Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Recommended: Memories of Matsuko

There's probably a whole book you can write about inappropriate or inaccurate comparisons of films on the backs of DVDs. You know the sort - “if Danny Boyle worked with Hitchcock!” or “like The Matrix remade by Terry Gilliam!” Well, I think on the first page of this book, there should be a mention of this film. On the back on my DVD it's described as “an Amelie-esque fairytale” which makes me think that whoever wrote that hadn't seen Amelie. Or heard a fairytale.

The only thing the two films have in common is, perhaps, a sense of heightened realism. Memories of Matsuko is carefully shot, with vivid colours and constant changes in the time period (from the 50's to 2001) meaning that no two scenes look the same.

It tells the story of Matsuko, whose life is slowly ruined by the failures of the men she relies upon. And as she stumbles from one hopeless relationship to the next, the film is quite bleak in showing her decline. The film begins after she's been found dead, and a relative (played by Eita) wants to know more about this aunt who he barely knew about.

Nakatani Miki is incredible in the title role, and really makes you care for Matsuko and hope that her optimism is justified, even though you've seen how she ends up. Eita, too, is great in his role as the slacker who discovers this side of the family that he never knew about.

Despite some of the grim scenes, it's a very sentimental film and often very beautiful and moving. If you don't like crying in front of other people, you might want to watch this on your own.

Just finished: Propose Kyoudai

Three brothers and a cousin from a family overcome their social awkwardness to ask the woman they love to marry them. Each episode is only half an hour long, so there’s no room for any great romance to bloom and the stories tend to end very quickly. The opening episode is perhaps the best, with Anne as the clumsy but keen junior chef and Sato Ryuta as the over-helpful chef she eventually marries.

Episode three concerns a freeter who finally decides to stick with a job to impress a woman. It’s the weakest of the bunch, including clichés such as learning to take pride in your work, and suddenly having to go to America for a year on business. Considering that the programme is only half an hour long, this seems to have a lot of padding. The final episode was surprising mostly because of the sympathetic performance by Becky. I never gave her much thought as an actress, but she’s pretty good here.

All in all, this passed before my eyes without demanding any real attention. In fact, thinking back, I can’t remember what happens in episode two. The programmes are too short to build up any feelings for the characters and there are no twists or surprises, but episodes one and four are sweet and enjoyable, so it’s not a complete waste of time.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Lee Hyori trending by accident

So today I went to lunch with a friend and he asked me if I'd heard of Lee Hyori. This came as a surprise, since he'd shown no interest in Korean pop until then. I said I had, and asked how he knew her.

It turns out that there's a new book coming out based on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the book by Ian Fleming rather than the song by Lee Hyori). So #chittychittybangbang started trending on twitter and my friend noticed, amongst the people writing about the book and the film, there were a number of tweets about how great it was that people still remembered this song, and how much they loved Lee Hyori. Certainly, enough people mentioned it that he remembered her name. I don't know how much it raised her profile in the UK, but I suppose a little free publicity can't hurt.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Just watched: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

This is the latest in what seems to be a long line of drama/anime adaptations of the original novel from 1967 (interestingly, now the novel is so old that in this version the girl leaps back in time to the 1970s, after the novel was written). I’ve not seen any of the other versions, so I can’t compare them.

Naka Riisa stars in the lead role as the girl who drinks an elixir that would take her back to a time if she speaks the date out loud. This is so she can give a message to a schoolboy friend of her mother, but she misremembers the date and arrives two years too late.

This story then turns into a mystery (the boy she’s looking for doesn’t seem to exist) and a romance (with the film-making student who helps her) with a bit of science fiction thrown in. But these different genres all fit together well and the story is strong enough to keep everything together.

I can only guess at how accurately it recreates Japan in the 70s, but the from what I remember of my own childhood, the clothes seem spot on. The final scene, with the girl back in the present time watching the film made back in the 70s is quite a tearjerker. There’s something about 8mm film that seems to evoke the idea of memory and nostalgia. Perhaps that’s just because I’m old. Maybe people born in the 80s feel the same way about VHS.

Currently watching: the Friendz.net channel on YouTube

In between all the slick over-produced images that get thrown at us, and the quirky amateur videos that get passed around by email, it’s nice to find something on YouTube that doesn’t try too hard. According to this interview, Friendz.net is a collection of seven graduates from the same university in Korea who get together to record songs and post videos. The whole vibe is like watching videos of some talented friends, as they try out new ideas.

There are a lot of cover versions, and how well they work often depends on your attitude to the original song. The original material, though, holds up well against the more famous songs. The most prolific in terms of videos (and they have an album out) is the band J Rabbit, but all of them are worth your time. Yana’s version of Miss A’s “Bad Girl Good Girl” is great, full of energy and humour, and leeSA’s version of “TikTok” is, I think, better than the original.

Given that most of the videos are based around one camera/one shot, they do well in keeping your interest visually. Their sense of enjoyment really comes through, and it’s nice to be reminded of why a lot of people play music in the first place – because it’s fun.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Just finished: Ohitorisama

This series from 2009 is a tale about a female teacher in her thirties who’s enjoying her single life. Then she’s asked to be a mentor for a substitute teacher, a young 23-year-old who is new to the job. To make things more complicated, they end up sharing her flat when he finds himself without a place of his own and no money.

You can more or less write the rest yourself.

With Maya Miki (Galileo), Wakai Sakana (Koi no Mon) and Matsushita Nao (Control) in supporting roles there’s plenty of pretty ladies in the background to balance Koike Teppei, the pretty boy in the foreground. The central pair of Teppei and Mizuki Arisa works well, and the two slowly grow together. He becomes less useless and dependant, while she comes to appreciate the pleasure in sharing things in life. Mizuki Arisa shows some nice comedy touches in her role but I admit I was often distracted by Maya Miki’s attempts at hiding her high hairline with some cosmetics.

This is entertaining but undemanding stuff: The usual mix of comedy misunderstandings as the two teachers try and keep their co-habiting a secret from co-workers, and also as they try to keep their feelings a secret from themselves. It’s another romantic comedy-of-errors in a work environment, and if you like that sort of thing, you can’t go wrong with this.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Avoid: Cast Me If You Can

Recently I noticed that I’ve been writing a lot about TV series that involve mysteries or crimes to solve. So I made an effort to look for something a bit different. I think I may have started on the wrong foot with this mis-shapen lump of a romantic comedy.

The performances are poor, with most of the cast sleep-walking through their lines. Nagazaku Hiromi (Funuke – Show Some Love You Losers) adds a bit of zing to her scenes, but it’s a hopeless case. The writing, too, is poor with one disjointed scene following another with no flow and seemingly no progression at all. The viewer is given no time to get to know the characters, with the result that nothing they do makes any sense. The main character is an actor who is frustrated by always being in supporting or minor roles. So when a pretty woman recognises him, his reaction of dismissive disdain  is baffling. He could at least smile.

In one scene outside a hospital, Hiromi gives her phone to the lead male role (played by Masukoa Toru) so he can enter his phone number into it. He looks blank for a second, and then walks into the hospital while still carrying it. This is just a way of getting her to meet his father who is a famous playwright. At the end of the scene he gives her the phone back without a word of explanation.

I made it through the first hour, waiting for it to get better, but then I gave up. I think the most appropriate criticism is to point out that when looking for attractive or interesting screenshots, I decided to use a bit of the title sequence. Mind you, it is a very nice title sequence. Shame about the film that came after it.

Friday, 11 March 2011


When I visited Japan last year, on my first day I was sitting near a river watching some people play baseball when there was an announcement broadcast over some loudspeakers. I sat through it, not understanding anything, and then it changed to English. It was a tsunami warning and it said to keep away from the Yodo River, which was the river I was sitting beside.

Back at the hotel room, on TV I saw the map of Japan in the corner of the screen on every channel. The coastline was colour-coded according to predicted rise in sea level caused by an earthquake in Chile, and most of it was flashing red.

As it happened, the rise in sea level was minimal, and the next morning the map was still on screens, but with only parts of the coastline highlighted. I wondered at the time why Japan had such a sensitive warning system for tidal waves. I know now. A very sad day.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Keizoku vs Keizoku 2: REMATCH!

* spoilers *

Now that I’ve seen both series through to their conclusion, I thought I’d compare the two again to see how they match up. (For my review of Keizoku 2: SPEC on its own merits, you can read it on Yam Mag.)

The TV series of Keizoku ends on a bleak note, with Shibata apparently lying dead in the arms of fellow detective Mayama. This, by itself, is a sad but somehow satisfying ending to a series that had previously not been afraid to kill regular cast members, and so had a real sense of danger about it.

And to be honest, if it had ended there it would’ve been fine. But it was followed by two somewhat enigmatic specials (one for TV, one for cinema) which didn’t really add to the story. Indeed, after the movie’s lengthy dreamlike sequence at the end, and the line from Mayama to Shibata “You’ve been asleep too long”, I prefer to think that the last two stories never happened at all, and that Shibata is still in a hospital bed in a coma.

The last episode of Keizoku 2 began with a very clever way of catching someone with the power to stop time, but ended with a final showdown that didn't make much sense. By then, however, I was happy to see it through to its conclusion, and the final shot of Toma standing triumphant was enigmatic and yet made a perfect end to the story.

Trying to pick between the two is hard since they don’t have a great deal in common. Keizoku started with normal explanations for the crimes before ending on a supernatural note, while Keizoku 2 took the supernatural to be real from the outset and worked from there. Both Toda Erika and Nakatani Miki are great as the lead roles in the two series. If it were a case of comparing the two TV series, then I think the original Keizoku just wins, but the two specials just confuse things which brings it down a bit. In the end, they're about even.

Having said that, perhaps Keizoku 2 will have its own specials. We shall see.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Currently watching: Mop Girl

I first saw the first episode of this years ago and then, for reasons I can’t remember, didn’t watch any more. But then it popped back into my head recently, so I thought I’d give it another go.

This series from 2007 is about a woman who, when she touches the personal possessions of someone who’s died recently, is transported back to the beginning of that day and has to make sure she’s in the right places at the right times to try and save that person’s life.

After Tsuki no Koibito and Lady Saigo no Hanzai Profile, it’s nice to be reminded why Kitagawa Keiko is famous. She bounces through this comedy, full of energy and amusing faces. It’s certainly funny, although the jokes are never going to win any awards for subtlety, and a slap on the back of the head while yelling “Baka!” seems to be the punchline to most of them.

For anyone looking for something to fill the gap left by Reinoryokusha... this is definitely has the same feel. And it also has Tanihara Shousuke in the role of Keiko’s unwilling crime-busting partner. It’s a comedy first and a murder mystery second, so don’t expect any clever storylines, but as a comedy it works fine.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Just passing through...

My choice of what to watch next is a fairly random affair, often chosen because of an interesting synopsis. At least I thought it was, until earlier today when it occurred to me that there’d been an obvious path from one program to the next from Liar Game to the film version of Densha Otoko. So I sat down and tried to expand upon the idea.

Taking Galileo, Ashita no Kita Yoshio and Lost Time Life as my three starting points (since they were, as far as I can remember, completely random choices) I noticed how my viewing habits afterwards were influenced by the pretty actress involved far more than the actor, writer or director. The flow chart isn't complete: I didn’t spend too much time on it and I've watched more stuff than this – but I found it quite interesting... if perhaps a little disappointing. Much as I like to tell myself I’m looking for great stories, I’m just as interested in eye candy as the next man.

Talented eye candy, though.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Densha Otoko vs Densha Otoko: FIGHT!

I watched the TV adaptation of this novel about a year ago and although I enjoyed it, by the end I was so tired of the main character's chronic shyness that I needed a break. It's only recently that I decided to try the film version. The story is the same in both: an emotionally-stunted anime freak stops a man on a train from harassing a woman and over time, with the advice of some people who write on an internet message board, he begins a romantic relationship with her.

Since the TV series is longer, it can spend more time on minor characters and sub-plots. In the film, Hermes (the female lead) has no brother and we never see her parents. Also, Densha Otoko's work life is barely explored at all, he lives alone and he doesn't try to learn to surf to impress her.

This leaves the film with the bare bones of the story, and it is just as entertaining. On the down side, it does mean that when their relationship has difficulties, it is just due to his misunderstanding rather than an event that causes a rift between them. Also, the TV series has the luxury of tear-jerking scenes like the closing of the thread as it approaches its one thousandth post.

The acting is somewhat better in the film, though, and it's played more low-key, with fewer comedic outbursts from the message board people. Nakatani Miki (Keizoku) is a better Hermes than Misaki Ito (Tiger & Dragon) perhaps because her character took a more positive role in the relationship and also because I thought she and Takayuki Yamada (who played Densha Otoko) were a more believable couple. Also there were some nice cameos in amongst the internet people, including Eita as a hikikomori.

There was a neat touch after the credits roll on the film, when we see the actors from the TV series recreate the scene with the drunkard on the train, and the person who helps hold him back is Densha Otoko from the film! Of course, I went to check the first episode, and there he was – the big screen version of Densha Otoko appearing in the TV series. I liked that.

All in all, both are good. The film is better for those in a hurry, while if you want to immerse yourself in Otaku culture, go for the TV series.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Still watching: Control – Hanzia Shinri Sousa

Actually, the most exciting thing to happen during episode seven was when I sneezed and pulled a muscle in my back. By gum, that hurt! But apart from my own self-inflicted injuries, I’m glad I stuck with this series.

I’ve started to warm to the main characters, Segawa Rio (the down to earth cop) and Nagumo Jun (the psychology professor who gives her advice). Their relationship has steered clear of any overacting or blatant love interest. And I appreciate how the unrequited love for Rio from one of the other officers is handled, so that you slowly realise it over a number of episodes rather than have an obvious clue early on, such as him stammering or acting clumsy whenever she is near.

It’s been improving for a while and episode seven is, perhaps, the best episode to date. A psychological theory is introduced in the opening scenes, and then we see how that theory can effect a police investigation. In this case, about the fallibility of memory.

I still think it’s not as good as Galileo, but I think I was a bit harsh earlier: This is definitely one of the better attempts at a light-hearted cop series this season. Simply because it doesn't spend too much time being light-hearted.

Can K-pop succeed in the UK?

As K-pop slowly spreads out from the Far East markets and heads towards America, I’ve been wondering about its chances of getting a foothold in the UK market.

One tactic that the Korean industry is relying on is to hope the popularity of K-pop in counties like China, Thailand etc. feed into the same communities in the US and then break through into the main market. But with no similar-sized community in the UK, that's not possible here. It's similar to the situation with Hispanic acts like Shakira and Enrique Iglesias. It wasn't until they broke America that the British media took notice, so I guess the same needs to happen again.

In terms of the music, K-pop is often more lightweight than what is in the charts just now, but since K-pop is spreading through YouTube and social networking, that's almost secondary. Like the “second British invasion” of the 1980s, K-pop is pushed along by the visuals – the perfect idols and the dance routines. A recent article on Bloomberg made an interesting point: that a songs popularity is driven as much by people copying the dance routines and posting them on YouTube etc. as by the original music video.

Recently in Britain, girl bands have not been too popular. You’d think that this would be a factor against, but I’m not so sure - it could be seen as a gap in the market. It’s true that there hasn’t been a new successful UK girl band since Girls Aloud (but they were the product on an entire TV series, so with that amount of publicity they could hardly fail). Also, in The X-Factor girl bands usually get voted out first, but this is probably due to the half-hearted nature of new acts. Given the amount of money and time lavished upon bands like Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls, you can hardly compare them to some plucky amateurs on a talent show.

Perhaps the biggest thing in K-pop's favour is that there’s a recession on (okay, so it’s not technically a recession, but that’s nitpicking.) Usually in the UK, in times of economic hardship, people want their pop culture to be a bit escapist, such as Glam Rock in the 70s and New Romantics in the 80s. There's a chance that K-pop’s endless supply of bells, whistles and flashing lights could be popular with an audience keen to get away from grim reality.

I'm interested to see how this progresses, and especially how the UK media reacts if K-pop establishes itself in America. And also if that media reaction will even make a difference. Using social networking, video hosting sites and streaming sites like Spotify (where a couple of dozen K-pop acts have already put up singles or mini-albums) these acts may be able to bypass the traditional media entirely. Whatever happens will almost be as entertaining as the music itself.