Friday, 31 January 2014

Just finished: Trick

Trick was a long-running drama based on an amateur magician, Yamada, and a university professor, Ueda, solving impossible paranormal crimes. It began in 2000 and in total, it comprises of three series, three movies and three feature-length specials, the third of which aired recently and is apparently the last of their adventures.

The first series is great, and is a must to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries with a spooky twist. It also has the advantage of an interesting story arc: what caused the mysterious death of Yamada’s father many years ago.

It is a quality piece of TV, and one of the best things I can say about it is that it stills sticks in my mind. Which I can’t honestly say about its many sequels. There are so many TV specials and movies that’s it’s hard to be sure which ones were which. I’m not even sure I’ve seen them all – they all start to blur into each other after a while.

The resolution improves, but the joke remains the same:
This how each series/special introduces the failed magician Yamada.

The most recent and final part of the drama concerns a cursed treasure and a family who are slowly killed off one by one. The story is fine, the comedy is surreal, and all the recurring characters make an appearance. On the plus side, its style is still quite unique. No other TV drama at the moment would dare to cut away from the action to a close-up of a slug, or have one of the main suspects constantly over-act.

On the down side, there wasn’t much new to the world of Trick. It felt like watching a bunch of ageing rockers trot out on stage one more time, jacket sleeves rolled up, to go through the old hits one more time. If you watch this final episode of Trick, you’ll get exactly what you expect. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you expect.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Recommended: The Last Chance: Diary of Comedians

Well, they do say that the secret to comedy is timing, and I’d say watching this film about a failed comedy duo on the same day that I found out that a production company weren’t going to follow up a pilot episode made by myself and a friend was probably the reason I found it impossible to watch this film without tears rolling down my face.

I am a big softie for films about the entertainment industry, such as some of the early Mitani Kouki films, or The Woodsman and the Rain. I find myself totally empathising with the naive, hopeful amateur who thinks they only need one chance to prove themselves.

This film follows the career of a lowly comedy duo, Boso Swimmers, as they struggle through their twelfth year in showbusiness while trying not to get jealous as other, younger comedy teams become more successful. They decide to put everything into one comedy competition: their final roll of the dice.

The two main roles, played by Ito Atsushi and Koide Keisuke, are excellent. Especially Koide Keisuke who is one of my favourite actors, and really impresses as the less talented but more motivated of the two. They are supported by a great cast, including Nagasawa Masami and a wide range of Japanese comedians in various roles. Plus, a quick nod of appreciation to 8thSin for the excellent subtitles.

It’s funny and touching, especially if you’ve ever thought you might have stood a chance in the slightly absurd world of entertainment. It’s all about whether it’s better to prefer a comforting dream over grim reality. A cruel choice that most of us have to face in some way.

Just watched: Pitfall

Pitfall, or Otoshiana, is a 1962 film which is initially about two deserters and a child moving from job to job, trying to avoid the law, and then one gets an offer elsewhere. Once he arrives at the location, there’s nothing but a deserted ghost town, with only a woman who runs a corner shop.

While he tries to find a particular place on a map, a mysterious man in a white suit begins to follow him and, before long, stabs him to death. Soon after this, the man’s ghost appears and tries to find out why he was killed.

Despite being shot over fifty years ago in a style which seems very slow and mannered today, it is a very modern story. Since he is a ghost, our hero cannot be seen or heard, so he mostly just offers commentary on the investigation which shifts from the police to journalists and finally to the guy who apparently was meant to be killed but our hero was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This structure can be a little odd. While I was watching the journalists, I was wondering what the police were up to, and I was expecting them to come back into the story. But it was wrong of me to think of this as a police drama. It is more of a commentary on the working conditions of Japan, with a murder mystery added on.

It’s directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi, and it looks great. The suffocating heat of the summer really comes through, and the framing and composition is also very good. The story was entertaining, but somewhat disappointing. Having set up an interesting crime, the film doesn't seem very interested in solving it. The consequences of the murder are more important than the reason for the murder.

I'm left wondering if part of my confusion is simply a cultural thing. If I'd seen it in Japan in the 1960s maybe the symbolism of the man in the white suit, and the theme of trade union disputes would have made more sense. Either way, a good film, and I hope to find more of Teshigahara's work soon.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Just watched: Heiwa

Some films these days are practically put together by the marketing department. A gap in the market is identified, or a big hit is replicated, and a film is made specifically to suit that situation. I can’t imagine anyone in a big film studio banging their fists on a table, demanding that this particular film be made. It’s too random for that. Too obscure.

Heiwa ("Peace") is a documentary, released in 2010, that follows a number of people who work with the disabled in the community or the elderly. Offering transport, or cleaning services. The film watches unremarkable scenes like going to buy a pair of shoes or simply take a woman from one place to another. It even takes time to describe the relationships of the various cats who gather outside one person’s house. These scenes are fascinating in how ordinary they are.

Perhaps the highlight are the final scenes: One house-bound old man, conscious of the film crew and aware that he might seem quite boring, starts talking about his time in the war, much to his carer’s surprise.

The film draws some interesting parallels between the service providers and the service users. The disabled are dependant on the help provided, but equally the helpers are dependant on their expenses being paid from government programs. It’s clear that both of these sections of society are undervalued and, sadly, ignored by society as a whole.

But this film doesn’t bang a drum or push these conclusions in the viewer’s face. In fact, this realisation dawned on me a couple of days after having seen it. This documentary is quietly observational, allowing the story to meander from place to place, and whatever the viewer wants to take from this is fine.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Just watched: Kagi no Kakatta Heya

In a season with very little TV that I’m looking forward to, I can console myself with my plan of using the time to catch up on all those weird little art house films that I’ve been meaning to see for ages, but never had the chance. But before then, I’ll quickly talk about this special episode of an old favourite.

Not so long ago, it seemed like every other series was a murder mystery. However, even with so much competition, this drama stood out. It specialised in apparently impossible “Locked Room” murders and their cunning solutions.

The final episode of the series ended with the clear implication that the hero, ace-locksmith Enomoto, was actually a criminal too. And this special episode ends with exactly the same implication. In other words, we end more or less where we started.

But the main appeal of the show is not Enomoto’s history. It is the crime itself and the interaction of the three main characters. Both of these things are present and correct. Sato Koichi still steals every scene as the self-absorbed lawyer, and Toda Erika is fine as the sensible one. The directing is fine, with a nice use of silent pauses to underline certain reactions. However, he gets minus several points for using the old cliched of loudly-echoing footsteps to enhance the tension. Even in one scene where the room is clearly heavily carpeted.

It was an enjoyable addition to the story but, as I mentioned before, it didn’t take us anywhere we hadn’t been before.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Just finished: Umi no Ue no Shinryojo

This light-hearted romcom glides to a serene end, with no unexpected twists or surprises. That is if you ignore the confusing start to episode eleven. Part ten ended with the adorable Dr Kota removed from the ship as a cost-cutting measure by an evil Vice-Chairman.

Then, at the start of the final episode, he turns up at some family reunion but it’s never really explained whose family, or where it was. But they all knew Nurse Mako so he can’t have gone far. And then the house burnt down. This allows Dr Kota to be an excellent doctor in full view of the Vice-Chairman who then relents and allows him back.

The last episode goes all over the place, trying to wrap up every last storyline. Literally. Dr Kota heads back to Hokkaido to look after his mother, and then Nurse Mako follows him to give him his phone back. Hmm...

But if you’re looking for deep emotions and smartly constructed stories, this isn’t the drama you want. It was light, fluffy and undemanding and it drifted past on a sea breeze, leaving barely a ripple in its wake.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Recommended: Petal Dance

This film from 2013 starred Miyazaki Aoi, Katsuna Shiori and Ando Sakura and was directed by Ishikawa Hiroshi, who I’ve written about once before and then promptly forgot about. That’s a shame, because this film is a quiet, thoughtful and, above all, hypnotic study about friendship and life. After I downloaded it, I decided to have a quick look, fully expecting to watch the first three minutes just to see what it was like. I ended up watching the whole thing.

The story involves two friends who hear about a friend of theirs who apparently jumped into the sea and had to be rescued. They decided to go and see her in hospital and, by chance, they meet someone who can drive them there.

The style is slow and ponderous. Shots are held without anything in particular happening except perhaps a shift in posture. This gives the viewer a chance to enjoy the photography, which is lovely, with excellent use of natural light and composition.

For such a slow film, it touches on a lot of issues: new love, lost friends, unemployment, suicide. None of these are examined at any length but somehow they’re both pivotal to the storyline and inconsequential. It’s up to the viewer to decide how important each event is.

It is, at its heart, a road movie. It’s a very quiet one, but it definitely is a road movie: people go on a journey which changes things. How things change? Well, that’s never made clear. But that’s fine. If this film did start explaining everything, it would probably ruin it.

Update, 18th Jan: I've decided to make this "recommended" because in the two weeks since I first saw it, I've watched twice more.