Sunday, October 23, 2005


H2~Kimi to Itahibi (The Days With You) _ *** _ Yamada Takayuki, Ishihara Satomi, Ichikawa Yui, Tanaka Koutaro _ Baseball teen romance that plays like dorama by way of the WB, based on Mitsuru Adachi's manga and starring some of Japan's A-list, post-jailbait idorus. Kunimi Hiro (Yamada) thought an injury had ended his baseball pitching days after junior high _ but it wouldn't be much of a show if he didn't overcome it real quick (unless we're watching a death dorama, which we're not).

Needless to say, he does within the first 40 minutes, and we're off to the real story _ Hiro and friend/rival high school star hitter Tachibana Hideo (Tanaka) both have the hots for aspiring sports journalist Amamiya Hikari (Ichikawa) _ Hiro and Hikari grew up together; but she's Hideo's girl. Meanwhile, Hiro's baseball club manager Koga Haruka (Ishihara) pines for our talented pitcher, but he wouldn't give her the time of day for like 11 episodes, even though he wouldn't had made it back to the pitcher's mound without her.

They're almost as mean to the characters in this show as Matsushima Nanako's Sakurako was to Otsuke in Yamato Nadeshiko. Sure, it ramps up the teen angst, but it kind of stretches the whole suspension of disbelief thing _ like why does Koga, who's like rich, take this crap for THREE YEARS?! Is Hideo so dense that it takes him THREE YEARS before he begins suspecting his best bud and his girlfriend may be more than "just friends"? Then again, if you're looking for naturalism and reality in a J-dorama, you'll have better luck finding for those pesky Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The leads and supporting cast range from passable to exceptional (especially Ishigaki Yuma as Kine Ryutaro, the comedic third-wheel/relief pitcher trying to break up Hiro and Koga) _ all except for Tanaka, whose Hideo doesn't do much until last couple episodes. Overall, the high production values _ the dorama played in winter 2005 _ and the whole underdog trying to make it to the Koshien national high school baseball championships plot thread makes it engrossing weekend viewing.

GOKUSEN _ **** _ Nakama Yukie, Matsumoto Jun _ Yamaguchi Kumiko (Nakama) _ "Yankumi" _ lost her parents at a young age and becomes a teacher to honor her father, a school teacher. Which is all nice and fine, except she's the maternal granddaughter of 3rd generation Oedo family boss Kuroda Ryuichiro (a wise, dignified Utsui Ken), and she's tapped to be the 4th generation heir. Still, she turns her back on the thuglife, only to become homeroom teacher to the worst bunch of onscreen peroxide punks since GTO.

Underneath the highlights and hairspray, they're good kids, and it's up to Yankumi to set them straight yakuza style. World weary bishonen Sawada Shin (Matsumoto) leads a troubled class 3-D that includes GTO alum Oguri Shun. The rest of the exceptional ensemble includes Itoh Misaki and Nakazawa Yuko as coworkers/convenient goukon partners, and Namase Katsuhisa as Sawatari Goro, the head teacher with the wicked pompadour who rules Shirogen High School with an iron fist. Throw in a couple of cuddly yakuza playing against type and Sawamura Ikki as juvenile detective/potential love interest Shinohara, and you have the foundation for a great show.

Sure, GTO's done it with more depth, but that doesn't mean Gokusen is somehow inferior. Nakama can make speeches and beat up punks threatening her kids every bit as well as Soramachi Takashi in his signature role, and she looks cute and hot doing it (sans hair ties and glasses). She shows us that a little gangster wisdom with a bit of intimidation and violence can solve most of life's problems, including poverty, family disputes and trouble with police _ all done with generous doses of humor and manufactured pathos.

The Spring 2003 tv special that wraps up the first series packs even more fights and more speeches. Gokusen 2 _ so far _ seems to be for completists only.

BATSU KARE (One Boyfriend Down) _ **1/2 _ Takahashi Katsunori, Takashima Masanobu, Inamori Izumi, Maya Miki _ Four 30-somethings _ recent divorcees Kyousuke (Takahashi) and Shouko (Inamori), widower Youhei (Takashima), single woman Natsuki (Maya) _ deal with life and relationships as, well, 30-somethings in Japan. Yes, it's a comedy _ the two guys are mismatched best buds _ Kyousuke as the irresponsible playa lingerie salesman; Youhei is the neat, formal architect. Same with the ladies _ Shouko is pleasant and reserved; Natsuki is the sexy and tough modern woman who owns a gift shop where Shouko ends up working. They're all neighbors.

The four leads, reliable dorama veterans all, mix and match over 12 episodes until it settles to the not entirely unpredictable conclusion. We know who will end up with whom by the third episode _ the fun is in second guessing the writers and anticipating what comes next _ treat it like a dorama screenwriting wiki.

The guys' kohai, Masahiro (Amano Hiroyuki) is a hen-pecked insurance salesman prone to Maxim-lad ranting about women troubles. He brings his two sempai's dilemma into focus _ they're grown ups seeking companionship in women, but they yearn to be boys and for the freedom they are bound to give up when they meet the right one.

The individual parts don't add up to anything new, but the breezy story and solid performances are a pleasure to watch. It's like Breyer's vanilla ice cream _ there's better vanilla, but it's good enough (it's those black vanilla bits) for sudden cravings. Lisa Loeb's "Love Storm" sets the mood.


Tuesday, October 04, 2005


YAMATO NADESHIKO _ ***1/2 _ Matsushima Nanako, Tsutsumi Shinichi _ A love-or-money romantic comedy that's equal parts wacky-funny and dormatic, following the relationship complications between Matsushima Nanako's gold-digging flight attendant Jinno Sakurako, and Nakahara Otsuke, a debt-ridden fishmonger/MIT-educated mathematician played by Tsutsumi Shinichi.

Will Sakurako, who grew up poor in a fishing village and is now seeing a rich doctor, choose wealth or the poor fish-slicing diamond-in-the-rough with the heart of gold? Let's just say the show won't be breaking any new ground _ not a single character with a heart condition in sight, though there are a couple of medical emergencies.

The main couple is only moderately engaging _ they never develop the chemistry of such greato dorama screen couples as GTO and Azusa sensei (in fact this show packs plenty of in-jokes from Matsushima's earlier hit), or Senna and Minami from Long Vacation. It's probably because Sakurako spends most of at least 9 1/2 episodes shitting on the poor fish guy who can't seem to get his proof on.

But Matsushima Nanako's performance elevates this show above more derivative entries in the genre. She can flip from caring friendly sempai to manipulative "Goukon Queen" with a smile, and she pulls off the comedy and the sentimental, teary bits convincingly. "Perfect Woman" indeed _ Tsutsumi as the thankless straight-man doesn't stand a chance.

A strong supporting cast led by wide-eyed, kawaii Yada Akiko as Wakaba, a fellow stewardess who's smitten with Otsuke and doesn't mind he's poor; a smirking Nishimura Masahiko as best friend Dr. Sakuma; and Kakei Toshio as out-of-control drinking buddy Kasuya provide most of the laughs and some dorama, making this a well-worthwhile 11-episode ride.

Now Showing: Gokusen (that Nakama Yukie is one hot little number), Batsu Kare