Saturday, July 31, 2010

Orthros no Inu

Once upon a time, in a remote village now submerged in dam water, there was a prophecy that two boys shall be born with supernatural powers-- one with the hand of God, the other, with the hand of the Devil. It was also said that if they met, one would destroy the other and so everything happened as foretold, in addition to having them compared to the dog Orthros...

So I'm a year behind because I waited for the Nya release to be completed. It's a bad habit but I like having a matching set, plus, I tend to be loyal to a fansub group's project. A lot of people have probably seen this by now so I doubt if I'll even come close to ruining this show for anyone. Have tried my best to keep this spoiler free but boy, is this going to be tricky. Oh, and don't be surprised if this review sprouts a crazy explanation as to why this drama was entitled after the dog, Orthrus... let's just say that the darned thing came to me in a dream. 

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Aoi Ryosuke (Nishikido Ryo) is a kind-hearted sensei who comes from a good family and is well-liked by everybody. His concern for his students goes beyond the ordinary, so when one of them turns up in a coma after confiding a drug-related incident to him, Ryosuke takes it upon himself to discover the culprit. This leads him to a rave party where he encounters undercover cop Hasebe Nagisa (Mizukawa Asami) in the hands of a syndicate of young pushers led by Kumakiri Masaru (Yaotome Hikaru).

Seeing the detective in danger, Ryosuke steps into the fray, unleashing his power to kill with a single touch and so Nagisa's assailant falls dead with nary a bruise or scratch.

The coroner's report lists the cause of death as a heart attack but Nagisa is partially convinced that it is of supernatural origin. Having witnessed this one act of "divine retribution", Nagisa can't help but explore the possibility that Ryosuke could have committed other crimes without having ever been found guilty. This preoccupation with the "Devil's hand" coincidentally leads her to another case which involves convicted felon, Ryuzaki Shinji (Takizawa Hideaki), who's on death row for killing three of his buddies. So Nagisa pays Shinji a visit at the Kanto Central Prison expecting to find someone who has the same power as Ryosuke, only to find the opposite. This man possessed the "Hand of God", with the power to heal any wound or illness with his touch.

This discovery combined with Nagisa's curiosity brings about the fateful meeting of two individuals who would proceed to use their powers arbitrarily, both debating the merits of acting in accordance to what one perceives is just and in keeping with his morality.

Together, Ryosuke and Shinji make for a fearful symmetry, whose powers entice people to behave irrationally. And it's in this easily corruptible world that the two face off to fulfill a prophecy; consequently testing the limits of humanity in the course of trying to discover their place in society.

Life and death. Good and evil. Light and shadow.

Orthros no Inu is a drama that's desirous in portraying a dichotomy-- one so old and so grave that it no doubt piqued the interest of many and raised anticipation of a story that would depict an epic showdown between dueling opposites. However, as the series progressed, the drama revealed itself to be something else completely. Going against everyone's expectations, Orthrus no Inu didn't deliver the promised war between diametrical forces [if one were to go by the media spiel], nor did it tell the tale of an upstanding protagonist going up against his ultimate nemesis. Instead, it focused on man's overwhelming desire to exercise control over life and death; attempting to depict how this said power was so seductive as to compel man to waiver upon his moral standing.

True to its title, this summer feature's more of an aberration, a curious offspring of an intriguing premise and an underdeveloped plot which failed to live up to its potential despite its heavy [and sometimes off-tangent] use of symbolism and labored disquisition on man and his primordial fear of mortality. Orthros no Inu is, in all respects, a haphazardly done allegory, a confluence of lofty ideas that never got fully translated onscreen. It tries to be too many things-- a supernatural drama, a psychological thriller, a fusion anime feature and a modern day fairy tale for those faint of heart, all without having a strong and tight knit narrative to break through its citadel of pseudo-intellectual musings.

As a drama that boasts of having two characters that personify the ancient forces of good and evil, Shinji and Ryosuke never really come off as contenders out to play for keeps, not even when the whole world was said to be theirs for the taking. They were veritable gods in a world which they knew very little of and understood much less. Two people who happen to be as lost and confused as the people they came in contact with, with one being a sheltered orphan, the other, a celebrated freak. Both were searching for meaning in their lives; both acting under the mistaken notion that they knew what drove men to surrender to his failings. 

Orthros no Inu takes its viewers on a journey as Ryosuke and Shinji match wits and trade powers in furtherance of a game where the rules are not set and the prize is shrouded in mystery. It's a much ballyhooed meeting that's slightly made interesting by the yet-to-be-discovered reason behind what drives Shinji to taunt and tease Ryosuke into playing a game that would test his moral judgment and will. Much of this show's allure is finding out who will emerge victorious in the end, unfortunately, this is where Orthros no Inu makes an academic bait-and-switch, as the awaited encounter that was slated to alter the course of man's destiny never really come to being.

Writers Aoki Mao, Kobayashi Yuji, Ito Takashi, Kunii Kei and Kato Kohei, who worked as a team in developing this story akin to the style of an American-made series, were so intent on misleading their audience in preparation for a big reveal, that they ended up losing them completely. At one point a typical good versus evil story, this drama immediately became victim to a series of plot twists and character developments that had no sound basis. Even the relationship between Shinji and Ryosuke was limited to tepid exchanges that served no other purpose than to announce a player's next move. It's rife with portentous dialogue and superfluous references [in particular, King Midas and the white queen], as if the writers were more than eager to impress people with literary calisthenics and obscure visual aids.

This is one of those cases wherein a viewer can easily discern the illustrious design behind the story, problem is, there are missing details in the sequence of events that cannot be made up by the show's holier-than-thou atmosphere, skewed camera shots or half-baked philosophical grumblings. As a drama that aims to discuss the duality of good and evil, not to mention all the gray areas that reside in between, Orthros no Inu comes off soft and spineless because it treads lightly on the fact that man is capable of doing unspeakable things-- regardless of whether he's backed into a corner or soaring to new heights, for as long as fear, desperation or ambition gets the best of him.

Now the beauty of doing a project under this genre is that it makes it easy for writers to highlight an aspect of the human condition. By setting up a story wherein characters are made to experience outlandish and extreme situations, a specific truth or message can easily be imparted to viewers. Orthros no Inu pretty much has the same function. It's the writers' way of making a statement on human nature by doing a controlled and virtual form of social experimentation. It just so happened in this case that Shinji and Ryosuke were not the subject of discourse, but rather the people around them who [ironically] got very little attention and exposition. The two boys and their powers were nothing more than variables, catalysts even, in a make-believe world where a battle is going on. And this battle rages on within man alone.

The power to dictate who lives and dies attracts both the proud and the desperate and so this touted battle between good and evil turns out to be more of an internal struggle than a physical one, with each supporting character making a value assessment of what he has to gain or lose if he were to desire/accept what Shinji and Ryosuke have to offer. This much is exemplified by the wife who's unwilling to give up her life of luxury for her dying husband; the politician (Takahata Atsuko) and her campaign contributor (Shiba Toshio) who would resort to any scheme to get the former to higher office; the scientist (Oshinari Shugo) who would discard a long-term relationship for a chance at doing groundbreaking research; a husband (Yamamoto Ryuji) that would hold someone hostage just to cure his wife; a father (Hirata Mitsuru) who would abandon his son out of fear and ignorance... the list goes on and on, it's just a pity that the concept was not executed properly.

What's disappointing about it is that the show submits itself to a number of clichés inherent to the genre without even trying to push things to the extreme. Betrayal comes in the form of a phone call, asthma is overly dramatized as a fatal disease and danger is embodied by a man (Sasaki Kuranosuke), who fancies himself to be the reincarnation of Hercules. There's absolutely nothing in this series to ratchet up tension, there's nothing that would truly shock anyone to his core, most of all, nothing to incur controversy or righteous indignation. In this respect, it fails to garner interest over the moral dilemmas presented because the characters in it were used more as plot devices than actual representations of real human beings. Furthermore, not enough doubt is cast upon the motives of its two deified beings; their moral compass never even come dangerously close to losing its true north. It doesn't have the same impact as the Death Note movies in showcasing the slow descent of a man who thought himself immune to the laws dictated by society nor does it have the gritty realism of Battle Royale's view on how man acts according to his survival instinct. Heck, even Garo, which was a late-night tokusatsu, had a better grasp of human avarice and the compound horrors that accompany it.

For all its faults, what this drama did in terms of conveying its theme of duality can be found all throughout the series. Even though the characters in it never really spoke of the good and evil sides of humanity, this duality that exists in man, in so far as he has the capacity for both, is reflected and brought out by the powers possessed by Ryosuke and Shinji. In effect, the title Orthros no Inu (derived from the two-headed dog Orthrus, who guarded Geryon's herd of red cattle in Greek mythology) merely underscores this theme. It's just the writers' fancy way of saying that Ryosuke and Shinji's power over life and death were two sides of the same coin, a double-edged sword, not unlike the Aesculapius staff in the charm and stone marker that figured prominently in all the episodes. And while it can be argued that not much can be gained from examining the actual myth, interestingly enough, the idea of this monster in the form of Orthrus, also ties in with Shinji and Ryosuke's realization that the mere existence and use of their powers, no matter what the cause, produce or constitute one and the same being. What it seems to want to impart in all this, but failed to demonstrate effectively, is that man, with all his faults and insecurities, including his desire to change the natural order of things, has the uncanny ability to be the monster in the story. He's basically one creature that has two distinct forces that tug and pull at him constantly.

The symbolic references in Orthros no Inu are by no means a perfect fit, but that didn't stop its writers from jamming it with clues and visuals that inevitably give away its ending. This is one pretentious series that can't help but collapse under the weight of its conceit. It's like the boob tube equivalent of a student who's bluffing his way through the classics, reinforcing his thesis statement with a bunch of Greek and Judeo-Christian pastiche. The sheer magnitude of its theme forced its writers to resort to exhibiting material that they could not account for in terms of the story's narrative. There was more show than they could manage to tell, as the writers kept on embellishing scenes with arcane references and gratuitous touches, such as the depiction of Shinji as a fallen angel whose faith in humanity has been shaken; the inclusion of a singer named Ray who rises up to sing about love and hope, the melody of the chorus being another recording of Nessun dorma by Giacomo Puccini; the inexplicable reference to Nagisa as the white queen; a laughable re-imagining of a scene that was clearly ripped off from Hanibal Lecter and Clarice Starling's first meeting; and perhaps most telling of all, the exhibition of Gustave Moreau's Oedipus and the Sphinx in Shinji's glass encased digs. If one were to delve into the origin of the painting and take time to examine it as seen by its artist and the academe, this print, while seemingly placed in random, coincides with this drama's overall theme. It's an artistic metaphor of man's ongoing struggle to come to grips with his mortality, with emphasis on the trappings of the earthly realm as represented by a female monster that cajoles and seduces him to submit to his desires and fears. This added symbol is rather illuminating, but without any proper discussion or direct reference thereto, the whole thing can be easily dismissed as another trivial thing.

For a drama that has a treasure trove of symbols, Orthros no Inu is more of a goulash of ideas whose main theme and import got buried in the drama. Its writers were hard-pressed to impart a central message but never really got around to guiding their viewers to directly come across it. With ragged pacing and an an array of scenes that did nothing but open it to further mockery, this series struggled from start to finish to tell a cohesive story. As a supernatural thriller, it fails to tap into the darkness that dwells deep within the human psyche, especially considering that all the characters in it give in to temptation only temporarily. No stark contrast between those who fall from grace and keep the faith was ever established-- the only exception being those at the end of their tether and the children, who remained pristine. Just about everything was sugar-coated, like extra care and attention was placed in keeping the whole thing P.G. [Its overall treatment was so wholesome that Tackey's ero-ero dance might as well have been categorized as something for general viewing.]

One of the show's saving grace is the sporadic use of anime clips in lieu of taping a live-action version of the back-story. This provided the audience a break from the dull moments that plagued this series, sometimes it even looked better than the actual scenes. It even makes one wonder why they never thought of doing Orthros no Inu as an anime series. Plot holes the size of Texas would have been easily forgiven had this thing been an animated television series. In any case, the animation certainly beat out all those times that the two main characters had to stare at their open hand with furrowed brow, or the parts where Shinji had to raise his hand in ceremony like some charismatic leader or faith healer who's acknowledging a crowd.

Takizawa Hideaki as the jaded and mysterious Shinji had the right look for the role but none of the acting ability to fool people into believing that he's one potentially dangerous and menacing entity. The only way he would even come close to looking scary is if they shaved all his hair and applied botox sparingly. He interpreted Shinji as a poker-faced god who looked upon the world indifferently, his features gave away nothing and that affected the drama's more crucial scenes. Nishikido Ryo, on the other hand, looked sufficiently distraught as the mild-mannered sensei turned one-touch killing machine. He dressed the part and even made for one agreeable hero but his acting has not improved much since his earlier outing, playing reserved and brooding characters in dramas such as Ichi Rittoru no Namida and Attention Please. Completing this uninspired trio is Mizukawa Asami whose turn as as tough undercover cop and single mother to little Mio was less than convincing. As a mother to a sick child, it didn't make sense to spend so much of her time acting rashly even when she's not required to be on duty. In Orthrus no Inu, it was clear that it might take quite a while before Asami can effectively portray the role of a mother, which is why the young newcomer Kumada Sea stole more than her share of scenes. It's actually this child actor who shined brightly all throughout the series, quietly holding her own against Ryo... even Tackey.

So why bother watching Orthros no Inu? Well, supernatural dramas of this sort are a rare occurrence. The last one that comes to mind was 2008's Nanase Futatabi. And believe it or not, half of the fun of watching this convoluted series is taking part in unraveling what its writers probably intended as this profound and mentally engaging mystery, even when at the end of the day, the whole thing just turned out to be a show about two under performing Johnnies.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


A Japanese national gets accused of a crime he did not commit and finds himself in jail in a country where the officials are corrupt, money tips the scales of justice and people speak Engrish, lots of ENGRISHHH!!! Shot entirely in Thailand, this 5-part miniseries plays out like a trash novel, taking a land-grabbing conspiracy theme and a not-so-elaborate prison break scenario to new heights of idiocy.

Fine, so it's not that bad... just overly ambitious. Prisoner is more of a tv-movie of the week feature than an action-suspense thriller  but I reckon those who want "something different" would still opt to see it.

Inspired from the real-life account of Sawai Kujira's detention in Phnom Penh, WOWOW TV's Prisoner follows the trials and tribulations of Izawa Keigo, a man falsely accused and imprisoned in the fictional country Seraivia, as he fights against the system to clear his name and regain his freedom.

It was a bad beginning as Izawa Keigo (Tamayama Tetsuji) seeks respite from his troubles by dropping in unannounced on his buddy, Yuzurihara Takuya (Nakamura Shunsuke), who's running an orphanage in a tropical country. Everything was going swimmingly, with Keigo finding solace in helping out at the orphanage, until Takuya was approached by a certain Joy Saga (John Kaminari) who pitched this song and dance number about investing all his savings in a business venture to secure the children's future. Convinced, Takuya decides to close the deal by dropping $700,000 of his hard-earned host[o] cash in buying what turns out to be inalienable, state-owned property.

Seeing Takuya broken and distraught, Keigo decides to rashly step in by tracking down Joy Saga to demand the return of the money. With nothing but words to persuade the hardened swindler, Keigo and Joy Saga end up in a scuffle wherein the former got arrested by the authorities on account of "attempting to kidnap" the latter. Money was [in]discreetly exchanged at the scene and evidence was later planted against him, so Keigo promptly got himself a one-way ticket to city jail.

Unknown to Keigo and Takuya, the swindled money was just part of a scheme to force them into closing the orphanage which happens to be on prime beach property. All the other properties in the vicinity were slowly being purchased by a multinational company which was in the course of developing a world-class resort. This is where investigative journalist Nishiyama Aki (Tsuruta Mayu) comes in, because according to her sources most of the properties in the coast were being acquired through illegal means. Having heard of Keigo's story, Aki decides to help him by finding out about Joy Saga and his associates; piecing together evidence for an exposé.

Meanwhile, Keigo gets sent off to kangaroo court where he's found guilty and sent to the state penitentiary, but not before police officer Ali (Ikeda Arushi) weasels a few thousand dollars from him. Without money to grease the pockets of those in the judiciary and without any legal assistance from Consul Ube Hajime (Kohinata Fumiyo), who was just waiting to be transferred out of the said country, Keigo was looking at a 10-year prison term ahead of him.

At this point, Prisoner becomes more of a ridiculous tragedy following Murphy's Law, as our protagonist gets bamboozled and beaten down again and again.... and again and again.... so much so, that it would have been more practical to send him to the meat grinders. It's just one careless mistake after another, as the main characters in this series were slow to internalize Chris Carter's simple and sage advice in the X-files to trust no one.

One would've thought that Takuya had more insight into human nature, having worked in an environment wherein being manipulative and deceitful brought about higher returns. Hosts are known to be quite perceptive of people's needs and quick to identify liars since their occupation requires that they be exceptional liars as well, but Takuya got his training from the Giragira-let's-heal-women's-hearts academy for hosts that's why taking money from him turned out to be so easy. It also helped that a grown man like him remained so naive as to pay in cash within a day of inspecting the property so con men all over the world can rejoice, for in Prisoner, it's no longer necessary to devise grand, intricate designs to steal someone's money.

This is one ambitious series that obviously bit off more than it can chew, as screenwriter Oishi Tetsuya (MW, Death Note, Death Note: The Last Name) poorly assembles a loose and exasperating account of a man caught in the middle of [what should be] a high-stakes corporate conspiracy  involving the construction of a leisure resort in a foreign country.  The concept behind it is rather easy to grasp, and  WOWOW should be applauded for shooting the whole thing in a foreign locale, however the finished product in itself appears to fall short of its intent to bring a riveting action thriller as the events in Prisoner became increasingly absurd by the minute.

About thirty percent of the dialogue in this series is spoken in Engrish and about 2/3 of it has Keigo in prison  planning an escape with the help of his cellmate, Pon (Ohmori Nao), while Aki on the outside, snoops around for information with hired bodyguard, Wada Akira (Ishiwada Ken). And it's pretty much in this Prison Break cum Oswald State Penitentiary set-up that writer Oishi Tetsuya went over the top.
This is no Shawshank Redemption or Stalag 17 as the interaction between Keigo and the inmates alongside the actual prison break make for one groan-out-loud, get-ready-to-tear-your-hair-out [of disbelief] viewing experience. Here, Keigo goes through the process of becoming a human punching bag, to fellow inmate to wronged comrade, earning the trust and respect of the other prisoners by playing an overextended game of Russian roulette. Sharpen those spoons mate and make duplicate keys for Keigo's gonna bust out of a state penitentiary!

Contrary to hype, this drama is not so much Prison Break but more of a wannabe a cloak and dagger series with a huge chunk of mystery and nail-biting suspense missing in between. Fictional Seraivia is depicted as  home to a lot of shady dealings, with most of its folk easily bought off and ready to switch loyalties. The foreign characters in it are caricature villains that would fit in nicely had this been an era wherein Sean Connery's 007 still held sway-- there's the Chinese troubleshooter (Takehana Azusa)  for the corporation with his tea and jigsaw puzzle, his lovely assistant/sexytary (Kusakari Mayu) who poisons drinks; the swindler who irons his money; and the rotund police chief (Walter Roberts) who smokes cigars and listens to Puccini. Its whole presentation is outdated and clichéd, almost everyone in it  is a double crosser or a money grubber, and what makes the show unappealing is that it takes Keigo and Saki quite a while to realize that they're surrounded by people who have ulterior motives. That's why the protagonists in this story remain victims for the greater part of the show. If Act I of this series is "Trust No One", then Act II could just as easily be entitled, "Abandon All Hope" as Keigo finds himself betrayed once again by the person he relied on the most.

The upside is that Keigo and Aki don't remain gullible forever, so the third act of this series is concluded with  "Just Deserts". It's not exactly clear what brought on the change in their attitude but it's quite a relief that they acted with caution and used their heads for a change. Taking a page off of the bad guys' playbook, Keigo gets to dispense justice by forming a strategic alliance and getting help from a man who roasted armadillos in schezuan sauce... and to think all this was made possible because of a can of sardines. It's all a bit contrived but the sudden turnaround in the flow of events was long-awaited, if not long overdue.

Prisoner, like your regular tv-movie of the week ends with the requisite happy ending-- with the baddies getting their comeuppance and a hero's homecoming. Seeing this show is not at all that rewarding but having that all's-well, justice-prevails ending acts like a soothing balm for the mental lashing that one gets in enduring this drama's rickety plotting.

Notwithstanding the garbled english and the atrociously bad, community theater-type of acting from its foreign [actors and] extras, Prisoner has a respectable cast of Japanese actors holding supporting roles-- there's  Ohmori Nao as the sly and manipulative Pon; Ishiguro Ken as the ambivalent bodyguard; Ikeda Narushi as the corrupt cop; Kohinata Fumiyo as the indifferent consul; and Tanaka Yoji who seems to be everybody's  bartender. These five actors made this drama less excruciating, playing their characters with aplomb and gravity that it would not be surprising if their individual performances in this would be the only  thing worth remembering. Tamayama Tetsuji's performance in this series was intermittently overwrought and disengaging,  he has eyes that spoke volumes but the emotions conveyed lacked subtlety and focus. Tsuruta Mayu as the female lead was serviceable but the female characters were mostly nondescript accessories to this less than realistic cautionary tale of life overseas.

The problem with Prisoner is that this drama is composed of a  series of unfortunate events, the likes of which, could have been easily  avoided had the main characters possessed an iota of common sense and exercised due diligence. It suffers from insipid storytelling, bogged down by maudlin sections that defy logic and description, but what it offers though is its relatively short entry, taking up only five episodes in telling this quasi-action/suspense thriller of a story. 
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Magerarenai Onna

From the way it was described, you'd think it was another shigoto drama but it's not. What it is really, is a drama about a 32-year old woman who has the unyielding resolve to lead her life the way she wants.  It's about having the conviction to pursue one's dreams, the courage to make a change and how having friends who believe in you can make a world of difference.

This show caught me by surprise, didn't expect it to be that funny or endearing, but then I really didn't hold much hope for the dramas that came out this winter season. It's been a while since I watched something without j-idols in it so Magerarenai Onna comes as a welcome treat. This drama makes you want to believe in the power of friendship... and who would have guessed? It's also a tribute to the healing effects of the music of the King of Pop. 
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Ogiwara Saki (Kanno Miho) is an aspiring lawyer who has flunked the bar nine times. She's disciplined and methodical, keeps to a stringent study schedule, and doesn't think twice about correcting someone when a word is misused or mispronounced. She works as a paralegal at a big firm in Tokyo where she's discouraged by her boss from retaking the bar, derided by her co-workers for being unsociable and envied by some for dating senior associate, Sakamoto Masato (Tsukamoto Takashi).

Note that taking the bar in Japan is not easy. The passing rate for post-war Japan fluctuates from 2-3% and prior to 2004, there were no graduate schools in place or any requirement for hopefuls to complete a law course except for a general undergraduate law program. Preparing for the national bar exam meant that the aspirant had to study and digest the law on his own. In some ways, it's said to level the playing field such that anyone who had the determination and the capability can be admitted to the practice of law (that's why there are characters like Hero's Kuryu Kohei), but then again, those who attempt to take it and actually pass were sadly, notoriously few. So before the country instituted reforms by establishing a law school system and placing a cap on how many times the exam can be taken, it was normal for people to take the bar four, five times before actually passing it.

Under the old system, the bar examination was taken in three stages. There's a multiple-choice test covering constitutional, criminal and civil law; an essay examination which included commercial and procedural law; and an oral examination which could have topics from any of the five major subjects. All three exams were taken over the course of a year, so an examinee would have to spend almost every waking moment reviewing for it. 

So imagine all that hard work and effort placed into achieving that one dream that continuously eluded Saki  year after year. This would be her tenth attempt and if she failed, decisions had to be made. She currently lives on a shoe-string budget since she's only a temporary employee, her mother's sick and people have been giving her less than subtle hints that maybe she's not meant to be an attorney... and they wonder why the girl has all but shutdown completely.

Saki is depicted as someone who hardly smiles, she's almost like a robot set on auto-pilot, a monotonous drone. Everyday, she rushes home from work, picks up some groceries, studies till half past one and promptly wakes up at six only to go through the same routine. She's somewhat a sad creature, someone whose way of life is misunderstood. Saki knows that it's about time for her to give up and settle down but abandoning her one goal in life ain't part of her vocabulary.
Life takes on a different turn when Saki bumps into an old high school classmate, Hasumi Riko (Nagusaku Hiromi), who takes on a peculiar interest in her life. This self-proclaimed, happily-married housewife gets herself an invite into Saki's home and bulldozes her way into meddling with Saki's personal affairs. Things start to get more interesting as our duo is joined by smooth-talking police officer, Aida Kouki (Tanihara Shosuke), whose Don Juan stylings and pick-up lines fail to impress Saki and he finds this very unsettling.

Magerarenai Onna is almost like a coming of age story, a drama about an unlikely friendship formed between three disparate folks. It's funny and heartwarming, it's a show that celebrates friendship and the power of dreams. More importantly, it's a reflection of the reality that true friends are really hard to come  by, no matter what age bracket you're in.

Ogiwara Saki is but one of many strong and independent-minded female characters of late, but what really distinguishes Magerarenai Onna from other dramas is screenwriter Yukawa Kazuhiko's clear and obstinate vision of what his characters should be like and where they're supposed to go. The triumvirate in this series grow and change without any marked inconsistencies. The characters behave in accordance with their known attributes and viewers never lose that emotional connection or get disgruntled over major plot points when one of them acts out a certain way.

The protagonist, Saki, might appear stoic but she's really the most perceptive and emphatic person in the said group. Her cool demeanor plays off as a defense mechanism to protect her from the criticism of the naysayers and busybodies who were forcing her to quit on her dream. Saki is the type that approaches her target with tunnel vision. In her mind, there is no room for doubt, no need to second guess what she has set out to do,  no possibility of compromise. Furthermore, she's oblivious to the consequences of her decisions-- she would quit a job that she's had for nine years just because of a difference in ethics and would break off a decade-long relationship so as not to be forced into marriage.

And it's this stubborn streak in Saki that Riko and Kouki find fascinating. At first, she's their source of entertainment, someone whose actions and words alternately baffle and amuse. They say that watching her life unfold is like watching a bad drama on t.v. but what really draws them to her is the latter's ability to forge a path of her own; something which the two did not have the confidence to do nor the courage to seek.

Riko's the well-provided for but ignored housewife in a household that's run by her indomitable mother-in-law. Her husband cheats on her and her two kids avoid her, so she resorts to lying and pretending that everything's okay. Kouki on the other hand, is the police chief who acts more like a figurehead and is not regarded highly as a superior. He got assigned to his post because of his influential father; he's a pacifist disguised as a law enforcer. Both of them lead lives that society find acceptable, both of them also happen to be unhappy and uncomfortable. They hang around Saki allegedly to console themselves, but the truth is, Saki is the type of person that they wish they could be-- she's that proverbial nail that sticks out, but as life  would have it, she refuses to be hammered down.

So as Riko and Kouki slowly wheedle themselves into Saki's life, the three eventually form a strange fellowship. It's the kind of friendship that sees them through good times and bad times,  a support system that allows them to look out for each other and be reminded of their worth,  and it couldn't have arrived at a better time... because growing up isn't easy. Being an adult does not exempt a person from growing pains but having friends you can depend on sure relieves the pressure. And that's pretty much what the three did, they did a lot of growing up together.

At the heart of Magerarenai Onna is the relationship between these three people. There's nothing like having a friend around to tell your woes to, someone to grapple a pen with when you're about to deface your mother's death poem, someone who would cook you meals and eat with you, someone who'd dance around to Michael Jackson no matter what the situation and someone who'd care enough to give you a slap in the face when you need it the most. There's a reason why songs like Lean On Me and Stand By Me are a classic. So it's no coincidence that the theme for this series Modorenai Ashita by aiko has an opening bar that suspiciously sounds like that Bill Withers song.

This drama's theme of self-affirmation and empowerment rests on the strength of Saki, Riko and Kouki's friendship. It was when all three came together that each one was able to sum up the courage to make a change in their lives for the better. There are a lot of funny and touching sequences in this series but perhaps the most memorable of all is the one wherein Saki realized that part of the import of having friends is to know when to ask for help, that living for yourself doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be on your own and bear things alone.  

Magerarenai Onna is one of those feel-good, guilt-free series that can make you laugh and cry without insulting your intelligence. It's written as a character study and a buddy comedy, all wrapped up in a post quarter-life crisis scenario that's just brimming with old school charm and humor.

This drama has a winsome cast, with the ever reliable Kanno Miho leading the pack as the titular unbending woman. Portraying an expressionless, mechanical shell of a person could have easily alienated an audience, but Kanno Miho made Saki into a character that others can relate to. Her face might as well have been etched in stone but her eyes conveyed a lot of meaning. Saki had a number of tics and pet peeves to let us know that there was more to her than what we're seeing. Meanwhile, Nagusaku Hiromi played bubbly and nosy Riko as the perfect foil to Saki's calm indifference.  She was the one who always stirred the pot, the one with the infectious smile and the mischievous glint in her eyes. Nagusaku Hiromi played the desperate trophy wife to perfection, one who's on the brink of breaking down but always in denial.

Tanihara Shosuke as Kou-chan in this series was simply brilliant, this is just one role that fit him like a white, sequined glove. His turn as the womanizing cop whose advances have no effect on Saki provide much of the comedy and doki doki moments in this series. As the lovestruck, bumbling and sensitive Kouki, Tanihara Shosuke finally got the chance to play to his strengths, displaying his gift for comedy and his potential to play a romantic lead. He never really achieved that balance before, often cast as the token pretty boy (Miseinen, Gokusen 2), the ambivalent boss/man (Mop Girl, Love Shuffle), or the annoying buffoon (Ryokiteki Kanojo), not to mention his endless list of cameos. In Magerarenai Onna, he got to be more than the comic relief and his character in this one was disarmingly sweet and funny.

The weakest link in this series would have to be Battle Royale techie guy alumnus, Tsukamoto Takashi, who was apparently working way out of his league. His character, Masato, had very little screen presence or chemistry with Saki that it was impossible to make believe that they've been together for ten years. He was the odd man out in an exclusive group of three. Maybe it was intended that way, but his supposed history with Saki did not have the expected emotional pull; he was just no match for kind-hearted Kouki. There was absolutely no competition, he was that much of a non-entity. Masato might have been as uncertain and clueless as the others but his character wasn't given enough time to shine. The fact that Tsukamoto Takashi didn't have the draw or foresight to make something out of his character made Masato less of an alternative and more of an appendage, a vestige of Saki's past.

One thing about this series that others might get tired of seeing is that every episode usually has Saki having one of her outbursts as a magerarenai-onna fanfare starts playing. It's when her so-called shutter comes up and she starts spouting off platitudes about  the value of living and how the law should protect the weak-- in a half-screech, staggered manner, sort of like firing short rounds of ammunition. If you've seen dramas like Great Teacher Onidzuka, Hero and Gokusen, then having the main lead preach at you would be nothing new, but the last round of indignant-speech fire in this one turned out to be really long and rattling. Don't worry though, Kimutaku's 21-minute lecture on the structure of government and good governance in the drama Change still holds the record.
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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rinne no Ame

Kuwamura Sayaka's Rinne no Ame, which won the 21st Fuji Television Young Scenario [Taisho] Award, is one surprisingly powerful television piece. It belongs to that rare species of melodrama that genuinely tugs at your heart as it explores the value of family and how the ties that bind people together can also tear them apart.

In its opening sequence, brothers Mikami Kohei (Yamamoto Yusuke) and Shuhei (Seto Koji) drive into the woods in a beat-up truck one stormy night in order to dispose of a body. The truck stops beyond a clearing and as the two alight, older brother Kohei immediately begins to dig a shallow grave while younger brother Shuhei stands on the side staring listlessly into space. With the crash of lightning and the roar of thunder, mentally-handicapped Shu briefly recalls events that passed and wonders out loud to his brother why the person they were about to bury had to die... 

Rinne no Ame presents a scenario which puts the bond between these two brothers to the ultimate test, as one brother unwittingly commits a crime in defense of the other. Clocking at less than 48 minutes, this drama special manages to not only show how close these two people were but also offers us an insight into how one incident changed the way they looked at each other. The crime was unpremeditated but gradually the cracks in their relationship begin to grow. With their mother long dead and an absentee father, the Mikami brothers had no choice but to rely on one another. For ten years, they tried to keep it all together, with Kohei juggling school and a part-time job, and Shu being his family and only friend. Shu on the other hand, always tried to keep up, thinking the world of his brother, until their carefully constructed life started to crumble down-- as the lead detective (Nagai Masaru) in the homicide case starts to suspect them and their good for nothing dad (Ogi Shigemitsu) resurfaces long enough to demand money from them.

This is a certified tearjerker, a story carefully crafted to break your heart. Writer Kuwamura Sayaka delicately weaves this tragic tale using simple dialogue in conveying the relationship between the Mikami brothers. By allowing the viewers to take a good, hard look at what was at stake, Rinne no Ame delivers a solid punch from start to finish, producing quiet, memorable moments that eventually lead up to dramatically charged scenes. The music, the lighting, the flashbacks and the individual performances were rendered so beautifully that one cannot help but dread its abrupt end. This is one drama special that moved at a slow and measured pace, with its writer fully in control of drawing out the emotional conflict within her characters to maximum effect.

What makes Rinne no Ame all the more captivating is that its direction and execution were likewise handled with a subdued and studied grace, such that the melodrama was never pushed to its absolute limit. It can be emotionally manipulative, but Director Namiki Michiro obviously did everything in her power to make it not blatantly so. She rehearsed her actors to elicit and capture each facial expression at an angle that looked just right and camera shots did not linger on unnecessarily as the story unfolded with a calm, understated quality that served to drive in its harrowing conclusion.

Moreover, actors Yamamoto Yusuke and Seto Koji delivered moving performances, attacking their roles with astounding polish and circumspection, a marked contrast to the zany and irreverent roles they played in last year's Atashinchi no Danshi. Surprisingly enough, these two young actors retained a natural rapport that made them totally convincing as brothers. Yamamoto Yusuke (Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, Puzzle, Rescue) displayed immense restraint playing the protective older brother, his Kohei had the firm resolve to keep the family together with just the right touches of self-doubt and resentment brewing underneath; there was no doubt that he loved and treasured his autistic brother but the responsibility of taking care of him was starting to weigh on him heavily. Seto Koji (Kamen Rider Kiva, Koizora, Otomen) equally turned in a decent performance portraying Shuhei as a simple-minded child who had nothing but complete trust in his brother. He imbued Shu with a wide-eyed innocence and devotion that was clearly displayed every time he said, "onii-chan" and struggled to make sense of what he's told. Together, they were the Mikami brothers. Seldom will you see two actors so in tune and complementary to each other to the extent that it was no longer about who was better, but rather how they could effectively portray the story and its characters together. They just worked so well.

Another thing that Rinne no Ame has going for it is its reliable cast of supporting characters, from Kanjiya Shiori who played the kind-hearted Minami, standing in as the audience's proxy, to the short yet stirring appearance of Ogi Shigemitsu as the boys' father who shamelessly didn't give a damn about what would happen to his closest kin.

Setting aside all its positive aspects, Rinne no Ame does come with a certain disability. It is by no means perfect, for instance, much of its emotional pull and impact is derived from the fact that it's on for a very short and limited engagement. On second viewing, the acting and execution thereof can even look too staged and scripted but Young Taisho award winners have always had this tendency. It benefits greatly from having a short format, thus sidestepping the problem of sustaining a cohesive and heartfelt storyline; something which continues to plague past winners who usually exhaust their material in four to five episodes when tasked to write a full length series.

Like previous winners who've gone on to pen Bara no nai Hanaya, Last Friends, Life and Ninkyo Helper for Fuji TV, screenwriter Kuwamura Sayaka excels in creating a scenario with characters to which its target audience draws a strong connection. And as expected, the writing for Rinne no Ame has enough detail and flourish-- with a number of memorable scenes between the two brothers, uncanny attention to the speech patterns of an autistic person and the rain serving as thematic bookends to the piece. In this respect, this drama SP is something worth seeing. It's the perfect venue by which a writer gets to demonstrate how well he/she can capture hearts in a given moment by creating a story that will stay with you for an indefinite amount of time.
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