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.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Currently watching: Maybe Lee Jaram Band

For a while I’ve been keeping an eye on a Korean folk-indie act called The Maybe Lee Jaram Band. I saw them first on indie2go’s YouTube channel and I found them interesting enough to search for some more of their songs. Their style is a laid back, almost lazy, kind of folky blues with catchy choruses and Lee Jaram’s strong vocals. It seems that her background in Pansori has left her well equipped to deal with Western pop songs.

The other day I found a set of videos on from a concert they did in August, and then I found this page with some photos and commentary from the same gig. I almost feel as if I’d been there! Except I don’t understand a word of the commentary, and the sound on the videos is such that if I was there, I must’ve been wearing earmuffs. But I think enough of the songs’ quality comes through regardless. There’s another video with better sound but shakier visuals here.

I’ve pretty much exhausted all the search engines in trying to find more stuff by the band. I did read a blog that talked about an album to be released last October, but I can’t find anything like that so far but I did see some footage of them in a recording studio on YouTube. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, I shall keep looking for new things now and then, and I shall take pride in being one of the four people who like her page on facebook.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Still watching: Hyena

I first wrote about this Korean series from 2006 almost a year ago. For most of the time since then it had disappeared from the internet, but I found it again recently and have started watching it once more. It follows the love lives of four men who are single and apparently surrounded by desirable people and ex-lovers they never got over, as they attempt to find their one true love. Or someone who’ll sleep with them that night. Whichever is easier. The fifth main character is a woman who’s fallen for one of the guys. Unfortunately, he’s hiding his true sexuality from her. Or is he hiding it from his gay friends?

The show is more silly than sexy, and it is a lot of fun watching them panic as yet another beautiful woman crosses their path. And, judging by this series, it does look as if Korea is full of beautiful women.

I’m eight episodes in, and I think the long-term stories for a couple of the characters are just starting up, but it’s hard to tell. It wouldn’t be out of character for them to do something stupid or selfish to ruin it all so they’d have to move on. It's refreshingly bawdy and saucy and doesn't take itself seriously. At least, not yet.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Currently watching: Last Money – Ai no Nedan

Recently, I've been thinking that J-drama wasn't as good as it used to be, but suddenly I find myself watching three series that (despite being very formulaic in their stories and settings) I’m enjoying a lot. I’ve already written about Perfect Report, and soon I'll write about Suzuki Sensei but for now I’ll concentrate on this series set in an insurance company.

In Last Money we have a fairly typical set-up: cynical old professional who hides a heart of gold who works with an idealistic young newcomer. Together they investigate potential insurance fraud. Despite the clichés, I’ve found myself drawn into this series. The cases are cleverly written and entertaining and there’s a great sub-plot about a friend who is having an affair with a woman who perhaps is not all that she seems.

But most of all, I like the look of the show. For once, the rather anonymous directing style of most J-dramas actually works. The office has a pretty shitty open-plan layout and it feels cramped and soulless and the people claiming for money look plain and unexceptional. Apart from the private investigator, who is the only flash of colour in the show, the overall feeling is of looking at something very mundane: something that happens every day.

Perhaps the story relies too much on sentimentality at the end. After all, it is often dealing with the last wishes of the deceased, so of course people are going to cry. But I can forgive that. This series has made a good start and I'm already impatient to learn what happens next.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Just finished: Quiz Hexagon II

After six years, this popular quiz show recently came to an end after its presenter was linked to the Yakuza and retired from showbiz in August. After he left, the show carried on with some of the regulars sharing the role of presenter but before long it was decided to finish the show completely at the end of September.

I only watched this show infrequently. It was never that easy to find, so when I did come across an episode it was a bit of a treat. The show never changed that much, although there was a lengthy period when the middle of the show was taken up by a section with all the regulars sitting at school desks, listening to a lecture about some subject. I suppose the TV show wanted to educate as well as entertain, but I always found myself skipping those parts. Apart from the episode where misono sat at the front in a short skirt with her legs crossed. That one was more interesting than usual.

I watched the final show with mixed feelings. This was the first Japanese show I could watch without subs and still have a good idea what was going on (especially once I’d worked out what “o-mae” meant). But I never connected with the regulars in the same way I’ve done with Running Man or Vs Arashi. It also didn’t help that I found the show’s attempts at creating musical units fairly unsuccessful.

But I have a lot of affection for the programme, and I think it’s a shame that it finished in those circumstances. But it’s over, and the bit at the end where they all said how grateful they were to the show was quite touching.

And then they ended on a song. It ruined the moment slightly but... never mind.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Currently watching: Eri Fukatsu's Black Comedy

This is a series of short surreal dramas made in 2007 with Fukatsu Eri appearing in each one. Although I don't know if "appearing" is the right word – in one episode her "appearance" is a photo of her face taped to a mannequin's head. The length of each episode varies between a couple of minutes and quarter of an hour, and the genre changes each time, too. About half are animated (with Eri supplying the voice-over) and the other half are live action.

They're all fairly odd. For example, a taxi-driver mistakes Eri for his long-lost daughter; or an assistant at a convenience store keeps asking a customer if he wants the things he's buying heated up. Because they are short, they don't get boring and even if one episode may not entertain, you certainly can't say they're not original. And because no two are the same, if one is a bit tedious, you can be sure that the next one will be completely different. So this is definitely worth a look if you're in the mood for something that's a bit experimental, but also a bit light and easy to watch.

I've stopped putting links to programs, since they never seem to last very long, but since this is fairly obscure, the subbers' site is here:

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Currently watching: Perfect Report

From a distance, this is just like a number of other J-dramas. A strong female boss who leads a ramshackle group of misfits in a department that no one takes seriously. Also, this boss has a dark secret in her early career that explains her unusual managerial style and her lack of progress in the organisation.

In this case, the setting is a newsroom, and the boss is a no-nonsense, free spirit who ignores the showbiz stories that she is supposed to follow and instead sends her staff out to cover more hard-hitting stuff like politics and crime. However, her bosses tolerate her because she gets results.

Reading back what I've just written, I admit it doesn't seem so great. I've just described a pretty ordinary J-drama, with nothing in particular to make it stand out from the crowd. Also, the ratings were poor and it remained unsubbed for about a year before someone finally picked it up. None of these things inspire confidence.

But instead I find myself enjoying this quite a lot. Matsuyuki Yasuko is good in the lead role, and Koide Keisuke impresses as the new member on the team – a career-centred reporter who works almost as a spy, letting his bosses know what is going on in the team. Kohinata Fumiyo pops up in his usual role as genial elder, but this time he is a little cynical and bitter. But Aibu Saki really makes an impression as the image-obsessed failed TV presenter who's been relegated to the team after an on-screen mistake over a famous politician's name.

The comedy is kept low-key, and the stories are interesting. I'm not sure why this drama has been forgotten. It does itself no favours by looking exactly like a lot of other dramas, but just because it's made according to a formula that doesn't mean it has to be bad. Sometimes when you follow a recipe, you end up cooking something delicious. And I think that's what's happened here.