Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Just finished: Last Money – Ai no Nedan

I enjoyed this. At seven episodes long, it felt like the right length of time for the story. The first few episodes had one story each, and were a way to introduce the characters and the setting, and the last few episodes focused on the mysterious circumstances of the death of a friend.

* spoilers *

Found dead in his car, it looks like a suicide but we, the audience, know better: he wasn’t alone in his final minutes, he was with his lover. And despite being told that this woman can’t be trusted, I wanted her to be innocent. The sympathetic portrayal of this character by Takashima Reiko had me split between thinking she was an expert manipulator or just a misunderstood soul.

And it is her performance that really turned this drama into one of the highlights of the last few months. With no big names in the cast, this has probably passed many people by, which would be a shame. Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Currently watching: Watashi ga Dekinai Riyuu

This drama follows the love lives (or lack-of-love lives) of three young single women. There’s the hostess bar worker who’s cynical about love, the bloke-ish lighting technician who’s forever stuck in the friend zone, and an over-serious virginal office worker.

The three of them share a house and give each other advice about their attempts to find love. It’s all quite innocent and naive, but still quite compelling. The three main actresses are well cast in their roles: Karina’s basically playing a less obnoxious version of the character she played in Parade, which is no bad thing. Yoshitaka Yuriko is perfect as the alluring hostess who oozes confidence but can’t actually get what she wants. Meanwhile, perhaps because she’s been in AKB48 for so long, Oshima Yuko makes a very convincing virgin.

There is a fourth main character, if the opening titles are to be believed, although she hasn’t appeared much so far. She’s the wife of a man that almost had a fling with Yuriko’s character. Quite how she’ll fit into this is still not clear, although episode four saw the two of them becoming friends unaware of the link between them.

This is an enjoyable soap opera-type drama, where almost every conversation between a man and a woman has a sub-text and if a woman says "I'm over him," you can expect him to turn up at awkward moments for the next few episodes.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Toki o Kakeru Shoujo vs. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: FIGHT!

These two films are live-action adaptations of the original novel Toki o Kakeru Shojou written by Tsutsui Yasutaka in 1967. I’ve already reviewed the 2010 version starring Naka Riisa, and I was interested to see how the first film adaptation differed.

Well, I felt like it was me who leapt through time after I watched the 1983 version. All of the parts of Japanese culture that I’m used to have gone. This is an age where there are no mobile phones, no internet, no mp3 players, and everyone has black hair!

Also, the pace of the story is very slow. The story doesn’t really start to reveal itself until forty-five minutes and, although most of the early part of the film is important for setting up the story, it can be somewhat tiresome to sit through. I don't want to call it “old-fashioned”, because I can remember 1983, and if this film is old-fashioned then what does that make me? On the positive side, the slow pace means you can appreciate the slow dropping of clues along the way before the mystery really begins.

The differences between the two versions are pretty vast. In the 1983 version, the leap in time is only twenty-four hours, where as in the 2010 version it is several decades. Both films have a man from the future manipulating time for research purposes, but the 2010 version has more fun with the idea of time travel. Also, because the girl has leapt further, the 2010 film is somehow more emotional and more involving. The 1983 is quiet and distant. Even the final scene between the girl and the boy she loves is just like an ordinary conversation. The film's style is just too conservative for such an original idea.

I’d say that the 2010 version wins. It’s a more interesting version of the story, with more laughs and more tears along the way.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Currently watching: Youkai Ningen Bem

Three monsters (who normally look like people) live a nomadic life, moving from town to town each time their true identity is discovered as they search for a way to become human. We join them in the modern day living in the hull of an abandoned ship, as their search seems to be reaching a conclusion.

In the meantime, they solve crimes. They don’t mean to. They just sort of get caught up in things.

This series is funny and interesting and at least it’s trying to be different. The cast is good and the stories always move along quickly with little chance to be bored. Anne has a commanding screen presence as the female monster, but then she does have a cape, which helps. And the six-year old monster (Suzuki Fuku) falls just on the right side of childlike innocence, so he doesn’t become unbearable. Meanwhile the enigmatic one with the hat (Kamenashi Kazuya) looks suitably mysterious.

The moralising is pretty basic stuff. It’s either (a) why can’t people just be happy with who they are, or (b) just because someone looks like a monster, doesn’t mean they are.

And, er, that’s about it. It’s enjoyable, well-made, and the ratings are good so it’s clearly found an audience. Not much else to say, really.

But I will mention that, with a few scenes they've shot, I can’t tell if that’s CGI in the background or if they’ve just been very lucky with some dramatic-looking skies.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

It's the 2nd Annual November The Eighth Awards!

It's been two years since I started this blog, so here's my second post in which I highlight the best stuff I've seen in the last twelve months. You know, I spent most of this year thinking that I haven't enjoyed watching J-dramas so much as I did last year. And then I sat down to write this, and remembered all the excellent stuff I'd seen.

And just like before, this is based on things I've seen in the last year, not just things that have been released last year.

Best drama
Furuhata Ninzaburo
Jin & Jin 2
Marks no Yama
Soredemo, Ikite Yuku

Perhaps it's a little unfair to bundle the two series of Jin together, but that's how I watched them: I finished series one just as series two was beginning. And I adored this show. The adventures of a time-travelling doctor in 19th century Japan may not be the most challenging or thoughtful television, but it was done with wit and charm and the ending didn't disappoint. Furuhata Ninzaburo remains agonisingly un-subbed which is a real shame, since the four episodes that I saw made me keen to see more. Marks No Yama was by far the best crime series of the year, and Soredemo, Ikite Yuku was an emotionally-charged drama with some great acting.

Best Drama: Jin and Jin 2

Best comedy
Reinoryokusha Odagiri Kyoko no Uso
Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro
Tiger and Dragon

Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro was a blissful romp through RPG cliches, and Ishihara Satomi once again showed she can do comedy better than drama in Reinryokusha... but the winner of this category was Tiger and Dragon, a sharp, intelligent work that has become my favourite Japanese comedy of all.

Best comedy: Tiger and Dragon

Best film
Live Tape
Memories of Matsuko
Love Exposure

Do I have to chose between these? Really? We've got four works of genius here. Parade is a perfect example of Generation X slacker film-making – cool, distant but interesting and funny. Live Tape is indie DIY cinema at its best – a cameraman follows a busker around some city streets. Watching Love Exposure is like speed dating at a psychiatric ward. But Memories of Matsuko wins against these excellent competitors by being emotional and romantic and cynical and cruel. But most of all, by being beautiful.

Best film: Memories of Matsuko

Best actor
Kubozuka Yosuke (Long Love Letter)
Keisuke Koide (Parade)
Eita (Soredemo Ikite Yuku)

Eita takes all the plaudits as the guy between two families who've both been destroyed by a motiveless murder that happened years ago, and it's through him that the viewer is expected to view both sides of the story. Without him holding it together, the whole story would quickly fall to pieces. Kubozuka Yosuke's performance in Long Love Letter is a masterclass in understated cool and when he's on the screen, it's hard to look at anything else. Keisuke Koide has a similar energy in the film Parade, in which he effortlessly holds your attention.

Best Actor: Eita (Soredemo, Ikite Yuku)

Best actress
Nakatani Miki (Memories of Matsuko)
Naka Riisa (Cafe Isobe)
Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure)

Nakatani Miki's perfect portrayal of the permanently defeated Matsuko was the real hook for that film. She really made you share in Matsuko's optimism, which made it all the harder when things inevitably went wrong. Naka Riisa was great as the schoolgirl who watches in despair as her father make a fool of himself over a woman. Mistushima Hikari's performance in Love Exposure is also a tour de force, a remarkable source of energy that keeps you watching for the whole four hours.

Best actress: Nakatani Miki

Best game show
Running Man
Family Outing
Vs Arashi
Game Center CX

No real competition here. Once I've downloaded an episode of Running Man, I can't have it sitting on my hard drive unwatched. I have to see it immediately, which usually means I'm awake until half past one on a weekday morning. Which is no bad thing. This cross between a game show and a Hollywood blockbuster is always entertaining and at its best, it's the closest that television gets to being a rollercoaster.

Vs Arashi is all bright colours and knockabout fun, and very easy to follow, no matter what your level of Japanese. Family Outing is a glorious example of how a TV show can build a relationship with the viewer. And Game Center CX remains a lot of fun to watch, as Arino struggles through various retro video games. And it's still a perfect analogy of my life – middle-aged man fights battles he should've left behind when he was young.

Best game show: Running Man

Best album
Bump of Chicken "Cosmonaut"
SpecialThanks "Seven Lovers"
Dear Cloud "The Bright Lights"
Organic Stereo "The Moments Linger"
Kokia "moment"

For the second year in a row, my favourite album from Japan is my favourite album full stop. Bump of Chicken's “Cosmonaut” continues their impeccable track record. Perhaps not as immediate as “Orbital Period”, but still a great album which has never been away from my mp3 player for long. At the time of writing, it's also the last time I bought an actual CD.

SpecialThanks are all youthful energy, crashing guitars, female vocals and catchy punkish tunes. It's very hard to find anything wrong with that. Korean music makes an appearance with Dear Cloud offering bright vocals and big choruses that would fill a stadium, if only they had the chance. Organic Stereo's album was a little bit ambient and a little bit pop, with a series of dreamy instrumentals, each one of which sounded like the soundtrack to a happy ending. Lastly, Kokia's album “moment” was a folk-tinged collection of ballads with lush production values and some achingly melancholy harmonies.

Best album: Bump of Chicken "Cosmonaut"

Safe pair of hands award

This award is for people who consistently choose good shows to appear in

Yoo Jae Suk (Running Man, Family Outing)
Nakatani Miki (Memories of Matsuko, Jin, Jin 2, Densha Otoko, Keizoku)
Keisuke Koide (Parade, Jin, Jin 2, Surely Someday)
Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure, Moteki, Sawako Decides, Kakera, Villain, Soredemo Ikite Yuku)

I was a bit late in discovering Mitsushima Hikari. I checked her filmography and I saw that she was in Death Note and Shaolin Girl, but I can't say I noticed her in either. But this year I caught up with her recent film work and, by God, she's got good taste. From her minor role in Villain as the obnoxious murder victim to her central role in Love Exposure, it seems she can do no wrong.

She beats some strong opposition: Yoo Jae Suk is a brilliant presenter who's kept me entertained through some tough times this year. Nakatani Miki holds a special place in my heart for her roles in Matsuko and Keizoku. And Keisuke Koide showed me how wasted he was in Nodame Cantabile with some great performances.

Safe pair of hands: Mitsushima Hikari

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Mitani Kouki 50th Anniversary Special: Welcome Back, Mr McDonald

Or Rajio no Jikan to give it its Japanese name.

This film from 1997 is the earliest work from Mitani Kouki that I’ve seen, but his style is clearly already fully formed. Set in a radio station performing a live drama by a new writer, it follows the series of events caused by one of the actresses insisting that her character’s name is changed. After this, everyone wants their ideas to be included in the show. The writer tries to please everyone and the radio play soon turns into something quite different.

The pacing reminded me of the old screwball comedies from the 1930s, and the setting (a live drama on the radio) adds to the slightly old-fashioned feel. But the stereotypes of pompous actors, producers who only want to keep the sponsors happy and apathetic technicians are timeless so, in that sense at least, it is still relevant.

But at its heart, this is all about the absurdity of performing and writing: how the idealistic writer has to endlessly compromise. Its a funny and charming diversion, and well worth your time if you happen to come across it.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Just finished: Perfect Report

 Well, don't I feel foolish for suggesting people watch this.

* spoilers *

After several entertaining episodes of journalistic investigation, this show suddenly slams on the brakes and dawdles to a conclusion. After episode seven, the pace of the show and the constant banter and jokes are replaced by flashbacks, people reflecting on their actions, a noble team spirit born from adversity, and remarkable lack of any real stories to investigate. For example, the mysterious suicide of a potential informer just turns out to be a misunderstanding. He wasn't killed by malevolent forces – he just slipped while enjoying the view from the top of a building.

No, I'm not joking.

In the void left by the absence of any investigations, we're left with one scene after another in which the characters look dignified or learn something valuable about themselves. Violins and pianos fill the soundtrack to hammer home how emotional it is, and while all this is happening, nothing actually happens.

The boss, Aoyama-san spends most of the last three episodes talking in a whisper. This is supposed to demonstrate how upset she is about the recent turn of events but it got a bit tedious towards the end.

This series had a promising beginning and while the members of the team disliked each other, it was an entertaining show. But that's the thing about drama: sad people are more interesting than happy people, and once the team became friends, the show lost its main strength.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Currently watching: Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de

Perhaps the main thing I noticed about the first two episodes of this series was how glad I was to see that the cast of Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro are still getting work. Kinami Haruka is the murder victim in episode one, while Muro Tsuyoshi is a suspect in the second.

That aside, this series is a murder mystery show with a rather unlikely premise. Kitagawa Keiko plays a rookie detective who also happens to be an heiress to a huge fortune. Her boss is an incompetent, vain buffoon (played by Shiina Kippei), so she relies on help from her butler to solve the cases.

At only two episodes, I can’t really tell how well written the mysteries are. The conclusions to both episodes have been a surprise, but I can’t tell if that’s due to the clues being cleverly hidden, or if it’s because the ending is so unlikely I never even considered it.

But it’s not really about the murders. This is a comedy and most of the humour comes from Keiko’s boss’s inflated self-opinion and from Keiko’s ineptitude. Meanwhile the butler (played by Arashi’s Sakurai Sho) is calm and collected, as he guides his employer to the solution. I feel a bit sorry of Sakurai Sho who has to stand almost perfectly still while Kitagawa Keiko takes up the rest of the screen but then the tables are turned when she’s the newbie detective and she has to play second fiddle to Shiina Kippei’s larger-than-life character.

This is a lot of fun, but I found I had a strange reaction to the show: The moment the murderer is revealed, I lost interest. Instantly. As each story closed with a scene or two about how sad it is that someone died, I was sighing heavily and looking around the room for something to distract me. Odd, that.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Mitani Kouki 50th Anniversary Special: Ai Kotoba wa Yuki

This plot for this series from 2000 bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot for his 2008 film The Magic Hour. In both, an out-of-work actor is persuaded to be something he isn't as part of some elaborate hoax. The main difference is that in The Magic Hour, the actor believes he's making a film, while in Ai Kotoba wa Yuki the actor is fully aware of his deceit.

It involves a village trying to stop a big multinational firm from ruining its countryside. But they cannot afford to get a decent lawyer. So one of them goes to Tokyo to find one who'll do it on the cheap. Unable to find that, he convinces an actor to come back to the village and tell everyone it's impossible to win such a case. But instead the actor gets carried away and instead insists they can win and he can help them!

After that, the story mostly involves trying to keep everyone in the dark while trying to find a dignified way out of the mess. It's funny and occasionally quite touching. It's remarkable that an eleven-part series which only has one storyline doesn't seem too long nor does it run out of ideas. Mitani Kouki does an excellent job of coming up with problems and solutions which don't stretch the viewer's suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point.