Thursday, 18 July 2019

I've written a book about Matsue

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Apologies for that, but I can’t see myself getting back to regular blogging any time soon. Nevertheless, I still write and, more pertinently, I still write about Japan. After a recent trip to Japan I found myself a bit perplexed that there was no book about Matsue on the market (apart from Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn, but that’s over a hundred years old). So I sat down and wrote one!

[EDIT: Just to add that I've written a guest post for Tourist In Japan about Matsue.]

It’s an introduction to the city, but very much from my experiences there. I did a little research to add a little background, but it is by no means a history of Matsue. I thought I’d mention it here on the off chance it’d interest you. It’s on Amazon only (self-published Kindle, you see).

EDIT: 14/12/2021. It's been a while and during this whole lockdown thing I've been rewriting my book. It's now got a different name: Matsue, Japan: Seven walks through seventeen centuries, because it's a little more accurate and also I figured I needed the word "Japan" in the title somewhere. So it's now almost twice as long and three times as good. Here's a link to it in the UK store.

Saturday, 4 August 2018


After so long away from jdramas, I’m still trying to catch up with the best ones that I’ve missed. Someone recommended that I watch Unnatural, and what a good piece of advice that was.

It follows the pathologist Mikoto Misumi, played by Ishihara Satomi, who is part of a team that works on autopsies to uncover the truth behind mysterious deaths. In a sense, it bears a passing resemblance to the 2009 TV drama Voice. That series followed the student pathologist Kanako Kunboaki, played by Ishihara Satomi, who was part of a team that worked on autopsies to uncover the truth behind mysterious deaths.

You could, if you wanted to, pretend that Unnatural is a sequel to Voice (if you ignored the different name and change in character) but there'd be very little point and would distract from the merits of  Unnatural which is by far the better of the two.

For a start, I love the characters. Every single one, even the minor but regular characters, is well written and well performed. Ishihara Satomi acts her socks off in the best role of her career. Ichikawa Mikako stars as her co-worker and is equally good. The chemistry the two have is so natural that it almost seems improvised.

The rest of the cast are great but that could be because with scripts as good as these, everyone raised their game. Add in some great direction and there’s little to dislike about this series. Unless you don’t care for procedural police dramas. In which case, you probably stopped reading this review in the second paragraph.

I recommend this without any reservations. Well, there is one: this came out in January-March 2018 and got a lot of praise at the time, so there’s a good chance you’ve already seen it.

Oh, and what was Voice like? It’s like an amateur dramatic version of Unnatural with more happy endings.

This is a technical bit from Voice (2009)

And this is a technical bit from Unnatural. A bit of a step up.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Yami no Bansosha

Despite seeming, on the face of it, to be a murder mystery, this drama series is partly a lover letter and partly heartfelt plea to the manga industry to sort itself and be special again.

It’s the sequel to Yami no Bansousha, a 2015 drama, and the story revolves around the mysterious death of an editor-in-chief of a regular manga comic. Maverick manga editor Daigo Shinji is brought in to continue his work and before long he meets up with his old-time partner in crime, Mizuno Yuki and the two of them work together to uncover the truth.

And it's a fairly twisty tale. If the first Yami No Bansosha was about solving crimes with the physical manga itself giving clues, the second one focused on the industry, the history and the black market for artwork.

But, weaved in between all of this, was a constant call for the manga industry to rediscover its past glories. It was kind of heart-breaking to watch as Daigo Shinji insisted that manga used to be important and it could be again, if only it could reconnect with its audience.

The mysterious death itself was a tangle of different crimes, none of which seemed to add up to much. In the end, it was thanks to a previously unknown witness to the crime that some kind of movement towards a solution became apparent.

While there's a lot to enjoy in this series: the directing, the chemistry between the two lead characters and the never-ending reveal of new clues, the overall feeling was a bit messy and lacked focus. The murder mystery often took second place to evangelizing about manga, with the victim being a sort of metaphor for the industry.

Plus, the inclusion of Kamishibai (old fashioned street story-tellers) in the mystery was clearly meant as an example of a form of entertainment that failed in the face of new technology and became obsolete: a fate that some think that manga is facing now.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Final Fantasy XV

I was a hopeless Final Fantasy fanboy since 1998, when I first played FF VII, right up until FF XII in 2007. After that I had a bit of a problem with the franchise: Final Fantasy XII was too good. I simply didn’t care about the next one (and the reviews backed me up) nor the one after.

Final Fantasy XV brought me back into the fold. And how. Since its release in 2016, I’ve played little else since then. And it’s not just the main game, but also the downloadable content which has kept a hold on me and lead me to the unlikely event of being in a Final Fantasy game.

One of the DLCs for FFXV is the online version called Final Fantasy: Comrades. In this, you create a new avatar (I made one that kind of resembled me) and then you have a number of missions to complete to level up so you can complete more missions, etc. In order to make this endless grinding more enjoyable, I started inventing a storyline around the AI characters who accompanied me. In particular, a romance between me and a NPC called Jenica.

Despite the AI for these characters outside battle letting them do little more than jump up and down or walk with a pronounced limp, the relationship between us quickly grew quite a convoluted storyline.

Here we are, at a camp, looking longingly into each others eyes.

After a battle, I'd run over to her side.

But then I spoke to Iris.

And the next time I saw Jenica, she seemed angry for some reason.

She did her best to ignore me at camp.

And after battle, as well.

Did she prefer Kenny Crow after all? Was I yesterday's news?

But soon after that, we were back to normal.

Back together, as it should be.

A nice example of how you can put a narrative on otherwise random events. It all makes Final Fantasy: Comrades less of a chore, certainly.

But recently, as I played the main game through to completion for the first time since an update, I found some new storylines in Chapter 14 that included some of the AI characters from FF:Comrades. And then, to my surprise and unashamed delight, I found myself in one of the quests.

Look at me with all the cool guys!

Anyway, a twenty-year-old dream fulfilled. Now all I want to do is find Jenica in the main game. I can't tell, but I hope this isn't her...

A sad ending...

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Miss Sherlock

I had all but given up on watching this show having found nothing but a low quality version of episode two on a streaming site which wasn’t exactly easy to watch. But with subs on d-addicts, I was able to sit down last night with the first episode.

While I can’t call myself a fan, I do enjoy a good Sherlock, whether it be true to the original or a reinvention and this one, produced by the TV Channel Hulu, is apparently the first in which both main roles have been changed to women. I can’t see how this has changed anything but setting the story in modern day Japan seems to have caused a few minor rewrites. Wato-san, the doctor, is just back from voluntary work in Syria instead of Waston’s recent time in the army in Afghanistan.

The story is not a rewrite of a Conan Doyle story, but is a brand new mystery: two totally unconnected people die by a small bomb in their stomach going off. How did it get in there, and why were they targetted?

Episode one seemed a bit rushed. The clues were clearly signposted and there were few opportunities for clever Sherlockian deduction and even those were pretty uninspiring. Also, there was no attempt at slowly introducing an evil genius orchestrating everything: instead, Sherlock just started shouting “Who’s behind all this?” once the mystery had been solved. And then, right at the end, the two lead characters have to move in together because Wato-san’s hears that her hotel has just burnt down. How convenient.

So, a clunky start, but still quite enjoyable.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

In The Endless Zanhyang, We Are (Mother's Ruin, Bristol, 9 May 2018)

During the two years or so when I wasn't writing for this blog, I found a YouTube channel called "C Lippe" which regurarly posts live gigs from various South Korean bands. In The Endless Zanhyang We Are were one of those bands and the only one to really take a hold of me. I thought they were amazing and for the past eighteen months my mp3 player has always had something of theirs on it, whether it was the LP, EP or some live mp3s I ripped from YouTube.

Recently, I learnt through Facebook that they were playing their first gigs in the UK. Such is my love for this band, that I would've happily travelled hundreds of miles to see their first gig on British soil. As it was, it was only a twenty minute walk from my flat. How convenient.

The best bit about reviewing music on the Internet is that instead of describing the sound, you can post a handy link that would tell the reader all they need. Here’s a link to some live stuff from earlier this year.

Suffice to say, I find it both elegiac and immense, fragile and over-powering. The set itself was only half an hour long, held in a room over a pub that might hold fifty people at a pinch, but the smallness of the venue mattered little once they started playing. The lead vocalist went from gentle crooning to banshee wailing, arching her back and throwing out emotions far bigger than the room could comfortably contain.

The drums powered through, driving each song forward and I remember thinking how much more rhythmic and raw it felt compared to the studio album. The bass guitar added melody to the drums while the guitar acted as a counterpoint to the vocals and keyboard before heading off on its own into wild pounding chords, sending the song further and further away from its starting point before bringing it all back round again.

A stunning performance and, by itself, was worth the entrance fee. They were actually fourth on the bill. Astonishing. Their name should be tattooed on every shoulder blade and down every calf muscle in the Western world, in my opinion.

But, yeah. Incredible. If you need someone to restore your faith in music, then give them a try.

Track listing for the night
1. 5.41
2. Greensleeves
3. And So It Goes
4. Nightglow Sea
5. What If

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Signal – Chouki Mikaiketsu Jiken Sousahan

In this series, two police officers communicate solely by walkie-talkie in order to solve cold cases. The twist being that one is living in the past. As well as these two individuals is a third officer who worked with the first as a trainee and now works with the other one as a detective.

In this kind of story it can be difficult to maintain a logic guiding the time anomaly. This is especially the case in Signal, since the communications from the past aren’t even in chronological order: the first two transmissions are from a particular year and then the next (which doesn’t happen until eight years later) is from three years previously.

If I’ve made it look complicated then don’t be put off. This all happens over the course of the first two episodes and the phenomena is introduced slowly, so there’s plenty of time to understand what’s going on.

As a police drama, it works well. The stories are interesting, the procedures seem realistic and it’s played straight. The acting is fine, with Kitamura Kazuki putting in by far the most compelling performance as Ouyama, the police officer from the 1990s.

Everyone else is good, but a little bit typical for the genre: there's the gruff career cop, the US-trained profiler with his new-fangled ways, the female detective who is basically The Sensible One in the team and, of course, an evil police commissioner. But I suppose you need a few archetypes in a police drama. It certainly saves time in introducing characters.

I’ve already seen the original Korean drama so, if it stays true to that storyline, I know it’ll be a strong drama with a satisfying conclusion. And so far it seems to be doing just that. This is a great example of how to do a drama that links two different timelines without it getting messy or unrealistic.