Sunday, 22 February 2015

Just watched: Kuroi Tobakushi

I would recommend this 1965 film only as a period piece rather than an example of exciting story-telling. Coming from an age where men were real men and women were real women, etc, part of the joy of this film is watching stuff that simply wouldn’t be allowed these days. Women are there to be slapped, kissed or saved. Men scowl menacingly or laugh loudly for no readily apparent reason. And everyone smokes, especially in bed.

The film is about a famous gambler (the film's English title is The Black Gambler), and how he finds himself caught up in games with increasingly high stakes as he tries to get a friend out of debt. He’s a cheat but so are his opponents. This, at least, solves one big problem with gambling dramas: you need to end on a big hand. Something like four aces against a full house. Except that almost never happens in real life. But if everyone’s a card shark, then it can happen whenever you want and it doesn’t seem absurd.

It starts very well as it moves quickly from one method of gambling to another (poker, horse-racing, bridge) and most scenes are fairly tense. The film has an international feel, too. French and English dialogue mingles with Japanese. But towards the end, the film relies more and more on flight scenes and it ends not with the turn of a card but with our heroes trapped on a roof surrounded by armed gangsters. It would’ve been nice if they’d stuck to the gambling, like a proto-version of Liar Game.

Also, there’s an interesting glimpse into the Japanese psyche of the time. Japan was just coming out of recession and starting to return to the world stage, where it felt it should belong. There’s a scene where the room shakes. All the westerners panic, but they are calmed down when it is explained to them that it is just construction work on a subway and he adds “It’s to make Japan a first class nation.” A neat example of the low-self esteem that seemed to run through Japanese society back in those times.

Just watched: Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken

Or Murder on the Orient Express, to give it its English name. This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel is written by Mitani Kouki, one of my favourite Japanese writers, responsible for University of Laughs, Furuhata Ninzaburo, The Magic Hour among others.

Despite this impressive back catalogue, his recent work has been a little, shall we say, too clever for its own good. Beautifully crafted and structured, but somewhat hollow inside. This, most recent, TV special written by him illustrates the point.

It's a two-episode special, lasting five hours in total. The first half is taken up with a fairly faithful rendition of Agatha Christie's original, transplanted to Japan in 1933. All well and good. I was confused by the way the detective spoke, though. In the original the detective, Poirot, is Belgian and speaks with an accent. However, the idea of a foreigner of any nationality being allowed to investigate and solve a murder crime in Japan in the 1930s is pretty unlikely, so the detective in this version is Japanese. Albeit one with a curious way of speaking. I cannot tell if it is an accent or just a very mannered way of talking. Once you get used to it, it’s quite adorable.

The second half, though, is where Mitani Kouki fills in the gaps in the Christie original, explaining in detail the events that lead to the murder. However, I suspect there’s a reason that Agatha Christie didn’t expand on this part of the story: because its dull. Very dull. I didn’t make it very far into the second episode before giving up and turning off.

So, by all means, watch and enjoy the first episode which is a beautifully made adaptation, but don’t feel the need to watch the second episode. And kudos to the lead actor, Nomura Mansai, who is so enjoyable and watchable that when he’s absent (as he mostly is in part two) the drama suddenly lacks interest.

Recommended: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

A long time ago, before torrenting, the internet was mostly useful for buying cheap VCDs from the Triple D House website from Hong Kong. Back in those days, Stephen Chow was a favourite in our flat, with titles like Royal Tramp, God of Cookery, Shaolin Soccer and, eventually, Kung Fu Hustle. This film from 2013 is his most recent directing work, and marks a return to a more familiar martial arts/comedy genre after the family-friendly CJ7.

It is a prequel to the famous folk story, Journey to the West. In the story we follow a demon hunter who would rather try to rehabilitate the demons he captures rather than actually kill them. He meets another demon-hunter, a woman, who falls in love with him and together they go off on adventures.

Stephen Chow himself isn’t in this film, but the main character is one who would have certainly been played by a younger Chow. The demon-hunter, scruffy but well-meaning, is played well by Wen Zhang mixing a determination to do the right thing with a confusion over what exactly that should be. He is paired with Shu Qi, who plays the other demon-hunter who falls for him.

Just like Kung Fu Hustle, this game mixes CGI enemies and situations with physical comedy and impressive fight scenes. It's beautifully filmed and the costumes, locations and demons are always great to look at. It’s constantly inventive and funny, never letting up from the opening Jaws-referencing scene to the final epic fight.

The very last scene points towards a sequel, but I seem to recall rumours of a sequel to Shaolin Soccer, and also a sequel for Kung Fu Hustle, but nothing came of either of them. I’m not holding my breath now, either, but another film in this series would be very welcome.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Currently watching: Ouroboros

Ouroboros is a murder mystery where a cop and a yakuza boss (old friends from their time at the orphanage) decide to solve an old murder case where the woman who ran the orphanage was shot and killed.

Since this is a blog (mostly) about Japanese dramas, I make an effort to not compare current J-dramas to British or American series, preferring instead to talk about them on their own merits. This time, however, there’s no escaping my feeling that this is suffering in comparison to Broadchurch, a British crime thriller also being broadcast at this time.

Normally, I’m quite happy to sit through the worst cliches of Japanese cop shows, but Broadchurch is making the failings of Ouroboros seem all the more obvious. Ouroboros has a great cast and a good look and it pushes all the right buttons for a tense murder mystery. Trouble is, it keeps pushing them over and over again. Barely a scene goes past without one of the characters grimacing in a evil sneer. Almost everyone is a cop or a criminal so it’s all very one-dimensional, and those who aren’t tend to be witnesses or victims and are barely given any semblance of a character at all. It’s one-note lazy writing, and it’s a world away from Broadchurch’s cast of distinct individuals.

The cast do their best to prop up the script and they do okay most of the time, but not even Ueno Juri can save what can only be described as the most feeble line of dialogue I’ve seen in any crime drama ever.


I’ll keep watching it, though. I trust the cast, and there is enough of a mean streak through the story to make me believe that once all this nonsense about slowly building up the tension is over, we can get down to the real mystery and things will improve. I’ll give it only a few more episodes, though.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Looking forward: Kumiko The Treasure Hunter

Just a quick note, because I need to share.

This film, just shown at the Sundance Festival, is about a Japanese woman who convinces herself that the film Fargo hides clues to a hidden treasure, and so heads to the States to look for it.

The story appeals to me, plus it’s going to be great to see Kikuchi Rinko actually acting again, instead of standing in front of a green screen while a giant robot explodes in the background.

Am excited.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Currently watching: Ghost Writer

Ah, the blank page. Every writer’s worst nightmare. This drama is about a famous novelist - Tono Risa - who, over time, finds her talent fading away. Her most recent novel has been slated by critics and her confidence has all but gone.

Into this situation comes a new assistant and aspiring writer, Kawahara Yuki, whose work has already caught the eye of someone at Tono Risa’s publishing company.

The drama is well shot, and Nakatani Miki is always worth watching. The producers have cast strong actors in the roles closest too her, too, with Mizukawa Asami as the assistant and Tanaka Tetsushi, who is excellent as the Chief Editor of Tono’s publishing company.

Since the first episode begins with the two women fighting over who has the real talent, it’s clear that the famous writer uses the unknown to prop up her own failing career, in a similar way that the real life scandal of the “Japanese Beethoven,” Samuragochi Mamoru who hired someone to write his newer pieces.

It’s also clear that, at some point, the balance of power between the two main protagonists changes. I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Currently watching: Mondai no Aru Restaurant

The ingredients for this series are pretty plain. There’s a group of misfits who are out for revenge against a sexually-harassing president of a large corporation. And they're going to do this by the seemingly improbable method of opening a bistro right opposite one owned by his company.

Well, not RIGHT opposite. It's actually on the roof of a tower block and there's no elevator, but you can see the corporation's restaurant from there, which seems to be important.

The misfits in question are all feminine, if not quite all female. They are taken from those parts of society who are not usually taken seriously in a male dominated world. Among them are a single mother, a feminist, a gay transvestite and a woman in her thirties who is still unmarried. Meanwhile, it seems that every male character is evil, rude and/or stupid. If you can overlook this slightly cartoonish division of the sexes, this drama attempts to make some points about society.

But quite how this ramshackle band are going to unmask the president's way, I have no idea. I’ve only seen episode one but it sort of reminds me of Akihabara@Deep, but with food instead of computer programs. Maybe this is why Mondai no Aru Restaurant has become an early favourite this season. I find the characters interesting, the dialogue funny and the possibilities intriguing.