains agonisingly un-subbed which is a real shame, since the four episodes that I saw made me keen to see more. Marks No Yama was by far the best crime series of the year, and Soredemo, Ikite Yuku was an emotionally-charged drama with some great acting.

Best Drama: Jin and Jin 2

Best comedy
Reinoryokusha Odagiri Kyoko no Uso
Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro
Tiger and Dragon

Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro was a blissful romp through RPG cliches, and Ishihara Satomi once again showed she can do comedy better than drama in Reinryokusha... but the winner of this category was Tiger and Dragon, a sharp, intelligent work that has become my favourite Japanese comedy of all.

Best comedy: Tiger and Dragon

Best film
Live Tape
Memories of Matsuko
Love Exposure

Do I have to chose between these? Really? We've got four works of genius here. Parade is a perfect example of Generation X slacker film-making – cool, distant but interesting and funny. Live Tape is indie DIY cinema at its best – a cameraman follows a busker around some city streets. Watching Love Exposure is like speed dating at a psychiatric ward. But Memories of Matsuko wins against these excellent competitors by being emotional and romantic and cynical and cruel. But most of all, by being beautiful.

Best film: Memories of Matsuko

Best actor
Kubozuka Yosuke (Long Love Letter)
Keisuke Koide (Parade)
Eita (Soredemo Ikite Yuku)

Eita takes all the plaudits as the guy between two families who've both been destroyed by a motiveless murder that happened years ago, and it's through him that the viewer is expected to view both sides of the story. Without him holding it together, the whole story would quickly fall to pieces. Kubozuka Yosuke's performance in Long Love Letter is a masterclass in understated cool and when he's on the screen, it's hard to look at anything else. Keisuke Koide has a similar energy in the film Parade, in which he effortlessly holds your attention.

Best Actor: Eita (Soredemo, Ikite Yuku)

Best actress
Nakatani Miki (Memories of Matsuko)
Naka Riisa (Cafe Isobe)
Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure)

Nakatani Miki's perfect portrayal of the permanently defeated Matsuko was the real hook for that film. She really made you share in Matsuko's optimism, which made it all the harder when things inevitably went wrong. Naka Riisa was great as the schoolgirl who watches in despair as her father make a fool of himself over a woman. Mistushima Hikari's performance in Love Exposure is also a tour de force, a remarkable source of energy that keeps you watching for the whole four hours.

Best actress: Nakatani Miki

Best game show
Running Man
Family Outing
Vs Arashi
Game Center CX

No real competition here. Once I've downloaded an episode of Running Man, I can't have it sitting on my hard drive unwatched. I have to see it immediately, which usually means I'm awake until half past one on a weekday morning. Which is no bad thing. This cross between a game show and a Hollywood blockbuster is always entertaining and at its best, it's the closest that television gets to being a rollercoaster.

Vs Arashi is all bright colours and knockabout fun, and very easy to follow, no matter what your level of Japanese. Family Outing is a glorious example of how a TV show can build a relationship with the viewer. And Game Center CX remains a lot of fun to watch, as Arino struggles through various retro video games. And it's still a perfect analogy of my life – middle-aged man fights battles he should've left behind when he was young.

Best game show: Running Man

Best album
Bump of Chicken "Cosmonaut"
SpecialThanks "Seven Lovers"
Dear Cloud "The Bright Lights"
Organic Stereo "The Moments Linger"
Kokia "moment"

For the second year in a row, my favourite album from Japan is my favourite album full stop. Bump of Chicken's “Cosmonaut” continues their impeccable track record. Perhaps not as immediate as “Orbital Period”, but still a great album which has never been away from my mp3 player for long. At the time of writing, it's also the last time I bought an actual CD.

SpecialThanks are all youthful energy, crashing guitars, female vocals and catchy punkish tunes. It's very hard to find anything wrong with that. Korean music makes an appearance with Dear Cloud offering bright vocals and big choruses that would fill a stadium, if only they had the chance. Organic Stereo's album was a little bit ambient and a little bit pop, with a series of dreamy instrumentals, each one of which sounded like the soundtrack to a happy ending. Lastly, Kokia's album “moment” was a folk-tinged collection of ballads with lush production values and some achingly melancholy harmonies.

Best album: Bump of Chicken "Cosmonaut"

Safe pair of hands award

This award is for people who consistently choose good shows to appear in

Yoo Jae Suk (Running Man, Family Outing)
Nakatani Miki (Memories of Matsuko, Jin, Jin 2, Densha Otoko, Keizoku)
Keisuke Koide (Parade, Jin, Jin 2, Surely Someday)
Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure, Moteki, Sawako Decides, Kakera, Villain, Soredemo Ikite Yuku)

I was a bit late in discovering Mitsushima Hikari. I checked her filmography and I saw that she was in Death Note and Shaolin Girl, but I can't say I noticed her in either. But this year I caught up with her recent film work and, by God, she's got good taste. From her minor role in Villain as the obnoxious murder victim to her central role in Love Exposure, it seems she can do no wrong.

She beats some strong opposition: Yoo Jae Suk is a brilliant presenter who's kept me entertained through some tough times this year. Nakatani Miki holds a special place in my heart for her roles in Matsuko and Keizoku. And Keisuke Koide showed me how wasted he was in Nodame Cantabile with some great performances.

Safe pair of hands: Mitsushima Hikari

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Mitani Kouki 50th Anniversary Special: Welcome Back, Mr McDonald

Or Rajio no Jikan to give it its Japanese name.

This film from 1997 is the earliest work from Mitani Kouki that I’ve seen, but his style is clearly already fully formed. Set in a radio station performing a live drama by a new writer, it follows the series of events caused by one of the actresses insisting that her character’s name is changed. After this, everyone wants their ideas to be included in the show. The writer tries to please everyone and the radio play soon turns into something quite different.

The pacing reminded me of the old screwball comedies from the 1930s, and the setting (a live drama on the radio) adds to the slightly old-fashioned feel. But the stereotypes of pompous actors, producers who only want to keep the sponsors happy and apathetic technicians are timeless so, in that sense at least, it is still relevant.

But at its heart, this is all about the absurdity of performing and writing: how the idealistic writer has to endlessly compromise. Its a funny and charming diversion, and well worth your time if you happen to come across it.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Just finished: Perfect Report

 Well, don't I feel foolish for suggesting people watch this.

* spoilers *

After several entertaining episodes of journalistic investigation, this show suddenly slams on the brakes and dawdles to a conclusion. After episode seven, the pace of the show and the constant banter and jokes are replaced by flashbacks, people reflecting on their actions, a noble team spirit born from adversity, and remarkable lack of any real stories to investigate. For example, the mysterious suicide of a potential informer just turns out to be a misunderstanding. He wasn't killed by malevolent forces – he just slipped while enjoying the view from the top of a building.

No, I'm not joking.

In the void left by the absence of any investigations, we're left with one scene after another in which the characters look dignified or learn something valuable about themselves. Violins and pianos fill the soundtrack to hammer home how emotional it is, and while all this is happening, nothing actually happens.

The boss, Aoyama-san spends most of the last three episodes talking in a whisper. This is supposed to demonstrate how upset she is about the recent turn of events but it got a bit tedious towards the end.

This series had a promising beginning and while the members of the team disliked each other, it was an entertaining show. But that's the thing about drama: sad people are more interesting than happy people, and once the team became friends, the show lost its main strength.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Currently watching: Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de

Perhaps the main thing I noticed about the first two episodes of this series was how glad I was to see that the cast of Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro are still getting work. Kinami Haruka is the murder victim in episode one, while Muro Tsuyoshi is a suspect in the second.

That aside, this series is a murder mystery show with a rather unlikely premise. Kitagawa Keiko plays a rookie detective who also happens to be an heiress to a huge fortune. Her boss is an incompetent, vain buffoon (played by Shiina Kippei), so she relies on help from her butler to solve the cases.

At only two episodes, I can’t really tell how well written the mysteries are. The conclusions to both episodes have been a surprise, but I can’t tell if that’s due to the clues being cleverly hidden, or if it’s because the ending is so unlikely I never even considered it.

But it’s not really about the murders. This is a comedy and most of the humour comes from Keiko’s boss’s inflated self-opinion and from Keiko’s ineptitude. Meanwhile the butler (played by Arashi’s Sakurai Sho) is calm and collected, as he guides his employer to the solution. I feel a bit sorry of Sakurai Sho who has to stand almost perfectly still while Kitagawa Keiko takes up the rest of the screen but then the tables are turned when she’s the newbie detective and she has to play second fiddle to Shiina Kippei’s larger-than-life character.

This is a lot of fun, but I found I had a strange reaction to the show: The moment the murderer is revealed, I lost interest. Instantly. As each story closed with a scene or two about how sad it is that someone died, I was sighing heavily and looking around the room for something to distract me. Odd, that.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Mitani Kouki 50th Anniversary Special: Ai Kotoba wa Yuki

This plot for this series from 2000 bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot for his 2008 film The Magic Hour. In both, an out-of-work actor is persuaded to be something he isn't as part of some elaborate hoax. The main difference is that in The Magic Hour, the actor believes he's making a film, while in Ai Kotoba wa Yuki the actor is fully aware of his deceit.

It involves a village trying to stop a big multinational firm from ruining its countryside. But they cannot afford to get a decent lawyer. So one of them goes to Tokyo to find one who'll do it on the cheap. Unable to find that, he convinces an actor to come back to the village and tell everyone it's impossible to win such a case. But instead the actor gets carried away and instead insists they can win and he can help them!

After that, the story mostly involves trying to keep everyone in the dark while trying to find a dignified way out of the mess. It's funny and occasionally quite touching. It's remarkable that an eleven-part series which only has one storyline doesn't seem too long nor does it run out of ideas. Mitani Kouki does an excellent job of coming up with problems and solutions which don't stretch the viewer's suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Mitani Kouki 50th anniversary special: Wagaya no Rekishi

As the Japanese TV channel WOWOW celebrates the playwright Mitani Kouki’s 50th birthday, so I thought I’d also do some posts on one of my favourite Japanese writers.

In terms of style, his is a comfortable, easy-to-watch genre. He rarely pushes the boundaries in terms of social commentary or hard-hitting realism. Instead his works are meticulously structured, taking a situation and squeezing out every possibility without it seeming contrived or unlikely. It would not be harsh to call him sentimental. The endings of The University of Laughs, Radio no Jikan (Welcome Back Mr McDonald) and The Magic Hour are all the most touching you could expect.

I've already written about his work before, so now here's the first in a short series of posts about some of his other films and TV series.

Most recently, he wrote Wagaya no Rekishi. This three-part drama follows the adventures of a family in the latter half of the twentieth century, and as the years progress we see them getting caught up in the major events of that era. It’s an interesting idea, and a nice way to learn some recent Japanese history. The cast is full of famous faces, and the various periods of history are carefully recreated.

But for something made with such care and attention, it's a little hollow. The problem is that some of the storylines are pretty convoluted as members of the family suddenly have to go to Hokkaido, for example, just so the story can include a particular historical event. Weaving a family history around the history of an entire country doesn't quite work. But the series has an epic feel to it, and it certainly feels like you've sat through a lot of modern history by the time you get to the end. And I mean that in a good way.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Currently watching: Suzuki Sensei

I usually steer clear of dramas set in high schools. Perhaps I find it patronising to see adults be taught lessons in life from some schoolkids. I certainly find the morals behind these kinds of stories to be simplistic and glib.

But Suzuki Sensei is a little different. This time, the teacher approaches the problems he faces almost as if he were a detective. I don't mean he walks around questioning suspects and finding clues. That would look absurd, but we can hear his thought processes as he weighs up his options when trying to control a situation before it gets out of hand. This gives an added depth to the drama and helps us to empathise with the teacher.

As well as the usual issues in the classroom, Suzuki sensei also has problems of his own to face. Specifically, his love life – he’s recently met a woman that he’d like to date but can’t get past his obsession with one of the girls in his class.

This is a great drama, well-written and with a good balance of drama and humour. It is shot in muted colours and the schoolchildren do not resemble models or pop stars, so it looks and feels more realistic than most high school dramas.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Currently Watching: Himitsu Chouhouin Erika

This series follows in the same time slot as Detective Conan - Kudo Shinichi e no Chousenjou and it offers the same format: a mystery or crime to be solved in half an hour without too much reliance on intricate plots or clever deduction. In fact, so far a lot of the crimes have been solved by using a voice manipulator and some martial arts.

Chiaki Kuriyama stars as the ex-spy who is persuaded by her ex-boss to work for her as an undercover agent investigating criminal activity. All the while, she's trying to keep this a secret from her husband and child who have no idea that she's anything other than a doting housewife.

As you'd expect from a J-drama, the main story is just being hinted at in the first few episodes. There are occasional references to her boss having a hidden motive for hiring her again, and that she is being targeted by some dark, mysterious organisation. And perhaps even her family is under threat.

Chiaki adds a bit of big-screen glamour to a fun but otherwise unremarkable series. She's certainly very watchable and she handles the martial arts sections very well. The trouble is that everyone else seems a bit anonymous next to her. Since she's the one that looks after the family/goes undercover/solves the crime, no one else has much screen-time to establish a character.

I'll be honest, I don't expect this series to surprise me. I'm pretty sure that somebody will try to kidnap her son. Similarly, her boss will double-cross her before he sees the error of his ways and helps her right at the end. If this show can avoid either of these two cliches, it will have done better than my expectations. In the meantime, I'm enjoying watching it for what it is: some lightweight crime-solving with a little action sprinkled on top.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Currently watching: Nankyoku Tairiku

Okay, okay, I get it. Japan isn’t shit!

This series is basically a big-budget boost to the Japanese psyche. It's set in 1957, and it tells the story of Japan’s first trip to the Antarctic since 1912, and its importance to the self-esteem of the Japanese nation at the time. In telling the tale, the programme possibly exaggerates the extent of Japan’s international isolation and instead focuses on the hard work of the Japanese people in achieving this apparently impossible mission.

It looks good and the acting’s okay. But I found myself worn down by the selfless nobility shown by almost every character in the story. Even the dogs. It seemed like every five minutes, somebody did something heart-warming, complete with a sweeping orchestral soundtrack.

However, I will be watching the next episodes because in searching for the news article to illustrate this blog post, I discovered what happened to them once they reached Antarctica, and it gets pretty interesting.