Monday, June 26, 2017

Kimi no Na wa (Japan 2016)

A near perfect example of how to make an animated film that is so much more than just a, "cartoon", Kimi no Na wa (Your Name) is everything you come to expect from director Makoto Shinkai and is certainly his greatest cinematic achievement thus far.

Taki (Ryunoske Kamiki) lives in the big city of Tokyo and Mitsuha (Mone Kamishirashi) in the small fictional rural town of Itomori. Two teenagers who seemingly have no connection with one another live entirely different lives, yet suddenly find themselves in an unbelievable situation when they wake up to find they've switched bodies. Yes, the ol' body-switch movie but oh, this is so much more than that. Taki, like most boys (let's be honest), innocently explores his new found feminine physique and tries to adjust to life in Itomori now that he has a younger sister Yotsuha (Kanon Tani),  and Grandma Hitoha (Etsuko Ichiara) to live with in a town he doesn't know. Meanwhile, Mitsuha isn't necessarily thrilled to be in Taki's skin, but she's excited to be experiencing life in Tokyo, something she's been pining for. It doesn't take long for both Taki and Mitsuha's circle of friends begin to notice the changes in behavior. Seeing as how neither of them can explain the reasoning behind the randomness of when they switch, Taki and Mitsuha begin leaving each other messages and tips on how to navigate each other's lives until a solution for their problem can be found. Taki learns, from Grandma Hitoha, some very important aspects of ancient religious customs that involve the threads of time and how things are connected in this world. Mitsuha and her sister perform a ceremony for the God's involving kuchikamizake, an alcohol fermented with the saliva of the person performing the ceremony. Why am I telling you this? Well, because it plays an important part in how the story unfolds, but I refuse to spoil things for you. When the two stop switching bodies suddenly, Taki and his friends decide to take a trip to find Mitsuha and her hometown. However, something isn't quite right in his attempt to find her and Itomori isn't exactly what he remembered it to be. Where did Mitsuha go? And what happened to Itomori?

I'm not one to buy into the hype of anything and Kimi no Na wa certainly had plenty of that. I recall reading a lot about the stellar reception it was receiving by both audiences and critics alike and the fact that it ranks as the highest grossing film in Japan speaks volumes. My feeling after viewing Kimi no Na wa was that I truly understood why it is as praised as it is. Is it the best anime film ever made? That's purely subjective. However, it is one of the best anime films that I've personally ever seen. Makoto Shinkai continues to prove that he's the guy to watch in this industry. His storytelling and direction seem unmatched in this field and this film, as well as his prior works, drive that point home. He has a way, including with this film, to tap into the Japanese' strong love of nostalgia and their longing for the simpler life of high school days is a big component of that. CoMix studios, the animation studio that Shinkai-san works with, create some of the most stunning visuals in anime. It's no wonder he chooses to work with them because the level of detail and realism they create is the best I've seen. There are so many elements involved with this production that are firing on all cylinders and that's part of why Kimi no Na wa is so great. While initially, I didn't think the premise of body-swapping was all that original, it turns out to be so much more than that in the 2nd half. It's a film with a lot of heart, memorable characters, insanely good visuals, an amazing soundtrack composed by the popular group RadWimps and it is the sum of all these parts that create something truly special.

It's not everyday that you get an animated film of this caliber. One that both manages to take it's home country by storm, but also manages to charm audiences across the globe. Kimi no Na wa has left it's mark as something definitely worth-seeing and certainly worth remembering. (Lee)

Grade: A


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Gurame (J-Drama 2016)

Completely forgettable, Gurame: The Prime Minister's Chef  is formulaic stuff that is not without its charms yet is lacking in anything of real substance.

You know as well I do that judging a book by it's cover is never a good idea. Kurumi Ichiki (Ayame Gouriki) is a perfect example of that old adage. On the service, she's just an ordinary waitress, albeit a young, pretty one with a sharp sense of wit about her. She also happens to be working at a traditional Japanese style restaurant with a customer base that includes high-ranking government officials. Unbeknownst to her fellow staff, Kurumi has more skills up her sleeve than just taking orders. A chance encounter with one of the aforementioned government figures, Seiji Koga (Kenichi Takito), turns Kurumi's world upside down and she suddenly finds herself cooking at the Prime Minister's official residence and being appointed personal chef for Prime Minister Ato (Fumiyo Kohinata). With Kurumi's superior cooking skill-set now out in the open, she finds herself butting heads with Haruki Kiyosawa (Issei Takahashi), the head of the PM's cooking team, who feels his territory is being tread upon. Luckily she has help in her sous chef, Tomokazu Tamura (Hiroki Miyake), to help her keep a cool head but can she manage to perform under pressure in order to maintain the rep of both herself and Prime Minister Ato?

By and large, Gurame is a rags to riches story but without our protagonist being all that destitute. She is, however, an ordinary person with a hidden superior skill-set and suddenly finds herself in a very surreal situation; cooking for the most high ranking official in the nation. Yes, like most dramas, you're asked to suspend disbelief. The main element of this show that occurs in each episode, of which there are 8, is that a threatening situation befalls the Prime Minister and his office and Kurumi is called upon to create a dish that conveys a message from the PM in order to make a point to the guest (PM's from other nations, Food company CEO's, rival candidates, etc.). Sure, the premise is silly, but it's all in good old fashioned light-hearted fun and on occasion, there is a semi-profound message to be had for the viewer. Gurame, I assume, is a show meant to showcase various high-class dishes in an attempt to ride the wave of newfound food appreciation in today's culture while injected a bit of food history in along the way. My biggest issue with this drama is that there is no over-arching story underneath the repetition of conflict that the PM faces in each episode with Kurumi and Tomokazu having to create a dish. Haruki is a suitable enough rival for Kurumi, in that he feels his position being encroached upon by someone who he deems unsatisfactory. We get it, he has a chip on his shoulder and he maintains that grudge for the entire series. However, there's really no background to him, so instead of coming across as a hardened individual that may be misunderstood, I'm left feeling like he's really just a jerk. There's also no struggle for Kurumi to overcome behind the scenes. It's simply just the challenging cook she faces in each episode. Somewhat interesting elements, such as the PM and his relationship with his mysterious daughter Riko (Risa Naito) for example, aren't really explored and heck, maybe they're not meant to. I should say, they're clearly not meant to because 8 episodes does not afford the writers a lot of time to flesh certain plot points out. Therein lies the problem. Most Japanese dramas are around 10 episodes, which isn't a lot, but they manage to feel more substantial than this. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I'll just accept that the writers didn't want anything deeper than what we got but I personally like a little more meat on the bone.

Unless you have an Ayame Gouriki bias, which I admittedly have, then there's really no reason for me to recommend Gurame. You hardcore foodies might have an okay time with it but I honestly wouldn't expect much. Confection! (Lee)

Grade: C+



Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saki (J-Drama 2013)

This one was painful folks. Saki (サキ) is ridiculous on many levels and that's coming from a fan of the lead actress. I'd like to blame it on the fact that I'm just not the target demographic, but...

On the surface, Saki (Yukie Nakama), is a quiet, beautiful, successful nurse working in the children's ward of a major Tokyo hospital. However, when she's not showing that side of herself, she's living a much darker lifestyle filled with lies and manipulation. Hayato Nitta (Shohei Miura), is working for a local magazine and is approached by Saki who claims she is his older sister. Apparently they were separated years ago when they were just babies and he just happens to have been looking for his older sister. What a coincidence! Hayato is initially shocked and hesitant to embrace Saki and bring her into his life, but eventually, the two of them start getting close and he begins to feel as if he's truly gotten his sister back. Through their relationship, Saki  has a lot of questions for Hayato and she also seems to want a lot of details about specific individuals. Through a series of coincidences, or maybe not, Saki runs into certain men that she ends up seducing. They run the gamut from high-profile lawyer (Masato Hagiwara), to the chairman (Masanobu Takashima), of the hospital she works at! After the initial seduction, her not-so-sweet side comes out as she begins to prey on their weaknesses and manipulates them to the point where they feel like killing themselves. That's a powerful woman. However, why is she seeking out these specific men and wanting them dead? What exactly is their connection? As the proceedings unfold, Hayato grows more suspicious of his sister and you can only wonder if he'll have the nerve to eventually confront her. And if so, will Saki let him simply walk away?

There is drama and then there is DRAMA. Saki is over-the-top in so many ways, that at times it's a bit laughable. Don't get me wrong, Yukie Nakama is, in my opinion, one of the best actresses in Japan and her performance here is solid. Everyone else in the drama really does take a backseat to her ability as an actress. She's also the main reason I watched this series. It's just that the world her character lives in is so odd and far-fetched that you really have to suspend disbelief to find any enjoyment here. In regards to the other actors and actresses here, there really are no other stand-outs. Just a supporting cast serving their purpose. The musical cues, however seemingly insignificant, aggravated me, as did the song choices. My problem with them is that they didn't fit the mood of the show. Staying with the aggravation train, there are these moments throughout when Saki has finished mind-warping one of her victims that she celebrates by cooking herself a very expensive meal. I found it quite strange, but thought, "hey, that's just her thing", but frankly it annoyed me having to watch her eat, with close-ups of her mouth as she chewed. It felt excessive. I know, a small gripe, but a gripe nonetheless. The plot itself, the biggest thing a show has going for it, is Saki's biggest problem though. Once you, dear viewer, discover why Saki is hunting these men down, you'll either laugh out loud or shout an expletive at the screen. I opted for the latter and no, that isn't a good thing. It was just silly and to be honest, a huge let down when it all came to an end. When you painfully trudge through 10 episodes, you're expecting at least a semi-decent pay-off come episode 11. Sigh.

I can't find much good to say about Saki, aside from Yukie Nakama's performance, but even that isn't enough to warrant a recommendation. If I can make the analogy of a star baseball player being on a terrible team. His team loses all the time, yet he always performs well. You get the point, it's simply not enough. Some material is simply too flat for a star to elevate. (Lee)

Grade: D-

                                               (No clip, but here's a video for the theme song)