Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

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Recently seen TV shows #7

July 24, 2009

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (Japan, 2006) – 2/5

Shinji Somai’s all time great idol film Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (based on Jiro Akagawa’s novel) was followed by two television adaptations, first by Fuji TV in 1982 (with Tomoya Harada in the lead role) and then by TBS in 2006. The new version consists of seven episodes, each running 45 minutes. Masami Nagasawa stars as Izumi, a normal high school put in charge of a 5 man yakuza gang when her father dies and no other blood relatives are found. She tries to keep the men out of trouble while another gang is making attacks against them. This is the basic pattern that is repeated over several episodes to the point of frustration. Visual output is modern and occasionally cartoonish, lacking the merits of the original film adaptation.

The few strengths include some great humour, interesting Asakusa setting, and terrific theme song which of course is a new version of the original theme performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru. Nagasawa fares ok on her own right, especially when wearing glasses, but any comparisons to Yakushimaru would be pointless. The most famous actors appearing in the show are Ken Ogata, whose talent is not utilized, and Kyoko Koizumi, who brings down every scene she’s in. Tsutsumi Shinichi, who plays Sakuma, is luckier. His character is decently written, unlike the other gang members who only exist to bring in cheap drama. It is describing that while in Somai’s film each death became as a surprise, or was revealed to the viewer only afterwards, the new television show builds up for inevitable tragic deaths and spends entire episodes weeping after the fallen friends.

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Recently seen TV shows #6

July 19, 2009

Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform (Japan, 1986-1987) – 4/5

Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform was Nippon TV’s answer to Toei / Fuji TV’s hugely successful high school action series Sukeban Deka (1985-1987). It opened in late 1986, just before the second Sukeban Deka series ended. Yumi (Nobuko Sendo), Ruri (Risa Yamamoto) and Kei (Kyoko Goto) form a three girl rebellion league, backed up insider Miho (Miho Nakayma), in a fight against corrupt high school officials and teachers straight out of a Kinji Fukasaku yakuza film. Expect no peace when classes are led by Rikiya Yasuoka (the madman who tries to kill Sonny Chiba with a traffic sign in The Executioner)

Unlike Sukeban Deka, Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform doesn’t invest much into the storyline. There is a larger backstory that is introduced in the first few episodes, but in practice it is soon forgotten and the episodes are individual stories only very loosely related to any bigger scheme. The secrets revealed in the final episodes are also somewhat underwhelming. For this reason Rebellion League is rather superficial entertainment; the series is as good as the sum of its episodes, and episode quality is mostly defined by the amount of humour, original villains and inventive fight scenes.

It’s the fight scenes that are the show’s biggest asset. The action choreography, which is by Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club, is easily the best ever seen in a 1980’s idol product. It’s obvious from the beginning that these girls have taken a karate lesson or two before walking into the set, and they only improve as the show advances. Watching Sendo, Yamamoto and Goto doing Donnie Yen style split kicks, running on the opponents’ shoulders, or just delivering ordinary roundhouse kicks episode after episode often makes you forget that these girls – although naturally assisted by a skillful stunt team and editors – are indeed adorable idols. Slight stiffness in their performance doesn’t hurt the fun. JAC’s choreography gets most insane in episode 12 where the girls encounter an entire football team on battlefield.

Just like the Sukeban Deka girls, each of the heroines have their signature weapon. Yumi relies on boxing gloves, Ruri throws sharp pens, and Kei uses a combination of scarf and long yellow chain. When going into fight, the girls disguise themselves with outrageous hairstyles, make-up and white uniform. Especially Kei is an attention stealer on battlefield; the war painting on her face almost makes her look like a special forces commando on jungle mission.

Sendo and Yamamoto both contribute one song to the soundtrack. Rock band A-JARI perforns the theme song ’Shadow of Love’. A-JARI is also seen in front of the camera in one episode, and this is definitely a band cameo to remember, unlike their special episode in Toei’s Shoujo Commando Izumi one year later (another high school action series that A-JARI worked on). The songs are all good, however, the amount is quite small compared to some of Toei’s series. Rebellion League also lacks a memorable score by a composer such as Ichiro Nitta.

Sendo, Yamamoto, and Goto are all good in their roles, but not unforgettable. Miho Nakayama, often marketed as the star of the series, is actually a supporting player and doesn’t even appear in every episode. She only becomes equal to the other three leads in the last three episodes. Nevertheless, she’s the first billed star in the opening credits till episode 4, after which she starts taking turns with the real star, Sendo. Nakayma’s selection of weapon is explosive roses. Although she was a successful pop star, most western fans probably know her best from Shunji Iwai’s Love Letter (1995) in which she played the leading role.

Despite its shortcoming in terms of story and characters – as well as a couple of lesser episodes – Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform is great, occasionally jaw droppingly cool high school action fun. What it loses in depth, it takes back with crazy opponents, ( blind caucasian teacher with a huge afro), solid cast and visiting stars that include Kinya Aikawa, Shinzo Hotta, Noriko Hayami and Jun Izumi, and first grade action scenes. Not a Sukeban Deka beater, but a great challenger.

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Recently seen movies #133

June 1, 2009

Sukeban Deka: Counter-Attack of the Kazama Sisters (Japan, 1988) – 4/5

The first Sukeban Deka movie, despite being solid entertainment, failed failed to live up to the TV shows. Now Hideo Tanaka, who had been helming the school girl fighters since season one, gives his second try at silver screen adaptation. The outcome is an unexpected success. Taking place after the end of the third season, the film takes a completely new direction and in this sense is a logical continuation to the franchise where the preceding TV shows were also all very distinctive. Traditional Sukeban Deka activity has been closed down and replaced with special forces lead by young politician whose goal is to fight crime at any cost and without mercy. Yui, at the request of the Sukeban Deka founder Kurayami, has joined the forces but cannot accept the merciless methods – and razor blade yo-yo’s – used by the new crime fighting unit. She soon finds herself in a situation where her former colleagues have become her enemies.

Counter-Attack of the Kazama Sisters is much darker than any of the preceding adventures – rather ironic considering Asaka is the most adorable of the three sukeban deka’s – being both violent and displaying a close future vision that even occasionally reminds of Paul Verhoeven’s scifi movies. Compared to the first film Kazama Sisters is better focused, less over-the-top and notaby punchier. Yui’s sisters Yuma and Yuka (are not given too much screen time – although each girl performs on the soundtrack – but this probably works to the benefit of the film. Hiroyuki Nagato’s extended role also comes as a positive surprise as this is one of the few times we get to see him outside of his office.

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Recently seen movies #132

June 1, 2009

Sukeban Deka: The Movie (Japan, 1987) – 3/5

It’s ironic that Sukeban Deka’s movie versions have been widely distributed in the west, while the TV shows – that are essential for understanding the films – have never been brought outside Asia. On the other hand, yo-yo armed schoolgirls that are never thoroughly introduced to the viewer, and references to events that are never explained, will probably offer an enjoyably confusing experience for first timers. This is how most Japanese cult movies are advertised in the western market anyway.

In certain ways Sukeban Deka: The Movie could indeed be a more rewarding experience for new viewers. Hitting the theaters a few months after the closing of the second series, the film brings together the old cast (Minamino, Yoshizawa and Sagara) and adds Yui Asaka from the third series. Unfortunately much of the potential is wasted. Minamino dominates the screen at the expense of other actors. The television show’s best character, sukeban Okyo, played by the wonderful Haruko Sagara, doesn’t get much room, and even her hair is wrong. The same applies for Yoshizawa, and one can only wonder what was the reason for including Asaka. Her character features a profile completely different from that of the Sukeban Deka II fighters, but this delicious opportunity for comparison is largely ignored.

Nevertheless, the film version is by no means a bad movie. It just doesn’t compare well against the television shows which count among the most iconic ever made. The film is more over-the-top and less effective. However, it is a good amount of fun and just seeing the familiar cast together again is wonderful. There’s also many fun references and jokes like the Sukeban Deka author Shinji Wada in a cameo role, and a new super yo-yo that is so powerful that Saki must use an armor to prevent it from crushing her own chest. Ichiro Nitta’s soundtrack is once again cool, and Minamino’s new theme song is great. Putting comparisons aside, Sukeban Deka is an enjoyable film on its own.

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Recently seen TV shows #5

May 26, 2009

Sukeban Deka III: Romance of the Ninja Girls (1986-1987) – 4,5/5

After the iconic pop-culture fusion Sukeban Deka II: Legend of the Girl in the Iron Mask (1985-1986) Toei and Fuji TV faced an impossible challenge; how to equal the preceding series? During the show’s run Yoko Minamino had became one of the biggest idols of all time. Her shoes would not be filled easily by just anyone… except ninja. Yes, in Sukeban Deka III teenage ninja girls walk in school uniform and battle masked assasins on the streets of modern Tokyo.

Yui Kazama – played by the supercute Yui Asaka – is a hyper-energetic countryside girl know as the Great Sukeban of Kyushu (Asaka’s real real life home before she became an idol), raised by her ninja master uncle. She is sent to Tokyo to meet her sisters Yuka (Yuka Onishi) and Yuma (Yuma Nakamura) who are the leading sukebans in their school… and also members ninja family. The legends says that when time is ready it is the Kazama family that must defend Japan in an epic battle between good and evil. Lead by a mysterious Hannya-masked ninja, the three sisters begin their fight.

The first two Sukeban Deka shows concentrated on modern day pop-culture. The third series finds its inspiration in ninja legends. The currupt high school principals are gone, and now almost every villain dresses in black, arms with knives, and walks on rooftops. A special mention must be given to the kabuki-masked martial arts devil making his first appearance in episode 5. Although his face is not revealed in this episode, Toei fans should be quick to recognize him from voice as he is one of most famous Toei villains of the 1970s…

While the previous sukeban fighters were never quite up to the physical requirements of the role, Yui, Yuma and Yuka succeed rather well in their roles. Asaka’s yo-yo art is the most impressive seen in any of the three shows, and Nakamura’s way trapping enemies with knitting needles and wire is yet another original fighting method. But by far most impressive is Oshishi’s combination of metal crane shuriken and crane style kung fu that occasionally puts weaker martial arts movies into shame. As far as performances go Nakamura and Onishi both fare well but obviously pale in comparison to Sagara and Yoshizawa of the previous series. Asaka on the other hand is brilliant; very funny and endlessly charming, without trying to copy anything from her predecessors.

Asaka was the youngest of the three Sukeban Dekas. Unlike Saito and Minamino who were 18, Asaka was only 16 years old when the show started. This was also taken into consideration in the screenplay. When she introduced herself she said ”Kazama Yui, class B1”, rather than B2 like the other two sukeban dekas (Nanno actually proceeded to B3 during the second show’s course). Like her predecessors, she was given the code name Asamiya Saki, but she didn’t use it very often. A cover identity was not really needed against ninjas, and most of ger enemies knew her identity anyway.

Yui also performs on the series’ pitch perfect soundtrack together with Nakamura and Onishi. While perhaps not as big stars as the leads of the second show, Asaka, Nakamura and Onishi almost exceed the previous show with their brilliant pop songs. Former Onyanko Satomi Fukunaga – who plays a supporting role in the series – is also heard on the soundtrack. She is responsible for the first of the five theme songs. Ichiro Nitta also delivers his usual terrific score.

The only real weakness comes during the last 10 episodes. After bringing the epic story to mythical dimensions, the screenwriters are struck by an overly strong urge to re-imagine the Star Wars trilogy. This doesn’t feel a very natural move after so succcesfully building on Japanese pop culture legends and ninja mythology. This setback doesn’t wreck the show, but it does prevent if from becoming the very best Sukeban Deka show. Nevertheless, Sukeban Deka III is an unforgettable and completely unique piece of television history.

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Recently seen TV shows #4

May 1, 2009

Shoujo Commando Izumi (Japan, 1987-1988) – 3,5/5

Originally planned as Sukeban Deka IV but then departing into a series of its own, how could Toei and Fuji TV outdo their previous achievements and overcome the challenges set by their competitors, such as Nippon TV’s Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform? By raising the caliber, and arming the seifuku warrior Izumi (Izumi Igarashi) with bazooka. Although it must be noted that, to the disappointment of many, the light anti-armor weapon is only used in a couple of episodes, with Izumi’s bracelet and inhuman powers given to her by a mysterious organization that kidnapped her two years ago being her primary weapon.

The series has a dynamite start with more pyrotechnics applied to the first few episodes than most Toei action films of the time. Igarashi also delights with both her singing skills and her willingness to do far more of her own stunts and fighting than you’d expect from an idol. However, one should prepare for the show losing some of its kick after the amazing opening episodes and following rather familiar patterns at the expense of commando action. Overuse of slow motion also hurts the action.

The supporting cast features most notably Takeo Chii, whose clumsy policeman character is quite far cry from his stand out role in Yukihiro Sawada’s nihilistic cop thriller Retreat Through the Wet Wasteland (1973). After working in action and yakuza films throughout the 70’s Chii moved mostly to television. Yumi Tsuchida and Masami Katsuragawa play Izumi’s shoujo sidekicks, without memorable results. The short lived rock band A-Jari, who is responsible for most of the soundtrack, also makes an appearance in one episode. Interestingly their song Fight for Love is also heard in the show, despite it actually being the theme song of the fore mentioned Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform.

Considering its sky high potential and especially the jaw droppingly great opening episodes Shoujo Commando Izumi turns out slightly under performing entertainment in the long run. However, none of the 15 episodes are bad – except maybe one story that gives too much room for the 80’s women’s fashion – and the ending is almost as good as the show deserves. Obviously, even with its flaws Izumi’s commando adventures are a must for fans of Toei’s 80’s high school action.

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Recently seen TV shows #2

February 20, 2009

Sukeban Deka II – Legend of the Girl in the Iron Mask (Japan, 1985-1986) – 4,5/5

Seifuku dressed Yukari Oshima’s nunchuku mayhem. Saki vs ruthless girls’ kung fu club. Evil martial arts masters (specialties include the three section staff) released from prison at noon in a western esque story setting. Simply put, Sukeban Deka II has the best start in the history of television. Although it can’t quite retain that quality throughout its 42 episodes – there’s a couple of filler storylines in the middle – it is one hell of an addictive series that among all other movie and pop culture references even manages to re-tell the story of Casablanca (1942).

The second series stars Yoko Minamino as an orphan girl who was forced to grow up wearing a mysterious iron mask. Now she’s released from the mask and given the code name Saki Asamiya. Trying to solve the secrets of her past and fight the evil Seirokai she must face mercenaries, evil monks and school girl vampires in episodes that mix elements from Yojimbo, The Terminator and Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion into an original storyline of epic proportions.

Backing Saki up are a well behaving sukeban Okyo (excellent Haruko Sagara), who uses marbles as weapons, and Yukino, who turns tea ceremonies into deadly martial arts, played by Onyanko Club member Akie Yoshizawa who also brought the onyankos with her into two episodes. Each of the three leads have also contributed excellent songs to the series, backing up Ichiro Nitta’s already terrific soundtrack. While not quite as good as the masterful original series, Sukeban Deka II still counts as one the most iconic television shows ever made.