Saturday, 29 December 2012

Recommended: Hitori Shizuka

Well, all credit to the makers of this drama: they didn't just give us the easy ending. Halfway through the final episode is a fifteen year jump, with none of the usual visual clues to indicate it. This can make for a very confusing few minutes, as I assumed that events in one scene happened soon after the events in the previous scene.

Once I'd worked out the woman in her twenties was the same person as the girl from earlier, I then had to work out how the story must've progressed since we last saw them. Again, the drama made no concessions. Instead it just showed us the eventual consequences of those events, with no context. Although it's hard to follow, this is better than flashbacks, or scenes in which people give long speeches explaining what happened.

So, in conclusion, the method of telling this story has been excellent. From the writing to the directing, this has been a quite unique and beautiful piece of work and is head and shoulders above a lot of other dramas out there.

A very fine piece of television.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Nakazawa Keiji (1939-2012)

I first read Nakazawa's book Barefoot Gen near the beginning of my interest in Japanese culture, back in the 1990s. I knew about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from school, of course, but we hadn't touched upon how it affected the people involved. So this book came as a bit of an eye-opener, and it also filled in the (huge) gaps in my knowledge of the situation in the Pacific at that time.

The story is such a difficult one to read, because of the scale of suffering, but at the same time it is essential. Nakazawa does not shy away from depicting the patriotic mania that brought Japan to that situation. Nor does he shy away from the effects of the blast on people with some uncomfortable and almost surreal images.

All of these feeling were reawakened when I visited Hiroshima and the museum dedicated to the bombing. Now I've learnt that the author of Barefoot Gen died yesterday. Hearing that reminded me of the impact his work made on me, and it saddens me to learn of his passing.

Until the 90s, the Japanese were seen as the country that made cheap TVs or expensive videogames, or they were "that lot the Americans beat in the war". How much this comic has done to change the views of the public at large, I don't know, but it certainly changed mine and started me off on a journey that's lead me to where I am today.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Just finished: Fujiko F. Fujio no Parallel Space

This series of six short stories was broadcast in 2008 but only recently subbed by Unsolved Cases. Each one is a curious tale with interesting ideas. At least the first four are. No idea what happened to the last two.

Episode one is the most interesting, based around a camera that tells you the true value of things when you take a photo. It's shot in a very un-naturalistic style, taking its framing and composition directly from comic strips.

Episode two is about a journalist who is sent to report on an old friend who claims to have invented a time machine. The end of this story is so quick, that its easy to miss how cleverly structured this story is, and it definitely deserves to be seen twice.

Episode three is a peculiar one, about an actor who never stands up for himself and never seems to express any anger (or happiness) at the result of his inactions. This is a little confusing and I'm not sure I really understood it, but interesting nevertheless.

Episode four is about a dentist who owns a pair of glasses that allow you to see if someone is truly beautiful, or just superficial. This has Aso Kumiko as the dentist, and while the ending may be obvious, it's still a good story.

Then there are the final two episodes, where the quality suddenly drops. Episode five is about some aliens studying human behaviour and finding it baffling. So what? And the last is something about a childhood game of setting up a republic that'll only have nice people in, and how easily the dreams can be ruined. Or can they? Very ordinary, and why do so many Japanese writers think the worst thing that can happen is to move to America?

But four out of six ain't bad.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Currently watching: Koukou Nyuushi

Ever since I worked with Nagasawa Masami on Toshi Densetsu no Onna, I feel like we've got a special bond. A totally fictional and made-up one, especially since we never actually worked together, but even so: a very special bond.

So it's a bit of a mystery as to why it's taken me so long to sit down and watch this drama. I watched episode one a few weeks ago and didn't think much of it. It seemed to be quite a bland drama set in a school. However, today I noticed that Koukou Nyuushi's TV ratings have stayed strong, while most other dramas this season have struggled. I thought "They can't all be looking at Masami's legs," so I sat down to give it another go.

I can't explain my initial reaction – perhaps I wasn't paying attention – but this time round it seemed to click. The storyline is simple: the all-important school entrance exams are coming up, but there are plans to sabotage them. But by who and how? And can the teachers stop them? This is the central mystery of the drama.

The drama is shot in an interesting style. Quite bland and uninteresting at first, but every now and again the director adds a little horror movie-style camera angle. Just enough to heighten the tension, and the soundtrack, too, is excellent. And after the slow start, where everyone's characters are set up, the story moves on at quite a quick pace and is quite addictive. I'm halfway through, and so far it's been very enjoyable.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Six worst Running Man episodes

(Note: a list of other bad Running Man episodes from 2013-14 is here)

I love Running Man, I hope that much is clear, but there are occasions when ideas don't seem to work. This is only natural in a show that tries to reinvent itself so often.

And so, inspired by episode 118, I've decided to try to list the worst episodes of Running Man. It was much harder than choosing the best, but these are the episodes where the ideas didn't quite gel, or the editing didn't make sense.

There was one episode that I considered, even though I'd already put it in my list of the best: Episode 25, with Park Bo Young, was great but it was a bit painful to watch how marginalised Lizzy had become by then, especially when there's a strong female guest. It turned out to be her last episode.

They are listed from the least worst to the worst worst, if you see what I mean...

Episode 101

The theme to this episode is one of the thinnest puns I think I've ever seen. Song Ji Hyo's real name, Chung Sung Im, has the same initials as the cop show C.S.I. From this follows an entertaining episode but one in which you really need to suspend your disbelief. This is a series of challenges loosely slotted into some kind of narrative, and of course Song Ji Hyo has to stay one step ahead otherwise that's the end of the episode.

Episode 118

A bit of a mess, frankly. Choi Min Soo, one of the stars of Running Man guests, comes back to finish off his rivalry with Yoo Jae Suk. It begins in a light-hearted style with Park Bo Young, but then it abruptly changes style with a late-night horror special with Choi Min Soo picking off the regulars one by one. Trouble is, it was too abrupt. Park Bo Young should at least have got a couple of seconds on screen to say goodbye, even if it's just a wink to the camera. And, reading between the lines, it looks like it took a very long time to shoot this episode, since most of the cast seem to have gone home by the time the finale plays out. Quite entertaining and Choi Min Soo and Yoo Jae Suk are great together, but a bit disjointed and unsatisfying.

Episode 30

This starts well, with the regulars chasing Big Bang's Seung Ri around the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. But then, the wheels fall off. It's one of those episodes that doesn't involve the guest enough, and after the Hide And Seek game is over, he barely features. The challenge at the end is completed too quickly, so there was obviously a lack of footage, meaning that a throw-away photography game is included in the show, as well as a far-too-long music based game.

Episode 1

I almost don't consider this to be a real episode. It feels a lot like a pilot episode. The regulars don't know each other, the games aren't quite right, and there's no Song Ji Hyo. There are entertaining bits, but there's no real rhythm or any relationships between the cast.

I suppose that's why they asked Lee Hyo Ri to appear, so there'd be some continuity with Yoo Jae Suk and Kim Jong Kook (they were all in Family Outing) but you can tell that most of the cast feel awkward. I'm sure the weather during the grand opening scene didn't help.

Episode 87

The ″True Love″ episode. Now, I strongly suspect that the makers of Running Man would rather be making film blockbusters or TV dramas, and in this episode they let their narrative ambitions get out of control. In episode 87, the female guest has to work out who was her first love in school, using clues scattered around the location. This story is enhanced by flashbacks to when the Running Man cast were about six or seven in age.

But this makes the show incredibly slow-paced, with plenty of slow motion and soft-focus close-ups. It is clearly an homage to the Korean drama The Moon That Embraces The Sun, but if you haven't seen it then this is just a very slow episode of Running Man with some shocking over-acting by HaHa which is funny in small doses, but here it really drags. In fact, I didn't make it to the end, giving up with around ten minutes to go.

Episode 23

I am happy to admit, this is totally down to culture. This episode features veteran comedian Shim Hyung-rae. I watched it like I was looking at a museum piece, since it featured a lot of corny physical humour and references to things that pre-date my sparse knowledge of Korean culture by decades.

It's like when Jerry Lewis or Norman Wisdom appear on TV shows, I'm always impressed that they're still working but it's never classic entertainment. The same applies here. The regular cast are far too respectful of the comedy legend, and it kind of ruins the show.

I'll be honest, I barely made it through half of this episode before turning off and never going back. And this is only episode of which I haven't kept a copy, hence the screenshot off a YouTube clip.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Currently watching: Yuusha Yoshihiko to Akuryou no Kagi

This comedy continues the tradition from the first series of poking fun at RPG clichés. Our band of four heroes are brought back to life after a hundred years (and, in doing so, their skills are reset to level one) to look for a key that can lock away some monsters threatening a village.

The ghost is clearly trying not to laugh

The story is almost unimportant because, just like in real RPGs, the band of four are constantly being distracted by side quests and false leads as they undertake their quest.

The sense of humour is the same as the first series, with Yamada Takayuki delivering his ridiculous lines in a perfect deadpan style. Muro Tsuyoshi is perhaps the funniest as the hopeless wizard who also acts as a sort of ″Voice of the RPG player″, as it is usually him who points out the absurdity or obviousness of a situation.

After I saw this, I found a purple lake in Xenoblade Chronicles and thought exactly the same thing.

Also it looks like it was a lot of fun to make. The affection that the stars have for it can be seen in Takayuki's statement on the announcement of a second series, that he was going ″to give it my 70%.″ I'd love to see a ″making of ″ for this series. I did almost buy the boxed set of the DVD but, at almost £150, I had second thoughts. I still regret it a little bit. But I can cheer myself up with the continuing low-budget saga of Yoshihiko and his band of underqualified heroes.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

SpecialThanks new release

Saw this today on Sparkplugged: one of my favourite bands has released a new E.P. and it's available for download in the West! So try out some reasonably priced pop-punk goodness now at Amazon UK (I suppose it must be available in other countries and on iTunes too).

I'm even adding an embedded video to help you decide.

And when I was talking to a barman in Hiroshima during my holiday, I asked him what bands he liked and he mentioned SpecialThanks, so they must be good. Right?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Still playing: Shenmue

Happy Shenmue Day!

Today, December 3rd, is a special day in my calendar. After watching a cut scene where you see the death of Ryo Hazuki's father on November 29th 1986, you get to play the game on December 3rd, after Ryo finally wakes up from his ordeal.

For a long time, the video game Shenmue was the closest I got to walking around the streets of Japan, and I've played it regularly since its release in 2000. When I moved to Italy, it was essential in keeping homesickness at bay, because its familiar streets were somewhere I could go and relax, play darts or hang out at the arcade.

And so today I will play Shenmue from the start once again, just so the date on my calendar matches the one in the game. And I'll even try to keep playing it, one day at a time, to try and keep the two dates synchronised until Christmas comes around and I lose track and then forget about it until a few months later when I'll pick it up and play some darts or walk the streets asking people where I can find sailors or Chinese people or whatever the story says I should look for.

I still get moments when watching dramas when I think ″That looks just like Shenmue!″ and it makes me feel happy inside. It's a game that's never left me, and hopefully never will.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Currently watching: Hitori Shizuka

This crime series begins with a low-level gang-related shooting and quickly expands into something more sinister. It revolves around a woman seen at the scene of the crime who is suspected of finishing off the already wounded victim. Who is she and what was her motive is the drama's main story.

However, the story focuses on people at the margins of the investigation. The first episode follows an ordinary uniformed policeman whose efforts are barely noticed by the detectives in charge. Part two is about a safety officer – someone who advises members of the public on crime prevention. His investigation stumbles upon the missing woman, but since he has no knowledge of the earlier investigation she slips away at the end and we're only a little wiser about her history.

It's a great drama so far. Certainly, turning attention away from the leading detectives and towards the less important members has given the story a new point of view, and allows the drama to explore some new ways of telling what might otherwise be just another murder mystery.

Currently listening to: Girls and Peace

Girls' Generation's second Japanese album burst onto my mp3 player in the middle of last week with a selection of quality pop tunes that's left me a little dazed. Until now, I've become accustomed to being somewhat disappointed by SNSD albums. Their singles promise a world of catchy choruses, while the album usually serves up large portions of fillers.

But not this time. For whatever reason, the quality control on recent SNSD songs has been turned up to ten. I was very impressed by SNSD sub-group TaeTiSeo's album and I'm relieved that this has carried on to the main group.

Not every song is golden, though. After the first track (which is about spiders and butterflies, apparently) there are two fairly anonymous tracks. It picks up again with "Reflection" and then after "Stay Girls" it doesn't put a foot wrong, despite probably being performed in absurd high-heels doing a synchronised dance routine.

"Boomerang" is like "Paparazzi"s younger sister, containing a similar number of "boom"s in the chorus. "All My Love Is For You" is my favourite track on the CD and "Oh!" is given a bit of a polish for its re-release, but it's the final two tracks "Peace and Girls" and "Not Alone" really hit the high points and convince me to send my mp3 player straight back to track one to experience the whole thing all over again.

It's tempting to see this album as a step forward on SNSD's march to global domination. Looking at the song writing credits, I note a heavy international influence, with songwriters from Sweden, America, Nigeria, South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands. Its healthy sprinkling of English in the choruses indicate the direction they seem to be heading.

But despite all this, there's no international release. Surely in this day and age, it's not too much trouble to put out an album on download only, just to test the water. But apparently it is. The only way for me to throw a few coins into SNSD's hat is to buy an over-priced import CD, or "The Boys" single,which has an unappetising seven version of the same song.

Maybe the Korean album in early 2013 will be downloadable for us in the West? Or will I have to wait for the fabled English release later next year..?