Thursday, January 04, 2018

Amachan

Sometimes a show is so good that it makes you wistful to find another show that can match it. Mondai no Aru Restaurant was such a show for me. As I cast about looking for something to come close to that experience, I came across the site MyDramaList which covers all Asian dramas, and decided to see if there were any J-dramas focused on the Japanese idol industry. MyDramaList has a convenient search function, and the highest rated j-drama in the music genre is a charming show called Amachan.

Amachan is a 15-minute morning drama that was broadcast 6-days a week over 26 weeks in 2013. Set in a small fishing village, Sanriko, it tells the story of a teenage girl, Amano Aki played by Rena Nounen (who now goes by the highly unsearchable name Non) who accompanies her mother as she returns to village for the first time in 25 years having run away to Tokyo. You'd be hard-pressed to believe that the show is even in part about the idol industry at the beginning because the first 18 or so episodes are about Akichan discovering a love of diving and following in her grandmother's footsteps to become an Ama - a traditional woman diver who harvests sea urchins during the summer months.

Rest assured, however, that this drama does dive into the idol industry, and the middle section of the series moves to Tokyo where Akichan pursues a career as an idol after she forms an idol duo with her best friend Yui from the village. They are implausibly scouted by a guy from an idol organization similar to AKB48's - the actor cast as the head of the organization looks a bit like AKB48's Aki-P and, like Aki-P, writes all the songs for his groups.

But Yuichan never makes it to Tokyo through a series of melodramatic events which mostly detract from the more interesting story-lines about Akichan, her mother and her grandmother. Akichan's mother had run away from home to become an idol in Tokyo in the 80s, but, instead, was convinced by the man who became the head of the idol organization that later recruits Akichan to secretly serve as the singing voice of a young actress who could not sing. The song from that actress's debut film goes to number 1 on the charts but Akichan's mother never receives any credit for it, and the producer never helps her start her own recording career. In Western TV hands this story almost certainly would become a story of vengeance against the producer and the actress, but the story here is much more subtle and complex.

The acting among the leads is superb, and Rena Nounen (Non) is a treasure. Unfortunately, her career since Amachan has been almost completely stalled by a dispute with her talent agency. By comparison the actress who plays Yuichan has been in over a dozen productions since Amachan while Non has done one critically-acclaimed voice-role in an anime during the same period. She is trying to launch a music career as well and you can check out a music video she released a month ago here.

The acting among the supporting cast is much more uneven with a trio of men in the village being played horribly broadly for comic relief including Sugmoto Tetta who was wonderfully restrained and menacing as the main villain in Mondai no Aru Restaurant. I'm guessing that they were directed to be OTT to keep the tone of show relatively light. Japanese audiences would have known going in that the setting and period of the show would cover the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that resulted in the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and so maintaining that tone would be difficult as the village of Sanriko faces the consequences of the tsunami.

The 156 episode length of the series may seem daunting, but each episode is bite-sized and the pacing is nevertheless pretty compelling. It's really only roughly four times the length of Mondai no Aru Restaurant. I do recommend the show if you're looking for a charming drama about the idol industry in Japan.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Terrace House, a Deeper Dive: The Boy Prince Slot

The youngest male on the panel is the only position which has changed since the last four panelists were introduced at the end of episode 26 of B&GND. In this entry, I will discuss the guys who have filled that role in the order that they appeared.

Hiroomi Tosaka (b. March 12, 1987) is actually one of the biggest names to appear on the panel. He is a singer in a popular boy-band the Sandaime J Soul Brothers (the third J Soul Brothers). Their last four albums have gone to number 1 in Japan, and they topped this year's list of concert attendance with 1.8 million tickets sold to their 37 shows this year. By comparison the most successful idol group this year, Nogizaka46, sold 488,000 tickets for 38 shows. His run lasted throughout B&GND.

Mochizuki Ayumu (b. September 28, 2000) is the actor who was given the nickname "Boy Prince" by the Rose Buddies podcast (now called the Wonderful! podcast). He has had good start to his career as a child actor having been in five features and five j-dramas in the past two years. We almost certainly heard from him the least of all the panelists

Kentaro (b. June 30, 1997) replaced Mochizuki Ayumu somewhere around episode 25 of B&GITC and lasted through the entirety of AS. He is also an actor, but his career is a bit further along. His first leading role in a feature film is in Demekin which was just released. Like his predecessor we rarely heard from him unless explicitly prompted by Yama Chan.

Shono Hayama (b. December 19, 1995) will be taking the boy prince slot in OND. He is yet another actor with an even more extensive filmography than the prior two though, as far as I can tell he has not yet had a lead in a film (but he's also two years older than Kentaro).

Omichan is five years older than Torichan, and so he was a bit more apt to speak out than the other members in the boy prince slot. I believe that the move to a younger panelist was an expression of the production's desire for an even wider audience demographic. The casting of the panel as audience surrogates makes it clear that the production sees their show as being for all ages interested in real romance (which might exclude tweens and younger, but then again...).

But being the youngest member of the panel is a harder role to fill in Japanese culture in particular. Torichan has the advantage on the show of having been the second panelist, and so the newer members do defer to her a bit, but there's no such advantage for the youngest guy now. His best chance to get a word in is after all the rest have had their say, and that can be particularly hard when Tokui and You begin riffing. And so, while I'm sure Shono Hayama will be personable, I have little expectation that he will shake up to role all that much when OND begins next week.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Terrace House, a Deeper Dive: Babachan

Azusa Babazono (b. March 1, 1981) is, other than the youngest boy prince, the hardest member of the panel to get to know outside of Japan. She, like Yamachan, is a manzai comedian, and her comedy partner is Miho Sumida. Collectively, the duo is known as "Asian", and they had their most successful year in the M-1 comedy competition as Yamachan's did coming in 8th compared to Nankai Candies' 2nd in 2004. From what I can tell, her partner has gotten married and mostly retired from performing.

Babachan, on the other hand, has developed a steady career as a character actress. She's appeared in a few j-drama's every year since 2013.

Her most recent role is in Kono yo ni tayasui shigoto wa nai (watchable at that link with English subtitles) which was broadcast earlier this year. She appears in the first two episodes in the second largest role as a copy writer and announcer for a small city bus company who begins to show the young woman protagonist how to change her reality through the power of ... advertising. Babachan's performance in the show is sunny and magical, and it's well worth checking out those two episodes.

Her role on Terrace House is largely as a fashion goddess, and we, unfortunately, do not get hear from her as frequently as the other panelists. She is even more self-deprecating than Yamachan, She calls herself out for being ugly when, clearly, she's not. She may not match the ridiculous standards for cis-gendered women in the entertainment industry of our times, but she's pretty, she has amazing sense of style and an easy charisma that she can turn on like a klieg light. Her insights about what's happening between the housemates are well worth paying attention to.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Terrace House, a Deeper Dive: Yamachan

Yamasato Ryota (b. April, 14 1977) is kind of analogous to Chris Hardwick: he's primarily a stand-up comedian who has built a career out of being a host. He hosts game shows, talk shows, radio shows and award shows. He has leveraged his image as a nerd into gigs where he gets to interact with the people involved in his fandoms. His focus appears to be more into entertainment in general rather than the things we normally associate with Japanese otaku. He does not appear to be huge fan of manga, or anime, for instance.

Like most comedians in Japan he is part of a comedy duo or manzai. His partner is Yamasaki Shizuyo who has had a successful career as an actress, but who also made a credible attempt to make the Japanese Olympic team as a boxer in the last couple of Olympics. Collectively, Yamasoto and Yamasaki are known as Nankai Candies (apparently through the usual process of a series of puns which can get far more complex in Japanese as different sounds of associated with written characters get substituted). They broke onto the entertainment scene in 2004 by placing second in an important comedy competition.

Yamachan's career has brought him, unsurprisingly, in contact with many other people and threads related to Terrace House. Here, for instance, is Yamachan as a CGI Pharaoh mummifying Torichan ("Yama" means "mountain" in Japanese, and so if Torichan is our little bird on the panel, Yamachan is our little mountain) on a game show before they joined the Terrace House panel:
Yamachan also had ties to AKB48 (which I discussed in the entry on Tokyo Idols) having served as the referee for three of their Janken competitions. (Yes, in addition to their annual popularity elections, AKB48 also more occasionally determines who will get to be on a single by a single elimination rock-paper-scissors tournament.) The last time he refereed the tournament was before Rie joined AKB48, however, and so they would not have met then.

More than anyone else on the panel, Yamachan is a fan of Terrace House. For B&GITC he produced a video after-show for the Netflix YouTube channel with his thoughts on each episode. He also tweets more about the show than anyone else on the panel, but, then, he tweets a lot in general.

His role in the panel is often as a foil: he is likably comfortable with taking positions contrary to everyone else in the group, and cheerfully accepts their mocking and condemnation. He does appear to express more traditional attitudes towards dating than certainly You and Tokui. He sides with the idea that a couple should not kiss or hold hands before they have stated that they like each other, for instance. And he expresses his ire with a light and humorous touch when dating etiquette is violated. He genuinely seems to care about the show and the people on it, and is more than anyone else the surrogate on the panel for obsessive Terrace House fans even though his expressed opinions might differ from such fans.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Terrace House, a Deeper Dive: Tokui

Yoshimi Tokui (b. April 16, 1977) is the oldest man on the panel and is almost exactly two years older than Yamachan. As such, he is probably the most frequent commentator though he certainly defers to You who is more in charge of the hosting and generally guides the conversation. He is charming and handsome, but also the earthiest of the panelists.

He is primarily an actor having had roles in a couple of dozen J-dramas and a few films. Like most tarento, he routinely appears on variety shows as well. It's generally hard to find anything he has been in other than Terrace House which has been subtitled in English. I have found exactly one such J-drama which has been fan-subbed: N No Tame Ni. He plays the role of a man who was murdered in his Tokyo apartment along with his wife. I watched the first 8 minutes or so of the series, but the show mostly focuses on the young people who committed the crime and what led to their doing so. I have no idea when Tokui's character makes an appearance, but its clear that his role in this drama is pretty secondary at best.

As you dive into Terrace House, though, you will quickly uncover the things that he is infamous for: Handjob Karaoke, Pero Pero House and condom ads. Everyone's initial impression of the first of those is that he hosted one of those wacky ongoing Japanese game shows that, in this case, involves men trying to complete a karaoke song before cumming while being given a hand-job. In fact, however, there have only been two episodes of the show and both were a part of the same show that resulted in Pero Pero House. The real story is that Tokui has been hosting a series of specials on an adult satellite network since March, 2013 a month before he first appeared on Terrace House. Google translate puts the name of the show as "Keeping the Chuck of Tokui Yoshimi Down" though I have seen it translated as "Unzipped". There have been seven episodes so far with the most recent in October of 2016. The Pero Pero House sketches were on the 3rd, 4th and 5th episodes and the Handjob Karaoke episodes were on the 6th and 7th.

Pero Pero House is a softcore parody of Terrace House, and it says a lot about Terrace House that the production is perfectly fine with Tokui repeatedly making fun of the incredible length of time it takes for housemates to hook up on the show. The continued presence of Tokui on the panel as a voice of sex-positivity is a strong indication of the show's implicit critique of Japanese dating culture. The show really does seem to wish dating were easier in Japan.

Of course, the downside of Tokui's openness and good cheer is that he does occasionally veer into the objectification of women as does the show in general. Tokui's reaction to Chikako is the clearest example: he almost instantly states at her first appearance that she must be great in bed, and the scenes of her eating a banana are utter catnip to him.

Tokui is our favorite somewhat skeevy and disreputable uncle on the panel. He is given to flights of improvised fan-fiction that never come true. He presents the view-point that consensual sex is a generally a good thing, and he never slut-shames and in fact constantly battles Yamachan's impulses to do so.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Terrace House, a Deeper Dive: Torichan

Continuing our examination of the panelists we turn the second panelist who appeared on the 14th episode of B&GND:

Reina Triendl (b. Jan. 23, 1992).

First of all, how do we get from her Austrian name to "Torichan"? Japanese often uses one of its two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, to write foreign words. Her last name is written トリンドル in katakana. Each of the symbols represents a vowel or a single consonant followed by a vowel sound (with the sole exception of ンand its equivalent in hiragana which represent an "N" sound with no following vowel). Thus, トリンドル would be pronounced To - Ri - N - Do - Ru or "Torindoru" which gets shortened to "Tori" which, coincidentally and appropriately means "bird" in Japanese. The -chan suffix is a more informal and friendly honorific and is, perhaps, slightly diminutive. Torichan is our little bird on the panel.

(TANGENT. It was not until the announcement of the upcoming series, Terrace House: Opening New Doors that I realized the strange feature of the show's names in Japanese: they are all written and pronounced as English words. Episode 1 opens (nearly three years before the show would seek an international audience via its affiliation with NetFlix) with the name of the show displayed as "Terrace House Boys X Girls Next Door" with テラスハウス in green below that. This latter became the franchise name:テラスハウス. which is pronounced Te - Ra - Su - Ha - U - Su - "Terrace House". The first NetFlix series was also only written in English, "Terrace House Boys X Girls In The City", but, otherwise. used the franchise name. The most recent series is written テラスハウス アロハ ステート that is, Te - Ra - Su - Ha - U - Su - A - Ro - Ha - Su - Te - (e) - To. And the next series is テラスハウス オープニング ニュー ドアーズ or Te - Ra - Su - Ha - U - Su - O - (o) - Pu - Ni - N - Ngu - Ni - Yu- (u) - Do - A - (a) - Zu or "Terrace House Opening New Doors".)

Torichan was the youngest member of the panel in B&GND, but she has, nevertheless, already had a flourishing career as a model and an actress in TV dramas and film. In fact, she plays the protagonist in a film available right now on US NetFlix called Tag.

Unlike, YOU's film Nobody Knows, I do recommend watching Tag. It is a horror film, but it is not torture porn and the violence is ridiculously over-the-top and cartoonish. If (spoiler from the first few minutes of the film) seeing two busses of school girls get sliced in half by a mysterious wind decapitating everyone except Torichan's character (who was reaching for something on the floor at the time) or occasional panty-shots or the lack of a full explanation for what is happening are deal breakers for you, do not watch this film. Otherwise, it's an enjoyable, evocative film with some striking moments of utter beauty. Torichan does play the protagonist, but the main character changes actresses, character and location a few times. Her character does begin and end the film, and she has the screen-presence and charisma to anchor your interest in the narrative.

Torichan is a superb addition to Terrace House. As we see from the few episodes where she is absent. she tempers the bawdier elements in the panel (generally, Tokui and YOU). She does not speak as often as others on the panel - part of that may be cultural since younger members in a group will often be expected to be silent unless their opinion is solicited. Fortunately, YOU does often ask what Torichan thinks of various moments in the show, and Torichan responses are generally sweet, romantic, sometimes surprisingly lusty, and frequently insightful. She's my favorite member of the panel.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Terrace House, a Deeper Dive: YOU

Panels are a common part of Japanese variety shows. Usually, they are there to provide comic commentary via inset reaction shots in one corner of the screen. Terrace House's panel does so as well, but instead of insets the show hard cuts to their reactions, and the reaction segments are comparatively long. Thus, in addition to quips we get largely empathetic analysis, discussion and occasional fan-fiction. The panel is clearly designed to be an audience surrogate, and you can tell from the demographics of the panelists that the intention of the show is to have as wide an audience as possible.

And so who are these panelists? They are generally "tarento", Japanese entertainers who serve as hosts and fodder for a endless of game shows and variety shows. They may have had moments of fame in their prior careers, but, mostly, they are now "famous for being famous". In this series of articles, I'll take a look at the panelists, and examine where they came from and some interesting tidbits from there prior careers.

YOU (born August 29, 1964) is the original and sole host of B&GND. The show's first thirteen episodes had her introducing the show usually from the interior of a product placed car at night as she went from one part of her glamorous life to another. Her original name was Ehara Yukiko, and, thus, her personal name was often shortened to "Yu", but, at some point, her stage name became "YOU" in the English alphabet which is quite striking when it appears in Japanese credits.

She came to fame as the lead singer of a pop/New Wave band called Fairchild. Their music is largely 80s pop dance music with synths which is strange because their live performances were a standard rock quartet with no keyboards at all. Many of their videos can be found on YouTube. Fairchild only lasted from 1988 to 1993.

After that she moved into a general tarento career which included acting in dozens of television dramas and feature films. She received some notice for her feature film debut: 2004's Nobody Knows. As of the posting of this entry, you can watch the movie with English subtitles here, but I strongly advise against your doing so. The film is well regarded: Roger Ebert gave it 4.5 stars out of 5. However, I found it unrelentingly dire. YOU plays the single mother of four children all by different fathers who is trying to find a way for her family to exist in Tokyo, and (spoiler) she only appears in the first maybe 30 minutes of this 2hr 20min film. Her performance is good, but it's a haunting film chock full of despair.

As the anchor of the Terrace House panel, YOU represents an older female demographic, but she easily exudes a rocker-chick vibe that completely undercuts her age. She remains along with Tokui and Yama the most active of the panelists frequently launching into bits with her partner in crime Tokui, but also tossing to Torichan and rebuking Yamachan. She is a treasure.