Saturday, October 20, 2012

Anna-san no Omame

Breathing life into what could probably be the most annoying and dense character ever to be landed by a hafu celebrity, variety show-favorite Becky plays a rich, spoiled, delusional girl who wreaks havoc on the lives of men to head-splitting-throw-a-brick-at-your-television-screen-wanna-grab-her-by-the-neck perfection in a drama that can only be described as bonkers. Absolutely bonkers.

Mentally taxing for being ridiculously shallow, not to mention utterly pointless to the very end, Anna-san no Omame has a premise that would no doubt be funny or acceptable had it been a 20-minute anime feature but seeing it unfold onscreen with real live people is a whole different matter... Mitai na~

If there's any doubt that this series has the ability to firmly divide viewers on opposite ends of the love it or hate it spectrum, the fact that this came highly recommended by a trading buddy of mine (who also happened to tune me into Kekkon Dekinai Otoko) should be sufficient proof of its polarizing power. It's taken me four years to resume watching it after the shocking onslaught of silly that was episode one, and another year or so to decide to blog about it. And now in an effort to get it off my draft list, I present you with an antedated post that took another year to complete.
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When a regular, nondescript man named Kyoutaro (Kashiwabara Shuji) gets to exclusively date the epitome of Japanese beauty in Anna (Anzu Sayuri), he's beside himself with joy. But dating the most-sought-after woman in town includes establishing ties and getting along with the person whom she considers to be an invaluable person---her friend and roommate, Lily (Becky). Under normal circumstances acceding to this request would not be such an imposition but as it turn's out Anna's friend has it in her head that she's irresistible to all men, including  Kyoutaro, when nothing could be further from the truth.

This misunderstanding of sorts would lead to countless awkward, and at times dangerous situations, which merely serve to cement Lily's belief that her exceptional charm and beauty is to blame for all the trouble that people close to her encounter. Of course, Kyoutaro would want nothing more than to distance himself from this loud, crazy-eyed girl who can't seem to utter a sentence without puffed cheeks and a twitchy gesture, but Anna is adamant to have him shadow her best friend in order to protect her from a host of unsavory characters. Forced to do her girlfriend's bidding, Kyoutaro manages to save Lily from sexual predators, ruthless hostesses and even gangsters; the unintended result, however, is that Lily is now convinced that he harbors deep feelings for her.

Over the top and repetitive with a humor that can be a tad offensive, Anna-san Omame offers a brand of comedy that is highly dependent on one shtick; it draws all its laughs on the supposition that a character as exasperating and naive as Lily exists, and that a person such as Kyoutaro would endure all sorts of mayhem just to be with a dream girl who's best friends with a lunatic.

This plot device is actually made more outrageous once the viewer gets to meet Lily's affluent family which apparently had a hand in perpetuating Lily's delusions. There's the overprotective brother (Ikeda Tsutomu) whose concern for Lily can be quite touching if one were not inclined to wonder where he gets the free time to stalk watch over his sister and the parents (Kusakari Masao and Takahashi Hitomi) who consistently lavish their child with praise, raising her to believe that the world is her oyster.

Utilizing whacky visual effects that can be surmised to have been inspired by the thought of what it might have been had the Care Bears and My Little Pony & Friends embarked on an acid trip, Anna-san Omame saturates the show with bright colors, fantasy sequences, and dizzying camera shots that spin and zoom in more than necessary. This is one of those series that is zippy and zany, making use of in-your-face physical comedy that might not sit well with viewers in search of intellectual stimulation. 

Subtlety is not its strongest point, in fact, everything about the production matches the potent energy of its protagonist. Lily's outfits are a cosplayer's dream and the set pieces that represent each of the three main characters reflect their different personalities, following a specific color scheme. Scenes are shot at unexpected angles, some as a testament to the giddy and unsteady tone of the series and even some turning out to be surprisingly creative and beautiful in their own right.

The series hits its stride when it decides to parody drama tropes and iconic movies. There's really not much to say about character development but some unexplained personality quirks and the occasional plot point tend to fool the viewer into thinking that there's more to it than previously expected. It's just unfortunate that the opportunity for exposition all turn out to be a joke and whatever glimmer of hope for an actual story is nothing but a hoax. For example, the reason for Anna's unwavering loyalty and penchant to brush off Lily's crazy antics is given a flimsy back story, while the opportunity to give Lily some depth and a possible happy ending is squashed when the series arbitrarily reverts back to its merry, non-committal tone. Whether or not one chooses to go for the ride is a matter of preference, but to its credit Anna-san no Omame does not aspire to be something that it's not, nor does it give the impression that it has a solution to this unusual love triangle.

Fledgling celebrity Rebecca Eri Ray Vaughan, popularly known as Becky, bulldozes her way through the series, showing unwavering commitment in playing Lily and all her insufferable inanities. This break out role seems to be the first of a series of obnoxious, grating characters given to Becky as a hafu artist, followed by her role as Tanya in the Nodame Cantabile series and her stint as the tempestuous Kaiko in the Kaibutsu-kun SP. Not counting her sweet and dainty singing career as Becky♪♯, this girl has unluckily been pigeonholed to flutter those lashes and use those green eyes to the annoyance of many, when she's obviously capable of so much more. She actually excels when allowed to do something else---of note is how she single-handedly carried the body-switch scenario in episode 6 and how she demonstrated her untapped potential as a romantic interest in the penultimate episode of this series. Her appearance as the outgoing Saki to Ito Atsushi's stiff and button-downed Kazuo in the fourth segment of Propose Kyoudai was a step in the right direction, however the noxious imprint left by this series will most likely linger on.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

James Morrison : The Awakening Tour in Manila

Took some time off to catch the James Morrison concert last night.

Although admittedly not as familiar with his discography as my concert buddies, I did manage to listen to his latest album long enough to get the impression that it was a form of affirmation, if not a total celebration of sorts. Certain tracks sounded like a tribute, a veritable list of people and things that made this particular artist who he is today. The Awakening is arguably more upbeat than Morrison's previous offerings---I, for one, am amazed by the uncanny marriage of this singer's signature rasp and the Motown influence in his third album.

With a setlist of funky tunes intermingled with soulful ballads, this British singer-songwriter performed with a whole lot of swag, jumping and strutting on stage, infecting the crowd with his euphoric energy. The whole concert experience felt like a laid-back party with a take em' to church vibe and Morrison, the anointed preacher. With a unique gravelly voice (which I can only describe as one in dire need of a lozenge, but in a good way), this guy was a sight to behold as he unleashed his inner dance monkey before a crowd of onlookers who had no choice but to reciprocate his verve.

People probably came in droves wanting to hear sentimental hits like You Give Me Something and Broken Strings and let me just say that he didn't disappoint. He likewise sold his new material, singing up tempo songs like Beautiful Life and Slave to the Music whilst dialing things down a notch with heartfelt compositions like In My Dreams, I Won't Let You Go and  Say Something Now, all done with apparent ease and pride. 

There are performers who would often draw energy from the crowd but this one generated his own; he channeled it to everyone inside the Big Dome. This one had a light in him that made you stop wondering whether or not he took more than a swig of spiked Kool-aid, he had an energy and a force that can make you throw your hands in the air and say, "I'll have whatever he's having."

He was obviously having a good time that night and so were we. 

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Concert picture courtesy of Inquirer Entertainment
I initially planned to use a different picture for this blog post, but the picture that came with the Inquirer article pretty much captured the feeling of seeing Morrison work his groove.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

San Lazaro


Odd and yet surprisingly insightful, with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek commentary about life, love and Youtube as a learning tool, Wincy Aquino Ong's San Lazaro peddles itself as another Asian horror movie that makes you assume that its focal point is a supernatural entity when in fact, it's all about inner demons---the kind that reside within, the kind that's powerful enough to disregard one's conscience, the type that can gnaw at one's being.

Going by the trailer, it's quite easy to tell that San Lazaro is not the type of  film that is capable of generating the same buzz as Cinemalaya entries like Ang Babae sa Septic Tank or Rakenrol. Neither does it have the mainstream draw of the adaptation of the Eros Attalia novel, Ligo na U, Lapit na Me. And while the premise of having two old schoolmates embark on a road trip to a far flung provincial town with the primary objective of taking a demonically possessed sibling to be treated by an exorcist may trudge on B-movie territory, the film manages to achieve a well-orchestrated dissonance, one that defies genres and intentionally throws off viewers but not without some satisfying revelations.

It can be likened to your uncle's trusty Volkswagen Beetle that's old, personally put together and full of character. Old, not because there's anything unoriginal about the script or the story, but rather old in the sense that it's the best vehicle available given budgetary constraints and its novelty. It's a bumpy and unpredictable ride but what's important is that it gets you to your destination.        

Aptly described as a horror flick, a road movie and a buddy comedy, San Lazaro gives its viewers a weird, disjointed journey into the lives of three individuals haunted by personal ghosts. There's awkward Sigfried (Wincy Aquino Ong) who's never had a girlfriend since birth, brassy Limuel (Ramon Bautista) whose bravado comes with a cache of tranquilizers [strong enough to put down an elephant] and troubled Biboy (Nicco Manalo) who may or may not be under the control of a malevolent spirit. 

Armed with a quirky selection of storylines which include a white collar crime and a woebegone search for Captain Barbell, told alongside the ill-advised transport of an unstable passenger who's spent too much time talking to an antique garden ornament, this is one film that revels in its geekiness and yet manages to tap into certain uncomfortable truths that are funny but not entirely laughable. The horror aspect of it has a distinct Filipino flavor; the random topics that make up the conversations between the characters can come across as either glib or smart but not to the extent of grating, verbal diarrhea, as can be seen in other productions. There's also a general sense of unease that accompanies the staggered flashbacks given the characters' seemingly close-eyed determination to suppress unwanted memories. The deadpan delivery of both Ong and Bautista effectively blurs the comedic and dramatic, while Manalo's commitment to the role serves as a reminder that there are greater forces at play that should not be ignored. 

All said, San Lazaro is not your typical horror flick; it's predominantly a dark comedy with some jarring and amusing turn of events. With special appearances by Bianca King, Julia Clarete, Ely Buendia and Kean Cipriano, and spot on performances from the likes of Allan Forte, Tony Gallano and Earl Ignacio, it's a film with a number of interesting sequences, some even shot with an obvious nudge and wink to make you in on the joke. Hammy, creepy and sobering at one go, from the minute the award-winning opening sequence by Burnwater Design Studios rolls alongside original music by Mikey Amistoso and Jazz Nicolas, you know that you're in for an adventure.
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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Snow Patrol: Fallen Empires Tour in Manila

Light up, light up.... I'll be right beside you dear.

After having half the city submerged in flood water barely two days ago and experiencing torrential rains for almost a week, the sun finally came out today like a beacon calling to all Snow Patrol fans to come out and rejoice, for the concert would push through as scheduled.

Rain or shine, I already made up my mind to go. I initially planned to attend the block screening of The Bourne Legacy at the Mall of Asia but ended up missing it because of the bad weather so the only highlight of the week was this concert, which---in all honesty was something that I've been looking forward to for two...three months now. Luckily, the rain let up long enough to make the roads passable to light vehicles, so off I went to the concert venue to witness an awesome show and more importantly, listen to some good music.

Okay, so maybe some people consider Snow Patrol quite mawkish and maybe not everyone has heard of the band and their music (even though they've had at least one or two songs featured in Grey's Anatomy and just about any CW series), but at least, in my mind, they're not as big and cloying as Coldplay, nor as heavily criticized or ridiculed. Underrated and inconspicuous, that's what they are, but you would not have thought of that seeing the number of people who turned out at their concert earlier tonight.

There was a shared feeling of excitement as the crowd listened to the remix of Berlin and watched seven LCD panels deliver colorful visuals timed to the music. By the time the band hit the stage with tracks like Hands Open, Take Back the City and Crack the Shutters, the crowd was on its feet. People were cheering, clapping, singing in unison and the sheer energy brought by the audience was equally matched by frontman Gary Lightbody, who conducted the event like a seasoned performer. He kept the people engaged, made small talk and even introduced songs between sets as expected of a singer/songwriter in an old school band.

The band sounded great, the lighting design was top notch and the images projected onscreen complemented the music. I had no doubt that people went home happy to hear a great selection of songs from the band's discography.

Crowd favorites such as Chasing Cars, Run, Chocolate and You're All I Have were performed with just about the same reverence and fondness as recent material from their latest album. I had a kick listening to the melancholy vibe of New York and Make This Go on Forever, the irreverent beat of Fallen Empires, and the fading grandiosity of This isn't Everything You Are. There's something to be said about the simplicity that one can find in Snow Patrol's music---the steady repetition of words and phrases in their lyrics, and the almost timeless appeal of hooks and bridges in every song melody that triggers an emotion or memory, that makes a person sing one's heart out. Lightbody's voice has a raw yet sincere quality to it; there's a quiet desperation in it that people can easily relate to without necessarily being burdened or oppressed by its weight because the songs that he sings are never without hope. Sentimental, yes, even to a fault. But there's hope and promise behind every tune and there's hardly any bitterness no matter how sad its origin. Of course, it also helps to mix things up a little by experimenting with different beats and dabbling into techno/electronica music.

As an encore, the band played Lifening which was a wistful, sentimental song that speaks of happiness that can be found in the simplest of things. To cap off the night, Just Say Yes was performed amidst blue-white flashing lights and the distinct, Irish way in which Lightbody sang the line, "Please take my heart..." to an already smitten crowd. It was a superb concert, the best one I've seen so far this year.         

 As usual, I can't be expected to take any pictures.
 Concert photo by Imaginary Ordinary 
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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Surely Someday

It is often said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." If that be true, then Guy Ritchie should be floored by the level of appreciation that Shun Oguri has shown for his use of slow motion effects and time lapse photography. Yes, the actor best known for playing Hanazawa Rui (Hana Yori Dango) and Suzuran faction leader, Takaya Genji (Crows Zero) has gone to the extent of crafting an outrageous, coming-of-age film that pays homage to [if not totally replicating] the cinematic style of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, minus the narrative punch provided by a clever screenplay and the kickass factor contributed by Vinnie Jones or Jason Stratham.

I remember my sister telling me about this movie project in the same breath as sharing the latest rumors about Oguri being a horny dog, but I never really placed much thought into it since: (a) she couldn't tell me the title of the movie at that time; (b) Shun Oguri always struck me as the kind of actor who worked best in an ensemble, which, to me, meant that if he didn't have the draw or star power to carry the lead role, then chances are, he wouldn't have the ability to helm a full-length movie feature; and (c) I couldn't care less about which girl/jpop group member he banged at allegedly took to a motel.

About this time last year, I was doing some prep work for that Arashi post that I've always been meaning to do but never got around to doing, and even though the said post never materialized, I ended up watching a number of Japanese variety shows hosted by Japan's "national idols". One of the shows I managed to catch (thanks to fans who shared the said episode on a streaming site without the permission of the subber) happened to be Oguri's promotional guest stint at Arashi ni Shiyagare where I finally learned the movie title which was シュアリー・サムデイ or going by the boys' phonological speech, "Shuari Samudei".

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In this dramedy of errors, penned by writer Shogo Muto, five high school friends barricade themselves in a classroom with a home-made bomb in protest of the cancellation of their school festival and the corresponding "annihilation" of their dream to perform as a band. Brimming with hope and the promise of being surrounded by adoring fans through their music, Takumi (Koide Keisuke), Kyohei (Katsuji Ryo), Hideto (Ayano Gou), Kazuo (Suzuki Ryohei) and Yuki (Muro Tsuyoshi) mount a successful campaign for the reinstatement of the festival but when they fail to defuse the prop time-bomb  they had set up to facilitate negotiations with the school administrators, the damage caused by the explosion would later prove to be monumental not only to the lives of these boys.

Surely Someday provides a spry yet unbalanced story about how chance encounters and circumstances can produce a ripple effect that would link two seemingly unrelated events that in the long run would produce irreversible consequences. There's a network of people involved in this slapdash tale, such that the connection drawn between these wayward teens and a former prostitute (Konishi Manami) would span a number of years, beginning with a summer childhood adventure to Kabukicho and a botched up sting operation. The film hurtles back and forth between the past and the present as all five find themselves tainted, unable to move on from the incident.

Now a feckless bartender, a third-rate college virgin, a fledgling yakuza, a street busker and a hikikimori find themselves in trouble once again as their past catches up with them. They have no choice but to make amends, find each other and reunite long enough to take care of unfinished business; what's more, they need to retrieve 300 million Yen before yakuza boss Kito (Yoshida Kotaro) sends his men to ice them.

Fun and upbeat, Surely Someday is a film that can not be taken seriously no matter how hard it tries to infuse its storyline with some edgy scenes and grim but oft times, shallow existentialist musings about lost youth and opportunities. It's full of high school hijinks and flailing commentary about people who put their life on hold, set to punk-rock music, peppered with drugs, money laundering, even some violence and undignified [non-metaphorical] boot licking. Decidedly the result of a well-meaning and excitable collaboration, the movie tends to be overbearingly gratuitous in its execution and unbelievably self-conscious in acquiring a modicum of street credibility amidst the fanfare. This is no Go or American Graffiti but a rollicking, hyper-comedic Japanese production containing familiar elements of what made a movie "cool" in the late 90s.

For a directorial debut, Surely Someday is quite a mediocre offering---it comes chock-full of novice mistakes, betraying the lack of vision or originality on the part of Oguri to work behind the camera and instruct his fellow actors towards achieving a good take. He seems to have approached the film as he would a goukon by calling in favors from friends and co-workers (judging by the number of cameos), giving them free rein to act and [over]react as they see fit without any instruction. There are indeed times when the scenes felt like an impromptu comedy sketch, given the hammy delivery of lines and the cast's acting choices.

There's also the sudden shift in tone with very little lead in, thus catching the viewer by surprise as the droll buffoonery of its first act gives way to an adorable yet short-lived segment featuring the characters' childhood, interrupted yet once again by some clumsy action, more melodrama and a failed Sugar & Spice routine set in the present. Oguri's artistic choices do not often work; the overdone 10-second recapitulation of each character's three-year activities, the white footprint suit donned by the yakuza boss,  or even  the slow motion off-target gangster shoot out set to the tune of Schubert's Ave Maria (which brings to mind the game Hitman), tend to be whimsical additions rather than valuable set pieces.

Despite its flaws, Surely Someday is, by all accounts, not a bad movie. There's enough story in it to keep a viewer entertained provided one can overlook the uneven acting. It would have been much better had there been competent and assured direction from Shun Oguri, however as it stands today, it's quite clear that his ambition appears to have exceeded his ability.
 Photo credits/Movie Stills by Asiabeam and Ramen
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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Blogging: Year Two

Was checking on long forgotten draft posts that lie buried under a list of published material on my dashboard and realized that this blog has unbelievably managed to hobble to its second year in the blogosphere. So hurrah, rundown-zoo just turned 2!?!

Curiously enough, that's about the same amount of time it took me to finish watching the k-movie Psychic Haunters which---let me tell you right now---if you don't like seeing a scraggly-haired, bug-eyed Kang Dong-Won dueling with an unbreakable dunderhead played by Go Soo, then you can skip this movie altogether.

Forget about camera phones being used as protective visors and the image of people plunging to their deaths under a hypnotic trance, I'd like nothing more than to say bring on year 2 but I know that there's no way that this blog will ever produce up-to-date posts in the near future. And no, I don't feel like reviewing the aforementioned movie EVER. All I got from that is the accompanying image for this post with a school of fish swimming to and fro. Swim little fishies, go!

A quick view of my posts summary will tell you that I'm a pretty inconsistent blogger with only 56 published posts to date and about 32 draft posts still waiting in the wings. Yes, I know how ridiculous that all sounds but I have this rather nasty habit of taking screencaps, writing down notes (with all the intention of creating a new post) and getting hopelessly bogged down by real life concerns, if not distracted by 101 more irrelevant diversions. I loathe the idea of abandoning this blog completely but life has been rather hectic lately, so blog posts will be as infrequent as rain in the Sahara desert.          
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Saturday, April 21, 2012

GARO: Red Requiem

Heralding the return of Keita Amemiya's popular and beloved golden knight to television is another Garo film---this time in 3D, where fans of the series can find our brooding hero roaming the city streets in search of a horror who evades capture by slinking into mirrors and preying on patrons of a techno club, made up mostly of cosplayers and goth chicks. Garo: Red Requiem has a protagonist who looks like he just stepped out of an anime feature fighting alongside a priestess with legs for days, in what can only be described as a Xena outfit. It also has a demon goddess with nothing on but pasties and a tulle skirt, a mystical blade, and a passing mention of a patriarchal system under question---in short, it has all the material that one needs (to borrow Chris Hardwick's words) to induce a nerd erection.

Strictly made for fans of the 2006 series, this film offering cuts to the chase with the introduction of disciples Kurusu (Shinji Kasahara) and Shion (Hiromi Eguchi) setting up shop at a club where their master, Karma (AV-idol Saori Hara), can entice and devour as many souls as possible. On the other side of town, Makai knight Saejima Kouga (Hiroki Konishi) is put to action by lending assistance to Makai Priests Akaza (Masahiro Kuranuki) and Shiguto (Yousuke Saito), albeit with some interference from headstrong priestess Rekka (Mary Matsuyama), in slaying an Apostle Horror whose true essence looks like a cross between a prehistoric dinosaur and a raging bull with a snout made of a rotating flat blade.

Disturbingly dark and at times laugh-out-loud funny though it may be, there's something about the Garo series that is uniquely Japanese yet universally appealing. It's as close as one gets to having a supernatural/horror-fantasy manga or anime series come to life without the blockbuster treatment.

With the exception of flashbacks, some "expository" discussion on the existing order of Makai knights and the role of its priests/priestesses, the film can boast of back-to-back action at par with the ones that can be seen in the television series. It's crammed with extended fight sequences where you see our heroes battle it out with the villains under strobe lights and a leering crowd, and for once, audiences get an extra treat seeing more of Hiroki Konishi  (yes, I'm not that big of a fan of the armor) in his long coat that flaps in the breeze when his clunky golden armor gets magically nabbed into another dimension.

The special effects used are a combination of CG monstrosities [care of Omnibus Japan], rubber suits, and costume marvels with the better images seamlessly blending in, deriving inspiration from visuals of the same genre; while the more conspicuous flaws---like the use of scale models and  visible matte lines---showcase the limitations of its budget. For fans of the series and any tokusatsu in general, this aspect is a non-issue, but for those expecting the type of special effects usually produced in Hollywood, expect this film to be more of the kitschy-supernatural/fantasy sort. That being said, Garo: Red Requiem still has oodles of what makes it irresistible to people who enjoy stories that center on good versus evil and the darkness that exists within the human soul. 

Another thing that has remained consistent throughout the years is the show creator's knack for creature design and character visuals; the styling detail and imagination used in conceptualizing these supernatural horrors and their humanoid counterparts is impressive and truly out of this world. Add to that dark-cloaked phantoms, demonic winged creatures and a powder-white little person scurrying in the dark, and you have for yourself an eerie, other-worldly prelude to the last quarter section of the film.

Saejima Kouga stands as an archetypal romantic hero who's quiet and inexpressive, and has recently learned the importance of asking others for support. It's nice to know that he gets to pass on this wisdom to Rekka, along with some drivel about it being a Makai knight's duty to seal horrors and how saving one person's life is the same as protecting the lives of countless others. Ah, the great fabric of life... Heroic platitudes aside, the Kouga of late retains his cool demeanor, however, no longer bellicose or as disagreeable as the one introduced six years ago. Whether or not you buy this new and improved version of the golden knight, take heed that despite this newly-acquired gravitas, the writers of the film are not above having him defend scantily clad women strewn across a dirty club floor (now that's something you don't see in your typical Sunday sentai or toku).


As mentioned earlier, the film introduces two new allies for Kouga who will eventually make an appearance in the Garo: Makai Senki series. Though slightly hardheaded and recklessly bold, Rekka is a welcome addition to the list of strong and capable high-flying female protagonists that one sees in the Garo universe, whereas before, one can only think of Jabi in contrast to Kaoru, who's more of a damsel in distress. The priest Shiguto doesn't really get much to do except be a lackey but he does get to handle a prototype of the gouryu which is the equivalent of a supernatural proton pack and ghost trap combo used by the priesthood.

And since the show is also about human frailty and redemption, the film attempts to capture the precise moment when humans give in to evil as depicted by Kurusu's transformation from a middle-aged artist (as played by Akira Naoko) to Lady Karma's stout devotee and on the flip side, elder Akuza's fall from grace and path to salvation. The Makai Priest's sacrifice is apt yet predictable, however Kurusu's love and obsession with Shion lacked the kind of tragedy that screamed heaven-be-damned to match the beauty of its snow white feathery conclusion.

As a precursor to the show's second coming, Garo: Red Requiem fits in nicely with its previous offerings; personally, it's far more watchable than the Garo Special: Byakuya no Maju  and probably more  of a mainstream project than the spin-off Kiba: The Dark Knight Gaiden. In terms of storytelling, tone and visual effects, it has elements to it that fans of the series are familiar with, but essentially it's designed to be a standalone film---so as not to alienate people who have yet to discover how awesome the series is.     
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ranma 1/2 Live Action Special

If you were a geeky, awkward teen in the 90s or a wee kid who used to put off doing homework in the late afternoons to watch some t.v., then you're probably one of those people who got seriously hooked on an anime series like Sailormoon, Slamdunk or Ranma 1/2 (if not one of those equally addictive yet heart-wrenching Nippon Animation productions based on a literary classic). Only a few may have managed to finish any of the three series mentioned above, but for sure anyone who's seen a good number of episodes as a child can attest to hours of worry-free entertainment. And it was probably with fond memories and the pursuit of that childlike joy that readers of the manga and fans of the anime alike looked with eager anticipation to last year's Ranma 1/2 Live Action Special... only to be acquainted with the fact that the show might be too light and zany to carry much substance.

For years, television producers and executives have turned to popular manga titles to fill up their daily programming schedules to the point that it has become a well-used but reliable crutch.

The list of hits and duds continues to expand, as more and more illustrated works get their live action adaptations. Some become widely successful (e.g. Hana Yori Dango and Nodame Cantabile), while some get hammy (GTO, Gokusen, Rookies) and/or extremely weird on you (Arakawa Under the Bridge, One Pound Gospel). There are also others that fall flat and fail to meet expectations (Honey and Clover, Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge); and still others that would catch you by surprise for being unexpectedly watchable, if not actually good (Suzuki Sensei, Ouran High School Host Club).

It was only a matter of time until Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 got its own live action incarnation; it was only a matter of time until a studio or network would pick up such a well-loved series and roll the dice to see if they could come up with television gold.

After all, this manga turned anime series about cursed water springs, martial arts and the complex love connection between people who may or may not turn into an animal or girl with a splash of cold water was a hit with the last generation of Shōwa babies. As such, it had a built-in audience who would tune in out of curiosity, eager to relive its characters' crazy antics, and a vast potential to attract a new audience made up of today's youth who would maybe take to the story, if not, just tune in to see a cute girl and/or a buxom beauty. Getting the green light to do the special was no doubt an easy pitch, but creating a live-action rendering on a story that's lightweight and silly is about as practical as getting nutrition from a stick of gum.

High on camp and low on narrative, fans of the original series can at least rest assured that the special got the preliminary set-up of the story right sans the welcome mayhem brought about by characters like Ryoga, Shampoo and Happosai. True to the serial, the special opens with the arrival of Akane Tendou's (Aragaki Yui) fiancé in the person of Saotome Ranma (Kaku Kento)---the son of her father's long-time friend, who coincidentally has the dilemma of morphing into a girl after falling into a cursed spring while away on a training expedition.

As expected of any prearranged match, the relationship is met with some resistance as the female heir-apparent of the Tendou dojo continue to fight and bicker with her betrothed, while a throng of her male admirers, led by Kendo club president Kuno (Nagayama Kento), duel each other in the belief that the last man standing will win a date with the elusive girl. Joining the fray is a gang composed of leather-clad members of the third sex led by a sickle-wielding okama draped in gossamer scarves, holding court around a snazzy marble table. 

Jam-packed with colorful characters, cheap gags and less-than perfect action sequences, the special is bogged down by the kitschy search for a hidden mystical spring---one that would cure Ranma of his gender-bending predicament and would realize the villain's diabolical plot to rid the world of the female population as foretold by the Weather Girls smash hit, "It's Raining Men".

Far from being clever, the special is fun and flaky, and a total waste of time, marred by the politically incorrect, if not embarrassing, portrayal of members of the homosexual community. Though surely not intended to cause any offense, this slight mishap in the formulation of the special deserves very little laughter, doing absolutely nothing to elevate the show's status as an in-between seasons filler.

Most of the cast managed to bear some physical resemblance to the manga characters, however, the utter lack of a story and over the top acting make it difficult to relate to this special beyond a superficial level. Gender sensitive topics would have to take a backseat to frivolous adventures, petty spats and panda suits, as screen writer Izumi Yoshihiro stays true to the mangaka's vision of mining the comedy derived from the untimely transformation of the show's characters from man to beast (or in Ranma's case male to female) and vice versa.

There were standout moments where the special seemed like it had a hairbreadth's chance of achieving the cheekiness needed to make it a solid adaptation, but all hope is dashed by the poorly shot action sequences where actors Aragaki Yui and Kaku Kento end up tipping audiences to the ill-timed execution of their fight scenes and forced encounters. Furthermore, in no way can the absence of chemistry between the two be more palpable, as Aragaki Yui's Akane failed to exhibit the same rapport and charm with the male Ranma as she did with the female version.

All in all, the special can be likened to a low budget tokusatsu that one might see on Sunday morning television; the only difference perhaps is that the former does not have the benefit of time to build on a story-arc. I mean, the live action version of Pretty Guardian Sailormoon might have been a tacky 50-episode affair but past the meanderings of a slow-witted teen and moon magic was an epic love story that not only defied time, it also destroyed civilizations. Sadly, Ranma 1/2 does not come equipped with the same revelations, neither does it have an endgame at sight given the repetitive quality of its episodes. Its strength lies in its unapologetic regard for non-stop action and hilarity free of subtext and rhetoric, the downside to it is that it's something that's easy to outgrow and dismiss.

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Speaking of Sailormoon, I've been trying to place where I've seen one of the villain's henchmen before... and then it dawned on me that the said guy with the blue streak as shown above was no other than Shibue Joji---the actor who played Prince Endymion/Tuxedo Mask in the 2003 Pretty Guardian Sailormoon  live-action series. Damn, from throwing roses to using a sickle with a raised pinkie...  
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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Himitsu Chouhouin Erika

Sultry [wannabe J-pop singer and] actress of Battle Royale and Kill Bill fame, Kuriyama Chiaki, plays a housewife with a unique part-time job as a spy in a midnight drama that has the cheekiness of Charlie's Angels, the many guises of Sydney Bristow in Alias, and a black outfit reminiscent of the one that Jessica Alba wore during her Dark Angel stint. With basic action sequences complemented by the right menacing look and ready-for-action posturing, this is a relatively entertaining show that presents miniscule cases with an arguably feminist slant and not-so-creative resolutions. At times engaging and at times boring, this is a series that intends to showcase Chiaki's supposed versatility and singing prowess---when it truth, it's nothing more than a mixed bag of flimsy spy fiction.

Okay, so this kid has been on my radar ever since she appeared in Battle Royale as the beautiful and athletic Chigusa who stabbed a boy in the crotch (ouch!) to "defend" herself. And she probably caught a whole lot more attention from people when she landed the role of a ball and chain wielding, psychopathic schoolgirl assassin in a Quentin Tarantino film, which in turn cemented her image as a cool, ass-kicking chick. Thin and willowy, I find her oddly alluring when she's portraying a character with a murderous gleam in her eyes; however, her attempt at playing other roles such as the girl-next-door (Tokkyu Tanaka 3-Go), the awkward sidekick (Atami no Sousakan) or the artistic best friend (Rebound), I find, doesn't have the same impact.

Is she a one-trick pony or merely an unfortunate victim of character association and viewer typecasting?

I can't really say, but what I do know is that it irks me to see her sing. Perhaps the only good thing about seeing her in music videos lately is that you now get to see an intentionally seductive girl who's of legal age as opposed to a pubescent child whose pictures appear in questionable publications. Anyway, I didn't think I'd get to watch Himitsu Chouhouin Erika anytime soon after the great megaupload lockdown of 2012 but since the episodes of this series came in such small sizes, I was able to get a copy of it in no time. I also have to attribute this viewing marathon to reading jt's blogpost early this year, after which, I decided to check out the drama that "tickled him" even if it meant placing the apparently far more superior drama, Girl K, and its eponymous heroine with the short skirt and long jacket, on the backburner.

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In Himitsu Chouhouin Erika, Kuriyama Chiaki plays Takahashi Erika, a retired intelligence agent who's left behind her life of espionage in favor of pursuing a happy family life, taking care of  her loving husband Ryousuke (Tonesaku Toshihide), who knows nothing about her past, and slowly winning the heart of young Kyoutaro, her step son (Taniai Junya).

After enjoying a year or so of domestic bliss, Erika is once again called into action when her former boss and mentor, Totsuka (Sugimoto Tetta), recruits her help in solving cases for his private investigation agency in exchange for keeping her past as a spy a secret from her family. Determined to protect them from danger and intrigue, at the same time, convinced of the merit of the cases brought before them by the defenseless and oppressed clients of the agency, Erika finds herself making use of her skills as a spy, leading a double life as a simple housewife and a capable undercover agent with long loose tresses and killer heels, looking dynamite even after crawling into an air vent or coming off a fist fight...     

With the help of college tech whiz Jyunpei (Ide Takuya) working under the supervision of Totsuka, Erika manages to crack open a number of cases, bringing to justice an assembly of gangsters, fraudsters and perverts by obtaining damning evidence through some entrapment scheme and after delivering a light beating.

For those who want to check out this series, bear in mind that each Himitsu Chouhouin Erika episode features a cut and dried case with a recognizable villain who could very well be twirling a handlebar moustache for being the obvious culprit. Also, do not expect an elaborate or intelligent scheme behind the capture of said criminals for the team relies heavily on the extensive use of a voice modulator device that serves as the basic con, which brings to mind the equally exasperating use of life-like face masks in Mission Impossible 2. The action sequences are brief with very little variation, there are recurring combinations present made interesting only by the diversity of weapons used and of course, the impenetrable stare of Kuriyama Chiaki as accentuated by a dark-penciled eyeliner.

Surprisingly, the victim in each case would almost always be a woman. In fact, the series paints a rather dangerous world for members of the female species who, for the most part, are customarily  pegged to be innately weak, docile, and/or gullible---either for having neglected an important aspect of their life or for overcompensating for their assumed inferiority. As such, they're sexually harassed, discriminated against and even taken advantage of by greedy, lecherous men at every turn, and it takes another woman, in the person of Erika, to help them get out of trouble. However, even by design, the very model of strength and courage displayed by the show's righteous and impulsive super spy is likewise open to contradiction---for on one hand, you have a confident and talented heroine; on the other, you also have a timorous woman who has desperately clung to this idea of happiness at the expense of concealing a part of her identity from her family.


Episodic though it may be, Himitsu Chouhouin Erika does present a fairly engaging storyline in exploring how its main character juggles the role of spy, newlywed and stepmother, thereby producing some humorous even heartfelt moments improbably instigated by its lead actress. Superficially layered with both professional and personal conflict, the subplot pertaining to the discovery of a mole within the intelligence agency is a no-brainer; the whole story arc surrounding Totsuka's forced resignation being decidedly weak compared to the suspense built on the possibility of Erika's blockhead of a husband discovering what his wife's been doing aside from her household chores. 

The series does well to take advantage of its lead actress' cool yet dangerous image, obviously milking the espionage angle in showing Chiaki Kuriyama's transition from bare-faced homely housewife to smoky secret agent with a killer fight stance in 12 individual cases that can each be easily solved within the show's running time of 20 minutes. Combining dramatic and comedic elements with typical action stunt work, this is a guilt-free, inconsequential alternative  for those who are wary of the star-studded, over-hyped dramas that came out last fall 2011.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Crossing Hennessy

Easily one of my favorites from 2010, Crossing Hennessy is one of those movies that make for pleasant and easy viewing, having one of the cutest and probably most misleading trailers produced to entice people to see it. Be forewarned, it's not as romantic or funny as it was made out to be, but fans of Ivy Ho would no doubt still appreciate and recognize the said writer's style and fondness for metaphors in this latest offering. Another thing that might be of interest to viewers is that not only does this movie mark the return of Tang Wei to the big screen, it also happens to be Ivy Ho's second directorial feature.

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Proving that a cup of tea, an egg tart and a mutual interest in mystery novels can be as good as any device to jumpstart a relationship, Crossing Hennessy is one of those love stories that decidedly leaves out much of the giddy romance in favor of brewing a more stable and organic relationship between the two characters presented onscreen. Typical of an Ivy Ho film, it explores an aspect of love with thoughtful regard to everyday, real-life circumstances, making it fairly ordinary despite its whimsical appeal. Light, thoughtful and quirky, it might not necessarily fit the bill of a typical Hong Kong romantic comedy, but it's certainly worth taking a look at for its simple and unpretentious treatment of what it's like for a person to let go and move on.

Opening with a low-key and uneventful first meeting, Crossing Hennessy brings together two people who at first glance appear to have nothing in common and follows them through a series of innocent encounters that would later allow them to form a bond  that's strong enough to help them make a decision upon reaching their own proverbial crossroad. Arguably more of a belated coming-of-age film than a romantic comedy, Crossing Hennessy makes a case for a normal, healthy relationship by pitting the mundane against the dramatic, with the intimation that maybe true love need not be so complicated nor toxic. 

You learn to let the small things go so that you can take a stand on bigger issues. That's how it goes.

Loy (Jacky Cheung) is a bachelor with no dreams or motivation. At forty, he still lives under the roof of his imperious mother (Paw Hee-Ching)  and is spoiled by his dutiful aunt (Chu Mi-Mi), content to spend the rest of his days dallying about, occasionally dreaming of his deceased father.

Set to inherit a family-owned appliance store, his mother believes that the only way for him to get his act to together is to marry him off to force him to think about the future. To accomplish this, his mother sets him up on another matchmaking session, this time with the so-called "queen of bathroom fixtures", Oi-Lin (Tang Wei), whose aunt and uncle own a shop on Lockhart Road. So Loy gets introduced to an equally reluctant Oi-Lin over dimsum and tea, where the chatter of their chaperones and go-between drown out the awkward silence that surround their firm resolve to part as strangers. They get through the whole affair without so much as exchanging a word but since their relatives were not the type to be easily discouraged, the two once again find themselves forced to be together.

After breaking the ice by openly admitting that they're not interested in each other, the two eventually settle on building an easy-going friendship, one that would allow them to humor their well-meaning relatives and lead them to come to terms with their personal woes---he's hung up on a recently divorced ex-girlfriend (Maggie Cheung Ho-yee) with whom he's reconnected with, while she's fiercely committed to lending support to a hot-headed boyfriend (Andy On) who's facing time in jail for several legal infractions.

Falling neatly under the category of slice-of-life cinema, Crossing Hennessy is a prelude to a love story wherein the romance between its two protagonists is merely hinted at rather than exhibited for public view. The film leaves out much of the amorous encounters and saccharine dialogue ever present in your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy and deliberately channels the viewer's attention to ordinary events and everyday objects as a testament to the fact that not all unions have explosive or fiery beginnings. Going against movie convention, Loy and Oi-Lin's relationship develop gradually, without warning---some might even be surprised by Loy's sudden admission of being in love when all signs point to a platonic relationship.

Indeed, love at first sight has no place in this film, neither do sparks or fireworks that burn bright and consume one's being. As many would no doubt observe, the pairing makes more sense from an intellectual standpoint, it does not blatantly appeal to the emotion, being a film without overt romantic gestures. It has a narrative that comes to a slow simmer; and as expected of any Ivy Ho Film, it's not an instant crowd-pleaser but more the type that lends well to multiple viewings, with some odd surprises in store. On the upside, it's rather craftily set up to propose thoughts on what makes a relationship endure. For example, it's been suggested that a woman in the long run would prefer a sense of humor over brute force and that a man who's truly in love would endeavor to do right by someone on his own accord. In this regard, Ivy Ho remains consistent with her body of work---whether or not you're a fan of hers, a majority of her films continue to explore love and its different dimensions.

In the sentimental wringer, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, time and chance play a crucial role in bringing two people together; in July Rhapsody, a secondary-grade teacher undergoes a mid-life crisis when faced with temptation and infidelity; while in Claustrophobia, two carpooling co-workers embark on an affair, made possible by confined spaces and proximity. With maybe the exception of Comrades, most of Ivy Ho's films suffer from a dearth of physical interaction but what this does in the long run is highlight the ever so subtle shifts in her characters' emotions and the steady resolve that marks each story's turning point. Crossing Hennessy best exemplifies her preference for this particular method even though it might not end up pleasing all her viewers. The point of contention this time around being that nobody really knows how and when love ends, more so, how it begins.

To a certain extent, this is really a story about personal growth and new beginnings, perhaps a bit more of Loy's than that of Oi-Lin's. Some might even lament its simplicity and lack of dramatic incident but the identifiable situations the the characters go through as well as the symbolism of some events integrated into a dream sequence or a particular scene all the more make up for it. Jacky Cheung makes Loy such an easy character to like and relate to while Tang Wei is as lovely as ever as the prospective match who eventually lets her guard down while conversing over tea. The chemistry is not explosive yet the easy banter between the characters provide a good fit and is in keeping with the movie's light, comedic tone.

 Photo credits: Stormedelf at Asianwiki.com
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