Asakusa Fukumaru Ryokan [浅草ふくまる旅館] Very entertaining, lighthearted slice-of-life that alternates between uproarious humor and shameless tear-jerking, and one of the most memorable dorama characters ever in Fukumaru Daikichi the innkeeper.
Edison no Haha [エジソンの母] Great philosophical message (i.e., Reason and innovation must be nurtured and defended against those who would try to crush them,) brilliant writing and acting.
Galileo [ガリレオ] Another series with an excellent philosophical theme: The power of reason. I also like that each episode is an individual case and therefore can be watched as a stand-alone drama.
Joker Yurusarezaru Sosakan [ジョーカー 許されざる捜査官] An excellent examination of the ethics of vigilantism with a phenomenal cast, both as individuals and as an ensemble. You will find yourself thinking about people and events from this series for weeks after you've finished watching. The Date character in particular is superbly acted by Masato Sakai.
Kiina ~ Fukano Hanzai Sosakan [キイナ] Like Edison no Haha and Galileo, another celebration of reason and achievement - and like Galileo, each episide is a separate case, though with this series there's more of a story arc from first to last episode.
LIFE [ライフ] An edifying meditation on justice and ethics in the face of injustice and malice, and probably the most beautiful cast of women in any single dorama - granted, I have a few more to watch, but still...8^D
Ushi ni Negai wo: Love & Farm [牛に願いを - Love & Farm] I'm pretty much a sucker for anything having to do with Hokkaido, and having grown up on a farm (though an American one, where things are done differently,) I felt oddly at home watching this. A glimpse into Japanese agri-business was fascinating too in its own right, even as fiction. The father-son estrangement theme was well-written and acted, and the scenery is awesome.
Lastly, the cast members' having to birth a live calf on-camera, for real, with zero outside assistance and no special effects, should take some kind of award for dedication to realism above and beyond the call of acting. Nothing is done half-heartedly in Japan... 8^] Amazing.
Not as emotional a vibe as my other fave Hokkaido dorama "Yasashii Jikan," but a must-watch regardless. And...here's a heads-up: If you're looking for fast-paced drama, you're looking in the wrong country.
With love This has some flaws - most notably in that the otherwise-admirable Hasagawa Takashi character's integrity is undercut by the writers repeatedly; very poor chemistry between the two lead actors; too drawn-out to believe the two principle characters wouldn't have figured out each other's identity - but nonetheless compelling, excellent music throughout, and overall a stunning projection of human dignity and civilization.
Yasashii Jikan [優しい時間] Great emotional vibe, phenomenal setting, excellent acting. The only downside is that the ending seems rushed and truncated.
Long vacation [ロングバケーション] Rating: 8/10 (Watched) Excellent, classy, elegant, values-driven romance, if a bit predictable. Great chemistry between the Senna and Minami characters too, without which it wouldn't have worked. There's not as much emphasis on the music in this one as in "With Love," though music is central to the story, but that chemistry (which was lacking between HaTa and TeruTeruBozu in "With Love,") more than makes up for it. The climactic piano performance has got to be a masterpiece of editing within doramas - it reminds me of the climactic scenes of Beethoven's youth that were interwoven with the 9th Symphony in the film "Immortal Beloved." Time well spent, definitely.
Asakusa Fukumaru Ryokan [浅草ふくまる旅館] Unpretentious, Entertaining Slice-of-Life Series [Rating: 7/10] This is one of those dramas that's enjoyable in its capacity to transport you, the viewer, to a place you'll feel instantly at home and which you will begin to miss from the closing credits of the last episode. There is something intensely attractive, homelike and tranquil in the concept of a traditional, old-line Japanese ryokan, and AFR is your ticket to an extended stay.
Toshiyuki Nishida, whom movie buffs will recognize as the gruff noodle chef in the film "Ramen Girl," plays the nosy Ryokan owner Fukumaru Daikichi almost as though it's a natural extension of his personality. He's laid-back yet competent, and curious to the point of overbearing in his meddling with the private affairs of his guests. The unintended consequences of his intrusions are the source of the series' alternating comedy and shameless heartstring-tugging. Like the similar - also excellent - series "Fufudo" (which takes place at a semi-rural tea farm,) the principle character is pitted hilariously against a neighboring business competitor with whom he has a bitter rivalry, yet whom we all know he loves like a brother, deep down.
The only real flaw in the series is a tendency for the emotional tear-jerking crescendos to stray into the maudlin on occasion. But since the series maintains a refreshing light-heartedness and makes no pretense at being anything other than an episodic slice-of-life, it all works surprisingly well.
Each character of the ensemble cast - indeed even of the peripheral roles, like Some-san the Geisha, Sakaki-san the barista, and a number of the one-off guest characters - is vividly memorable as an individual. The stories are soap-opera-ish by design, but often fascinating as insights into the idiosyncracies of Japanese culture both modern and historic.
Asakusa Fukumaru Ryokan won't satisfy those who have no patience or viewers looking for rock 'em - sock 'em action, but is time well spent for Dorama fans and Japanophiles interested in life at a ryokan.
BOSS Pedestrian Police Drama - Good, Not Great [Rating: 5/10] [Note: Possible spoilers below! Beware!]
I was expecting this to be much better than it turned out to be. That's not to say it was bad or that there was anything wrong with it, just that there was nothing particularly special or engaging about it. The acting was excellent by everybody involved and there were some nice (albeit predictable) twists, particularly in the series climax. But the screenwriting was a lot like that of a standard American television cop show - very journalistic, as in "This happened, then this, then this... The End."
Takenouchi Yutaka has been a favorite actor since his magnificent, larger-than-life role as the composer HaTa-san in the 1998 dorama "With Love," but his talent was largely wasted in "Boss." His acting was fine of course, but the Nodate character - like everybody else in this dorama - was superficial and mostly forgettable. It was actually hard to recognize him as the same actor who played Hasegawa Takashi-san - the characters in "Boss" are so shallowly written they could've been played by any competent actors and there'd have been no difference to the overall balance of the show.
The best of "Boss" was the two-part story in Episodes 4 and 5, in which Kimoto-chan (Toda Erika) is kidnapped by a serial murderer. Yet even that one is undercut by implausible suspensions-of-disbelief and internal contradictions written into the script. In the climactic scene Kimoto, who'd been freed by the team, steps out onto a rooftop, unarmed, to confront her abductor while the rest of the Countermeasures Team waits - something no police unit leader would have allowed - and talks him into giving up. So a guy who had been convincingly presented up to that point as a cold-blooded, fanatical murderer, utterly sociopathic, remorseless and merciless, is suddenly just melted by his former hostage's heartfelt words? Iye.
In addition to more cohesive internal logic and plausibility, better crime doramas - like "Joshi Deka," "Galileo" and the outstanding "Voice" - all have larger, overarching moral lessons written into them, often a new one in each episode, that touch on timeless issues: Integrity vs. pragmatism; reason vs. emotion; ethics vs. "looking the other way" from the crimes of friends/family; science vs. mysticism and irrationality; independence vs. conformity; perseverence through horrific ordeals and obstacles.
This one was only light entertainment, and that's fine, but given the quality level of most J-doramas, the lack of deeper themes was noticeable. It left me feeling a little bored and impatient with what often felt like pedestrian television that wasn't really time well spent. I found myself looking forward to finishing up this series not once or twice, but often, especially in the later episodes.
The series needed better writing - in terms of thematic depth, character development, humor (only a mild chuckle here and there despite some setups that could've been transformed into hilarious comic relief scenes.)
So...entertaining, not enlightening. If you have a lot of spare time to kill, if you've already seen all of the better police doramas and just want some light drama, go for it. Otherwise, IMO your time would be better spent on any of the better police doramas out there.
Joker Yurusarezaru Sosakan [ジョーカー 許されざる捜査官] Excellent, thought-provoking, and outstanding cast [Rating: 8/10] Sakai Masato reminds me of a Japanese Gary Sinise. There's that same kind of squinty inscrutability - you don't know whether he's sad, amused or lost in thought at any given moment - but with a hint of Jackie Chan's light-heartedness masking deeper character conflicts. In other words, a pitch-perfect performance. He gives the Date character an incredible complexity and a palpable chemistry with every other character he interacts with.
Nishikido Ryo is great as his sidekick Kudo, at first an antagonist, then an apprentice of sorts; Kaga Takeshi as the Chief and Osugi Ren as the bartender and ex-cop Mikami, are both pivotal characters perfectly acted, and each a surprise twist. Anne gives Asuka a necessary gravity as the ethical anchor of the group, and Ryo as the journalist and ex-cop Saeko gives a great performance as a somewhat unpredictable wild-card.
The story itself does a great job of examining two related issues: the question of justice vs. revenge on a direct level, and the issue of justice vs. vigilantism itself on a broader perspective. My only complaint is that by the last couple of episodes there are so many different people involved in the vigilante plot and from so many different angles that the ethical distinctions get a little muddled. And yes, you'll find yourself shouting at your TV "So go burn a couple dozen copies of that CD-R already!" You will also find yourself getting a little annoyed that two of the female characters agree to meet with shady characters in deserted warehouses after dark, against all normal sense of self-preservation. Worse, in Asuka's case she turns around and does it a second time after nearly getting killed the first. Nobody with a functioning brain who valued her life would ever do that.
Nonetheless, the series manages to avoid cliches, doesn't wimp out on uncomfortable subjects (child abuse, corruption, fanaticism,) and admirably uses moral choices among characters rather than arbitrary physical conflicts, as pivot points in the plot. And did I mention the casting was excellent?
This is definitely time well spent.
Over Time [オーバー・タイム] Arbitrary, Annoying Ending; Nice Buildup & Act [Rating: 6/10] ...ing
[Beware: Possible spoilers!]
I remember this being the first J-drama aired on the International Channel in early '99 after the excellent "With Love," the first after FCI (stupidly) discontinued English subtitling. It took a full ten years, but I finally got to see it online and... color me frustrated.
The acting in this is phenomenal by all involved - particularly Esumi and Sorimachi in the leads - to the point that it's difficult to believe that these are actors playing roles. The soundtrack is excellent too, but then I never could resist Tomoko or BuriGuri, and Yamaguchi Yuko is a revelation. The problem is with the writing and that horrid, illogical ending.
For a story to be good it has to adhere to its own internal logic. So here you have an artfully-constructed development of characters and their relationships from a chance meeting, a clear chemistry building between two people (a chemistry palpable between the actors, Esumi and Sorimachi,) but in the end it's all for a huge, anticlimactic nothing.
This isn't about "realistic ending" vs. a "fairy-tale ending," but rather an ending that is utterly arbitrary, that runs counter to a story that had painted a convincing picture of two people who are really "halves of the same whole." Natsuki's decision - and Kaede's insistence on her making that decision - is a massive short-circuit to the entire story up to that point. Forget "fairy-tale endings" - in real life, when two people meet and discover over the course of time and experience that they're kindred spirits, the most "realistic" outcome is for them to become an item. I disagree too with the point someone else made here about Soichiro's stoicism. I don't think his stoicism makes his professions of love for Natsuki hard to believe - if anything it increases their depth and intensity.
The "love triangle" thing is necessary for the story's conflict, but for that to work the relationship between Natsuki and Kuga-sensei needed to be much deeper - at least as deep as the bond between Nat-chan and Kaede. I'm not talking about Shiina's acting - which was superb - but the fact that his character, Kuga, has virtually no chemistry with Natsuki. His character is written almost like a supporting role - like Haruko or Fuyumi - but it needed to have the same depth as the other two leads. Balance is everything, and this love triangle is horribly lopsided. The result is that Natsuki's climactic decision seems completely arbitrary, nothing more than a pragmatic whim. I can't help wondering how much more powerful this story - and its ending - would have been, if Kuga's character and relationship with Natsuki had developed enough depth to balance against her relationship with Soichiro. It would have lent far more weight to her conflicting emotions, and far more dramatic punch (not to mention plausibility,) to her final decision.
In short-circuiting what had been an excellent romantic buildup, the writers effectively pulled the rug from beneath the audience's feet. I feel like I've just been through a lengthy, heart-wrenching ordeal with no satisfactory resolution. The series is well worth watching, but I can't say that I'm sorry it's over.
With love I Have to Fight to be Objective on This... [Rating: 7/10] On an emotional basis I want to give "With Love" a 10 out of 10, because as is the case with many other Americajin, this was the first J-Drama I watched, on the now-defunct International Channel (later renamed AZN Television before it shut down,) sometime in '98 or '99. It was also the very last dorama aired in America with English subtitles, after FCI discontinued providing subs. That was a crushing blow for me - to discover something you love instantly, only to have it yanked out of reach just as you're anticipating the next. I had to wait nearly ten years before I found some incredibly poorly-translated DVDs in LA's Chinatown (I later realized they were knockoffs,) and eventually found some streaming and torrent sites - before I could continue the long-delayed addiction.
Presumably everybody here has his own deeply personal story of "discovering" Japanese dramas, so can understand the weird kind of emotional bond one has with one's first dorama experience. "With Love" has some serious flaws that require a lower rating, but I *want* to max it out - because I feel like I'm reviewing a part of my own life, shared vicariously with a group of people that I came to love like family over the span of the series. (Hey, am I maudlin or what? 8^)
Anyhow... "With Love" tells the same general story as the American film "You've Got Mail," but as a 12-part soap opera rather than a single feature-length movie. Both were released in 1998 - "With Love" on April 10 and "You've Got Mail" on December 18, a full eight months later - so apparently the similar storylines were created spontaneously and independently of one another.
The flaws of "With Love," as I see them:
- The relationship between Takashi and Amane is central to everything, but there's little or no chemistry between the two either as actors or written characters. They don't even mesh as mutually-disdainful adversaries, which they become by roughly halfway through. Takenouchi-san is perfectly cast as the brooding and somewhat-cold composer who's haunted by a past relationship, but Tanaka-san's role is far too bland and detached to be believable as Takashi's eventual love interest. The fault lies equally in casting (Tanaka-san is badly miscast as Amane,) and the way her character is written. Amane works at a bland job, has a relatively bland social life, and isn't particularly passionate or deep in her everyday life in the way her online writings would suggest she ought to be. The online Amane is a deeply poetic intellectual, while the here-and-now Amane is a shallow bank teller who doesn't talk with her friends about much of anything except banalities, who doesn't do anything of interest but cursory after-work socializing, and whose personality is incredibly wooden and uninteresting. For someone with such a passionate and poetic outlook on life, a career as a bank teller is implausible from the outset; I can't say if it's Tanaka's acting or the direction, but Amane's reaction on recognizing Hata-san's song at her reception...it should have been an expression of shock, but all she does is sit up a little straighter and blink a couple of times. The scene demanded a more expressive display of recognition and emotion from Amane, but Tanaka for whatever reason does not provide it.
By the climactic final episode, it's difficult to believe Takashi's attraction for her is genuine, or that Amane's distaste for what she had seen as his unrefined nature has suddenly turned to love. As a result, the audience is left with more affection for *the general scenario* than with the actual people involved in it. A drama with such an interesting and then-timely story concept should have had a central couple about whom one would end up caring deeply almost immediately (think: Soichiro and Natsuki in "Over Time.")
- The inability of Takashi and Amane to recognize one another becomes more and more difficult to believe as time goes on - the classic suspension-of-disbelief problem. A more subtle and varied set of circumstances and "almost" moments were needed to pull off the "mystery identities" scenario through the course of twelve episodes. There are quite a few moments here when you're just shaking your head at the television, thinking "Figure it out already!" This is more of a writing and direction issue though - Takenouchi and Tanaka generally did a great job of acting what they were given to do.
- I disagree with what people have said about the "villains" in this dorama being "two-dimensional." Haruhiko Yoshida and Kaori Imai are excellent dual counterpoints that continually threaten the core relationship from either end. Where the problem lies, however, is again with chemistry - specifically between Yoshida and Amane - and again with suspension of disbelief. There's really no reason to believe that Amane would be attracted to Yoshida, except that he pursues her relentlessly - not a strong enough reason to believe she'd go anywhere with him, much less decide to marry him. That eventual decision makes Amane seem even more shallow and capricious, neither trait being a positive addition to the character.
The suspension of disbelief becomes difficult here too, in that we're expected to believe that Amane would accept Yoshida's assertion that he is Hata-san. In order to believe that, you as an audience member have to conclude that Amane is a complete fool - again, not the desired outcome in a story's character development.
- More broadly, in addition to the lost opportunities for more dramatic impact in "almost" moments and the richness that better chemistry between the leads would provide, the Hasagawa Takashi character is needlessly undercut in the script on a number of key points.
The writers begin with an emotionally-conflicted yet brilliant and principled artist, but later have him blithely acquiescing to a sellout of his ideals. Imagine how much stronger the story - and HaTa's character - would have been if he had flatly refused to cheapen his work for the sake of a lucrative contract, then had suffered a disheartening (yet temporary) consequence for sticking to principle. Instead, the writers make Hasagawa act as capriciously as Amane, thereby severely undercutting the excellent character they'd built up to that point. Such a waste, in both cases - though it was arguably necessary in Amane's case, in order to make the storyline work. Better writing would have found a way to do it without undercutting the integrity of the characters, though. Integrity is the key to both characters from the outset, yet the writers apparently didn't realize it.
- Finally, the scene with the two reciting their entire online conversation from memory is horribly contrived, implausible and maudlin - which is a big part of why I liked it anyway, hahahaa. By that point you're so glad they finally hooked up that you're willing to swallow anything. 8^D The scene really cheapens the whole series though. A better scene would've been a more fleshed-out conversation in which they would *occasionally* throw in a line from their emails, then react to it with either humor or affection or both. Instead it's written almost like the final act of a high school play. It gives the impression that the producers were in a rush to complete the final episode, took a look at a rough draft of the episode's script and said "This'll have to do."
They're hinted at in my list of negatives and on balance they handily offset those negatives, and even nudge this dorama into "classic" territory.
- The music is easily the one element that carries this dorama, more than anything else.
* The love theme "Once In A Blue Moon / Link to Fate" is simple, yet powerful and unforgettable - ideally suited as the "fragment" that Amane accidentally hears and can't resist, and as the key to the ultimate revelation of identities;
* Hata-san's "Ash" composition "Miniature Garden" - sung magnificently by the late Kaori Kawamura - is incredibly entrancing and packs an emotional wallop that weaves through the entire fabric of the series (I'm listening to it right now, as I write this, and I'm nearly choking up - it's like being physically shaken);
* Though only presented in full in one scene, Iwashiro Taro's composition "A Day Like This" is another great piece, intensely evocative of the series' mood;
* The opening theme "Destiny" by My Little Lover is iconic of the series, obviously, but is oddly incongruous in its light, breezy attitude.
Taken together, and given the central role that music plays in the plot, the music is actually another principle star of "With Love."
- The Hasagawa Takashi character is the other great strength of the series, even though it's severely undecut by the script midway through the series, as I noted earlier. Hata the composer reminds me of Roark the architect in the novel "The Fountainhead" - fiercely yet calmly independent, supremely self-confident, endlessly innovative and competent at his art, and unshakingly principled. ...Until the writers undercut him as a protagonist. ~ arrggh ~
Nonetheless, the overall strength of the Hata-san character - along with the soundtrack - is key to what makes this dorama so interesting and enduring, where it otherwise could have been mundane and trite. It's just too bad that inconsistent writing and direction, along with some poor casting, prevented it from being a truly great story.
Even with its flaws (and acknowledging a definite bias,) I consider "With Love" as a must-see dorama - do not miss this one. It's worth the trip for the music alone.
Yasashii Jikan [優しい時間] Excellent, Moving, Beautiful - but a Rushed Ending [Rating: 8/10] I just finished watching Yasashii Jikan, and I know it will always be one of my favorites despite some criticisms. The story, characterization and setting were all phenomenal, and the mood overall is so palpable it's almost like another character itself. The Forest Clock coffee house is a place you'll find yourself missing when you're not watching this and wanting to visit when you've finished; Wakui-san, the staff and the motley crew of regulars there seem almost like family - people you will find yourself thinking about long after you've stopped watching. Terao Akira is perfectly cast for the role of Wakui, at times bringing to mind the depth and intensity of Clint Eastwood; Ninomiya Kazunari and Nagasawa Masami fit their roles with conviction and incredible emotional range. Yo Kimiko's elegant and understated Tomoko was actually a scene-stealer in several spots - in the scene where she shows up a little tipsy at Forest Clock and teases Wakui-san, Tomoko managed to be laugh-out-loud funny, adorable and incredibly wise all at once.
My first criticism is that the father-son estrangement, though written and played excellently, perhaps missed some opportunities for deeper, more moving drama - like gooseflesh-type scenes where the two almost meet but just miss each other (like HaTa-san and TeruTeruBozu in "With Love,") and I think the two characters were made aware of each other's whereabouts too early on, short-circuiting more dramatic opportunities within the story.
The other criticism is that the ending was anticlimactic after all of that great buildup. Episodes 10 and 11 both seemed a little rushed. There was a noticeably hastened pacing after the previous 9 and a whole lot of resolution points jammed into them, yet other subplot loose ends were left unresolved. Given that the series ran 11 episodes rather than an even 12, I'm speculating that perhaps the production ran over budget and a late decision was made to truncate the series with a hastier wrap-up? I had expected the climactic reunion scene to come to a head at the ceramics competition, but that event wasn't even presented Again, I think the ending could've been done in a way that took better advantage of the buildup to that point, but that's not to say I was seriously disappointed either. It's just not the emotional wallop that I'd expected.
Some have commented that they found the conversational scenes at the cafe bar to be boring, but to me they were one of the most fascinating aspects of this drama. It was an interesting glimpse into the lives of small-business entrepreneurs and their social and business acquaintances, and some uproarious humor on occasion. Takuro-kun's apprenticeship was fascinating too, and the Ryokosuke character was a crackup - almost like he stepped off of the pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Great job by Maro Akaji in that role.
Finally, the theme song "Ashita" is indeed spectacular. That's Hirahara Ayaka? I didn't even recognize her - or more specifically, the song is so overwhelming in its gentle beauty that it left me too spellbound to wonder who gave voice to it. It's as good as "Avec Toi Toujours," the theme song for the dorama "Fufudo," sung by Missa Johnouchi. I wish the rest of the soundtrack were more than just light piano music, but I will likely order it anyway. "Ashita" alone is worth it.
If you are patient by nature, Yasashii Jikan is well worth the time spent - a truly memorable, often magical slice-of-life.