Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Avoid: Tamatama

After seeing Aoi Yu in episode one of Shokuzai and remembering how great she is, I felt like filling in a few of the gaps in my knowledge of her filmography. But I certainly make a poor choice with this film.

At fifty minutes long, it's the directorial debut of Komatsu Mayumi whose previous work was in commercials and music videos. And if you can image the kind of poor characterisation and weak storytelling that you get in a commercial, but stretched out to almost an hour, then you've got some idea about how bad this film is.

The film is set in Ireland. A sort fantasy version of Ireland where people seem baffled by foreigners or spend their days sitting in fields. And even if you ignore this bizarre version of Ireland, the film's attempts at whimsy or charm just fall flat. There is one bit, where a boy is describing some pebbles he's found that resemble other natural things – that bit is quite nice. But that's about it.

Considering how quickly the scene changes, the film drags. The acting is stiff and unconvincing, and the script doesn't ask Aoi Yu to do anything much except look a bit confused. And to be honest, I couldn't make it to the end. Even at just fifty minutes, this film is a real struggle to get through.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Currently watching: Lucky Seven

This series is based around a private detective company that hires one of the people it was previously investigating, impressed by his ability to find out who was investigating him. He joins, even though one of the other detectives doesn't like him. And so begins a difficult relationship between two detectives as they solve various cases.

This does not sound like a very original idea but so far this show has been much better than I was expecting. For a start, they don't actually have to solve the cases. They follow their client's instructions, and then they do a little bit more but then hand it over to the police. This is, at least, realistic and it keeps the story focused on the exciting undercover work. There's not much of that tedious explaining of who did what to who and why.

The directing style is very nice, fast-paced but not too showy. Plus, there are some pretty impressive fight scenes. Nothing like Ong Bak, but certainly the best I've seen in a J-drama, and definitely to a standard that any western TV series can only dream of.

And if that wasn't enough, it has Naka Riisa and Tanihara Shosuke in it, and they've always had decent taste in dramas before so perhaps my early optimism will be rewarded.

But most of all, it has Eita in it. You couldn't ask for a more different role than Soredemo Ikite Yuku, but he seems just as perfect for this role too. This time he has a physical presence that demands your attention. The way he runs, sits down, or looks round a concrete pillar is all in character and everything draws you towards him. His co-star, Matsumoto Jun, is in danger of being acted off the screen, but saves himself with a cocky, assured performance.

There are still things that can go wrong, of course. The whole premise is weak: detectives who don't get on. There's a danger that they'll grow to respect and like each other, and so some of the spark will go. But before that happens, sit back and enjoy the look of the show, the fight scenes, and the performances.

Currently watching: Nazotoki Battle TORE!

In the wake of the earthquake in March of 2011, every variety show went off the air and they were slowly brought back as and when TV channels thought it appropriate. But Dasshutsu Game DERO! never came back. Perhaps they thought that escaping from peril in a grey industrial setting was too similar to the nuclear incident at Fukushima.

A few months ago this show arrived to take its place. The format is exactly the same – a bunch of celebrities try and solve puzzles to avoid some pretend danger. Only now it has an Egyptian/Aztec feel to it and contestants have to avoid walls that either try to squash you, or push you into a pit. And instead of scary, cold, concrete grey walls and floors, the show now has a more natural look, mostly browns and earth-tones.

The games are a mix of general knowledge and physical exertion, so it's fairly easy to follow. At least, the aim of each game is pretty obvious even if you don't understand Japanese. I'm glad this format didn't vanish completely and that the time away has given the producers the chance to come up with some more games, since DERO! was starting to get a bit stale and predictable. And the new look means it's now a more light-hearted affair, even if I do worry that someone will do themselves an injury on that tilting floor thing.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Just finished: Youkai Ningen Bem

Japanese dramas are usually quite low budget and unimaginatively shot, but throughout this series the director showed some nice touches with scenes framed by dramatic skies and a lovely bit where two people are walking and talking and just as their conversation becomes more positive, they emerge out of a shadow and into sunlight.

So I wonder how he felt when he saw how much talking there was in the last episode. There's only so much you can do, stylistically, with people in a room chatting. About halfway through the last episode, there are a few scenes in other places, but before too long, they're back at the same dusty old room.

I did a bit of research and discovered this story was first adapted for television in the late 1960s. This could explain the long-winded final episode where people chat endlessly but, then again, Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de also suffered from the same fate.

The moral of the story is that people often do not appreciate what they have. And it's true: I did not appreciate the final episode of this show. I mean, I appreciate the hard work of the producers and fansubbers, and I'm still amazed by the technology that allows me to watch dramas from the other side of the world like this, but this show did not need a whole episode for such a lengthy, wordy conclusion.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Currently watching: Shokuzai

Now, this is why I watch Japanese dramas. After a run of nice but unremarkable detective shows and historical dramas, it's been a while since anything's really made me sit up and take notice. The publicity for this drama certainly caught my eye with its high quality cast and interiguing storyline. And at least the first episode has justified the hype. Thank God someone subbed it. I did try watching without subs, but halfway in I gave up. This isn't the kind of show you can watch and it's okay if you just get the gist. It's too subtle for that.

The story is about four women who witness a murder of a classmate when they were children, but are unable to remember the murderer's face and so he is never brought to justice. The mother of the victim has promised revenge for this.

Episode one follows one of the women in the present day. She is now a nurse, but still lives under the shadow of the event fifteen years ago. She has difficulty relating to people and when she meets a man who seems to understand her, and he asks her to marry him, she agrees.

Whatever marital bliss she was expecting is short-lived, as things start to go wrong in a most unexpected way. And it all seems to be linked to the murder. But how much influence the victim's mother has is never made clear. Is she deliberately setting things up to fail, or has she just sown the seed of mistrust in the woman's head and waits for it to take its course?

The show looks very nice. It's directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who also made the film Tokyo Sonata, and the two have a very silimar feel. Very thoughtful composition, and very cleanly shot. The acting’s great and the story walks the fine line between unreal and unrealistic, never becoming so odd that it just seems absurd.

It’s still early days, but so far, so perfect.

Just finished: Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de

Just watched the last episode and, well, that’s a lot of talking. On the bright side, there’ll be no spoilers in this review, because it would take at least two whole paragraphs to explain the twisty turny solution to the final murder.

In the last episode, the writers give us a lengthy solution to the two murders from the previous episode. There’s a little bit of comedy and investigation, but mostly it concerns endless flashbacks and explanations to every tiny detail. The trouble is, it was far too complicated for such a simple murder.

That was also a problem with episode eight, in which the murderer is revealed halfway through and the rest of the episode was just talking. It was as if the makers of the programme just thought that as long as Kitagawa Keiko and Sakurai Sho were onscreen then that was enough. It didn’t seem to matter that they weren’t saying anything useful.

I enjoyed this show, the comedy was funny and some of the crimes were interesting. But the programme often got the timing wrong on when to change from investigating to explaining, so that there was too much time spent with people sitting in one room discussing the crime.

It ends with the hint of a second series. I’ll be watching it when it comes out, and hoping that they get the mix of words and action right.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Currently watching: Dirty Mama

Considering how few Japanese dramas get picked up by English-speaking markets, I suppose they can get away with a title like this, but anyway...

If you really enjoy stories about a jaded detective who doesn't get on with their naive idealistic newbie partner, and you don't live in Japan, you may want to consider moving. This is another drama based along those lines, and I really wasn't going to watch it if it weren't for two things. One, the subs seemed to come out quite quickly and that caught my eye. Two, it stars Nagazaku Hiromi who I remember as being the only good thing in the otherwise godawful Cast Me If You Can.

As it turns out, I found that I really enjoyed this. At first it's very generic sensible cop/rebel cop stuff, but about halfway through I decided I really liked the lead character. Hiromi was great in her role as the bad cop: pretty enough that you can see how she charms people when she wants, but old enough that when she acts rudely she doesn't look like a grumpy teenager. Karina, meanwhile, is relegated to the role of the sensible one, and she does okay.

But to be honest, after Perfect Report I'm a little worried about saying how great a series is after only one episode. But, I will say this: About half an hour after I saw Dirty Mama I was wondering what to watch and I seriously considered watching it again. Now that's got to be a good sign.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Recommended: Rashomon

If reputation is anything to go by, saying that a Kurosawa film is recommended is a bit redundant. It's like saying that fire is hot or mountains are big. But reputation or not, it was only when the Special Edition DVD came down in price to six pounds that I considered buying it.

Despite me following Japanese culture for some years, this is actually my first Kurosawa film. He's always been one of those directors who is so universally praised, it actually puts you off watching his films. And here I am, adding to that problem.

The story of Rashomon concerns a murder, and the witness statements of all the people involved. Each recollection of events contradicts the others, and each time the witness describes themselves in the best possible way. It's interesting to see how events change from one moment to the next.

It looks great. Despite only having two locations, the ruined gate at the start of the film is an impressive sight. The acting is very staged, and the booklet that came with the DVD draws parallels to the acting style of silent movies, which makes sense.

Reading too much about this film beforehand could ruin it. It was revolutionary for its time, but this film has influenced so many later works that its impact is going to be diminished. But there's still enough to make this worth watching.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Just finished: Himitsu Chouhouin Erika

* spoilers, I suppose, although you should be able to guess how it ends long before you've seen the last episode *

This not-very-serious spy drama came to a predictable end after thirteen episodes, including all the usual clichés such as sudden betrayal by a colleague, protecting the family, and not dying when shot.

Chiaki Kuriyama is endlessly watchable as the spy-turned housewife-turned spy again, but nobody else really made an impact. Her boss(es) were fairly drab and emotionless and the IT whizzkid in the office helped when needed, and then was conveniently absent/useless when Erika was in serious trouble.

The only thing to keep a viewer watching were te stories and, for the most part, they were okay. Thanks to being only half an hour, they were fast moving and compact. The director was certainly trying hard to make the show look slick and mysterious, but I suspect they spent all the budget on choreographing the fight scenes.

Pleasant, but undemanding.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Just finished: Watashi ga Renai Dekinai Riyuu

When we first met the three main characters of this series, they were all single and moving into a shared house. As the end, they're all still sort of single, and are moving out of a shared house. But at least they had hope for the future, which they didn't have before. One was just about to enter into a relationship with a single father, and another had finally told the man she loves how she felt about him and discovered that he feels the same way about her. The third one got a job. Not so romantic, but she seemed happy.

However, there was a passiveness to the story that I didn't much care for. Yuko's character, the virgin, just went from one relationship at work to another and then to another. Karina's character, the tomboy, had two opportunities to further her career but didn't take either. She also let her newly acquired boyfriend go to America for work, while she preferred to stay behind.

Finally, Yuriko's character, the hostess, was never going to get a happy ending since she was having an affair with a married man. But at the end, she seemed pleased that she fell in love at all. None of the three women really got what they wanted, but they all ended up satisfied with what they got. Maybe that's realistic – what you want and what you need are two different things – but it was a little dull as a story. They let things happen to them, rather than making things happen.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Currently watching: Doctors Saikyou no Meii

I’m not a big fan of medical dramas. Hospitals are, by their very nature, dramatic places with lives being saved and lost while people struggle with their personal lives. To set a drama there almost seems too easy. The characters in these things are usually quite predictable, with the career-minded doctor, the naive newcomer and the well-meaning but otherwise anonymous nurse.

All of these are present and correct in Doctors, so I wasn’t going to bother with it but this guy kept saying how good it was, so I had to give it a try.

Perhaps the biggest difference to the usual medical drama is that the newcomer isn’t naive, but is already an expert surgeon. And an expert manipulator. For the first few episodes, he engineers arguments with his colleagues which in turn makes them do their job better and thus they learn a valuable lesson. If you think that such moralising can only be a turn-off, it is saved by the clever way the situations are set up, and by some winning performances.

The lead (played by Sawamura Ikki) is charming enough to make you believe that he’s able to get these people to do what he wants, but at the same time he has an coldness to him which makes him quite fascinating. His arch-rival in the show (played by Takashima Masanobu) is childish and played for chuckles and doesn’t seem to be much of a threat, yet it’s worth watching the show just for his reactions to the events as he slowly sees his influence slipping away.

A highly enjoyable show so far.