Tiger Tiger Gilletaiger!

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was predisposed to love anything with Nagase Tomoya in it, but I had no idea that I would enjoy his drama series “Tiger & Dragon” (タイガー&ドラゴン) as much for the fascinating world and imaginative storytelling as for his undeniable charms. I spent last week with the gruff yakuza by chance yearning to become a rakugo performer and fell in love – with the artform of rakugo.

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With a versatile cast headed by Nagase (also known as a performer in the rock/pop group TOKIO), veteran actor Nishida Toshiyuki and Okada Junichi(also rep’d by Johnny’s Entertainment and a member of the pop group V6), the viewer is taken on a ride through classic Japanese folk tales narrated by a single storyteller but vividly brought to life. Nishida, as the endebted head of the theater takes on Nagase’s yakuza as an apprentice – a young man who has never made someone smile, nor smiles himself – and arranges to teach him the comedic tales in return for payment which can then help him pay off his debt. In return, he discovers an unexpected talent in the younger man as Kotora learns to adapt the tales to the world he knows. Kotora finds in the master a mentor and father figure.

The real magic is in how the two men manage to make each telling of the story – the same tale is told twice in most episodes, first with a classic interpretation as done by the master, then with a contemporary interpretation as the yakuza relates it to the world he knows – vivid and hilarious. Cast members are woven through the stories, taking on the various personas, sometimes changing roles mid-story as a different narrator takes over. This is not for the innattentive: you have to stay alert to not miss a moment. But the payoff comes with each punchline.

There’s also a terrific opening theme song by Crazy Ken Band, appropriately enough called “Tiger & Dragon” and it’s available on iTunes. The story begins with a special movie and is followed by the 11 episode drama. If you can track it down, it is highly recommended viewing!

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Thankful for writers who surprise me

Thankyou

Recently I had the good fortune to watch a drama that managed to be both touching and surprising. I’d chosen the series for two reasons – the lead actors I knew to be very talented and the writer had done excellent work in the past – but not without some trepidation. After all, it was no secret that the story featured a young girl who been infected with HIV as the result of a blood transfusion, so the concern was there that it would dissolve into a “disease of the week” teary melodrama. The series sat in a stack with others, waiting for that moment when I felt that I could face whatever the story offered. After all, sometimes you just feel like a good cry.

But the author, Lee Kyung Hee (이경희), had other plans. “Thank You” (고맙습니다), starring Jang Hyuk (장혁) as the troubled Dr. Min Gi Seo, Gong Hyo Jin (공효진) as the courageous and loving unwed mother Lee Young Shin, and the charming Seo Shin Ae (서신애) as her daughter Bom, charmed, delighted, and yes, made me cry, but never in a manipulative way. It was memorable as much for what it did not include as what it did. For example, the brash doctor is the son of the predictable chaebol head (his mother) but we are spared the cliché of a mother opposing a son’s interest in an unsuitable woman. (Unless, of course, we consider the reaction of Bom’s grandmother as her son learns that he is the father of an 8-year-old daughter and wants to make amends.) Instead we are treated to a series of small moments in which life in an island village unfolds, and how a grieving man comes to honor the promise to his dying lover and finds family, a meaningful life, and love.

The performances are outstanding in this drama. Gong Hyo Jin, with many memorable performances to her credit, including roles in “Ruler of Your Own World” and “Hello My Teacher”, inhabits the role of the prettiest girl in the village who succumbs to the charming boy she loves and pays the price, but ends up fiercely in love with her daughter and willing to make any sacrifice. You can’t take your eyes from her. Jang Hyuk, in his first series after his army duty, shows a maturity and sophistication in his acting, and as well an emotional connection. As his character Gi Seo comes to find his place in the community and a home you see this peacefulness wash over him, especially when Gi Seo picks up Bom, to protect her, to calm her, or to play.

The supporting characters also contribute to the strength of the story, particularly Shin Goo (신구) as Mr. Lee, Young Shin’s senile grandfather and Shin Sung Rok (신성록) as Choi Suk Hyun, Bom’s father. However, to fully describe what this drama does so well would be to spoil it for you. It is highly recommended.

This drama can be seen on Dramafever.com.

Montecristo vs Montecristo vs Montecristo

Currently, the Argentine network Telefe is rebroadcasting on its satellite channel one of its most popular recent telenovelas, “Montecristo,” a modern take on the classic Dumas tale. [Note: This version is now available on Dramafever.]

As it aired in 2006, the producers sold the script to several other network producers, from Mexico and Chile. In fact, the resulting productions are close carbon copies of more than the script: the staging, set decor, even soundtrack, are inspired by the original. The version produced in Mexico by TV Azteca was a highly successful retelling of the story – I had the opportunity to see it first and was impressed by many of the production details, particularly as fully realized, rich storytelling has suffered lately in the telenovela industry. With the airing of the original, I can compare the two productions and both clearly have made their mark.

The scene below is one example of the intense connection between the protagonists Laura (played by Paola Krum) and Santiago (played by Pablo Echarri). Their characters have been separated for over ten years, she has believed him dead, and they meet face-to-face for the first time. He runs (for reasons to complex to detail here) and she follows.

The Chilean version, from what I’ve seen, suffers in comparison. Here Laura is played by Ingrid Isensee and Santiago by Gonzalo Valenzuela.

But the Mexican version, starring Silvia Navarro and Diego Olivera offers a very satisfying comparison: whereas Paola and Pablo created a more fragile, wounded pair finding their way back to each other, Silvia and Diego are fiercer, more engaged in the battle of righting wrongs. Both productions pack a lot of emotional impact. Here’s a direct comparison of the Telefe scene.

The best part of the different interpretations is that, while the stories are almost identical on so many levels, the distinctive interpretations of the actors allows both productions to feel fresh. This is an instance where a remake successfully competes with the original.