Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Currently listening to: MFBTY and Leessang

K-pop has hit the ground running this year, with two huge releases in January. MFBTY (My Fans Better Than Yours) is a sort of sub-unit of the rap band Drunken Tiger, except not really but who cares when they sound this good?

With their last album, Unplugged, Leessang proved that they're more than variety show fodder and this new single continues to impress.

As for me, this evening I was walking home from the pub in the pouring rain and I had a whole main street pretty much to myself as I looped these two tracks on my mp3 player. I kept my head up, strode through the showers and puddles and generally felt like I was in a pop video.

Surely, that's what music is made for.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Currently watching: Saikou no Rikon

I really want to call this series "Recommended" just on the basis of two episodes but I guess that would be cheating.

It's beautiful. A beautiful piece of work. That's the first thing to say. It may be about a messy break up of a marriage, but it's already far more compelling than other dramas on the same subject.

The lead actor, Eita, just floors it as Hamasaki. Really. One thing I noticed about his work is the physicality of his acting. In Lucky Seven, he was lithe, athletic, easily moving through the scenes, hands in pockets, nonchalant. Here, he is uptight, elbows almost locked straight as he walks, skipping nervously across roads and slipping off the curbside.

Next to his impeccable performance is Ono Machiko. Her character, as the wife, is perfectly balanced between slobbish and feminine. Perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a woman I've seen on TV for a long time. By which I mean, she reminds me of my ex.

Alongside this married couple is another. Maki Yoko is a masseuse, whose slender body and warm husky voice are clearly meant as a contrast to the wife and therefore be a fantasy figure for Hamasaki. Especially since she has an unfaithful husband (played by Ayano Go, but no real clue to his character yet). However, this ideal is cruelly shattered at the end of episode two, leaving me with no idea about where the story is going to going next. Which is how I like it.

This drama is, so far, funny and heart-breaking and embarrassing and fascinating. Fascinating to see where the story goes, and to see if the writers and actors can keep up this standard.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Recommended: Osozaki no Himawari

You know, once the closing credits rolled on this drama, it occurred to me that Ikuta Toma is the closest thing Japan has to a romantic actor in the classic style of the Hollywood leading man, like Cary Grant or James Stewart. The type that can, with just a smile, make you forget all the mistakes of the past and think that everything is going to be fine.

Which is lucky, because with another actor this series may not have been as enjoyable. The basic story is that some guy from Tokyo helps reinvigorate a declining small town. If it weren't for Toma's air of "Women want to be with him, men want to be like him" I don't know if anyone else could have played this role.

The supporting cast, too, were great. Maki Yoko has been a joy to watch as the big-time Tokyo doctor sent back to her home town against her will. Kiritani Kenta put in a great performance as the optimist slowly worn down by the decline of the shopping centre.

The series doesn't finish with happy endings for everyone. Shops still close and love is still unrequited, but it's still a very upbeat story, full of hope for the future. As I said before, if you're new to Jdramas, this is a good place to start.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Not watching: Nobunaga no Chef

A chef from modern day Japan falls backwards in time to the 1500s. He loses his memory, and can't remember anything, except how to cook. And about the history he learnt at school. And other stuff too, whenever he needs to remember it.

In fact, his memory loss just seems like a convenient way for the writers to give the lead actor as few lines as possible. Tamamori Yuta does not impress in the lead role. I'm not surprised no one believes him when he says he came from the future, because he doesn't convince me either.

The drama starts badly by throwing us straight into the middle of a battle with no idea about who anyone is. Perhaps this is so the viewer is as confused as the our hero, but it means we have to sit through the fight scenes before we find out what's going on.

On the plus side, Shida Mirai is in it and she's got one of the more interesting characters to play. On the other hand, she's got some very clunky lines such as a speech about her dead family far too early in episode one. Also, she doesn't really do anything except add a few laughs and look adorable in armour.

As you'd expect from the whole timeslip business, it reminded me a lot of Jin, but instead of inventing penicillin, curing cholera and saving lives, our hero just makes really nice food. This simply isn't very dramatic.

Just finished: Poison

And so this semi-serious murder mystery comes to an end. Bad guys are punished and good guys walk away victorious. It was an entertaining piece of drama that went from light and humorous to being quite dark in places.

This was one of those shows where you sort of wanted the bad guys to win. Most of the best bits concerned Ayabe Yuji who played the part of Matsui, the villain who brought havoc to all he met, while he watched with an unconcerned air of detachment.

Sano Shiro was great as the ultimate mastermind behind the crimes, especially since he only had two episodes to build up such an important character.

Compared to them, the actors playing the police weren't as interesting. I think Sasamoto made the same speech about her father four times during the series. But the cynical cop Chiba at least offered some light relief.

By the way, the psychological experiment mentioned about students given roles of prisoners and guards really did happen.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Currently watching: Biblia Koshodou no Jiken Techou

So this is my newest subbing project, chosen simply on the basis that I like second hand bookshops.

This series is one of a type that I haven't seen in Britain. It's a kind of murder mystery without the murder. In this show, clues left behind in a second hand book are put together to tell a story about the owner of the book. It's similar to shows like Voice and Shinzanmono. These dramas are more about uncovering hidden family secrets than whodunnit (although Shinzanmono did, in the end, focus on a murder).

The opening episode is neatly structured and cleverly done, apart from a terribly contrived chance meeting at a coffee shop. The directing is good, even if it does try far too hard to make Gouriki Ayame look angelic. And there's nothing bad about the acting so far. Nothing too great either, though. I got the feeling that the characters, for this episode at least, were just there to move the very clever storyline along.

We shall see how the characters develop. At the moment, it's hard to tell, but that could just be because it's early in the series. But so far, it looks like this may be a neat little mystery series. It's adapted (from the novel of the same name) by Aizawa Tomoko, who adapted Kagi no Kakatta Heya for TV, so let's hope it continues at the same level.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Recommended: The Thieves

This film from 2012, the second biggest grossing film in Korea, is a classic heist movie with a martial arts sensibility. In fact, the last eight words of that sentence are all you need to judge how good this film is.

In this film, two teams of thieves – one Korean and one Chinese – join together to steal a priceless diamond. But there's a double crosser on the team, so the team has to regroup to regain the diamond that they already stole, while the people they stole it from are after it too.

It's all about the glamour of high society crime. Some people have compared it to Ocean's Eleven but that's a very lazy comparison (and not very accurate). This kind of tale has been told at least since Raffles in the 1890s. And just like the Gentleman Thief, in The Thieves our heroes are never short of a smart reply or a cunning plan. However, this film is realistic in that the plans don't always work, and not everyone makes it to the end in one piece.

The heists are clever and a little comical and there are some excellent set pieces, most notably the chase scene with people abseiling down the side of a building. In fact, the second half of the film is one action scene after another.

Meanwhile, the film has a distinct international flavour with Korean and Chinese dialogue being joined by Japanese and English. Add to this the compelling performances from the whole cast, and there's very little to complain about.

Bottom line is: this is the first film in a long time that I wanted to watch again immediately after it'd finished. That alone tells you something.

Still watching: Osozaki no Himawari

You know, this is exactly the kind of drama I'd recommend to someone who wanted to get into Japanese dramas but didn't know where to start. It's got a lot of the qualities that attracted me to J-dramas in the first place.

First, it looks very nice. Since it's not set in a big city, the director has the chance to use some of the country scenery as a backdrop to the action. Mind you, a lot of the action seems to take place on or around this bridge.

Second, everyone is attractive. I thought I'd got used to how pretty Japanese women can be, but maybe not. I'm up to episode seven, and I still can't work out which one I fancy most. And the men, too, are all handsome outdoors types. Seriously, if this had been the first J-drama I'd seen, I'd definitely want to see more of this.

Then there's the stories. A series of overlapping romantic triangles: that's the easiest way to describe it. It's light-hearted and fun, but there's enough of a social context (the slow decline of the town centre) to make you think that you're not wasting your time on gossipy nonsense.

And I like the theme tune, too.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Currently watching: Saki

This psychological thriller concerns a beautiful woman, her knack for getting people to trust he, and her motives for doing so. It starts Nakama Yukie as the main protagonist, and she is very good in the role of the enigmatic heroine, attractive and at the same time, a bit repellent.

The first episode gets very close to the problem of setting up a lot of storylines, so it seems like the writer is just throwing out ideas and hoping something will stick. However, the story seems to be quite well paced, and I didn't feel overwhelmed with new information.

I enjoyed the first episode, and was impressed with the hard sub version from Heiwa fansubs, which included a nice bit when the subtitles went out of focus along with the image. Very professional.

I note that the lead actress and producers and directors all collaborated before on Utsukushii Rinjin in 2011. While I don't have time to find that and watch it, Saki is certainly good enough to make me think I may have missed something.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Just finished: Yuusha Yoshihiko to Akuryou no Kagi

That's the thing about sequels: they're never as good as the original.*

This series managed to be entertaining right to the end, but you could tell they were running out of ideas. Too often, the story would rely on Yoshihiko being distracted by something absurd while the other three waited for him to come back.

But, you know, this lazy approach to writing was somehow in keeping with the low-budget production standards. And while the jokes were fewer and further between, there still seemed to be enough to keep me watching. And I did enjoy the Monty Python reference at the start of ep 10 with the guard at the battlements shouting feeble (and extremely long) insults at the travellers below.

I liked some of the build up to the final boss battle, especially episode seven where our noble heroes come up against some monsters disguised as them who are far more noble and heroic that the real thing. However, the final two episodes that dealt with the final boss battle itself didn't seem to have much in terms of storyline. On the other hand, it did stay loyal to the spirit of the story in that Merebu never did learn a spell that would help them in battle.

By the end I was kind of glad it was over. Humorous distractions are funny at first, but this was a whole series of them. And it ends with references to a possible film. Although I know I'd watch it, I'm totally fine if it never gets made.

But having read back what I've just written, it seems a little bleak. Don't get me wrong, it is funny. There are moments in every episode that will make you laugh. Just not as often as the first series.

* This is not necessarily true. The Godfather II and Aliens are two films generally considered to be as good as their prequels.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Let's Learn History with Running Man!

Episode 124 of Running Man contains perhaps one of the most remarkable pieces of sustained improvisation I think I've ever seen. The final game has the usual rules of tearing off each others' name tags and last one standing wins, except this time there is a twist. One of the competitors is the King and cannot have his or her name tag removed. Instead, the others have to find a ballot paper and vote for a new king.

As I watched this, it reminded me of real history: Kings rise and fall, alliances are made and loyalty is tested. Using my limited knowledge of history and a lot of searching on Wikipedia, I discovered which parts of history that were reflected in this episode.

For example, Gwangsoo begins as King and his reign is a bloodthirsty one as he chases after his competitors mercilessly. The others quickly decide on who will be the next King: Ji Suk Jin, who won't be as threatening and will give them time to think. However, Gwangsoo eliminates his rival only to be finally overthrown by a queen, captured and finally removed from the game.

This is uncannily similar (with a little imagination) to the fate of Edward II, an unpopular king, who executed the pretender to the throne, John Deydras, but was finally deposed by his wife, Queen Isabella who imprisoned him before finally executing him.

After the fall of Gwangsoo, Han Hyo-Joo took over as Queen. Immediately she accepted the offer of Kim Jong Kook to be an ally, and so the two of them commence a new reign of fear. Finally, Jong Kook is surrounded and has his name tag removed, and so the defenceless queen is deposed.

This was harder to find in reality, since there are far fewer queens in history. At first I thought of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, but they died by committing suicide. The closest I got was Mary Queen of Scots, whose closest ally was her secretary David Rizzio. He was assassinated, which had serious repercussions for her reign and eventual capture and execution.

It's not a great match, since David Rizzio never represented his Queen on the battlefield, but it's the best I can do.

Finally, a new King comes to power, Yoo Jae Suk, but is undone by his trust of another who had already plotted his downfall from the very beginning, Song Ji Hyo.

If we ignore gender for a second, this is sort of similar to the fate of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days in 1553, until Mary deposed her and took the throne on a wave of popularity, having already made plans to take the succession for herself (and, in fairness, her claim to the throne was much stronger that Lady Jane's).

I find it very interesting that such a simple game should reflect history so nicely. In fact, I think the producers noticed this, and so they kept a bit at the end where the guests say how amazed they are that it was all done without scripts. This is definitely one of those episodes were everything fell together so neatly, that it could almost be written.

Just goes to show, history really does repeat itself, even on game shows.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Recommended: Going My Home

I say "recommended", but it's one of those strange shows that I really have no idea whether or not you'd like it.

This drama was a ratings disaster, but I can't help but love it. It was a very gentle series, with plenty of scenes which didn't add to the storyline, but which often had moments of delight.

I got the feeling that a lot of the time, the director deliberately left the camera rolling longer than it should, and then used a lot of that footage. There were scenes which seemed to be improvised with a lot of family arguing, and there was another scene were one of the actors seemed to get the giggles after a bad pun in the script. Although the laughter spread to the others, they kept going until the end of the scene.

Of course, it could all be that the script and acting were so natural that it looked improvised and, if so, then hats off to everyone concerned with this show.

I noticed how much care was taken with filming the preparation of food in various episodes, but very little in filming the serving of the food. In the same way, a lot of time was spent describing the myth of the Kuna, but no time in whether or not it was true.

Certainly, it's one of those series where the ending doesn't really matter, even though the ending is quite sweet in a sad way. It was all about enjoying the distractions and the details. Nothing too drastic or overwhelming. Just a story with good people in it, and I'm glad I got to spend some time with them.