Sunday, August 7, 2011

Beck (Japan 2010)

No surprise here (at least in terms of Japanese entertainment), but Beck (ベック) is the live-action adaptation of the manga and anime of the same name. I don't see a lot of anime, but I did see Beck and I thought it was alright (review possibly to come?), and it's generally fun to see how they bring a cartoon to life. The live-action Beck however, wasn't fun. Go figure.

The story of Beck centers around a quiet loner by the name of Yukio "Koyuki" Tanaka (Takeru Sato), a seemingly average middle-school student without any real direction or desires in life. To make matters even more cliche, he's always on the butt-end of the bullying stick. He doesn't really know where his interests lie and by chance, or fate, he runs into the English-speaking, yet very Japanese, Ryusuke Minami (Hiru Mizushima), by helping Ryusuke's dog Beck from being bullied by a bunch of gaijin (foreigners!). Ryusuke is obviously thankful to Koyuki and the two hit it off. Koyuki soon discovers that his new friend is an amazingly talented guitar player by witnessing Ryusuke perform live. This, as you can imagine, was a life-altering moment for young Koyuki as he was able to witness the awesomeness of guitar and live music in all it's glory. Koyuki now knows that he wants to learn to play the guitar and begins taking lessons with an eccentric middle-aged man named Saito (Takanori Takeyama). He also meet's Ryusuke's younger sister Maho (Shiori Kutsuna), a spunky, firecracker of a girl who has no problem telling people how she feels, in English no less! Naturally, Koyuki's sparks fly when he sets his sights on Maho, but the attraction isn't exactly going both ways. Meanwhile, trouble brews in Ryusuke's band because the "leader", Eiji (Kensei Mikami), seems to be more concerned with the band's image than the music. The two guitarists go their separate ways and vow to each start the best band possible. Dun dun dun! Ryusuke begins recruiting different musicians from around town that are well-known for their specific abilities. He grabs Taira (Osamu Mukai) for his killer bass skills and battle-rapper Chiba (Kenta Kiritani), for his vocal ability and energy. Saku (Aoi Nakamura), is a transfer student that just started at Koyuki's school. He strikes up an instant kinship with Koyuki because of their shared interest in Dying Breed, the million-selling American band that Ryusuke introduced Koyuki to. Ryusuke and Eddie (Dying Breed's guitarist) ran the streets together in New York and decided to break into a car, stealing the dog, Beck, and a guitar with bullet-holes in it named Lucille. Trust me, this comes into play later on. Back in the now, a wonderful coincidence occurs, Saku is a great drummer and Koyuki has gotten pretty darn good at guitar from months of non-stop practice. Could they two be the missing links for Ryusuke's upstart band? You wouldn't be foolish to think so dear readers. During a meeting, in which to come up with a name for the band, Chiba suggests, "Beck", in reference to Ryusuke's dog. Everyone thinks it's a little weird at first but decide to go with it.

Soon, Beck are making a name for themselves by playing a lot of shows around town and releasing their own E.P. However, Eiji's new band, "Belle Ame", are making an even bigger name for themselves by recruiting pretty-boy actor, and friend of Maho, Yoshito (Yuta Furukawa), as their singer and by having one of the biggest, and most evil promoters in the game, Ran (Shido Nakamura), backing them. I said it would come back to haunt us, but the guitar Lucille was stolen from Leon Sykes (Cinque Lee), a famous-yet-villainous promoter from America. He saw footage of Ryusuke playing Lucille on-stage and wants his guitar back. Beck is approached by Sato Kazuo (Yuki Matsushita), a woman driven to fulfill the wish of her deceased sister by booking the Grateful Sound Festival with real quality rock bands. She feels that the festival her sister started before her passing has gone downhill in recent years and believes that Beck would be perfect for the lineup. Beck, of course, would love the opportunity but Ran stands in their way. This dude has some clout. So Ryusuke, having an uncomfortable meeting with Leon Sykes, then has the nerve to ask Leon for help in getting Beck in the festival. Leon, presumably intrigued at Ryusuke's gall, agrees to let Beck in one condition...a condition that Ryusuke agrees to. So Beck are in, and will have their opportunity to face off with Belle Ame, but at what cost?

Good Lord, I didn't realize how much nonsense went on in Beck until I started writing my review for it. That, in and of itself, is my biggest problem with the anime and the movie. The story is, to be frank, overly-complicated, to the point where it detracts from what is actually interesting and engaging about Beck; the characters and their journey to make music together. The Leon Sykes storyline is a mess and feels like an unnecessary last-minute attempt at creating drama and tension. The same can be said for the story of the guitar Lucille and how it got the bullet holes in it. It's simply not as interesting as just following these guys and the ins-and-outs of the music industry. I'm also going to point out that there is quite a bit of English in this movie (and the anime) due to Ryusuke and Maho having spent time abroad, but my God, I found it incredibly annoying and distracting because of how bad their English sounds. Hey, don't get me wrong, kudos for trying in the first place, but it's pretty cringe-worthy, as is most of the English acting from everyone else. Also, in the anime, it turns out Koyuki has a pretty solid singing voice and sings quite well in English. In the live-action movie, they play some generic music over Koyuki's vocals so you don't get to hear him sing. They do this throughout to the point where it feels like it's an intentionally huge build-up and you'll finally get to hear him belt out a tune at Grateful Sound. However, they do the same thing at the music festival! They play music over his vocals so you don't hear him!! What is that!? Every time he sings in the movie they make it seem like an angel came down from heaven and whispered in their ears, but yet the viewing audience gets a giant middle-finger from the filmmakers. To the man or woman responsible for making that decision, resulting in an absolute climactic finale failure: fuck you. You may be wondering if I liked anything about the live-action Beck movie. Well, not much. I thought the casting, in terms of looks, was pretty solid and they all seemed to be playing their instruments, or at least doing a darn good job at acting like it. They also tried to follow the anime storyline as much as possible and I suppose that should be commended but oh how time can be an enemy. Hmm, that's all I got for positives.

You would think that an ideal as simple as friends starting a band to jam would be a lot more simple than this, but Beck chose the route of trying to do too much. The anime worked (mostly), because it had around 27 episodes to tell the story, but the film is a 2 and 1/2 hour bore-fest with far too many shortcuts taken. It's a poor example of fan-service, which is ironic because only fans of Beck will watch this crap, and non-fans will wonder the heck is going on. When compared to the anime and possibly the manga, it's just a real disappointment. (Lee)

Grade: D

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Akunin (Japan 2010)

Well it' about time! I've been wanting to see Akunin (悪人) ever since I saw previews for it last September. Fast forward almost a year later and I've finally seen it. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Sometimes the high expectations we create get met.

Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a quiet, socially-awkward loner who lives in a small, rural village in Nagasaki working construction. He stays with his grandmother, Fusae (Kirin Kiki), and grandfather, Katsuji (Hisashi Igawa), and helps to take care of things around the house, as well as helping others in the neighborhood. His grandfather is in poor health so Yuichi often has to help bathe him and take him to and from the hospital on a regular basis. With a basically non-existent social life, he started emailing women on an online dating site. Yuichi corresponds with a young woman, Yoshino Ishibashi (Hikari Mitsushima), who leads a bit of a double-life by working in insurance during the day and getting paid for sex with Yuichi at random times. Yoshino's father, Yoshio Ishibashi (Akira Emoto), a barber living in a rural town in Fukuoka with his wife Satoko (Yoshiko Miyazaki), has no idea that his little girl is spending her free time doing such very adult things. While Yoshino has a sexual relationship with Yuichi, she's actually infatuated with spoiled, rich-kid Keigo Masuo (Masaki Okada), who lives a care-free life as a playboy, getting pretty much anything he wants. Masuo really has no interest in Yoshino but humors her by responding to her emails with the intention of just getting in her pants. On a night when Yoshino plans to meet with Yuichi, she runs into Masuo while Yuichi is within eyesight. She ditches Yuichi and gets in the car with Masuo which enrages our blonde-haired protagonist, prompting him to follow the two as they drive off. However, after Yuichi begins to tail the two of them, we fade to black and settle in on the next morning with Yuichi getting ready for work. Wait...what happened last night!? Ah, we'll we find out soon enough as Yuichi makes his way to work, which happens to pass by the same area Masuo and Yoshino were driving by last night but now it looks like a crime scene. What happened here? Well, we soon see Yoshino's dead body being pulled up the embankment on the side of the road by the authorities. Again I ask, what happened last night!?

Later on, Yuichi gets an email from Mitsuyo Magome (Eri Fukatsu), another member from the dating site, and decides to meet with her. After an initial misunderstanding with their intentions in regards to a relationship, the two find themselves to be quite a match. At least they seem to think so. Mitsuyo, while nowhere near as socially awkward as Yuichi, is just as desperately lonely as he is, fueled even more so by seeing her older sister in a healthy relationship. The two really seem to be hitting it off, but all is not well as the police have started asking grandma Fusae about Yuichi and his relationship with the deceased Yoshino. Turns out Masuo claims he didn't kill Yoshino but simply kicked her out of his car by the side of the road. What exactly did Yuichi did that night? The grieving Yoshio and his wife grow more emotionally unstable with the news that the police might not have the right guy after all. Yuichi panics at the news that the police are snooping around his home and decides to leave town, asking Mitsuyo to go with him. He doesn't have a plan, he knows he doesn't want to go home, and he finally musters the courage to make a confession to Mitsuyo. She doesn't seem to care about what he tells her, and only knows that she doesn't want to leave his side.

I really battled with how much of Akunin I wanted to give away. I didn't want to come right out and say so and so murdered Yoshino, so I'm not going to and I'm certainly not going to tell you the circumstances of her death. These are all things you should experience as a viewer with no real prior knowledge. The film does a great job at building suspense and maintaining a real air of mystery while the lives of all it's characters continue to move along. Speaking of which, there are an abundance of characters in Akunin and at first I wondered if the film would lose it's focus while shifting to so many different perspectives. Thankfully, when it does change perspective and focuses on a different character, it doesn't feel like the pace of the movie suffers and, as it should, still feels geared around the central storyline. I really felt that each character was interesting in their own right and I genuinely wanted to see how their side of things played out. Akunin won a small truckload of acclaim, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Best Actress (Eri Fukatsu), at numerous awards shows and after seeing the movie, that makes perfect sense to me. While everyone in the film put forward incredibly strong performances, Satoshi and Eri, if I may be so bold, acted their asses off. The situation they're placed in is a tale as old as Romeo and Juliet, a forbidden love that tries it's hardest to defy the odds and those opposed. I could relate to the aspect of wanting something so bad, knowing it's near impossible and yet still trying even though you know it may be all for naught. Another theme that's accurately shown in Akunin is that sometimes our desires make us selfish and we end up hurting those that care for us, forcing their lives to change in the process.

The minute Akunin starts, you get the feeling that things aren't going to end well. However, you hang in there because of a cast providing incredibly strong performances, a story that keeps you guessing and a doomed romance that you can't help but wish had another chance under different circumstances. I'd be hard-pressed to find something negative to say about Akunin and have it be anything buy nitpicking. Truly a powerful film. (Lee)

Grade: A

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Highschool of the Dead (Anime 2010)

Zombies, guns, blood, gore, T&A, oh my! How can you go wrong with that winning combination? Well, let me tell can go wrong, and H.O.T.D. (学園黙示録) is proof of that. Don't get me wrong, the series oozes with promise and possibility, and there are some great moments, but that just makes it's glaring flaws all the more frustrating.

Takashi Komuro is just a loner high-school student that is lost in thought, pondering life, love, and how unfair both can be. His "me" time is interrupted by his old childhood friend, the pink-haired Saya Takagi, who seems to be constantly on Komuro's case about being stupid, a day-dreamer and so on. Both students are interrupted by a rattling coming from the front gate of the school. When some faculty members make their way over to the gate, they realize something is very wrong with the stranger trying to make his way in. The man at the gate bites one of the teachers and for all intents and purposes, kills him. After a few seconds though, the recently deceased begins to move again and gets up with a moan in his voice and a lifeless look on his face. What we have here is certainly no longer human. That's right folks, the zombie invasion has begun. Komuro and Takagi take no time in realizing that all is not right at the front gate and rightfully decide to kick things into high gear. Komuro's first stop is in getting his classmate and friend, Rei Miyamoto, and her boyfriend (who happens to be Komuro's best friend) Hisashi. Meanwhile, Takagi runs into the fat, nerdy, and somewhat awkward Kohta Hirano, and explains that there may be a situation at the school and that they need to prepare themselves. Luckily, everyone here seems to be familiar with the concept of zombies so they make sure to grab whatever they can to use as weapons. Komuro, Rei, and Hisashi decide to make their way to the rooftop, thinking that help will come for them if they barricade themselves away. Fighting their way to the top, Hisashi is bitten and things take a turn for the dramatic. Once securely barricaded away, Hisashi begins to turn into one of them and Komuro is forced to take his best friend's life. Rei is overcome with emotion in having to witness her boyfriend's death, but she and Komuro realize that they need to stick together in order to survive. As zombies continue to swarm the rooftop, the two realize that being stuck on the roof might not be such a good idea after all and begin making their way out of the school. They run into Takagi and Hirano on the way, and just before they leave they also meet Saeko Busujima, a kendo expert, and the school's giant-breasted, mostly aloof nurse, Shizuka Marikawa. Ah, the band is together and ready to rock. Everyone brings something unique to the group with Komuro's leadership skills, Rei's defensive skills (taught to her by her policeman father), Hirano's expert aim with firearms, Takagi's genius, Busujima's kendo skills, and Marikawa's ability to care for the injured. Wow, it's like an RPG game! The group decide that the best plan of action is to get the heck out of the school and stick together in checking on each others families.

Time to smash some zombie brains!
So what lies in wait for our band of unlikely heroes? Well, mostly a world in turmoil and countless walking undead. Turns out this is a worldwide pandemic and nations across the globe are in panic mode, unsure of what to do. Chaos is breaking out in the streets and no one is safe. The group, having picked up some other students and a teacher, Koichi Shido, who is hated by Rei, make their way to the city on a school bus. Shido tries to convert everyone into making him the boss, and it gets to the point where Rei can't stand to be on the bus with him anymore. Rei leaves and Komuro goes with her, thus separating the group but they all (minus Shido and his brainwashed followers) agree to meet at the police station the next day. Being alone gives Rei and Komuro time to bond and understand each other better, while Takagi and the others eventually separate themselves from Shido as well. Shizuka tells the group that they can rest up at her friends apartment close by and luckily, Rei and Komuro stumble upon the group just in time. Now that everyone is back together again, it's business as usual as they all continue to talk and bond, forming friendships and slaying zombies together. Their goal remains the same, to try and find family alive and well (wait till you get a load of Takagi's parents), and they even take in a little girl, Alice Maresato, whose family was killed, and an annoying little dog name Zeke. Sure, you'll find out why Rei hates Shido so much, and just who is Mirakawa's friend with the well-stocked apartment, so fear not.

Pink-haired girls and shotguns...awesome.
I'm obviously not going to tell you every little thing that happens in H.O.T.D., because I'm a spoiler-free advocate, but it's safe to say at this point that you get the gist. A group of survivors, mostly high school kids, are just trying to stay alive in a world gone to hell. This type of zombie-apocalypse scenario is generally right up my alley, and there are certainly a lot of things in H.O.T.D. that I dig. For one, there's no shortage of action and with that action comes plenty of blood and gore. There's also a lot of half naked (and sometimes fully naked) girls and women in this series, with breasts and crotch-shots flying across the screen in almost every scene. I feel like this anime is paying homage to those low-budget zombie movies of yesteryear, what with the over-the-top action sequences, and the out-of-nowhere panty shots and breast-bouncing. I mean hell, throw in the rock/metal guitar riffs for good measure and you basically have all the ingredients for cliche zombie entertainment. I say this because H.O.T.D. both takes itself seriously at times and at other times it's quite comical, but intentionally so. It's an interesting blend to say the least. There are 12 episodes here, and that's really not that many episodes when you consider all the scenarios you could put these characters in. Oh the possibilities! However, that's where things go horribly wrong and totally piss me off. For one, it takes three of those precious twelve episodes for the group to get out of the school. The fourth episode is half flashbacks from the first three episodes, and the sixth episode is a pointless, hentai-esque, filler episode in which nothing of real significance happens except for nudity...which is kinda awesome, but let's not get sidetracked. What is going on here!? Why are we squandering such potential on nothing!? I mean, I like looking at half naked animated women with big breasts as much as the next guy...I guess, but for 20+ minutes while the crap is hitting the fan just outside your door? Anyway, consider all the time wasting a low point for me in this series and a major reason why I didn't like it more. I should point out the art and animation are both quite good, although I'm not a fan of mixing the CG with traditional 2D art. Thankfully those moments are more in the minority. I also want to say that the character design is decent enough, although Rei's hair looks strange to me, like she has two alien antennas coming out of her head and Mirakawa's boobs are...well, ridiculous. The characters themselves though are all interesting enough with Busujima being my personal favorite, mostly because she seemed to have the most depth to her. Although I would've tossed that little dog Zeke to the first group of zombies I saw...maybe even Alice too.

H.O.T.D. overall is a fun series and any hardcore anime fan will love it, and more than likely any hardcore anime fan has already seen it and probably did love it. I'm just a casual anime viewer however, and I had a good time with the series for the most part, but I'll never forgive it for all it's filler and squandered potential. It came so close to hitting the mark across the board. I hope they have a second season and if they do, I'll be waiting with my always fine-toothed comb. (Lee)

Grade: B

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Perfect Blue (Japan 1997)

It's certainly not the first anime film to do so, but Perfect Blue (パーフェクトブル) is a perfect (pun intended?) example of how animation can convey very real subject matter in an effective way. It's also a pretty good example of not all cartoons being suitable for children. Duh.

Mima (Junko Iwao) is a member of the J-pop trio CHAM! and enjoys a certain amount of success from being arguably the most popular of the group. However, fame and success isn't always as satisfying and fulfilling as it appears to be for us outsiders, and such is the case for Mima. What she really wants to do is to quit singing in an idol group and be taken seriously as an actress. We've all seen that happen with plenty of stars, but it turns out things aren't that easy and making that transition proves to be quite the challenge for Mima and her manager Rumi (Rica Matsumoto). Nevertheless, Rumi gets Mima a small part on a crime-drama called, "Double Bind", and through her perseverance and general likability, she eventually secures herself a larger role. So while things are starting to look good on Mima's end, not everyone is happy about her leaving CHAM! She receives a fax labeling her a traitor and on occasion we see a rather homely looking individual who appears to be stalking Mima. This dude is everywhere she is! The biggest issue coming from those labeling her as a traitor seems to the be the fact that Mima's taken on a complete image overhaul. Her role in, "Double Bind", puts her in provocative situations and I suppose they're angry that her innocence is lost. Listen, I'm trying to think like one of these lunatics okay? Anyway, Mima stumbles across a website (which, keep in mind, was the early days of the internet), called, "Mima's Room", and it eerily details her day-to-day activities in journal format. The only problem, and this is a biggie, is that Mima's not doing the writing. Yeah, creepy stalker alert! As you can imagine, Mima's anxiety and general paranoia of obsessive fans escalates ten-fold and she's constantly looking over her shoulder when she steps outside. She tries her best to keep up with her work responsibilities, which include seductive photo-shoots and questionable acting scenes. The next thing you know, the people associated with tarnishing Mima's image start turning up dead. This just puts Mima in a more vulnerable position, mentally and emotionally and pretty soon she finds herself not being able to differentiate between reality and fantasy. The girl is losing her mind...rightfully so. Is there anyone left that Mima can trust? Who else will turn up dead? Can she find away to snap out of her spiral of madness before it's too late!?

If you couldn't tell by now, Perfect Blue, from renowned anime director Satoshi Kon (may he R.I.P.) is a straight-up psychological thriller that doesn't pull any punches with how it presents it's content. Some have said it's "graphic" at times, I would simply tell those people to stop being sissies. Sure there are some edgy scenes best meant for the 17 and over crowd, but it's nothing you probably haven't seen before in an R-rated movie. The animation itself is top-notch in my opinion. I'm a big fan of Satoshi Kon's style and if I'd seen this movie back when it was released in 1997, it probably would've made my head explode. I mean that in a good way. This movie is all about Mima for the most part and for better or worse the film has a bit of tunnel vision. Meaning that she is the focal point and the movie doesn't really branch out from her. For me, she's not a particularly engaging character, but thankfully the circumstances around her are. Kon and company also do a good job at creating a frightening world of paranoia and a feeling of isolation and just how unsettling that can be. However, when Mima starts to lose her mind, things don't only get a bit muddled for her, but they did for me as well. It's bit difficult trying to follow exactly what's happening, what's real and what's not. If you don't pay attention, you could easily get lost. To their credit though, this confusion doesn't go on for too long before things get clear again. While I didn't find anything to be particularly surprising in terms of story-telling (including the ending), I did find the revelations, and the way in which things played out, satisfying.

Perfect Blue might not seem like anything revolutionary these days, but I imagine that for it's time it was pretty extreme. Fourteen years later I'd have to say that it holds up quite well as a complete package. It's dark, edgy, not without it's flaws, but most importantly it's fairly well-executed. Check this one out, but I wouldn't recommend it for family movie night. (Lee)

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

SCHOOL!! (J-Drama 2011)

Oh for the love of...well, I mean come on! How many school dramas am I gonna come across? Don't answer that. Japan is in love with the school-based drama and this time they didn't pull any punches and just called the show SCHOOL!! (スクール!!). As you can probably assume, this is very familiar territory but it ever-so-slightly manages not to fall into the been-there-done-that pile largely due to strong performances. Still, this drama won't set the world on fire.

Naruse Seiichiro (Eguchi Yosuke), is a man just brimming with personality and beloved by his co-workers in the underground tunnel construction business. He knows how to run a crew and he's great at what he does. Professionally speaking, things seem to be as they should until he and his crew get the news that the company has gone bankrupt. Naruse is now without a job but luckily his unemployment is short-lived as he is soon approached by a friendly face from his past. Takeichi Mikihiro (Kishibe Ittoku), used to be Naruse's teacher in his elementary school days and asks Narsue to take over as principal at his old stomping grounds, Shingu elementary. Having no prior experience in being a principal or working at a school, Naruse takes the position in order to fulfill an old promise to Mikihiro and hey, let's face it, the man needed a job. He takes up room and board at Mikihiro's house, alongside Miki's two daughters, Kanoko (Kitano Kii), a teacher-in-training at Shingu elementary, and Yuriko (Horiuchi Keiko), who's currently separated from her husband. The teachers at Shingu are a bit hesitant to take Naruse seriously as the new man in charge and reluctantly find themselves following his orders. Naruse may not have any experience in this line of work, but he certainly brought his passion and free-thinking to an otherwise sterile, by-the-numbers environment. Kirihara sensei (Nishijima Hidetoshi), is one teacher in particular who seems completely at odds with Naruse's manner of running things. He basically disagrees with everything Naruse deems right and assures the new principal that his methods will be his downfall. What a delightful man.

Sure it's a pain having to deal with subordinates who don't respect or understand you, but the real problem here is the 5th grade class. To say this class was troubled with some nasty, unruly child-demons would be an understatement. Of course they're not all horrible, after all, there have to be one or two that are bullied. That's where Hara Shoko (Arakawa Chika), and her two cohorts come in. She makes sure that there is always one student in class at a time that is referred to as "kuki" (air), meaning that whoever is air doesn't exist. They aren't seen and always ignored. Oi, kids can be so cruel. Shoko is a total nightmare, but she isn't the only source of trouble in this class. Naruse, with Kanoko almost always by his side, have to tackle a number issues; bullying, both amongst students and towards Ohashi sensei (Tsukamoto Takashi), a boy who doesn't eat lunch with the other kids because he can't afford to, a girl that tries her best to be an ideal student but suffers on the inside due to family issues, and most importantly, the future of Shingu elementary due to budget cuts. All of this while having to manage the personalities of the teachers working under him, parents who don't understand him, a school board who also question his decisions and his own inner demons that continue to haunt him. Talk about having a lot on your plate.

Don't even look at disgust me. (Naruse to Ohashi)

SCHOOL!! has to be one of the more frustrating dramas I've watched in recent memory. Not because it was terrible per se, but because of the obstacles Naruse's character had to overcome to get things done. Yeah, I know there are cultural differences going on here that my American butt isn't used to having to deal with, but I admit that and there were times in this series where I wanted to pull my hair out. The bureaucracy that they portray in SCHOOL!! (and other J-dramas) can be infuriating for those unfamiliar with it and some of my Japanese friends have told me it's only slightly exaggerated. So while it may drive you insane, I guess it helps in creating more drama right? Anyway, let's not get too heavy with a show review. Make no mistake, Eguchi Yosuke, as the passionate protagonist, is the real star of this show. He plays principal Naruse with a warmness that makes you really believe in his fatherly sensibilities. He's also cool in the sense that you wish you had a principal like that when you were in grade school. He deals with a lot of crap with the teachers and students, but there's also a small side-story about his own family that is quite touching when fully revealed. Naruse's mentor, Miki-chan (as he prefers to be called), is also a great character that Kishibe Ittoku portrays in a way that makes him fun to watch and listen to. On the other hand, I found Ohashi to be an irritating character because he was so weak and pathetic to the point where you almost stopped feeling sorry for him. I understood what they were trying to do with him, but he just came across as, well...pathetic. Kirihara was a character that served to stand as the complete opposite of Naruse, the yin and and yang situation, but he was so one-note and robotic that he just annoyed the heck out of me. By the time they told me what his deal was, to make him so cold, I didn't really care. Too-little too-late, and it didn't really excuse his behavior. Kitano Kii was her bubbly and charming self as Kanako. A bit annoying and nagging at times, but more cute about it than bothersome. I should also point out that while I absolutely couldn't stand the 5th grade girl, Hara Shoko, I'm willing to say kudos to young Arakawa Chika for creating a character so vile, that a grown man like me wanted bad things to happen to her. The sign of a true villain. She did her job well.

I can't really say that SCHOOL!! was a great drama, mostly because that horse has turned into a fine mulch at this point due to the beating. However, there are some character highlights and some performances that are fun to watch. There's also a lot of frustration as well but it's as if the creators knew this and made it only nine episodes long. If you haven't gotten your fill with school dramas, then I suppose you can check this one out. Otherwise, just leave well enough alone. (Lee)

Grade: C

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Guilty Akuma to Keiyakushita Onna (J-Drama 2010)

Well hello again boys and girls, I've returned with a review for the Japanese drama series, Guilty Akuma to Keiyakushita Onna (ギルティ 悪魔と契約した女 ). It's dark, over-the-top at times, people are killed and hearts are broken. Wow, sounds like everything I'm looking for in a J-drama, yet it somehow still misses the mark. Sad face.

For the sake of this review, I'm going to proceed by referring to this drama as just Guilty because the title is too darn long. Airing on Fuji TV from Oct 2010 to Dec 2010, Guilty is 11 episodes of fairly engaging television. Nogami Meiko (Kanno Miho) is a dog groomer at an upscale pet-salon. Her life seems ordinary enough...hell, she seems ordinary enough, however reality is never as clear-cut as it appears to be. Meiko has a dark side in which she seeks revenge against those responsible for falsely imprisoning her when she was 19. She "allegedly" killed her brother-in-law and nephew with a poisoned chocolate cake, which in turn made her mother practically disown her. The chick is a total loner as a result. Now we also have Detective Mashima Takuro (Tamaki Hiroshi), who constantly walks around with a look on his face like, "I cannot be bothered". He's on the hunt for his boss, Miwa Shuhei (Moro Morooka), a man that Mashima looks up to, who has disappeared without a trace. His new boss, Ukita Hajime (Yoshida Kotaro), is pretty hard on Mashima and wants him to get his act together. Mashima also has a co-worker/ex-girlfriend, Kichise Michiko (Enomoto Mari), on his case about him returning to his former self. So why is Mashima so down? Well, turns out that his younger, inexperienced partner from years past was murdered by a madman named Mizuguchi (Kanai Yuta), while the two of them were hunting him down. He's never forgiven himself for letting his junior die while he stood by helplessly. Makes sense.

Detective Mashima. (Yes, he always looks like this)

Throughout the series, Meiko plays Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by having her normal life at the pet salon and eating her revenge-seeking cake too. She contacts the guilty parties one-by-one and basically demands that they atone for their crimes with their lives. So technically she's not a murderer if they kill themselves right? Well, she finds a way in each case to make suicide seem like the best option for these unsavory individuals. Eventually, Mashima runs into a pattern with these suicides and deduces that Meiko seems like the most likely of suspects. He's assisted by this crazy, homeless, fallen-from-grace journalist Dojima (Karasawa Toshiaki). The guy may look like he's in need of a shower, but that's because he knows how to dig up some dirt. Yeah, that was clever. Sure, focusing on Meiko takes his attention away from the search for Miwa, but they have to stop this string of suicides. It's making the police look bad! Mashima buddies up, undercover-style with Meiko by leading her to believe he's a software engineer. The two of them eventually develop a nice friendship in which they start to feel as if they each, finally, have someone they can confide in. Meanwhile, chief Ukita is up to shenanigans and isn't exactly the upstanding officer we all thought he was. Could it be he knows more about Miwa's disappearance than he's leading on? Where the hell is Miwa anyway? Will Mashima discover the truth about Meiko and will it make a difference in how he feels for her? Can Meiko finally find peace after years of distrust and anger (rightfully so) and will she find out Mashima's true identity? Oh the questions!

Meiko Nogami. (I'm going to kill you! I mean...make you kill yourself!)

Believe you me, you'll find out the answers to all of these questions. Are you going to like how everything plays out? Well, that depends on how picky you are. I personally had a few issues with the way things played out in Guilty. I'm a huge fan of Miho Kanno and she was my main motivation for watching this series. Not surprisingly, I found her performance to be as spot-on as she always is, but most importantly, I enjoyed seeing her play a darker role than I'm used to. Having her as a scorned, fragile woman seeking revenge was pretty sweet. Tamaki Hiroshi's Mashima character was alright I suppose, but he was really dramatic most of the time. I know that sounds strange, because this is a drama, but I mean this guy just seemed bothered by everything, and I do mean everything. After a while his constant brooding and inability to smile got on my nerves. The hobo-journalist Dojima, while being interesting to look at and amusing at times, seemed a bit out of place in the dark, serious world of the drama. Ukita is a solid villain and certainly has a face and personality that make you want to punch him. The real focal point throughout the series though is the relationship between Mashima and Meiko and watching how it develops as she continues on her quest for revenge and he tries to sort out his feelings. Sure, you want to find out who really set up Meiko all those years ago and figure out where Miwa is and why he disappeared in the first place. That's all interesting enough. However, by the time you get to the final episode you'll probably just want to see what's going to happen between Mishima and Meiko.

Detective Enomoto and Meiko. (Judgmental eyes!!)

At this point you may be wondering, "well, did he like it"? My honest answer is, it was alright. There are some horrible musical choices, including this Eminem-style rap song that sounds completely out of place. Mashima is incredibly one-note as a character and his journey to overcome his sadness by confronting the man who killed his partner left me unsatisfied. Not surprisingly (as portrayed in many dramas), the cops seem incredibly incapable. God how I hope the portrayal of police in Japanese dramas is a major exaggeration. I'm sure it is, but there are times where you scratch your head and think, "really!?". The big reveal, in who was responsible for setting up Meiko starts veering into, "wait, who are these people?", territory, meaning they're introduced way too late in the series, but I let it slide because I had a feeling they'd be getting what was coming to them anyway and that was satisfying enough. I liked that Guilty was dark and wasn't afraid of getting gritty (content-wise), and the mysteries were engaging enough up till the end. So there you have it, a complete mixed bag. Miho Kanno, this was all for you. (Lee)

Grade: C

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Liar Game: The Final Stage (Japan 2010)

Another movie based off of a manga-turned-television drama, Liar Game: The Final Stage (ライアーゲーム ザ・ファイナルステージ) aims to wrap up the long-running storyline in theatrical fashion, albeit with mixed results. You're either going to love or hate this (the movie that is...and possibly the review).

Just as a quick rundown for those not in the know, Liar Game is a competition that pits contestants against one another in an attempt to win money by using lies and deceitful tactics. There were two, 9 episode seasons of the television show that focused on Nao Kanzaki (Erika Toda), a ridiculously naive and honest college student who comes home to a package of 100 million yen and an invitation to participate in the Liar Game Tournament which consists of a number of rounds. She ends up working with an intelligent con-man (technically speaking, but debatable), Shinichi Akiyama (Shota Matsuda) who runs riot on the competition through various trials and slowly befriends the innocent Nao. That's the nuts and bolts of the series but I'm here to focus on the movie, which if you've seen, or read, any of the series, you'll know what to expect here. However, the film serves as a means to wrap up the story of the Liar Game Tournament and those responsible for it...or so I thought. Nao and Shinichi are back to put the final nail in this coffin and arrive at an island, dubbed the Garden of Eden, where the final stage (hence the title) of Liar Game will take place. Our two protagonists are once again thrown into a room with other contestants and are competing for a 5 billion yen prize. The twist this time around is that instead of using lies and deceit in order to win, the contestants must trust each other and work together in order to walk away with some cash and/or without debt. Some familiar faces return for the Final Stage, such as mushroom-head Yuuji Fukunaga (Suzuki Koysuke), and the LGT employees we've seen from the start, Eri (Michiko Kichise) and Mitsuou Tanimura (Ikkei Watanabe). The contestants feel that the game should be easy enough if they can all agree to work together for the sake of beating the LGT office, but a traitor, X, hides amongst them and begins to sabotage the group's plans. Can Akiyama, in true Akiyama fashion, outsmart the mysterious traitor, or will he and the others have finally me their match?

Defensive shields up! Now I felt the need to do that because Liar Game has a hardcore-nerd following and I definitely don't fall in that group. To be honest, I really disliked the first season of the show. I couldn't stand the far-too-many-to-count cuts in the filming style and the over-the-top acting and over-dramatics of how things would unfold. I understand that the show was based off of a manga, and the show is incredibly stylized, but this is ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that Nao Kanzaki is basically brain-dead. I understand she's supposed to be naively stupid because of her belief in being honest, trustworthy and generally believing in the best in people. However, this girl is just plain stupid and never appears to learn anything. Even when she does, the next thing she does tosses her prior knowledge out the window. I also wasn't a fan of the fact that each episode had enough substance to sustain probably 15 minutes of television with the remaining 30 minutes being comprised of reaction shots and Akiyama explaining to the other contestants (and the audience at home) how he figured out the game and out-smarted the others. That being said, there's nothing I can do to change the style, and being the masochist I am, I felt the need to see how they wrapped Liar Game up. On to season 2, considerably better based on the fact that the Ryou Katsuragi (Rinko Kikuchi) character was an interesting villain. I even learned to find Fukunaga amusing. Also, the games were more interesting. So I crawled my way to the movie with the mind-set that I honestly wanted to see who was behind the LGT and get some closure that the very existence of the movie aimed to provide. Alas, disappointment smacked me dead across the face. The closure I was looking forward to was met with what felt like a 2 hour episode of the show. They're honestly just trying to work together and figure out the identity of X for 2 hours and when the game is finished, the reveal, if I can even call it that, is quite disappointing. I also felt that Nao's character, who had appeared to have taken a page out of Akiyama's book, so to speak, in the smarts department for season 2, had regressed to her former, stupid self in the movie. As usual, Shota Matsuda, as Akiyama, is the most interesting character to watch and listen to. Here he's as compelling as he ever was. Suzuki Koysuke as Fukunaga is also a highlight, albeit briefly, because he's quite amusing, with his flamboyant outfits and over-the-top reactions, but he's really underused here and his existence seems to be more out of fan-service than anything else.

If it were a stand alone movie you'd probably think, "ah, well that's a bummer", but as a film that exists as a conclusion and extension of 2 seasons of a show, the ending is beyond disappointing. It felt as if it were not even a thought in the minds of those making the film. Now I don't know how the manga ended, having not read it, but if the ending is similar, I'm fine never reading it. I'd probably toss the book out the window. That being said, if I were a hardcore-fan of the series, I'd be all the more disappointed and upset at how they wrapped things up. I can only recommend Liar Game: The Final Stage for hardcore-fans (late to the party) or people curious to see what the talk was about. (Lee)

Grade: C

Friday, April 29, 2011

Gokusen: The Movie (Japan 2009)

What's this!? A movie for the much-loved, long-running Japanese drama of the same name? Consider me intrigued! Having been a fan of the three "seasons" of Gokusen, I was curious to see how well the show's material would translate to a film version. Well, it's over-the-top, both in acting and in premise, it's overly-dramatic, cheesy at times, and has no shortage of laughs and heart. This is definitely Gokusen (ごくせん THE MOVIE).

Gokusen: the movie starts with our loveable heroine Yamaguchi Kumiko, aka "Yankumi" (Nakama Yukie), in one of her most absurd scenarios yet. Along with two of her fellow teachers, (Takano Aoi and Ayukawa Sakura), Yankumi is returning from her summer trip to Hawaii, asleep on the plane and completely oblivious to the fact that it's being hijacked by terrorists. While everyone is silently freaking out, as usual, nothing seems to unsettle our bubbly Ojou (princess for the uninitiated). Side note: Yankumi was next in line to be the 4th generation leader of her Yakuza family but her heart led her to teaching. Making quick work of the hijackers, Yankumi returns to her regular life of being a teacher of the delinquents class, 3-D, at Akadou academy. Now principal, Sawatori Goro (Namase Katsuhisa), tells Yankumi that they're expecting a student teacher and that she'll be overseeing his experience at Akadou. Much to their surprise, Odagiri Ryu from Gokusen 2 (Kamenashi Kazuya), walks through the door as the unlikely teacher-in-training. Beaming proudly, Yankumi introduces Odagiri to her new class of trouble-makers, led by Takasugi Reita (Yuta Tamamori) and his four cohorts. Of course these kids get involved in a mess by mouthing off to the wrong guys, in this case the Black Skulls motorcycle gang, and Reita uses his fists to settle the matter. Of course the Black Skulls aren't going to leave it alone and Reita challenges them all on his own in an attempt to spare his friends. Naturally, he gets the stuffing beat of out of him, but Yankumi refuses to let anything happen to her precious students, so she arrives just in time to make quick work of the Skulls, with a little help from Odagiri. Yankumi's actions once again open the eyes of her students in that they can in fact trust her, a teacher, and that she'll always be there to protect them. She's had this affect on all of her past students, and the cast from Gokusen 3 are here to show their life after high school. Ren Kazama (Haruma Miura) is working, but not earning enough so he takes on a night job that promises big money for little effort. Never a good idea right? Turns out life isn't that easy and he soon discovers that he's helping to smuggle drugs. Now he's on the run from the police and is reluctant to involve his friends and Yankumi. So, just whose drugs are these anyway? Well the charming, successful, soon-to-be politician Kentaro Kurose (Ikki Sawamura), of course! Apparently this guy isn't as honest and down-to-earth as people are perceiving and he's really all about money and power. Using Kazama as a drug smuggler does not sit well with Yankumi, as you can imagine, so she'll do whatever it takes to bring this corrupt businessman down and protect her precious students at all cost.

Oh I get it. The story is a bit nutty, but somehow within the world of Gokusen, it all makes sense. One of the biggest challenges this movie succeeds at, and where many fail, is making a successful transition from a television drama to a feature film. The filmmakers do a good job at making it accessible to the uninitiated, but fear not Gokusen faithful because there is a ton of fan service going on here, especially in regards to familiar faces making cameos. Some of the over-the-top performances and silly comedic elements, such as cartoon-ish sound effects, CG usage, and heavy dramatic moments might seem odd to those unfamiliar with the show, but again, it's all in the vein of why people fell in love with Gokusen in the first place. Yankumi's co-workers are all teachers from Gokusen 3 and she interacts with a lot of her past students. This will all mean a lot more to those who watched the series, so in that respect, someone just watching the movie on it's own might not get that nostalgic feeling or that desire to point at the screen and say, "oh, there's ____!". That being said, the story felt like just a way to get all of these characters back together and to give the audience and long-time viewers some closure on the series and all the characters they grew to love. I feel like this is the end of the series and they did a great job with wrapping up the loose ends. Again, that won't mean much to newcomers, but there's still a fun, action/drama/comedy here with a lot of pulling-on-the-heartstrings moments and characters that you can instantly take to.

I'm a bit conflicted as to how to grade Gokusen: THE MOVIE because your overall experience with it weighs largely on whether or not you followed the series. If you did, there's no reason to dislike the film. It gives fans everything they could've wanted and then some. If you didn't, I really believe there's still an entertaining film here, but probably one-too-many fan-service elements to recommend it wholeheartedly to those unfamiliar with the show. Either way, it's a fun way to kill a couple of hours and a fitting end to a series that had a good run. Fight - OH! (Lee)

Grade: B

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Haunters (Korea 2010)

Oh man. You know those times when you read about a movie and start developing expectations for it and then the cold, hard hand of reality smacks those expectations to the dirt? Well I really set myself up for disappointment with Haunters (초능력자) aka Psychic (which is ridiculous because his abilities aren't even psychic abilities). However, if I were psychic, I could've seen beforehand what a pile of garbage I'd soon be watching. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

1991. Cho-in (Yang Kyeong-mo), a boy with a wooden leg and gauze over his eyes, is being dragged through the rain by his mother. His mother explains that he isn't to take the gauze off of his eyes and that he should just trust her. The boy's insanely abusive father comes home swearing and starts beating the boys mother. Fed up, the boy removes his gauze and suddenly we see the man under the boy's control and he deals with his father accordingly. This kid is anything but normal. 2010. Im Gyoo-nam (Ko Soo), is working at a junkyard with his best friends Ali (Enes Kaya) and Boba (Abu Dod), but soon finds himself out of work after he's involved in an accident which lays him up at the hospital. Looking for a new job, Gyoo-nam answers a help-wanted ad at Utopia, a pawn shop run by Jeong-sik (Byeon Hee-bong). Happy in his new position at Utopia, Gyoo-nam seems to be without a care in the world until Cho-in (Kang Dong-won), walks through the door and puts everyone in freeze-mode with his magic eyes...everyone but Gyoo-nam that is. Cho-in can't believe that he's finally run into someone invulnerable to his abilities after all these years. Seems our super-powered figure has been using his ability to rob various shops of their money. He's abnormal and not a good guy. Double whammy. Gyoo-nam tries to fight off Cho-in but during the melee, Gyoo-nam's boss Jeong-sik is killed. Gyoo-nam feels like he's let his boss down and is having a hard time forgiving himself, so with the help of his two goofy, foreign friends, he aims to hunt down Cho-in and bring him to justice.

Well, that was certainly one of the shorter synopsis' that I've written up for a movie. That's probably because almost nothing happens in Haunters. I could tell you that this movie is chock-full of spoiled potential but that would probably just depress you even more. The opening of the film, showing a bit of Cho-in's back-story, looks really good and you think you're in for a really cool, sci-fi/fantasy film with a sharp, glossy look to it. However, after the movie places us in 2010 that all goes out the window. Suddenly the movie looks incredibly low-budget, as if it were made in the 1990's. Not only does it all look different, but everything feels different as if you're watching a completely different movie. The acting is very comedic, which I'm sure was unintentional, but Haunters feels like something you'd catch on a cable network at 2:30 in the morning. We all know that Kang Dong-won is better than this (see: Secret Reunion, Jeon Woo Chi), but here it seems that he's simply dialing it in and collecting that paycheck. His character has zero depth and we really don't ever get to find out what his motivation is for being "evil". Ko Soo and his cohorts are fine enough a different movie, but here they just feel out of place and Ko Soo's heroics seem to come out of nowhere because he's never perceived as anything but bumbling beforehand. I place a lot of the blame on writer/director Kim Min-suk for Haunters being as big of a mess as it is. Everything feels so unbalanced, from the acting, to the score, down to the abysmal dialogue and inconsistent look. I have to also point out that either Cho-in is terrible at being a villain and using his abilities, or Gyoo-nam is just this insanely lucky guy that can't be brought down. The latter being a bit of a spoiler, but it never gets explained. I always keep my reviews spoiler-free but I have to go on record as saying the ending to Haunters makes zero-sense. Just another hash-mark in the tally of missteps this film goes through.

If the previous paragraph didn't give away my thoughts on Haunters, well then let me make myself even more clear; this is a terrible movie. It can be viewed as amateur at best, but even that would be generous as there are no redeeming qualities to be found here. I never bash movies just for the sake of bashing, but goodness me, I can assure you these harsh comments are not without warrant. (Lee)

Grade: F

Friday, April 8, 2011

71 Into The Fire (Korea 2009)

I've said it time and time again (but who's listening), war is hell, and 71 Into The Fire (포화 속으로) is yet another film that drives that point home. What's different this time around is the perspective in which we view the atrocities of war; through the eyes of teenagers. That can't be right...can it?

It's 1950 and the Korean war is in full effect with the North making it's advances. A unit of South Korean soldiers, led by Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo), are feeling the pressure and are in constant retreat. With limited resources at their disposal, Seok-dae recruits as many fresh bodies as he can which is where our 71 teenage students come into picture. The 71 students are thrown right into the mess of things (hence the title of the film), with Oh Jang-beom (Big Bang's Choi Seong-hyeon), put in place as the acting commander of his fellow students, because he's the only one with actual battle experience. Reluctantly left in charge of a varied group of misfits and troubled, inexperienced youth, with Koo Kap-jo (Kwon Sang-woo) being the biggest pain in the butt and murderer no less, Jang-beom must muster up the courage to hold down the fort at an abandoned middle school with his comrades to keep the North from advancing. Sounds like a pretty tall order for any of us, let alone being a teenager and having never really handled a rifle before. The group of North Koreans pushing forward are led by General Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won), who is as cool as can be and seems completely battle-hardened. Jang-beom tries against all odds to keep his troop together, but Seok-dae and his two goofball buddies have their own agenda and refuse to take orders from our young commander. So with limited weaponry and unruly subordinates, will Jang-beom be able to rally the troops in time to effectively stop the advancing North Korea troops? Or will General Park's men be far too much for these kids to take on? And where the hell is Seok-dae with the backup!?

Premise alone, 71 Into the Fire might sound like a campy, almost comedic take on the war-film genre. However, don't be fooled dear reader as this is indeed a serious film with plenty of blood sprayed across your screen. I suppose it just seems unheard of to most of us to picture teenagers having to lock and load and go to battle with basically no battle experience. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and the Korean war was certainly such a time for many. That being said, let's get down to business. The first half of the film left me mostly unimpressed for a number of reasons. The story is super basic stuff. Northern troops on the move, but Southern troops, teenagers mind you, block their path. However, director Lee Jae-han said, "hey, let's stretch this premise out to two hours shall we?", unnecessarily. Let's shorten some of these scenes...tighten it up people! The action really looks amazing though, I will say that much. If you love explosions, gunfire, slow-motion and people catching rounds with their bodies, then 71 Into the Fire delivers the goods.

Try as I might, I couldn't get past the fact that our young commander was played by a singing and dancing pretty boy, Big Bang's T.O.P., as he's known. Smudging a little mud on the cheeks doesn't exactly make him look like a tough guy. I didn't want to just write him off and as the film went along I did enjoy the journey his character took, from quiet and intimidated to a guy that could lead his fellow men into battle. I warmed up to him but ultimately Choi Seung-hyeon lacked the charisma that takes a lead to another level which made him feel one-note. Oh, what's this!? Another pretty boy, Kwon Sang-woo, playing the bad-boy role yet again? Alas, I really had issues with his character. He's introduced to us as a murderer on his way to juvenile detention but they keep him around because hey, he has a bone to pick with the North Koreans that killed his parents and the South needs soldiers. Sounds like a deal! Add the fact that he's as difficult as can be and altogether obnoxious and you have a character that you roll your eyes at everytime he's on screen because you know what to expect from him. There was some retribution for him later on in the film but it felt like a case of too-little, too-late. The real stand-out performance for me was the North Korean General, Park Moo-rang. This guy was hardcore the minute you saw him and remained that way throughout. Nothing ruffles his feathers and he just made being a bad guy look cool. Job well done I say. The cast of young soldiers were very affecting and there were times where I was genuinely moved by the madness they were all experiencing and the sadness they were conveying. This supporting cast, far too numerous to credit here, were effective and helped in creating a realistic atmosphere.

Let's be honest, the really touching thing about 71 Into the Fire is that it's based on a true story and the actions of these 71 kids that slowed down the North for eleven hours, thus giving the US and South Korean troops an advantage with a counterattack. With that in mind, I believe the filmmakers succeeded in making the importance of that fact clear and while I question some of the casting choices and felt they could've snipped a few minutes here and there, the end result is a mostly successful and ultimately touching look at the unlikeliest of heroes. (Lee)

Grade: B -