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