Saturday, 31 March 2012

Recommended: Moteki

This film is a sequel to the TV drama of the same name. It is set one year after the series, and in that time or hero Fujimoto Yukiyo, played as before by Moriyama Mirai, has not been able to find love. He gets a new job where is boss is his former rival in love Sumi-san (the suave but lecherous older man played perfectly by Lily Franky) and thus begins a new moteki (period when someone is suddenly attractive to the opposite sex).

This time, things are a bit different. Like the TV series there are still four female lead roles, but in the film he only seems serious about one, and so the film is mostly about whether or not he can mess that up. And he's certainly insensitive and confused enough to say the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time.

The film has two main strengths. The first is Nagasawa Masami who puts in the best performance I've seen from her. She's often been in good programmes in the past, but never quite been the best thing about it. This time, however, she absolutely rules. She's funny, sexy and sensitive and quite unlike her previous performances.

The second strength is the music. The TV series was notable for the soundtrack, but this time the music has been pushed forwards such that at times it almost seems like a musical. Falling in love is demonstrated by a three-minute dance performance with Perfume, and a song at the karaoke bar had the lyrics printed on screen so you could, if you wanted, sing along too. Lyrics reflect the mood and the emotions of the scene and sound and vision are woven together so perfectly, I wanted to punch the air and shout "This is what film-making should be like!"

Perhaps that's an over-statement, but I was so impressed with the feel of the movie that I felt a little exaggeration wouldn't hurt. And why haven't I heard of the band N'shukugama Boys before? They supplied the ideal soundtrack to the film's finale.

It's a shame there wasn't more of Naka Riisa, but I enjoyed what few scenes she had. Aso Kumiko is heart-breaking as the romance that never was, and although Yoko Maki is on the posters as if she's a potential love interest, she's really just a co-worker who despairs of Yukiyo's attempts a getting a woman.

So, this is a great film for a wide variety of reasons. You can understand it just fine if you haven't seen the TV series, so there's no reason not to track this down and take a look.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Recommended: Japanese Memories

This book (yes, a book) was written by Ethel Howard, an English governess. She had previously been the tutor for the children of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and this book tells her tale of teaching the four sons of the royal Shimazu family from 1901 to 1908.

It's a fascinating glimpse into a very different world. A world that was, itself, changing rapidly. At first she describes the difficulty in communicating to the staff of the household since – apart from her students – no one spoke much English. But in time she starts to settle in and writes about her students, her arguments with their other teachers, and about Japan in general.

It's written with much detail and is often very funny, in a dry British humour kind of way. One tale tells how the princes brought back some Eau d'Cologne from a trip abroad and gave them to the ladies of the household as a gift. A few days later, the princes received a note from the ladies asking how much they were supposed to drink, since it effected their heads! And for those who think the fashion for walking with the toes turned inwards is a new thing, it seems that it's been with us for over a hundred years:

"At first it was a mystery to me why the children had such terribly turned-in feet. I did not know at the time that it was an old-fashioned necessity of the polite world for the feet of a Japanese nobleman to take this position. It tired me more than any other work at the beginning to break the boys of this habit; but it did not take long, for in this, as in everything else, they adapted themselves with marvellous rapidity. It became a second habit to say every few minutes, "Turn your feet out," so much so, that one day, when very over-tired and distraite, I made the same remark to the German Ambassador, Count d'Arco Valley, who, for some absurd reason, happened to sit with his feet turned in when visiting us!"

The pdf version also has some nice photos of Japan and Japanese people from that era. In short, this is a glorious time capsule from Meiji era Japan. So if there are any Japanese TV producers who need ideas for the next Taiga drama, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at this.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Just finished: Bunshin

This short five-episode series based on a story by Keigo Higashino stars Nagasawa Masami as two identical women trying to discover the truth about their birth. It started well, setting up the intrigue and added some suspense with a possible murder but something happened halfway through - I'm not sure what - which made the story lose its momentum.

The story was very dryly told. I wonder if the makers were too respectful to the author. Galileo may have had a few silly gimmicks, such as the hero spontaneously writing equations on any nearby surface, but at least it was visually engaging. In Bunshin, the director tip-toed through the story almost as if he was afraid to disturb anything.

The last episode began with an explanation about how these two women could be twins despite being born in different parts of Japan a year apart, and after that it tried hard to put the two characters in some kind of danger to end the story with some excitement but it never really convinced.

Nice music, though. I especially liked the violin part to heighten the suspense. Otherwise... meh.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Just finished: Saigo kara Nibanme no Koi

Because I started watching this series so late, I sped through all the episodes in the space of two weeks, and a lot of fun it was too. The initial rush of excitement at meeting new people in new places and watching events unfold was slightly lessened by the end of the series. More and more, the story needed coincidences to keep things moving which was a shame.

But all the same, I really enjoyed the banter and comedy. And the final message that explains the title of the show is pretty uplifting. At least it is for someone old like me. You should approach your next love as if it's your second to last, then you can relax and enjoy it more instead of thinking "this is it! This is the last one!" and getting all uptight about it.

So, this was certainly worth watching, especially for the performance of Kiozumi Kyoko and Nakai Kiichin the lead roles, Uchida Yuki as the skittish sister who's always dressed as if it's deepest winter, and also Jun Miho as the potential marriage partner who finds herself competing against her daughter for a man's attention.

Plus, I should mention that song (not the main theme, but the one that keeps appearing throughout the show with the refrain "Go go go go go to the river") is by Yael Naim and you can see the video for it here. It took me ages to find that, since every search for "Saigo kara Nibanme no Koi song" came up with the theme song by Hamasaki Ayumi. But worth the effort, I feel.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Currently watching: Scent of a Woman

My tastes in TV viewing tend to come and go in waves. After a recent spate of tense mysteries, I've now gone all girly and am currently working my way through Saigo Kara Nibanme no Koi (middle-aged woman suddenly gets a complicated love life), Renai NEET (middle-aged woman suddenly gets a complicated love life) and also this Korean series in which a middle-aged woman suddenly gets... well, you can probably guess.

Even though I've not seen many Korean dramas, I'm already seeing several recurring themes. In Scent of a Woman a clumsy ditzy woman becomes romantically involved with a rich, powerful, but emotionally cold man. There's a beautiful but scheming heiress, a handsome doctor, a disappointed mother, and all of these people's paths cross due to a number of unlikely coincidences. Oh, and drinks get spilt with alarming regularity.

In that sense, at least, there's nothing in particular to make this series stand out. I chose it because of Kim Sun Ah in the lead role, and because the synopsis sounded interesting: A single woman in her thirties discovers she's terminally ill, so she spends her last months (and her savings) to live the life she's always wanted.

And if you don't mind the clichés, it's pretty good. However, there are sixteen episodes and I wonder if this series will fall foul of the same problem that My Name Is Kim Sam Soon and Lie To Me had. Namely, a tedious lead male role. It may be a common female fantasy to melt the heart of a cold, emotionally distant hero, but to me he's about as interesting as a concrete slab in a wheelbarrow.

Perhaps some sub-plots can make this more entertaining. Or, simply, keep the camera trained on Kim Sun Ah. That'd be enough for me.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Just finished: Lucky Seven

* spoilers *

I have to admit I stopped watching this until I could check if Eita really did return in the last episode. When I quickly searched the final part and saw that he was in it, I watched the final three episodes together. To be honest, it was a bit of a slog, and not really worth it in the end.

The final story concerns a murder that happened sixteen years ago, that caused the Lucky Seven detective agency to be founded. We discover that Eita's character has been working undercover on this case since he went missing back in episode three.

And the series ends as it began, with lots of fight scenes (this time, almost everyone gets to have a go) and there's also quite a lot of thoughtful reflecting, and realising who your friends really are, and other noble things, too.

But despite all the time and effort that has been spent on this show, it still didn't quite work. The gap without Eita was just too long, and the series could've lost a couple of episodes to speed things along. Or better, if Eita had left in episode five or six, to give the characters more time together before his mysterious disappearance.

But this series was okay, which seems like a very mean thing to say about a show that's clearly had a lot of work put into it. But Naka Riisa was underused, and some of the stories didn't make much sense, and all the pieces didn't quite fit together as I hoped they might.

Actually, I'm surprised by how little I have to say about this show. It was good, and then not so good but still okay, and then it ended.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Currently watching: Saigo kara Nibanme no Koi

When I started watching Japanese dramas about four years ago I made a special effort to remind myself that this was not a realistic representation of Japanese life. For the most part, it was easy. I was pretty sure that time didn't stop just before death, nor that university lecturers were solving clever mysteries. Even programmes that talked about everyday issues, such as Anego or At Home Dad, seemed too exaggerated to be taken seriously.

So now I've just started watching this show, and I find myself thinking "Is this how things really are?" This drama follows the life of a single woman in her forties as she buys a house outside Tokyo, and how this effects her life, work and friendships.

It's very well written and acted. I can't quite express how nice it feels to have a show which would rather have small things happen naturally than big things be forced into the story. The subplots are quirky enough to be unexpected, but small enough to be easily accepted. For example, a daughter inviting herself to her mother's o-miai meeting for a prospective husband. Or setting up fake profiles on dating agencies to see how popular your real profile is in comparison.

Plus, it's very refreshing to have a series about people my age talking about the kind of things that people my age talk about. I recognise some of these conversations from my life, despite the different culture in which they're set. Koizumi Kyoko is a lot of fun to watch and completely different from her lead role in Shokuzai. The rest of the cast are good too, but to list them would take too long. I'm yet to find a bad performance. This is a very enjoyable show, and I wish I'd started watching it sooner since the torrents are quite old now, and not as quick as they could be.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Zatoichi vs Ichi: FIGHT

In 2003 Zatoichi was the first major cinema release of the long-running blind swordsman character since 1989. Then in 2010, sort of sequel called Ichi was released, starring Ayase Haruka as the daughter of Zatoichi on a search for her father.

Although not a remake of the same story, it's worth comparing the two. The 2003 film was directed by and starred Kitano Takeshi. His version is as unique as you'd expect, giving Zatoichi blonde hair and a blood red cane where he keeps his sword. The 2010 film, directed by Sori Fukihiko (who also directed Ping Pong) is, in many ways, a more typical story of love, death and revenge.

Both films contain the scene set in a gambling den where Zatoichi/Ichi is able to tell which way up the dice have fallen simply by listening. In the 2003 film this is part of the story and begins a series of events leading to the climax, whereas in the 2010 version it doesn't seem to go anywhere. I suspect they put it in as an homage to the earlier films.

In terms of casting, both films are blessed with a very visual lead role. Takeshi is great as the blind swordsman and your eyes are naturally drawn to him when he's on screen. Haruka's striking beauty works surprisingly well as the blank face of a killer. Both films have strong supporting casts, too. Notably the 2010 version has Osawa Takao and Ayase Haruka together again, and the rapport they built up while making Jin means the chemistry between the two is very relaxed. Also worth mentioning is Kubozuka Yosuke (who worked with the director in Ping Pong) who impresses in his role.

The main difference between the two are in the attitude of the film. Ichi is quite a traditional movie, whereas Zatoichi is quite playfully shot. Takeshi often sets up the actions of the extras (carpenters or farmers) to syncronise with the music of the soundtrack. The background characters are village idiots or grumpy regulars at a sake bar. Plus, of course, the whole thing ends with a dance routine. Ichi looks nice and is well-made, but never really surprises.

Plus, Zatoichi tells a better story. There are few wasteful scenes and the finale is not a mass brawl between hordes of warriors, but a quick, tense stand-off between two people. This is far more low-key than Ichi's final battle against the overacted gang leader and his followers. So, although Ichi is a good movie that's worth a look, Zatoichi takes this battle quite easily. In fact, it wins with its eyes shut.

Ha ha. Do you see what I did there? Ha ha.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Recommended: Children of the Tsunami

This BBC documentary tells the tale of a year since the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear incident through the words of the children it affected.

The central premise is a smart idea and very touching. The children show a resilience which is quite admirable, even though they've been through so much. They continue to face difficulties with every day issues such as using radiation detectors before they can play, and staying away from puddles.

They face these new challenges with strength and humour. And this is the main message of the documentary – that from the events of 11th March, a new generation is growing up keen to face these problems in the future. If they don't get sick from the radiation, that is. And any psychological issues are only briefly touched upon, with a reference to a brother of one of the interviewees. Perhaps a little too briefly.

It's very nicely shot. Well, you can hardly not get affecting pictures from the ghost towns and wrecked buildings along Japan's east coast. And the stories from the children and the adults gives a glimpse of the different ways that people have been affected by the tsunami. It's a very moving and thoughtful piece of television and a worthwhile addition to the list of documentaries and films on the same subject.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Just finished: Seinaru Kaibutsutachi

* spoilers *

This drama was at times exciting and intriguing but it ends with a flaw that I've seen a few times with Japanese dramas. The criminals in this series are given noble reasons for their actions and, in some way, they all repent. It seemed as if the makers of this show could not bring themselves to punish the characters they'd created.

In a way, I can't blame them. The Chief Nurse, Kasugai Yuka, who is the most immoral of the main characters, is given such a strong portrayal by Nakatani Miki that I didn't want her to be caught. But when she wasn't caught, it didn't feel like a proper ending. Let's not forget that a woman was killed and now her ex-boyfriend has to raise a baby single-handed on child support.

Meanwhile, the punishment for the criminals is simply to lose their family. The couple, Keiko and Toshio, who received the baby, are banished from their prestigious family and have to start again. And Kasugai Yuka is last seen walking away to lead a life without the sister that she's loved and protected for all these years. In a way it's a cruel punishment, but I can't help thinking that a prison sentence is more appropriate for murder.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this series. It wasn't particularly hyped before it began and if Nakatani Miki hadn't been in it, I might not have watched it at all. That would have been a shame, since this was a smart and well-made piece of TV that never quite became essential viewing, but came very close.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Just watched: Rabbit Horror

Shimazu Takahashi directed my favourite horror movie, Ju-On: The Grudge. However, the fact that between 2000 and 2006 he remade this film at least six times made me suspect he may be a one-trick pony. He also directed the TV drama Soil (2010), which is still unsubbed and my poor Japanese is not good enough to follow the story.

My Japanese, however, is good enough to follow this film. I watched because of the twin attractions of the director and the star, Mitsushima Hikari. And for the first half, I was quite impressed. Admittedly, rabbits aren't scary, no matter how hard you try, but in a sequence half way through the film Shimazu manages to conjure up some jumps and disturbing images.

After this promising start, though, the film starts to unravel. The story is about a small boy who kills a rabbit, and is later haunted by a large stuffed rabbit. This sounds absurd, and it is. The presence of a large white rabbit inevitably reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, complete with Mitsushima Hikari going through a "looking glass", or rather, going through a storage space under the stairs and coming out the other side back in her home again.

But mostly, the story (and there is one, just about. But there's no ending. Not a proper one) is hidden behind disjointed scenes designed to heighten the tension. And for every one that succeeds, there's another two that just look daft. Pity. Somewhere in here, there's a good film.

It's one of those films that relies too much on CGI. Prosthetics and blood capsules maybe be old-fashioned but at least the director has to stop and think about what looks good on the screen. CGI is too easy. Too lazy.

Recommended: All About Lily Chou-Chou

I've been trying to write this review for the past few days. Bit of a tricky one, this.

At its most basic, this is a dystopian vision of school life, where bullies prosper and anything fragile is crushed underfoot. At the same time, the film itself is both bullying and fragile. If some scenes are difficult to watch due to their content, they are also difficult to look away from because of the endlessly inventive way the film is shot.

Throughout the film, messages from an internet forum are flashed on the screen. While the authors of these messages may or may not be the same people in the film - that's left for the viewer to decide – but it shows the one space in their lives where teenagers can be honest with their emotions.

This film is at times unnervingly accurate with its portrayal of teenagers and how they react to their first musical love. There's a nice scene where someone starts a fight because they like the early work Lily Chou Chou did before she went solo. This reminds me a lot of various discussions I had when I was that age about The Mission/Sisters of Mercy or Joy Division/New Order. Although I never got into a fight over it.

The film is both free-form in its storytelling, with stories slowly blending into one another, and at the same time it feels quite episodic. It can also be quite confusing to watch – minor characters from earlier in the film pop up as pivotal characters later on. To be honest, I stopped trying to remember who each person was by the end of the film. But I don't think that really affected my enjoyment of the story. Instead the people involved became anonymous receivers of whatever events were unfolding. I'd become as dispassionate as the lead character, the bullied who becomes the bully.

A fascinating film.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Currently watching: Suugaku Joshi Gakuen

If you've ever wondered what it would be like if the International Mathematical Olympiad in Japan and Hello!Project decided to collaborate on a TV series, then today's your lucky day!

I mentioned this back in December as one of the dramas I thought might be worth watching, and then I promptly forgot about it until this morning. In this series an innumerate student finds he's enrolled at a school full of cute, maths-obsessed girls. Thus begins his life as the idiot of the class.

I only recognise one of the cast (the famous one from Morning Musume) so the Hello!Project aspect has largely passed me by. And although the acting never rises above comical, it's fine for the nature of the show.

Each week, a student gets into some amusing difficulty which is then solved by using mathematics. In episode one, for example, trigonometry is used to decide whether or not our hero (Sato Kazuki) really was able to see up a schoolgirl's skirt.

The episodes are only twenty five minutes long, so the stories move along at quite a speed. At least there's not much opportunity to be bored. It's funny and absurd and better than I thought it would be. However, sitting through the title sequence, complete with gawky dancing and overt attempts to be cute, is a bit of an ordeal. But once you're past that, you're fine.