Monday, December 26, 2011

Battle Royale 2nd edition

As you may already know, I bought a first edition copy of this novel a few years back at National Bookstore Cubao (the one that's beside Gateway Mall and a few steps away from Breadtalk) and was taken aback by how affordable it was. English translated works by contemporary Japanese authors would normally be more expensive and hard to find, so to say that I was ecstatic to get my hands on this Japanese bestseller at the cost of a John Grisham or Nicholas Sparks novel would be a fairly accurate description of how I looked at the time as I made a beeline for the cash register.

Of course, given its price, the book was not without its faults. For one, it was printed using machine-finished paper, the kind that people would call an improved newsprint, while the cover had a matte finish instead of being glossy. As for the contents, it was edited in a way that can be quite confusing. Without even going into my issues regarding syntax, I remember certain chapters wherein some of the characters' names were inadvertently mixed up and if you're the type who's not used to reading and hearing oriental names, the inconsistent reference to a character's first name or last name to signify his/her relationship or familiarity with another character can slow a reader down. It's a hefty book which consists of over 600 pages, so keeping track of 42 students engaged in a military program where their lives are at stake can be quite a challenge especially if you read this over an extended period of time. 

Roughly a year after buying the said book, a new paperback edition surfaced at Fully Booked. Like most books that line this elite bookstore's shelves, this edition was far more eye-catching than the first. It had whiter pages and the publisher obviously bumped up the standard paper grade. It would also cost you a bit more at Php680 to get the new and improved version. 
Given my obsessive/compulsive need to see whether or not this edition was indeed better than the one already in my possession, I eventually bought a second copy, but not until the price spiked up to Php899 (oh wow, lucky me). Apparently, there was enough reason to jack up the price due to recent comparisons made between this Takami Koushun novel and crossover hit, The Hunger Games which would in turn explain that yellow, round sticker on the cover that advertised this novel as "the original survival game".

Fortunately though, all the positive buzz about this edition turned out to be true. It's still a hefty book but at least it is better edited and the overall presentation thereof, including the use of a larger font for the text, makes reading it an easy if not enjoyable experience. As an added bonus, the second edition includes translated interviews with not only the author, Takami Koushun, but also the director of the film adaptation, Fukasaku Kinji and a foreword from Road to Perdition writer, Max Allan Collins. The section on Fukasaku is relatively shorter than that of Takami's, being an old movie promo interview, but it still makes for an interesting read since the additional material touches on the creative process, the inspiration and the intent behind the written and cinematic versions of Battle Royale.

So is it worth to cough up the extra cash to get this edition?

I guess that all depends on how much you value reading a well-edited text. If you're unfazed by a few typographical errors and have a good mind to read and understand the words in the context that they're meant to be understood, then the first edition would do the same trick, especially if you're budget conscious.   
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Save Me, San Francisco : Train Live in Manila

We've had a lot of foreign artists over this year and though my sisters and I made a number of plans to catch some of them perform, we never really managed to watch anything because of our conflicting schedules. Most of the concerts were scheduled on a Sunday or a weekday---which meant braving traffic if you're coming from the other side of the metro and/or rearranging your work itinerary just to get to the venue in time for the concert, which in turn meant that you would really, really have to like the artist or group that's performing to go through all that trouble. I didn't think I'd get to watch Train on their second visit to Manila but luckily, one of  my friends decided to make a night out of it, so I ditched my students (scheduled a make-up class, actually) and made a beeline for the coliseum after a boring day at the office.

I half expected the place to be full, maybe not filled to the rafters like the Jason Mraz concert, but I at least hoped for a decent turnout so that concert promoters can get the band to come back and perform in the future. There was a sizable crowd at the Araneta coliseum, it wasn't empty but it wasn't full, but given that everyone's in a mad dash to keep their expenditures in check for the holiday season, I kind of understand  why the Filipino audience couldn't have given this band a better reception.

Anyway, I felt like I needed a break so what better way to reward myself than to watch one of my favorite adult-contemporary rock bands in concert?

If memory serves me right, I was a sophomore in college when Meet Virginia hit the airwaves but it wasn't until Drops of Jupiter came out in 2001 that I truly became a fan. To this day, my favorite Train album would still have to be My Private Nation, with Save Me, San Francisco coming in at a close second.

I find Train's music easy to listen to and sing along with, and while not being insanely popular as other artists before Hey, Soul Sister became a huge hit, songs like Calling All Angels and When I Look to the Sky tend to stay with you and resonate. I've been keeping my fingers crossed for a comeback ever since their single Ordinary was featured in the Spiderman 2 soundtrack, and though never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that their ticket to mainstream success would come in the form of a sickeningly foppish jingle, I guess I should still count myself lucky that they're out and about.

The concert was supposed to start at 8 p.m. but front act, 6-cyclemind, came on stage about a half hour late and didn't finish their set until a few minutes before 9 p.m. After that, we heard a train whistle/horn and Train opened the show with Parachute, followed by If it's Love---a love song dedicated to their loyal fans. The band then proceeded to play hit songs from their previous albums such as Calling All Angels, Meet Virginia, Get to Me and She's On Fire before launching into a Journey song with one lucky girl, who's obviously no stranger to singing such a karaoke staple.

Being my first Train concert, I really had no idea what to expect, so it was a pleasant surprise for me to see Pat Monahan and the band go out of their way to interact with audience members. I had a lot of fun watching the second batch of Manila Trainettes compete for a signed guitar and pretty much turned green with envy when the frontman jumped into the crowd and mingled with those in VIP and patron seats while singing Marry Me. At this point, my friend looked really disappointed, being someone who loved to document every event with a video or picture, but there was no helping it, since we were stuck with Upper Box A seats.

I tried to console her with the fact that the band sounded great from where we were seated, for it's a fact that one of the many downsides to having front row seats is that you don't get to appreciate the full sound of the band. I'm compelled to sour-grape a little, sure, but usually when you're situated near the stage, one of the instruments end up sounding louder than the others or the lead singer's voice get drowned out by the accompanying sound.

Since this was the Manila leg of a tour to promote their fifth album, Train played a bevy of songs which included the title track, Save Me, San Francisco, the Coke jingle, Shake Up Christmas, as well as Hey Soul Sister, I Got You and as mentioned earlier, Marry Me (though not in that particular order). For their encore performance, Train treated the crowd to Words and of course, the now classic, Drops of Jupiter---and with that, the concert was over. It lasted a little over an hour, which is why my friend's sole complaint was that she wished they threw in a few more songs, made the concert last a little longer.

Overall, I must say that I had fun at this concert. So much fun that I came up with a couple of resolutions; the first being that I should endeavor to get better seats for their next concert and the second would be to get more people to see them perform.

We might not have been near enough to get a decent picture but the music alone was worth the price of admission.

P.S. Being the stingy, fickle person that I am, it goes without saying that the above resolutions are contingent upon whether or not I'll dig their 6th album. Hopefully by then, Pat would've gotten himself a haircut and/or had enough time to run a comb through his hair.

Concert pictures taken by Kris Rocha for Dayly Entertainment.
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Monday, November 28, 2011

In the Company of Wilfred

"Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination."
- Mark Twain

This year saw the end of Friday Night Lights and the short-lived remake of the V series, and while there were a number of new shows and sitcoms that premiered this fall, I was more or less looking for something different from the slew of supernatural-horror-fantasy and crime procedural shows on U.S. television. November sweeps was fast approaching and the shows that were currently airing were one by one starting to prep viewers for their yearly mid-season break. There was nothing on television and I didn't feel like starting any Asian dramas just yet, and if it was just a matter of reality t.v. it was rather easier to get my fix from History, Bio and National Geographic than resort to watching another talent contest.

Then came Wilfred, a show about a man, a dog (sort of) and that tenuous divide between reality and insanity. Imagine countless afternoons spent with a furry companion who smokes weed, plays devil's advocate and attracts trouble like nobody's business, and you'll more or less have an idea of what's going through the main character's head... or not.
*     *    *
Depressed, out-of-work lawyer, Ryan Newman (Elijah Wood) was doggone desperate to bid the world goodbye when his next-door neighbor (Fiona Gubelmann) showed up at his porch to ask if he would be kind enough to watch her dog for a few hours. Tired from staying alive up all night and perhaps unable to bring himself to yet again revise the suicide letter stewing in his laptop, Ryan finds himself in the company of his neighbor’s pet, Wilfred (Jason Gann)---who, in his eyes, just happens to be a scruffy, foul-mouthed Aussie in a dog suit urging him to “throw the ball”.

Is he a figment of his imagination, a psychological manifestation of his id or merely an effect of the sleeping pills that he tried to overdose on the night before but failed to do him in?

Before having the chance to make sense of his predicament, he ends up interacting with the object in question---hanging out like childhood buddies, smoking pot in his basement and watching Matt Damon movies; including getting into ridiculous situations and barely getting out of them with some luck and assistance from his canine colleague. In the course of the series, Wilfred gets him to blow off a job interview, steal the neighborhood thug’s weed, kidnap a ginormous teddy bear from doggy day care and even consider paying the cost of repairs for a minor traffic accident by having a sexual escapade with a cougar-wabbit. Yes, a cougar-wabbit.

Whether or not the dog is a blessing in disguise or the devil incarnate, Ryan's misadventures with Wilfred has no doubt given him a new lease on life---one that's irresolutely pursued with a dash of madness and reckless abandon. A life that bored viewers like me would like to see unfold. 

Re-imagined by series co-creator Jason Gann for U.S. television, this version of Wilfred takes on a darker comedic tone, tackling existentialist themes more common to cable network sitcoms than those produced by the "big three" networks. The humor utilized can be a bit crass---it's not laugh-out-loud funny but it does have an ironic edge to it complemented by enough references that would no doubt make sense to a pet owner. Each episode is prefaced by a word that serves as a theme and though at times the situations that Wilfred and Ryan get into seem randomly thrown in along with the list of guest stars that appear in it, at the end of the day, you just can't shake this nagging feeling of concern over Ryan's mental well-being.

Jason Gann does a remarkable job playing Wilfred. He's funny and affable despite being shady and a bit vulgar. He grows on you like a bad habit and often commands the show with his doggy antics as expected of the title character. Also, major props goes to Elijah Wood for his unpretentious, everyman portrayal of Ryan Newman, without which this incredulous storyline would not have worked. There's enough honesty and vulnerability infused into those weary robin's egg blue eyes that just makes the whole thing plausible; the former child star has the acting chops to make viewers sympathize, if not empathize, with such a disturbed character.

The end of season one has brought about a number of questions regarding the direction of the show. For some, it served as sufficient reason to tune in next season to build on a theory about Ryan's true condition, for others, the events of the last episode served as an indication of what really lies behind the cannabis smoke that triggered Wilfred's inception. Whatever the case may be, I hope they get a chance to wrap this up nicely. I'd hate to hear about it being canceled without getting a conclusive ending.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Kitchen Musical

Watching The Kitchen Musical is like a tacit admission that you have nothing better to do on a Saturday night. Seriously, anyone who gets to watch this thing on its given timeslot has either decided to stay in for a quiet weekend or was channel-surfing when the television-musical-bug decided to bite. Terrible, I know, but creator CheeK's concept of fusion entertainment---one that combines food, music, drama and dance in one show---has badges of an experiment gone awry and yet like any new dish that makes use of traditional and exotic ingredients, there's always hope that with enough tweaking, he can get the recipe right. There's barely enough to whet your appetite but since it traverses the so-bad-it's-good category, don't be surprised to find yourself tuning in once in a while.

I was quite curious about this show but despite several not-so-well-planned attempts to watch it, I never really had the chance to catch the premiere episode until they ran a 4-hour marathon on Studio23. The modus operandi of the show is quite simple---everything takes place in a posh, cosmopolitan restaurant that specializes in French cuisine called The Avilon where the characters prepare food, interact with each other, bust a move and burst into song.

Our story begins when fresh graduate, Maddie Avilon (Karylle) returns from Le Cordon Bleu and lands a job at her father's restaurant as a sous-chef under the direction of renowned culinary genius, Alex Marcus (Stephen Rahman-Hughes). Young, zealous and brimming with ideas, Maddie ends up butting heads with the uptight and methodical executive chef who detests the very idea of adjusting his refined palate just to experiment on the set menu when a food critic's in town.

From there on out, it takes no great leap of imagination to see how the open antagonism between the two would soon turn into sexual tension as master and apprentice slowly win over each other with every dish that they prepare. Anyone who's seen the show knows that something's cooking in the kitchen and no, we're not referring to the evening special that consists of the four-course meal that they come up with every week.

To seemingly add spice to an otherwise proven formula, a feisty old flame of Alex's named Selena Aragon (Rosemary Vandenbroucke) gets employed as the restaurant sommelier while trusted friend, and colleague, sous-chef Daniel Ray (Christian Bautista), throws his hat into the ring to vie not only for Maddie's heart but also professional independence. Throw in a recovering alcoholic as restaurant manager (Arthur Acuña), a couple of funky line cooks (Juan Jackson, Thou Reyes, Carla Dunareanu and Erwin Shah Ismail), a gay pâtissier (Ikey Canoy), and a gaggle of receptionists/waitresses/bartenders (Oon Shu An, Nadiah M. Din, Juwanda Hassim, Gayle Nerva and Rebecca Spykerman) who can carry a tune and voila! What you have is basically a programming experiment that could have very well been conceived after hours of watching MTV, the CW Network and the Food Channel (maybe even Fox's Hell's Kitchen).   

It's quite unclear to me whether or not the said place has Michelin stars but the web that binds all the characters can by no means be considered veiled nor intricate. There's the standard love triangle that's looking more and more like a quadrangle-pentagon as the series goes on, the resort to cringe-worthy dialogue, and the oft times awkward segue to music and food that has the tendency to drive away viewers who checked in expecting more substance from the show's narrative.

Despite its numerous shortcomings, The Kitchen Musical is still quite unique for an Asian production. For one, it has a core group of characters that can generate sufficient interest from its viewers (something which can be attributed to the innate talent and charisma of the actors in its fold), moreover, it's a nice platform to launch homegrown stars from the Southeast Asian region. It might be accused of riding the musical television trend but at the moment, it's still the first of its kind from this part of the world to target a wider audience.

It's true, the first few episodes were underwhelming and the rendition of some musical productions may at times appear cheesy and amateur but unlike Glee which integrates and showcases song and dance into the story, time stands still in The Avilon whenever a musical number comes on. It actually operates more as a device to set a mood, an avenue to peer into the minds of the characters and an opportunity to convey things that cannot be said out loud as opposed to being a fine blend of lyrical drama. Granted it doesn't always work as intended but when it does, it's nothing short of magic. Their version of Faith was cute and infectious, Hot N Cold was predictably flirty and its take on The Police classic, Every Breath You Take, was simple yet loaded with meaning. I guess what I like most about this series is that it not only makes use of current chart hits but it also taps into music that I grew up with; songs by artists such as Matchbox Twenty, Semisonic, Vertical Horizon, Erasure,  and R.E.M. that don't get the same amount of air play as before but are nevertheless worthy of being rediscovered by a new generation.

To wrap things up, I think the show has potential but it could use a lot of work for the musical numbers usually take a huge bite off the show's running time and therefore there's very little time allotted for the development of the storyline. That said, I'm also quite aware of the possibility that maybe The Kitchen Musical wasn't meant to be taken too seriously; it has after all, sent out an SOS over mushroom soup, presented George Michael's Freedom with sitars and paid a tongue-in-cheek tribute to an REO Speedwagon song that has long since become a karaoke favorite. So maybe it could just go on as it is. In the same way that most people would prefer spending an evening with family and friends in a KTV bar over dining in a five-star restaurant, not everything has to be a critically-acclaimed drama or a high-end spectacle for the general public to enjoy it. 

 Photo credits: The Kitchen Musical |Facebook and Ron Leyba
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Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Frazzled Troubadour

Here's the thing, I don't really get out much nowadays with work and my part-time job teaching, so on the rare occasion that I do manage to catch a concert, watch a play or attend a ballet, I only go out of my way to see something that I'm inexplicably drawn to, really interested in or feel strongly about. So when I heard that Manila was going to be the first stop of Jason Mraz's "A Grateful Journey Tour", I immediately marked the date on my calendar and rushed to buy reserved seats [the cheapest kind, mind you]; all prepared for a night where I'll just let myself be swept away by the music, like driftwood caught in a rolling wave. Lol x).
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Falling by the Wayside

お久しぶりです! I know it's been months since I've updated this thing but ever since I got a part-time job teaching college kids, I just never seem to have the time to sit down and blog properly (if there is such a thing). That second job pretty much sucked up all my time and energy that I even forgot basic stuff like renewing my driver's license. To top it off, I still have about a half dozen or so draft entries that annoy the hell out of me every time I log into this thing; oh and it also just occurred to me that this blog of mine turned a year old last April and I didn't do anything to commemorate it---which just all adds up to me being a lousy blogger.

Just when I thought I was making headway finishing up the dramas I dropped and missed out on in the past two years, I find myself falling behind at the tail end of 2011. I don't know, it might be possible that I've gotten more picky and impatient when it comes to my drama viewing but most of the stuff I've seen are not exactly worth writing about while the few that I really liked are kinda difficult to write about.

There's also this little thing called "writer's block" wherein you lose your train of thought and run out of inspiration which, if you're prepping a draft post, is equivalent to the kiss of death.... Sounds a tad dramatic, I know, but more often than not when an idea behind the post falls into a vegetative state, the blogger might eventually manage to revive it by clicking that publish button but seldom does it come out without any infirmities.

So what happens now?

Here's the thing, I have a little over a week before I go back to my so-called [tortuous] "teaching career" so I'll try to do what I can with the little time I don't spend sleeping. There's going to be a slight change in the format such that the posts might not be as long or elaborate; most, if not all of them, will be antedated so that they will be presented in the order intended; and I'll probably scrimp on the screencaps since it takes a lot of time to pick them out and have them uploaded.

I'll also have to push back reviewing Nino's kandou dramas---I've managed to watch all three and have prepared notes and whatnot but I'm not in the mood to work on them at the moment (can't capture a decent screencap, Nino looks atrocious in them). I'm not really sure how much of these draft entries will eventually get released in the blogosphere but I'm gonna give it a shot.

So till next time, dear reader. 
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

BECK's Heav[enl]y Silence

"Please don't put your life in the hands
Of a Rock 'n Roll band and throw it all away"
- Oasis, Don't Look Back in Anger (1996)

Last month, I received the subtitles prepared by SkewedStudios Fansubs and Scanlations to the live-action version of BECK with instructions from the project leader to typeset the same, bearing in mind to place it on uber-hakaduper-higher-than-the-highest priority on my list of pending projects. Coming into it, I must confess that I was totally oblivious to the existence of the manga penned by Harold Sakuishi and inexcusably ignorant of the lauded anime version of the series. All I knew at the time was that fans of the manga were stoked to see it and girls were quite happy with the selection of pretty boys appearing in it.

Judging by the trailer, BECK, to me, came off as another "band movie". I wasn't all up in arms to see it but I could surmise that it was going to turn out just fine since its cast would be enough to draw people in. However, how much of an impact it would leave on its audience was difficult to imagine, I couldn't tell how well it would fare against other existing manga-to-screen adaptations like Nana and Solanin, not to mention the Akanishi Jin vehicle, Bandage, which also came out the same year.

After months of waiting, it turned out I wasn't completely off the mark; BECK was neither impressive nor disappointing. It was at times turgid and uninspired but overall, ho-hum okay in a sense that it was hard to hate (but don't expect me to re-watch it). Decently made but certainly nothing to rave about, the movie had a great ensemble of young stars, it played well against the opening strains to one of [punk] rock's most recognizable tracks and it even made for a fairly effective coming of age story except for one major glitch...

You don't get to hear Koyuki sing.   

For those unfamiliar with the story, BECK follows the rise to fame of an indie band composed of a talented guitarist named Ryusuke (Mizushima Hiro), ultra-cool and sought-after bassist Taira (Mukai Osamu), energetic frontman Chiba (Kiritani Kenta) and two newbie recruits in the person of drummer Saku (Nakamura Aoi) and second guitar/vocalist extraordinaire Koyuki (Sato Takeru) to complete the line-up.

Like any film adaptation of a manga series, BECK covers multiple story lines, highlighting the personal journey of each character in varying degrees. Life, love, music and friendship are all featured in this film; and while Ryusuke holds the more outlandish sections of the movie with a rather queer affinity with the band Dying Breed and a gangsta encounter brought about by a deboed bullet-ridden guitar named Lucille, the movie's heart and soul belongs to bullied outcast Koyuki, who not only finds meaning and purpose through the band's music but also manages to enchant and inspire thousands of people whenever he sings.

But again, the problem is that you don't get to hear him sing.    

Now what started as a fateful encounter with a fellow band member, followed by an abbreviated music lesson composed of guitar riffs played on a stratocaster, would soon culminate in one big music festival (the likes of Woodstock) where different kinds of band music would take front and center. It was to be BECK's moment of glory and the clincher----Moonbeams with Koyuki on vocals. His voice was supposed to be so pure and special that it would stop people in their tracks. His was the voice that summoned visions of a better world, a brighter future; so much so, that it caught the attention of sassy, elusive Maho (Kutsuna Shiori) and even gained them the respect of their peers. It was his voice that caused a squabble between the band and its high-octane singer, so all logic and common sense demanded the unveiling of that "Greatful Sound" (sic), which unfortunately, nobody got to hear.

Was it so ethereal that I couldn't hear it? Was it supposed to transcend all boundaries of sound that no rendition could give it justice? Or was I supposed to be happy with just seeing the lyrics on the bottom of the screen? The music in itself was great. Anyone who's been to a concert can attest to that fever pitch, that high, that comes with hearing the opening strains to a song complemented by the sound of the singer's voice, but in this case, you hear nothing....which is why BECK's stage performance felt so incomplete.

Oh well, so much for the mute singing wonder.

N.B. Turns out that Moonbeams as featured in the movie was composed by J-indie rock band Spank Page. If you want to hear what the final song was supposed to sound like, you can check out their performance of  BOY; their version of Don't Look Back in Anger is not so bad either.

Images courtesy of Ramen Lover at Asianmediawiki and Just Reveal.
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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Eiga Sai 2011

Kicking off a month's worth of events and activities designed to promote cultural exchange and understanding in celebration of the Philippines-Japan Friendship Month (PFJM) this July is the annual Eiga Sai sponsored by Japan Foundation Manila, the Japanese Embassy and other partner organizations nationwide. Among the films that will be screened this year is Departures which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2009, along with an interesting selection of heartwarming and dramatic features such as One Million Yen Girl and Villon's Wife. As always, the film festival is free and open to the public so do check out the screening schedule and the flyer for movies that you might have missed out on or overlooked.

It seems like just yesterday when I came across Waterboys at the university film theater and yet the truth of the matter is that Eiga Sai is now on its 13th year. The Japan Foundation Manila usually organizes interesting events, bringing over Japanese artists and hosting exhibits, but the one I look forward to each year is the film festival because through it, I get to catch something that I normally wouldn't see---I still regret not watching The Bandage Club last year, seeing that I can't find English subtitles online for the said movie. Anyway, I'm sure there's going to be at least one movie in there that would catch your fancy so if you have time to spare, don't miss out on this opportunity.
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Friday, April 22, 2011

The Maid

Those who've seen a television or movie adaptation of  "Nanase Futatabi"" or perhaps read the manga "Telepathic Wanderers" would no doubt remember its heroine being hunted down by a secret organization intent on eliminating those with paranormal abilities. This book features the same Nanase Hiita only earlier in the timeline, prior to the events narrated in the second installment of the series. What's interesting though is that while the second novel has been the subject of numerous television and movie adaptations, the first book alone had an English translation.  

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She didn't know when it started but for as long as she could remember, Nanase Hiita always had the ability to read people's minds. Knowing that her telepathic powers would earn the ire and revulsion of the people around her if discovered, she decided to work as a maid to remain transient and inconspicuous, moving from one family to another, going wherever her line of work would take her.

Through the years, she's trained herself to control her powers, ever careful not to let it slip that she knew more than what she was told. However with her extraordinary ability to peer into people's thoughts and hidden desires, it was inevitable for her not to be drawn into the drama---nay, the farce that made up her employers' lives. Each household carried its own tale and each member had his own secret, but Nanase could see through the lies; for she knew better, she knew what was going on.

 Described as a picaresque journey into the inner sanctum of the lives and psyches of ordinary Japanese people, Yasutaka Tsutsui's The Maid is a deceptively simple piece of literature that harps on the age old adage not to judge a book by its cover made possible by a touch of the paranormal. Divided into eight chapters, representing eight households that Nanase Hiita has come to serve, Yasutaka Tsutsui cleverly presents a somewhat dismal portrait of the modern family steeped in intrigue and personal turmoil as observed by a cynical, unsympathetic outsider.

Written in 1972, The Maid  isn't so much a paranormal thriller like its sequel but plays out more as an anthology that makes use of old-fashioned storytelling techniques in tackling a central theme. On the surface, it's about the lies that people tell to each other and the things that they can't say; to a certain extent, it also explores man's base desires, the ones that are kept hidden and suppressed under the social order. As a satire, it can be considered as an unflinching critique of a society where the appearance of propriety and the observance of niceties transcend any act of impropriety or moral transgression.  It can also be argued as a harbinger of the slow but steady disintegration of the family unit that plagues today's society as inter-generational ties get broken and people increasingly fail to commit and communicate with each other on a personal level.
Everyone in the family knew their roles. They'd roam through the house with malice in their hearts, avoiding physical contact at any cost, and adopting poses they had mastered from soap operas.
The book is essentially a bundle of contradictions---on one hand, there are aspects of it that remain oddly relevant and haunting despite some notably archaic touches to certain chapters, on the other, it merely rehashes familiar storylines with very little regard for style or exposition. All the characters featured in it are generally vile and atrocious, in the midst of a breakdown or in denial of the truth, making them easily recognizable as common domestic tropes. There's the philandering husband, the suspicious trophy wife, the restless elderly and resentful children just to name a few, and these assortment of characters serve not only to tell minute stories but also to highlight culture-bound concerns framed in such a way as to produce both tragic and hilarious results. The issues confronted by the characters in the novel are familiar, even a tad universal; where a woman's frantic quest to remain youthful, a married couple's longing for greener pasture leads them to contemplate starting an affair with their neighbors, and an painter's narcissistic attitude spills onto his artwork reflect the worse of man's fears, selfishness and ambition. And yet despite this tired scheme, this collection of stories is undeniably Japanese and firmly rooted in modern culture. The context in which these stories are told bravely whittles through traditional preconceptions, going as far as to call attention to the duplicity in the observance of time-honored values in Japanese society such as modesty, discipline and hierarchy.  

It's hard to judge The Maid based on character and plot development because the novel in itself is episodic and choppy. Furthermore, very little is known of its heroine by the end of the story. In this regard, Nanase serves as nothing more than a conduit, a means by which the writer can cross the private and public divide and intrude upon his characters' thoughts and convey their feelings. There is an economy of words used, none of which would hit hard like a sledgehammer, but if there's one thing that can be said about this book is that the language used matched its indeterminate tone. Things are not always what they seem as every chapter often demonstrates the opposite of that which Nanase has come to expect would occur.

Writer Yasutaka Tsutsui utilizes an interesting technique to lull the reader into a false sense of reality, peppering the book with simple, seemingly inconsequential sentences that would eventually be discarded or negated, drawing attention to something and then dismissing it altogether, thus:
Red flowers were blooming in the front yard, but Nanase had no idea what they were; the names of the flowers did not interest her. 
Here's another example from the second chapter wherein the first sentence is dismissed by the one succeeding it, throwing the reader for a loop:
Every household has its own smell. Sometimes only the people who live there can perceive it; in other cases the reverse is true. Often the smell does not really exist but is only a psychologically induced association.
The language used is far from being descriptive yet there's a good amount of negation and misdirection involved if one were to pay close attention to the tight, conventional prose. Each chapter offers a premise that would eventually be shattered, as if to remind the reader that his telepathic guide is far from infallible and often guilty of misjudging people. Perhaps what's most interesting of all is that despite having some insight as to what motivates the characters to act the way they do, they can hardly be considered as predictable or manageable as Nanase can attest to---there's more to the floating landscape that makes up the consciousness of a simple housewife; an unspeakable fury locked within the saintly appearance of a neglected spouse; and a predatory instinct that burns inside a bored, seemingly harmless senior. The stories may appear drab and familiar but there's always that element of surprise, the possibility of discovering something new, for ultimately, human beings are complex creatures. 
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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole We Go - Part 2

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
- Andre Gide

Some of you might remember a piece on this blog last year about my strange and unsettling [ad]venture into the world of JE idols after coming into possession of and doing a weekend "viewing" marathon of a couple of JE concerts. To  be honest, I really struggled to approach this with an open mind and while I found it hard to put my thoughts and observations into words, I was determined to follow through and finish up this experiment last December. The only hitch was that things got stranger and weirder the more I looked into things, and this excursion had way too many twists and turns, that at one point, I was tempted to just forget about it and scrap whatever draft posts I had on the topic. Unfortunately for me, the sheer horror of it all got trumped by my curiosity and before I knew it, my little brain-attic got stocked with way too much furniture on the subject than I could ever manage to use or care about, let alone fully understand.

Short and desultory though it was, I found the whole idol experience to be in part revolting and fascinating. From fastforwarding thru the theatrical spectacle that was Takizawa Enbujo to taking a sneak peek at random JE concerts, to stumbling upon distressing sound bytes of Sakurai Sho's unfortunate rendition of Can't Take My Eyes Off You to a video clip of SMAP's most recent yet pathetic attempt at singing along with a foreign artist like Taylor Swift [or Justin Bieber]---this so-called journey to the land of JE idols was an auditory and visual assault like no other; one that left me feeling cold and empty, and slightly annoyed at myself for diving into this. I've been wracking my brain, thinking of a way to present this in a fairly organized manner, before realizing that I had no other choice but to settle with a rambling post. Because dammit, there has to be an end to this madness and the best way I can go about this is to walk you through how things went down in this addled head.

If you're still with me, then kindly extend a little patience because I'm afraid part 2 of this series will come out as one big mess for my approach was less than systematic (which goes to say I skimmed through the material in the same way that a person might carelessly leaf through a glossy magazine while awaiting his turn in the dentist's office). Bored, fidgety and utterly clueless how to proceed, I did manage to discover a few things about these prized idols from Japan, some of which, I would like to place on record that I wish to be wiped away from memory; while some others, I must admit, turned out to be surprisingly illuminating in a sense that if one were to draw inferences and follow things to their logical conclusion, one would most likely be saddened and disturbed by the implications of this frivolous, nonsensical query.

As much as I wanted to provide an overview on the Jimusho which launched an army of idols that now lay siege in countless homes through various forms of media, I realized early on that I wasn't interested so much on the groups per se or the different personalities that made up the company's stable of talent as much as I am about the inner workings of the agency. My primary concern was really looking into how things worked, which meant spotting bizarre unique attributes or elements within the industry that may or may not make sense to an outsider/non-fan like me and gathering enough data to come up with a hack[-unified] theory. 

To be clear, it's not like I started from scratch going into this. I was first introduced to jdoramas in 2002, vaguely aware of the fact that most of the "actors" featured on the dramas recommended to me would write down the word "idol" as their main occupation. Indeed, any fledgling viewer would no doubt have encountered at least two or more of these creatures in his or her initial foray into the dorama world before eventually taking a peek at infamous performances---which in my case turned out to be a black-clad SMAP singing Lion Heart, wiggling/knocking their knees... err... dancing around mic stands, and a fancam clip of  a skin and bones version of a Chippendales number, popularly known as Tackey's Ero-ero dance. Whether you take to them or not is a whole other story; it's first and foremost a question of taste and in most cases, a matter of how receptive or open you are to fangirl (or boy) indoctrination.

Personally, I tend to agree with this blogger who described Japanese idols as all cut from the same mold; they generally do sound alike and dance as if they're fighting a rhythm impairment disorder, most of all, they do have a limited shelf life. And while idol groups come and go, what's painstakingly clear in all this is the immutable influence wielded by Johnny & Associates, which appears to have an unholy alliance with television executives. Rocked by scandal and often accused of deploying unsavory tactics to promote and discipline its musically/artistically challenged progeny, the agency known as Johnny's Entertainment has done one thing right through the years---it's positioned itself to maximize product visibility, taking care to provide sufficient media exposure for its idol picks, in turn utilizing the most basic and effective form of mind control on an unsuspecting public.

Repetition, that's the key.

When the company was said to be suffering from poor record sales in the 90s and public interest in their new band SMAP fell below expectations, the top dogs decided to make their boys into multimedia stars; in other words, bombarding folks with the sight and sound of its cheeky troops became its standard operating procedure.

Switch on the radio, turn on the t.v., walk by a newspaper stand or get a soda from a vending machine, these boys' faces will be there, make no mistake about it. You don't like their latest single? Well, tough luck! You'll be hearing it every week because it'll be the theme song to a drama that will (you guessed it--) star one, maybe two idols in need of additional acting practice. You don't like watching dramatic features? Well, you can always opt to watch one of many variety shows tailor-made to showcase each boy's personality and have you picking your favorite[s]. You think they look and dress kinda funny? Stick around long enough and I assure you one of them will eventually grow on you.

In some ways, it closely follows the same precepts enunciated in Barnee Stinson's Mermaid Theory, such that an idol's appeal---as measured in units of how much you love, adore and cherish him by means of shelling out moolah for JE concerts and goodies, amount of time spent squeeing and/or flailing, surfing the net, blogging and sleepless nights watching everything and anything said idol has appeared in---increases in direct proportion to the time exposed to him. In expanded form, it can be written thus, where k stands for the mode of transmission  (e.g. dramas, PVs, CMs, variety shows, etc.) and x being an unknown variable that determines the limit or threshold of exposure:

If an Idol's Appeal  α  Time of Exposure (ToE) → Degree of Fandom = k*(ToE/x)

[To illustrate, it takes a fraction of a second for a person to accede to the fact that Takizawa Hideaki is a good-looking man; a little more time to warm up to the likes of Nishikido Ryo and a far longer period to appreciate someone styled like Tanaka Koki. Now suppose, the very same person catches Boku dake no Madonna or Orthros no Inu and gets bored to death, then Tackey's appeal would significantly diminish while conversely, one might experience an increased interest in someone as skittish as Aiba Masaki or dopey Ohno Satoshi (pun intended) after watching some variety shows they appeared in.]

Far from being foolproof, the above postulate does in part explain an aspect of fandom however it fails to account for the good number of people immune to the phenomenon, more so, it does not completely explain how others outgrow this j-pop malaise and break the idol spell to eventually become normal and productive  individuals (i.e. bone-tired members of the working community). It's also interesting to note that fandom is something that is nurtured and best appreciated in online groups, giving those who live outside of Japan enough access to fuel their idol-crack addiction; this, despite the company's [and JASRAC's] strict policy and efforts to prevent the unofficial distribution of its precious merchandise. Casting aside the difference in the quality and impact of the medium by which an idol is branded or made known worldwide, what remains constant in all this though is the Jimusho's ability to promote and keep the groups under its management in the public eye---which alone makes for solid marketing.

*     *     *

Observational Report #2: The Pure, Sexy Beast and Other Stories

I was going over Tackey and Tsubasa's 2002 Hatachi Debut Concert when I realized that it was the very same concert I saw years ago that made me swear off JE productions. To me, watching it was the equivalent of wandering into a dark, seedy club where young boys dance in thrall of a cult leader or an unspeakable ancient religion. I wasn't thrilled to relive the experience but somehow ended up watching snippets of it to complete my idol regimen long enough to notice how Yamapi and Ikuta Toma were singled out from the Juniors and  how Taguchi Junnosuke clearly resented the fact that he had to carry Tackey on his shoulders back when the members of KAT-TUN merely served as backdancers. I believe there was also a point during this screening where I kept wondering why Tackey couldn't keep his shirt on and how a lot of the costumes worn appeared to have been stolen from Elvis' and Liberace's Vegas wardrobe, but we'll get to that later on...

Anyway, between hearing NEWS sing about the days of the week and contemplating whether to grant my sister's request to take another look at the Arashi Anniversary 5x10 Concert while providing real-time commentary, I started wondering about how ordinary boys relinquish the joys of a regular childhood in favor of being molded into cosmetically-enhanced and sexed up bubblegum pop sensations. So how does one join the ranks of JE?

Based on a cursory review, it appears to be a five-step process:   
  • Step 1 : Get into the program.
  • Step 2 : Learn the tricks of the trade.
  • Step 3 : Pay your dues, stand out from the crowd and get noticed.
  • Step 4 : Pray that you debut.
  • Step 5 : Be a model artist and strictly abide by JE rules.

From what I understand, boys all over Japan send in applications and audition to be admitted into the Jimusho. Now the default story is that most if not all the boys that form part of the idol groups currently promoted by the company were prodded or encouraged by a friend or relative who "secretly" filled up and sent in an application form thinking that they'd be perfect for the part. There were also those who were actively recruited and therefore form part of the "elite" and some who were asked to join by parents who wanted their boy[s] to have an after school activity---making Johnny's Entertainment sound as if it were a daycare center or a summer camp for kids. In this regard, it can be likened to an East Asian version of Nickolodean or Disney's the Mickey Mouse Club, except that it has a wider breadth and scope but the objective's the same, which is to produce/discover the genuine article, something referred to in the industry as a triple [or quadruple] threat.

Once a boy gets in, he learns the essentials: he gets to sing and dance like everyone else, act all cute and innocent; he'll grace magazines posing with anything from sporting goods, flowers, potted plants to cute, furry creatures; he'll get to dance behind his seniors, wear flashy clothes, get made over and placed in sub-units until the powers that be decide to give him a break and let him debut. It all sounds simple enough but the road to stardom in such a big company is no different from being in Fumi Yoshinaga's imagined all-male Ōoku, where all the aspiring young boys' first task is to get noticed. Exactly how they get chosen out of hundreds, nay, thousands is still a mystery but it seems that once an idol debuts, he's doomed to become a creature of myth---one I'd like to refer to as the "pure, sexy beast".

He becomes an abstraction, a jumble of contradictions. He's supposed to exhibit a boyish charm and yet be sexy and desirable. He's to remain pure and chaste in the public's perception which is why it's almost unthinkable for him to admit that he's dating someone without the company's permission. And even though no person in his/her right mind can be made to believe that these boys remain innocent, they just go on with the charade and pretend for the sake of the fans that they're romantically unattached, available.

The chastity belt might be imaginary but the vice like grip that Johnny's Entertainment has over its boys' testicles public image and persona is ludicrously real and undeniable. What's bizarre is that the policy extends way beyond the boys' teen years, and therefore what you get are mixed signals and an even more ridiculous situation where you see grown men feigning ignorance when it comes to relationships, inevitably cultivating a system or culture of mendacity. You have SMAP members pushing forty still playing bachelors who don't know what love is; Arashi members peddled as boy-next-door types who've done a sexy pictorial and/or have been embroiled in a scandal and yet still do tight-lipped kissing scenes; a former KAT-TUN member whose rakish behavior would lead one to believe that he's taken his skills in hip thrusting off stage and to the bedroom; and a member of NEWS made out to be the next hot, sexy thing to draw attention away from his expressionless face to his abdominal muscles. I'm not saying that the company should do away with image-marketing, it's just that it should be a little more flexible in handling its artists, allowing them to tackle stuff that's more age appropriate; cutting them enough slack  to appear and behave closer to the mean. Placing too much emphasis on image-building, fanservice and media streamlining just validates claims of exasperated viewers that these idols are nothing more than manufactured goods---cheaper by the dozen, highly consumable with a short expiration date.   

As I was left to ponder the fate of those who entered show business via the Jimusho, a few more questions regarding the idol trek to fame came to mind---What happens to a Junior if he doesn't debut? What happens if an idol gets caught breaking the rules? What happens if an idol decides to quit at the height of his career? What happens to those who are past their prime? Would it still be possible to pursue a career outside the protective blanket of fandom and JE machinery? If this were a game of Jeopardy, the possible answers would be---Who is Ikuta Toma? Who is Uchi Hiroki? Who is Katsuyuki Mori and Kohara Yuki? Who is Sato Atsuhiro? Who is Motoki Matsuhiro?---but these names would represent only a few of those who got lucky.  It doesn't even begin to cover the countless names and faces who've gone on to obscurity; those who would most likely be forgotten once a new generation comes in.

Out of the ones mentioned above, Ikuta Toma would no doubt have made an interesting case study. He was one of the more popular Juniors in his day, he belonged to a number of temporary sub-units and yet got cut when it came right down to launching idol groups. I initially wondered why until I heard him sing Love Together in that Hatachi Concert and saw him perform White Christmas only to realize it was a stupid question. He's said to be one of the few idols under the JE banner that concentrated on his acting career but then again, it's not like he has anything else to do but focus on his acting career. Some people would refer to him as the omega of the pack formerly led by Tackey and Tsubasa but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  So off I went to google and see what this boy's been up to this past year when lo and behold the trending led me to this April 2010 issue of An-An Magazine which in turn led me to this photoshoot comparison picspam by scankychops on LJ, which torpedoed me back to the concept of the pure, sexy beast. I found it funny how they keep shuffling back and forth, donning a mature persona and at the same time insist on maintaining an almost childlike appeal for public consumption. It doesn't really make much sense to me but hey, that's what sells.

I understand fans have raved about this particular magazine issue so I decided to check out the short interview and like others, one line stood out to me as well:
Some sempai actors say, ‘“Experience with women enriches the skill in your art, so you should gain a lot of experience,” but it makes me want to object. I think that rather than the number of women you experience, what makes a man mature more is to deeply love one woman. At least that’s the way I want to be.
Far from going, "awww, shucks," the first thing that came to mind was that I had to amend my 5-Step Program on how to become a JE idol. It seems that I missed a crucial step, a rite of passage between steps 3 and 4 which can be denominated as the baptism of hoochies, a personal quest to the isle of AV actresses or a crusade on the neighboring country of gravure idols and starlets. There are signs everywhere and it's quite interesting to see what one can discover when one takes the time to read between the lines.

* End of [Jumbled] Report on JE Idol Culture triggered by An-An Magazine Photos dated 4/14/2011*

Further research on the subject matter terminated.
Objective as to why this series is still ongoing remains unclear.
Researcher can definitively say that she does not like where this is going.

Main photo/screencap taken from: Ikuta Toma in Hana Yori Dango 2
Additional photos and magazine courtesy of: The Sound of Light, ----JiNg----, 寝ても覚めても嵐,, menchie007's album and JpopAsia.
Ikuta Toma's AnAn April 2010 article translated by enshinge 
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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Cleaning Blues

A new season's approaching which means another batch of jdoramas will be gracing the small screen and yet I don't even remember catching any of the ones that came out earlier this year. Can't really say I'm excited about the upcoming dramas because blurbs tend to be misleading and as experience would show, watching a drama on the basis of who's in it doesn't always do the trick. So I've decided to lower my expectations and watch things at my own pace, let all the hype and hoopla die down, before attempting to review whatever I've seen in earnest. I can no longer afford to watch anything and everything like I used to, in fact, I find it increasingly hard to motivate myself to sit through any drama just for the sake of watching a drama.
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Foreign Perspective

An offshoot of watching Japanese dramas and movies is an increased awareness and/or curiosity over things that are Japanese. I suppose it's the same for anyone who's been exposed to a segment of Japanese culture or have fallen in love with an aspect thereof---be it art, literature, fashion, or  music; whether you're a manga or anime fan, or even a gaming enthusiast, it's not unusual to develop an interest in the country and the people from which your favorite pastime originated and flourished.  A good number of books have already been written about Japan, covering everything from the nation's history, the state of its economy, even going as far as to discuss pop cultural trends and social problems as identified by social scientists and journalists but out of everything that's available out there, I find reading blogs and informal works by those who've stayed in the country itself to be equally informative and entertaining. There's a lot that can be derived from reading personal accounts and observations unhampered by a need to prove a thesis or maintain a stance that isn't ethnocentric. They impart information that might not be readily available to those who are merely on the outside looking in. 

Of Rice and Yen is an ebook that I came upon last year after reading an article in Things Asian by a journalist who wrote about the Japanese herd mentality and how the same can be seen in their obsession over things like branded goods, pachinko and vending machines. It was a short and trite article, limited in scope and arguably faulty for making a sweeping generalization, but the things discussed and cited therein does not necessarily mean that they're wholly untrue or baseless. Keeping that in mind, I started reading up on gaijin accounts of their stay in Japan, no matter how subjective it may be, which led me to this compilation of notes by David Mosley.

Containing loads of trivia and anecdotes detailing his over a decade-long stay, I found this e-book an easy read, perfect for those averse to material that are too technical or scholarly. Best of all it's free. The author himself even encourages you to share it to others and welcomes any feedback on it.

Download Link [MF] :
 An Englishman's look at the best and worst of Japan: the pleasures and pains, the gems and the jaw-droppers by David Mosley 
Copyright © 2009
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jungle Fish


Most if not all the Korean dramas that land on foreign shores are sageuks, makjangs, or trendy dramas,  and while they're indeed quite popular, and very entertaining at that, seldom will one encounter a production that would speak of an ongoing issue or make an effort to address something that has some social relevance. Breaking away from the usual kdrama offerings is KBS2's Jungle Fish, a youth drama which came out in 2008. Winner of a Peabody Award for excellence, this drama special provides a prudent look at the issue of cheating, depicting the stiflingly competitive climate in high schools suffered by today's Korean teens.

I don't really intend to write reviews of kdramas, except maybe for the occasional blurb or rant, but seeing how this drama special's existence might have been overlooked by some or overshadowed by its more controversial sequel, I couldn't help but devote some space for it in my blog. A friend of mine would always point me in the direction of what's worth viewing and I remember her mentioning something about how this television special should be on our watch list. I haven't gotten around to watching her other recommendations,  among which include the likes of Shin Don and Sanada Taiheiki  but I did, however, manage to take this baby out for a spin.
*     *    *

We are like fish in a jungle that adults created.
Jungle Fish follows the lives of four teens embroiled in a cheating incident. High school students Eun Soo (Park Bo Young), Dong Hee (Jang Ki Bum) and Mi Rae (Seo Hye Jin) find themselves in a bind after taking a midterm exam wherein the majority of the test questions were a repeat of the ones found in the test questionnaires given to them by their hagwon. Shocked and afraid of what their classmates might say, the three decide to keep their mouths shut and remain ever complicit with the apparently shady arrangement entered into by their parents and tutors. Another student, Jae Ta (Kim Soo Hyun) accidentally learns about their dilemma, but he's equally lost as to what to do in order to help them get through such an ordeal.

When news of the exam leakage begin to surface, the whole school is set in a tizzy, with teachers being called in for questioning and students being on the lookout for the culprit(s).  Tension fills the air as members of the whole student body cast a suspicious eye on each other, and the three students involved in the cheating scandal try to act like everything's normal despite being bothered by their guilty conscience.

Jae Ta wants to offer his support to Dong Hee but he doesn't know how to approach his friend without directly confronting him about cheating. Meanwhile Eun Soo wants to desperately confide in someone but her fear of disappointing her mother and being ostracized by others prevent her from coming out in the open.

Based on a cheating scandal involving a hagwon that graced the news in 2007, Jungle Fish examines the issue of cheating by inevitably drawing attention to the highly competitive yet arbitrary standards by which today's society measures someone's worth and defines personal success. The subject is handled with a certain level of delicacy, as one can see it told through the eyes of the aggrieved, which in this case are the four  cornered teens. It's not exactly a hard-hitting documentary, neither does it provide easy answers to the problem at hand, but its simple, non-judgmental approach in telling the story delivers a strong, loud message that the kids aren't all right. In effect, it goes beyond portraying the scheme as a mere question of ethics, indirectly reminding adults of their social responsibility towards the next generation.

What should a child do when something that he knows to be wrong is condoned, if not instigated, by an authority figure? Who can he run to for support when the person he should rely on the most can not be prevailed upon to listen? Who can he turn to when he's taught to treat his peers as his enemies? What is the true measure of one's worth? Without sounding sanctimonious, this one hour feature gets to effectively raise the following concerns, not through heavy dialogue or an obvious display of emotion but through the solitary moments endured by each character or the times when they appear to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, forced to abide by the rules that the adults have set. It's at these times that the viewer gets to truly understand the severity of the problem, it's at these times that one realizes how trapped and alone they are, just like jungle fish in search of the ocean.

Watching Jungle Fish, one easily gets a sense of unease---not because the characters in this special are young, insecure and awkward teenagers, but because they're in their own way crying for help, balking under pressure. The overall presentation of the special is simple yet somber, it carries with it the sad realization of the kind of environment that the youth are being raised in, as well as the cruel manner in which they're taught to survive and "get ahead" in life. In some ways it's like a stripped down, diminutive version of Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou Chou in terms of showing the characters' isolation and inability to make an outright personal connection, only with less visual style and musical pizazz, and of course, without the shocking display of violence.

Headlined by a young, talented cast of relative newcomers providing believable performances,  Jungle Fish is not only a welcome respite from the usual kdrama staple but also a good example of how television can be utilized to cover more serious and relevant matters. Furthermore, what's great about it is that it doesn't take too much of your time to get its point across.   
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Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Star's Lover in Pictures

No matter how maudlin, humdrum or disappointing a drama may turn out to be, people would often walk away from them remembering a specific thing that either struck their fancy or something that came off as somewhat odd or irritating. It might be a touching scene, a memorable line, an outrageous outfit or a striking motif; a person might eventually forget about the structure of the story or struggle to remember every detail of how things unfolded in the course of the series, but he will never forget something that captured his heart, more so, if that something rankled his nerves and even made him regret investing so much time on a drama that failed to deliver the goods contrary to expectations. Dramas viewed five or eight years ago might seem like a distant memory but key scenes and images do linger on. They remain vivid and strong, as do the emotions they invoked upon one's encounter of a memorable episode.

Who here can forget the quiet longing of Commander Hwangbo for his lowly servant, Chae-Ok in Damo? Or that kissing scene between Lee Byung Hun and Choi Ji Woo in Beautiful Days that signaled an OTP change? Who could forget Rain's colorful array of v-neck shirts that scandalously dipped down his chest in Full House? Or how some of the set pieces in Jumong shook every time a stuntman took a tumble, or how a whole army could be concealed behind sparse foliage without being discovered?

Love 'em or hate 'em, kdramas do have a way of leaving behind pretty pictures and sickening music tracks that go on and on in your head. No matter what the outcome, they leave quite an impression, so I decided that instead of dwelling on the long, exasperating and technically uneven journey that was  A Star's Lover, I'd rather focus on the parts of this series that piqued my interest and celebrate the creative touches that I would [or  rather should] remember in years to come.

  *     *     *     

When A Star's Lover came out in 2009, a part of me was curious to see it because it featured two actors you rarely see on television and yet a part of me was also apprehensive upon learning that the drama itself would be another adaptation of Notting Hill. Having seen Star no Koi a few years ago, I already could imagine how difficult it would be to stretch the material culled from a 2-hour movie to a full length series, and while true enough that the Japanese version was not without its own charm, the story staggered towards the finish line mid-season. I[t] barely made it.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that the Korean re-imagining would span 20 episodes instead of the usual 16 and that it would have the reigning queen of hallyu dramas in the pivotal role... well,  let me tell you, it didn't look very promising.

Not quite ready to miss out on Yoo Ji-Tae's return to television, I checked to see the writer in charge of the said series and found out that it was Oh Soo Yun, who's best known for Autumn in My Heart and Winter Sonata. Right then and there, I knew that A Star's Lover was a bad bet. Known for producing overly sentimental dramas dipped in angst and despair, this writer owed much of her success [abroad] to the gravitational pull of the stars featured in her works and her ability to engage audiences with simple, heartfelt scenarios. And though not the best when it comes to developing a story (anyone who's seen an Oh Soo Yun drama knows that the conflict in them often defy logic and are dragged on till kingdom come)---she can be credited  for  drumming in memorable sequences by craftily setting up scenes accentuated by a central theme, a design, even a product placement.

A boy who became a clump of weed and a girl who became a star in the heavens. Two persons, living at two ends of the world. Will they have the opportunity to be able to recognize each other?
So disregarding the agony that her "Season Dramas" brought me and keeping in mind fond memories of little Joon-suh and Eun-suh riding their bikes in the country, along with that scene wherein an overaged Bae Yong Joon tried to pass himself off as a high school student, playing First Time to Choi Ji Woo in an empty classroom, I checked out A Star's Lover thinking I'd at least have 3 to 6 decent episodes to work with before the whole thing  proceeded to torture its viewer (i.e. me) with recurring issues that would eventually be resolved through the simplest of means. As it turned out I wasn't far off the mark, seeing that all they needed to wrap up the story was to declare their love to each other before the paparazzi and they chose to accomplish this towards the end, around the 19th episode tsk tsk.

Thinking back, the series started out quite nicely. I've never seen Choi Ji Woo quite as luminous or Yoo Ji Tae so attractive. Heck, this was the first series wherein Choi Ji Woo actually looked confident and comfortable in her own skin, and perhaps the only series where she had leading men who towered above her and made her look more feminine. The scenes shot in Asuka, Japan were beautiful to say the least and it was obvious that attention was placed into making each encounter between regular joe Chul Soo and superstar Mari extra special to complement the fairytale finish. There was an undeniable chemistry between the leads, a sense of familiarity and comfort that would make you root for this OTP. It's quite unfortunate though that they tried to stretch and complicate such a simple story. The fluffy, dreamy appeal of this series soon disappeared as the whole business on ghostwriting kicked in and auxiliary characters figured their way into the story. Indeed, it was quite a journey. I would not have been able to make it through without my remote in hand.

  *     *     *     

And though I was wont to let this series go, without breathing so much as a word, I also felt it necessary to commemorate the fact that I finished watching it after stalling for two years.

Seeing that I have the tendency to remember stupid, frivolous things about kdramas like how Hyun Bin was sweating through his pink shirt at the last episode of My Name is Kim Sam Soon or how Jo Hyun Jae had a small band-aid stuck under his eye for the majority of One Mom and Three Dads, I figured, why not make a list of things that I would remember about A Star's Lover instead of straight out ranting about the disconsolate route it took to see its ending? I mean, people out there would probably do a better job at writing a review or discussing the finer points of this series, so why not revel in the bits and pieces that made me go "ooh", "ahh" and "grrrr"? 

 So here are 6 things that stuck out for me in this series:

1.) Chul Soo and Young Hee

Given its plot, I didn't expect A Star's Lover to begin the way it did. The series, in fact, opened with a vignette; a thoughtful commentary on how love was the most common and yet the greatest of all sentiments, and how the ever changing world made the notion of loving someone more complex as society progressed. Deriving inspiration from the movie Amélie and the defunct American series Pushing Daisies, the kdrama was able to establish a dreamlike atmosphere, albeit without the same touch of whimsy, in telling the backstory of Chul Soo and Young Hee.

The overall concept was to make the series out into an urban fairytale, unfortunately, the narration and visual styling of the first few episodes did not make its way to the end of the series. It got watered down and subsumed into the existential drama that devoured the characters that by the time I reached the last episode, I almost forgot about its unique opening sequence. 

2.) Learning to Cross that Line

Young Chul Soo, being the ever obedient son, did not dare cross that line that his mother drew on the ground. With tears in his eyes and a crumpled bill in his hand, he failed to chase after his mother because that line created an invisible barrier, one that no human being could cross...until the gorgeous Lee Mari, in her pretty black boots, stomped her way through and taught him how easy it was. So yeah, I reckon it was used to show how Chul Soo was a straight-laced individual and how he was the type to color within the lines, but the very idea of him drawing a line on the ground to prevent both Mari and Eun Young from getting close to him was just a load of crap.

3.) The Color of Sadness

If one were to  go by this series, the color of sadness and longing would be a mix of sepia, auburn, sienna, and burnt amber with touches of  indian yellow, set against a murky shade of cadmium red and vermilion. Yes, old memories came with a color scheme. No one's allowed to look into the past without a change of color.

4.) A Room Full of Books

Chul Soo must have been one lonely boy. There were books everywhere---they were on the shelves, on the floor, they lined his walls. Was there ever any reason to doubt how literate and well-read our humble hero was?

5.) Vanilla Ice Cream

Ah, the Yonsama look-alike that disappeared after going out to get vanilla ice cream...Who would have thought that a frozen dairy product could cause so much pain and torment? (Hm, serves her right for sending her lover out in the dead of winter for vanilla ice cream.) Believe it or not, this little story device had a very brief appearance. Aside from being mentioned like 4x, Mari's fixation with it melted when Chul Soo came around. It served its purpose the moment the man Mari was fated to be with appeared before her, carrying 32 flavors and then some.

6.) Pride and Prejudice

So Chul Soo reluctantly travels to Japan to ghostwrite Lee Mari's travel diary and what book does he bring with him? He brings the tv-movie tie-in paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice. Yep, the one with Keira Knightley's face on it. Ach, the horror! Major fantasy overload! Can anyone say overkill?

He was charming enough as the literature professor who thwarted his student's advances by correcting/editing the love letter given to him as if it were a test paper, but was it really necessary to depict him as someone engrossed in Jane Austen? And in public no less. I don't freakin care about what people say about the character being sensitive or romantic but (darn it!) grown men do not lug around Pride and Prejudice. He has a room full of books to choose from and he picks Pride and Prejudice?

So okay, maybe he was reading it in preparation for a class or something but considering the series went on and on about how cultured and well read he was, dropping random book titles from The Great Gatsby to Eugene Onegin, would it really have been too much to ask for him to read something safe and appropriate by say, Hemingway or Dostoevsky?

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You know what's sad about all this is that I'll probably end up forgetting numbers 1-5 on this list but I'll always remember Yoo Ji Tae pretending to read Pride and Prejudice
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