When it rains in Kyoto…

Sometimes it’s a good idea to think of plans that include sights other than temples and shrines, like the Toei Kyoto Movie Studio tour. Some of Japan’s best-loved films and dramas  have been filmed using the sets on display here, including the upcoming movie, “Ōoku,” starring Ninomiya Kazunari, who’s making a name for himself in film (beyond his participation in the super popular band, Arashi).

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The history of the studio goes back many years and the displays will be most meaningful to devotees of these films. (Most of the signage and information is strictly in Japanese.)

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But that’s not to say that this is not fascinating for the more casual viewer of Japanese cinema and dramas. There were many sets that had this look of familiarity, and I was frequently thinking, “Waaaate a minute… wasn’t this the place where so-and-so went to see the courtesan?”

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This fast glimpse of a striding figure hurrying on his way (above) reminded me of a scene from the drama “Jin.”

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And of course, there were others in character who were happy to pose for photos, such as this young man.

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And, if your pockets are deep, you can, for a price, get made up in period costume and feel like a member of the cast of your favorite movie. I passed on the privilege, as I was squishy wet from the rains and not in the mood to put on layers of clothing – not to mention not wishing to be the strangest looking samurai woman one would ever see. (I’m pretty sure pale blueish eyes are not indigenous to Japan!)

But in spite of the gloom, the few school groups that were there on an outing had a great time racing up and down the “streets” of old Japan. And so did I!

One final word though: Japanese studio tours like this and the one at the Fuji TV building in Tokyo have a LOT to learn about merchandising and what belongs in a souvenir shop. There were no classic movies for sale on DVD, few images of past stars, or other items that promoted the product. Instead there were the usual souvenirs of Kyoto and small trinkets. Disappointing, really. I would have loved a Toshiro Mifune movie poster or the movie image on a shirt… (but then, perhaps these things cannot be licensed in Japan). The only drawback to an interesting outing.

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Park Yong Ha, thanks for convincing me otherwise!

Park Yong Ha, you made a believer of me. I really thought long and hard about wanting to see “On Air” (Korean title 온에어 2008) knowing that you were in it. How unfair of me to almost reject you out of hand just because I hated, hated, hated your character in “Winter Sonata” (Korean title 겨울연가). Did I say that I hated your character, Kim Sang-hyuk? No, that doesn’t go far enough… I despised, loathed, and oh yes, hated him! Sang-hyuk’s brilliant strategy to win back – though one might say he never had her – his lady love was beyond pathetic. No, I won’t go into details. If you know what happens, you’ll agree with me. If you don’t, I don’t want to spoil the surprise. (Hah!)

But oh, how the scales have fallen from my eyes, thanks to your subtle and intelligent work in “On Air!” Your characterization of the young director trying to bring his vision of how a drama should be to the screen and all the ups and downs that entailed was a study in expressiveness. I loved watching how you would react to the high drama and intrigues that swirled around you, raising a quizzical eyebrow here, dropping the mouth in disbelief there, suppressing that flash of anger or tossing off a fond gaze. You were completely credible, allowed others to have the flashy moments but were never upstaged. I felt as if I was experiencing the story and drama through your eyes, or should I say, Lee Kyung-min’s eyes.

감사합니다 박용하씨!

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!