Sunday, 30 September 2012

Just watched: Bestseller

It's been a while since I watched a horror movie, and this Korean film is an excellent reintroduction to the genre.

A successful writer is caught up in a plagiarism scandal. Two years on, suffering from writer's block, she retreats to a villa in the country to concentrate on her writing. There her daughter talks about an imaginary friend who teaches her songs and stories. Suddenly, she starts writing, and before you know it she has a new best-seller.

Except that this, too, has been apparently plagiarised. A previous novel by a writer who stayed in the same villa tells the same story as her. Convinced that something weird is going on, she goes back to investigate.

I really enjoyed it. The use of remote location and creepy old house is hardly original, but don't worry about that. There are plenty of jumps and thrills, but it's all quite low-key. There's not a great deal of blood, although a couple of injuries will make you flinch. It's a nice story about uncovered secrets that some people would much prefer to keep secret.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Currently listening to: Gangnam Style

Of course I am, and I've been doing so for some weeks now. To suddenly find it heading towards the UK number one is quite an odd feeling. I guess it really is time I wrote about it.

For a start, like a lot of people, I didn't expect something like this to be the first piece of K-pop to make it big in the West. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it makes perfect sense. It may be harmless and silly, but that's exactly what is needed to crack the UK: something that isn't threatening. The UK music market, which prides itself on constantly reinventing itself, struggles with taking foreign artists seriously. I blame the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a large multi-national, multi-lingual contest in which countries from across Europe do battle with songs, and the UK usually does quite badly.

When the Eurovision is on, it inspires a lot of fancy dress parties and somewhat arch cynicism from the British public who refuse to take it seriously. And this is the only time where British people get to hear pop music in foreign languages. As such, it is easy for your average Brit to dismiss foreign pop music as somehow fake. As if they're trying to be like us, but not quite getting it.

And now Psy has overcome that remarkably high barrier with his song Gangnam Style. And let's not underestimate how hard it is for foreign bands to crack the UK market. I remember in the late 1990s when three bands from France were popular at the same time (Daft Punk, Air and St Germain) a magazine ran an article about how amazing it was. And this was France. Our next-door neighbours. Why should this have been surprising? But it was.

So now Gangnam Style has broken one last barrier. It could be argued that, in the UK, Psy has ticked off the last ethnic minority who didn't have some kind of pop presence. Whites and blacks, we all know about. Hispanic artists became commonplace after Shakira and Enrique Iglesias and the Indian sub-continent has been represented by Billy Sagoo, Cornershop, etc etc. Only the Asia Pacific region remained.

Now this has gone, it'll no longer be weird to like stuff from Korea (and, by extension, Japan, China etc) as perhaps it once was. Only three weeks ago, I was at a party and tried to explain to someone what was happening in Korean music. If I had the same conversation now, it'd be very different.

It has been argued that Gangnam Style is nothing more than a Korean Macarena, but if you think about it, both Macarena and Buena Vista Social Club persuaded the mono-lingual Brits to listen to things in Spanish. After some years, it paved the way for more chart success.

Now that we have the internet, I don't expect the gap between Psy and the next Korean breakthrough artist to be as long as it was after Macarena (about five years, I think) but there are a lot of parallels. Psy is certainly introducing western audiences to some of the visual excesses of K-pop videos which will smooth things over for the next wave of artists.

It won't be all easy from now on. Already, Gangnam Style has become a lazy way to categorise Korean music. When people shouted at Tiger JK to perform Gangnam Style at a recent concert, he replied with a vicious outburst, and quite right too. It reminded me of the Vaudeville/Music Hall days when black artists (or, more accurately, white artists with blacked-up faces) were expected to perform songs from a strict repertoire.

But this reaction from Tiger JK's audience is, I fear, almost inevitable. Until K-pop gets a wider fan base, it'll be defined solely by those few songs that break through to mass appeal. This'll be frustrating for those artists who don't fall into the same category, and frustrating for fans who will have to smile grimly time after time and explain that, actually, there's more to K-pop than that one song.

Even if it is a very good song.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Recommended: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

This documentary tells the story of a sushi chef, Ono Jiro, who is the oldest chef in the world to have three Michelin stars. Despite working into his eighties, he shows no sign of retiring any time soon.

The film is beautifully and carefully shot, which seems only right since they are filming some of the most accomplished professionals in their field. We get to see a lot of the processes involved, from choosing the fish at the market to the amount of dedication and skill to make the final dishes.

We also meet some of the people involved, and I noticed how relaxed and unremarkable these experts all are. There film also spends a lot of time with Jiro's eldest son, who works under him. There's a recurring theme that, when Jiro retires and his son takes over, the business will suffer even though he's every bit as good as the father and even made some of the sushi for the Michelin guide.

On a personal level, this film reminded me of why I like Japan. After a few months of being busy with life and other things, I've spent most of that time watching dramas where people fall in love, or die, or solve crimes: Universal stories which could be set anywhere. It feels like it's been a long time since I watched something so specific to Japan.

The downside is, watching this film will make you very hungry.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Looking forward – Autumn 2012

Well, it's been a dry season these past three months, so what can we expect in the future?

Osozaki no Himawari

Ikuta Toma's first lead role in a drama in ages. This is about a temp worker who is made unemployed just as he's expecting to go permanent. And his girlfriend dumps him. And he moves back in with his parents. Hmm, it never rains but it pours, eh? To help rebuild his confidence, he joins a group of volunteers.

It looks like the whole "volunteer" premise is a way for the program makers to get a load of completely different people to interact. And why not? Ikuta Toma usually has good taste in the roles he chooses, so I'll be keeping an eye out for this one.

Going My Home

You know, if you're going to give your drama an English name, at least get the grammar right. If not, make sure it has Abe Hiroshi in it. And make YOU his older sister, and add in a few fantasy elements to give this family story a few new twists.

Oh, they did? Well, then... this could be very interesting.

Sousa Chizu no Onna

Maya Miki stars as a detective who uses maps to solve crimes. Seems tenuous, but I like maps, so this could work. Set in Kyoto, it's bound to look good, and I'm quietly hopeful for this one.


Kitagawa Keiko stars as a teacher whose helpful disposition hides a cold, dispassionate nature. Then a new transfer student declares that there'll be a death at the school soon.

Sounds interesting. It also has GACKT in the cast, who always looks like he's CGI. Apparently he's playing a respected professor of neurology. Hmm, I need to be convinced about that...

Koukou Nyushi

Nagasawa Masami stars as a travel agent-turned-teacher who learns of a threat to ruin the examinations of her school. Possibly not the most deadly crime ever, but this is from the writer of Shokuzai, so this gets my attention straight away.


At first glance, this is a typical cop show with two dissimilar detectives who have to work together. But it's from the makers of Mr Brain, so I'll give it a chance.

Find out more about forthcoming dramas here.

[edit] Oh, and how could I forget about the new Yuusha Yoshihiko series? Silly me.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Just finished: Furuhata Ninzaburo

In a season where not much caught my eye, it was nice to have the subs for this old classic coming out every now and again. This series from 1994 concerns an idiosyncratic detective who solves cleverly constructed crimes with cunning logic.

I've written about it before, so I won't go into details, but I will say what a relief it was that a program with such a high reputation should live up to it. Before watching the series, I was a little worried that maybe I'd only seen the best episodes and that the rest were below par. Happily that's not the case and even though the series sags a bit in the middle, with some pretty tenuous clues, the final two episodes were a joy to watch as Furuhata comes up against some minds as keen as his own.

No word about any subs for series two just yet, but I can wait. I waited years just for series one. I'm a patient man, if it's worth it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Still watching: Tokkan

In between work and play and sleep, I have little time for any TV these days, so the only show I'm devoted to is the one that I'm doing the subtitles for on d-addicts, Tokkan.

And luckily, I'm enjoying it a lot. It's still funny and it's still informative. I have started wondering, though, if it was commissioned because someone at NTV saw the perilous state of the Japanese economy and wondered if maybe it was time that tax collectors were made to look less... unpleasant.

Some of the solutions to the crimes are quite smart. I was a little disappointed that the story regarding a hostess bar manageress, a politician and some unpaid taxes would last the whole series, but instead it was over by episode for. And the ending of that sub-plot was a bit of a disappointment, as the writers couldn't bring themselves to make the villains really villainous after all.

Inoue Mao remains the main attraction of the show, being convincingly awkward and clumsy, while the rest of the cast are all excellent. At the end of episode seven, another sub-plot has just been tied up, so I'm curious at to what happens next. Plus, sometimes it's quite nicely filmed. I liked the shot above so much that I downloaded the HD version, got a screengrab and now it's my wallpaper.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Just finished: Renai Kentei

"Just" as in "just about finished". It's been a bit of a slog doing these subs, but worth it in the end. As I was just finishing off these subs, I had the Paralympics on in the background and an athlete from Djibouti was slowly making his way around the final lap, long after the other competitors had ended. I kind of empathised with him, although I don't expect a standing ovation for my efforts.

In the end, this was an enjoyable light-hearted series of romances concerning four hopeless cases who have to pass a test of their power in love. We have a constant flirter who can't get a relationship going, a woman with low-self esteem, a man who's built up the perfect life for himself, and lastly a woman who can't get over the memory of an ex.

Hosshan plays the god who has to help them all find love, and he's very entertaining as the cynical, world-weary type who likes a drink and never seems that bothered about the feelings of his subjects. Since he's the main character, it helps that he's so good in the role.

Each episode had something in its favour and although each was a story in its own right, there were a couple of things running through it, such as the rumours on the internet about this god of love, and the Spanish bar where the stories always began.

With no weak stories, good performances and always a proper ending, I really enjoyed this series. Well, as long as I wasn't cursing how often they were using slang.