[Note: If you click on a given drama's title, you can read the longer reviews with proper paragraph formatting, rather than the run-on textwalls.]
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Sakebitosan's dramas (35)
35-sai no Koukousei [35歳の高校生] Rating: 7/10 (Watched) An incredible performance by Yonekura Ryoko as a 35-year-old dropout returning to finish high school - and to unravel an entrenched caste system of powerful bullies and their victims.
The problem is that the directorial style is a bizarre mix of serious drama vs. over-the-top cartoonish weirdness - the latter mostly within the school faculty. If you can deal with that jarring inconsistency, there is some great stuff in here -and some truly incredible acting, particularly by Yonekura in the lead role. (Reviewed at the drama's home page and below; currently available on Crunchyroll.)
Asakusa Fukumaru Ryokan [浅草ふくまる旅館] (Watched) A surprisingly entertaining, lighthearted slice-of-life that alternates between uproarious humor and shameless tear-jerking, and one of the most memorable dorama characters ever in Fukumaru Daikichi the innkeeper.
Attention Please [アテンションン プリース] Rating: 7/10 (Watched) Punk rocker Yoko is at an airport with her bandmates, and comments that she wishes she could be a flight attendant when a group of them walks past - and gets instant jeers for "dreaming the impossible."
So Yoko digs in her heels and decides to prove her buddies wrong.
As is usually the case in J-doramas, the moral of the story is a powerful one - basically the virtues of ambition and achievement, of determination against formidable odds, of the struggle to better oneself even when it doesn't feel good.
This drama drags in its pacing here and there (it could easily have been shortened with little negative impact overall,) but the story is a progression of self-motivation and self-betterment; an exploration of excellence in work as a non-negotiable virtue.
Galileo [ガリレオ] Rating: 9/10 (Watched) Another series with an excellent philosophical theme: The power of reason. Each episode is an individual case and therefore can be watched as a stand-alone drama, but the two principle characters, Yukawa-sensei and Utsumi-san, are so vivid and well-developed, and the series' overall style so overtly enthusiastic about ingenuity, that it suffers nothing for the lack of a single start-to-finish story arc. A must-see drama - kind of a dorama classic, actually - with definite replay value if you wait a year or so between viewings. (Currently available on Crunchyroll.)
Ghost Writer [ゴーストライター] Rating: 6/10 (Watched) An interesting but malevolent and gloomy drama about a bestselling writer with writer's block who enlists her assistant as ghost writer, only to find the assistant's talent is eclipsing hers, and people are beginning to notice a shift in "her" style. The initial dynamic of a former master deteriorated to mediocrity vs. the emerging excellence of the amateur upon whom she depends is short-circuited via an eventual series of compromises on principle in the final episodes. Interesting for its immersion in the world of Japanese fiction publishing and definitely worth a look, but with caveats. Currently available on Crunchyroll.
Ishitachi no Renai Jijou [医師たちの恋愛事情] Rating: 8/10 (Watched) An excellent - if somewhat soap-opera-ish - drama about medical professionals. The theme is a powerful meditation on integrity and excellence in work, with a focus on the conflict between professional life and romance, with multiple plot points hinging on moral choices. Uplifting and memorable, which means time well spent. Currently available on Crunchyroll under the title "Doctors' Affairs."
Itsumo futari de [いつもふたりで] Rating: 6/10 (Watched) Enjoyable but thoroughly predictable romance about Tokyo's book publishing industry, currently available on Crunchyroll. (Short review below.)
Joker Yurusarezaru Sosakan [ジョーカー 許されざる捜査官] Rating: 8/10 (Watched) An excellent examination of the ethics of vigilantism with a phenomenal cast, both as individuals and as an ensemble. You will find yourself thinking about people and events from this series for weeks after you've finished watching. The Date character in particular is superbly acted by Masato Sakai.
Kiina ~ Fukano Hanzai Sosakan [キイナ] Rating: 8/10 (Watched) Like Edison no Haha and Galileo, another celebration of reason and achievement - and like Galileo, each episide is a separate case, though with this series there's more of a story arc from first to last episode.
LIFE [ライフ] Rating: 10/10 (Bought & Watched) An edifying meditation on justice and ethics in the face of injustice and malice - and an amazing rarity in fiction, especially television fiction, in that not only does this drama's plot/theme hinge on moral choices, moral dilemmas are part of nearly every single scene in this. I kid you not. Just amazing, and the hero Ayumu is unfailingly ethical and just, even in striking back at her tormentors. The side character Hatori-san, played by Seki Megumi, is a strange, detached student of supreme self-confidence and wisdom who sees what's going on, guides the victims of the bullying to a recognition of their strengths, then steps back to allow them to triumph by their own effort. (I won't go into details, but sunflowers play a stunning symbolic role in this.) In dramatic terms Hatori-san is quietly magnificent, and one of this dorama's many phenomenal surprises. A must-see, and from the perspective of philosophical ethics this is easily the best Japanese drama I've ever watched
Long vacation [ロングバケーション] Rating: 7/10 (Watched) Excellent, classy, elegant, values-driven romance, if a bit predictable. Great chemistry between the Senna and Minami characters too, without which it wouldn't have worked. There's not as much emphasis on the music in this one as in "With Love," though music is central to the story, but that chemistry (which was lacking between HaTa and TeruTeruBozu in "With Love,") more than makes up for it. The climactic piano performance has got to be a masterpiece of editing within doramas - it reminds me of the climactic scenes of Beethoven's youth that were interwoven with the 9th Symphony in the film "Immortal Beloved." Time well spent, definitely.
Nodame Cantabile [のだめ カンタビ−レ] Rating: 7/10 (Watched) A comedy about an undisciplined but brilliant piano prodigy who develops a symbiotic relationship with a disciplined pianist who dreams of becoming a conductor yet is hampered by naysayers. This could have worked as a serious drama but is presented as an even mix of serious drama with screwball comedy. In this case the comedy works, and does not obscure the serious message about determination in achieving one's goals. A little predictable, but well worth the time. Currently available on Crunchyroll.
Subete ga F ni Naru [すべてがFになる] Rating: 8/10 (Watched) A series focusing on locked-room mysteries, tackled by a college professor and a brilliant mathematics student. There are elements of sci-fi and some of the scenarios require a suspension-of-disbelief, but this is catnip for people who love Sherlock Holmes / Isaac Asimov / "Galileo" brain-teaser logic puzzles. The stories are good, the writers don't undercut the hero and heroine, and Takei Emi and Ayano Go have great chemistry as, respectively, math whiz Nishinosono-san and her professor Saikawa-sensei.
Ushi ni Negai wo: Love & Farm [牛に願いを - Love & Farm] (Watched) I'm pretty much a sucker for anything having to do with Hokkaido, and having grown up on a farm (though an American one, where things are done differently,) I felt oddly at home watching this. A glimpse into Japanese agri-business was fascinating too in its own right, even as fiction. The dual intertwined theme is lightly presented but excellent anyway - effort vs. anti-effort + work as a reflection of character - and the father-son estrangement drama that provides its exposition was well-written and acted. And of course the pastoral Hokkaido scenery is awesome. Lastly, the cast members' having to birth a live calf on-camera, for real, with zero outside assistance and no special effects, should take some kind of award for dedication to realism above and beyond the call of acting. Nothing is done half-heartedly in Japan... 8^] Amazing. As the same calf grows, it becomes the students' pet and sort of an unofficial addition to the cast. Not as emotional a vibe as my other fave Hokkaido dorama "Yasashii Jikan," but a must-watch regardless.
Voice [ヴォイス] Rating: 9/10 (Watched) Though the synopsis makes this sound like a mystical / supernatural thing, it's actually an excellent story about a group of students in forensic pathology, unraveling mysteries via clues they derive from the bodies of the deceased. Much like the drama "Life," ethical questions are everywhere in this series, and there is a general sense of palpable **goodness** about all of the principle characters - and even some of the "villains," which provides some shocking and edifying twists. "Voice" is another J-dorama classic, a must-see.
With love (Watched) This has some flaws - most notably in that the otherwise-admirable Hasagawa Takashi character's integrity is undercut by the writers repeatedly; very poor chemistry between the two lead actors; too drawn-out to believe the two principle characters wouldn't have figured out each other's identity - but nonetheless compelling, excellent music throughout, and overall a stunning projection of human dignity and civilization.
35-sai no Koukousei [35歳の高校生] Yonekura Ryoko's Baba-chan Saves ...Everything [Rating: 7/10] [Warning: A couple of spoilers are at the end of this - I will give another heads-up so you can stop reading at that point.]
35-sai no Koukousai, or "35-year-old Senior High Student" (titled "No Dropping Out: Back to School at 35" on Crunchyroll,) is an 11-part drama with a difficult suspension-of-disbelief element right off the bat: A 35-year-old is admitted back into high school as a regular student - so she can finish graduating after having dropped out 18 years earlier.
It's an unusual concept but not totally implausible. What's far more difficult to take is the series' jarring identity crisis: Its writers and directors apparently couldn't decide whether it should be a serious drama about the serious (sometimes deadly,) problem of school bullying, or just a screwball comedy. So they tried to shoehorn elements of "screwball comedy" into ...a serious drama about school bullying. As a result there are frequent, jarring incongruities throughout that devalue what otherwise would have been a truly great series, maybe even on a par with the excellent 2007 drama "Life" (also about school bullying, but with no such inconsistencies.)
Fortunately, Yonekura Ryoko's character - Ayako Baba-chan - not only saves a classroom of victims and bullies alike from destroying each other, she saves what would otherwise have been a forgettable television series and elevates it to near-must-watch status. Both Baba-chan the character and Yonekura Ryoko's stunning performance of her are so powerful that you're left with intense disappointment at the series' style (and a couple of ethical and dramatic gaffes in the final episode,) which turn something that could've been great into a mixed bag.
Yonekura's Baba-chan exudes the independence and confidence of an adult who fears nothing that the worst of high school brats can dish out, also an intensity of purpose that's a palpable element of every scene she's in. She's partly on assignment from her former teacher Asada (still her respected mentor, now the district superintendent,) to investigate the bullying problem, but she has some deep, driving secrets of her own. They lend a sense of pathos that sometimes gets a little heavy, but her quiet confidence and overt heroism easily prevent the inner conflicts and trauma from devaluing the character. Baba-san is one of the best heroines I've seen in television, despite the weird style of the program itself.
What you will get from this show is an edifying theme of transformation. Baba-chan is out for justice, and justice means loyalty to reality. So she's not just encouraging victims to stand up to their tormentors, she just as often rebukes them for the lies and betrayals they themselves commit in their effort to appease the bullies; She not only de-claws the bullies, she prompts them to question their allegiances within a deep-seated and seemingly impenetrable caste system that locks students into their miserable roles.
In one memorable exchange, Baba gets trapped in a room with Yukawa, one of the three top bullies of the class, who follows in lockstep behind the king of the bullies, Tsuchiya. So she does a little in-your-face identification - which serves as a catalyst in his later transformation...
Yukawa: "He (Tsuchiya) is evil, you know?"
Baba: "I kind of feel like you're worse than him, to be honest. Tsuchiya-kun's definitely violent and tyrannical. But he gets his own hands dirty. He understands people will hate him, and it doesn't bother him in the least. Of course that's not really admirable. But you're different. You hide in Tsuchiya-kun's shadow. You don't want others to hate you, so you make sure to tack a joke on at the end. I guess I'd call you a coward. [Laughs] Is that too much?"
The "mixed bag" effect is at least stark in its contrasts, so when this show is good, it's really good. When it's bad it's not horrible, just jarringly silly. So... identity crisis:
- The school's faculty are portrayed as either anime-caricature buffoons or timid functionaries who'd rather accept blame for things they haven't done than ruffle feathers - the students are actually written as more mature than the teachers;
- There are scenes that are deeply moving - and others that are maudlin and contrived;
- There are scenes where people walk straight into character-assassination traps that would be visible a mile away to anyone with a functioning brain;
- And in the final episode [Spoiler Alert! Skip the rest if you don't want giveaways!]...
- A character who turns out to be a homicidal maniac and knifes another student not only gets released from a juvenile jail after just a few weeks, he's warmly accepted back into the class by the rest of the students and is granted excuses for his crime by the superintendent and by Baba as well - as if nothing ever happened;
- The ringleader of the bullies, Tsuchiya, does an abrupt 180-degree character change and suddenly becomes just an ordinary fun-loving guy at the end - after having tormented everybody in the class for years. The reason for his change is dramatized in a single scene, but it's not fleshed out nearly enough to make his transformation remotely believable;
- There's a sudden, tangential focus on the school administration's proposal to abolish conventional classes in favor of a college-type credit-based structure (so as to defuse bullying,) and on the students' opposition to it. This leads to a violent - and in context of Japan, implausible - "sit-in" takeover by the students, and to their ultimate capitulation. That whole tangent seemed tacked-on and pointless, even though it fed into some minor plot details.
So bottom line: If you can stomach some serious inconsistencies in style, this series is well worth the time - for the Ayako Baba character and Yonekura Ryoko's quietly spectacular performance in that role.
Asakusa Fukumaru Ryokan [浅草ふくまる旅館] Unpretentious, Entertaining Slice-of-Life Series [Rating: 7/10] This is one of those dramas that's enjoyable in its capacity to transport you, the viewer, to a place you'll feel instantly at home and which you will begin to miss from the closing credits of the last episode. If you've ever wanted a trip back to a more civilized and tranquil past there's nothing quite like a traditional, old-line Japanese ryokan, and AFR is your ticket to an extended stay.
Toshiyuki Nishida, whom movie buffs will recognize as the gruff noodle chef in the film "Ramen Girl," plays the nosy Ryokan owner Fukumaru Daikichi almost as though it's a natural extension of his personality. He's laid-back yet competent, and curious to the point of overbearing in his meddling with the private affairs of his guests. The unintended consequences of his intrusions are the source of the series' alternating comedy and shameless heartstring-tugging. Like the similar - also excellent - series "Fufudo" (which takes place at a semi-rural tea farm,) the principle character is pitted hilariously against a neighboring business competitor with whom he has a bitter rivalry, yet whom we all know he loves like a brother, deep down.
The only real flaw in the series is a tendency for the emotional tear-jerking crescendos to stray into the maudlin on occasion. But since the series maintains a refreshing light-heartedness and makes no pretense at being anything other than an episodic slice-of-life, it all works surprisingly well.
Each character of the ensemble cast - indeed even of the peripheral roles, like Some-san the Geisha, Sakaki-san the barista, and a number of the one-off guest characters - is vividly memorable as an individual. The stories are soap-opera-ish by design, but often fascinating as insights into the idiosyncracies of Japanese culture both modern and historic.
Asakusa Fukumaru Ryokan won't satisfy those who have no patience or viewers looking for rock 'em - sock 'em action, but is time well spent for Dorama fans and Japanophiles interested in life at a ryokan.
Biblia Koshodou no Jiken Techou [ビブリア古書堂の事件手帖] Unusual But Anticlimactic Holmes-Inspired Mystery [Rating: 8/10] I liked everything about this series - the concept, the casting (Gouriki Ayame is fantastic in the understated lead,) the setting - but the writing was inconsistent. This is on Crunchyroll under the English title "Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files."
Gouriki's Shioriko character, or more specifically her intellect, is a joy to behold as she unravels seemingly inexplicable mysteries with only the vaguest of clues - but some of them are better than others. The "big" climactic mystery - involving a professor's hidden lover, Shioriko's long-absent mother, and a treasure locked behind an elaborate puzzle - is incredibly anticlimactic and leaves you at the end of the series feeling deflated.
I'm hoping subsequent seasons are in the works and that the stories are written with a little more consistency and depth, because the producers succeeded in creating a place and people that you're sorry to have to leave. It's just too bad that the climactic story was so bland in comparison to the smaller mysteries covered up to that point.
BOSS Pedestrian Police Drama - Good, Not Great [Rating: 5/10] [Note: Possible spoilers below! Beware!]
I was expecting this to be much better than it turned out to be. That's not to say it was bad or that there was anything wrong with it, just that there was nothing particularly special or engaging about it. The acting was excellent by everybody involved and there were some nice (albeit predictable) twists, particularly in the series climax. But the screenwriting was a lot like that of a standard American television cop show - very journalistic, as in "This happened, then this, then this... The End."
Takenouchi Yutaka has been a favorite actor since his magnificent, larger-than-life role as the composer HaTa-san in the 1998 dorama "With Love," but his talent was largely wasted in "Boss." His acting was fine of course, but the Nodate character - like everybody else in this dorama - was superficial and mostly forgettable. It was actually hard to recognize him as the same actor who played Hasegawa Takashi-san - the characters in "Boss" are so shallowly written they could've been played by any competent actors and there'd have been no difference to the overall balance of the show.
The best of "Boss" was the two-part story in Episodes 4 and 5, in which Kimoto-chan (Toda Erika) is kidnapped by a serial murderer. Yet even that one is undercut by implausible suspensions-of-disbelief and internal contradictions written into the script. In the climactic scene Kimoto, who'd been freed by the team, steps out onto a rooftop, unarmed, to confront her abductor while the rest of the Countermeasures Team waits - something no police unit leader would have allowed - and talks him into giving up. So a guy who had been convincingly presented up to that point as a cold-blooded, fanatical murderer, utterly sociopathic, remorseless and merciless, is suddenly just melted by his former hostage's heartfelt words? Iye.
In addition to more cohesive internal logic and plausibility, better crime doramas - like "Joshi Deka," "Galileo" and the outstanding "Voice" - all have larger, overarching moral lessons written into them, often a new one in each episode, that touch on timeless issues: Integrity vs. pragmatism; reason vs. emotion; ethics vs. "looking the other way" from the crimes of friends/family; science vs. mysticism and irrationality; independence vs. conformity; perseverence through horrific ordeals and obstacles.
This one was only light entertainment, and that's fine, but given the quality level of most J-doramas, the lack of deeper themes was noticeable. It left me feeling a little bored and impatient with what often felt like pedestrian television that wasn't really time well spent. I found myself looking forward to finishing up this series not once or twice, but often, especially in the later episodes.
The series needed better writing - in terms of thematic depth, character development, humor (only a mild chuckle here and there despite some setups that could've been transformed into hilarious comic relief scenes.)
So...entertaining, not enlightening. If you have a lot of spare time to kill, if you've already seen all of the better police doramas and just want some light drama, go for it. Otherwise, IMO your time would be better spent on any of the better police doramas out there.
Ishitachi no Renai Jijou [医師たちの恋愛事情] Excellent Medical Drama About Integrity and Values [Rating: 8/10] [Available on Crunchyroll under the somewhat cheesy title "Doctors' Affairs."]
It's been a long, long time since I last saw a more potent homage to the brilliant, life-saving competence of medical professionals. This one has a minor soap-opera-ish feel to it - some contrivance in the various characters' circumstances and in implausible parallels between them - but along with the sappy romance there is a **lot** of realistic O.R. action, and a stunning focus on professional competency throughout. The theme, which plays as kind of a minor key throughout the series, is about the conflict of career vs. romance and the role of integrity in both - with a stunning exposition of their central role in life, and a nice resolution.
The hero, Morita-sensei, not only lives and breathes professinoal integrity, he inspires the people around him - even one doctor who had allowed himself to slide into incompetence - to lift themselves to a greater level of excellence, against constant pressure to cut corners.
The villain is a stock "CEO who cares more about profits than patients," but on balance a minor negative. Even he harbors a mitigating secret - though his sudden transformation is a little implausible.
Bottom line: An uplifting and inspiring look inside the lives of medical professionals. The central romance is not only about mutual admiration of talent and integrity, it's **explicitly stated** as such. That is as rare as it is awe-inspiring.
Just an excellent, inspiring show and time well spent.
Itsumo futari de [いつもふたりで] Soap-Opera-ish and Predictable, but Interesting... [Rating: 6/10] ...look at book publishing in Tokyo.
This is basically a soap-opera romance, available on Crunchyroll as "Always The Two Of Us." It's completely predictable, but being predictable is not necessarily a deal-killer in terms of entertainment. Despite what some have said here, the two leads - Matsu Takako as Mizuho and Sakaguchi Kenji as Hachi/Kenta - have perfect chemistry for the roles of childhood friends who suddenly have to confront the emergence of romantic feelings.
There is a disappointing blandness to the drama in this series, but it's still good entertainment and a good, if thoroughly predictable, romance. It just could've been a whole lot better.
What's most worthwhile about this series is its focus on the publishing industry in Tokyo. The e-book revolution has rendered the whole spectacle of authors grovelling at the feet of big-name publishing houses as an anachronism, but that context makes this story interesting anyway. The character Yamazaki Shou (played excellently by Nakamaru Shinsho - who weirdly enough is not even credited on this page,) is a famous writer who's retreated to the status of a bookshop owner under an assumed name - and of whose identity Mizuho eventually learns and whom she convinces to return to writing. His character is the best part of this story, and a hint of how good it could have been if every character had had his depth and gravity.
Another excellent aspect of this series is Mizuho's acceptance of reality and the choices she makes. She comes to Tokyo as the dupe of a fraudulent scam, pursues her dream to become a great writer, only to be told that her talent for writing is lacking. After much soul-searching she acknowledges that as truth, but instead of giving up and retreating, she chooses to find a new dream and pursue it with equal dedication. She becomes an editor, and soon learns that the mysterious bookshop owner - who's revered as a judge of literature and who tells her she has no talent as a writer - is in fact her favorite author. She convinces him through sheer determination to return to writing, with her as his editor. Throughout this process we see her accept harsh reality and deal with it constructively - rather than attempting to fake it.
So lots of interesting material, but presented within a somewhat bland romance. It's entertaining enough to be worth the time spent watching it, but it could've been much better. As dramas about books and publishing go, Antiquarian Biblia Bookshop's Case Files and Ghost Writer were better. Bottom line: Not a bad show, but could have been better.
Itsutsu Boshi Tourist ~ Saikou no Tabi, Goannai Shimasu!! [五つ星ツーリスト ~ 最高の旅、ご案内します!!] Well-done comedy and Kyoto travelogue [Rating: 7/10] Satake Ichiro transfers from a Tokyo tour guide company to its subsidiary in Kyoto, and his new boss hates him instantly, so Ichiro gets assigned all of the clients nobody else will touch: the spoiled celebrities, the company groups with impossible budgetary restrictions, the temperamental matrons who want every detail impossibly perfect. Every one of them has a reputation for complaining loudly, and every one of them is a threat from the boss to "Make them happy or you're fired."
Ichiro is inexperienced and inept, but he has a fallback: Down in the basement is the "Central Operations Department," which is just a fanciful name for the janitorial department. It's a repository for employees demoted from their positions as tour guides, and one of them is Takase Kyoka, a genius tour guide demoted after a personal conflict with a superior.
Ichiro begs and cajoles until she takes an interest and decides to do the work for him. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Kyoto and its history, along with her personal connections and the help of her fellow-demotees Tetsuo (a divorced taxi driver who can find any location,) and punker-girl Momiji (who's good at disguise,) enable her to transform Ichiro's "problem clients" into rave reviews (which he doesn't really deserve, but they get him off the hook with the cranky boss.)
The real hero of the series is of course Kyoka, not Ichiro, and along with some excellent farce-type comedy alternating with more sober drama, you the viewer get a great tour of Kyoto. The locations and their histories are like characters themselves, and if you're thinking about visiting Kyoto, you'll get a boatload of information just by watching this series.
It isn't particularly heavy on thematic content, but "Itsutsu Boshi Tourist" (named "The Guide: Five Stars in Kyoto" at Crunchyroll,) is excellent entertainment and excellent travel information - therefore time well spent.
Joker Yurusarezaru Sosakan [ジョーカー 許されざる捜査官] Excellent, thought-provoking, and outstanding cast [Rating: 8/10] Sakai Masato reminds me of a Japanese Gary Sinise. There's that same kind of squinty inscrutability - you don't know whether he's sad, amused or lost in thought at any given moment - but with a hint of Jackie Chan's light-heartedness masking deeper character conflicts. In other words, a pitch-perfect performance. He gives the Date character an incredible complexity and a palpable chemistry with every other character he interacts with.
Nishikido Ryo is great as his sidekick Kudo, at first an antagonist, then an apprentice of sorts; Kaga Takeshi as the Chief and Osugi Ren as the bartender and ex-cop Mikami, are both pivotal characters perfectly acted, and each a surprise twist. Anne (Watanabe, daughter of Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai" fame,) gives Asuka a necessary gravity as the ethical conscience of the group, and Ryo as journalist and ex-cop Saeko, gives a great performance as a somewhat unpredictable wild-card.
The story itself does a great job of examining two related issues: the question of justice vs. revenge on a direct level, and the issue of justice vs. vigilantism itself on a broader perspective. My only complaint is that by the last couple of episodes there are so many different people involved in the vigilante plot and from so many different angles that the ethical distinctions get a little muddled. And yes, you'll find yourself shouting at your TV "So go burn a couple dozen copies of that CD-R already!" You will also find yourself getting a little annoyed that two of the female characters agree to meet with shady characters in deserted warehouses after dark, against all normal sense of self-preservation. Worse, in Asuka's case she turns around and does it a second time after nearly getting killed the first. Nobody with a functioning brain who valued her life would ever do that.
Nonetheless, the series manages to avoid cliches, doesn't wimp out on uncomfortable subjects (child abuse, corruption, fanaticism,) and admirably uses moral choices among characters rather than arbitrary physical conflicts, as pivot points in the plot. And did I mention the casting was excellent?
This is definitely time well spent.
Kaseifu no Mita [家政婦のミタ] Depressing, Creepy and Weird [Rating: 4/10] Kaseifu no Mita (a.k.a. "I'm Mita: Your Housekeeper" on Crunchyroll,) was interesting enough to keep me watching to the bitter end, but that's about the most you can say for it.
The acting was excellent by everybody of course, even the kids, but I kept wondering about this series' writers: What kind of person sits down and actually dreams up such a relentless downer?
The main character, the deeply traumatized Mita Akari, is a morose, expressionless, robotic automaton throughout; the family's father Asuda Keiichi, is one of the most disgusting, pathetic and spineless characters ever written for the screen; his sister-in-law, Yuki Urara, is written as such a ditzy, clumsy airhead that it's impossible to admire her even though you want to. This is no slam on the actors - they each did a spectacular job of playing these characters, to the point you had to remind yourself it's a TV show. The problem is that the writers decided to present a weird fusion of Twilight Zone and depravity-study.
By the middle of this I started thinking how much stronger a story it could have been if Mita had been more believable - IOW, still unsmiling and morose, but not that bizarre robot who's willing to do anything, even kill, if told to do so. If the Keiichi character had not been presented as such a corrupt worm, and if the Urara character had been loopy but not a complete ditz, the story would've had more depth of believability and of dramatic impact. Instead, it was impossible to care about any of these people except for the kids, who were the only admirable people in this story and the only characters who occasionally displayed heroism.
[Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you haven't yet watched it...]
Even in the final episode, where Mita experiences a long-awaited change of heart, it's... barely. In the scene at the table where she finally gives each of them her smile, she's still robotic - just a robot that now smiles. And the lengthy speeches by each of the kids and the father should take a prize for sappy contrivance. To the writers I'd say: "There is such a thing as too much of a good thing." Not that it helps much in any case.
Last, the final episode left almost everything up in the air. Will Mita ever snap out of her self-imposed pathology? We'll never know. Is Keiichi going to marry Urara? We'll never know. Unless of course...
Maybe the writers did that on purpose, to leave open the possibility of a second season. But given the depressing slog that this was, I can't imagine anyone wanting to see a continuation of it, despite the good acting.
Not recommended - unless you're really, really bored and in a really morbid mood.
Mirai Nikki ANOTHER:WORLD [未来日記] Matrix-type Sci-Fi with no internal cohesion [Rating: 4/10] I watched this on Crunchyroll mostly on the draw of Guoriki Ayame (who was spectacular in "Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files,") also because I like sci-fi in general, but...
The series revolves around a group of people who receive cutting-edge cellphones that have the ability to tell their users their immediate, minute-to-minute future. They're contacted by a 'net-type entity calling itself "Deus" who informs them they're in a survival game, and that the last one standing gets unlimited power - including the power to bring back to life the fellow-players who lost.
Periodically the people unfortunate enough to have gotten these phones get an ominous "Game Over" text message that signals their impending death. Well, sometimes. The protagonist Arata, a high-schooler uncertain about his path in life, meets a strange girl named Yuno, who latches onto him as though she's known him her whole life. Arata tries - and generally fails - to prevent everyone else from participating in this game to the death, while struggling to discover the identity of "Deus" and stop him or her from killing people. Or maybe they're not actually dead?
The problem with the series is that it bites off a huge metaphysical mouthful that it can't chew. It wants to be part "Matrix," part "sadistic unseen villain forcing people to kill each other" horror story, part "Tron," and part time-travel drama. The result is a mountain of confusion that quickly becomes more annoying than entertaining, and which misses any opportunity to present a theme of volition vs. determinism, which any sci-fi story involving "predestination" and/or time travel is ripe for.
For an elaborate scenario involving alternate dimensions, time manipulation and predestination to work, the story has to establish a cohesive set of internal rules and to stick to them meticulously. "Mirai Nikki" doesn't. It's difficult for me even to describe it because of that incoherence, but we're not really sure if these predestined "future diary" entries that show up on the characters' phones are unavoidable or if they can be changed by the volitional choices of the people involved. Usually they can't be changed, but... sometimes they can. Is the whole world just a manufactured illusion, as in "The Matrix," or is there some kind of unspecified technology or old-fashioned magic at work in manipulating events? We never really know. There are overlapping timelines and deja vu hints that actions are being repeated, but none of these details are resolved or adequately explained - probably because they can't be, while maintaining any logical cohesion.
Guoriki-san's character Yuno is presented as someone not fully real: She knows things she can't possibly know, she suddenly and inexplicably morphs into irrationality and often viciousness, then snaps back to the warm, smiling, happy-go-lucky girl who who's strangely dedicated to Arata. I don't know whether the writers thought that that would make her seem more mysterious or interesting, but it ultimately short-circuits the character entirely. It's like one of those French movies where one or more of the main characters arbitrarily goes insane, rendering the rest of the story as a game of 52 Pick-Up. Rather than good character creation and story writing, it's a bit of a cop-out.
By the time you get to the wrap-up in the last couple of episodes, you've been pulled through so much suspension-of-disbelief and so many weird metaphysical convolutions that you no longer really care much about what happens. I was actually glad to be done with this one - never a good recommendation.
The CGI effects are good throughout the series, but the settings themselves - the buildings, the rooms, even the city streets - are oddly drab and oppressive. The acting is characteristically perfect by all involved but again, the story itself is the big letdown here.
I don't recommend this unless you're a Guoriki Ayame fan or are really bored and have a lot of free time you don't know how else to spend.
Over Time [オーバー・タイム] Arbitrary, Annoying Ending; Nice Buildup & Act [Rating: 6/10] ...ing
[Beware: Possible spoilers!]
I remember this being the first J-drama aired on the International Channel in early '99 after the excellent "With Love," the first after FCI (stupidly) discontinued English subtitling. It took a full ten years, but I finally got to see it and... color me frustrated.
The acting in this is phenomenal by all involved - particularly Esumi and Sorimachi in the leads - to the point that it's difficult to believe that these are actors playing roles. The soundtrack is excellent too, but then I never could resist Tomoko or BuriGuri, and Yamaguchi Yuko is a revelation. The problem is with the writing and that horrid, illogical ending.
For a story to be good it has to adhere to its own internal logic. So here you have an artfully-constructed development of characters and their relationships from a chance meeting, a clear chemistry building between two people (a chemistry palpable between the actors, Esumi and Sorimachi,) but in the end it's all for a huge, anticlimactic nothing.
This isn't about "realistic ending" vs. a "fairy-tale ending," but rather an ending that is utterly arbitrary, that runs counter to a story that had painted a convincing picture of two people who are really "halves of the same whole." Natsuki's decision - and Kaede's insistence on her making that decision - is a massive short-circuit to the entire story up to that point. Forget "fairy-tale endings" - in real life, when two people meet and discover over the course of time and experience that they're kindred spirits, the most "realistic" outcome is for them to become an item. I disagree too with the point someone else made here about Kaede's stoicism. I don't think his stoicism makes his professions of love for Natsuki hard to believe - if anything it increases their depth and intensity.
The "love triangle" thing is necessary for the story's conflict, but for that to work the relationship between Natsuki and Kuga-sensei needed to be much deeper - at least as deep as the bond between Nat-chan and Kaede. I'm not talking about Shiina's acting - which was superb - but the fact that his character, Kuga, has virtually no chemistry with Natsuki. His character is written almost like a supporting role - like Haruko or Fuyumi - but it needed to have the same depth as the other two leads. Balance is everything, and the love triangle is horribly lopsided. The result is that Natsuki's climactic decision seems completely arbitrary, nothing more than a pragmatic whim.
I can't help wondering how much more powerful this story - and its ending - would have been, if Kuga's character and relationship with Natsuki had been written with enough depth to balance against her relationship with Kaede. It would have lent far more weight to her conflicting emotions, and far more dramatic punch (not to mention plausibility,) to her final decision.
In short-circuiting what had been an excellent romantic buildup, the writers effectively pulled the rug from beneath the audience's feet. I feel like I've just been through a lengthy, heart-wrenching ordeal with no satisfactory resolution. The series is well worth watching, but I can't say that I'm sorry it's over.
Tantei no Tantei [探偵の探偵] Excellent Action Thriller Despite Some Flaws [Rating: 8/10] Sasaki Rena is one of the best action heroines I've seen in a long time - principled, driven, independent, uncompromising, and ruthless in tracking down the bad guys. Her character is written as a complex mix of hard, impersonal exterior masking a deep emotional trauma beneath, but not in a way that is cliched or that makes her one of those sordid "anti-heroes."
I liked that the series has a single story arc rather than discrete episodes, but nonetheless allowed for episodic subplots to play out, ultimately pushing the larger story along. Not a single dull moment in this, just relentless, intense action-suspense. Some nice twists and surprises spice things up along the way, and the climactic scene involves a decisive moral choice - the key element in great storytelling - rather than arbitrary chance.
Though they do appear at key points, the plot doesn't always turn on moral choices, unfortunately. Maybe I'm a little spoiled by some of the other J-doramas - like the stunning high school bullying series "Life," where they're part of virtually every scene - but the Sasaki character would've benefited if the "morality play" aspect had been more consistently engaged. As it stands it's still a fine police drama and... some key points are indeed tied to moral choices and Sasaki does not disappoint in that respect.
There are some suspension-of-disbelief problems here and there, but they're not so glaring that they ruin the story. A couple of (non-spoiler) examples: some of the multitude of injuries the principle characters suffer are too easily recovered from - getting smacked full in the face with a huge pipe is going to cause more than a minor cut to the forehead, f'rinstance - and there's a scene where Rena's car gets pushed out to sea by a carefully-placed loader on a waterfront dock that she picks at random (so although they'd tracked her via GPS, how did the bad guys anticipate were she'd go and get all of that set up?) Etc.
It's one of the more violent dramas I've seen but none of the violence is gratuitous or unnecessary to the plot - and the fight scenes are excellently done. The Sasaki character gets involved in a huge amount of hand-to-hand combat through the series, and she ends up getting pummeled as often as not, so the conflict is never unrealistically tilted in the heroine's favor. And Kitagawa Keiko does the fight scenes flawlessly and convincingly - she must have spent a ton of work on them, because there's never a moment that actually *looks* choreographed.
The supporting cast are all interesting, memorable characters, and the villains are convincingly, often horrifically evil without being cartoonish, over-the-top caricatures.
Last, each episode's ending theme, "Beautiful Chaser" by Bullet Train, gives us the added treat of Marty Friedman-san on electric guitar. 'Gotta love that.
'Looking forward to Season Two, definitely. (Note: This is currently available on Crunchyroll under the title "Detective vs. Detectives.")
With love I Have to Fight to be Objective on This... [Rating: 7/10] On an emotional basis I want to give "With Love" a 10 out of 10, because as is the case with many other Americajin, the first J-Drama one sees is generally an unforgettable experience. This was the first J-Drama I watched, on the now-defunct International Channel (later renamed AZN Television before it shut down,) sometime in '98 or '99. It was also the very last dorama aired in America with English subtitles, after FCI discontinued providing subs. That was a crushing blow for me - to discover something you love instantly, only to have it yanked out of reach just as you're anticipating the next. I had to wait nearly ten years before I found some incredibly poorly-translated DVDs in LA's Chinatown, and eventually found sites like Crunchyroll and Dramafever - before I could continue the long-delayed addiction.
Presumably everybody here has his own deeply personal story of "discovering" Japanese dramas, so can understand the weird kind of emotional bond one has with one's first dorama experience. "With Love" has some serious flaws that require a lower rating, but I *want* to max it out - because I feel like I'm reviewing a part of my own life, shared vicariously with a group of people that I came to love almost like family over the span of the series. (Hey, am I maudlin or what? 8^)
Anyhow... "With Love" tells the same general story as the American film "You've Got Mail," but as a 12-part soap opera rather than a single feature-length movie. Both were released in 1998 - "With Love" on April 10 and "You've Got Mail" on December 18, a full eight months later - so apparently the similar storylines were created spontaneously and independently of one another.
The flaws of "With Love," as I see them:
- The relationship between Takashi and Amane is central to everything, but there's little or no chemistry between the two either as actors or written characters. They don't even mesh as mutually-disdainful adversaries, which they become by roughly halfway through. Takenouchi-san is perfectly cast as the brooding and somewhat-cold composer who's haunted by a past relationship, but Tanaka-san's role is far too bland and detached to be believable as Takashi's eventual love interest. The fault lies equally in casting (Tanaka-san is badly miscast as Amane,) and the way her character is written. Amane works at a bland job, has a relatively bland social life, and isn't particularly passionate or deep in her everyday life in the way her online writings would suggest she ought to be. The online Amane is a deeply poetic intellectual, while the here-and-now Amane is a shallow bank teller who doesn't talk with her friends about much of anything except banalities, who doesn't do anything of interest but cursory after-work socializing, and whose personality is incredibly wooden and uninteresting. For someone with such a passionate and poetic outlook on life, a career as a bank teller is implausible from the outset; I can't say if it's Tanaka's acting or the direction, but Amane's reaction on recognizing Hata-san's song at her reception...it should have been an expression of shock, but all she does is sit up a little straighter and blink a couple of times. The scene demanded a more expressive display of recognition and emotion from Amane, but neither the directors nor Tanaka-san provide it.
By the climactic final episode, it's difficult to believe Takashi's attraction for her is genuine, or that Amane's distaste for what she had seen as his unrefined nature has suddenly turned to love. As a result, the audience is left with more affection for *the general scenario* than for the actual people involved in it. A drama with such an interesting and then-timely story concept should have had a central couple about whom one would end up caring deeply almost immediately (think: Soichiro and Natsuki in "Over Time.")
- The inability of Takashi and Amane to recognize one another becomes more and more difficult to believe as time goes on - the classic suspension-of-disbelief problem. A more subtle and varied set of circumstances and "almost" moments were needed to pull off the "mystery identities" scenario through the course of twelve episodes. There are quite a few moments here when you're just shaking your head at the television, thinking "Figure it out already!" This is more of a writing and direction issue though - Takenouchi and Tanaka generally did a great job of acting what they were given to do.
- I disagree with what people have said about the "villains" in this dorama being "two-dimensional." Haruhiko Yoshida and Kaori Imai are excellent dual counterpoints that continually threaten the core relationship from either end. Where the problem lies, however, is again with chemistry - specifically between Yoshida and Amane - and again with suspension of disbelief. There's really no reason to believe that Amane would be attracted to Yoshida, except that he pursues her relentlessly - not a strong enough reason to believe she'd go anywhere with him, much less decide to marry him. That eventual decision makes Amane seem even more shallow and capricious, neither trait being a positive addition to the character. The suspension of disbelief becomes difficult here too, in that we're expected to believe that Amane would accept Yoshida's assertion that he is HaTa-san, the composer of "Once In A Blue Moon." In order to believe that, you as an audience member have to conclude that Amane is a complete fool - again, not the desired outcome in a story's character development.
- More broadly, in addition to the lost opportunities for more dramatic impact in "almost" moments and the richness that better chemistry between the leads would provide, the Hasagawa Takashi character is needlessly undercut in the script on a number of key points.
The writers begin with an emotionally-conflicted yet brilliant and principled artist, but later have him blithely acquiescing to a sellout of his ideals. Imagine how much stronger the story - and HaTa's character - would have been if he had flatly refused to cheapen his work for the sake of a lucrative contract, then had suffered a disheartening (yet temporary) consequence for sticking to principle. Instead, the writers make Hasagawa act as capriciously as Amane, thereby severely undercutting the excellent character they'd built up to that point. Such a waste, in both cases - though it was arguably necessary in Amane's case, in order to make the storyline work. Better writing would have found a way to do it without undercutting the integrity of the characters, though. Integrity is the key to both characters from the outset, yet the writers apparently didn't realize it.
- Finally, the scene with the two reciting their entire online conversation from memory is horribly contrived, implausible and maudlin - which is a big part of why I liked it anyway, hahahaa. By that point you're so glad they finally hooked up that you're willing to swallow anything. 8^D The scene really cheapens the whole series though. A better scene would've been a more fleshed-out conversation in which they would *occasionally* throw in a line from their emails, then react to it with either humor or affection or both. Instead it's written almost like the final act of a high school play. It gives the impression that the producers were in a rush to complete the final episode, took a look at a rough draft of the episode's script and said "This'll have to do."
They're hinted at in my list of negatives and on balance they handily offset those negatives, and even nudge this dorama into "classic" territory.
=> The music is easily the one element that carries this dorama, more than anything else.
* The love theme "Once In A Blue Moon / Link to Fate" is simple, yet powerful and unforgettable - ideally suited as the "fragment" that Amane accidentally hears and can't resist, and as the key to the ultimate revelation of identities;
* HaTa-san's "Ash" composition "Miniature Garden" - sung magnificently by the late Kaori Kawamura - is incredibly entrancing and packs an emotional wallop that weaves through the entire fabric of the series (I'm listening to it right now, as I write this, and I'm nearly choking up - it's like being physically shaken);
* Though only presented in full in one scene, Iwashiro Taro's composition "A Day Like This" is another great piece, intensely evocative of the series' mood;
* The opening theme "Destiny" by My Little Lover is oddly incongruous in its light, breezy attitude, but is iconic of the series regardless.
Taken together, and given the central role that music plays in the plot, the music is actually another principle star of "With Love."
=> The Hasagawa Takashi character is the other great strength of the series, even though he's severely undecut by the script midway through the series, as I noted earlier. HaTa the composer reminds me of Roark the architect in the novel "The Fountainhead" - fiercely yet calmly independent, supremely self-confident, endlessly innovative and competent at his art, and unshakingly principled. ...until the writers undercut him with capricious compromises. ~ arrggh ~
Nonetheless, the overall strength of the HaTa-san character - along with the soundtrack - is key to what makes this dorama so interesting and enduring, where it otherwise could have been mundane and trite. It's just too bad that inconsistent writing and direction, along with some poor casting, prevented it from being a truly great story.
Even with its flaws (and acknowledging a definite bias,) I consider "With Love" as a must-see dorama - do not miss this one. It's worth the trip for the music alone.
Yasashii Jikan [優しい時間] Excellent, Moving, Beautiful - but a Rushed Ending [Rating: 8/10] I just finished watching Yasashii Jikan, and I know it will always be one of my favorites despite some criticisms and the lack of a strong theme. The story, characterization and setting were all phenomenal, and the mood overall is so palpable it's almost like another character itself. The Forest Clock coffee house is a place you'll find yourself missing when you're not watching this and wanting to visit when you've finished (it's a real, functioning cafe in Furano, Hokkaido, BTW); Wakui-san, the staff and the motley crew of regulars there seem almost like family - people you will find yourself thinking about long after you've stopped watching. Terao Akira is perfectly cast for the role of Wakui, at times bringing to mind the depth and intensity of Clint Eastwood; Ninomiya Kazunari and Nagasawa Masami fit their roles with conviction and incredible emotional range. Yo Kimiko's elegant and understated Tomoko was actually a scene-stealer in several spots - in the scene where she shows up a little tipsy at Forest Clock and teases Wakui-san, Tomoko managed to be laugh-out-loud funny, adorable and incredibly wise all at once.
My first criticism is that the father-son estrangement story, though generally written and played excellently, missed some opportunities for deeper, more moving drama - like gooseflesh-type scenes where the two almost meet but just miss each other (like HaTa-san and TeruTeruBozu in "With Love,") and I think the two characters were made aware of each other's whereabouts too early on, short-circuiting more dramatic opportunities within the story.
The other criticism is that the ending was anticlimactic after all of that great buildup. Episodes 10 and 11 both seemed a little rushed. There was a noticeably hastened pacing after the previous 9 and a whole lot of resolution points jammed into them, yet other subplot loose ends were left unresolved. Given that the series ran 11 episodes rather than an even 12, I'm speculating that perhaps the production ran over budget and a late decision was made to truncate the series with a hastier wrap-up? I had expected the climactic reunion scene to come to a head at the ceramics competition, an event Wakui's son Takuro was eagerly anticipating, but that event wasn't even presented. Again, I think the ending could've been done in a way that took better advantage of the buildup to that point, but that's not to say I was seriously disappointed either. It's just not the emotional wallop that I'd expected.
Some have commented that they found the conversational scenes at the cafe bar to be boring, but aside from the context of this being a slow-paced melodrama, to me they were one of the most fascinating aspects of it. It was an interesting glimpse into the lives of small-business entrepreneurs and their social and business acquaintances, and some uproarious humor on occasion. Takuro-kun's apprenticeship was fascinating too, and his sensei Ryokosuke was a crackup - almost like he stepped off of the pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Great job by Maro Akaji in that role.
Finally, the theme song "Ashita" is indeed spectacular. That's Hirahara Ayaka? I didn't even recognize her - or more specifically, the song is so overwhelming in its gentle beauty that it left me too spellbound to wonder who gave voice to it. It's as good as "Avec Toi Toujours," the theme song for the dorama "Fufudo," sung by Missa Johnouchi. I wish the rest of the soundtrack were more than just light piano music, but I will likely order it anyway. "Ashita" alone is worth it.
If you are patient by nature, Yasashii Jikan is well worth the time spent - a truly memorable, often magical slice-of-life.