Sunday, April 26, 2015

Orient Kyuuko Satsujin Jiken (2015)

Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express, gets its first Japanese adaptation even though certain details are ill-fittingly transposed and dramatic tone is chucked out the window. The special works best closely following the lead of its 1974 cinematic version but the extended back story, which spans an extra two and a half hours of screentime, is arguably superfluous and does nothing to correct the unintentional injection of humor to an otherwise dark and grisly scenario. Fans of the mystery novel might rejoice at this latest incarnation but the innate weakness of the original story remains intact, along with the show's flippant treatment of its resolution. It's certainly an unusual pick for a two-part television special but its star-studded cast is certain to attract interest, given that the project marks Fuji TV's 55th year of broadcast television.  

In this version, legendary protagonist Hercule Poirot is reimagined as Suguro Takeru (Nomura Mansai)--- a tall, lean and fussy private detective, sporting an upward-turning moustache, eager to get back to Tokyo from Shimonoseki Station after assisting local authorities. Through the help of ministry official, Baku (Takahashi Katsumi), he is able to secure a sleeping berth on a luxury line initially thought to be fully-booked. The famous detective's passage aboard the first class carriage is not without incident, as his sleep is interrupted because of the constant movement of people in the carriage. 

The next day, businessman Todo Osamu (Sato Koichi) is found dead, murdered in an adjacent compartment. Along with Baku and a surgeon (Sasano Takashi) who's willing to lend his medical expertise, Suguro sets out to find the perpetrator whom he believes is still on board the train. He begins his investigation by interrogating all 13 passengers who occupy different stations in life, seemingly unrelated to each other. By piecing together clues found inside the victim's compartment and assessing the demeanor of each suspect, the great detective is able to relate the present case to a tragic incident concerning a prominent family, which in turn leads him to uncover a conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree. 

The story is constructed in such a way as to showcase Suguro's powers of observation even though the same suffers from an inherent weakness in the text by reason of the number of coincidences drawn and the far-fetched leaps in deductive reasoning. Thematically, it serves to demonstrate how individuals can be considered equally guilty of committing a heinous act to dispense their own brand of justice. There's an underlying debate in it---a moral question of whether there are indeed instances when it is acceptable to take the law into one's hands and render judgment against one who has escaped prosecution. 

The special goes through the motions of establishing the narrative of telling a tragic tale, condoning a form of summary execution but it lacks the weight accorded to the ethical dilemma of the scenario presented such as can be seen from the 2010 version starring David Suchet.  The adaptation fumbles by failing to explore the moral scruples that accompany the decision of killing a man in cold blood. Very little is said about the rule of law, divine punishment and perdition, making the revelation of the actual killing such a gruesome sight. It unintentionally makes light of the situation by imbuing characters with a nervous energy, reiterating resolve with gruff indignation, sometimes odiously treating the whole murder scheme like a game or enterprise. 

Writer Mitani Koki tries to remedy the dispassionate and limited portrayal of such a diverse group of characters by allotting the second half of this 2-part special as a means to tell the story from the perspective of the perpetrators. An extended back story is provided perhaps to justify the use and lengthen the exposure of its impressive cast but there's very little value-added to the show's 5-hour long runtime.

For those not in the know, Murder on the Orient Express is a grim and inopportune tale of revenge, originally set overseas, in Eastern Europe. Transplanting this famous mystery to Japanese soil robbed it of the exotic locale and the cultural/ethnic diversity that would have placed religious and socio-political beliefs as compelling factors that contribute to the outcome of the story. Meanwhile, viewer empathy for the array of characters is restricted given the large cast and the cluster of story lines in need of dispatch. Nomura Mansai's performance borders on parody while of the lot, veteran actresses Kusabue Mitsuko and Fuji Sumiko inevitably steal the show as the rest of its stars fade into the background. 


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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Second Love (2015)

With nothing else but the relationship of its characters to focus on, Second Love is a throwback to what appears to be a dying genre---the renzoku renai of old. Bucking the trend of breezy, quirky romances and sensational melodramas, the series features two people, brought together by a strong physical attraction, struggling to find common ground to keep an extemporaneous relationship going. But perhaps more important than finding love, it's also about letting go of old dreams and finding the courage to pursue new ones. Hence, more than a nod to its stars' previous works, the title is really more about starting over and following a new path in life.

The show takes a stab at kitchen sink realism by presenting ordinary (but extremely good looking) people stuck in a rut; and said "ordinary" people hooking up. There appears to be a conscious effort to ground the characters by placing them in humble and oppressive environments from the stevedoring dock where the lead does part time work, the hostile school laboratory where his counterpart teaches, down to his dingy apartment where the two fortify their union, bathed by the light of a faulty heater. Such attempts at realism and serious art, however, is dampened by abbreviated character development, not to mention the innate glitz and affectations of its lead actors. Clocking in at seven episodes, the tail end feels a bit rushed, with very little dialogue to communicate the conflict between the characters, but overall, the series seems to have benefited from cutting a lot of corners.

Out of work dancer, Taira Kei (Kamenashi Kazuya) spends his time doing manual labor and is about to give up hope landing his next big break when he catches sight of high school teacher, Nishihara Yui (Fukada Kyoko) against the backdrop of the setting sun. Smitten, he doggedly wooes Yui, whom he considers his savior and his muse. He bares his soul to the older woman and asks her if they could start seeing each other. Moved by Kei's sincerity and equally dissatisfied with the life she's leading, Yui accepts his feelings and decides to spend the night with him.   

They decide to move in together just as quickly as they jumped into bed the night they met. In each other's arms, they find solace, but their relationship is soon put to the test when both professional and personal concerns need to be addressed. Kei gets an unexpected job offer and has to decide whether to take his friend's (Hayami Akari) advice to give up his goal to dance for a foreign company in order to be more financially secure. Meanwhile, Yui has to handle leaving behind an emotionally dependent mother (Asou Yumi) and thwart unwanted attention from a former lover, who happens to be a co-worker (Namase Katsuhisa).  

Second Love doesn't beat around the bush and presents its story in a forthright manner. Two people meet, fall in love and surmount both internal and external issues in order to find their way to each other. It's a generic love story which is in part romanticized because of the instant physical and emotional connection shared by the main characters but it's not a full-on fairytale either. The relationship for instance is anything but chaste; their past, checkered by failure and rejection. The series sets up customary story elements but cleverly side steps a number of dramatic clichés which is a pleasant surprise. 

Writer Ohishi Shizuka generally does a good job in conveying the thoughts of flawed, insecure characters, using voice overs as a means to indicate resolve, acceptance and surrender. In the case of Second Love, it's all about identifying one's limitations and learning to begin again. The injection of realistic components make up for the sheer pageantry of the show's contemporary dance segments, even if it seems to bend over backwards to give its lead actor every chance to perform. Kei and Yui may possess extraordinary skill or potential but at least they're portrayed as ordinary people behaving within the realm of reason. Even the secondary characters and their respective reactions are quite believable. As such, there are no drawn out dramatic scenes, no obsessed parents, scorned ex-lovers or villains in need of psychiatric help---which is pretty rare for a show in this genre. The ending is a bit of a cop out and some love scenes could have been edited out, but the given number of episodes feels just right for this story format.  


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Monday, April 20, 2015

Blog Update : Take Five

Oh my, how time flies. It seems like it was only yesterday that I decided to start a blog on a whim. If this blog were a child, it'd be running around in preschool by now.... But then again, it would also be severely neglected considering how bad I am at updating this thing. Bad analogy, eh?

What I'm getting at is that it's been five years since this sorry blog made its debut on the internet. Five years! Can you believe it? And I can't still get a handle on how to keep this thing going. With work and graduate school taking up most of my time, I haven't been able to write as often as I would want to. Nevertheless, I wish to thank those who drop by once in a while to check new posts and all those who stumble upon such random posts even during my long hiatus.

Rundown-zoo was set up as a predominantly jdrama review site, so regardless of its number of readers or followers, it will remain as such, hopefully for years to come. I'll try to incorporate both new and old dramas, including a couple of specials this year; schedule permitting. As such, readers and guests should be guided accordingly:

1. Reviews are written only after watching a series in full.

2. Effort is placed to make each review spoiler-free with fanboy/girl raving kept at a minimum,

3. This year's posts will carry some conceit with the incorporation of a 5-star rating system.

4. The rating accorded is highly subjective and serves no other purpose than to reflect my personal preference.

5. Some posts will be antedated because the screencaps were prepared ahead of the actual review.

Thanks again and happy viewing. ;)

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Time Spiral (2014)

The idea of being able to move along different points in time, of having the ability to change untoward events and prevent the loss of a loved-one are just some of the possibilities associated with the concept of time travel. Time Spiral  builds on the same premise that maybe the past is not etched in stone and conceives of a situation where one man tries to alter events yet finds himself unable to change the fate of another person. The series actually possesses an interesting treatise on destiny and free will subsumed by its portend mystery and drama. The problem, however, is that it reaches this conclusion in a rather oblique way. Of course, it doesn't help that the whole cast appear to be totally in the dark about where the story is headed---which accounts for extremely odd and mismatched acting choices.

The genre in itself requires a measure of good will and suspension of disbelief, and more often than not, in the absence of logic or clarity, its saving grace lies in the story's ability to capture the imagination and/or evoke an emotional response. Time Spiral  fails on both counts. Based on a web novel by Mizumori Eren, the cause for this drama's disorganized state is due either to a weak source material or a weak adaptation of the said material. Sluggish and mostly confusing, it can be described as a sci-fi fantasy series with a dollop of romance, even though the latter may not instantly be apparent or even convincing in the long run.

The series utilizes two narrative threads to track the movement of its two main characters, highlighting their various encounters with each other. It shuttles back and forth from 1999 to the present (2014), to the year 2020.

Aizawa Natsuki (Kuroki Meisa) is a graduate student in physics who tends to have debilitating anxiety attacks as a result of a childhood trauma. By her side is Yuki Kentaro (Hiraoko Yuta), a childhood friend who always comes to her aid and is highly protective of her. Ready to take care of Natsuki for the rest of his life, Kentaro decides to propose marriage to her but the same is foiled by an enigmatic stranger (Gackt), who aggressively pursues and lays claim to the former. The said stranger is revealed early on as a time traveler. He is shown to have the capability to weave his way through time, going back and forth into the past and the future, trying to retrace his steps. His purpose is shrouded in mystery but he appears to be continuously working on changing the past, expecting a different outcome for the future. Unfortunately, all his meddling has brought about is a chain of consequences---none of which has led him closer to achieving his desired objective. This time around, he's fairly convinced that the answer lies with Aizawa Natsuki. 

Who is he? How is he connected to Natsuki? What are his intentions and how does she figure into his plans? More importantly, how does he travel through time? As a viewer, one can't help but come up with a barrage of questions at the onset of the series. The show just takes too many things for granted without even attempting to provide an explanation, plausible or otherwise. What's equally unsettling is that it doesn't subscribe to a particular canon nor attempt to supply a set of rules even though it touches on topics such as special relativity, the twin paradox and the non-linear theory of time.

The central premise of accidentally creating a snag in the timeline shows a hint of brilliance but the process or logic which leads the characters to this conclusion is clearly absent in its eight-episode run. Furthermore, the impetus for all these attempts to introduce changes to the timeline is so weakly portrayed that viewers will not be wholly inclined to root for it. On the upside, Time Spiral has two interesting scenarios to offer as a consequence of the main character's intervention. The kidnapping incident and the rigged clinical testing of a trial drug offer sufficient points of interest in contrast to the overarching love conundrum that is the show's primary focus. It could have certainly done away with Gackt's theatrical leering and his vain display of ear piercings, both of which---provide no further insight into how a professor of architecture devised a formula to travel through time.

From the phoned in performances of Kuroki Meisa and Hiraoko Yuta to Gackt's creepy attempts at seduction, the series never manages to hurdle its preposterous assertions long enough to appeal to the human emotion. There are better time travel dramas out there.  


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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ando Lloyd

Kimura Takuya plays the dual role of genius scientist and futuristic android doppelganger in a CGI-laden science fiction series called, Ando Lloyd. Set in what appears to be an alternate version of present day Tokyo, the series takes on a clean, modern visual style which makes it feel different yet oddly familiar. With elements culled from a medley of works about sentient beings and technological determinism, it's a show that takes great pains to capture every bang and crunch of metal with aplomb while being totally oblivious to the importance of a coherent storyline.

Viewers get thrown into the thick of the action, making the series a high octane robot sentinel/assassin-battle extravaganza full of snazzy special effects, slow motion fight sequences and decorative fillers. It's the prime time equivalent of a tokusatsu with a bigger budget and pool of stars. But unlike its meager counterpart, the harried presentation of a back story and the aseptic relationship between its characters, rob Ando Lloyd of its tell-tale, mechanized heart. Things progress at such a rapid rate in the show without much rhyme or reason that viewers might even be justified in requesting permission for  its atomic disposal.


Still here?

As the story goes, Matsushima Reiji (Kimura Takuya) is a genius physicist who has made a breakthrough in his research on time and wormholes. He's come up with a theory that has given him access to the future, specifically, information on the place and time that certain people meet their deaths, including his own. Unable to alter the sequence of events, Reiji dies vowing to protect his fiancée, Ando Asahi (Shibasaki Kou), from the same group of assassins who got him. In his stead, an android dead ringer rises from the year 2113. Its mission is to keep Ando Asahi out of harm's way, under instructions that keeping her alive would significantly impact the future.  

Along with a cheeky repair unit called Suppli (Honda Tsubasa), the said android performs its task with unmatched certainty. Things, however, get complicated once its presence is discovered,  forcing it to assume the role of Reiji in front of a terrified younger sister (Oshima Yuko) and an inquisitive detective (Endo Kinichi). This proves especially problematic since it doesn't have any regard for the life of other humans, much less their feelings. 

The threats to Asahi's life keep on coming, while elsewhere, an unknown foe dispatches another android with higher technical specifications to watch and wait for an opportunity to eliminate Reiji's proxy. 

It sounds amazingly simple and forthright but the presentation of this story about how an android becomes the embodiment of love's transcendental nature is anything but. Ando Lloyd is such an ambitious series that it tries to pack in an unbelievable amount of detail and embellishments to a universe or mythology that is underdeveloped. A lot of the special effects utilized is indeed impressive for a television production but they're no more than accommodations---integrated to showcase the jdrama's coolness factor even at the expense of numerous continuity errors.

In this makeshift world, androids can wreak havoc and destruction without the notice of the general public, they can bend and break one moment, then inexplicably bleed the next. Equally puzzling is that human consciousness can be stored in a microchip even a hundred years after their physical death; much more, androids get decimated and miraculously resurrected without a backup system using a 3D-printer situated inside Reiji's desk drawer and a temporary OS upgrade can be triggered using an intra-cardiac injection, when in theory androids don't even have a cardiovascular system to speak of.  

The series looks and feels like it's written on the fly, operating under tractable rules, causing the viewer to raise questions, of which there are no satisfactory answers. The explanation provided to the compound question of why Asahi is so important to the future of mankind, as well as the why and how an android was utilized to protect her, comes off as hackneyed, sentimental blubber. In addition thereto, the love story in it doesn't really take root given Reiji's sudden departure. It takes five episodes before supporting characters are given something to do and another five episodes to sort out the main villain's agenda. And while it might be fun to see Kimura Takuya prop up and fall down like a broken toy without blinking, the whole cast is somewhat wasted in this because the whole project--- despite its gloss and energy---doesn't really make a lot of sense.


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Thursday, January 15, 2015


Hirugao provides a beguiling yet woefully trite profile of a Japanese housewife's life of quiet desperation, having for its subject matter the alleged popularity and propensity of domesticated women to engage in mid-afternoon trysts. Opening with a strong emotional hook, it effectively garners sympathy for its main character, playing out like an anatomy of an extra-marital affair. Be forewarned however, that the the story in itself is nothing special for stories about adulterous women tend to follow the same course and reach the same outcome. The series delves into scenarios so familiar that it's almost on par with scandalous blather found in gossip rags or spread through the neighborhood grapevine. 

In terms of dramatic style and tone, it's quite similar to Cheap Love and Majo no Jouken which convey a certain restlessness in its characters who are far from content with their personal lives despite the artifice of leading a perfect life in suburbia. At its best, Hirugao draws attention to a double standard created as a result of a well-entrenched code of conduct that values duplicity and its corresponding effect on the family as the basic unity of society. This social commentary is eclipsed only by an overarching love story, so immediate and spurned by passion though admittedly short-lived. And while all this may seem initially intriguing, the series falters midway and falls prey to its own devices, resorting to tired melodrama. 

Hirugao brings together two married women, from vastly different backgrounds, and sees them through their respective love affairs. Sasamoto Sawa (Ueto Aya) is a plain housewife who's been married for five years. She works part-time at the local supermarket and waits on her husband (Suzuki Kosuke) hand and foot, even though she's often ignored and left cold in the marital bed, on top of being pestered by her mother-in-law to produce grandchildren. Sawa gets entangled with Takigawa Rikako (Kichise Michiko), housewife to a rich publisher, when the latter is caught in the company of her lover during a parking lot incident.

To avert any suspicion, Rikako wrangles Sawa into keeping up the pretense of being fast friends, coercing the younger woman to act as her cover. In doing so, Sawa learns more about Rikako's afternoon exploits and is likewise encouraged to pursue a relationship with a mild-mannered high school teacher (Saito Takumi) that she's taken a liking to. Meanwhile Rikako sets her eyes on a new target---a struggling artist (Kitamura Kazuki) who appears to be intent on rebuffing her advances.

What starts off as a game turns into something more serious as both women unwittingly find love outside of their marriage. There is nary a carefree moment, with Sawa and Rikako often scrambling to cover their tracks. It doesn't take long for them to realize that every stolen encounter with their paramour comes at a cost and the world is about to punish them for coveting that which belongs to another...

Capturing a rather hefty set of reasons as to why married women and/or men are driven to infidelity, Hirugao provides an almost alluring yet bittersweet take on women who dare to don the scarlet letter as a sign of protest. Writer Inoue Yumiko adapts a simple story, showcasing complex personal and gender-based issues, taking into account the cultural peculiarities of Japanese society. The overall result is that the series in itself takes on a divided stance despite being way more interesting when guided by its subversive rationality. At one moment it seems to advocate woman empowerment by referring to such extra-marital affairs as a form of equitable cheating, but for the rest of its run, it's all about the oppressive nature of staying in a loveless marriage. Despite all the talk about random hook-ups, truth and audacity, the show really is just another take on forbidden love.

Sawa's conversion from unwilling accomplice to unapologetic adulteress is a sight to behold. The first few episodes document her loneliness, hesitation and guilt beautifully, providing a romantic overture to the love affair. The temptation and seduction of engaging in the affair prove more potent than the actual transgression, as can be seen from Sawa's rejection and Rikako's stripped down and vulnerable plea in the rain.

Both women display an underlying resolve to seek happiness but they're never rewarded for wanting or dreaming of more, instead, they're condemned for their selfish behavior. Emancipated from her husband, Rikako falls into the same dilemma of being objectified to the detriment of her children, while Sawa irrationally runs away and awaits divine punishment. Ueto Aya tackles the role of Sawa with a maturity never displayed before, even if she doesn't exactly fit the bill of a dowdy bride. Meanwhile, Kichise Michiko and Kitamura Kazuki play up the sex and drama (at times to an unrealistic extent) against a cast that provide credible support to an overworked storyline.

For a series that begins and ends with a raging fire, Hirugao lets all sentiment and equity go up in smoke. It starts to drag as the two women make poor choices and act out like lovestruck teenagers at a time when they're called to address the situation like adults. Gone are the naughty innuendos that represent the repressed housewife and the rebellious streak that proudly enunciated the familial benefits of having casual relations with strangers. What prevails in the end is a certain feeling of helplessness that goes against the insurgent musings and actions of the show's women.


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