Friday, 30 September 2011

Recommended: Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro

* spoilers *

* if you can spoil the end of a story that deliberately uses cliches, that is *

After 12 half-hour episodes, we have finally come to the end of this epic trail. So, at six hours long, this is quite a bit shorter than the average 60+ hours of levelling up and side quests that you get in a genuine Japanese RPG. Excellent value for those in a hurry.

The final level is set in modern-day Japan, which has the added effect of making the show look even more low budget. But the humour is still the same, with silly jokes at the expense of role-playing cliches.

The last episode has some nice special effects and a typical boss battle that involves first getting past his henchman (secretary, in this case) and once they do, they fight and beat Maou. However, like most final bosses, once he’s defeated, he comes back to life revealing his true, terrifying form.

I loved this show. The cast were great, playing even the most absurd situations completely straight, which is how video gamers are expected to react to the most predictable storylines in RPGs. But at least the hero in this adventure didn’t have amnesia.

By the way, as for my own JRPG activities I’m currently playing Grandia II. I’m so retro.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

I’ve got a feeling this might be genius

Pop Punk Mania Japan, by various artists. Available at a very reasonable price from Amazon (and, I suppose, iTunes too) on the 5th of October. You can get a taste here. I am yet to find a track I don’t like.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Just watched: Christmas on 24th July Avenue

With a title like this, I wondered what time was best to watch this film from 2006. At Christmas? In July? Well, since September is inbetween the two, I guessed that now was as good a time as any.

This film is a romantic comedy in which a socially inept woman gets the man of her dreams. It stars Nakatani Miki and Osawa Takao in the two lead roles and, since they starred together in Jin, this was the main reason I chose to watch this film. Also Ueno Juri appears in a minor role. I wasn’t expecting to see her and it made me realise that I miss her. While she’s been off making a year-long historical epic that doesn’t really interest me, she hasn’t done anything else. Seeing her again, even if it was only for a few short scenes, was a pleasant surprise.

The story, though, is the usual rom-com by numbers. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back. This is fine, but the way she loses the boy is a bit trivial, and the way she gets him back again is also fairly mundane. Meanwhile, the comedy mostly involves Miki bumping into things or dropping things or both.

But Nakatani Miki is great in her role as the hopeless dreamer, and she and Osawa Takao do have something of a chemistry together. And if I made the film sound bad, then I’ve overdone the criticism since it has a lot of charm. It’s a nice, lightweight comedy that should entertain you as sit in a comfy armchair and digest your Christmas dinner. Because this film should definitely be seen during the festive season, not in the heat of July.

In the meantime: Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

K-pop, J-pop and the South Sea Bubble

Back in the 90s, it looked inevitable that J-pop would break into mainstream western charts. The catchy songs and slick production of Utada Hikaru, Yaida Hitomi, and Shiina Ringo, as well as the visual impact of bands like Dir En Grey or L’Arc En Ciel made it seem like only a matter of time before one of them made it big. At the time, I was working for EMI so I was able to listen to the CDs and it was clear that J-pop now had a quality that would work on the international stage, and I kept an eye on the industry magazines looking for the first signs of a breakthrough.

Of course, nothing happened. A few singles were released and a few tours were arranged but Japanese acts didn’t seem to have a desire for, or an understanding of, the European market. For example, Yaida Hitomi turned her pop-punk anthem My Sweet Darling into a jazz funk workout and it barely scraped the top 50. Considering that everyone I played it to loved the original, I still wonder what she was thinking.

Even the singer who most understood the West, Utada Hikaru, couldn’t translate her success in Japan to success in America. Perhaps the problem being that she was so busy with Japan that she couldn’t follow-up her first (moderately successful) US album until four years later. Nobody who was seriously trying to break the US market would leave that kind of gap between releases, no matter how famous they were somewhere else.

I’m not saying there were no successful Japanese acts in the West (Shonen Knife and Pizzicato Five spring to mind) but there was nothing like the impact that some people were expecting. For several years, J-pop was going to be the next big thing, but no artist was able to deliver the breakthrough single to start it all off.

The South Sea Bubble, meanwhile, was a stock company in the 1700s that raised its stock value by speculating on the value of its potential trade in the New World. Its stock price rose and rose, despite it not having any real collateral, until it collapsed, taking many people's fortunes with it. In many ways, it’s a template for all future stock booms/collapses. It’s a classic model of expectation of success fuelled by the promise of future return on your investment.

Which brings me to K-pop and the news that, in 2011 so far, a staggering 27 girl bands have debuted. That’s insane. And a little worrying. Given the estimated cost of running a K-pop band, I wonder how sustainable that is, when you consider that K-pop artists are yet to even try to break into the West. While the East Asian market is big, K-pop can’t expand forever without finding new markets.

Of course, it’s different now with the internet allowing artists to promote worldwide much more easily, without the need to be physically present in the country you’re focusing on. In the past, breaking the US market meant a gruelling tour schedule which has defeated many artists from the UK who perhaps didn’t appreciate the amount of work they’d have to put in.

But despite these changes, I can’t stop thinking that all this buzz and hype about K-pop looks very familiar. The recent K-pop concerts in Paris are a good sign, but bear in mind that both GACKT and Miyavi have had successful European tours recently, and you couldn’t call them famous in the West. How to translate YouTube hits into people paying money for your album is a tricky situation to handle.

I hope they succeed because there are definitely Korean pop bands who deserve a wider stage. And I recognise that the Korean music industry is trying to do something that no one has tried before: to really use the internet as a promotional tool in a territory long before an act has performed there. But unless something happens soon, I wonder how long K-pop can sustain itself by speculating on the potential value of its trade with Europe and America.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Just finished: Bull Doctor

There was a point in the final episode when I realised that the final crime has just been solved, but there was still fifteen minutes left before the credits roll. It was then that I mentally prepared myself for a series of happy endings as the writers finished off each unresolved sub-plot, one by one, cliché by cliché.

The show wasn’t terrible, and in the end I liked the storyline about Dr Takeda’s blackmail, and the initial event that started the whole situation was believable and original. I kind of wish they’d kept that as the big storyline, but instead they went for the corrupt politician and his evil, manipulative ways.

But the show lacked any real spark. As I’ve written about before, I don’t think any of the roles were particularly well cast, the mysteries were fairly obvious to solve and the directing was as flat as a pancake. When I finally finished, I felt somewhat tired and lethargic, like I'd walked up a very boring hill and looked across a very grey landscape.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Just watched: Gantz Perfect Answer

Actually, this film is pretty short on answers. Perhaps the manga it is based on has more detail about the hows and whys, but the film remains tight-lipped as to any possible explanations.

This is not a bad thing, though. The film is not about good versus bad, more like A versus B. In the second film, the story introduces the idea that the people we have been following may not be the protectors of humanity at all. Are the aliens really the aggressors, or Gantz and his followers? It hardly matters, because by now enough blood has been spilt (or splashed dramatically against walls) that there’s no chance of forgiveness.

Instead we are thrown into an hour-long fight scene that only pauses long enough for people to get their breath back. While I’m no expert of Japanese action movies, it’s the most physical and kinetic film I’ve seen since Versus. Beautifully acted, shot and choreographed, it carries you along with all the momentum of a roundhouse kick to the face.

The ending is good and wraps everything up neatly. While I think it’s perhaps a little idealistic, it is at least in keeping with the rest of the film. For what it is – a blistering action movie with occasional hints at something deeper – it’s difficult to fault.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Still watching: Soredemo Ikite Yuku

After two recent deaths in my family, I was a bit apprehensive about watching this again. I was worried that the storyline of how families cope with the loss of a loved one might be a bit too close to the bone for me.

As it was, mid-way through the series and the focus has shifted from endless displays of grief to something more like a murder mystery. Only in this case, the mystery is the motive. Now both the brother of the deceased, Fukami Hiroki (Eita) and the father of the murderer, Mizaki Shunsuke (Tokito Saburo) have decided to find the murderer. They’re working independantly, and have different reasons for wanting to find him, and it’s certainly added some life to a storyline that could’ve become too self-pitying.

The acting is great. Eita and Mitsushima Hikari head a strong cast, and Ando Sakura (Love Exposure) adds some real spice to every scene she’s in. All in all, this is a fascinating series and although I can’t say it’s fun to watch, it’s certainly worth the effort.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Still watching: Running Man

Thanks to the internet, watching TV no longer means sitting in front of a television set at a specific time. The iPlayer, Catch-up TV and torrenting now mean you can watch what you want when you want, as long as you know where to look. But Running Man is only direct download, and my internet connection is pretty useless between 5 o’clock and 10 (in fact, I’m writing this at 5.34pm and a download has just failed). This means I always end up watching this show at around midnight.

But instead of resenting this, I’m almost glad that I have to watch it at night. It seems to add to the show. Running Man is all about mock thrills, film references and silly physical games. When it gets it right, it’s a real roller coaster of excitement, and even when it gets it wrong, it’s still pretty funny.

In episode 52 – perhaps the best since episode 7 – the show’s regulars are hunted down one at a time by the guest, Choi Min Soo. This episode is structured almost like a horror movie: it starts humorous and enjoyable before the cast are picked off one by one. Choi Min Soo really enjoys his role and plays his part to the full.

And the series as a whole is one of the highlights of my week. When it becomes available, all other downloading and internet activity stops, since I hope that’ll help it download quicker. The seven regulars are all comfortable in their roles and they work together really well. Sometimes, you can tell that a certain bit is staged to take advantage of the location, or to make the game more exciting, but that’s fine.

After 50+ episodes, Running Man is still a great big dollop of fun, and I’m amazed that this format hasn’t been bought by a UK channel. On the other hand, I’m glad it hasn’t since I doubt a British version could match this for its mix of excitement and comedy.