Sunday, 7 February 2016

Best Running Man shows part four

Another year and a bit has gone by since my last list and a comment in a previous post made me think it was about time to do another list of the best episodes to date.

Running Man’s days of being a rating’s winner are long since gone, and it usually finishes third in its time slot. It’s probably true that Running Man keeps going largely due to overseas sales, but with ratings now firmly stuck below 10% I do find myself wondering how much longer RM can continue. On the other hand, as you'll notice when you read my choices, there was a sudden patch of very original and interesting episodes between 270 and 280. I was impressed how a show could seem so new after five years. Mind you, this period coincided with some of the lowest ratings of the year so I may be in a minority in that opinion.

But enough pessimism, let’s celebrate the best with a top ten! And this has been a year (to be exact eps 233 to 283) without any really poor episodes at all. There were plenty of very good episodes which didn’t make the list by very fine margins, such as eps 241 (Time Capsule mystery) 250 (Big Bang and water basketball) and 283 (Smile Cup). But these, in order of transmission, are my favourite ten.

(The previous part to be Best Running Man series of posts can be found here (EDIT July 2016, this link is currently down due to a DCMA request through Blogger. They haven't actually specified what copyright I've infringed, but I've replied with a counter claim and we'll see what happens next EDIT, nine days later, the link is back and I've no idea why someone brought a DCMA claim against me. Oh well.) and links to parts one and two are also on that page)

Episode 253

There were lots of couple races in 2015, based around various themes. This episode had a summer camp vibe to it, and had plenty of amusing summery games. The winning couple was given the opportunity to melt a large block of ice, inside which was a key to a box. Open the box to win.

Episode 258

The detectives with amnesia episode. The cast wake up in a warehouse, with their memories wiped (and their acting ability missing too).

This is the cue for a number of detective-themed games, including getting through laser-beam security (actually yellow elastic) and a Metal Gear Solid-type section where the detectives have to buy groceries without being photographed.

Episode 259

The theme linking this episode's games is that there are three lead roles in a drama up for grabs. These theme, though, is pretty tenuous and while some games have some feel of a dramatic scene, others are less so.

Still, that doesn't mean it isn't fun, and I especially enjoyed the Blindfold Race in which two men with blindfolds on have to negotiate an obstacle course, using only the instructions from the female member of the team.

Episode 267

Can Running Man stop squabbling and become a team? That's the question posed by this particular episode.

The seven regulars are locked in a large room and have to entertain themselves until they are given a mission. This mission has to be completed unanimously: either with each member succeeding or giving the same answer.

The main fun is watching how the seven interact given so much time together. They inevitably make their own entertainment, and by now they're so used to each other, it's almost as if you just have to point a camera at them, and you have a show.

The ending is rather touching, too.

Episodes 271-272

An epic battle: one hundred trained fighters (wrestlers, martial artists) against the Running Man team of seven plus as many famous people as they can invite (up to 100) in the six hours before battle begins.

During this six hours, the Running Man team can reduce the opposing team's numbers by winning three mini games.

These two episodes are perhaps the least typical Running Man episodes in that most of the comedy comes from the wide diversity of celebrities that the seven members can convince to arrive and the looks of confusion on their faces when they find out what's going on.

Episode 274

After a slightly over-long section where the guests are introduced in pairs, the unique point of this episode is revealed: the couples will be chained together for the duration of the filming.

Gary and Ha Ha steal the show, though. Their recently rekindled rivalry has become a regular part of  this show, and Gary takes a lot of pleasure in being as lazy or as inconvenient as he can.

Episode 275

In this episode, the theme is “rivals”. There are two teams, and each member has a rival in the opposing team. For example Song Ji Hyo and Hani are rivals in their ability to fall asleep on air.

At first, the teams have to play games to get the status of being “elders” meaning the other team have to speak to them formally, no matter what the real age difference may be. This lead to a lot of humorous tension as the “elders” gleefully demanded respect from the other team.

All of this lead up to a cage match at the end of the episode. And only Running Man could come up with a battle in which the two contestants have to fall asleep the quickest.

Episode 276

Gary is trapped in a box in Seoul, and the other six have to find him, using only whatever clues he can give them in a sixty second phone call. The twist was that in the box with Gary, hidden under the bed, was a box of diamonds. The six other members have to find Gary before he found the box.

An intriguing episode, and one that gave us the running joke of 7012 (the password to escape from the box), a number which has popped up a few times since this episode.

Episode 277

Zombie outbreak in a disused building. The seven RM regulars have to save as many survivors from a building full of zombies without getting bitten themselves. At first the zombies are slow and only react to sound, but as the game goes on, they evolve into faster, smarter enemies.

A very atmospheric episode with some excellent examples of betrayal among the RM members in the face of a zombie horde.

Episode 280

A social media battle. Each of the Running Man team get social media accounts and have to compete in various games according to instructions from their followers online.

It's a clever idea, and one that really works in the final name-tag chase as each member is told secretly by SMS which other member they have to eliminate.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

100 Yen Love

This 2015 film is this year’s Japanese entry for the Oscar’s best foreign film. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that each country could only nominate one film each. I was under the (perhaps naive) impression that they made some kind of effort to watch a decent amount and then make up their own minds.

Japan’s recent Oscar performance hasn’t been great, with only two nominations in the last thirty years (although one of those, Departures, actually won the Best Foreign Film Oscar) and I wonder if this is the film to break through the wall of indifference that the Oscar Academy usually shows.

The story is about a slacker, Ichiko Saita – played expertly by Ando Sakura – who is still NEET (No Education, Employment or Training) in her thirties. She finally gets a job in a convenience store, falls in love with a boxer and takes up the sport, desperate for a professional fight.

It’s a rights-of-passage film for a woman with zero self-esteem. Which is odd, when the people she meets and works with all seem far more dysfunctional than she is. Her wants and needs are positively mundane in comparison. Her desire for a normal relationship with the emotionally immobile boxer is almost heart-breaking in its futility.

It’s a comedy, but a very dark one and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering exactly when a scene went from humour to bleak realism. And, being a boxing film, there is the obligatory training montage.

In this film, boxing becomes a metaphor for the life that has pummelled Ichiko Saito into a nervous lump. Ichiko clearly wants to get beaten up, just so she can hug her opponent afterwards and it’s okay. An option that’s not available to her in real life.

It’s smart, affecting and emotional. I do wonder if it’s Academy material, though. However, with this film and 0.5mm, I would hope for a Best Actress nod for Ando Sakura. Or is that too naive, even by my standards?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Yuriko Kotani – 2015 BBC New Comedy Award winner

In the Japanese World of Comedy, the double act is king. Manzai is the dominant format, with two comedians delivering fast-paced puns and body gags. Solo stand-up comedians are far rarer. Before today, I could name only two Japanese stand-up comics: the first being Issey Ogata, who does (or did) comic monologues in character, and the second is Hyodo Daiki. While it’s easy to find his stuff in Japanese (search for 兵頭大樹 on YouTube), stuff with English subs is much more scarce. This is the only example I know of:

But today I discovered a third. Yuriko Kotani won the 2015 BBC Radio New Comedy Award. She’s based in London and only began doing stand-up in 2014.

I listened to the five minute set on the BBC webiste, and it was okay. It’s hard to get a good idea of a comedian from such a short amount, but it made me laugh. You can hear it on the BBC site here:

She talks about trains, which is a sensible enough topic, given the huge gulf between the Japanese and British railway systems. And it’s a safe topic, since everyone likes to complain about the trains in Britain. I wonder how I’d do in a similar situation where I was doing a stand-up routine for a Japanese audience, commenting on the cultural differences between us. But I guess a fifteen-minute rant about why cycling on the pavement is a bloody stupid thing to do wouldn’t be quite so popular.

It’ll be interesting to see how her career progresses. Judging by previous winners, she can look forward to the occasional panel show appearance and maybe a series on Radio 4.

Saturday, 14 November 2015


In this film from 2014, director Ando Momoko directs her sister Ando Sakura in a long, rambling story about a home-carer who, out of kindness, helps one of the families she cares for out of office hours. This is against official practise, so when the evening ends in tragedy, she is also given the sack.

This begins a long road trip type movie in which Sakura’s character, Yamagishi Sawa, drifts from one adventure to another. Although “adventure” is probably the wrong word. They are understated episodes in which Sawa gets involved with a lonely old man and changes his life for the better before moving on.

The film lasts over three hours and, since it involves several short stories, you could be forgiven for watching it in several chunks, like I did. However, that’s not to say the film is bad. Far from it. But it can be a test of endurance.

Luckily the film is centred around an astonishingly good performance by Ando Sakura. She’s in pretty much every scene and it’s her portrayal of an everyday woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances that makes the film work.

She’s just an amazing actress and if I was the type to write fan mail, I’d have written her a book by now. But it’s so hard to pin down why she is as good as she is. It’s almost as if she isn’t acting. But at the same time, you can’t help but be transfixed by her.

So, at the very least, if you want three hours of some of the best acting you’re likely to see, then this is for you. The addition of intriguing stories and clean, crisp directing is a bonus.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

C'est Si Bon

I heard about this Korean film back in July and, since then, I have been repeatedly visiting its page on Asiatorrents, hoping that the English subs would be there. In the meantime, I’d have the first twenty minutes on in the background, just to enjoy the songs.

When, after four months of trying, the subtitles finally arrived, it almost didn’t register and I was about to click away, thinking “Maybe next time” before I realized that I was looking at it.

Was it worth the wait? Well, it is certainly a sweet film. The music and the period details give it a charm that’s hard to ignore.

It tells a fictional version of the start of a famous folk duo Twin Folio.

They were formed of two singers who were popular at a local live music club C’est Si Bon. The film invents a third member who left the band before they became famous, and he becomes the main character as he falls in love with another performer at the club.

Since the film starts in the present day before returning to the late 1960s, the viewer is given a good idea that all the hopes and dreams of youth do not run smoothly. In fact, halfway through the film, I wanted to stop watching just so it had a happy ending.

But it didn’t. It was a lovely, touching film full of great performances. It gets a bit soap-opera-ish towards the end, complete with a tear-jerking scene in an airport, but by that time I was fully invested in the characters and was willing to let this cliche slide.

Perhaps it works best as an introduction to the kind of music that was popular in the sixties and seventies, long before K-pop was even thought possible. Certainly, for someone like me whose knowledge of Korean culture only goes back eight years (not counting the occasional film) this has been as much an education as entertainment.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ishi no Mayu and Yami no Bansosha

These two crime series prove (if any more proof were needed by now) that WOWOW is the closest thing that Japan has to its own HBO. The quality of performances, directing, photography and writing are streets ahead of the average terrestrial channels.

Not to say that WOWOW is completely free from the usual cliches of Japanese TV, though. In both of these series the lead female characters (a cop and an ex-cop) both went onto the police force because their father’s were detectives and died with one unsolved case.

After this, the two dramas have little in common. Ishi no Mayu is the more conventional cop drama. The lead role is Kisaragi, a rookie cop, who is a junior officer on a serial killer case. In most J-dramas, rookie cops are there to make stupid mistakes so that people shout at them until the end when they make a passionate speech and everyone realises what a great detective they are.

Not this time. Most officers are either supportive or indifferent to Kisaragi. Some people are a bit annoyed when she becomes pivotal to the case, but that’s a side story.

The case itself involves a killer who appears to be taking revenge on some people he accuses of being murderers. So this leaves two cases to be solved: the current one, and a case from twenty years ago. This means that there’s never a dull moment in the five episodes, and the use of the killer phoning the police to tease them with clues may be old hat, but it does make for some great-cliffhangers.

Yami no Bansosha is less of a typical cop show, even though the police are involved. Mostly it revolves around two people: an ex-cop turned detective and a grumpy old out-of-work manga editor. The detective was brought in to investigate a manuscript, apparently written by a famous manga author, that describes an old unsolved murder with uncanny accuracy.

She is put in touch with an editor who can use his expertise and contacts to investigate. There are some nice Biblia Koshoudou type parts, where the editor can spot stylistic aspects to get more clues from the manuscript.

Both of these are similar in structure: male-female pair investigates an old unsolved case, but the approach is quite different. Yami no Bansosha is more comedic, with Furuta Arata stealing a lot of scenes, especially when he tries to run in a duffle coat and rucksack.

And both are excellent. If you watch them back-to-back like I did, you’re bound to feel some deja vu, but to ignore one in favour of the other would be a mistake.