I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 2

4.0 out of 5 stars Why so serious?

I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 2

I loved the first volume of I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow. Shizuo Oguro, a fat, untalented, forty-year old  slacker who ditched his dead-end job in order to become a manga artist, had a  relaxed charm about him, and I loved his nonjudgmental nature that was accepting  of everyone’s foibles. His interactions with his grumpy father, prostitute  daughter, and gangster co-worker were handled in a unique way free of angst and  social commentary. They were all just getting along in this thing called life.

Which is why I was disappointed to see Volume Two take a more serious  tone. The story looks backwards on the history of some of the characters. We see  Shizuo as a young boy, crying over the corpse of his mother who died too young.  We see Shizuo’s father laid off from work, and opening a small restaurant which  is on the perpetual verge of failure. We see Shizuo’s gangster co-worker Shuichi  discovering the body of his suicidal father. All of this takes away from the  “Lovable Losers” aspect of “I’ll Give it my All…Tomorrow” and just makes things sad. It’s all a little too much reality into my fantasy.

Not that  there aren’t still some good bits here. Shizuo keeps going with his manga, and  he actually seems to be improving bit by bit. When the rejection slips stack up  a little too high, Shizuo and his father have a blow-out so Shizuo decides to  move in with Shuichi. That leads to some comedy, like Shuichi worrying the  neighbors will think they are a gay couple, with a great panel of Shizuo in an  apron wishing Shuichi a good day at work. But the laughs are too few, and the  tears too many.

I had some issues with the translation of this volume as  well. Akemi Wegmuller is still doing the translations, but it doesn’t seem as  smooth as volume one. I think we get by now that “manager’ is just Shizuo’s  nickname at work, and there is no need to see “Hey manager  nickname)!”  everytime it is used. A single footnote would be sufficient. There is also a  crucial scene where Shizuo asks a girl out saying “How about we start out as  just friends?” That might work in Japanese, where the context of the situation  shows what Shizuo is really asking, but for an English audience the translation  makes no sense and a less direct translation would have been better.

I still want to pick up the next volume in the series, but I hope that author  Shunju Aono gets the focus back on making Shizuo a character we can root for rather than one we feel sorry for.

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My Darling is a Foreigner

4.0 out of 5 starsThe Ups and Downs of International Marriage

MY DARLING IS A FOREIGNER – Japanese movie DVD (Region 3) (English subtitled)

I have to confess upfront about my complete bias regarding this movie: My wife is Japanese, and we both love Oguri Saori’s comic “My Darling is a Foreigner” (Japanese title “Darling wa gaikokujin.”) In fact, it took us awhile to get around to watching this movie adaptation because we were afraid they would make a mess of it. I shouldn’t have worried. First-time director Ue Kazuaki took the source material and made a sweet little love comedy.

Instead of working directly from the comic, the story starts with Saori (Inoue Mao, Kaidan) and Tony (Jonathon Sherr) on their third date. Saori is unsure of her status with Tony, and while the two of them are happy together, they struggle to fit into each other’s worlds. Tony is bilingual, and can float between Japanese and English speakers, but Saori is isolated by her language ability and cannot communicate with Tony’s friends. Saori’s parents don’t know what to make of Tony. He is fluent in the Japanese language, but not in Japanese manners and customs. Saori’s father (Kunimura Jun, K-20: The Fiend With Twenty Faces, Ichi the Killer) is opposed to the match, but Tony and Saori decide they love each other enough to endure the struggles and misunderstandings of a cross-culture relationship. Meanwhile, Saori is also struggling to fulfill her dream of becoming a comic writer, while Tony has to learn the expectations put on him as Saori’s boyfriend, and what his role is in Japanese society.

What I loved about “My Darling is a Foreigner” is what they got right, not only in Saori and Tony’s relationship but what it is like being a foreigner in Japan. I loved the scene in the movie theater where Tony is laughing first, and the Japanese audience laughs a few seconds later. I have lived that so often in my own life, where I am reacting to the dialog while the Japanese audience reacts to the delayed subtitles. Or Tony’s attempt to ask directions, in Japanese, and be rebuffed by a Japanese person saying he can’t speak English. Hammer. Nail. Head.

And with their relationship, my wife and I couldn’t help smiling as we recognized scenes from our own life. It is the little things in cross-cultural relationships that cause tension. We can accept the big differences, because we expect them. But the small battles; over things like how to fold laundry, or wash dishes, or make tea, or the proper way to eat certain dishes, or a million other little things that we have done one way our whole lives so we both consider that the “right way;” can really bring home the point of just how different you are from each other. I have seen some reviews for “My Darling is a Foreigner” where people don’t get this, and wonder if how you hang your laundry to dry is really such a big deal. Speaking from experience I can saw confidently: yes, it is.

The big problem with “My Darling is a Foreigner” is the acting. Not so much on the Japanese side. There are a lot of first-timers appearing here, so several veterans of Japanese film pop up in supporting roles, such as Saori’s parents and her editor at the manga publishing house. Saori’s father, in particular, takes over the movie every time he appears onscreen. Inoue Mao as Saori does a good enough job playing “spunky, cute Japanese girl” with the appropriate pouts and squeals that are almost required by Japanese law when making a movie. That’s the style. If you on’t like it, don’t watch Japanese romantic comedies.

No, the problem is with the “foreign” cast. Jonathon Sherr does a decent job as Tony, but he seems to have been selected for his Japanese bility rather than his acting ability. He doesn’t bring much chemistry or charisma to the role, and it is sometimes hard to see what a girl like Saori would see in him (The two share one of the most apathetic “finale” kisses I have ever seen in a film.), but he doesn’t do a bad job either. The real train wrecks are the idiot trio playing Tony’s “foreign friends.” I have no idea why these three were cast, as they can neither act nor speak Japanese. Nor are they good-looking. Their performances are bad enough to make you cringe, and wish they would just hurry up and get off the screen. Seriously some of the worst acting I have ever seen. Fortunately for all, their screen time is limited, but it should have been cut entirely.

But flaws aside, I really enjoyed “My Darling is a Foreigner.” Probably my favorite scene in the movie (although marred by terrible acting), was were Tony was trying to explain to his friends what he saw in Saori. Because she doesn’t speak English, they can’t see her personality. They only see her as “that Japanese girl.” But Tony, who can actually talk to her, sees it differently. “To me she isn’t Japanese. She is just…Saori.” I have had that exact conversion many times, and it is nice to see someone else who understands. I might just have to show this film to all of my friends and family, so maybe they can understand too.

Johnny Hiro

5.0 out of 5 stars The Sureal Life of Johnny Hiro and Mayumi

I first read “Johnny Hiro” as a sample in The Best American Comics 2010, and it was the only selection in that anthology that impressed me enough to seek out the graphic novel. There was something infectiously happy about Johnny Hiro, his Japanese girlfriend Mayumi, and the hijinks as the sushi joint that made me want to read more.

While I thought this was going to be a twist on the slice-of-life-young-couple-in-New York genre, by page three of the collection I knew it was going to be completely different. While Johnny and Mayumi are asleep in their small apartment, the wall suddenly burst in and Mayumi is grabbed by Gozadilla, a giant monster out for revenge. It seems that Mayumi’s mother was once the arm in a Voltron-like giant robot called Super A-OK Robot who beat up on poor Gozadilla. I kept waiting for the familiar reveal that it was all a dream-sequence, but eventually you realize that this is real, and that this is the story, which makes it oh so good. Eventually Mayor Blomberg walks into save the day, but Johnny and Mayumi’s problems are just beginning.

This collection contains the four issues of the “Johnny Hiro” comic series, and each issue has some goofy delima mixed in with the very real worries of a young-couple-in-New York. Paying the rent. Keeping the jobs. Fighting off an attack by 47ronin employees of a company put out of business by a friend’s company’s IPO. Hanging with Coolio and David Byrne (Mayumi’s comment was classic “You look very handsome. Sit fit you nice.”) Catching with a giant tuna with chef Masago off the shores of Shikoku. Mayumi having troubles at work because of her perceived English skills. The restuarant being short of Aji. Johnny Hiro has some sort of strange karma that attracts weird troubles, and he is learning to roll with it.

So yeah, the series is a little bit sureal, a little bit sweet, a little bit goofy, a little bit cool, a little bit serious, and a little bit out-of-nowhere. But the whole packages comes together just right.

 

 

I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 1

5.0 out of 5 stars Introducing Shizuro Oguro, Manga Artist

I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 1

I am not quite sure how to classify “I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow.” Is it a comedy? A slacker-drama? Auto-biographical? All I really know is that it is completely brilliant.

The story begins with our hero, Shizuro Oguro. Overweight, forty years old and a fifteen-year employee of a job he hates, Shizuro is in a classic mid-life crisis. Unsure of what he wants to do, but completely sure he doesn’t want to keep living like he is now, Shizuro quits his job and does…nothing. Sits around in his underwear and plays video games. A month into his new jobless status, and with his father and daughter giving him a hard time, Shizuro has an epiphany about his future. He will become a manga artist.

The fact that Shizuro has never drawn before, got only Ds in art in school, and generally knows nothing about being a manga artist isn’t going to get in his way. With his new life decided, Shizuro sets to it with all the lack-of-dedication that a forty-year old slacker can bring to the table. To keep money in his pockets, Shizuro gets a job at a local fast-food burger joint, and has a variety of misadventures in his quest for publication.

When I flipped the first pages of “I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow,” (Japanese title: “Orewamada Honkidashiitenaidake” of “I Just haven’t Done My Best Yet.”) I didn’t think I was going to like it as much as I did. The artwork is somewhat primitive and lacking in detail, and the whole thing is unpolished. The comic looks like something that would appear in an underground `zine rather than as a published book. As I got into the story however, and saw how artist Shunju Aono played with surface colors, with perspective and characterization, I saw that this unpolished nature was a conscious choice that added to the story rather than just a lack of skill. The series has a definite and unique look to it.

The real treasure here is the characters. Shizuro is a total slacker, without too many redeeming qualities other than his greatest talent, which is accepting the flaws in others without judging. Because he is such a loser himself, he doesn’t put anyone down for their choices. In one scene, when he is feeling a bit frisky and so heads to a local brothel for recreation, then runs into his high school aged daughter working there, he doesn’t freak out, but just checks in with her to make sure she is OK. When one of his co-workers turns out to have a shady past involving prison, he just blows it off and invites the guy out for drinks. All of this made me love Shizuro myself, and want to cheer him on. He is a supportive guy with a kind heart, and he deserves some success of his own.

“I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow” is all about personal relationships. Shizuro and his father. Shizuro and his daughter. Shiziro and his agent. Shiziro and his co-workers. Shiziro and himself. There is no action to speak of, unless it is in brief panels where, Walter Mitty-like, Shiziro dreams of himself as an athlete or successful manga artist. Oh, and he gets into a fistfight with God. Can’t forget about that. But that one isn’t a daydream.

Just like life, there are some funny bits here, some sad stuff, some triumphs and some defeats. It is hard to put my finger on what I loved about this comics so much, but there is a lot here to love. Props to translator Akemi Wegmuller who did a great job and delivered some great lines. (“Well you fathered the Stupid Fool, so you are a Stupid Fool too Dad!” “Look, you’ve been stuck in a rut your whole life. It’s been one long slump Sonny”)

Along with the main story, there is a bonus story “To Live” that has Shizuro coming across a young woman attempting suicide due to her past as an adult video actress. In typical Shizuro fashion, he befriends her and watches out for her, completely unconcerned with her past or suicidal tendencies. I hope that this character will reappear, and it actually seems like she could be a good romantic interest for Shizuro (again with great dialog “You want to make out?” “No I don’t” “Mm..of course not.”)

Quirky. Realistic. Funny., Sad. “I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow” is many things, and all of them good.

Neko Ramen Volume 1: Hey! Order Up!

5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, this is awesome

Neko Ramen Volume 1: Hey! Order Up!

“Neko Ramen” is one of the funniest manga I have ever read. The 4-panel strip comic has just the right combination of Japanese cuteness, surreal situational humor, site gags, and acerbic wit so that it is never too sweet, or too cynical, or too bizarre. I don’t remember the last time a manga had me laughing out loud while reading it!

First appearing in the monthly magazine Comic Blade Masumune in 2006, “Neko Ramen” features a classic straight man/funny man duo with Taisho (which means “boss” in Japanese, and is a traditional nickname for chefs), the owner of a ramen shop who also happens to be a cat, and Koichi Tanaka, his sole hapless customer who keeps returning and encouraging Taisho even though the ramen is terrible. Taisho is a typical ramen chef, quick to snap at customers and more interested in scheming to get customers in rather than improving his fare. Tanaka is a glutton for punishment with a good heart who can’t stand to see Taisho fail, so he keeps going back and encouraging the fuzzy little chef.

Most of the comics are done in 4-panel style, which is more like a newspaper strip than the usual manga. The jokes usually revolve around Taisho’s inability to perceive the difference between himself and other cats or even humans. Taisho is the only talking cat, with other cats being pretty much normal, but Taisho doesn’t notice this. He even keeps a few cats around the shop as “employees” and tries to pay his human employees in milk and cat treats. In one strip, Taisho uses an expensive can of cat food as a topping when a famous food critic comes to visit, and in another he tries to create a milk-and-tuna ramen noodle. Tanaka points out that these are bad ideas, but Taisho remains oblivious.

Of course, other people notice the unusualness of a cat making ramen, and people come to check it out. In one strip, Taisho is excited that a film crew is coming, and he thinks he will appear on a prestigious cooking show, but instead his clip appears on “Those Amazing Animals.” Other shops try to have animal mascots to catch on to the trend, and of course hijinks ensue.

Humor is the most difficult thing to translate, because it depends so much on cultural clues and linguistic turns of phrases, but translator Kristy Harmon has managed to smooth everything out and delivers a seamless reading experience. About the only gag that might go under the radar of average American readers is the appearance of Futa, a Red Panda from the Chiba Zoological Park who was a sensation in Japan in 2005 for his ability to stand on his hind legs like a human for about ten seconds. I was living in Japan during “Futa Frenzy,” so I got a real chuckle out of that scene.

“Neko Ramen” had four volumes published in Japan, with two specials for six books in total. I must confess I like the Japanese covers better, with their dynamic version of the Japanese flag. The comic spawned a short animated series and the awesome 2009 film “Neko Ramen Taisho” directed by Kawasaki Minoru (The Calamari Wrestler) featuring a combination of puppets, real cats and human actors to tell the story. Hopefully this English-language edition of “Neko Ramen” will be a big enough hit that the series and movie will make it to American shores as well.

Battle League Horumo

Battle League Horumo (Ws Dub Sub Ac3 Dol Ecoa)

5.0 out of 5 stars Fierce Oni Battle! Fight!

“Battle League Horumo” (“Kamogawa horumo” or “Duck River Horumo”) is just a brilliant little film. Based on the popular fantasy novel of the same name, the film combines the bizarre, outrageous antics and high energy that I love in Japanese comedy with authentic folklore and solid acting with an all-star cast.

Anyone who has spent some time in Japan has encountered some strange festival in the summer, with people in period costumes performing some millennium-old dance-ritual in order to gain the blessings of the kami spirits. “Battle League Horumo” asks the question, “What if those gods were real, but you just couldn’t see them?”

The story begins when freshmen student Akira Abe (Takayuki Yamada, known the world over as Train Man) begins his first year at the prestigious Kyoto University. Abe has been studying hard at cram school for two years, but has finally made it. He soon finds himself recruited by a club, the Azure Dragons, who protest a little too much that they are just a “normal club doing normal things.” The club president Makoto Sugawara (YoshiYoshi Arakawa from Ping Pong, Kamikaze Girls) soon reveals that there is nothing “normal” about the Azure Dragons at all. They are, in fact, a secret club that participates in a thousand-year old ritual known as Horumo, where each member controls an army of “oni” spirits that battle with other spirits in order to please the gods with the spectacle.

Abe’s finds it hard to take this seriously, and would quit the club if it were not for the presence of Kyoko Sawara (Sei Ashina, “Kamui”), a girl with a perfect nose who infatuates Abe immediately. So blinded by Sawara is Abe that he cannot see the rivalry of Alpha-male clubmate Mitsuru Ashiya (Takuya Ishida, The Samurai I Loved) or the attentions of nerd girl Fumi Kusunoki (Chiaki Kuriyama, Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill – Volume One). Finding himself sucked into the club, Abe trains in earnest with his oni army yet he fights more to impress Sawara than to please the gods, something that will lead to devastating consequences. The gods of Japan are not pleased when their pleasures are interrupted by petty mortal concerns.

Aside from the story, a big part of the draw of “Battle League Horumo” is going to be the “oni” themselves. While far from the traditional oni of Japanese folklore, these little spirits have more in common with the Mogwai from Gremlins. They are fully 3D rendered animation, done by Studio Gonzo who is well known for their CGI work on series like Last Exile and Blue Submarine, No. 6. They aren’t the most realistic computer animated characters ever, but they aren’t supposed to be and their cuteness is just right for the tone of the film. The oni battles themselves are hilarious, as the members of the clubs control the oni through a series of commands in the “oni language” combined with a sequence of gestures and hip-thrusts.

Another draw for this flick is the cast, and there are so many familiar faces and a lot of them playing against type. Chiaki Kuriyama in particular is usually positioned as a total sex symbol in tight-fitting costumes like in The Great Yokai War, but instead she is dressed in boy’s clothes with square-rimmed glasses and a big wig that makes her look like 80s sitcom actor Ouki Bondo. Takayuki Yamada is still a lovable loser like he was in “Train Man,” but he gets to be a little cooler here even though he is clearly not top dog.

Although it is billed as an Action/Comedy, the emphasis is far more on the comedy than the action. Much of the antics are typical Japanese over-the-top physical comedy, like all the boys getting naked and performing a choreographed pop routine at the shrine in order to gain the god’s favor, or when league member Koichi Takamura is forced to wear a giant samurai topknot as punishment for his cowardice in the oni battle.

The Abe/Sawara/Ashiya love triangle could have come straight from a John Hughs film, with the rich macho jerk mistreating his beautiful girlfriend, only to get comeuppance when a poor but sensitive guy steals her away. However, that isn’t quite the way things resolve here much to my surprise and delight.

All in all a fantastic film that I completely enjoyed. Highly recommended.

Love*Com The Movie

3.0 out of 5 stars Beanstalk and Shorty

Risa Koizumi is too tall for a girl. Atsushi Otani is too short for a boy. You know the rest. Hijinks ensue.

Well, OK, it may not actually be that simple, but that is pretty much the gist of Love*Com (Which is a shortened form of “Lovely Complex”, which doesn’t have any real meaning besides being bad Japanese-English). Based on a popular shojo manga, this is just a light and fluffy formula-romance comedy pairing two oddballs who are perfect only for each other. The film follows the style of the manga, with sudden flights of anime-inspired fantasy interspersed with reality, and that is its saving grace, and where most of the charm comes in.

Formula films depend a lot on the abilities of their actors to save the day, and the cast of “Love*Com” does OK. Most of them, including the leads, are pretty much inexperienced as actors, but that doesn’t hurt them too much. Model Ema Fujisawa playing Risa is cute in an odd sort of way, and fits the role perfectly. Teppei Koike, a singer and “idol” is a little too cool as Atsushi, and it is hard to buy that he has a hard time finding a girlfriend. The film is absolutely peppered with cameos by popular Japanese comedians, but that probably won’t mean much to too many Americans. Shizuyo Yamazaki (Sayuri from “Hula Girls”) is funny as Risa’s older sister, a giant girl in her own right but who managed to hook herself a man.

The films keeps up a good pace, but then fizzles near the end. A problem with some manga adaptations, they tried to fit too much of the popular story in, and just when things should have been coming to their happy conclusion, a new rival steps in and the film drags. You know what the eventual conclusion is going to be, and if the director had compacted the storyline a bit more, maybe thrown in some subplots with the other characters, it would have been a charming piece of film fluff, good for fans of the manga series and for anyone in the mood for this type of formula flick. As it is….things just go on too long, even at barely over an hour and a half.

For this kind of light comedy, the DVD is actually surprisingly good, with interviews, fake music videos and a parody short film. They did a good job padding out the content, and the US release actually has more bonus materials than the Japanese release.

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