Saturday, 21 December 2013

Currently watching: The Genius

I saw this show mentioned in the comments section on a Seoulbeats article. Someone compared it to Liar Game and I, delighted that someone had made a real-life (I say “real-life,” I mean “unscripted”) version of that drama, searched around until I'd found somewhere to download it.

In this show, thirteen contestants play a different game each week and are slowly whittled away one by one. Each game is structured to allow for plenty of secrets and surprises as alliances are formed and broken. Stylistically, it stays close to the Liar Game formula of a mysterious masked man in charge, and some techno music underlining the tenser moments, but otherwise it's generally easier on the eye.

Currently, it's showing the second series, which is where I started. This turned out to be a mistake since it began by introducing the players and, since it was the second series, there were some returning players. This immediately gave away the end of series one, which is a shame because I enjoyed this episode so much that I decided to watch the first series.

I spent most of Thursday and Friday just watching one after another, getting caught up in all the gossip and back-stabbing. People build up trust or become suspicious, and there was even the hint of a love-line for a few episodes, before the game cruelly separated them. It's like a soap opera based on game theory.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Just watched: The Mourning Forest

This film from 2007 is about a woman who has lost a child and who works in a care home for the elderly. One of the people there is senile, and still talks about his late wife as if she were still alive. One day, when out running errands, the car they’re in crashes and he runs off into a forest, with her following after him. This journey through the dark forest is an allegory for mourning and finding closure after the death of a loved on.

But if I put my cynical hat on, the film ticks a number of boxes for award-winners, but at its heart, it is a fairly shallow film. It’s beautifully filmed, full of lingering shots over the perfectly manicured farms and dark, ominous forests. The acting is great (Ono Machiko is superb, as usual), and the first half of the film, with its use of non-actors, has a real documentary feel to it.

The trouble is that because the main character was senile, it meant the story could progress as the film-maker wanted without any real reason. If the story needed a change in scene, he could just run off by himself. Need him to cross a river? No need to explain. It all seemed very convenient.

I feel bad about criticising a film that is made with such care and style but it felt a lot like a very nicely filmed acting workshop.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

I hope I know what I’m doing

So, I’ve decided to sub SOIL, the David Lynch-esque murder mystery set in a new Japanese town. I watched it a while ago and ever since then I’ve been tinkering with some subtitles. I had the crazy idea that I could finish them off and put them up on d-addicts all in one go.

Trouble is, with no incentive for me to work on them, I never really worked on them. I never got further than episode one. Then I decided the only way to get these done was to start putting them up on d-addicts. By making it public, I hope it’ll make me take it more seriously.

I’m a bit worried though. With no Japanese subs to go on, I’m relying a lot on the manga, the things my friend told me, and my feeble listening skills. It’ll certainly be a challenge.

Currently Watching: Danda Rin

There’s something comfortably familiar about this series. The office setting, the new arrival who upsets the cosy way of working, the gossipy sub-plots and the menacing story arc that runs through each episode. And if all this may be predictable, there’s no denying it’s a solid foundation to build a TV drama on.

Its success depends on the stories and characters. If the characters interact naturally, and don’t just argue for the sake of the story, and if the stories are entertaining and new then it doesn’t matter how formulaic the format is. Just enjoy the show.

And this is what we have here. After two paragraphs of introduction, there’s actually not much to say about this show. The stories are fine and the cast is good, especially Matsuzaka Tori who plays Minamisanjo, the worker who is given orders to supervise the new addition to the office, Danda Rin (played by Takeuchi Yuko, also very good). He has a difficult task as an actor, since he is basically the straight man. He could be completely anonymous but he gives off such an air of patient tolerance that it makes you believe that he’s been in this situation for years.

I wonder how dark it gets, since some of the omens for the future are pretty ominous. In the meantime, it’s a nice vanilla flavoured piece of J-drama.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Build your own Japanese temple

Tucked away on the Internet Archive is a rather pretty little pdf that seems to give guidelines on how to build a Japanese temple. (It says it's from the year 1200, but I don't know if they had bound books in those days. Wouldn't it have been a scroll?) It mostly seems to concern itself with ratios and measurements. I’m sure it would be more instructive if I could actually read the cursive script next to the illustrations.

But I was especially impressed by the illustration of the torii gate, which shows which angles should be used on the ends of the top cross-beam (or kasagi, according to Wikipedia) and how to make sure they’re correct. Now that I know this, whenever I see one in a photo or film, I find myself checking to see if they’ve got the angles right.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Just Watched: It’s me, It’s me

Well, this is an odd one. I know, it’s a Satoshi Miki film and I should expect it to be odd, but this was a different kind of odd.

Because of the film’s title, I was expecting something based around the “Ore, ore” (“It’s me, it’s me”) telephone scam. And at first, that’s how it appears. The hero of the film, Nagano Hitoshi, picks up someone else’s mobile phone and convinces the owner’s mother to send him 900,000 yen.

So far, so ordinary. Apart from the occasional familiar face (Fuse Eri makes an early appearance) and bit of physical comedy, it’s all shot in quite a flat style. This means that when strange things start to happen, they sort of drift past. I thought “Shouldn’t this be signposted more overtly? Like a double-take or a quick zoom-in with startling music?” but nothing like that happened.

As Hitoshi keeps meeting more and more versions of himself, the film remains on an even keel: measured, patient, apparently in no hurry to increase the tension or weirdness.

Eventually, the tension does increase as Hitoshi realises his life is at stake, but it never dips into outright weirdness. It’s shot like a typical film, except that by the end the lead actor (Kamenashi Kazuya) is playing every part.

Kazuya is very good, especially in the three lead roles that make up the bulk of the story: each character is distinct and complete. The filming, too, is very clever, getting the various Hitoshis to interact quite naturally. There’s nothing wrong with this film, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s Satoshi Miki’s weirdest film and also his most ordinary. That, in itself, is pretty remarkable.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Just finished: Toshi Densetsu no Onna 2

And so the second series of Tsukiko Otonashi’s investigations into modern myths (and the occasional murder) came to an end. It was pretty much the same as before, with jokes, fables and a bit of cosplay for Nagasawa Masami more important than anything like a sensible murder mystery to solve.

The characters filled much the same role as before, with the love-sick Katsuura and the frustrated superior officer Tannai. Perhaps the only character who had changed since the previous episode was Otonashi Miyako, played by Akizuki Narumi, and I suspect that was only because she was clearly older than before.

The series was fine, as long as you weren’t expecting anything too complicated. The quality was a bit up and down though, usually depending on how believable the crime was. Perhaps the best was episode three, based on Friday 13th, but all had their moments. If that makes it sound like I didn't like it, then my apologies. It was funny, and frequently so. Nagasawa Masami pitched her enthusiasm just the right side of annoying, and they all seemed to have fun making it.

It seemed to stop abruptly at seven episodes. The ratings weren’t bad for its time slot (but the ratings share was about 2% down on series one), and there seemed to be a couple of recurring storylines that were just dropped, so I've no idea why it ended like it did. But it didn’t outstay its welcome, and who knows, perhaps there’ll be a third series.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Recommended: The Great Passage

Sometimes watching a TV show prompts certain needs in me. For example, I have to be drinking white wine when watching Saikou no Rikon, or drinking beer when watching Match of the Day. While watching this film, I had a sudden urge to get the largest dictionary I own (the Kenkyusha New Japanese English Character Dictionary) and watch the rest of the film with it on my lap, like some kind of weird substitute cat.

The film that inspired this burst of bibliophilia is set in an office where they are making a new dictionary. An odd topic for a film, but one that works surprisingly well. People leave and join the team, they fall in love and get old. It’s a gentle character-lead comedy, full of people discussing things that normally never get discussed, such as how do you define the direction “right”?

Despite being miles away from a Hollywood blockbuster, the film still seems to think it needs some kind of climactic event: some last minute danger to overcome. In this case, it is the discovery that a word is missing, meaning some last-minute list-checking is needed! It’s not exactly defusing a bomb on a speeding bus.

The acting is great. Matsuda Ryuhei is miles from his more usual slacker-type roles, and Miyazaki Aoi is perfect as the love interest. But it’s Odagiri Joe who really makes an impression. His character is someone not suited to dictionary work, and he provides a lot of the comedy, but in a sensitive way: never so overt that it seems out of place.

It’s a great little film, made all the more remarkable by the peculiar subject matter. The subs, by 8th Sin are excellent, and so are the translation notes. I’m a sucker for this kind of story, and I think that these people are heroes, too. Fitting an entire language into a book, however imperfectly, is still an amazing achievement.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

You wait ages for a decent Japanese indie-rock band

And then three come along at once. Thanks to Sparkplugged, I now have three more names on my playlist to enjoy.

First is Suck A Stew Dry with “Colorful”.

Then there’s a new release from SpecialThanks, who have long been a favourite of mine.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, is Kinoko Teikoku, whose shoegazerish songs left me searching the net for more.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Looking forward: The Great Passage

This film, whose Japanese name is Fune o Amu (舟を編む, which means “Knit a Boat” or something like that. No. I don’t get it either), is about a publishing house that decides to make a new dictionary. It doesn’t sound like much of a story at all, but that stuff fascinates me.

The story follows the progress of the dictionary, and the people who write it. The main character, played by Matsuda Ryuhei, joins the team as an assistant and slowly rises to be its manager, while falling in love, battling the publishers etc. Odagiri Joe is his co-worker, and Miyazaki Aoi is the love interest.

Although, really, the main love interest is language, and the obsessive perfectionism that goes with trying to pin it down. It is the fate of all dictionaries to be out of date by the time they’re published, so I think there’s a doomed romanticism to expending that much effort into something that can never be a definitive work, only a snapshot of an ever-changing subject.

Unfortunately, I can’t find an English subbed version, only a hard-subbed Chinese/Japanese copy, which is barely enough for me to follow the conversations which are, as you’d expect, all about the nuances of language. To be honest, I have doubts that even a fansub of this would be able to do it justice. I think you'd need some serious translating skills to get this done. Luckily, it’s already done the film festival circuit, so English subs exist out their somewhere, and it’s the Japanese entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film which means a DVD release is almost certain.

I struggled through the first half an hour, but to watch any more without really understanding it would be a crime, I think. The directing and photography are excellent, considering how much of the action is in a musty old office. In the meantime, I shall scan the local listings of Art House cinemas and search in vain for subs on the web, until the DVD is confirmed. It’s going to be a long wait.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Currently watching: Umi no Ue no Shinryojo

Due to various reasons, I’m a late starter on most dramas this season. This drama starts Matsuda Shota and Takei Emi, both of who have been in good stuff in the past but their presence is not necessarily the sign of a quality drama.

The story is based on a hospital ship that sails around the islands in Japan’s inland sea. A new doctor arives on board and, despite being an excellent doctor, he is somewhat eccentric as he falls in love very easily. Basically, it’s a cross between Dr Koto’s Clinic and Unubore Deka, but that’s no bad thing. Unless you hated those shows, of course. In which case, steer clear of this.

Matsuda Shota surprised me with an assured comedy performance. He’s quite unlike his previous appearances (he’s cut his hair, for a start) and now that he isn’t playing an enigmatic unemotional genius of some kind, he can do normal things like smile, laugh, or react like a normal human would.

Takei Emi, too, puts in the best performance I’ve seen. This time she’s not stuck in a role like a girl in a boys’ school or an eccentric weather forecaster who solves crime. She’s being a normal adult woman and is all the better for it.

The stories are simple and undemanding, and you can see the twist in the end a mile off, but that's not important. Just look at the pretty scenery and laugh at the jokes. All in all, it’s a quality piece of light viewing.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Fourth Annual November 8th Awards

And so, as is usual on this blog, I mark the anniversary of If By Japan's birth with a pretend awards ceremony. These last twelve months have seen Japanese dramas offer up an embarrassment of riches in one season, followed by the embarrassment of being really quite incompetent for months at a time.

I found my free time greatly reduced as, despite still being unemployed, I started doing voluntary work this year. This means I still haven't seen Lady Joker or finished Hanzawa Naoki, although I fully intend to. One day.

Also, it seems to me that the nominations this year are more repetitive than before, with the same names cropping up. Whether that is a reflection of my viewing habits or of a patchy year in J-drama, I don't know.

But anyway, my favourite TV shows out of the past twelve months are...

Best drama

Going My Home
Osozaki no Himawari
Hitori Shizuka
Furuhata Ninzaburo

Koreeda's charming drama takes the prize. Despite being a ratings disaster (13% share down to just under 5% by the end) it was a joy to watch. Almost no story at all was somehow kept going by subtle performances and a gentle soundtrack. Osozaki no Himawari was everything that made me like J-dramas, all wrapped up in one lovely bundle. Hitori Shizuka was challenging and sometimes confusing, but still a compelling, dark drama. And it had the best shoot-out I've seen in years. Furuhata Ninzaburo remains heads and shoulders above most other murder mysteries, even 16 years after it was made.

Best comedy

Yuusha Yoshihiko to Akuryou no Kagi
Saikou no Rikon
Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi

I tip-toed through SOIL thanks to a patient Japanese friend (who's now, sadly, gone back to Japan) but found it's David Lynch sensibilities very funny. Yuusha Yoshihiko... isn't as good as the prequel, but still was funnier than most. Saikou no Rikon is a grown-up comedy about failing relationships and it was so excellently played and it came so close to winning, but Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi was just stunning. Original, inventive, unpredictable and perfectly cast. I said it is the closest that J-dramas have ever got to being rock'n'roll, and I stand by that.

Best film

Still Walking
The Sun
The Thieves
The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On

The Thieves is a great big martial arts rush, and one of the few films which I've wanted to watch again the moment it ended. The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is a brilliant documentary that challenges its viewers to sympathise with a very unsympathetic subject. The Sun is an acting masterclass from Issy Ogata, but Koreeda gets his second award with Still Walking. What can I say? I'm a sucker for anyone who can turn non-stories into compelling viewing.

Best Actor

Eita (Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi, Saikou no Rikon, and The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker)
Abe Hiroshi (Still Walking, Going My Home)
Issy Ogata (The Sun)

Eita, for me, was unstoppable in this past year. His versatility and adaptability is a constant source of amazement. I saw him in several things recently, and each time he's seemed like a different actor. Abe Hiroshi was effortlessly good in two of the Koreeda works I saw this year, and Issy Ogata was riveting in his role as a falling Japanese emporer at the end of the second World War.

Best Actress

Miyazaki Aoi (Going My Home)
Ono Machiko (Saikou no Rikon, Like Father Like Son)
Maki Yoko (Saikou no Rikon, Like Father Like Son, and Osozaki no Himawari)
Gouriki Ayame (Biblia Koshoudou no Jiken Techou)

Miyazaki Aoi was great in Going My Home, as the villager who seemed to know more about local fables than she admitted . Gouriki Ayame was surprisingly well suited to her role as a timid book-keeper. But really, it was between Maki Yoko and Ono Machiko. Both were brilliant this year, but I think Ono Machiko just edges it. Not sure why. Possibly just because Ono Machiko seems like more fun to get drunk with.

Best Game Show

Running Man
Game Centre CX
Vs Arashi

It was episode 124 that won it again for Running Man. Any game show that makes me want to go and research history has got to be a winner. And, despite feeling a bit predictable at times, it still has the ability to do things that no other TV show can do. Vs Arashi pushed it close, though. Especially with some subtitled shows coming online, and Game Centre CX remained fun.

Best Album

Amado Leejaram Band “Debut”
Tokumaru Shugo “In Focus”
Girls' Generation “Girls Generation II: Peace and Love”

I've been following Tokumaru Shugo for only a couple of years, but he's already become a favourite. I love his inventive approach to music, somehow folky and somehow modern, and the tunes are good, too. I was also impressed by the folk-blues from Korea of the Amado Leejaram Band, and the quality selection of pop goodness that was Girls' Generation II.

The safe pair of hands award

Eita (Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi, Saikou no Rikon, and The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker)
Abe Hiroshi (Still Walking, Going My Home)
Ono Machiko (Saikou no Rikon, Like Father Like Son)
Maki Yoko (Saikou no Rikon, Like Father Like Son, and Osozaki no Himawari)

In a year for Japanese TV that veered from excellent dramas all over the place to literally nothing worth watching, you could at least rely on Eita to have excellent choice in anything he did. Whether it was wry character driven comedy, or off-beat indie drama, or physical action, he can do it all.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Just watched: Like Father Like Son

The new film by Koreeda Hirokazu was on at one of the more arty cinemas in Bristol this week, and since I almost never get to see Japanese films while they are still in the top ten in Japan, so I jumped at the chance. Plus, I love the director’s previous works, like Still Walking and Going My Home, so I was looking forward to this film anyway.

Usually, Koreeda’s film concern themselves with very slim themes, like a family reunion at a funeral, or some children’s desire to make a wish where two bullet trains pass, or a fable about little people who live in a forest. This time, though, the storyline is more substantial: two sets of parents are told that the sons they have been raising was not their real son. Six years ago they were switched at birth with the other couple’s child.

I’m so used to Koreeda making films about stories that aren’t even stories, it is a bit odd to see him tackle the kind of themes and scenes that you’d find in other films. In this way, at least, this is his most commercial work. The film has got more press attention, perhaps because a film about two sets of parents who learn that they’re children were swapped at birth is easier to write about than his previous work.

So I find myself damning it with faint praise. It’s good, really it is. But it’s not his best. There are plenty of things to recommend it, though. The cast are great, and Koreeda can get performances out of children that seem natural and unforced. If you like Koreeda's films, then this definitely recommended, and if you've never seen his films, then this is probably the best place to start.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Avoid: Ando Lloyd: AI Knows Love

It’s been ages since I named a blog post “avoid” but this drama leaves me very little choice. Despite a strong cast, good directing, nice photography and a lot of money being spent on it, this falls foul of those mistakes that should have been noticed during the writing sessions.

It’s written by the same writer who worked on Keizoku: SPEC, and if you take everything that was wrong with the finale of that drama and stretch it out across entire episodes, then you’ve got Ando Lloyd.

The trouble is, the writer keeps getting himself into situations that he can’t get out of. For example, the writer wants to show how damaged Ando Lloyd was after the battle in episode one, so he adds a line about it taking two weeks to recharge. Of course, that won’t be much use for the show, so he invents some lightning to get round it. But then something goes wrong! Actually, no it doesn’t.

The writer can simply rely on the super-intelligent robots to solve any problem or make mistakes as required. The writer certainly isn’t coming up with any clever solutions more complicated than “oops, he wasn’t dead after all.” Each time Ando Lloyd uses a new function we’ve never seen before, it does not suggest how powerful he really is, but rather how bad at planning the writer really is.

To be honest, the whole thing feels like a revenge fantasy written by someone who did badly at school and one day wrote this complicated story as if to reassure himself that he was clever and one day he’d be famous and then all those kids who kept laughing at him in class would be sorry.

Perhaps the worst thing about this drama is that it makes me wish they'd made a second series of Mr Brain. Kimura Takuya never does sequels, but maybe someone can force him to watch this drivel until he changes his mind.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Currently watching: Henshin Interviewer no Yuutsu

Satoshi Miki has a new film out, Ore Ore (or It’s Me, It’s Me), out this year and also this TV series. It’s a late night murder mystery, with half hour episodes and the typical Satoshi sense of humour.

The story is that a mystery author has hit writer’s block just as he’s about to start on his 100th novel. Looking for inspiration, he starts to investigate a strange murder in a country town, assisted by his... well, by his assistant.

Satoshi Miki’s style of comedy hasn’t changed, and nor has his choice of actors, with Fuse Eri and Iwamatsu Ryo making appearances. Nakamaru Yuichi is the lead actor. I’ve not seen him before, and he has a similar style to Odagiri Joe. At least he does in this. Maybe it’s just because Satoshi Miki directs his male leads in the same way, I don’t know.

The story seems interesting, but we've barely scratched the surface so far. After just one episode, it’s almost impossible to tell how it’s going to go, but after Jikou Keisatsu and Atami no Sousakan, I’m hopeful of another murder mystery that is surreal but still makes sense.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Just watched: The Berlin File

This South Korean film was filmed almost entirely in Europe and a lot of the dialogue is in English. This is due to the morass of nations battling through the streets of Berlin: Korean, American, Israeli, and Arab secret agents and terrorists fight and shoot each other in a series of exciting set pieces.

As for the plot, well, don’t worry about that. Something to do with a North Korean agent who may or not be a double agent or who may or not have been set up. And some arms deals. And his wife is pregnant. It doesn’t matter if you can’t follow the story, since all problems are solved by fighting rather than clever logic.

It is reminiscent of The Bourne Identity (a deliberate stylistic choice by the director, Ha Jung-Woo) and its international style also prompts comparisons to The Thieves. But The Thieves is more tongue-in-cheek and its set pieces are more dramatic and more unlikely than The Berlin File, which is played completely straight.

It’s entertaining, even though the lack of clear storyline makes it hard to know who to sympathise with until about half way through the film. For a film that tries so hard to look sleek and sophisticated, it’s actually pretty shallow. Enjoy it for what it is: a beautifully photographed martial arts film, rather than a new kind of spy film.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Currently watching: Toshi Densetsu no Onna 2

Sequels are almost never as good as the originals, so I was quite relieved that this new series seems almost identical to the first series. The set-up remains the same: a murder is committed which has some apparent connection to an urban myth.

The characters, too, are mostly present and correct. Otonashi Tsukiko still strides off in search of the truth behind the myth, Katsuura is still following her around like a doting puppy, and Tannai still shouts and looks exasperated.

The first episode was about the myths surrounding Mount Fuji, and they were pretty interesting. The murder itself was okay. Not too complicated or devious but that's not what the show is about. It's mostly just an excuse to dig up a few folk tales and say “hey, what if this were all real?”

Two long-term storylines were also set up: the fact that people in the police are jealous of Otonashi's sudden success, and also the enigmatic friend of Tsukiko, Haruki, has gone missing.

So a solid, if unspectacular start. If you liked series one, this should suit you fine. If you didn't, this won't convert you at all.