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

Read More

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.  
Read More

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, 
Read More

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.  
Read More