Saturday, 28 May 2011

Currently watching: Korean indie bands on Youtube

When I was a student, I’d read Melody Maker looking for any new unknown bands I might like and I’d look through the CD singles on sale at the local record shop for any b-sides that seemed like they might be a lost great song. It was a hit and miss affair, but when I did find a forgotten piece of musical joy it was all worth it.

With the internet, of course, finding obscure songs has never been easier and recently I’ve been wandering through youtube, clicking on the suggestions at the side of the screen, and I’ve found a few channels that have videos of Korean indie bands playing live/acoustic versions of their songs. They have the right mix of lo-fi charm and good production standards, and Indie 2 Go’s videos in particular are very nicely shot (screengrabs for this post come from their videos for Mystery Curtain and Soran).

The other two channels I keep an eye on are Dark Tranquillity and cppark’s. Obviously there’s going to be some dross among the decent stuff, but that’s music for you. I admit it’s nice to watch a video that’s only had a few hundred hits but you can still be confident it’ll be well-made and worth watching. It feels a bit exclusive. I’ve already discovered Raspberry Field and Haein Yoo as well as the two acts I mentioned before, and I get the feeling there’s more to come.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Just watched: Surely Someday

Oguri Shun’s 2010 directorial début is a interesting example of how to mix comedy with organised crime without lessening the impact of either. The storyline is that five schoolboys threaten to blow up a schoolroom (or two) unless the school changes its decision about not holding a cultural event that year. The school agrees, but they are unable to stop the bomb from going off.


Three years later, a chance occurrence throws four of the five back together as they find themselves caught up in a mystery of disappearing people, yakuza bosses, and 300 million yen - all of which had something to do with a woman in a magazine ten years ago. The story could be a shocking mess, but it’s to the writer’s credit that it makes sense. Oguri Shun makes sure that the three time periods (now, three years ago, and ten years ago) can be recognised quickly, and the acting is great.

Koide Keisuke takes the lead role with confidence. By chance, I’ve been watching a lot of his stuff recently and he’s pretty good. It makes me wonder what he was thinking when he took his role in Nodame Cantabile, but I guess it made him some money. Also worth mentioning is Konishi Manami. She’s perfect in this film as the woman at the heart of the mystery. But then, she’s always at her best when she’s playing the role of the intelligent, beautiful, but unattainable femme fatale.

The film succeeds because when it’s trying to be funny, it’s funny and when it wants to be threatening, it is. It’s also shot in a very unpretentious style, often making good use of boring locations. In all, this is a cleverly written and well-made film which is harder than your average comedy (or softer than the usual yakuza film) but is no worse for that.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Recommended: Shinzanmono: Akai Yubi

Since a new film based on this popular detective series has been announced, I thought I'd write about the first film special that followed the original TV series.

The cast remains the same from the TV show, and they’re all accomplished in their acting. As they should be, having played the same characters before. And perhaps that’s this film’s strength. Everyone is so comfortable in their roles that the story can flourish without any backstory or introductions. This may be a bit off-putting for anyone who’s not seen the TV series, and the relationship between the two detectives (the younger officer who outranks his older, smarter cousin) may be a bit confusing, but it’s a minor distraction.

This film is perhaps what the ten-part TV series should have been. With just two hours to tell the story instead of ten hours, the film has a much tighter storyline with few distractions from the central crime. There are no side stories about other suspects, just a much clearer detective story with the added advantage of Abe Hiroshi’s charm and dry humour. With this in mind, I'm looking forward to the new film much more than I would a new series.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Looking forward

A quick note about forthcoming j-dramas that have caught my eye.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the announcement of a second series of Zettai Reido. I don’t remember hearing that the first series got great ratings, and I found it quite a slow, pedestrian police drama. Still, I’ll watch this new series to see where they take the idea next.

Most interesing drama is from the channel WOWOW, who offer up Ningen Konchuki. The mix of ARATA as a lead actor, the midnight time-slot and WOWOW’s previous good record with dramas means I’m definitely anticipating something special. The synopsis tells us it’s about a woman with an ability to effortlessly pretend to be something she’s not, such as an actress, doctor, novelist. An intriguing idea.

Bull Doctor is a series about a pathologist and a detective who don’t get on, but work together to solve crimes. It seems a bit like Voice in that it has a pathologist sloving crimes, and it even has Ishihara Satomi in it. This one could go either way. Ishihara Satomi may have been in some good stuff over the years (Voice, Puzzle, Reinonryoshuka...) but she’s also starred in some real clunkers (Tobo Bengoshi, Hidarime Tantei EYE). Nevertheless, it’s definitely on my list of things to watch.

Lastly is a drama I’m looking forward to mostly due to the cast. Eita and Mitsushima Hikari star in Soredemo, Ikete Yuku. I don’t know much about the storyline at the moment, apart from it involves a death in the family some years ago and a chance meeting brings up the old memories. It’s probably going to be one of those dramas that tries to make you cry in every episode, but with those two actors in the lead roles it should still be worth watching.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Currently watching: Asuko March

Well, I’m enjoying this more than I thought I would. Then again, I didn’t think I’d enjoy this at all, so that’s not saying much. In this series a schoolgirl (played by Takei Emi) fails her entrance exams and has to go to a technical college full of uncouth boys. So this is a typical fish-out-of-water story in which the plucky schoolgirl has to overcome many difficulties before she can be accepted. Mind you, most of these difficulties are caused by her rough, tough classmates being offended at the tiniest things and if they’d stop being so sensitive, life would go a lot smoother. But then it wouldn’t be much of a drama, I suppose.

Takei Emi is fine in the lead role, and since she’s the only female most of the time, she can’t help but draw your attention. The cast of unruly boys are okay, but nothing special in terms of acting. It’s all fairly stereotypical butch posturing, with the occasional quiet bit to make them look emotional. But no one really stands out at the moment.

It’s certainly formulaic. The moral is that bad behaviour stems from troubles in the past or in the family, while hard work is rewarding and offers redemption from your failings. But that message comes across in the first episode, so unless the rest of the series can offer some kind of story to keep me watching, I wonder how long I’m going to follow this show.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Currently watching: Lie To Me

I don’t have much experience with Korean dramas, but am I right in thinking that they often include a wedding/engagement being ruined by someone’s infidelity? Usually at the last minute? This drama starts with such a scene, even though it has nothing do with the rest of the episode. It’s as if the writers handed in the script, and then the producer said “It’s good, but where’s the wedding? Can’t we have a marriage that gets ruined? People love that stuff!” And so the writers just squeezed it in before the actual story begins.

The storyline is: ditzy woman falls in love with sophisticated, rich, powerful man. They’re thrown together in a great big misunderstanding and it’s all “will-they, won’t-they” for the rest of the series. So it’s not the most original storyline, and the show reminds me of My Name Is Kim Sam-Soon, especially with the lead actress Yoon Eun Hye having a similar style of comedy to Kim Sun Ah.

Despite the lack of originality, I’m two episodes into the series and this is a lot of fun. Yoon Eun Hye is pretty funny and has energy to spare, but the male lead (played by Kang Ji Hwan) hasn’t had to do anything so far except look rich and/or annoyed.

The problem is that I don’t think the basic story can last for the whole length of the series. Even My Name Is Kim Sam-Soon ran out of steam after around twelve episodes. So the success of this show probably relies on the sub-plots, which haven’t even started yet. There’s something about an ex-fiancée and a trouble-making brother of the rich family, but nothing definite yet. In the meantime, I’ll watch it for the chuckles and I'll try to ignore the feeling of deja vu.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Currently watching: Jin 2 and Marks no Yama

Oh my goodness! I wasn’t going to write about either of these high-quality dramas until I’d finished watching them, but they’ve both ended episodes on such exciting cliff hangers that I have to say something!

Marks no Yama is a dark, tense police drama in which a series of influential people are being killed one by one, and the only link between them is a university mountaineering club. It’s well written, well acted and steers clear of cliché (apart from the bad guy laughing over the phone as he blackmails his victims). The storyline moves at a slow pace, compared to other Japanese cop shows, but that just shows how detailed and satisfying the writing is. And now, at the end of episode 3... well, I can’t say anything without spoiling it, but I was not expecting that.

Meanwhile, Jin 2 continues on from the previous series – modern doctor is transported back to mid-1800s Japan – and it remains an exciting and cleverly-written show. It looks like the whole question about why he was sent back in time is going to be answered this series. In episode four, the doctor meets a young girl who seems to have an effect on the time-travelling medic. Later he has to operate on her, which has severe consequences for him.

These two shows are quite above anything else recently in terms of quality, and to have them both end on cliff hangers like that... well, it’s almost cruel. How am I supposed to sleep tonight?

Friday, 13 May 2011

Currently watching: Ushi ni Negai wo: Love & Farm

When you’ve been watching Jdramas for a while, you notice quite quickly that the same faces keep cropping up. I mention this because I feel like I’ve reached a bit of a milestone with this drama because it’s the first in which I recognised every single member of the cast. Apart from a couple of people in minor roles, I know everyone who’s in this show, which was quite distracting at first. The cast list boasts Toda Erika (Keizoku 2), Aibu Saki (Rebound), Karina (Parade), Keisuke Koide (also Parade, Nodame Cantabile), Kohinata Fumiyo (Marks no Yama, Ashita no Kita Yoshio) and I could go on.

In this drama from 2007, some students spend three months working on a farm as part of their sutdies (I wonder if I chose it because I miss Family Outing). It is a pretty typical fish-out-of-water story about city types having difficulty with the simple country ways. The regular stereotypes are all represented, including a moody sullen man, a superficial fashionable woman, a couple of perky eager types and... er... a guy who can draw. Not sure what his story is.

It’s not the greatest series, by any means, but what’s interesting about this is not the physical humour as they try to work on the farm, nor is it the clumsy attempt at a family drama. Instead what caught my interest is that there’s a light out in the fields at night. A couple of the students have seen it but no one’s gone to investigate, and it’s this tiny mystery that’s keeping me watching.

Jdramas do that a lot. An average comedy drama will throw in a little hint of something deeper going on, just to keep you watching. It probably won't be anything too exciting, but it's working. I'll keep watching. For now.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Just watched: Departing Osaka Station at 0:00

There’s a train that leaves Osaka station at midnight to an unknown destination. Among the passengers on this train are several people using this trip as a means to escape. Either they're unlucky in love, or suicidal or dissatisfied with their life, the main characters in this film all start their journey pessimistic and bitter. Will they find what they’re looking for at the end of the line?

Of course they do. It’s a stupid question, really. Even early on, this film starts to fall into the usual feel-good clichés. One woman meets a local doctor by chance and takes an instant dislike to him. This inevitably turns into something romantic. And it’s no surprise to see how the simple country life has an effect on the jaded city types.

The film (released in 2006) contains several short stories told at the same time. The basic concept – of a train journey – is a nice way of getting together several people who normally would never meet which means some interesting relationships begin. On the downside, the stories are a bit disjointed, as if each character is taking it in turns to tell their story.

The moral is that life would probably be more fulfilling if you stopped to smell the flowers once in a while. And the director is certainly true to that, as this film glides serenely to its happy conclusion. It’s nice, but unremarkable.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Currently watching: Rebound

Now here’s a weird one. A woman called Obu Nobuko (played by Aibu Saki), who grew up fat, has lost a lot of weight in adulthood and currently works for a fashionable magazine. She writes a bad review for a successful patissier, and then feels guilty when it closes down after a fall in customers. So she helps the chef Imai Taichi (played by Hayami Mokomichi) by tasting his new creations. In the face of all these calories, her body quickly puts on weight again, “rebounding” back to its previous shape.

At least, that’s what happened in episode one. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Nobuko wants to keep her weight-gain a secret, and so far she's done that by people luckily going on business trips or forgetting their glasses. I wonder if her weight is going to veer back and forth from fat to thin every episode and, if so, how long before that starts getting tedious.

On the plus side, it’s nice to see Aibu Saki and Hayami Mokomichi back together again (they were previously in Zettai Kareshi) and Kuriyama Chiaki adds a bit of cynical glamour as Nobuko’s friend. But as I said, how this story will unfold is a mystery to me. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps it’ll be an Ugly Betty-style tale of how appearances aren’t everything, or perhaps the whole show could be just an excuse to talk about dieting while having lots of close-ups of cakes.