Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lost Days

Six college friends go on a winter holiday trip to relish what they deem to be their last carefree days of youth, only to find their so-called friendship tested and fractured by malice and jealousy. Conceptually, Lost Days explores the seemingly delicate nature of relationships; bringing to the forefront suppressed feelings of anger and uncertainty that each person feels when they're seeking acceptance within a group. The series takes place in a mountain cottage and covers a 10-day period within which these individuals sort out their issues with dire consequences.

It begins with a road trip organized by tennis club president, Shino Yuta (Seto Koji) and his best friend Takano Natsu (Yoshizawa Ryo). With them are model student, Rinka (Treindl Reina), level-headed Mana (Kojima Fujiko), sassy junior student, Satsuki (Miyoshi Ayaka), and resident good girl, Miki (Ishibashi Anna). They spend a fun-filled afternoon at a ski resort, laughing, joking and snowboarding before deciding to retire to a mountain cottage owned by Miki's parents. Upon arriving there, they are surprised to find Miki's older brother (Kiriyama Ken) already taking up residence. And though Miki appears visibly troubled by her brother's presence, the rest of the gang, at first, does not find anything particularly unusual about having an  unexpected companion.

They all try to make nice with each other as night falls but things soon take an unexpected turn when the power goes out, the keys to the car go missing, and personal affairs get exposed. Cabin fever kicks in and tensions rise as the characters find themselves forced to confront each other with malign intentions at play. Busy fighting and accusing each other of suspicious and repulsive behavior, these six individuals remain unaware of a murder that took place in the mountains and an ongoing manhunt for a killer on the loose.

When one of them almost freezes to death after being locked up in a tool shed, Yuta takes it upon himself to investigate who's orchestrating the group conflict and why this person appears to be hell bent on driving a wedge between his friends. He finds disturbing evidence that point to the involvement of Miki's brother but is unsure of how to proceed with the safety of his friends being a major consideration.

Lost days basically finds a group of friends engaged in a leisure activity and brandishes them into a scenario that would allegedly turn deep-seethed  insecurities into an act of violence that would result in the untimely death of one of these bright-eyed youngsters. However, despite its promise of suspense and peril, what it is really---is an excruciatingly slow-paced drama that insinuates a far ominous series of events than what actually unfolds on screen. Each episode drags on as if it's longer than it's actual runtime, making its viewers feel like they lost an indeterminate number of hours.

The series tries to build up suspense by playing up the paranoia of its six characters, invariably spending time to showcase their agitated dispositions. With the exception of the two boys in the club, a lot of what's said and done by their female counterparts is misunderstood, further emphasizing the superficial and feeble nature of their proclaimed bond. There's an apparent lack of empathy and an unwillingness to listen, even if the the conflict presented could have been easily resolved by placing insecurities and doubts out in the open. More than one person is guilty of sowing discord in the group and though it's easy to speculate the motive behind fomenting distrust, the explanation provided at the end of it all is petty and, in the alternative, underwhelming.

Lastly, given the offhand introduction of an unknown variable (i.e. a serial killer evading capture), it's easy to assume that a much sinister cause for concern is afoot but this promising storyline is squandered and inexplicably left to the last few minutes, untouched. Lost Days takes too much time tracking the movement of frenemies engaged in childish spats, with whole episodes allotted to thresh out matters of no real consequence. And even though there are allusions to creepier and more disturbing elements such as voyeurism and an unhealthy form of sibling attachment, all of this is overtaken by flimsy romantic entanglements that do not pay off in the end. Seto Koji and Treindl Reina are the best of the lot but their efforts to lend a sense of realism or urgency to the supposed tragedy that would later befall the group is lost in an uneventful string of sluggish storytelling.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Pinjo no Merry Christmas

Pinjo no Merry Christmas is a three-part miniseries that came out in 2012. The production itself is primarily light and colorful; lending a sense of frivolity even if the story is yet again about a woman desperate to find love in time for the holidays. It incorporates an array of materials that can be found in your local stationery store, being a cleverly disguised ad campaign and a wistful tribute to writing paraphernalia that, of late, seem to have been consigned to the use of a limited segment of the market (i.e. the random scrapbook enthusiast). The mini-series offers an interesting marriage of product placement and metaphor, ultimately drawing on the idea of how falling in love---like greeting cards---can be a hard sell past a certain age. 

Holidays can be doubly hard for singletons. It's the time of year when they're forced to reexamine their solitary existence, when joyous festivities heighten the need to share one's life with someone, and with the cold winter comes the need to hold that special someone close. With Christmas just around the corner, Matsubara Kaede (Kanjiya Shihori) is experiencing both an emotional and professional slump. It's been years since her last relationship and she terribly misses the giddy feeling that comes with being in love. To makes matters worse, she's been tasked by her superior to come up with a promotional slogan that would set hearts aflutter and boost sales of greeting cards at a time when she's devoid of inspiration. 

During a routine dinner hosted by high school friend, Irie (Tsukamoto Takashi), fellow guests and confidants, Rinko (Hiraiwa Kami) and Akari (Tanimura Mitsuki) come up with a plan for Kaede to fire up her love life. They send an email blast to all of her contacts, informing them of a change in address, hoping to come up with a list of prospective dates, if not an actual love match. The scheme works and soon enough Kaede's forced to explore the possibility of establishing a new relationship with either a dapper business associate (Hirayama Hiroyuki), whom she's worked with a year earlier, or an extremely friendly office courier (Nakao Akiyoshi), six years her junior. 

Taking the advice of her friends, Kaede ventures into the dating scene but turning on her "love switch" proved to be difficult when the seemingly perfect gentleman fails to make her heart skip a beat and when polite pleasantries are misread as an indication of romantic interest. She genuinely wants to find love but finds the whole process tedious and bothersome. She's not even sure if she'll ever fall in love again. In an effort to recapture that elusive feeling, she accedes to an invitation from an ex-boyfriend (Kaneko Nobuaki) to meet and catch up, maybe even rekindle an old flame.  

Like any romantic comedy intended for the holidays, this mini-series has its Christmas elements and love dilemmas down pat. Sets are awash with lights and festive decors, while all the characters are warmly clad in cardigans and sweaters. The ceaseless push of stationery and writing paraphernalia as egregious metaphors and narrative pieces are a mixed bag---at times amusing and thoughtful but likewise disagreeable when utilized repeatedly without direction or purpose. Nevertheless, during its most dismal turn  (with the heroine drowning her sorrows in wine and crying her eyes out) such devices secure audiences into thinking that no ending for this mini-series would suffice except a happy one.

The uncertainty and embarrassment that comes with Kaede's purposeful search for love is depicted through plausible scenarios and though her misadventures can feel rather tedious, at least they're resolved  without excessive drama. The mini-series ultimately resorts to the trope of having Kaede find Mr. Right under her nose with the resulting match (though not totally convincing) being an acceptable outcome. Pinjo no Merry Christmas rightly dodges the need for a big romantic reveal, opting for quiet moments that exhibit genuine affection, expressed through comfort food and constant companionship. It would have been more winsome had the one true pairing been more apparent from the very first episode, but the third act does try to make up for the lack of gumption.

Overall, Pinjo no Merry Christmas is interesting in the way that it forces the use of office and art supplies, including related merchandise, into the thick of the drama. Its very premise seems to argue that love, as all other things of personal importance, is worth all the fuss. And what's the best way of showing that you care? Well, the message is simple---take the time to send a greeting card!
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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Olympic no Minoshirokin

Set against a backdrop of rapid urban development and socio-political upheaval, Olympic no Minoshirokin is a fictional account of the metropolitan police department's efforts to stop a dissident from sabotaging the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Based on a novel by Okuda Hideo, the drama special is basically a systematic chronicle of the 56-day investigation conducted by its lead detective which spares no effort in recounting how events and characters directly and/or indirectly contributed to the efforts of one man to hold an international sporting event hostage.

Olympic no Minoshirokin benefits from the sheer draw of its star-studded cast but is nevertheless bogged down by its slow depiction of events which is an unavoidable result of its attempt to give justice to the source material. And while its period setting may provide fertile ground to thresh out back stories and exhibit scenic vistas in contrast to civic growth and development, the main premise carries with it a primary weakness in that the declared threat that would fuel the suspense and mystery is actually inconsequential and fruitless. It does eventually give chase and provide a modicum of action, but it seems more interested in being a meditation on progress and the inequitable distribution of wealth in post-war Japan.

*     *     *

The year is 1964, the whole nation waits in anticipation of an international event that would show off Japan as a modern industrialized country to the world, having proudly risen from the ashes of war to emerge as a superpower. However, in the midst of preparations for the upcoming Olympics, two explosions rock the capital and place the metropolitan police on high alert.

The two incidents are claimed to be the act of terrorist bomber, Soka Jiro, but forensic analysis of the ransom notes left at the scene reveal it to have been done by a different perpetrator. In order not to alarm the public, the bombings are declared to be unrelated accidents caused by a gas leak. When the culprit declares his intention to disrupt the opening ceremony for the Olympics, Detective Ochiai Masao (Takenouchi Yutaka) and his squad are called upon to attend to the case discreetly.

From hereon, the drama special follows the pattern of a typical detective story wherein Ochiai gathers individual testimonies and conducts background checks in order to establish the means, motive and opportunity for the commission of the crime. The results of the initial inquiry identifies three suspects---the rakish son (Hayami Mokomichi) of the Police Commissioner whom eye-witness reports have placed to be in the vicinity of the first explosion; a leftist student leader activist (Kiritani Kenta) who's had his own brush with the law; and an unassuming student (Kenichi Matsuyama) serving as a blue-collar worker at a gunpowder factory, where 25 sticks of dynamite used for construction were reported missing. To further complicate matters, the detective's sister, Yumi (Kuroki Meisa), is not only connected to all three, but likewise appears to be personally involved with the primary suspect.

Of course, it doesn't take the viewers long to figure out who's behind the bombings. The drama special is not so much concerned with identifying who the perpetrator is, but instead spends considerable time explaining how the infractions were committed and why. As such, the show's strong suit can be summed up to include the methodical way in which the elements of the crime are presented and the compelling interplay of characters that brought about the situation at hand. The production can also boast of  excellent set designs and bucolic shooting locales on top of having a constellation of actors in '60s period garb to replicate the mood and mindset of the nation.

But looking past its aesthetic components, Olympic no Minoshirokin is impaired by its own plot. For instance, it doesn't make sense for Ochiai to let his sister cavort with a known fugitive. His stubborn refusal to consider Yumi a lead when the stakes are high and the danger imminent just served to prolong the manhunt when the show could have done away with a little less than its 4-hour runtime. What's more, since the incendiary device used is so rudimentary, the scenes to deactivate the same turned out to be so unimpressive and clumsy that any person could have dispatched it. But what really hampers the enjoyment of this drama special is that the bomber, which is painted as an anti-hero, is rightfully given sufficient reason to rebel but the scheme employed to express his dissatisfaction with the system is something which is difficult to empathize with. No amount of emotional or moral persuasion will allow viewers to condone it. It is destined to fail. So while the cause is just and the perpetrator resolute---the plan to hold the summer Olympics for ransom makes this show's ending a foregone conclusion.

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Saturday, November 08, 2014


Winner of the 6th WOWOW Scenario Grand Prix, Kousaka Takahashi's Umoreru is a multi-layered drama examining the intrinsic value of one man's pursuit of the truth and the cost of exposing it. Packaged as a nifty character study flanked by a commentary on public trust and corporate responsibility, the story in itself is deceptively simple, but truly, it is bursting at the seams. Behind every incident and commonplace utterance is a mystery waiting to be unearthed, and it's up to the viewer to decide who is in the wrong and who's right. And at best, it's an evenly composed special that speaks of personal regret and corruption.

Umoreru finds its protagonist, Kitami Toru (Kiritani Kenta) settling into his new job at a ward office following a corporate misconduct exposé where he figured prominently as the whistleblower. Dubbed as a local hero but despised by his former co-workers, he's now ruminating the merits of what he thought at the time was a righteous act. His first assignment as a city official is to check up on a condemned house owned by an elderly woman named Kayoko (Midori Mako) who is said to have suffered a tragedy. For some unknown reason, Kayoko refuses to speak but has decided to hoard garbage on her property. After an ocular inspection, Toru is surprised to learn that his first love, Asao Yoko (Kuninaka Ryoko), is now a single mother who lives next door with a 13-year old son (Mochitzuki Ayumo). 

For its overall theme, the drama special challenges the wisdom behind the belief of the truth as a liberating force that brings about positive change. It essentially questions the value accorded to its pursuit and exposition as a necessary extension of what is deemed to be just by presenting viewers different instances that may argue for its suppression.

The story actually comes in two tiers, and as a springboard to the above premise, a scenario is offered---the most apparent one being a story of a man who has yet to come to terms with the consequences of his decision. Here, the writer levels good intentions and wide-eyed idealism against bitter pragmatism and harsh reality; first, in depicting the painful aftermath of the consumer scandal in which Toru was involved in and second, in reiterating that sometimes, there are just things that one is better off not knowing.

Toru is shown to be a man looking for ways and means to assuage his personal guilt and self-doubt. He's placed in a position where he's asked to make the same choice at work---when confronted by corruption in the selection of contractors---and his personal affairs---when indirectly asked to turn a blind eye to the commission of an unspeakable horror. Everything that he's lost and everything that he stands to gain boils down to a solitary plea to leave well enough alone. What makes this conflict particularly interesting is that the choice to be made will ultimately determine his true nature. This, after the fact that events have demonstrated that his moral compass has failed him before.

The second tier is slightly more elaborate than the first. It's the culmination of random images, seemingly unrelated events and offhand statements scattered all over this slow-simmering production. Umoreru for its first few minutes takes on the complexion of a political drama but while it has elements that refer to social issues, it's really more about the characters, their contrary point of views and individual motivations. 

The drama special takes on a cool, calculated visage. And although it carries a lot of weight, viewers that are used to fast-paced and stirring exchanges might find the show's slow countenance not much to their liking. Another thing to consider is that viewers are not made privy of its strong undercurrent until the last section of the show when the pieces fall together to reveal a story of two women and an ongoing conspiracy to cover up a crime. 

The understated performances of its cast match the overall tone of the drama, adding a malignant air to an otherwise abnormally languid atmosphere. A single look or a few choice words, carry such great import to the extent that the central mystery is made out to be more chilling if given further thought. As a whole, the writer's main gambit of confining the screenplay to a question of what lies beneath works, even though it's mockingly too literal in some respects. Nevertheless, still waters do run deep---don't let its placid exterior fool you. 
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Without Stars/There We Have Been

Dark, beautiful and heartbreaking are just some of the words used to describe Haruki Murakami's novel, Norwegian Wood. Unlike his other works that are dreamlike and seemingly set in an alternate realm, immersed in magical realism, this particular novel has more widespread appeal because of its straight narrative.

A wistful tale of love and loss, of lost youth and maybe new beginnings, how could one resist?

All things considered, it's an accessible piece of literature, and the one most likely to be adapted to another medium. It's been made into a beautiful mess of a film by auteur Tran Anh Hung in 2010 and now it gets another incarnation through a twin bill production by independent British choreographer James Cousins.

Taking inspiration from the intense but tumultuous relationship of the characters in Norwegian Wood, the dance piece Without Stars tells the story of a man torn between two lovers---different as night and day. 

Complemented by the ingenious use of light and sound, the dancers bend, fold and get enveloped in each other's arms just as easily as they break free and get untangled. There's a push and pull dynamic that's apparent in the movements displayed and it's visually effective in capturing the inner struggle between the trio. Furthermore, it is able to convey that unshakable feeling of desperation and helplessness between its characters that can't be alleviated by companionship or love no matter how hard they try to hold on to each other. It doesn't really matter if you've read the book, it's three people caught in a love triangle, it's the simple. 

The follow up piece, There We Have Been  is a bit trickier though. It may be subject to numerous interpretation but contrary to the press release, it fits in nicely as a tailpiece, providing a conclusion to the rendering of the story. Of the two, it's a gimmicky showpiece but it's also felicitous in a way that elevates the art form and the way it can be perceived. 

In an amazing display of grace, strength and endurance, the relationship between Toru and Naoko is portrayed through a dance duet wherein the female dancer is held up by the male dancer in a variety of positions and poses, the former never once touching the floor. Some reviewers find it symbolic of the female's delicate disposition; of her dependence on her partner to keep her grounded while she is drawn away by an unseen force. It basically tracks the development of Naoko and Toru's relationship following Kizuki's untimely death and Naoko's subsequent battle with depression. 

This particular viewer, in the alternative, would like to think of this final piece as a representation of Toru's devotion to a girl long lost. A girl, who has spent her last few days on earth, desperately courting death, despite all the love willingly offered to her. 

There We Have Been not only captures the nature of their relationship but also its lasting impact on Toru as a person. In this segment, she hovers around and above him like a spectre. The memory of her weighs on him, recounting the times that he's tried to hold onto her even when her whole being appears to yearn for something else...or rather, someone else. And he carries this memory and his love for her like a burden, at least until he decides to let go and move on. This is, after all, Toru's story. And as much as Norwegian Wood may be considered a tragic tale of love, it's also about growing up and choosing to live on. 

 Photo by David Foulkes available at

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Nana to Kaoru: Chapter 2

The second installment of Nana to Kaoru retains the basic elements that made its predecessor both touching and controversial, decisively providing more of the same and then some. True to its title, it plays out like an excerpt from the manga, which, while wholly invested in providing some fun and mischief to counter its risqué and disturbing content, does very little to apprise viewers of the real score between these teenagers.

Will these two ever officially get together or are they just destined to live out this dysfunctional relationship?  Will they grow as a couple or eventually outgrow each other? Beneath the childish outbursts and the silly misadventures, these questions are essentially the driving force behind the film. The relationship in itself appears to be special; it works cloaked in secrecy but if it will remotely survive once assimilated to a normal day-to-day relationship is something that these characters have to ponder. Sadly, the movie, like its source material, conveniently skirts around providing an easy answer. The fact of the matter is that it's simply unresolved and these characters are about to encounter a fork in the road.

*      *     *

Give or take a few months, the movie pretty much picks up where it left off---with the main pair still committed to having their "breathers", achieving a comfortable rhythm to their private S/M play while publicly assuming their respective positions in the high school social order.

At this point, viewers can be fairly certain that Kaoru's (Tochihara Rakuto)  feelings for his childhood friend run deeper but he's ever conscious of the fact that he's not a worthy match for her. He takes solace in the knowledge that Nana (Aono Miku) trusts and depends on him for her breathers and that he's seen sides of her that others have not. Nana, for her part, is genuinely fond of Kaoru and thinks of their breathers as something that's indispensable to her. She has no qualms about acknowledging Kaoru's presence even when she's with her own crowd.

And the current arrangement works. They get to meet intermittently and together explore their proclivity for bondage and sadomasochism without interference or judgment. The only problem is that they're about to commence their last year in high school and the thought of parting ways after graduation looms over them like a dark cloud.

If this were any other teen flick, any apprehension about the future could be easily dispatched through one last spring/summer outing, but given that this is anything but your ordinary teen flick, this supposedly sentimental trip to Nagano's power spots is as good as any excuse to further their bizarre relationship. Interestingly enough, the use of this tired device does provide some much needed comic relief and alone time for the central characters to interact outside of their usual environs. The trip in itself, aside from producing a hilarious segment involving the surrender of Nana's "heavenly vestments" and an overnight stay at a mystical cottage, sees Nana and Kaoru trying to push conventional boundaries on top of trying to define their relationship.

As a teen sex comedy film, Nana to Kaoru: Chapter 2, like its predecessor, is the cinematic equivalent of what blue-balled suitors nowadays would refer to as a cock tease. It's naughty and playful, and while there's a heavy sexual undertone to it, it's never truly malicious or unkind. Writer and director Atsushi Shimizu should be credited for maintaining that delicate balance of letting viewers experience laughter, mild shock and tender sentiment in the course of watching an odd tale of sexual awakening. And it's all cleverly done with the idea of infusing it with enough heart and contrived sincerity to make its ribald attributes a bit more tolerable.

As an exploitation film, it thrives on Kaoru's lurid imagination, his bag of toys and of course, Nana's willingness to play along. For the most part, it's all fun and games aside from that one pivotal scene in the Wandering House of Sarashina where the characters progress their level of play to spanking. It's the only scene that is truly uncomfortable to watch. Much more than the depiction of bondage, it's intrusive and off-putting, especially upon seeing that welt on Aono Miku's camera-ready derrière.

But then again, whatever misgivings may be had for such delicate scenes is consoled by a display of doubt and concern on the part of its characters. It seamlessly transitions raunchy encounters to doe-eyed attempts at earnestness, such that potentially scandalous and abusive behavior is effectively written off as an unorthodox expression of love. To soften the blow (pun intended), Nana and Kaoru are always shown to be unsure and insecure, and while they're able to voice their thoughts out loud for the audience to hear, the one person who's supposed hear it is shown to be equally lost in his/her musings. This is what makes the franchise such a good cheat.

The set-up allows for a complex relationship that is capable of progressing to new heights, exploring an evolved sense of intimacy, all the while being a paradoxically stunted romance between socially awkward teenagers. It must be pointed out that it's the blush of first love that makes the film appear harmless. It's unique in a sense that it is able to fashion sadomasochism as a bridge and an experimental dalliance---when in reality it's designed to blur the lines, serving as both hook and main attraction to an unfinished serial.  
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

HAMU - Kouan Keisatsu no Otoko

HAMU - Kouan Keisatsu no Otoko is a Takizawa Hideaki-led crime drama special that seems to have been conceptualized as a pilot than a standalone feature. The 2-hr show provides bits and pieces of information that tease audiences into believing that it's part of a bigger puzzle, when in all probability, it's either---a promotional stint to introduce a future series or a last ditch effort to revamp material already shot for an axed project. Essentially composed of a series of nested but unformed plot lines, the drama ends up raising more questions than it is capable of answering during its limited runtime. 

The special is about an ordinary cop named Natsuhara Shinji (Takizawa Hideaki) who, while in the midst of investigating a heinous crime, gets handpicked to join the public safety division. He soon discovers that the main suspect for the said crime (whom he has been instructed not to apprehend) has been under surveillance by the division for being their only lead to uncovering a terrorist plot to assassinate a foreign dignitary visiting the country.

While serving under the public safety division, Natsuhara is appalled by the tactics utilized by his superior, Serada Souma (Ozawa Yukiyoshi), and his team to further their mission, but is nevertheless persuaded to recruit and handle an asset (Toda Naho) when the trail goes cold.

Screenwriter Hachitsu Hiroyuki piles on one case and one mystery after another, coming up with a fair to middling plot that's typical to the genre. The linear timeline makes the show easy to follow but the incorporation of too many convenient twists represent the first of many problems to this special. Aside from the hammy portrayal of the modus operandi of homeland security agents that detract largely from the main drama, both the dialogue and execution of the action scenes are simply uninspired. And while it does try to provide some depth in discussing the professional and ethical issues inherent in the means employed by those tasked to protect national security, it's still miles away from being ever truly good. 

It would be a grave injustice to even refer to it as a poor man's Gaiji Keisatsu despite any perceived similarities in the issues or conflict presented. HAMU - Kouan Keisatsu no Otoko is too facile and laughable, and the fact that it takes itself too seriously when it is devoid of realism,  makes it almost unbearable to watch. Lines are often delivered at an urgent and argumentative tone, with Natsuhara displaying moral outrage for the majority of the show and Serada roughly pounding upon him the utter necessity of the actions taken to ensure the safety of their nation. It just lacks that cool, matter-of-fact delivery often expected of top brass that live by the maxim "the end justifies the means", thus making each confrontation between the characters an opportunity for over-the-top acting.  

The show also utilizes an unfortunate amount of second-rate foreign actors who were no doubt hired because their looks matched a certain ethnic profile and not because of their acting chops. It must likewise be noted that even though the special features a bunch of characters, played by familiar faces (e.g. Harada Natsuki, Kashiwabara Shuji, Jinnai Takanori),  they seem to have been randomly thrown in just to fill up the screen having been given very little to do, and over all, being neither interesting nor crucial to the story.

As a crime drama, it comes in many guises. The initial case involves a murder with the victim's corpse found dismembered, and then there's the primary case which is the ongoing investigation of the activities of the terrorist cell on Japanese soil. The special also delves into the personal lives of its characters, which in turn suggest a larger mystery or at least the beginning of a story arc for a series. For example, Natsuhara is shown to have suffered the loss of a loved one as a result of a violent crime without never knowing who committed it and why, while it's altogether made clear that his present boss had some hand in it. As for the extent of Serada's culpability and his motive behind getting Natsuhara to be a part of his team---the special never really got around to address it and from the looks of things, it never will, 
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Sunday, October 12, 2014


"Is it real or is it counterfeit?"

It's a question asked of museum docent, Osawa Maria (Hirosue Ryoko), by gallery visitors about Vermeer's St. Praxedes shortly before being led away by the police to face criminal charges for the death of three men she's been involved with. It's also the same question that viewers are made to ask through the course of the series as they see lawyer, Nakamura Haruki (Nagayama Kento), struggle to find out whether the accused, Hijii Motoko a.k.a. Osawa Maria is really a sinner or a saint. Is this woman a gold digger? Or is she a victim of circumstances and an unfortunate object of affection of rich and possessive men?  Moreso, is she a cold-hearted murderer with the face of an angel?

The scenario presented is rife with controversy and personal dilemma given that the woman on trial is shown to be Haruki's former tutor and one-time lover who suddenly disappeared from his life. He would still dream of her and often wonder if she meant it when she said that she loved him years ago when he was a teenager. Now that he's tasked to defend her before a court of law, he's faced with the temptation of rekindling an old romance despite already having a fiancée (Renbutso Misako) and risking his professional integrity should it come to light that he knew her intimately. 

Seijo suffers from an asymmetry in purpose and fractured storytelling, leading the viewer to eventually question if it's in fact a love story, a legal drama or simply a pity party of a character study. It provides two different narratives and therefore shifts voices midway. The first thread concerns itself with one man's recollection of his first love and the circumstances that would bring about an awkward reunion years later. The second plays out as a woman's confession---an account of misdeeds and an ardent but foolish declaration to live out a seemingly impossible dream.

The issues that propel the series forward entail viewers to wait for characters to make a decision even though events as depicted suggest a more dramatic or scandalous form of reckoning. The first two episodes do manage to stir up some intrigue, evoking the memory of a bittersweet love affair and the crushing reality that all of it may just be a deception. It has a fair amount of emotionally-charged scenes that are beautifully rendered but a bit too commonplace and predictable to be actually memorable. Its temperate approach, though successful in handling its more cliché elements, serve only to confirm that there is nothing truly radical or surprising about the series as a whole.

Indeed, the more interesting bits of the series involve the defense panel's line of strategy. The only downside to it is that witnesses are discredited rather too swiftly given that the case is built entirely on circumstantial evidence and any uncertainty regarding Motoko's culpability is dampened by an inkling that she will eventually be unmasked as a cold, calculating opportunist. So while it is but natural for the show to play on the idea of giving the touted villain an acceptable back story, the writing is simply unable to wipe out any lingering suspicion to maximize the impact of this revelation.

Furthermore, Seijo takes it sweet time to confirm things that have been alluded to earlier in the show. Despite having only seven episodes, a lot of things are left unresolved till the last minute, to the extent that long anticipated confrontations between characters end up being unnaturally lukewarm and abrupt.

With the exception of the surviving lover (Otani Ryosuke) and his inconsolable wife (Nakada Yoshiko), all the characters are quite subdued in reacting to stimuli. For instance, Haruki is, for the most part, shown to be on the verge of succumbing to Motoko's advances but is held back rather unconvincingly by his principles and his loyalty to an uncomplicated woman with a sunny disposition. He doesn't make a decision until the penultimate episode, and when he does, he does it without hesitation or regret, thus making light of the central dilemma presented in the previous episodes. The same can be said of the motivation and the vindictive act of the spiteful brother (Aoyagi Sho) and the fiancée's harried yet momentary reaction upon learning how Haruki's heart wavered.

Key scenes in the story as well as the performances of the actors would always suggest a looming threat to the protagonist's character or reputation but it never truly delivered. It's like being given a storm signal warning ahead of time and finding out later that it was an inaccurate forecast. The cast is serviceable, in fact, Hirosue Ryoko hasn't done anything quite this interesting in a while--- but the series, while initially engaging, somehow sidestepped into telling a more conventional tale. At the end of it all, no matter how many potential conflict is thrown in, there's somehow an assurance that all the characters in it will get what they deserve, and with that, one can take comfort.  
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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Satsujin Hensachi 70

An act of desperation forces a young man to relive his childhood insecurities and cope with societal pressure in a manner that pushes him to his breaking point---which, coincidentally, is a point of no return. Satsujin Hensachi 70 plays out as a cautionary tale and an admonition of one nation's fixation in equating or measuring a person's worth according to his social standing and/or education.

In concept, it's a clear indictment of the perceived necessity indoctrinated on the youth to get into certain institutions of higher learning and the corresponding prestige attached by Japanese society to it. The featured presentation even goes on to argue that while the current system in place is facially built on meritocracy, the same has a tendency to substantially increase inequality by limiting opportunities and further marginalizing those who from the onset are already in a disadvantaged position in society.

This message is delivered making use of an extreme case, providing some suspense and psychological drama similar to the style of movies like Fight Club and Black Swan with a mentally fragile character at its center.

Satsujin Hensachi 70 is the story Miyahara Keisuke (Miura Haruma), a university hopeful who has been trying for the last two years to gain admission to Tokyo University. He's about to take the entrance examination for the third and last time, knowing that he could no longer impose upon his father (Takahashi Katsumi) to financially support him for another year of intensive preparation. Furthermore, he doesn't want to disappoint his girlfriend (Takimoto Miori) who's been nothing but patient with him, despite his indefinite status as a NEET and coming from a poor, broken family. So the pressure is on for him to succeed.

Unfortunately for Keisuke, he oversleeps on the day of the exam and even though he makes haste, he knows that there is no way that he would make it on time. In a desperate effort to salvage his final shot at getting into the said university, he sends a bomb threat via email to delay the administration of the exam.

His plan works and he is able to not only sit through the exam but also pass it. Keisuke's overcome with joy, at least until he is approached by fellow examinee, Tanaka Hiroshi (Shirota Yu) who's figured out what he did and is now demanding hush money.

Driven by anxiety, Keisuke turns over all his savings to Hiroshi, and soon finds himself peddling dubious merchandise in an underground rave club just to come up with the extortion money. Cornered and unable to grant the increasing demands of Hiroshi, Keisuke decides to confront him with the aid of a woman (Kuriyama Chiaki) that he met at the club.

The initial buzz (not to mention the poster) on Satsujin Hensachi 70 provides some misdirection on what it is really about. Its first section is put together like an ordinary thriller, with Keisuke being incessantly stalked and taunted by a bitter and sadistic, Hiroshi. It's a device that is however invalidated by the show's title sequence which quickly alerts viewers of Keisuke's growing mental instability. 

The special in itself is watchable, with middling performances from Miura Haruma and Shirota Yu but there's a noticeable lack of subtlety required to shock and bamboozle audiences into believing its surprise twist. The depiction of conflict is a recurring theme not only between Keisuke and Hiroshi but also between the have and have-nots in society. It tries to replicate that sense of creeping paranoia that often drives cult movies of the same genre and in part manages to achieve it by utilizing visual cues. 

Some scenes are set up like eerie, psychedelic visions, augmenting the emotional turmoil and abject helplessness of the main character. What it lacks however is that sinister element to complement the overall mystery that's built around Keisuke's personal and internal struggle. From a technical aspect, there appears to be a concerted effort to make it look edgy and well-thought out. A rather telling shot that's consistently utilized is an image of Keisuke crossing a bridge that's literally taken sideways to show that his world has tipped over. Those who pay attention will realize that this is just one of many creative shots incorporated to clue people in on what's going on. As the color blue makes a prominent appearance and recurring motifs are effectively strewn all over the show, there should be no doubt in the mind of the viewer that no matter what direction Keisuke takes---he's crossed a bridge and is headed on a downward spiral. 
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