Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tsuki ni Inoru Pierrot (2013)

Kitagawa Eriko may have once  been hailed by TIME magazine as Japan's soap opera queen but her recent serials have not been well-received by a plugged-in generation inept at making meaningful connections. Lately, she seems to have gained better favor in crafting sentimental one-shot specials where her signature style provides enough emotional impact without falling into grating melodrama. Tsuki ni Inoru Pierrot is a good example of how her penchant to write unwieldy encounters between flawed, relatable characters is much suited to a short television format. Her brand of kismet gets more mileage this way.

In this special, the sale of a children's book entitled Tsuki ni Inoru Pierrot in an online auction provides the opportunity to bring two strangers together. Middle-aged receptionist, Tamai Shizuru (Tokiwa Takako), has surrendered herself to living a monotonous life, sharing a roof with her grandmother and mother. She's lonely and worn out, unable to imagine a life beyond their provincial town. But when a handwritten recipe is discovered wedged between the pages of the book she recently purchased, she decides to reach out to its previous owner, Tobuse Wataru (Tanihara Shosuke), supposing the same to be a keepsake. This thoughtful gesture sparks a personal correspondence between the two and they soon find themselves conversing about everything and anything under the sun. Shizuru is, of course, thrilled at the prospect of having someone to share her life with but she's uncertain of his feelings and equally unsure if the connection they have is real or just a passing fancy. 

Short, sweet, and brimming with hope, this drama special tugs at the heartstrings in the same manner as April Story highlighted the beginning of a new love. Kitagawa Eriko, however, provides a crucial difference in that while the latter featured a fresh-faced girl ready to explore the world, Tsuki ni Inoru Pierrot  has, for a protagonist, an older woman who's known heartbreak and been made timid with age. What's interesting about this is that it's not just a love story or some tale about having the courage to take risks. It captures the dilemma and lethargy of a character bound by filial duty and increasingly put down by people around her who, unintentionally or not, have shamed her for being an old maid. Tangentially, the special also takes a swipe at how the elderly are seen as a burden to society and how ageing can be treated with a certain level of derision.     

And while references to social ills and marginalized sectors have been a fixture in most of her dramas, what's consistent about Kitagawa's works is that her characters are always written to be all too human, portraying a sense of restlessness, if not having somehow lost their way. They're beautiful and broken, needy yet proud, and in this respect, Tsuki ni Inoru Pierrot's Shizuku is no different. Tokiwa Takako delivers a performance with a thorough understanding of the self-doubt and dedition that clutches at the heart of women of a certain age. She's extremely likable in this role, and there's a certain honesty and nuance in her acting that alerts viewers to Shizuku's past that made her retreat to a quiet life of drudgery. Tanihara Shosuke, on the other hand, plays the good guy to a tee. Receptive and kind, the fact that the leading man is a divorced father lends some dimension to the character but Shizuku's story is simply, better carved out. The best part of the show is the communication between the characters. It's a natural and free-flowing exchange of thoughts and feelings, personal and sweet without being utterly cloying. In a time when a dearth of emotional honesty is often supplemented by a display of histrionic outbursts in television and cinemas, this is indeed a rarity.   


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Friday, April 01, 2016

Teddy Go! (2015)

With major networks favoring police procedurals and crime dramas to fill in their programming slate, Teddy Go! is a slight compromise and an unusual reprieve from such series stock. It's a four-part miniseries that is basically a murder mystery that plays out as an off-kilter comedy with a paranormal twist. At it's center is an immobile, innoxious, knitted bear with a myriad expressions, bringing about the cute and funny in a scenario that could have easily conjured up childlike terror associated with the very of idea of spirits inhabiting playthings. Thankfully, it doesn't veer off its light and silly path, providing juvenile humor without much thought as to the cause behind such phenomenon or the creepy nature of certain encounters.

Yamase Kazuko (Morikawa Aoi) is a freeter who just got dumped by her boyfriend and lost her job. She tries to blow off steam in a shooting gallery where she wins herself a knitted teddy bear, which she cheerfully takes home, only to discover the same to be inhabited by the spirit of private detective, Amano Yasuo (Aikawa Sho). The deceased detective suckers Kazuko into assisting him in investigating the death of a married couple whom he believes to have been murdered as a result of a cram school admissions scam. Together with Amano's old partner, Fuyuno (Hiraoka Yuta), Kazuko sets out to help Amano resolve his "unfinished business" in order for him to cross over and find eternal rest.

The narrative in Teddy Go! proceeds predictably and does not offer anything new to material of the same ilk. In so far as the main mystery is concerned, it parades the usual list of suspects and lets go of any pretense of making the case complex or overly serious, instead shifting the focus on the bond between Amano and Kazuko. There's an odd dynamic to the relationship wherein Amano calls the shots and hands out instructions but, in fact, he's utterly dependent on  the actions of a frivolous girl because of his newfound, cuddly, corporeal state. This is the part where cute meets fluff---and the prop steals the show for being able to convey different emotions, arguably better than its human co-stars. 

The murder case might have been facile and pedestrian but the show does something right in mining the humor and absurdity of having a tough, grizzly detective embodied by a harmless stuffed toy. Comic sketches have been built around this very premise and while the timing and execution can be a bit off at times, some of the punchlines do manage to land. Morikawa Aoi and Hiraoka Yuta work best acting alongside an inanimate object while Aikawa Sho brings as much attitude in voicing the knitted blue bear despite his limited screentime. Attempts at emotional sentiment generally come off as a misstep---the bit about the estranged daughter is pure filler and less effective in drawing a reaction compared to scenes involving a torn up toy or a spirit about to cross over to the netherworld. Childish and unpolished, Teddy Go! is for a younger audience that would wholeheartedly embrace its use of stodgy visual effects, occult caricatures and over the top acting. Older folks might not see much value in it but that blue teddy bear would certainly win over a lot of kids.    


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