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.