Friday, 29 April 2011

Recommended: The Magic Hour

This film from 2008, written by Mitani Kouki, tells an unlikely story of a man who gets in trouble with the local yakuza. To get himself out of this fix, he hires an actor to pretend to be a top assassin and uses that to gain favour with the gang again. But he doesn’t tell the actor the real situation. Instead, the actor thinks he’s ad libbing a film that uses hidden cameras and all-natural lighting.

The setting is almost as confusing as the storyline. In a Japanese city there is a little neighbourhood of 1930’s style buildings where everyone dresses and acts according to that same period. It’s a bit of a stretch that this little island of pre-war Japan should remain untouched, but once you accept it, the film works fine.

At least it allows Mitani Kouki to work in this period that he seems to adore. And it gives the story a less-threatening feel. Each time the actor (played by Koichi Sato) unwittingly gets into more life-threatening situations, he impresses the other yakuza with his bravery. Except, of course, he doesn’t know he’s in any real danger. And it’s very funny when he slips out of character and talks to the other mobsters about "the biz". He’s talking about showbusiness, while they think he’s talking about organised crime.

It stars Tsumabuki Satoshi and Sato Koichi in the two lead roles. Sato Koichi is especially good as the actor who unwittingly puts his life at risk for what he thinks may be his big break. Also noteworthy is Fukatsu Eri (Kabachitare, Akunin) who really suits the 1930's style of the film. This is a great old-fashioned screwball comedy and definitely more gold from Mitani Kouki.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Am I really going to watch: BOSS 2?

That’s the question I’m asking myself. BOSS is a comedy show and a detective show rolled into one, and I'm not convinced it's very good at either. But I like the cast and because I finished the first series I watched the first episode of BOSS 2 just to see how they continue the story of this group of hopeless yet apparently brilliant detectives.

Two years have passed since the first season, and in that time Osawa Eriko (Amami Yuki) has been to America and back. The opening two episodes deals with Kimoto Mami (Toda Erika’s character), and her departure from the show. She leaves the force in disgrace, then comes back, only to be kidnapped by a serial killer and then finally saved.

The rest of the team use clever new policing techniques to track the criminal, and the humour seems to be more obvious this time around. Perhaps that’s this shows greatest weakness: the silly jokes don’t really go with the idea of intelligent crime-solving. But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. For example, shows like Keizoku 1 and 2, Trick, and Puzzle had some very stupid jokes in, but they also gave the characters a chance to be clever. For most of the first season of BOSS, the stories were solved by a last minute revelation or lucky discovery rather than any detective work. However, in the first two episodes of BOSS 2 there are a couple of nice ideas that makes me wonder if the writers have decided to make an effort this time.

Then again, the opening story of any series is usually its strongest, so I'm not getting my hopes up too much. It’s like when you've bought a cheap bottle of wine, and you don’t dislike it enough to stop completely, and you think maybe you'll get used to it after the next glass. That's how I feel about BOSS 2. I'll give it two more episodes... And then perhaps two more...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Just watched: Café Isobe

Ah, the sun. As the UK basks in a surprise Easter heatwave, I find I'm less attracted to dark, tense thrillers and am drawn towards lighter, more summer-y material. Apart from anything else, trying to watch dimly-lit scenes while I'm sitting in a room with the sun coming in through the window often ruins the atmosphere.

This film from 2008 tells the tale of a divorced man (Miyasako Hiroyuki) who decides to open a café one summer and he gets his daughter (Naka Riisa) to help as a waitress. One day, an attractive woman comes in looking for a job and the appalled daughter watches as her father falls in love.

The comedy arises naturally from the situations and doesn't feel forced, and Naka Riisa never puts a foot wrong in her portrayal of a high school student forced to stand by as her dad makes a fool of himself. I think I’ve underestimated her acting skills, since this is now the second film I’ve seen in which she’s been great. Perhaps Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo wasn’t the best place to start my assessment of her career.

Another part of the film I enjoyed was the mother (Hamada Mari). In a lesser film, this would have been the source of loud arguments but in this film, the resentment is more in the background, and they never shout at each other when they meet, only bicker endlessly about the same things.

Kudos, too, go to Miyasako Hiroyuki (Zettai Reido, At Home Dad) as a the father and Aso Kumiko as the waitress that causes all his anguish. This is a fairly gentle film, despite the rather pessimistic message it gives about love. It's well-written and sensitively acted, with an engaging storyline and as the film progresses and feelings get hurt, it never loses its sense of humour nor does it fall into cliché.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Just finished: We Got Married

So it’s over. After 51 episodes, the goguma couple have gone their separate ways. I only started watching this by accident because Ueno Juri appeared in a couple of episodes, but then I found myself drawn in and, after it comforted me through a bad illness, I became very fond of this show. Its endless canned laughter and odd use of repeating edits was difficult to get used to at first, but I slowly did and at least when I saw other Korean variety shows like Running Man and Family Outing, the same style of editing wasn’t such a shock.

I didn’t watch all the episodes. There were a few of the earliest that I never got round to finding, which I sort of regret. It would’ve been nice to see the whole story from awkward hello to difficult goodbye. But it’s too late now. I can’t watch “new” episodes knowing they’ve already split up! It wouldn’t be right!

It’s sad to see the end to this series. I know there are other couples in the same show, but I don’t seem to have the same interest in them as I did with this. I don’t know why. Maybe it was just the time. A change in the seasons. A fleeting moment, never to be repeated. A summer romance that’s blown away with the autumn winds. Whatever it was, I think my relationship with this particular series is over.

It’s been fun.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Recommended: Linda Linda Linda

I first watched this ages ago. Then, the other day, I was going through an old hard drive when I saw it and thought “I’d like to watch that again.” Not sure why. I just did. I hadn’t thought about the film much in the past year or so, except for sometimes listening to the soundtrack.

In this film, three schoolgirls form a band for the school’s cultural festival. They choose some songs by the old Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts and a Korean class-mate as their lead singer and then it's just a case of learning the songs in time for the big day. The synopsis might have you thinking this is a peppy feel-good knockabout comedy. But the film has a quite different feel than, say, Swing Girls. There’s a strange quality to it, where it feels like time seems to hang in the air, perhaps thanks to James Iha’s fantastic soundtrack and the director Nobuhiro Yamashita’s sense of composition and pacing, which is perfect.

It has a more realistic idea about school life than most dramas. At least, I recognise it more than the usual portrayal of school as full of wisecracking students falling in and out of love. These students are awkward once they’re outside their circle of friends. Doona Bae is great as the gawky lead singer, perfectly capturing that slight lack of coordination that teenagers have, even though she was in her mid-20s when she made the film. Kashii Yuu also excels as the band leader and guitarist.

Perhaps the ending is a bit disappointing, with a fairly unlikely dash to the venue at the last minute, but then again, you’ve got to end on some kind of excitement.

In conclusion, this is a great film and I’m a little surprised that I’d forgotten how good this is, and I’m glad that I stumbled upon it again while looking for something else. Something that, by the way, I never found. There's a moral in there somewhere.

Currently Watching: Jin

Since the second series of this popular drama is coming out soon, I thought I’d watch the first series so I can properly enjoy the new episodes. Basically, it’s a medical drama and a historical drama mixed together. These are two elements that usually put me off but the overall idea is intriguing: a doctor somehow falls backwards in time to a point in Japanese history, during the mid-1800s.

His medical knowledge is almost miraculous in that day and age, and his fame quickly spreads. Meanwhile, he has to work out what happened to him, and he watches how his actions effect the future by how a photograph of himself and his girlfriend changes.

There’s a lot of ideas flying around. Most interesting is that if you had a modern-day knowledge of medicine, how much of it would be useful in feudal Japan? Also the story covers the political aspects of his work – at a time when Japan was slowly coming out of seclusion, his non-Japanese methods make other doctors suspicious. Add to this the usual difficulties caused by going back in time and the life-saving surgery (often with friends or family crying in the corner of the room, which you don’t see much in modern operating theatres) and every episode is packed with exciting events.

I’m halfway through at the moment, and so far the stories are entertaining, while the questions about the time-slip remain tantalisingly unanswered. It has a strong cast, including Osawa Takao in the lead role, ably supported by Ayase Haruka (Hotaru no Hikari) and Nakatani Miki. Special mention has to go to Uchino Masaaki as the wandering samurai with an interesting future, Sakamoto Ryoma. I can totally see how this was a success and I’m now one of the millions impatiently waiting for series two.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Just finished: At Home Dad

This show (broadcast in 2004) was one of the first J-dramas that I watched and Sars fansubs have just finished off the end-of-season special so I thought I’d mark it’s ending with a post. The story involves two men who have to look after the house and family while their wives go out to work. One of them has been doing this for a few years, while his neighbour has only recently lost his job and is new to all this housework.

Most of the comedy comes from amusing attempts by the reluctant newcomer Yamamura Kazuyuki (played by Abe Hiroshi (Trick, Shinzanmono)) to cook, clean and prepare his daughter’s things for school. The story also covers how house-husbands are viewed by the wider community, and Kazuyuki often gets reactions of disappointment, pity and amusement from other people when he tells them what he’s doing these days.

It's got a good cast: as well as Abe, it has Shinohara Ryoko, and Miyasako Hiroyuki (Zettai Reido) and the first few episodes set up the situation well, with Abe Hiroshi nicely portraying Kazuyuki's difficulty accepting the situation. But the script is somewhat aimless and after twelve episodes and a special the writers don't have much to do except make the wife work too much so she (almost) misses something important.

Since I'm not Japanese nor live there, I can't say how accurate it is as a social commentary on the changing roles in parenting, but it is pretty funny which is all I can really ask from a comedy.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Just finished: Long Love Letter

I have a theory. If, amongst all the dramas from the past few years listed on a jdrama site, you find one dating from before 2006, it’s probably going to be good. Because it’s from a time before getting raws off the TV was easy, so someone had to muck about with buying/renting and then ripping the DVDs. And if they go to all that trouble, then it’s probably worth it.

I haven’t checked this theory, but it was definitely in my mind when I chose this series from 2002. The synopsis helped. After a lot of crime/mysteries/rom-coms, I needed something a bit different.

The first episode is mostly about the characters. The schoolkids and their friends, but mostly about the two lead characters – the former teacher Misaki Yuka (played to perfection by Tokiwa Takako (Kabachitare!)) and new teacher Asami Akio (Kubozuka Yosuke (Ping Pong, Ikebukuro West Gate Park) at his charismatic best) – and the romance between the two.

During this first episode, small things keep happening that point to something big. Such as part of a scene that repeats, or the way people’s image ripples when they walk past a certain point. All this is leading up to the end of the first episode, when the entire school disappears. They slowly discover that it's been sent into the near future, in a post-war, post-desertification landscape. The schoolkids who were inside (it was out of term time, so there are only twenty or so who were doing a catch-up class) have to learn to survive.

It’s very entertaining, and quite unusual for a jdrama to be so brave in killing off major characters. This does make things more tense, of course, so I’m not complaining. The cast, too, is very good and even if you’re a newcomer to jdrama, you’ll be surprised how many familiar faces appear as students.

But the science-fiction bits aren’t really explained properly and I kind of wish they hadn’t even tried. On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this and it certainly made a change from what I’ve been watching recently.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Just Finished: Control – Hanzai Shinri Souza

* spoilers, etc... *


So this detective story ends without ruining the promise it had built up in the episodes leading to the series final. Part ten ended with the ransom money still undiscovered, and the professor walking purposefully across a footbridge. I did have hopes that this meant his involvement in the crime wasn’t over yet. Perhaps there'd be more psychological manipulation of the psychology professor? Alas, that didn’t happen, but the way the crime was solved was still pretty entertaining.

At the very end, though, was one last case to solve, which was all wrapped up in fifteen minutes. It was the case of who murdered Segawa's father eight years ago. This is the case that made her want to be a police office in the first place, so it was a bit odd that it should be left as an epilogue that the end of the story.

However, I enjoyed this series. It certainly got better as it went along, and the last four episodes (two two-part stories) were pretty exciting. I liked the characters and the overall style of the show. There were no romantic sub-plots, no cute children, no clumsy-but-keen new members on the team. Also the storyline in the first episode of Segawa and the professor somehow being outcasts from the rest of the team was soon dropped in favour of some proper crimes to be solved.

So it started a bit average, and I was only downloading it when I had nothing better to watch, but soon it built up tension until I was actively looking forward to the next episode to be subbed. Good work.