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. 
Read More

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Kaseifu wa Mita!

A tale of  festering greed and deceit in a renowned family, Kaseifu wa Mita! is a dramedy that is told through the eyes of a housemaid whose services are engaged by the underdog of a household that's in the midst of a power struggle. As a one shot special, it operates on the conceit of having the story rest on not just one but two premises, both of which are, unfortunately, not strong enough to warrant the suspension of disbelief. In fact, one can even go as far as to say that the end product is downright ludicrous.

Sawagura Nobuko (Yonekura Ryoko) is a beautiful and statuesque woman who prefers to disguise herself as an awkward, shabby creature when performing her job as a housekeeper. Clad in black and hiding behind large-rimmed glasses, she catches the eye of Nakamura Akemi (Kitano Kii)---the professed illegitimate daughter of patriarch, Uehara Hidemitsu (Shito Ito), who's about to lose her standing in the Uehara Family after her paternity and status as an heir is challenged by her so-called brothers.

Nobuko enters the Uehara household after being offered an exorbitant amount of money and becomes witness to Akemi's quick wit and use of feminine wiles to secure her place as the reigning queen of the family. And though Nobuko frowns upon Akemi's choice of tactics, she can't help but play the part of confidante and ally to this desperate and shunned child.

Despite attempts at gravity, Kaseifu wa Mita! is a highly predictable drama that is tonally defective, as if it never really made up its mind on whether it's a comedy or a tragedy. It awkwardly shifts from one mood to another in the same way that Nobuko transforms herself from a condescending goddess to servile housekeeper. There's a lot of physical comedy in it that serves no actual purpose, neither does it derive any laughter. The characters are prone to sudden outbursts and all the scurrying about gets old quite fast after the first half hour. It can't even be classified as a parody since it's too serious about upholding dignity and justice as virtues, nor can it be considered an allegory since the characterization of the Uehara household is too cartoonish to demand further reflection.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle to the enjoyment of this special is that it requires a wide latitude for artifice. For example, viewers are asked to believe that to be born beautiful can be a tragic curse, such that a woman so blessed with good looks would go through great lengths just to hide herself on the supposition that her appearance has brought her nothing but trouble. This irrational contempt that the main character has for her natural beauty is utilized not only as a comedic device but as a major plot point which would allow her to become an unwitting participant in a scheme that would decide the standing of members in the said family. Much like Kaseifu no Mita, it posits an extreme explanation for why its main character behaves a certain way, the only difference is that this special does not have the same consistency as the former, having Nobuko change both her looks and demeanor at her own convenience.  

Second, and the cardinal of the two premises offered, is the suggestion that housemaids are duty bound to keep in confidence everything that they see and hear in the exercise of their occupation. This is invoked as a matter of principle; a given, that is forced upon its viewers as a source of conflict. The apparent dilemma created by this tacit agreement between master and servant, however, is later shown to be inconsequential as it is negated and dispatched with ease by the show's resolution.

To make matters worse, none of the characters are likable. Akemi is both victim and perpetrator, while the head of the family is a sleazy old fart who does not pay his taxes. The members of the household are money grubbing sycophants and the law enforcement officers are bungling idiots. Even Nobuko is a hard pill to swallow---she's prone to pontificate about how superficial and materialistic people can be while she herself is leading a life of duplicity. In the end, all the talk about beauty being skin deep and the confidential nature of housekeeping is nothing but a useless pretense to get Yonekura Ryoko to look dowdy, perhaps in a futile attempt  to demonstrate her range (or lack thereof) in acting. 
Read More

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kamisama no Beret

Networks, in general, have been known to produce television specials to commemorate a historical event or an illustrious figure, at times, even an iconic artist and his work. In celebration of 40 years since the manga Black Jack hit the stands, Kamisama no Beret shines the spotlight on its creator, Tezuka Osamu and the circumstances that led to his comeback in the 1970s.

Tracing the inception of this popular manga would have obviously been the more interesting feature, but the special itself seems to be more than satisfied with merely extolling the virtue of hard work. It disputes the commonly accepted notion of the said artist's God-given genius and instead offers a portrait of a man who perseveres amidst times of failure.

Set in a period when emerging young comic artists exhibit their own style and readers are on the hunt for something new and interesting, Black Jack is acknowledged as a product of Tezuka's tenacity and one chief editor's unwavering confidence in the former's ability to craft a story.

Designed for the appreciation of kids and young adults, Kamisama no Beret is an inspirational but fantastical account of Tezuka's inquisitive nature and relentless energy. Detractors can argue the same to be a sanitized depiction of a revered personality's troublesome work ethic and questionable management skills, but his talent, his quirks, and whatever shortcomings as depicted comprise two sides of the same coin. Those who want more insight on the man and his work habits are better off watching the 1985 NHK Tokushu Tezuka Osamu: Sosaku no Himitsu documentary, but as a primer, the special does well in keeping things light and palatable.

Using unexplained time travel as a narrative device (just like in Superbook), the special is told through the point of view of new hiree, Odamachi Sakura (Oshima Yuko) of Akita Publishing, who is transported back to 1973. 
A crucial time for Tezuka (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi), the renowned mangaka hasn't had a hit in years and is saddled by debt with a company that's on the verge of bankruptcy. Through the help of Chief Editor Kabemura Taizo (Sato Koichi) of Weekly Shōnen Champion, he is given a break and commissioned to create an original 4-volume manga.

From hereon, Tezuka is shown to diligently work on conceptualizing Black Jack on his own. He gathers materials for his background research and spends hours contemplating on how to make his stories interesting and current. Despite having a team of artists working for him, his most productive hours appear to be spent working alone. And it's in his private workroom that the so-called magic happens, where he relentlessly and personally drafts each installment of his manga to his satisfaction.

Ever conscious of feedback, he strives to keep his work fresh; not thinking twice about delaying the submission of his work should he find it unfit for publication to the utter consternation of his colleagues and editors. He is said to be famous for missing deadlines and is often criticized for accepting more work than he is capable to deliver at any given time, but all misgivings about frazzled editors and over fatigued subordinates are brushed aside, seemingly justified by the magnitude of his body of work.

As an editorial assistant, Odamachi bears witness to the amount of time and work that goes into putting out a volume of manga. She is also made to realize---by having observed Tezuka's indefatigable spirit---the virtue of dedicating one's self to one's work. The primary tenet of this special argues in favor of "talent" and "perfection" acquired through persistent practice and revision as opposed to it being an inborn trait.  It's just a shame that for a special that recounts how a famous manga is made, Kamisama no Beret  provides absolutely nothing about the thought process and inspiration behind the composition of Black Jack as a character and a serial.

With thick black frames and the signature beret (not to mention a lumpy pillow for a belly), Kusanagi Tsuyoshi is able to replicate the familiar and amiable aura of Tezuka to moderate effect. Together with Tanaka Kei, Okada Yoshinori, Kohinata Fumiyo and Asari Yosuke, all playing bit parts but with equal reverence, this is one drama special that curiously pays tribute to a man who's been dubbed as "the god of manga" by making him appear ordinary when clearly, he's anything but. 
Read More

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Nana to Kaoru

In stark contrast to the flock of pure love manga series that have been recently made into film, the live-action adaptation of Ryuta Amazume's Nana to Kaoru comes off as a black sheep, having at its core an innocent young love that's expressed in an untraditional manner. With an oiroke manga as its source material, this movie is simultaneously childish and funny, but also wistful and erotic. Those with a prudish disposition are advised to stay away, given that the subject matter of the movie involves two teenagers' accidental and awkward immersion into bondage and sadomasochism. Its premise may be weird and reprehensible but in the end, it does manage to do more by offering some insight into this alternative lifestyle than say, far-fetched, gratuitous bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey.

While scandalous in some respects for tackling behavior that is taboo, the film in itself is somewhat ero-lite. It's not as radical or provocative as Moonlight Whispers because despite the deviant display of fanservice, it often pulls back and settles into a teen romance. Yes, it has the ability to shock but it never goes into extremes, which is why it's in an unusual position to repulse viewers and at the same time touch their hearts. 

Would I recommend it? It really is a tough call to make for there are elements in it that work well and still elements that could have been done better. To appreciate it, one must keep an open mind and, since Nana to Kaoru firmly belongs in B-movie territory, a high tolerance for instances of poor acting. Be that as it may, it's certainly a leg up from manga-based adaptations of the same genre like Sundome.

*      *     *

Childhood friends and next door neighbors, Sugimura Kaoru (Tochihara Rakuto) and Chigusa Nana (Nagase Maho) have slowly drifted apart through the years on account of seemingly different pursuits and interests. He's a slacker who has an S&M fetish, acquiring the nickname "Creepymura" for hanging out with horny boys in his section who oggle at girls and collect porn. She, on the other hand, is a natural beauty according to the movie anyway and  a model student who excels at pretty much everything she sets her mind to.

Kaoru knows that Nana is out of his league and has resigned himself to admire her from afar. His status as a pariah in high school prevents him from getting close to her, that is, until one fateful night, when he finds an embarrassed and insecure Nana on his doorstep in need of his help. He soon discovers Nana wearing the leather one-piece bondage outfit that his mother confiscated and is surprised to  see how it elicited such a visceral reaction from her. He's equally pleased to find out how receptive she is to his attempts to subjugate her and is beside himself with joy when he's solicited by Nana to help her out with her "breathers".

Armed only with the teachings of his beloved S&M guru Sarashina, Kaoru sets out to fulfill Nana's wish by preparing for and assisting her with her breathers. Together, they embark on this journey in secret, ushered by the satisfaction that they derive from being with each other and the thrill of being discovered doing something so... uhm, unconventional. 

The beauty of this Shimizu Atsushi adaptation is that it doesn't stray from its source material. The film endeavors to be sexy and erotic but is devoid of any nudity or sexual intercourse. It pays sufficient attention to Nana and Kaoru's relationship by following the progression of their S&M play, but more importantly, it underscores the level of trust, devotion and love involved in it. Aside from the apparent thrill and the perceived perversity of engaging in such activities, the screenplay doesn't fail to take into consideration the emotional connection that allows for this kind of intimacy. This much can be seen by how much Kaoru is shown to genuinely care for Nana and her well-being. Conversely, the same can be seen in Nana's willingness to submit to Kaoru even when she's shown to be naturally steadfast and domineering.

What sets Nana to Kaoru apart is its ability to balance its more risqué content with tender, heartfelt moments, this notwithstanding the fact that certain scenes as depicted have the inherent tendency to turn odious without proper direction. Viewers can witness the beginnings of first love, as often seen in countless movies, the only difference is that their red string of fate manifests itself through a leash and a collar. The smattering of comical sequences also tend to lighten the tone, they serve to emphasize the relative inexperience of its characters, though it would probably have worked better if they weren't made to vocalize their inner thoughts and emotions in the same batty air as manga and anime characters do.

Of the two actors, Tochihara Rakuto has the more worrisome task of transforming into a lecherous teen when playing the dominant role to turning into a lovestruck young man, plagued by self-doubt. He often goes over the top when Kaoru is at the height of their breathers but does a good job at conveying the softer side of the character. With Nagase Maho, it's more of a struggle. There's a duality to the role of Nana which is quite difficult to capture and more often than not, she ends up portraying her as a cute, whiny teen who tends to lick her lips at the thought of being called a bad girl. To be fair, the two of them do manage to create one or  two memorable scenes, which is more than a film of this kind can hope for. 
Read More