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Wow, two years. How the hell did that happen? I've always been on LJ, but I guess I've never got around to updating this.

But that changes today! Mainly because I finally got to see the Japanese drama "Blackboard ~ Jidai To Tatakatta Kyoushitachi". Or at least the first part of the three-part miniseries. Haven't found the other two yet, but the first one was fascinating to me on many levels. The story is deceptively simple, but if you look beneath the surface it provides a glimpse into the changes, both subtle and overt, that affected everyday Japanese life when the war ended. A nation that had been taught there was no way they would lose now struggled to come to terms with loss as people tried to find their place in a rapidly changing society.

Sakurai Sho in Blackboard

Shohei Shirahama (Sakurai Sho), a schoolteacher with fiery devotion to Imperial Japan, goes to fight for his country after drilling ideas of nationalistic loyalty and an almost divine right of victory into his students. Years later, after losing an arm in the war and spending time in a POW camp, he returns home to find everything and everyone he knew has been deeply affected by the war in some way. His brother perished, widowing his sister-in-law and leaving her with a young son. His younger sister also lost her husband, and she now finds work as a hostess for the occupying Allied Forces in exchange for food. As the story progresses even his former students bear scars of war, both physical and mental. One student lost his life, leaving his younger sister to prostitute herself to survive. Shohei must come to terms with the affect his teaching had on his students, and how (or if) he could repair the damage.

In the midst of all this, a new school is built from the rubble and Shohei is asked to teach again, but he quickly learns the education system is now vastly different, having been installed by the Allied forces to more closely copy the Western world. The subject he had taught before, Japanese history, was replaced by the globalized subject of social studies, and English was now added to the curriculum.

Shohei himself is the very picture of a man tormented by what he once idolized. The war he had been eager to join not only stripped him of his arm and burdened him with survivor's guilt, but a fateful encounter in which he had killed a soldier continues to haunt him and make him question everything he had been taught--and taught others in return.

Not much else I can say but to recommend you watch it if you can find it. As an American, it was fascinating to see a war story told from a different viewpoint. As the saying goes, "history is written by the victors", and growing up I was never taught much about WWII beyond "we won, there was a parade and everything was fine until the Cold War." I was riveted by such a raw, nostalgia-free look at life for regular, everyday people that had been caught up in something they couldn't control as they picked up pieces of a shattered existence and formed something entirely new.

Discussing my own views regarding war would make this post unnecessarily longer than it should be and would only detract from the point of my post, but I must say I could truly appreciate the movie's ending and its focus on promoting the importance of peace between nations. Yes, it was a slightly heavy-handed delivery, but given the intensity of the emotions building throughout the film, I don't see how it could have been feasibly been handled any other way. The show itself received low ratings within Japan, but as an "outsider" I think it held a valuable lesson for every human being: all life is precious, and deserves to be treasured.
18 November 2010 @ 05:44 pm
You can't have an interest in the Japanese culture without being drawn to its cuisine. (No, you can't. Stop arguing.)

But Japanese food goes far beyond the typical sushi and tempura that have found their way onto American menus. There's even the Japanese version of "comfort food", many recipes of which I've tried to recreate at home. Here are a few of my favorites, as shown by runnyrunny999. I like his recipes because he tries to show you how to make these things with international ingredients rather than things you can't get in an American market.

Here are the links to a few of my favorite recipes. If nothing else, I highly recommend the okonomiyaki and hamburger:

16 November 2010 @ 06:07 pm
GenkiJapan.net is a great site if you're just getting started with the Japanese language. It's run by a New Zealander expat, and has quite a few videos to teach you the basics. Here's a quick video that teaches you how to count to 20 in Japanese; it gives you a pretty good idea behind the Japanese counting system--if you can get around the New Zealand accent.

15 November 2010 @ 09:53 am

Before you start delving into the strange, squiggly world of kanji (those symbols that leave English-speakers scratching their heads and wondering why Japan's writing system is so complicated) take a look at the two basic, phonetic syllabaries that act as building blocks to word formation: hiragana and katakana.

Together they're the foundation of Japanese. Without them, stringing sentences together would make as much sense as saying "kitty bishop slipper teacup around macaroni."

Learning these two syllabaries is fairly easy. There's only 46 characters, and the sounds are identical in both alphabets. Hiragana is used to spell words that are uniquely Japanese, like でんしゃ (densha/train) and is the first alphabet taught to children in Japan. Katakana is used for "loan words" that came from outside Japan, like コンピュタア (konpyutaa/computer).

The sound of a character can change if you put a special mark or another character after it. Example: the character
き sounds like "ki" or "key", but adding two downward strokes at the end gives you ぎ, or "gi". Add the character ゆ (yu) to き and as you would expect, you get きゅ or "kyu".

It sounds complicated, but it really isn't. If you take a little time each day to study maybe five characters, you can learn both alphabets within a month or so. Here's a link to a YouTube video that gives the pronunciation of the basic syllabaries, with hiragana at the top, katakana in the middle, and the English pronunciation at the bottom:

Here's a link that explains the stroke order and pronunciation of hiragana, and here's one for katakana.
01 June 2009 @ 06:09 pm

Ever since I became serious in my commitment to learn Japanese, I've been watching many (MANY) dramas. Not only has it helped propel my comprehension to a level I wouldn't have achieved otherwise, I generally find the plotlines far more interesting than the "insert character A into setting B and throw in plot twist C" formula in which American TV seems to be firmly and stubbornly stuck. Because of this, someone suggested I shift the focus from specific actors to specific SHOWS, without having to squeeze four or five different programs into a single blog post. Another friend of mind had said he liked how I reviewed shows, and made them sound interesting even to someone doesn't watch them. So...why not? At least for now, so long as I actually have shows to talk about.

First up is a show that's currently airing, The Quiz Show Season 2 (AKA Quiz Show Golden.) It's wildly popular, especially since it features two "idols"--Sakurai Sho from Arashi and You Yokoyama from Kanjani8. Because of these two, several fansub groups have been working diligently to translate each episode as they come out. Of these groups, SBK is probably the most well-known. They recently made filling out a lengthy application a requirement to join their community, to which a number of new would-be members complained. SBK replied with a rather caustic response, although speaking as someone who adores pithy comebacks, this was possibly the best line ever: "So why are you complaining? We got better things to do: That thing called life in the real world, enjoying our own hobbies, and fansubbing this moon speak so you people know why Sho is convulsing on the floor." (Found here.)

So why IS Sho convulsing on the floor? That brings me to my actual review. The Quiz Show Season 2, quite simply, centers on revelation. Not the Bible book, but the revelation of secrets that the characters may not want anyone to know--or may not want to know themselves.

In a (very) dark parody of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", Sakurai Sho plays game show host MC Kamiyama as various players do their best to win their "Dream Chance"--that is, if they answer every question correctly, the show will grant any wish up to 1 hundred million yen. The trick is to answer ALL the questions correctly, no matter how personal they are...or how much they reveal about the contestant's sordid past. Which means even if they win, they could wind up destroying their lives.

The MC goes a long way in aiding, goading, and oftentimes outright mocking the contestants. "Watashi wa anata no subete o shitte imasu" ("I know everything about you") is probably one of the most disturbing phrases anyone could ever hear--especially when it's true. This makes Kamiyama a frightening and charismatic force, who manages to be both sympathetic for and scornful of the contestant at the same time.

And yet Kamiyama is not without his own past demons, which surface frequently in a most startling manner. The MC's strings are being pulled invisibly by the cold, calculating man behind the camera, Honma Toshio (You Yokoyama). In fact the drama's very first scene features a dazed Kamiyama in a mental ward, being guided out of his room by Honma. The latter seems to hold a grudge against the host for something Kamiyama can't remember, from an accident several years earlier which left him without most of his memories. This leaves Kamiyama completely dependent on Honma, which makes the man's questionable motives all the more terrifying.

Even if the viewer had never seen Sakurai Sho in a drama before, there's no question his acting skills are well above par. He manages to capture the dual nature of Kamiyama's character perfectly, sarcastic and witty one second while shaking uncontrollably in the corner the next. The way Kamiyama changes in the seconds before he steps onstage highlights this two-sided enigma so the viewer always knows there's more behind the facade than what's being shown.

This drama is still in production. Here's a short clip of the end of episode 1, which gives you a glimpse of the show's intensity. This scene reminds me of a snake wrapping itself around its prey...at any rate, you can find the full episodes at SBK's livejournal, or a few other groups who are currently subbing it. A man on the verge of a breakdown at any moment driving others to their own breaking point, all at the whim of a vengeful man whose motives are still unclear, make for one exciting show.
12 March 2009 @ 06:59 pm
Brief update because I'm sick, and tired, and tired of being sick.

At any rate, before I go on with my explorations in the world of Japanese dramas, something is continually being brought to my attention by well-meaning (if annoyingly adamant) folks regarding a controversy that recently surrounded one of the stars of the BEST J-DRAMA EVAR, Maou.

Apparently a couple of photos have been circulating, taken at a party Satoshi Ohno attended back in 2005 where he appears to be (very) stoned. Now, he already addressed this situation when Maou was still being filmed last year (2008) and admitted to smoking marijuana once, and to my knowledge his career hasn't been adversely affected (although, by Japanese cultural standards, he did come dangerously close to losing his "idol" status.) Despite this, his fans in America still seem to make a big deal out of it, even though many of them state it's "no big deal".

Keeping all talk/debate of the legality of marijuana use and the inherent ethical arguments aside, I can only point to this clip on YouTube that shows Satoshi the way he NORMALLY is and ask...how could they tell?
01 February 2009 @ 06:33 pm

Sometimes, when I'm watching a series because a certain actor is in it, I'll discover the talent of another actor in that series and will start to follow their career as well. That's how I discovered all of the actors so far, and Ikuta Toma is no exception. I found him while watching a series that guest starred Shirota Yu, and have followed his work from some of the wackiest comedy I've ever witnessed to some pretty damned depressing drama.

Ikuta has been in the TV camera's eye since he was a child. Joining the male idol agency Johnny's Entertainment at a young age, he performed in several variety shows and singing groups before settling firmly into acting. Most of the shows he's in are available online, but I'll concentrate on four of them in which he's a primary character:

Hanazakari no Kimitachi e
Possibly the most famous series he's acted in, and the one he became best known for outside Japan. In this unlikely but likeable story, high school girl Ashiya Mizuki disguises herself as a boy to sneak into the school her idol Sano attends, in the hopes she can convince him to return to the sport of high jumping. Ikuta plays Nakatsu, Sano's dorky but sincere best friend who suddenly finds himself in a quandry when he falls for Mizuki--who he thinks is a boy. (And speaking for the entire Hana-Kimi community, I don't think anyone will ever hear the phrase "Ore wa homo ja nai!" again without giggling.) Be on the lookout for Shirota Yu, who plays Sano's main high jump rival.


Watch it. Just...watch it. If you never see a single other Japanese drama in your entire life, WATCH THIS ONE. It has everything a drama needs, all wrapped up in eleven episodes. Out of all the shows I've seen, this one has stayed at #1 on my list ever since the finale. Ikuta stars alongside fellow Johnny member Satoshi Ohno (best known as the leader of the Japanese boy band Arashi, who also performs Maou's opening theme "Truth") in this remake of the Korean drama Ma Wang. Ohno plays the devious lawyer Naruse Ryo, who masquerades as a hero of the people to hide his plans for revenge against police detective Serizawa (played by Ikuta) who killed Ryo's brother as a wayward youth. Sending messages via tarot cards, he proceeds to terrorize Serizawa and threaten everyone he holds dear.

If Maou is the greatest series ever, this is by far the weirdest. I wish I could say more, but I honestly don't know what I would say. Maybe someone needs to understand the otaku culture a little more to "get" half of what was happening. At the same time, there were certainly elements that didn't need any translation: the story focused on social outcasts fighting a big corporation (sometimes literally) as they discover who they really are inside. But some of the scenes, not to mention the subject matter, got surprisingly intense for something that seemed to be along the lines of a bizarre comedy. Ikuta plays a graphic designer named Box, with an OCD that requires him to wear gloves at all times and a severe phobia of women to the point he foams at the mouth if one touches him. And he's one of the more normal characters. Like I said, weird.

Hachimitsu to Kuroba
I haven't finished this series yet, so I can't say too much about it. But the story is told mainly from the POV of Ikuta's character Yuta Takemoto, an art student who falls in love with the shy but gifted "Hagu" but doesn't know how to express it. So far it seems to be a cute coming-of-age type story, although the characters are in college.

Next up: a few other actors who caught my attention while watching Hana Kimi.

It's impossible to have seen the Imperial Match production of Tenimyu without noticing the lanky lad in glasses heading up the Seigaku cast. At 6'2", Shirota Yu tends to stand out amongst his peers in more than one way. I'm not sure if I'm more impressed by his acting or his multilingual ability: he can speak Japanese, Spanish and English quite well, and switch almost seamlessly between them.

He gained celebrity status as a member of the acting group D-BOYS, but it's the numerous shows he's performed in since then that have actually made him famous. Aside from portraying the stoic, determined tennis player Tezuka in the Prince of Tennis movie and several musicals, he's had the opportunity to act in several dramas in varying capacities. I haven't been able to locate them all online, but I can give a quick rundown of the shows I've seen.

Team Batista no Eiko
This is a new series that's just started airing in Japan, with a few non-subbed episodes available online. A crack surgical team at Tojo University Hospital specializes in a heart procedure that normally has a 60% survival rate. They revel in the attention after 27 successful consecutive procedures, but when three patients die on the table one right after another, an investigation is launched that could reveal a sinister plot. We haven't seen much of Shirota yet, but he's one of the medical team directly involved with the surgeries so it's a guarantee he'll be around.


Hooray for psychopathic inmates! This is another recent series, focusing on the only female in a special investigation/negotiation team as she struggles to overcome a horrific event five years ago that ties her to a merciless serial killer. The opening scene of Koshonin features a rather scary, insane Shirota as he speaks to the main chracter through six-inch prison glass. Considering the first role I ever saw him in was the serious and very down-to-earth Tezuka, this role was a delight from an actor's standpoint as I was able to see a much wider range of his acting ability.

Heat Island

I've only seen a little of this and it wasn't subbed, so there's not much I can say about it. It seemed rather violent, but given the subject matter I guess that's to be expected. Shirota plays a street thug whose gang stumbles across money belonging to the yakuza--a group not known for their forgiving ways. I'm not a big fan of yakuza plots, so the point may have been lost on me. It didn't seem like a bad film, per se, it just wasn't aimed at my demographic.

There's one other show I've seen him featured in, but I'll reserve that for my next post since that particular drama stars another actor I'm going to highlight. And before I get hit with questions regarding this, I might as well say it up front: yes, Shirota also apparently played Tuxedo Mask in a stage musical version of Sailor Moon. This would be the part where I tell my audience that there are some shows that, no matter who may be in them, I simply can't watch. (Especially Sailor Moon. A live action version of Sailor Moon is bad enough; a musical is just...wrong.)
27 September 2008 @ 02:55 pm
When I started watching Saitoh Takumi in the Prince of Tennis musicals, there were a couple of other actors that caught my attention for one reason or another. I noticed immediately that Kazuki Kato (Hyotei's Atobe) had a clear—and good—singing voice, which is probably why he was given one of the two roles with the most solo lines. At any rate, I decided to see what other projects he's been involved in, and was surprised at the wide variety in his career. Let's jump right in:

Shigoku Shoujo—Ichimoku Ren

Literally translated, it means “Hell Girl”. A live-action drama based on the supernatural horror anime, it focuses on a young girl who lives in a world of eternal sunset. Named Enma Ai, she exacted vengeance on her village 400 years ago and now serves her punishment by fulfilling the vengeance of others and escorting people to Hell. When humans require her services, she offers them a contract and a warning: “When one is cursed, two graves are dug.” Three companions aid her in her work, carrying out her contracts. Kazuki plays one of Enma Ai's companions, Ichimoku Ren—the spirit of a katana who takes the form of a young man.

Ichimoku has a larger role in the anime, but Kazuki did get some pretty good scenes. For some reason, my absolute favorite scene came about halfway in episode 10; I loved the almost frightening smile on his face when he said “Ja, iko ka?” (“Well, shall we go?”) right before dragging the Victim of the Day out into oncoming traffic. It just seemed so very different from the other roles I've seen him in, which is always a treat from an acting perspective.

Hotaru no Hikari—Teshima Makoto






This show gives a good idea of the Japanese viewpoint regarding single women approaching their 30s, which makes me suspect that the typical Japanese citizen would probably consider me very strange since I'm not much for the dating scene myself. Hotaru works at a famous interior design company, but once at home she lounges about in jerseys with a cat, a can of beer, and a decided lack of interest in men. Her landlord's son, recently separated from his wife, decides to live on his father's property for a while—not realizing Hotaru also lives there. Even worse, it turns out the man is Hotaru's own boss. Kazuki adds fuel to the fire as the young designer Teshima, who's smitten with an increasingly confused Hotaru.

The best way I can describe this series is “a light but screwy comedy, with surprisingly deep moments”. I didn't actually finish the series—not because it was bad, but at times the love triangle plot was almost painful to watch (which may have more to do with my own emotional hangups rather than anything in the actual show.) It's the usual comedy/angst series, although well worth watching if you're interested in Kazuki given the amount of air time he has.

Kamen Rider Kabuto—Daisuke Kazama/Kamen Rider Drake
One of the latest Kamen Rider series in a list of many, Kabuto celebrates the franchise's 35th anniversary. It focuses on a high-minded man named Tendou Souji, who's trained for seven years to use the Rider belt. He makes many enemies in the process, his ego and aloof personality isolating him from everyone but his sister Juka. He meets other Riders, each with vastly different personalities from his own, and often teams up with ZECT member Kagami Arata to fight the growing threat of Worm invaders.

Kazuki enters this series as a famous metrosexual makeup artist who will go out of his way to help any woman in trouble. He travels with a little girl named Gon, who often finishes his sentences when he can't think of the right word. He also happens to possess a Rider belt, allowing him to transform (“Henshin!”) into Kamen Rider Drake.

Um...yeah. Let's just say this series gave me bad flashbacks of the endless fight sequences in Sailor Moon. I'll say upfront I'm not a big fan of the superhero-type shows, where “Henshin!” is a phrase you're guaranteed to hear at least once per episode (although, to be fair, I was warned that the Kamen Rider series is most known for it). That being said, I have to admit the NON-“henshin” portions of the series were very impressive. I was most struck by the rocky friendship between Tendou and Kagami; the producers didn't take the cheap way out by throwing them together and having them become best friends within the first three episodes like too many shows have done. Instead, difficulties of every variety confront them constantly, keeping a barrier of tension between them until the very end. I also enjoyed the sibling-like relationship between Daisuke (Kazuki) and Gon; we don't see much of either of them after episode 28, but the dynamics of their relationship were able to add a refreshing spice to the mix.

A side note: Kazuki also shows up in two Kamen Rider movies. One is a retelling of the series Kamen Rider Kabuto in an alternate universe, taking place in outer space. (Yes, you read that right. No, I don't know what they were thinking either.) I haven't actually seen it yet, but if I can find it online I'll post my opinion. The other movie, Kamen Rider the Next, is a sequel to Kamen Rider the First—and makes about as much sense. Kazuki plays an entirely different character from the Kabuto series, and frankly, not even his acting skills could have saved that flick. It's on YouTube with English subs if, for some unknown reason, you're struck by the impulse to see something that makes stabbing your eyes out with an ice pick sound like more fun.

As it turns out, Kazuki is just as involved in the music world as he is in acting. Along with being featured on disc 002 of the Tenimyu Best Actor's CD series (under his character's name, Atobe Keigo), he's released a number of singles and full CD sets. My favorite songs happen to be “Faith”, “Yume Hikoki” and “Warning”, but he has quite an assortment of songs out—including the strange but catchy “Vampire”. He has music videos for nearly every song, and you can look them up on YouTube.

Next time: Shirota Yu and a show that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

13 September 2008 @ 12:16 pm
Before I get into my next post, I have to say one thing: Buses are helpful. Exact change is evil.

Anyway, here's a list of the “normal” (read: non-BL) Japanese TV shows I've been watching, featuring a few of the actors I've decided to keep track of. The funny thing about these shows is that you can usually end up playing the Six Degrees of Separation game (based on the theory that everyone in the world can be connected to virtually anyone in six steps.) So I would watch one show because of X actor, then find Y actor from the same show pop up elsewhere, who just happened to co-star with Z actor, whom I'd already seen in another series with X actor...repeat ad infinitum. Even I can't keep up with all the connections, so I may miss a few when describing the shows.

Also, for the record, I freely admit Japanese names confuse me and I can often get the order wrong. Although I'm aware the surname comes before the first name in Japan, I've seen the names below written both ways so I'm not always certain which is which. I'm 100% certain Saito(h) Takumi is correct, but the others are open for interpretation.

There is an order to this, I swear (at least, I think so). So as not to bore everyone with a long post again, I'll probably end up breaking this up into a couple of segments. Let's start with the first three non-BL projects that I watched:

Boys Este
Featuring: Saitoh Takumi as Shikishima Shichiri

Not subbed in English yet, but the general plot involves Akagi Hibiki, a high schooler who starts work at an esthetic salon, and a young girl named Shizuka who lost confidence in her looks when her former boyfriend insulted her. While they struggle with their feelings for each other, Shikishima's eye also lands on Shizuka.

A 12-episode light romance/comedy series, not to be confused with Saitoh's darker and more graphic movie Boys Love. No BL in this show, although it's hinted at least once that Shikishima is bisexual. The humor takes some getting used to, but once you get past Shizuka's overacting in the comedic parts, it's actually an enjoyable series. I had a difficult time locating all the episodes, but it isn't impossible.


Princess Princess D
Featuring: Kamakari “KenKen” Kenta as Yutaka Mikoto; Saitoh Takumi as Arisada Shuya


An all-boys high school (which is apparently a popular setting for TV shows) has established a rather unusual practice: choosing three first-year students every year to dress as “princesses” and be the school's official mascots. A very reluctant Mikoto is coaxed into it by his friends, and discovers a few things about the true power—and trials—of friendship.

KenKen was also Hyotei's Shishido in Tenimyu. I don't know what it is with Japan and cross-dressing, but at any rate Saitoh is practically one of the only actors who don't end up in a dress by the end—and let me tell you, seeing the rowdy and incredibly boyish KenKen dressing in pink lace is enough to give anyone nightmares. There were also hints of BL sprinkled liberally across the ten epsidodes, although not enough to be classified a BL-genre show. Overall, the series was “cute”, but I doubt I'd sit through the whole thing a second time.

Forbidden Siren 2
Featuring: Saitoh Takumi as Itsuki Mamoru


This isn't actually a series, or even a movie—it's a video game for the Japanese PS2, following in the tradition of the survival horror genre ala Silent Hill. 29 years ago the remote island Yamijima was thrown into darkness when an underwater cable snapped. The next morning, all of the island's inhabitants were gone. A group of present-day travelers are visiting the island for their own separate reasons when the boat they're on capsizes--and that's just the beginning of their terror.

Even if Saitoh hadn't lent his voice to the main protagonist, I probably would have been interested in this game anyway. The story seems fairly complex, the developers made the creepiness factor actually work, and apparently one of the main features is the fact you end up playing many different characters by the end. Very much like Alan Wake, light plays an integral role in gameplay, which I find fascinating. Even the violence level isn't all that bad compared to its English counterparts. But Japanese games won't work on American consoles, so I guess I'll just be happy with the cutscenes others have uploaded to the internet.

Up next: Kazuki Kato, Shirota Yuu and how I ended up expanding my search beyond the grads of Tenimyu.