Sunday, 30 January 2011

Recommended: Furuhata Ninzaburo

This detective series ran from 1994 to 2006 (albeit with a seven year gap between the third series and the last) and got high ratings throughout its run. It was written by the playwright Mitani Koki, who I’ve written about before regarding the University of Laughs and The Uchoten Hotel, and it maintains the high standards he set in those two films.

It stars Tamura Masakazu as the detective in the title role, and his performance expertly compliments the cleverly written scripts. Each episode begins with the crime being committed, so the viewer already knows the murderer by the time Furuhata arrives on the scene. From what I’ve seen, this is a smart and engaging show in which the excitement is not “who did it? ” rather “how will he work out who did it?”

It’s a shame that it’s so hard to find subbed episodes. [Big edit - subs for series one are on d-additcs.]

On the show’s Wikipedia page is a link to Columbo, and there are similarities between the two. I’d even say, if you don’t like Columbo, you probably won’t like this. But if you’re like me and find the process of deduction just as interesting whether you know the answer or not, this is unmissable.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Currently watching: Control - Hanzai Shinri Sousa

If you watch this and you experience a feeling of deja vu, you’re not alone. This is another cop show in which an eccentric genius and a cop join forces to solve baffling crimes. This time the genius is an expert in behavioural psychology, so he can tell people’s thoughts and feelings just by how they act. Pretty convenient, when you’re looking for a murderer.

It’s a sort of Galileo-lite. While Galileo had ingeneous solutions based on hard science, the first two episodes of Control have relied too much on the right person giving away the right clue at the right time.

The characters are fine, the murders are fairly interesting, and the acting and production standards are pretty good. In short, it’s a very average show. Not bad, but nothing outstanding. It's getting high ratings, so they must be doing something right. I can imagine some people finding this entertaining, but only if they’ve never seen Galileo.

Or Mr Brain. Or Trick. Or Puzzle. Or Keizoku.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Currently watching: Gou

I’ve never watched a Taiga drama before – a long, historical epic that lasts most of the year. But there aren't many new series that interest me at the moment, plus the presence of Ueno Juri has persuaded me to give it a go.

Previously, I’ve only taken a passing interest in Japanese history, so I was aware that as I watched it I felt a bit like a tourist. In those moments when the storyline rests and the director allows the camera to pan slowly across the landscape and costumes, it’s a bit like looking at a museum piece. I felt like I should have a leaflet with me, so I could pause the show, read it and think “Oh, that’s what that thing is.”

Using the same adult actors to play the (much) younger versions of themselves was an interesting choice, and for most of the time it works okay. It requires a bit of suspension of disbelief – especially since they make extremely tall children – but it could work in the long run. I think it’ll be easier to empathise with a character if they’re played by one actor, rather than two or three.


Also, it’s beautifully shot and it looks great. The acting is good too. In fact, the standards are high throughout as you’d expect from a taiga drama that’s expected to keep high ratings all year and bring in money through international sales.

Given that we’re only two episodes into a 48-episode marathon, trying to guess how the storyline will progress is impossible. But so far, so good.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Currently watching: Keizoku 2: SPEC

You know, if I had to recommend a Japanese drama series for the beginner, this would definitely be one I’d consider. It’s got all the usual clichés, so that once you’ve watched this show, you’ve seen at least four others. And I mean that in a good way.

Distant male lead? Check. Eccentric genius? Check. Teenage villain? Check. Comedy violence? Check. Forgotten department of the police where officers do their duty despite the indifference of their bosses? Check. And the list goes on.

Luckily, Keizoku 2 throws them all together with quite a lot of style and wit. Toda Erika, as the slobbish Toma Saya, steals every scene she’s in, and Sebumi Takeru (played by Kase Ryo) is slowly coming out of his shell such that there’s a chance that the two may grow to like each other.

Now that we’re up to episode five, the story has long since dropped the original Keizoku’s rational explanations for irrational crimes. It seems to start from the idea that the existence of psychic phenomena is genuine, and then work from there. Episode five also ends on a bit of a sad note, and seems to be setting up the story for the rest of the season. I’m enjoying it so far, but I must admit I don’t have much hope for a good ending. Once you have magic powers in a story, almost anything – any twist or coincidence – is possible.

Maybe the list of clichés isn’t finished yet... Previously unknown alliance between opposing characters? Sudden realisation that character X has the same powers they’re trying to defeat? We shall see.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Recommended: Running Man

Especially from episode seven onwards.

I know that I only wrote about this a few days ago, but things have changed since then. To be exact: I saw episode seven. If episode one was clunky and unsure, and the following shows were entertaining and fun, in episode seven they suddenly pushed the accelerator down to the floor and hit top speed. It’s more exciting than most Hollywood action movies! I tell you: I had to stop watching halfway through to go for a bit of a walk, because I was getting too carried away.

It’s helped by the addition of CNBlue’s Jung Yong Hwa for that episode. I’ve always liked him in We Got Married, and now I know he’s not just good with the ladies – he’s also pretty useful in a large public space when looking for tiny clues. The new rule of the hunting team having to wear bells so the hunted can hear them coming adds to the tension. As if they’d adapted a survival horror videogame for a family show.

The finale of the Running Man section for ep07 has to be seen to be believed. If I was cynical, I might say it was scripted, but given that no other episode (before or since) has ended on such a twist, I’m guessing not. Also, if it was scripted, it was written by someone who’d make Speilberg jealous.

Since episode 7, something changed. Perhaps it's because of my unashamed (and ever increasing) crush on Song Ji Hyo, or because of the very funny host Yu Jae Suk, or a growing fondness for the other regulars. Whatever the reason, this has got me addicted. I’ve watched several episodes per day since then and the only bad thing is that soon I’ll run out of old episodes and I’ll have to wait for one a week, just like everybody else. That’s going to be Hell.

Seriously, go to iSubs, hit “download and streaming” at the top of the screen (you'll need to register first), go to episode seven, and download it. If you want to get straight to the action, go to 25:25, but actually the first games are pretty funny too. Either way, there are no losers in this game. This is all gold.

[Edit, 19/1/11] I've got to cut down on watching this - it's starting to effect my mind. I just went to the supermarket for some food. I picked a couple of packets off the shelves, and then I quickly moved the other packets to one side so I could see if there was anything behind it! What was I expecting? A Running Man ball?

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Just watched: 61st NHK Kouhaken Utagassen

Over the Christmas and New Year, I took the time to look at some of the end-of-year music specials from Japan. I finally got to see one of the first things I ever read about Japanese pop culture, the Kouhaken Utagassen. This show has been going for decades, and while it’s a long way down from the glory days of 70%+ ratings, it’s still a big deal and the production values and staging were gloriously over-the-top throughout.

There’s a mix of the old and the new, so I didn’t know about half the acts, and it ranged from earnest Enka ballads to pop songs that were so sickly sweet I wanted to brush my teeth after I’d heard them. It’s also a way to catch up on all of the big names from the past year that I missed. I finally got to hear “Toire no Kamisama” by Uemura Kana. I wouldn’t be surprised if this song fills the same role in Japan that Don McLean’s “American Pie” does in the west: a nostalgic, folky epic which everybody can sing along to when drunk enough.

Also, this was the first time I’ve given AKB48 any real attention, and I discovered that one of them was the manager in the drama Reinoryokusha Odagiri Kyoko no Uso, which I didn’t know. I found that watching AKB48 was a bit like standing too close to a combine harvester: There’s a lot of movement and noise and you daren’t look away. You can’t deny they all put in a lot of effort, and there’s a few good choruses in there, but it’s not really my thing.

I didn’t watch it all, I admit. Five hours is a lot, no matter how you split it up, and some of the songs left me cold so I skipped from act to act. The bit where SMAP wobbled through their slightly off-key dad-pop was, apparently, the ratings high point of the evening, but for me the best part was Kuwata Keisuke's first song which was just him under a spotlight with a guitar. This kind of low-key performance couldn't last, though, and soon he started dancing around with some pretty ladies, but for a while he was the closest thing that this show got to being cool.

Just finished: Ogon no Buta

I don't think I'm giving away too many spoilers when I tell you that this series ends with bad guys punished, good guys happy, uplifting music in the background and a sense of justice fulfilled.

The storyline of fraud in public institutions had been getting larger and larger for some time and so it was no real shock that the Prime Minister was involved in the last illegal act. Meanwhile, our team of crime-busting auditors had been double-crossed, disbanded and put in personal danger before deciding some things were too important to ignore and that they weren't going to give up.

The dialogue in episode nine often seemed like it was taken from chapter headings from a self-help book, and the action didn't really get going. There was a distinct lack of tension in the air towards the end, and the series as a whole never seemed to fit together.

However, halfway through the last episode, it spoke about a network of tunnels under Tokyo. Now, I’m a sucker for hidden cities and things like that so I decided to check to see if it was true. I found a story from the Japan Times, which seemed to indicate that it was, even if the journalist has some pretty odd ideas about things – for example, that there’s some meaning to the depths of certain stations on the London Underground.

There’s more on the subject here.

I'm not convinced it's actually true, but it's a nice idea...

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Currently watching: Running Man

This is a Korean game show which I’d often seen on the rdrsubs page (whenever someone from SNSD appears on it) and I recently got round to watching it. In this show a number of challenges are set up around a particular location for two teams of celebrities to compete against. There’s no cash prize at the end, no ultimate championship to win, just a series of silly competitions for the sheer joy of it.

For any newcomer, though, it starts slowly as each episode introduces that week’s regulars and guests. Until you know who’s who and what they’ve done in previous weeks, this bit can drag. But once the games begin, there’s no stopping it. One thing you can say about this show – the title is spot on. Challenges are mostly concerned with finding things hidden somewhere in the building, or a game where the teams must compete against each other.

Apart from the physical nature of the games, some of the banter is pretty funny too. Thankfully it’s subbed by a number of different groups (mostly iSubs) so no fluency is required. It’s energetic and frantic and a lot of fun. After watching this, next time you find yourself in a large public building, don’t be surprised if you start thinking about good places to hide a small golden pig or metal globe.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Currently watching: Ainori 2

I don’t remember hearing about the first series of this reality show, but if I did, I think I would’ve been put off by its 400+ number of episodes. Luckily, the new series started on Christmas Day, so I was able to catch up on the two episodes subbed so far, and then I used Wikipedia to read about the idea behind the show.

In this programme, four men and three women travel around a foreign country on a bus. They’ve all come on the show to find love, and it offers plenty of dating opportunities. With an imbalance in the number of men to women, there’s always someone left out, which adds to the competitive aspect. Once you feel confident enough, you can declare your love and if they agree, the two of you return home to Japan together. If not, you go home alone, and somebody new comes along.

This series starts in Bangladesh and as a travelogue it works surprisingly well. I’ve already seen a couple of things about the country that interested me. In particular, the crowds that quickly built up wherever they start filming. As a piece of entertainment, I can imagine me becoming quite addicted to this, and I’m already sort of hoping that one couple will get together. But I do find the voice over a bit distracting. He’s not annoying, but on a couple of occasions he’s talked about somebody facing a cruel twist of fate... and then nothing happens. Never mind all the flirting between the couples: he's probably the biggest tease on the show.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Just watched: The Seaside Motel

This film from 2010 follows the events of people staying in four rooms at the Seaside Motel (which is actually in the mountains) during one evening. The main stories involve a salesman who falls in love with a call girl who comes to his room by mistake, and two hoodlums interrogating someone who owes the yakuza money. There are other stories which aren’t so important except how they interact with these two, and they do so in some unlikely ways.

As a comedy, it’s mostly quite understated. Ikuta Toma and Aso Kumiko are impressive as salesman and prostitute respectively, and they have a great on-screen chemistry as the two of them try to work out if the other person is being genuine.

Other storylines have quite a different tone. For example, the scene with the guy in debt to the yakuza is played out like a typical gangster movie – the room is darker, with a lot of close-ups of sweaty, tense faces, as they await the arrival of the torturer (played by Nukumizu Youichi in a nice change to his usual roles) to finish off the interrogation.

In the end, I found myself wishing that the story had focused more on Toma and Kumiko. Although the other storylines were interesting and they way they crossed over each other was cleverly done, the real story was between these two. As such, it was an entertaining film and it was nicely shot and acted, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Just finished: Ikebukuro West Gate Park

Continuing on my investigation of collaborations between the writer Kudo Kankuro and the actor Tomoya Nagase. This one dates from 2000 and tells the story of one guy, Makoto, who hangs around Ikebukuro West Gate Park in Tokyo, spending his days on the streets halfway between the gangs and the police.

After Tiger & Dragon and Unubore Deka, this has fewer laugh out loud moments, but a more compelling storyline as a series of murders in episode one sets off a series of events leading to the final episode. The drama has a feel quite different to most J-dramas, with quite a distinctive directing style, sometimes even being shot like a music video.

Morishita Aiko (another regular in Kudo Kankuro’s dramas) plays Makoto’s mother and supplies a lot of comedy, as does Abe Sadao (also in Tiger & Dragon) as a hapless policeman. Menace comes in the unlikely form of a laid back Kubozuka Yosuke as the leader of the local gang who never seems to take anyone seriously. Until he starts punching them. Meanwhile, police detective Yokoyama (Watanabe Ken) remains hard to predict throughout the show.

The gang warfare is fairly cartoonish and while there are some unpleasant stories, it’s never particularly upsetting. But you have to admire it for facing those issues in the first place. It’s also quite useful for learning terms of abuse. You know, just in case you go to Japan and need to yell at someone.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Just watched: The Uchoten Hotel

It’s the first of January, and I’m writing about a film set in a hotel on New Year’s Eve. It’s almost as if I planned it! I didn’t, of course: I’m not that organised. But when I sat down yesterday evening to watch this, you can imagine how pleased I was to see that the date in the film matched the date on the calendar.

This film, also known as Suite Dreams, is a comedy from 2006 about the various misadventures of a group of guests in a high class hotel as the staff prepare for the end of year celebrations. It’s directed by Mitani Kouki and stars Koji Yakusho (who previously worked together on the excellent University of Laughs) and is an homage of sorts to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. The comedy is kept light and sophisticated, and the stories intertwine very neatly. Most of the first ninety minutes is spent making everything go wrong, while the last half an hour is spent putting everything right. Well, most things.

 The cast is full of well-known faces. I won’t list them all because half the fun is spotting them, but noble mentions go to Shinohara Ryoko as a call girl, and Takako Matsu as a maid who gets mistaken for the mistress of a rich man by his son. There are plenty of cameos to enjoy, and it looks like everyone is having a lot of fun making it.

It’s a perfect holiday film, and if you can find it then watch it quick, because it’ll be a whole year before you can see it without thinking “I wish it actually was New Year’s Eve.”