Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Just finished: Subete ga F ni naru

So I made it to the end of this, always expecting it to suddenly get better but it didn’t. It remained sort of average right until the closing credits. The final crime to solve was perhaps the weakest of the series, since it relied on too many occasions where what the viewer was shown never actually happened.

In terms of acting, I can’t say that Takei Emi really suited the role. Especially, she was a bit flat in the scene in which she sees her parent’s airplance crashing. It lacked any emotional punch. This problem was highlighted by the fact that the scene was shown in every episode.

There wasn’t much chemistry between the two lead characters, and the supporting cast were pretty forgetful. The two students (one female and emotionless, the other male and goofy) were just there for comic effect, I think, because they certainly didn’t add to the storyline. Occasionally they’d appear at the scene of the crime (for no reason) just so they could ask what was going on and the writers could explain recent events for the viewer. Then we’d never hear from them again.

Then there was the silly method of showing how Professor Saikawa solved the mystery, invloving lots of different versions of himself saying random things that have happened against a sort of high-tech background which was meant to represent Saikawa’s thought processes.

In the end, this series failed in a wide variety of ways. Never quite bad enough to be unwatchable, it never met its expecations, either. The most memorable part of the whole series was the couple who appeared in episodes seven and eight of a straight guy and a transvestite man. They were really funny and interesting. Could they have a series, please?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Just finished: The Genius: Black Garnet


It’s only had three series, but watching the final of this game show already has a certain ritual attached to it: Phone off, curtains drawn, lights off, sit away from keyboard and mouse in case accidentally moving them gives away how long is left before the end.

Despite all that care and attention, I must admit that series three has been a bit flat compared to the previous two. Maybe I was too caught up in how new the show was to me during series 1 and 2, but series 3 didn’t have the same kind of zip as before.

The games seemed to have one way to win, and no way to counter-attack. Once a team had been formed and the right strategy devised, they were pretty unstoppable unless someone betrayed them or changed sides. And in this series, the two players who first did this both got eliminated in the first two episodes. Perhaps that persuaded others not to do the same.

The main story of this series was a true bromance between student genius Oh Hyunmin and comedian Jang Dongmin. The two of them formed a team in episode six with the aim of both of them getting to the finals, and it worked.

It robbed the show of something, though. Their mix of strategic expertise and charisma (and shouting) was unbeatable, and then on those occasions when their plan went wrong and one of them went to the Death Match to see who’d be eliminated that round, they came through. Choi Yeonseung came closest to breaking up their alliance, but couldn’t manage it.

So, it was fun, but not as incredible as it once was. I hope that it regains some of its tension and skullduggery next time.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Just finished: Kurokouchi

A few days ago, it was 10th December – a day forever etched on the Japanese psyche as the date of the 300m yen robbery that took place in 1968. I wanted to do a bit of research on the subject, but found surprisingly little on the subject in English.

Anyway, I remembered that I had this series, still unwatched, which had a story based on uncovering the truth behind this unsolved crime. It’s all hypothetical, of course, and is based on the popular theory that the perpetrator was the son of a police commissioner who committed suicide some days after the crime.

Nagase Tomoya is the gravel-voiced hero, a detective who habitually breaks the rules, and it’s a decent enough performance. Similarly, Gouriki Ayame is perfectly adequate in her role as the new partner to this unconventional cop. In terms of acting, the only performance that stood out for me was Koide Keisuke, seen in silent flashbacks as the person behind the robbery. Despite him not saying a word, it reminded me how good an actor he was. I must try to find something more recent he’s been in.

The story was good. Quite clever and convoluted, and it certainly kept me watching as I sped through the whole series in six days. It was a nice example of an urban myth padded out to a full series, and if you like these kind of “what if” dramas based on history, then this would be right up your street. Excellent subs, too. Big thanks to subie06.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Always watching: Downtown

A long time ago, before I had the internet, my interest in Japanese culture hadn’t really got much further than “aren’t their women pretty, and why don’t they translate their video games quicker?” I found a book in a second-hand shop called “The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture.” I bought it, and started on my way down this long and winding road.

In this book was an article about Downtown, a comedy duo of Matsumoto Hitoshi and Hamada Masatoshi. They stuck in my memory because they were famous for being the people who paid most tax in Japan.

When I finally got online, I started looking for their stuff and found a few videos here and there. I even began subbing thanks to them. I found some streaming subs on a website that I can’t even remember anymore for a Five Rangers game that I found hilarious. I made soft subs for a raw on another website (Gaki-no-tsukai.com) and it’s still being uploaded to this day. This makes me very happy, and I still owe a debt of thanks to Spacecoyote for letting me make an srt file of her subs.

Anyway, I don’t follow them regularly, but every now and again, I feel like watching a few of their shows. Recently, I checked on Shibatabread blog to see if he’d subbed any new episodes, and he had. It was the first part of the King of Bikkuri Face Grand Prix, and it had me weeping with laughter. Some comedians, in a hidden camera situation, have to pull off the most absurd suprised expression without the other people present noticing something was wrong.

I absolutely couldn’t stop laughing at this episode, and I’m now clicking on his blog regularly to see if part two is up, even though he’s said it’ll be a while. Plus, I recommend you spend some time on his blog. It’s full of great Downtown stuff. Also, Zurui’s site is good too. But only if you have adblock. Otherwise you may be too annoyed to find the videos funny once you finally get to download them.

Oh, and also on Shitababread's blog, this is a great piece of stand-up comedy from Hyodo Daiki. I liked it so much, I left a comment!

Currently watching: Subete ga F ni naru

I really want to like this series. Really, I do. I’ll almost certainly keep watching until the end, but I might not enjoy it that much.

I’ll watch until the end because of the main story arc: about a woman who killed her parents in a motiveless attack some years ago. She’s only been seen on a TV screen so far, but she’s already the most interesting character in this series. By miles.

As for the rest, well, it’s made with care and attention and is full of things that I like about J-dramas, but they just don’t fit together. It contains:

i) Takei Emi acting like a real person, and not a cold emotionless genius. She jokes and laughs and generally seems likeable and sympathetic.
ii) Locked Room mysteries. I love these, they’re so mysterious and so much fun to work out, which brings us to...
iii) You’re given enough information and time to work out the solution yourself. At least, you were in the first mystery. Not so much in the second.

So what went wrong? For a start, there’s not a huge amount of chemistry between the two leads. Ayano Gou is the reluctant genius university professor drawn into these mysteries by his assistant. But, I can’t tell what their relationship is. Nishisono Moe (played by Takei Emi) flirts quite openly with him, but he barely reacts. He’s too good looking to be awkward around women, so it just looks strange.

Secondly, the stories are an odd length. They’re too short for one episode, they end up being stretched out to fill two. And, to be honest, the solutions aren’t really clever enough to need that much time, and they have some very convenient plot twists along the way.

Then there’s the usual problem with non-police/detectives solving crimes. They usually have to stumble upon these murders by chance, which never really looks convincing. Plus, they keep meeting the same policemen too, both of whom are quite stupid, allowing our heroes to save the day with their deductive skills.

It’s not bad, but it could easily be better which, somehow, makes it worse. I’m still interested in the main story arc, though. I want to know what happens there.

Recommended: Remember Me

You know, given how much I’ve been writing about Korean stuff lately, and now this blog post about a British drama series, you’d be forgiven for wondering why this blog is called IfbyJapan. I don’t usually write about British stuff, but I thought I’d make an exception for this supernatural horror mini-series, due to its J-horror influences.

The story is about a man, Tom, who is admitted to an old persons’ home. Before long, his social worker is dead, apparently flung from a window, with the window too. And so begins a journey through Tom’s mysterious past to identify who is behind all this.

It looks beautiful. Shot in Yorkshire, the landscape adds a malevolent touch. Remember Me also contains some strong performances, including Monty Python’s Michael Palin in his first dramatic role since 1991.

But, as I mentioned, it reminded me a lot of those J-horror films that swept into Western consciousness back in the late 90s, such as Ring and The Grudge. There are shots of oily black seas, and disjointed ghosts. The use of water as a signifier that something bad was about to happen obviously reminded me of Dark Water.

And all of this made this UK-horror very watchable indeed. Lots of shocks and suspense along the way, and an intriguing story to keep you interested.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Seven more worst ever Running Man episodes

This post is a sequel to this one I wrote almost two years ago. Since then, as I mentioned in my last post about Running Man, the ratings have suffered and, as I went back over the episodes, I did notice that there was a period where these poor or unremarkable episodes seemed to be more frequent. Luckily, that period seems to have ended. Mostly, anyway.

So here is my second list of the very worst Running Man episodes, from about episode 135 to 222. This is in order of episodes, since no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't work out which of these episodes was the worst.

Episode 147

I can imagine that filming a Korean variety show is a pretty strange affair. So much is filmed that you need to be entertaining for hours at a time, knowing that most of what happens will be cut out of the final show.

And, of course, knowing that a lot will be cut out, it wouldn't be unreasonable for people to do the same joke several times in different situations, thinking that at least one will be used.

In that case, there must have been a remarkable lack of decent footage for this episode, as two jokes are repeated in the first game. And the whole thing never really gets going. Sure, there are funny bits, but they're much further apart than usual.

Episode 150

In this episode, there is a vague storyline about the Running Men team having super powers. But the first game is paintballing, which is just not funny. There's a not very exciting dodge ball game and then during the elimination game, some fighters are introduced. The idea is that the Running Men should team up and battle them, but they don't and they're easily picked off one by one.

Episode 165

This is actually quite a good episode, all about a Running Man fan's scrapbook of the show. However, in the final chase, the book itself is ripped to pieces in a fight. I found this quite disrespectful to their fan. I hope it was a copy.

Episode 170

I feel bad about listing this amongst the worst, since Ji Suk Jin works overtime to try and make it entertaining. This shows that Running Man relies a lot on its guest these days. Kim Yoo-jung is too young to have any real presence on a variety show, and the other guests don't really make up for it. A bit feeble.

Episode 183

I'm not sure why the producers thought it was a good idea to start this episode with a 20-minute section where the Running Man members and guests all got horoscopes, but they did. And we all had to suffer for it. The following games weren't great either. The “Phone a famous person at random” game was okay, but very long. Still, it was comedy genius compared to those bloody horoscopes.

Episodes 188-9

Ah, Australia. Such a beautiful country, such a dull couple of episodes. The first game looked impressive: diving for treasure maps in a rusty old wreck, but was too dangerous to allow for any real joking about. Any humour comes from the witty (?) captions that accompanied the action. And if your variety show is relying on the guy who writes the captions to be the funny one, then your variety show is clearly in trouble.

None of the other games were very good, and they appeared to be designed by the Australian Tourist Board. Not even Song Ji Hyo arriving during the second episode could save it. A dud.

Episode 222

Honestly, I didn't laugh once for the first twenty minutes of this episode. It was so bad that I thought “Maybe I don't like Running Man any more.” With no guests, the seven regulars play some games and more or less do the same jokes that they always do. Some of those jokes are still funny, but I do find myself wishing they didn't do guest-less episodes any more. Without someone new who can be unpredictable and change the balance of power in the group, Running Man really suffers.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Just finished: Liar Game

Yes, we have spoilers.

This series based around games of bluffing and bargaining ended on a very open note, clearly pointing towards a second, darker series. And, by episode 10, I thought that this series would increase the tension for the series finale. At the end of that episode, one contestant was last seen trapped in an elevator, apparently free-falling to his death. But at the start of the next episode, nobody seemed to be that bothered that he wasn’t around to film the next game or even answer his phone. They just carried on without him.

The other drawback of the final episode of this series was the amount of talking that went on. The motives and events behind everything that happened were explained in quite a bit of detail, and I was somewhat disappointed to see the old storyline of “we were all in an orphanage together but I forgot” to explain why nobody had realised the link between the contestants until the end. This was a plot device I last saw in Final Fantasy 8, and I remember thinking at the time that I hope I never see it again.

Then there was the kidnapping of the main contestant’s father. This sub-plot really came out of nowhere, and wasn’t terribly well thought out. It ended with a rather silly fight between a good guy and a bad guy while the father, tied to a chair, wobbled about a bit in the foreground. I suppose he must have forgotten that he was doused in petrol and he was about to knock a lit Zippo lighter onto the pool of liquid around him. An easy mistake to make.

So that’s the bad news.

The good news is that this remained entertaining despite the slightly shaky finale. And it was better than the Japanese version, by quite some distance in the end. The real life setting of a TV reality show meant that events of the game had some kind of repercussions outside the game. I liked the scenes about debt collectors and how the public were reacting. It put everything in a world I recognised.

I enjoyed the games, too. The Contraband game was far clearer in Korean version. The Japanese version involved taking out the opponents' money and then making them think they were smuggling it back in again. The Korean version was mostly about who to trust and how to trick the game. Plus, it had this shot in it.

It was far better, too, to have the enemy as another contestant instead of some faceless group of enigmatic criminals. Shin Sung Rok was great as the evil mastermind determined to destroy his rival. He was by far the most interesting character in the series – a seething pit of hidden disgust at those around him. Nicely underplayed.

And, perhaps the Korean version’s biggest triumph over the Japanese drama concerns the final episode. In the original Liar Game, it was a two-hour recap of the previous ten episodes followed by a fifteen minute epilogue stuck on the end. You can’t imagine how disappointed I was when I first saw that. I was expecting a feature length Battle Royale to end the fantastic first series. The Korean Liar Game at least sticks to one hour per episode and doesn’t waste too much time with flashbacks.

So, although it wasn’t perfect, I really enjoyed this series and I look forward to the next.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Currently watching: Yowakutemo Katemasu!

While looking through an old hard drive, it occurred to me that Yasashii Jikan was made ten years ago. Back then, Ninomiya Kazunari was playing the misunderstood teenage son. Now in this series, he’s playing a grumpy teacher. How time changes us all.

I started watching Yowakutemo Katemasu because Nakuna Hara-chan reminded me how much I like Aso Kumiko, so I looked around for something else she’s been in recently. The story is about a man who becomes a teacher at the school he once went to. The school is famous for its high grades and its terrible baseball team. He decides to take over the team and convince them that, “even if they are weak, they can win.”

I've seen the first few episodes, and I though it was okay. Aso Kumiko's role is a bit marginal, but apart from that disappointment, it's a perfectly average drama about a high school sports club. Nothing special.

Although while I was watching one episode, and I was thinking I should go to bed when it finished, one of the characters suddenly burst into the scene and said “We've got a game!” I immediately forgot about sleep and thought “I have to see the next episode! I need to know what happens next!”

For that moment, at least, I was hooked.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

D-addicts stops hosting torrents

Ah, well. It was bound to happen sooner or later. As someone who watches a lot of j-drama, the one thing I’ve come to accept over the years is the fact that sites hosting TV shows will, eventually, vanish. Sometimes with warning, sometimes not. Silent Regrets, My Asian Cinema, Asiator, and a load of sites listing links to Megaupload all vanished eventually. And now one of the largest, D-addicts, has announced that it will no longer be hosting torrents, and will only carry fansubs for videos that have to be found elsewhere.

Of course, this has caused a lot of sadness, even amongst me. The site was the first place where I downloaded a J-drama (Loss Time Life) and got into this whole thing. Before the torrent comments section was deleted, I checked, and my first comment on the forum was in 2008. Alas, it was a complaint. It would have perhaps been nicer if my first words were more positive, but never mind.

The next issue that this has brought up is, where next? Other torrenting sites are being discussed, but it’s clear that the future of watching J-dramas will be much more diffuse. It’s already getting that way, with a lot of stuff coming hosted on jdramacity.

I’m lucky in that I got registered on Asiatorrents, otherwise I’d be in a bit of a fix. One thing that I did think about was looking again at legitimate sites, like Drama Fever, Viki and Crunchyroll to see what kind of selection of J-dramas they have.

Drama Fever mostly has Korean stuff, including Running Man, but that's region locked, so I can’t watch it. Viki has stuff from around the world, but little stuff from Japan, and what they do have is a few months behind schedule.

Crunchyroll is mostly anime, with some live action dramas. And, like Viki, it’s mostly quite old, although Nobunaga Concerto and Hero 2014 are up. But there are a lot of adverts on that site unless you pay, which makes it kind of tough to sit through.

To my surprise, I also found Biblia Koshodou no Jiken Techou on there. Not with my subs, I hasten to add. They must’ve got a professional in. It was quite addictive watching it with their subs and checking what I wrote line by line. Certainly their subs are more accurate, but I think mine are funnier. Mind you, I would, wouldn’t I?

It’s a real pity about D-addicts dropping the torrents, but not the end of the world. It'll just make things a little more inconvenient. Just focus on how much joy it brought, and let’s hope it continues as a successful host for fansubs.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Best Running Man Episode part 3

It's been over a year since my last list of best Running Man episodes and, since I didn't give my Best Game Show award to Running Man this year, I thought I'd take some time to sing its praises in case anyone thought I'd gone off it.

Part one of my Running Man rankings is here.

And part two is here.

And here is part four!

Sure, these last twelve months have been tough. The ratings dipped (at one point to less than a 6% share) but have recovered. And on various blogs I read, the overall feeling about the show in the past year was either that it was getting tired and needed new ideas or that it should go back and revisit some of the old games they used to play.

However,when I did my research into games since my last list, I found that most episodes had some gold in them somewhere. For example, Patrice Evra in episode 154 being surprisingly entertaining, and the episode where 2NE1 were supposed to be aliens, ending in a farcical battle to retrieve water. Then there was the skipping on mats on water game or the mixed-sex boxing game or the episode designed by a fan of the show. The amount of invention remains high, and anyone who says Running Man is tired and predictable needs to watch a few episodes of Vs Arashi. That's barely changed at all in the four years I've been watching it!

One thing that you may notice about my choices is that the all rely heavily on guests. I find that a weak or uninteresting guests can really make a show drag. Equally, a show with no guests at all somehow isn't as exciting as it once was.

And so here is the third list, and this time I'm going from worst of the best to the best of the best

Episode 213

When I started watching this episode, my expectations were rock bottom. It began with some scenes where the RM regulars are required to do a bit of acting (improvising, really) and previous attempts by Running Man to mix drama and variety have usually been quiet bad.

But before long, the five guests proved themselves to be funny and unpredictable. The format of the games allowed for the couples to change, which avoided the usual problem with couple races: that one couple tends to be ignored.

This time everyone got plenty of airtime and it looked like it was an enormous amount of fun to film.

Episode 187

In this episode, the RM regulars recruit teams of students to help them build a boat out of ordinary household materials that will carry them across the River Han. The cast's interaction with the students is great and watching everyone struggle to cross the river is almost inspirational.

Episode 219

The most recent episode on the list. This episodes demonstrates what I mean about guests adding to the show. Wang Ji-hye, an actress, was invited on and thanks to her friendship with Gwang Soo became a star of the show, with their teasing and banter.

The game, too, was pretty exciting, involving a game where each player is secretly given a side, and it was up to one person to try and work out during the game who was on which side.

Episode 206

This episode involved the three teams trying to create a gourmet meal by mixing bits of instant meals. On the way there were plenty of amusing games that allowed them to choose better ingredients, and the cooking challenge, too, is funny.

Episodes 192-4

This three-episode epic saw our contestants racing across Korea for one episode, and then they have to discover the identity of two spies amongst the cast in the following two episodes. Hats off to Ryu Sueng-Soo and Kim Min-Jong for adding to the fun in the most unexpected ways.

Episodes 148

A very silly episode. Using a board game set-up to link together a series of short games, this episode more or less ignores any attempt at a storyline or narrative structure, preferring to go for the jokes. A hightlight is the game of badminton on top of a crane.

Episodes 171-3

A three-parter in which the star guest isn't actually present for the first episode, except in some video clips. The guest in question is the baseball player Ryu Hyun-Jin and subsequently there are a lot of baseball themed games, leading up to the big Super Power Baseball match at the end.

Suzy appears too, and there's an adorable attempt by the cast to start a loveline between her and Hyun-Jin.

Episodes 151-2

Finally, this episode is, I think, the best since the last time I made a list like this. There's a great elimination game, using surveillance cameras that the hunted have to find and turn off. There was also the first appearance of the blob jump, and a watermelon race where Kwang Soo ignored winning and concentrated on getting his revenge on Jong Kook, and also a wrestling game.

The only downside was a not too eventful elimination game at the end, and the last ten minutes of episode 152 were taken up with a teaser for episode 153. But I don't think the ending should take away from everything that lead up to it.

And so, that's my list for the time being. And, in case you're wondering, I think my favourite out of all episodes is probably numbers 109 and 110, when they had the Olympic athletes Park Tae Hwan and Son Yoen Jae on the show. Every game, every scene, had “classic” written all over it.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Recommended: Nakuna, Hara-chan

Honestly, I think I’m going soft in my old age, crying at two things on TV in the last two days.

The first one was the film Miss Potter, and then I watched the final two episodes of this series in one sitting so I could make a real effort and finish subbing this series over the weekend. I suppose that, after serveral moths of chipping away at these subtitles a little bit each day, I formed a bit of a bond with these characters. So it was that during the last two episodes I found myself reduced to a blubbering wreck. Even when I was doing the subs later, I found myself tearing up again.

So, I’m recommending this, but with some reservations. First, if you’re the type who is not impressed with the type of doomed romance which is impossible not just because of society (the usual love across the barriers type stuff) but because of some physical impossibility (such as robots, ghosts or, in this case, cartoon characters), then steer well clear.

On the other hand, if you’re learning Japanese and are looking for a drama to watch without subs, then this is for you. Especially episodes 7 and 9, which I think someone with intermediate skills (or a bit higher) could watch it and understand most of what is going on.

If you’re in the mood for a weepy yet funny romance which doesn’t require you to think at all, then this is for you. It’s funny and stupid and often very touching. But as I write this, I still wonder how much of this reaction was due to me subbing it. If I hadn’t spent so much time in their company, would I have empathised with th characters so much? I was even sad when I was putting the subs into a zipped file and posting it on d-addicts. I was depressed that there was no more work to be done on this. A clear sign that these characters, absurd though they are, had got under my skin.

So... it is what it is. A tear-jerker that’s all heart and no brain.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Currently watching: Gomen ne Seishun

I once wrote about Mistushima Hikari, calling her "the elfin-faced queen of downbeat characters in oddball films." Well, that's a long time ago. Now she's more likely to be the plucky, unfortunate heroin who's prone to start crying at least once per episode.

So it's a nice change to see her in a comedy. This one is fast-paced and highly entertaining. The story involves two single-sex schools that have to merge due to financial difficulties. And if the difference in gender wasn't enough, one is a high-flying elite school while the other posts some of the worst results in the region.

It's written by Kudo Kankuro (Amachan, Tiger and Dragon) and it sees him back at something approaching his best. Mitsushima Hikari and Nishikido Ryo work well as the two teachers who are in charge of the two first classes to try being coed.

There are plenty of romances between the students. In fact, between almost everyone. In fact, like most Kudo Kankuro works, everyone seems to have their own storyline, even a deceased mother of one of the character's who is now a Buddhist god and acts as a kind of narrator whenever necessary.

It's funny and miles away from your usual school drama. Certainly worth a look.