Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Still watching: Lucky Seven

Well, this is interesting. A story about two conflicting characters where one of the characters suddenly leaves. I've just watched episode six, and it's been three episodes since Eita's been a central character after he went on the run from the police and then left the company. Of course, the story's been set up so that a return is likely, but while he's away, this show is sorely lacking its central theme.

Not that the show is particularly bad, but the cracks are beginning to show. Matsumoto Jun doesn't have anyone to play against without Eita, and any hope that Naka Riisa might fill that role hasn't been fulfilled. Most of the time, she's carrying around a small dog which kind of limits her involvement.

So, as it stands, we've got a drama in search of a finale. It's as if the series is waiting for Eita to return (and it would be a shame if he didn't) and until that happens, here's some stories to fill the time.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Still watching: Dirty Mama

I was quite surprised when I took such a liking to this show after episode one. However, like a badly mis-judged relationship, now the initial attraction is over, all I can see are the faults.

Nagasaku Hiromi is fine as the unconventional detective (it helps that I think she's very pretty) and, surprisingly, the former Quiz Hexagon regular Kamiji Yusuke is good in his role as the policeman disillusioned by his girlfriend's sudden rise up the ranks.

But apart from that, not much else makes sense as this drama drags from one pointless scene to the next. The methods used by the detective Maruoka Takako are more absurd than unconventional, and there never seems to be any implications. For example, faking a shooting in a public place should have landed her in trouble for the psychological damage done to the people who saw it. In fact, after it's over, the whole set-up isn't even mentioned.

The crimes, too, aren't really given much time. The fact that Takako's son makes a "Da" noise whenever someone lies is too convenient to be believable. Sometimes there are occasional moments where they do some proper detecting, but mostly the crime is solved by getting the suspect to confess by Takako's amusing methods of threatening them.

By now, the viewer knows the relationships between all the characters and the situation they're in, so either that has to develop or the detecting has to be more entertaining. At the moment, the show is just treading water.

Friday, 24 February 2012

I love you: Running Man

Goodness, has it already been a week since I last wrote? Where does the time go?

It's the usual mid-season lull, where I'm waiting to see which dramas I'm watching suddenly fall to pieces, and which make it to the end with a proper story all the way through and a decent ending. So not much to write about at the moment.

But I will take this opportunity to, once again, bow in deepest respect to the Korean game/variety show Running Man. In particular, number 74. In this episode, there are no guests, so it's a battle between the regulars. Each member is given a super power that they can use, and this is clearly to balance out their strengths and weaknesses. It also gives the post-production team a chance to show off with lots of CGI lighting effects.

 The weaker members are given strong powers, while the strongest – Kim Jong Kook – is given the power to know when someone was approaching, thanks to an audio feed from a member of the crew. Sounds good, but the ability to know whenever people are near isn't much of a super power.

It's classic Running Man: a funny opening game, followed by the main battle that starts slow and rises to a fever pitch by the end, and there's also an exciting twist halfway through. Each player knows their role in the show so well that the banter between them is natural and effortless. They know what works and what doesn't, and how to keep a game interesting for as long as necessary.

And this is where the balance between competition and comedy is so perfectly maintained. The question of "Is Running Man fixed?" is almost meaningless. I don't think anybody on the show wants to win if it isn't entertaining. This is why unlikely alliances are made between people who, seconds before, were chasing each other. Anything that keeps the audience guessing is good, even if it makes little sense when you think about it.

So I doubt that the production team sit down with the regulars and tell them who should win, but rather if someone sees how they can lose in a funny way, they'll do it. In that sense, it's not a genuine competition. But that's just the impression I get after watching it so much. And the endless inventive ideas of the production team can only be admired. I've seen sections used only once in Running Man which would be regular features in any other show.

I'm not too familiar with other Korean shows, but Running Man is like nothing on British TV. This makes me almost pathetically grateful to iSubs who do the fansubs. In fact, when Megaupload was closed down, the only thing I was worried about was "Would this effect Running Man?" Luckily it didn't, otherwise the FBI would've had one more public enemy to deal with. Or, at the very least, I would've been very cross.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Recommended: Shokuzai

* spoilers... *

One for the film students, this. Of course, everyone else can enjoy it, too.

This short drama ends on an episode that reveals that the murder in episode one was itself meant as a means of revenge – to get the mother to atone for a misdeed she'd done in the past. And while the drama held my attention, I found myself appreciating all the neat little touches that added to the look and feel of the show.

As the story unfolds, the director, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, makes great use of colour and light to illustrate the scene. The events of the present day are washed out and grim – almost shot in black and white, flashbacks to the past are in full colour, and the moment of revelation around which the final episode is based is shot in a glaring blast of dazzling white light.

 Plus, there's a recurring theme in the last episode of empty institutions. The former training centre, abandoned and desolate, or the police station barely half full while work is being done on the building. This seemed to fit in with the theme of how the things we rely on are transient, like family and marriage. And how fragile the concept of revenge really is. Even us, as viewers, have spent the past four episodes seeing the mother as the wronged character only to find ourselves having to adjust our ideas.

This is, I think, the best looking Japanese TV series I've seen. It shows how important it is to take a little care with composition and an idea of what each scene is trying to say and getting that across in the camerawork and the photography. Perhaps a couple of scenes early on jar a little –sometimes people's reactions seem to be more about moving the story on rather than being about what that person is really feeling. But overall, the way the events move from one to the next towards the final confrontation with the murderer is fascinating.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Just finished: FAKE Bijutsu Jiken Emaki

I'm used to the idea of a detective series being based around a particular thing, such as mathematics (Numb3rs), game theory (Liar Game), science (Galileo), conjuring tricks (Jonathan Creek) or what have you. This detective series is based around the art world and clues leading to the criminal are found in works of art or culture.

It's an interesting idea, but it never really works. The stories seemed quite dry and unexciting. It's hard to say exactly where the show went wrong. It doesn't help that the two main roles were fairly predictable: an eccentric amateur sleuth and a career detective. At first they don't get on but after a while, etc etc. Also, the crimes didn't seem very devious, and were quite ordinary except for some references to high art thrown in.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this detective series was that none of the main characters were under 30. That made a nice change, but it wasn't enough to save a pretty average cop show.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Just watched: Suteki na Kakushidori

This film for TV was made as a side-project to Mitani Kuoki's cinema release Suteki na Kanashibari, and it shares a lot of the same cast. In the TV film, Fukatsu Eri plays a concierge at a hotel who finds herself trying to fulfil the wishes of a series of eccentric guests.

It's a simple and light-hearted comedy. The structure is episodic: when one guest's story ends, the next one begins. None of the guests interact, so there's none of the complicated storytelling that Mitani Kouki devised in The Uchoten Hotel. Eri is funny as the concierge trying to help as best she can. Throughout the film she finds herself in situations like trying to help a TV chef who's never cooked, or helping a songwriter overcome his writer's block.

A particular highlight for me was Kusanagi Tsuyoshi as a clueless contortionist who needs advice about his act. But mostly, it Eri's peppy performance that keeps you watching. It also has quite a spontaneous feel, and I wonder how much of this was improvised. This is an amusing and entertaining diversion, and is definitely worth a look.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Just finished: Yasashii Jikan

I take my hat off to any drama where the opening episode has a shot lasting forty-five seconds in which nothing happens except a slow zoom in on someone at a window in total silence. In fact, this series (from 2005) is so quiet, I found it difficult to find times to watch it without being interrupted by noise from the neighbours next door or upstairs. But it was worth making an effort for this slow-paced and thoughtful series.

The story tells a tale of a father (played by Terao Akira) who runs a coffee shop in Hokkaido, unaware that in the neighbouring town his son (Ninomiya Kazunari) is an apprentice at a pottery kiln (I have no idea what the right term is for "a place where they make pottery"). The two haven't been in touch for years. This estrangement was caused by the son and mother being in a traffic accident and the mother dying.

During the eleven episodes we see the two of them go about their every day lives while slowly coming together for the final episode. Nagasawa Masami stars as the waitress who befriends the son and discovers the connection. She tries to get them to meet, while struggling with problems of her own.

While all this is going on, other stories weave in and out. Most of these are light-hearted distractions to the deep emotions of the main plot, and are welcome since they're so well written: A snowstorm causes havoc in the area; a customer slips and gives himself amnesia; two people sat looking out of the window don't move for hours so that the staff begin to suspect they've died.

During this time of year in England, when even a dusting of snow can make the news ("City unaffected by light snowfall" was a genuine headline on the BBC site recently), it's instructive to see what real snow looks like. Every exterior shot looked like a Christmas card and thanks to the slow pace, peaceful music and wintry scenery, the series had a dream-like quality. Very restful and relaxing. I'm not sure I'd want to watch it during the summer, though.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Just watched: Hula Girls

Continuing on my journey through Aoi Yu's filmography, I arrive at this 2006 film. Hula Girls tells the story of the establishment of a large holiday spa with a Hawaiian theme in the middle of a bleak coal-mining town. The theme is a common one: people facing economic ruin find an escape through entertainment. Brassed Off and The Full Monty sprang to mind when I started watching this, although Hula Girls has the advantage of being based on a true story.

Set during the 1960s, the film begins with the mine owner's grand idea for a new tourist attraction. He is greeting by scepticism from all sides: the mining community and the dance teacher brought in from Tokyo. But as time goes on, and adversities are overcome people slowly begin to accept the idea.

Occasionally, though people seemed to change their attitudes for pretty simple reasons and with little warning. The mother of the lead character is, for most of the film, against her daughter being part of the dance group. But she only has to see her daughter dancing once to change her attitude.

But despite this, its still quite a touching film. And while most of the attention goes to Aoi Yu, I was also impressed by Yamasaki Shizuyo's performance as the shy, bumbling giant of the group. This film is a pleasant way to spend two hours and is made all the more worthwhile by the fact that you know the resort is still going, and the hula girls are still dancing after all these years.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Currently watching: Seinaru Kaibutsutachi

This is a medical drama that's not really about medicine. It's set in a hospital, and certain medical things happen, but the main story is about a surrogate pregnancy. This is illegal is Japan, and so the whole pregnancy must be kept a secret.

Nakatani Miki plays the role of a head nurse at a hospital and is coldly beautiful, like diamonds cast across ice. Her performance demands that you watch her when she's on screen. She is a paragon of elegance, but also demonstrates a seething energy just under the surface. When she asks the potential child-bearer to be a surrogate mother, she leans in a little to closely and breathes a little too hard, indicating a certain delight in manipulating people.

Hasegawa Hiroki (Suzuki Sensei) is the husband, who seems to find the situation distasteful. When his wife expresses excitement at the impending birth, even though she isn't carrying the child, he doesn't hide his disdain. Okada Masaki is the eager new surgeon at a fairly average hospital who unwittingly gets on with his job while all this goes on around him. Add to this a flirty nurse with money troubles and a patient who knows more about the staff than he should, and the stage is set for some twisty turny plots.

Three episodes in, and the situation is delicately poised. It's a game of power. Since everyone involved can ruin the whole plan, everyone seems to want it to be run the way they want. And bear in mind that the series began with a scene at the hospital where a mystery woman dies in childbirth, before the story went back a year to explain the events leading up to that evening.

While I can guess who the mystery woman is, I'm interested to see how the story gets to that point, and the consequences that follow.