Thursday, 30 June 2011

Recommended: Jin 2

About a week ago, I was walking into a video game shop when, just as I was going in, an eight year old boy was coming out. He was clutching a game to his chest, and when he saw me he looked up in fear, as if I was going to take this precious game away from him. Afterwards, I felt quite jealous since it had been a long time since I’d felt that excited about getting anything.

Well, I think I came close when I saw that Heiwa Fansubs had put up the subs for the last episode of Jin 2.

* spoilers *

The final episode is a triumph. As indeed are the episodes leading up to it. No one is forgotten and everyone has their story finished and nothing seems rushed. Certainly, there's no last-minute dash to fit all the explaining into the last ten minutes, which often happens with J-dramas. Our hero, the doctor returns to the present and slowly has to work out what happened. As it is, the waves of time wash over his adventures in the past and memories fade as much as the photographs of his colleagues in Edo had faded.

That part was especially touching – when he finds old photographs of the people he worked with in the 1800s. Then I really got a sense of the distance he’d travelled and, sadly, the impossibility of him ever returning. Plus I had a feeling of pleasure of learning how they all turned out (and of seeing Kyoutarou in Western clothes!)

The reason behind why he went back in time was also very satisfying, and had clearly been planned from the beginning. And this really made me happy. The writer clearly had the idea fully formed in her head, and wasn’t just making it up as she went along. (edit: actually this is based on a manga written by Morota Murakami)

I started watching the first series back in April, so I’ve been lucky enough to have almost four months in which I haven’t had to wait long for the next episode of Jin. Now that is no longer the case, I’m at a bit of a loss. But I’ll find something else, I’m sure. I’ll certainly try and track down more of writer Morishita Yoshiko’s work.

And on a personal note, I finished watching this at 10pm. Then I noticed that the sky outside was still very bright. Far too bright for ten o’clock in the evening, I thought, and I had to check three clocks and the television before I was satisfied that I hadn’t fallen through a tiny time-slip of my own.

Currently watching: Japanese indie bands on YouTube

Just in case you should get the idea that I don’t listen to Japanese music in favour of bands from Korea, I thought I'd do a quick post to balance things out. While music in Japan isn’t as interesting as the Korean scene is right now (I can’t remember the last time a song I liked got into the top ten in Japan. Probably one by Bump of Chicken) there’s still a lot of good stuff out there.

I only recently found the site Sparkplugged, but it’s quickly become one of my most visited sites. Every couple of days, they post up a new music video from YouTube, with a brief introduction of the band. It couldn’t be simpler, and their taste in music is pretty top-notch. As I write, on the first page alone there are two bands who’ve already become my new favourite band(s).

Much as I enjoy clicking on videos at random, looking for a lost classic, it is nice to have someone that does it for you. And this site does it very well indeed.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

One Missed Call vs One Missed Call: FIGHT!

The TV and film versions share the same premise (a message is left on a mobile phone, dated several days in the future and apparently from the person’s own mobile, and the message is a recording of their final seconds) and a scene or two, but other than that, there’s not much similarity.

The film can be split into two halves. The first half is full of jumps and brief scares, while the second half cranks up the tension as the heroin Nakamura Yumi searches through a deserted hospital for clues as to the source of the murders. Director Takashi Miike keeps the shocks coming fast, so there’s little space to recover before the next.

Meanwhile, the TV series had eleven episodes to fill, and so there are more deaths along the way to the ending. It changes the character of Nakamura Yuki from being a student to being a journalist, thus giving us a light-hearted side-story about how badly her career is going.

Comparing the two Yumis: the film version, played by Shibasaki Kou, wins hands down. While there’s nothing wrong with Kukakawa Rei’s performance, it lacks Shibasaki’s screen presence. As for the amount of blood on show, bearing in mind the restrictions of television, the TV version of One Missed Call can get pretty unpleasant. On the other hand, Takashi Miike keeps the gore down to a minimum in the cinematic version.

I enjoyed both, and found them different enough so that one didn’t feel like a pale copy of the other. Also, the two versions have similar endings which mean different things, which impressed me. The film has the performances and production standards to give it the edge. The TV version is more comedic, but not afraid to throw some scares into the mix too. I’m giving this battle to the film version but, perhaps surprisingly, not by much.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Just watched: Sawako Decides

I suppose in my ideal world, Mitsushima Hikari would remain the elfin-faced queen of downbeat characters in oddball films like Love Exposure or Kakera. Of course, this isn’t going to happen: people change and actors want new challenges. Recently I saw her as a giggly schoolgirl in the morning drama Ohisama, which was a bit odd. I expected her to suddenly punch a window or something. But she didn’t.

However, this film from 2010 fits into the little Mitsushima-shaped hole in my mind perfectly. In it she plays a frustrated underachiever, Sawako, leading an unremarkable life in Tokyo. She gets a call from her uncle saying her father is dying and she has to take over the business based in a town in the country. She is convinced to go by her boyfriend, who thinks it’ll be good to get closer to nature.

As a comedy, it’s very deadpan, but still amusing. People seem to drift through the film, nobody’s actions have any long-lasting effect and the storyline is something of a mess. The fundamental message is about honouring your family, but lots of other things are thrown into the pot: the gossip about Sawako from the locals, the state of the business, and Sawako’s boyfriend’s daughter who is an enigmatic, wordless observer of the actions around her.

The trouble about films with this kind of cold, distant atmosphere is that they may be enjoyable, but it’s hard to get too excited about it. Compared to most other comedies, this is pretty bleak and hopeless, but it is funny and if you watch it in the right mood, who knows, it may become a favourite.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Professor’s Beloved Equation: Book vs Film: FIGHT!

I don’t read many novels, so it’s still a peculiar experience when I see a film of a book I’ve previously read, not unlike deja vu: I can remember the events but I’ve never seen them before. Also, thinking things like "That house is bigger than I imagined it," is kind of distracting. As such, I tend to avoid watching films of books I already know.

But I was curious as to how the film version of "The Professor’s Beloved Equation" (or "The Housekeeper and the Professor", as the English translation is called) turned out. The story is about a mathematics professor who, through an accident in the 1970s, has a memory that only lasts eighty minutes. A housekeeper (played in the film by Fukatsu Eri) is hired to look after him during the day, and she has to get used to his curious observations about numbers and the fact that he always asks her the same questions each day since it is, for him, the first time they’ve met.

The novel has the luxury of talking about numbers at length. It covers far more topics than the film, and in more playful detail. The film struggles with the uncinematic nature of perfect and imaginary numbers, although the idea of cutting away to an adult version of Root (the housekeeper’s son) explaining some of the theories to a mathematics class was a clever way of getting around this to some extent.

The film is also shot in quite a flat style. The director, for the most part, seems happy to point the camera at the actors and let them tell the story. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I found it lacked the intimacy and emotions that the book had. And although the novel is not long, the film couldn’t fit all the story in, and the poignant last days of the professor are reduced to a single scene of him and the grown-up Root playing catch on the beach.

So the book defeats its well-meaning but distant cinematic version. It displays more love for the characters and the mathematics they discuss than the film does.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Just watched: The darker side of Kpop

Perhaps prompted by the two sell-out concerts in Paris recently, the BBC ran a story on the Kpop wave. From the title, I was expecting the worse. Like most entertainment industries, Kpop has enough skeletons in the cupboard that any journalist could portray it as a centre for plagiarism, over-bearing fans, shady deals between management companies and the media, and the endless obssession with physical perfection. This would give quite an unfair image of kpop as it makes its first steps into the West, since the same accusations apply anywhere.

Watching the news report, you can tell the journalist doesn’t take the Kpop scene seriously. Describing the extensive training that Kpop acts go through as “a couple of years of singing lessons” is a bit of an understatement, but it’s hard to tell if that’s because she can’t imagine Kpop taking hold in Western markets, or if she’s just dismissive of pop music in general.

Having said that, I was quite relieved that the story focused on contractual problems. This is undoubtedly a problem in Korea, to the extent that falling out with your manager can end or seriously damage your career, so I think it’s a valid story. It also covered the pricing policy of digital downloads and how cheap they are. All of this pointed to some performers not earning much at all. Certainly, I remember seeing a survey on allkpop which said the average wage of a singer was some way below that of an office worker.

And it ends by saying that the industry is changing. How could it not? As it spreads into more lucrative markets and artists see more sales coming in, management contracts will have to keep pace.

All in all a fairly balanced piece, and not as sensationalist as I feared from the title. I do wonder, though, how long the BBC is going to keep reporting on the Kpop music industry without actually playing the music itself.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Just watched: Jam Films

Well, you certainly get value for money. This set of short films from 2002 is packed with seven quirky and interesting stories. For something that tries to have an indie sensibility, there’s a lot of famous faces from TV dramas involved. Listing the actors who make appearances would take too long, but the directors are notable and they include Kitamura Ryuhei (Versus, Azumi), Yukisada Isao (Parade) and Iwai Shunji (All About Lily Chou Chou). And to top it all off, it’s produced by Sega!

What could go wrong?

Luckily, nothing. It looks great, and the stories are always clever and original with some twist to keep you paying attention. For example, one segment begins with what looks like a family sitting down to dinner together, until you realise that the man is holding the others hostage.

Each part has its own feel and style, and they all have something worthwhile. Because they’re so short, when most parts finish, they leave you wanting more. It’s a smart collection of vignettes, and if you fancy something a bit different from the norm, but not so different that you’re left scratching your head, then this is for you.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Still watching: BOSS 2

A sudden but welcome return to work means my opportunities to watch J-dramas have decreased. And so has my chance to learn Japanese, since I can no longer get to the lesson on time (boo). But I need the money more than anything else, so I’ll just have to take the rough with the smooth.

However, I can be cheered up by the second series of BOSS, which has surprised me by being far better than I was expecting. From Amami Yuki’s sexy roundhouse kick during the opening credits to the solution to the crime which usually makes some kind of sense, this show is smarter and more assured than previously. Perhaps my expectations were so low that anything would’ve impressed me, but I am enjoying this a lot more than the first series.

Occasionally it slips back into it’s bad old habits. A couple of scenes with the K-pop band 2PM had nothing to do with the story at all and was nothing more than an attempt at boosting the ratings (which it didn’t, by the way) and the criminals still aren’t very threatening. But the comedy and crime-solving mix together with more confidence than last year.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Just watched: Welcome to the Quiet Room

This film from 2007 first got my interest through the title alone. It seemed so menacing, yet so peaceful. What could it mean?

The synopsis is a woman leads a stressful yet apparently successful life, until one day she wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, strapped to a table. She spends the next couple of weeks trying to piece together the events of the last day that she can remember, and trying to connect with the other patients in the ward. At first it seems like a fairly predictable story in which a sane person is trapped in a mental institute, but before long her memories start to unravel and the story changes direction.

The lead role (Sakura Asuka) is played with the right mix of arrogance and weakness by Uchida Yuki, as she tries to find her feet in her new world. And to my surprise, the cast held two familiar faces. Or at least, two familiar names. The first is Aoi Yu as Miki, the first patient to befriend Asuka, and the second is a great performance by Kudo Kankuro (better known as the writer of Tiger and Dragon and Unubore Deka) as Asuka’s boyfriend. He’s perfect as the wiry nervous TV writer.

Checking on Asianmediawiki, I noticed that the writer, Matsuo Suzuki was also responsible for Koi no Mon. This is certainly much more thoughtful than that enjoyable comedy, and quite different in tone and style although there is the occasional moment of cartoonish humour. This film is smartly written, and nicely structured as Asuka’s memories slowly bubble to the surface, threatening to ruin her recovery.