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Currently Watching - May 2016

Right now we're watching "Nigeru Onna," which is quite good. Mizuno Miki stars as Nishiwaki Rieko, a woman unjustly sent to prison for eight years due to a friend's lie. Now she's out, and searching for her friend (Tabata Tomoko) to find out why she lied, but the friend doesn't want to be found. In turn, Rieko is followed by two people. One is Endo Kenichi as the detective who ruthlessly interrogated her and forced her to confess to a crime she didn't commit, and now is trying to make amends, but Rieko wants nothing to do with him. The other is Naka Riisa, scarily good as a serial murderer who latches on to Rieko for some unknown reason. It sounds odd and dark, and it is, but it's absolutely fascinating, and you have no idea what is going to happen next. Harada Mieko also has a turn as a bakery owner who takes in Rieko and the hangabout serial killer. It's tough to figure out the motivations of the main characters, but they're all so interesting you want to keep watching to find out what they'll do and why.

A couple other notable 2016 dramas we saw recently are "Kazoku no Katachi," well done with the always-watchable Ueno Juri, and "Watashi o Hanasanaide" with Ayase Haruka, Mizukawa Asami, and Miura Haruma, set in a dystopian future where clones are raised as organ donors. It's based on the novel "Never Let Me Go" by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro. That one is quite dark, but an interesting story with good performances.
This drama is one of the most moving and memorable I’ve seen. It has standout performances from veterans Matsuyuki Yasuko and Osugi Ren and creditable turns by young stars Takizawa Hideaki and Yuka, and it’s very well-written. The mother in an ordinary family disappears one day only to turn up dead in a local hospital. The diagnosis: death by overwork (karoushi, a diagnosis I’ve never heard used in America). The family is surprised, but accepts it until a scalpel shows up in the cremated remains. When it’s clear that the hospital (headed by Osugi Ren, also the father of Takizawa’s girlfriend, played by Yuka) is stonewalling, the teenage son (Takizawa) seeks the help of disaffected lawyer Matsuyuki, working in a dodgy law firm above a pachinko parlor. The two of them doggedly peel back the layers of deception the hospital has put in place to arrive at the truth, which is the only thing the son wants - he sues but doesn’t want any settlement.

The sun is a metaphor for his mother (the title is literally “The Sun Doesn’t Set”), the sun he had always taken for granted in his life until it disappeared, and he refuses to let the injustice done to her go unrevealed. It’s atmospherically filmed, with most scenes lit rather darkly. It’s serious, but the passion for the truth manifested by Matsuyuki and Takizawa is uplifting. It’s the kind of drama that makes you want to call up your mother (if you’re lucky enough to still have one) and tell her how much you appreciate her.

You may have seen Matsuyuki Yasuko as the teacher in “Hula Girls,” which is the first place I saw her. That movie is a very entertaining film (also with a great performance by Matsuyuki) that takes place in an interesting location - a coal-mining town in northern Japan.
When I saw this drama back in 1998 or 1999 on the local Japanese programming, I was very impressed with Suzuki Honami’s performance. She is rivieting as a woman who at the beginning of the drama who seemingly has everything going for her - she’s a major news anchor in a very competitive environment and just married a great guy. We see her world fall apart as she reports the death of her own husband on the air, has to take in his belligerent teenage son (Takizawa Hideaki) and deal with the son’s lawyer (Nagatsuka Kyozo), ultimately loses her job, and has to start back at the beginning with her human relationships and her career and rediscover why she went into the news in the first place. It’s an inspiring story, with plenty of lessons in humanity along the way.

Honami won a well-deserved Best Actress award for this drama in the Japanese Television Drama Academy Awards. She hasn’t been in many television dramas since this one, but recently has started to appear in a few more. A beautiful woman and always interesting as an actress.
I've now been watching Japanese dramas for almost twenty years (albeit with English subtitles), and while most of them have been forgettable, there are a few that I remember with great fondness and rewatch periodically. They won't all fit in a single post, so I'll make this a series of posts.

Konna Koi no Hanashi (1997)
This is one of the first Japanese dramas I ever saw, back in the days when you could still watch subtitled Japanese dramas on some commercial channels. I was immediately captivated by Matsushima Nanako, the female lead. I thought she was one of the most beautiful actresses I had seen, and I still like her today (she recently appeared in Mitani Koki's "Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken"). Sanada Hiroyuki was also very appealing as the male lead. Plus, it had a great theme song, "Mr. Lonely" by Tamaki Koji (who also has a major role in the drama). According to the credits, the drama itself was inspired by that song. I found it very engrossing, because while it deals with elements that could easily be trite - poor townsfolk vs. big business, poor girl / rich guy love story, man who has three months to live - they are handled so well and the leads are so enjoyable that it transcends the material. The basic plot centers around a group of working-class Japanese living in an apartment building that has been condemned for redevelopment by a major corporation, and how the dying CEO of that corporation is transformed by their friendship and love.

Some trivia about the leads:

Matsushima Nanako got her big acting break by winning a role in the NHK morning drama "Himawari" (where she played an aspiring lawyer) over 2000 other applicants. She later married her co-star in the original GTO, Sorimachi Takashi and I believe has two daughters. At 173 cm tall, she is actually 3 cm taller than her leading man Sanada Hiroyuki.

Sanada Hiroyuki has starred in many movies as well as dramas, including a number of Western films - the recent "Wolverine" and "47 Ronin" as well as Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai." He is the first Japanese actor to become a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, so that should tell you how good his English is. Ironically, in "The Last Samurai" he played a non-English-speaking role next to Watanabe Ken, who had to learn English for his role. Also, he served as the fencing coach for the movie, since he had a lot more experience than most of the cast, having starred in many samurai films. He and Matsushima Nanako also co-starred in the first Japanese "Ringu" film.

Recently Viewed - October 2015

We've seen a number of dramas recently, but the ones I have enjoyed most are:

"Tennou no Ryouriban," based on the real story of a guy who became the chef to two different Japanese emperors (Taisho and Showa), serving longer than anyone else in that position, and surviving various disasters like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and WWII. It's very entertaining - he starts out as a boy who can't seem to stick with anything (he even becomes a monk until they kick him out). Then he finally realizes he likes cooking, ends up studying in Paris and becoming the first Japanese chef at the Ritz Hotel before becoming the emperor's chef.

"Omotesando Koukou Gasshoubu!"
This is a very cute drama that sounds formulaic - spunky girl from the sticks revitalizes Tokyo institution populated by jaded city-types - but is just so well done that it's one of our favorites. I particularly enjoyed Yoshine Kyoko's performance as the girl who dreamt about joining the choir her parents met in only to find that it is in danger of being eliminated due to various problems that have happened. One by one she overcomes the obstacles and wins people over by her unflagging enthusiasm. On top of it, there are great a cappella vocal arrangements of everything from Judy and Mary to Itouto Yo's Hanamizuki, actually sung by the cast as far as I can tell.

"Tantei no Tantei"
A pretty gritty drama with an excellent performance by Kitagawa Keiko, who shows she has blossomed into a very good actress. She plays a woman fixated on revenge for the killing of her younger sister years ago, where an unethical detective enabled her sister's stalker to catch her. She has now become a "detective's detective," looking for unethical behavior by other private detectives and bringing them to justice. It's especially entertaining because you really have no idea where the plot is going. It is continuously interesting, and continuously surprising. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? You're left guessing. As an interesting piece of trivia, Yoshine Kyoko, the star of "Omotesando Koukou Gasshoubu!", has a small part (in flashbacks only) as the slain younger sister.

Currently Watching 5/29/15

We are currently enjoying "Ghostwriter" with Nakatani Miki and Mizusawa Asami. It's interesting and has some good plot twists. (I feel like I could practically write the plot for some dramas because they're so predictable, but not this one.) I also appreciate dramas with two strong female roles. Mizusawa Asami has come a long way in her acting career, and is a good match for Nakatani Miki.

Recently we watched "Second Love," with Fukada Kyoko and Kamenashi Kazuya as wounded individuals who find solace in each other even though they have practically nothing in common - he's an internationally-recognized dancer down on his luck, and she's a high-school teacher with an overly-dependent mom who is having an affair with a fellow teacher. Fukakyon will probably never be a great actress, but you have to give it to her for hanging in there and taking not-so-glamorous roles. I would not have picked her to outlive her idol days, but she's continuing to get good parts. I lost a $1 bet with my wife about whether the ending would be happy or sad (I bet on sad!).

"Ouroboros" had a great cast - the always-great Ueno Juri and Oguri Shun along with a surprisingly-good Johnny's member Ikuta Toma (whom we haven't seen in anything recently). The story (and ending) were rather depressing, though, focusing on a quest for revenge based on a traumatic event for the two male leads when they were children in an orphanage. And are the Japanese police truly corrupt? It seems like we see so many dramas portraying them as having corruption at the highest levels that it almost seems like a cliche. They must not have a very good media outreach group! (Of course, I could say the same for the American government, which regularly is portrayed negatively in movies, though it probably deserves it!)

"Marumaru Tsuma" had a wonderful performance from Shibasaki Kou as a mysterious, scarily-efficient and thoughtful wife to crusading newsman Higashiyama Noriyuki (whom I hadn't seen before, though my wife recognized him). Again, downbeat, with a sad ending, so kind of a downer. Shibasaki's character deserved better.

"Date," on the other hand, was a delightful comedy about two individuals who were impaired in different, humorous ways: the schedule-addicted, almost Spock-like Anne (Watanabe Ken's daughter) and self-described "gentleman idler" (i.e. prefers watching videos and reading manga to working) Hasegawa Hiroki (whom we last saw in the unrelentingly-grim "Mozu"). Their improbable romance is filled with great humorous moments.

"Gakkou no Kaidan" was also very enjoyable, with fantastic performances from Hirose Suzu (Alice's little sister), who is developing into a talented actress, and Kamiki Ryunosuke, who had to deliver rapid-fire, very complicated dialogue for the whole drama. In spite of an underlying revenge theme, it ended being an entertaining drama with a happy ending. It's not like real life, but it's fun!

"Genkai Shuraku Kabushikigaisha" is a short NHK drama illustrating real problems in Japan's farming communities with a strong performance by another young actress worth keeping an eye on, Matsuoka Mayu (she is also in the new drama "She" that we haven't seen yet). It was also fun to see Tanihara Shosuke and (after a long time) Sorimachi Takashi, husband of my favorite Japanese actress Matsushima Nanako.

"Mondai no Aru Restaurant" features a large, talented mostly-female cast led by Maki Youko (always great) and including a memorable part for Matsuoka Mayu as a pathologically-shy but talented chef. There's a memorable role also for Higashide Masahiro (who married Anne after they starred together in the very-good "Gochisousan," and one of the tallest Japanese actors at 189cm).

Currently Watching - 4/4/15

We're enjoying "Hanako to Anne," one of the NHK morning dramas broadcast last year. Yoshitaka Yuriko is great as the lead, and it's also fun to see Tsuchiya Tao (star of the upcoming morning drama "Mare") in a minor part as Hanako's youngest sister. Since a lot of the action takes place in the Meiji and Taisho eras, I recognize a lot of the outdoor sets as being from Meiji Mura, the go-to place for scenes of Tokyo in the early 1900's (including vintage streetcars and steam trains).

Currently watching - 2/22/15

We recently watched "SAKURA" with Nakama Yukie. Somewhat formulaic, but watchable. Also "Onna wa Sore o Yurusanai" with Fukada Kyoko. Fukakyon has certainly improved her acting over the years, though I wouldn't call her a great actress at this point. Currently we're watching "Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu" with Ayase Haruka, which is pretty cute. As a Japanese friend commented, it's a little hard to believe someone looking like Ayase Haruka would still be a virgin at 30 years old, but she plays the sheltered girl role well. My wife recognized one of the male leads from his part in "Amachan." I'm also happy to see Tamaki Hiroshi and Naka Riisa, both of whom are always entertaining to watch.

Currently Watching - 2/7/15

We're now watching N no Tame Ni. Quite interesting - as my wife says, "Fukai! (Deep!)" It's a bit confusing when the timeframe shifts - there are storylines from 1999 or so, 2003-2004, and present day (2014-2015). I'm pretty impressed how much better Eikura Nana has gotten as an actress. She was quite awful in Kuro no Onna Kyoushi a few years back (my wife made fun of her then), but she's quite good in this current drama, I think. The rest of the cast is quite good as well, and the story is not at all predictable, which I appreciate.

Currently Watching

Now watching Suteki na Sen TAXI. Interesting premise - a magical taxi can take you back in time (for a price) to fix your mistakes, but of course every time you do that, something else could go wrong. There's a running gag about this fictitious TV drama called "Hanzai Deka" (Criminal Detective), which some people really like but most people say, "I don't understand. How can he be both? Was he a former criminal who became a detective, or a detective who went bad?" We're told that neither explanation is true, although someone commented that he seems to spend most of his time being a criminal, and not very much being a detective. Anyhow, pretty cute idea.