Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tokujo Kabachi!

An assistant administrative scrivener fights for justice and learns about the harsh reality of what it takes to survive in the legal profession, in this episodic and farcical shigoto drama which comes equipped with legal trivia, sentimental babble and comic strip special effects, served in a law-made-easy format for viewers of all ages.

I'm afraid this is one of those dramas which can only be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Sakurai Sho and Horikita Maki or else, best viewed when you have the time and energy to sit through a shigoto drama that doles out bite size pieces of the law as if it were a children's television  program. Basically, if you're an avid fan of the stars of this drama or someone who even has the slightest interest in learning about administrative scriveners in Japan and their standing in the legal profession, then watching this drama shouldn't hurt a bit. Who knows? You might even find it somewhat informative.

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Tokujo Kabachi! follows the story of a young man named Tamura Katsuhiro (Sakurai Sho) as he undergoes training and learns more about his chosen profession through his work at a scrivener's office. A native of Hiroshima, Tamura is in Tokyo to fulfill his dream of becoming a gyōsei shoshi, an administrative scrivener, or in common parlance, a solicitor, in hopes of being able to better serve the public. He's currently preparing for the upcoming licensure exams and is receiving instruction from the associates of the Ohno Administrative Solicitor['s] Office, where he's constantly being criticized for accepting jobs that essentially don't pay money. Tamura is a greenhorn, an idealistic one at that, he's the type who believes that the law exists to protect the weak and that legal professionals should always act in view of administering justice. As such, Tamura doesn't think twice about dispensing legal advice or lending a hand to anyone in need, foremost of which are his landlords, who would turn out to consult him about the darnedest things.

Acceding to another one of his landlord's requests, Tamura willingly handles a case which involves the collection of a sum of money. His client, a fruit vendor (Yoshida Eisaku), claims that his creditor (Taguchi Hiromasa) is suddenly asking for the immediate payment of the debt  in contravention of their verbal agreement to give him a grace period until the end of the year. The creditor, on the other hand, insists that he lent the money to his friend in good faith and didn't foresee the circumstances that would lead him to collect the money earlier than expected.

A meeting is held between the two parties and Tamura gets introduced to administrative scrivener, Sumiyoshi Misuzu (Horikita Maki), who came especially to  assist the other party. With the law on his side, Tamura comes off the said meeting victorious based on the creditor's admission that he verbally agreed to extend the terms of the loan.

Unable to admit defeat and knowing that her client really needed the money, Sumiyoshi devises a plan to countermand Tamura's position, taking the offensive by examining the accounts collectible by the fruit vendor and invoking her client's right to subrogation.

They then try to outwit, outplay and outlast each other, utilizing their knowledge of the law to their advantage because it's really a winner-take-all situation. Taking everything in consideration, Tamura has to muster all his strength and resolve to do whatever it takes to win his client's case and come up with a favorable solution. Calling to mind the showdown between legendary swordsmen Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojirō on the island of Ganryujima, Tamura and Sumiyoshi face off in another round of negotiations hoping to settle the case without going into litigation. Wielding their respective legal options like a weapon; Sumiyoshi comes on strong with a demand to pay the sum of money within two weeks while Tamura parries with a counter proposal to pay by installment. Trying to gauge each other's expressions, the two exchange scenarios as to how the whole thing will play out, until finally, Tamura delivers a decisive blow which leads Sumiyoshi to lose the case completely.

Of course, Tamura, being the softie that he is, isn't content with just winning the case for his client. He goes out of his way to make things right between the two parties who also happen to be the best of friends. Seeing this extra effort on the part of Tamura leaves Sumiyoshi rather intrigued with the workings of the Ohno Administrative Solicitor['s] Office. She decides to transfer offices to work alongside Tamura, where she's treated as his superior, having passed the licensure exams ahead of him.

So Tamura and Sumiyoshi form a tentative working relationship which later evolves into a genuine partnership based on mutual respect for each other's views and abilities. They don't always see eye to eye when it comes to handling their cases but the differences in their attitude towards work and temperament allow them to, more often than not, balance each other out-- he's impulsive and excitable, she's cool and analytical. He's down to earth and approachable, she's sassy and a bit unsociable.

They argue incessantly on how to go about things but stand united when confronted with a legal dilemma that they need to resolve, much more when faced with a common enemy. Sumiyoshi is shrewd and feisty but not above using her feminine wiles if need be. In some ways, she's more level-headed than her partner because she reacts to events in a subdued and practical manner unlike Tamura who's easy to anger. On the other hand, what Tamura brings to the relationship is his unbending sense of justice, his never-say-die resolve to assist people in need and his knack for spotting weak provisions in a contract, which makes exploiting loopholes in the law all the more easy. Together, they fight for truth, justice and the right to give common folks legal advice in conjunction to pushing the boundaries of what they're allowed to do under the legal system to the chagrin of  bar associations in Japan.

Tokujo Kabachi!  is basically your typical shigoto drama that features a doe-eyed upstart who's dealt a series of challenges in his line of work. It's not much different from other shows about the legal profession, except this time the spotlight is shined on administrative scriveners instead of lawyers, with the former being an area of expertise or a branch of the legal profession in Japan that's virtually unknown to people outside of the said country. From an academic point of view, what this drama does is indirectly raise questions as to what administrative scriveners are really permitted to do and what exactly is the scope of their functions. Furthermore, it  in part enforces the notion of the so-called glut that's expected to hit those engaged in the legal profession under the new law school  system.

As a drama, it's prone to show a limited depiction of the work done by scriveners, but what it does, to an equally limited extent, is to highlight an aspect of Japan's unique legal system. The fact that bengoshis don't have a monopoly over rendering legal services and that administrative scriveners merely constitute a small section of badge-wearing professionals that operate in specialized fields show how the "practice of law" is divided between lawyers and non-lawyers.  What makes it all interesting, when viewed in context, is that it's a system that's currently under evaluation as "legal specialists" like the gyōsei shoshi and shihō shoshi lobby for more rights to engage in activities that were once only reserved to the bengoshi. So with the ever increasing demand for legal services and the bengoshi commonly considered to be highly inaccessible and unaffordable, it's not surprising that these "specialists" eventually perform a much larger role in dispute settlement as they fill the gaps in the system, so to speak. So even though the material in this drama is based on a manga, it seems more likely that some specialists do go above and beyond what they're authorized by law to do, but then again, who's to say that there's not a lot of gray areas in the performance of their duties?

Exactly how much of Tokujo Kabachi! is fact and how much is fiction is hard to discern; everything about it has to be taken with a grain of salt and a certain level of circumspection. For one, it's hard to believe that these scriveners only charge clients for their documentation work and chalk everything else up pro bono. Two, without actual knowledge of the law, it's hard to determine the limits of their jurisdiction; there's really no way to tell the precise moment or manner in which the characters in the drama have overstepped their bounds. That the drama gained criticism from the Osaka Bar Association for having characters that  violated the Bengoshi Hō and the Hiben Katsudo hints at how much non-attorneys might have already infringed on activities that should have been handled by practicing attorneys. There apparently is cause for concern if a bar association resorts to calling out a drama of this sort, at best, it's symptomatic of the many problems that are present in their legal institution(s).

In terms of entertainment value, this television adaptation of the manga by Tajima Takashi defies categorization. It's a shigoto drama that contains all the fist-banging, idealistic fervor, righteous speech and heroic fanfare that can easily be found in any show about the legal profession, however, the execution thereof unevenly shuttles between the serious and the comedic; adapting a format that's stricken by a bipolar disorder for the purpose of appealing to a wide-range demographic.

Well aware of this drama's potential to put people to sleep, writer Nishiogi Yumie (Double Kitchen, Yan Papa) and directors Kato Arata (Orthros no Inu, Brother Beat, Stand Up!), Imai Natsuki and Kan Satoshi placed a concerted effort to keep the storyline for each episode fresh and amusing, incorporating cartoon-inspired special effects to make up for the sheer volume of legal terms and quibbling present in the series. To make sure that its audience paid attention, a contest was held every week wherein the stars of the drama promptly called a contestant on air to congratulate him/her for winning Tokujo Kabachi! giveaways and goodies. Erstwhile, useful snippets of the law applicable to humdrum events were given off as a pop quiz of sorts for those who cared enough to take notice.

The end result is a frivolous jdorama about the legal profession that alternately impresses and disappoints, with some episodes being stronger than others. It tries hard to maintain a light comedic tone on an ordinarily serious subject matter, which is why at times the use of animated special effects to emphasize the legal aspects of the story can try one's patience. The thoughts of the main characters are spelled out  for everyone to see; a scam artist gets struck by a thousand bolts of lightning; a cheating husband gets hit by a possible lawsuit as if it were a ton of bricks; a manager charged with retrenching people is Death collecting his victims; and a sneaky real estate agent gets frozen in a block of ice after hearing he has no right to evict a tenant without just cause and due notice-- these are but a few examples of the live action+animated sequences used in this series, which some might initially find overwhelming and later on decide to be annoying. What's great about it though is that when it works, it works beautifully. More importantly, the writer and directors have the good sense not to utilize this device on cases or issues that are particularly serious and sensitive.

To its credit, the people behind Tokujo Kabachi! did endeavor to capture the spirit of the law and the complexities that come with being engaged in the legal profession by once in a while giving Tamura a reality check, throwing in brief lessons on the nature of the adversarial system and a legal professional's duty to serve the interest of his client to the best of his abilities, before proceeding to paint a world where justice prevails and Tamura heads home with content smile on his face. They likewise highlighted the fact that Japan followed a civil law system in which the maxim  dura lex sed lex gets a friendlier spin as the audience is constantly reminded that  in life, there is no wrong or right answer; but under the law, there is a right answer.

The cases are very easy to follow, every term or legal proceeding mentioned in it is accompanied by a simple and concise explanation. The chances of stifling a yawn far outweighs the possibility of getting lost in translation-- it's carefully designed to lead the viewer by the hand to appreciate the legal solution. There's no danger of having a layman drown in legalese... dying of boredom is more like it. Since this drama is all about administrative scriveners and the nature of their work, the focus really is on the cases that they handle. They're not the sensational kind that one often sees in a courtroom drama but more the type of cases that a regular person would encounter on a day-to-day basis. For this purpose, Tokujo Kabachi! offers a good selection of civil, labor, real-estate and family law cases that are in part an offshoot of the ongoing recession; some,  even take a [shallow] stab at ongoing issues like the serious need  to enforce sexual harassment laws in the work place or the benefits of the proposed amendment to lower the age of majority from 20 to 18 and  why the same should coincide with the minimum age for marriage. There's probably much more to this drama that's best left to the inquisitive, but all things considered, this really is something that would best be appreciated by a person who's residing in Japan or someone who'll take an "armchair scholar" approach to viewing it.

The cast of this drama, starting from the leads, Sakurai Sho and Horikita Maki, turned in satisfactory performances but don't expect to be moved because almost all of the characters are two-dimensional creatures. Tamura and Sumiyoshi are all work and easy banter, and even though one eventually gets to learn what makes Tamura so dedicated to his work, Sumiyoshi, unfortunately, will forever remain a cipher. Luckily, Sakurai Sho's wholesome appeal and boy-next-door charm readily translates on screen, making Tamura a well-intentioned and likable character despite all those tight shots and sanctimonious dialogue that caps off every episode of the series. And while Horikita Maki's turn as Sumiyoshi appears to be more labored, as she has to sport a perm and a string of pearls to make her  look the part of her character, it's plenty amusing to watch her [try to] play a sassy girl with a glib tongue and a disgusting smoking habit. It's about as real as watching a little girl play dress-up in her mother's clothes but given that Tokujo Kabachi! presents most of its characters as cartoons, without any thought as to professional dignity or credibility,  Maki's less than believable performance surprisingly fits in well with the drama's light and uneven tone. After all,  one only has to look at the supporting characters to know that they're not supposed to be taken seriously-- Sumiyoshi's  mentor (Asano Yuko) has ikemen lackeys, the head of the firm (Nakamura Masatoshi) does baby talk when he's around a hostess, while Tamura's co-workers (Endo Kenichi & Takahashi Katsumi) at the office are dressed like clowns who can't seem to give instructions without barking or sneering like a two-bit gangster.

Lastly, those expecting an arresting love story to develop between Tamura and Sumiyoshi are advised not to expect too much of it because the romance in Tokujo Kabachi! takes a backseat to hours of devising a winning stratagem for the cases that they're handling. Regardless of whatever fans may say, this is actually a good thing because there's nothing much in the way of romantic chemistry between Sakurai Sho and Horikita Maki... what they do have, is a passable working relationship.  
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kurosawa Retrospective this September

Japan Foundation, Manila, in partnership with the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the UP Film institute will be holding a 2-week  film retrospective of acclaimed director and screenwriter Akira Kurosawa's award-winning works to be shown in the original 35mm format. Regular screenings will be held at the CCP Dream Theater from September 15 to 19 (10:00am to 7:00pm) and at the UP Film Institute from September 22 to 30 (1:00pm to 7:00pm). Admission is FREE.

For more information on the said event and a complete list of the films that will be featured, please visit the Japan Foundation, Manila website: or check out the flyer here.
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Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A student activist endures the summer heat in a provincial town peeping through the floorboards of his  second floor apartment, lusting after a woman who is someone else's wife. Heralded by critics to be a bold examination of human relationships and symbolic of South Korea's violent and uneasy path towards democracy, director Park Jae-Hong's controversial and erotic movie could have arguably been all that, had it not been a déclassé and unacknowledged remake of Peque Gallaga's 1985 classic film, Scorpio Nights.

The year is 1980 and Sang-Ho (Ryu Su-Yeong) is one of many students who are on the run following the Kwangju incident. Fearing apprehension, he seeks refuge in a rural town, renting a small room above a place occupied by a young couple; biding time, waiting for things to settle down. He's a virtual stranger in this part of the country where he doesn't know a single soul, and as his prolonged isolation and constant fear of being caught gets to him, along with the humid weather, Sang-Ho turns to voyeurism to while away time. Spying through holes in the floorboards, Sang-Ho starts to lust after Hee-ran (Kim Ji-Heon) who lives downstairs. Observing her each and every move, Sang-Ho finds pleasure in watching Hee-ran prance around the house in a charmeuse chemise without a care in the world. He spends his days and nights fantasizing about the young woman, and looks upon the young couple as  part of his daily  routine. He's aroused and titillated by the mechanical way in which the husband, Tae-yol (Choi Chul-Ho) makes love to his wife; bewildered by the cool and detached way in which they treat each other.

Drunk with desire and loaded with restless energy, Sang-Ho seizes the chance to make his dream into a reality by stealthily entering the couple's apartment while Tae-Yol is away and having sexual intercourse with an inert yet receptive Hee-ran. This first encounter leads Sang-Ho to risk another lovemaking session, where a sexually stimulated Hee-ran is roused from her state of half-slumber to discover that the man she was with was not her husband. And so begins a dangerous love affair, characterized by peep shows and stolen moments; marred  only by the looming threat of getting caught by Hee-ran's volatile husband.

Summertime is, by all respects, your average film erotica with ample nudity and sweaty simulated coupling staged in the confined spaces of a warmly lit, sparsely furnished, one room apartment. It beckons viewers to share Sang-Ho's growing infatuation with the pretty neighbor who lives right below his dark temporary abode in the midst of the dreary landscape; showcasing the peephole as a passageway to a world that promises unbridled passion and life...  As a sex film,  it accomplishes its purpose of providing a means of escape, it even manages to lavish actress Kim Ji-Heon with the camera work and attention befitting an object of desire. Director Park Jae-Hong teases his audience well, showing  Hee-ran lazily draped on the bed; it's accentuated by shots that show the hem of her chemise momentarily lifted by a rotating fan, just enough to expose a lacy undergarment. Viewers can't help but be mesmerized by this imprisoned goddess who languidly stretches about like a cat, it's actually in these uninhibited moments that one sees what Sang-Ho sees and dares to covet. At times the camera angles are downright lascivious but these bits and pieces serve as a fitting prelude to the two characters' endless bouts of sex.

As a film that allegedly makes a statement on the political climate of South Korea in the early 80s, Summertime is more of a clumsy attempt at injecting historical relevance to an otherwise lousy knockoff of a Filipino "experimental" film. And while on an intellectual level it might be plausible to argue that the three characters in this story represent a microcosm of Korean society at a time when student activism was instrumental in raising the awareness of the masses to fight against an oppressive regime, the elements introduced in the story were far too weak, too flimsy to support this interpretation. For all intents and purposes, it is an intriguing analogy-- to liken a bloody revolution to an extramarital affair-- the problem is,  even though the events that transpired in the movie occurred shortly after the Kwangju incident, the actual references thereto were far too limited to overcome or draw attention away from the movie's sexual content. A short radio announcement at the beginning of the film, a few lines from Sang-Ho admitting his minor participation in the incident and a Time magazine article splattered with his semen does not exactly alert the average viewer to Summertime's underlying political content. As such, the variations from the original story appear to be more of contrivances to romanticize the affair, with the back story as to how Hee-ran and Tae-yol's marriage came about being more of an afterthought than a deliberate move to further the plot.

At best, Summertime stands out as a product of South Korea's liberal film policy; it's more of a reflection of the reduced level of government censorship that the industry enjoys as a result of the country's shift from a military dictatorship to a thriving democracy instead of an actual representation thereof. What makes it less compelling than its lesser known predecessor is perhaps the writer's failure to recognize the limitations of its source material. Scorpio Nights was conceptualized first as a "bold film" that challenges the general notion of what is and is not pornographic. Partly inspired by Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of Senses, it slowly evolved into an exhilarating and nerve-wracking piece of cinema that explores human behavior in the throes of passion, or rather in that movie's case,  how humans react in the clutches of unhampered lust. It's a movie that took advantage of the no-censorship policy that came out in the mid-80s and is one of the most notable products of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) mainly for its controversial content and heady depiction of infidelity in such close quarters. Scorpio Nights succeeds to capture one's attention not only because of its visceral images but also because of the heightened sense of danger that comes with the more frequent and daring encounters between the two lovers. In effect, it was more straightforward, more grounded, unlike Summertime which had to contend with layering such a simple plot in order to justify the film's [pretend] depth.

As a standalone film, Summertime's use of sexual imagery inevitably overshadows the political aspect it tried so hard to integrate within the original story. Part of the fault lies in the failure of the movie and its characters to engender a sense of reality, there's almost an artificial quality to it that's very disengaging from the very beginning. Ryu Su-Yeong as the student who stirs up this forbidden passion from the complacent Hee-ran plays Sang-Ho like a lovestruck, hormonally charged teen more than a heroic activist turned  enraptured  lover. Meanwhile, Kim Ji-Heon's Hee-ran appears too happy in her gilded cage to be mistaken for an oppressed and detained wife.  All decked in lipstick and rouge, her sudden desire for freedom after experiencing the pleasures of the flesh  in turn make for a frivolous heroine as the supposed love story between her and Sang-Ho never developed naturally. It's one messy affair as the film never really managed to bring out the political narrative that was theoretically hiding underneath its erotic artifice. For this reason, one is much better off watching Scorpio Nights; it has a more direct and honest approach, furthermore, anyone who's seen it can attest that it never fails to incite discussion.
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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eiga Sai 2010 at UP Film Institute

If you're one of those who missed the screening of the Japanese films featured in this year's Eiga Sai over at Shangri-La Plaza Mall (EDSA) in celebration of the  Philippines-Japan Friendship Month last July, then fret not, because there will be a rerun of the said festival this week from August 18-21 over at the UP Film Institute. All films will be shown with english subtitles. Admission is free.

For detailed screening schedules and a list of the films that will be shown, please head on over to the Japan Foundation, Manila website: or you can preview the Eiga Sai 2010 flyer here.
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