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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