Series Review: James May: Our Man in Japan

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James May: Our Man in Japan is a new travel series from Amazon, charting an eleven week trip in Japan, from its northern coast to its southern coast, by presenter James May. My fascination with Japan began with Jonathan Ross’ Japanorama, broadcast in the early 2000s. Since then, I have seen countless travel shows and documentaries about the country and its customs, but it has been some time since one has gripped me so thoroughly.

This six part series sees James explore the country in a variety of segments as he navigates his way through Japan’s main islands. Each segment is introduced by an often humorous title card, presenting a bemusing word that has either been discovered by James or lost in translation. The tone of the series is very playful (in one episode, James refers to it as a “travel show full of light-hearted laughs”), but the producers struck a fine balance in the casting of presenter May.

There is a large emphasis on fooling James and presenting him as a sort of baka gaijin (stupid foreigner) by involving him in many outlandish scenarios, but the presenter never quite succumbs to the bumbling Brit abroad stereotype. Though he can be haphazard and blundering, he is nonetheless an inquisitive man, and through his sheer willingness to get involved and try new things—though he may fail at them—he is able to come away with a level of understanding and enjoyment that ultimately gives the series its charm.

I feel a lot of English-language shows made on Japan fall into the trap of portraying it as some sort of bizarre strange land that is to be observed and experienced like an amusement park, without actually understanding what makes it tick, and while the actual depth of content here is not staggering (though it is very diverse), James is the prefect presenter as someone very British and not at all obstinate. There’s this great balance between contrasting Japan’s supposed ‘otherness’ with James’ British slant and embracing the culture in all its richness and variety.

All the usual bases are covered, from haiku and samurai, to cat cafes and cherry blossoms, but also featured are many esoteric and seldom seen recreations, such as competitive snow ball fighting and interactive digital art installations, as well as more Japanese specific pastimes like the inconspicuous yatai. James approaches each subject with typical British dry wit, which may at times seem a tad condescending (though it is for comedic effect and not at all malicious) and often takes precedent over any meaningful examination, but James’ thorough participation ensures there is at least a measure of depth and intricacy with a lot of entertainment.

James and company do a brilliant job of averting certain tropes so they don’t fall into well worn terrain. I was impressed that, during the inevitable segment on manga, instead of looking at its seedier aspects as these sorts of shows tend to do, it was instead viewed as a literary form that is read by all ages and professions. In another segment on otaku, rather than explore the usual route of the anime geek, they took the phrase at its most fundamental and spent the day with some very enthusiastic train spotters. Again, in a part about anime, rather than trace footsteps, James gets involved with voice acting, performing the part of a barking dog in an upcoming film.

While James’ activities are obviously planned, there is this feeling that the events themselves are spontaneous, unscripted, and largely improvised, which keeps the show fresh and entertaining. As he travels Japan, James is accompanied by a succession of interpreters, until he meets the eccentric Yujiro, who seemed to leave such an impression that he eventually joins James for the rest of the series. The two make an unexpectedly excellent pair, playing off of one another with brilliant camaraderie and comedy.

As a light travel show, James May: Our Man in Japan ticks all the boxes. It is wonderfully rich in content if a little lacking in depth. That said, James once again proves an apt choice as someone who has travelled Japan before, and who first visited the country over twenty-five years prior to the making of this programme. He offers some insight into a changing Japan, contrasting history, tradition, and modernity with the polarity (or lack thereof) between the east and the west. It is also beautifully shot, displaying Japan in all its abundant glory, from the mesmeric snow-covered Hokkaido, to the dense megalopolis of Tokyo, and the exquisite greenery of Shikoku.

I was genuinely sad that it had to come to a close. It’s a thoroughly packaged series that does feel like it could have been two episodes longer, but it stands a riotously funny and truly high-quality production on Japan, showcasing both the country’s deep history and its alluring modernity with a fascinating variety of local people.

‘Crashing’ First Impressions

Title: Crashing
Creator: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jonathan Bailey, Julie Dray, Damien Molony, Adrian Scarborough
Network: Channel 4
Broadcast: 10pm on Monday’s from 11th January


I’m on the fence when it comes to Channel 4; a lot of their programming leaves me exasperated, but they have put out some gems such as This is England and Peep Show. I thought I would give their new comedy-drama series Crashing a go; despite being advertised ad nauseam it looked amusing and was in Catastrophe’s old time-slot, which seemed like a largely well-written and genuinely humorous show from what I saw. Sadly, though, the first episode of Crashing was a struggle.

The series follows the lives of a group of 20-somethings who live in a disused hospital as ‘property guardians’, with each episode roughly twenty-four minutes in length. Seems like an interesting setting – could be, probably – but the show is just horribly cliche and absolutely what I would expect from post-watershed Channel 4.

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The characters are all sex-driven fiends who spurt out cloddish dialogue about life and love and how much they want to penetrate each other. There’s the arrogant one, the token nerd, the plain-spoken eccentric, the free-spirited airhead… even the will-they-or-won’t-they romance. It’s such a bore and the humour is so repetitive and gratuitous that it made me wince; there’s no variety and it gets old very fast.

The setting has potential, but any possible quirk is dragged down by a ham-handed, cliche-ridden script. I can’t see this show going anywhere meaningful and at the moment it comes across as crudely written and uninspired, with repetitious dialogue and characters so utterly banal that I can’t decide whether to laugh or despair.

Perhaps it’ll settle into something smarter later on, but I honestly can’t see it dropping the tampon quips and the preview for episode two shows yet more archaic slapstick. A shame, as I was genuinely looking forward to this series.

Watched This Year: 2015

Good day, everybody!

If you’re like me, then you like to keep track of things. Notes, lists, drafts — they’re everywhere! In an effort to keep track of everything I watch, I am going to introduce a series of posts: Watched This Month and Watched This Year. The monthly version will list all movies and television shows I have watched in a given month (regardless of when they were released or whether or not I’ve seen them before) and the yearly version will chronicle the entire year. Accompanying the title of the film and/or television show will be a score out of five and some general comments, which will essentially allow me to review everything I watch. Genius, right! It’s the last day of 2015, so let’s start this series with Watched This Year: 2015. On average, I’ve managed to watch just under one film a week this year, which isn’t too great. Let’s try to double that next year!

Side note: Though there’s a very snappy, mini-review of everything here, I’ll still be writing more extensive reviews of films and TV shows that I want to delve a little deeper in to. Any reviews I’ve already done will be hyperlinked below.

Film Rating
’71 ~ My introduction to Jack O’Connell; an action-drama set during The Troubles. Compelling and well acted, but not amazing. ★★☆☆☆
21 Jump Street ~ If you’re in the mood for a comedy, Jump Street will deliver then some. Hill and Tatum have great chemistry. ★★★☆☆
22 Jump Street ~ More of the same but a lot of fun. A sequel done right. The montage of supposed sequels at the end was genius. ★★★☆☆
99 Homes ~ Gripping performances from Garfield and Shannon. Consistently great throughout, but lacked that special something.
★★★☆☆
Ant-Man ~ A lot of fun but nothing special. Works well both as part of the Avengers universe but also as a stand alone film.
★★★☆☆
Brooklyn ~ Perfection from Saoirse Ronan in my favourite new release of 2015. Fluently written, shot and performed; simply delightful. ★★★★
Carol ~ Blanchett and Mara are fabulous and display some wonderfully subtle acting. The cinematography is superb; some truly beautiful shots. ★★★☆☆
Creed ~ A fine film but more of the same from the Rocky franchise; expected something a little different. Stallone is great, though. ★★★☆☆
Cyberbully ~ Interesting premise but fell flat with some coincidental writing. Maisie Williams generally good. Shot fluently all in one location. ★★☆☆☆
Disturbia ~ A fun film; nothing remarkble but Shia LaBeouf has a lot of charisma. Somewhat like a hip, modern Rear Window. ★★☆☆☆
Drive ~ Style over substance perhaps, but absolutely stunning nevertheless. Amazing soundtrack. Avoid the BBC score. ★★★★☆
End of Watch ~ An unconventional take on the buddy cop genre, very funny and surprisingly dramatic, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable. ★★★☆☆
Enemy ~ A stunning performance from Gyllenhaal. A very complex and intelligent script. Tough to make sense of immediately, but absolutely mesmerizing. ★★★★☆
Ex Machina ~ An enthralling debut from Alex Garland. Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander are all on a roll and come together wonderfully. Frequently clever, tense and exciting. ★★★★☆
House of Sand and Fog ~ Connelly and Kingsley are absolutely spellbinding in this profoundly affecting film. One of my favourite discoveries of the year. ★★★★★
Inside Out ~ A good film, but maybe it went over my head somewhat. I didn’t enjoy is as much as the critics seemed to. ★★★☆☆
John Wick ~ Very linear and not overly complex, but nonetheless a great action romp. Keanu Reeve is on point. Looking forward to the sequel. ★★★☆☆
Jurassic World ~ Largely disappointing with few redeeming factors. Great effects, poor writing. Rolled my eyes a whole lot. ★★☆☆☆
Kick-Ass 2 ~ Competent, but nowhere near as good as the first. Jim Carrey is brilliant, but in the film not nearly enough. ★★☆☆
Kingsman: The Secret Service ~ Huge amounts of fun, but I seem to have forgotten all about it. Beside the church scene, not overly memorable. ★★★☆☆
Kung Fury ~ A great independent flick; hilarious and over-the-top. A lot of pop culture nods from the 80s to the present. ★★★☆☆
Life After Beth ~ Interesting premise; dragged a little. Ultimately mediocre. Been a long while since a great zombie movie. ★★☆☆☆
Mad Max: Fury Road ~ Massive amounts of fun; possibly one of the best action movies ever. Hardy, Theron and Hoult are great. What a lovely day! ★★★★☆
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ~ Funny, emotional and at times unconventional. Extremely powerful ending with perfect accompanying soundtrack. ★★★★☆
Prisoners ~ One of the best movies of recent times; both Gyllenhaal and Jackman are phenomenal. Extremely tense, with a perfect ending. ★★★★
Rush ~ A remarkable film chronicling the relationship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Why wasn’t Brühl nominated for an Oscar? ★★★★☆
Shaun the Sheep Movie ~ Another great from Aardman. No dialogue, but well written nonetheless and very lovable. ★★★☆☆
Sicario ~ Extremely tense, but I went in expecting something different. Need to give it another watch. Blunt is outstanding, though. ★★★☆☆
Song of the Sea ~ A fine film, but feels a little wonky story-wise. More knowledge of the folklore would have helped. Beautifully illustrated, however. ★★★☆☆
Southpaw ~ Extraordinary performance from Gyllenhaal, but a fairly run-of-the-mill plot. The whole movie really was in the trailer. ★★★☆☆
Starred Up ~ Extremely gripping; Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn are superb. Many intense sequences and some great dialogue. ★★★☆☆
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope ~ A classic, as good now as it was on first viewing many years ago. Wonderful looking back to where it all started. ★★★★☆
Star Wars: The Force Awakens ~ A surge of nostalgia and a fantastic return to the franchise. Many disappointing parallels with A New Hope, though. ★★★☆☆
Terminator Genisys ~ Definitely not the worst; better than Rise of the Machines and Salvation. Emilia Clarke is really not that bad. ★★★☆☆
The Age of Adaline ~ Not mind-blowing but certainly worth a watch; Blake Lively is spellbinding. A great supporting performance from Harrison Ford. ★★★☆☆
The Danish Girl ~ An important film chronicling the lives of two very enchanting and loving people. Alicia Vikander stole the show; a sublime performance. ★★★☆☆
The Guest ~ Intriguing at first but devolves in to a somewhat generic thriller. A lot of fun if you don’t think too much about it. ★☆
The Hateful Eight ~ Unravels like a cinematic play. An engrossing entry into Tarantino’s catalogue. Superbly acted, with riveting dialogue. ★☆
The Martian ~ An enjoyable performance from Matt Damon with a lot of witty dialogue. Superb set design and cinematography. ★★★☆☆
The Revenant ~ A powerhouse of a film; raw and harsh, but starkly beautiful. An unmatched physicality with many outstanding performances. ★★★★
The Social Network ~ Exceptionally captivating; actually shocked by how engrossed I was. Fluently directed, with sublime writing and excellent performances from Garfield and Eisenberg. ★★★★
Whiplash ~ One of the most intense films of the year; very physical performances from Teller and Simmons. A stand-out film with a stunning ending. ★★★★
Zodiac ~ A spellbinding film chronicling the zodiac killings and subsequent investigation. Expected nothing less from Fincher. ★★★★☆

And there we have every single film I have watched this year. Looking at the ratings, my favourites are without a doubt: Brooklyn, House of Sand and Fog, Prisoners and The Social Network. Next year I’d like to finally get around to The Grand Budapest Hotel and catch up on a bunch of Japanese movies. Shockingly, I don’t seem to have watched a single non-English film this year. That certainly has to change. Now, onto the TV shows.

TV Show Rating
Daredevil, Season 1 ~ Intriguing at first, generally well made, but I had completely lost interest by the end. Many bland characters. ★★☆☆☆
Game of Thrones, Season 5 ~ Started slow, but picked up a lot nearer the end. Hardhome was a sensational episode. Shocking finale; hungry for more. ★★★☆☆
House of Cards, Season 3 ~ Consistent throughout, but just nowhere near as good as the first two seasons. Clare went in some disappointing directions. ★★★☆☆
Mr. Robot, Season 1 ~ An extraordinary new series; frequently compelling, remarkably performed and well written, with many wonderful monologues. ★★★★☆
Peaky Blinders, Season 1 ~ Instantly one of my favourite TV shows ever — almost impeccable. Sensational cinematography, an outstanding soundtrack and Cillian Murphy is completely mesmerising.
★★★★
Peaky Blinders, Season 2 ~ A tremendous follow-up; everything that made the first season so great is present. The ending left me breathless. Cillian Murphy is perfect. ★★★★
This is England ’90 ~ A bittersweet farewell to the gang and a powerful end to the series. Includes some of the most affecting sequences of the entire production. ★★★★
Vikings, Season 1 ~ Sometimes exciting, other times not so much. Haven’t been able to get into the characters as much as I’d like to. A mixed bag, but interesting enough to stick around. ★★★☆☆

Just seven different shows this year (though I also watched the first episodes of The Man in the High Castle, Blindspot and Banshee), which is nonetheless quite a lot for a film focused fellow. Next year, I would like to watch Fargo and am massively looking forward to the third season of Peaky Blinders. Game of Thrones and House of Cards will also be back in just a couple of months; looking forward to them both despite being slightly disappointed by their most recent iterations.

As always — thanks for stopping by! I’m excited to begin writing about all of my film and TV ventures, so please do visit again. It will be 2016 tomorrow, can you believe it! What have you seen this year? Has anything stood out and is there anything in particular that I should check out next year?

See you soon.

Favourites of 2015 – TV, Video Games and Music

Here we are, another year gone by. Getting older. Self-lacing shoes never happened. This year I learned that modern humans are in fact two-hundred-thousand years old.

Anyway…

End-of-year favourites rundown! This time around, I find myself in the odd position of actually being well informed enough to write about television and video games, so I thought why not! Let’s throw in music, too. Everybody loves a good summary!

On the whole, I believe 2015 has been a fairly impressive year for television and video games. There have been some truly wonderful releases, with many more on the horizon and while music is more constant—it’s hard to pin down a golden year—and not something I’m always clued up on, there have been an abundance of critically acclaimed albums, singles and soundtracks to have graced the charts. Here are some of my favourite television shows, video games and music of 2015!


Television

I have been really into television this year, which seems to be at an all-time high with some truly stunning productions coming out. For once, I’ve been able to keep up with many of the critically acclaimed shows, though I have missed a couple such as Jessica Jones and Fargo. However, my favourite this year is actually one of the lesser know TV shows, at least outside of the UK.

It is This is England ’90.

I was ready to give this year to Mr. Robot. House of Cards‘ third season was a bit of a let-down, as was Game of Thrones up until the last couple of episodes and although the internet was raving about Daredevil, ultimately I found it rather mediocre. I adored Mr. Robot, though. Rami Malek was enthralling as troubled hacker Elliot Alderson and the writing rarely faltered — I adored Elliot’s monologues. The cinematography was also impressive, with the title sequences always unique and something to anticipate. Mr. Robot was tense, exciting and memorable and I can’t wait until the second series. Best TV show of the year, I thought.

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The first episode of This is England ’90 (the third and last in the series) was broadcast just under two weeks after the finale of Mr. Robot. It was wonderful to be back in the company of Woody, Lol, Shaun and the gang. Set two years after the previous season, the first episode was a rekindling—here’s the gang, this is where they’re at—but the subsequent three episodes delivered on the trademark hard-hitting drama. I was loving the new series from the first five minutes, but it became my favourite of the year following the third episode.

The dinner scene in episode three is quite possibly one of the finest sequences in televison history, at least to me. I’ve followed This is England since its inception in 2006 and with every new series I am left entirely shell-shocked. Not only because the drama is utterly heart-wrenching, but because the actor’s completely embody their characters. I don’t see Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure, I see Woody and Lol. Never in anything have I been so invested in and utterly enamored with the characters — the emotions feel so raw and unfiltered, which is why the drama is completely affecting and every wrong move the characters make feels so disheartening. The dinner scene—which was filmed all in one take—left me breathless for that very reason. The emotion and drama—the pain of these characters—everything came across as so honest and real.  The talent on display was phenomenal and it was soul-destroying to watch characters you’re so invested in fall apart.

And to think there was another hard-hitting, tear-jerking, heart-rending episode still to come. You know you’ve connected with your audience when they feel like a lie down and a sob after every episode. Hats off to you, Shane Meadows. This is England is very special.


Music

I typed ‘2015 albums’ into Google and it gave me a list of the fifty most frequently mentioned albums on the web. I’ve listened to one of them. I guess I haven’t been too clued up in regards to music this year, but I still think there have been some gems.

First and foremost, I love Lana Del Rey and—naturally—I love her third album Honeymoon, which was released back in September. It’s certainly one of my favourites of the year, with my favourite track being Art Deco — the instrumentals are dark and beautiful, Lana’s voice is celestial and the throw-back to Born to Die is just perfect. However, while Lana is probably my favourite singer right now and I haven’t been so in to an artist since Sigur Rós a couple of years ago, I don’t rate Honeymoon as highly as Ultraviolence and it isn’t my absolute favourite of the year.

That honor goes to Allie X’s CollXtion I.

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Allie X has been on the scene for a while, but she grew massively in popularity last year following the release of her song Catch. This year she released her first EP and I can’t get enough of it. CollXtion I includes the best selection of synthpop since Chvrches’ first album. The stand-out tracks to me are Catch, Prime and Bitch, but my favourite has to be Good, which is one of her newest additions.

Allie said in an interview that the song was about a small flicker of hope—a desire to be good—after the focus of the song had self-exiled themselves from their life and everyone they loved. I adore the lyrics and Allie’s vocals — the first and second verses send shivers down my spine.

Interestingly, she cites Haruki Murakami as an influence, who I am a huge fan of. I was able to catch Allie on social media and asked what her favourite Murakami novel was, to which she responded 1Q84. I can definitely see a bit of Murakami not only in her music, but also in the singer herself, who is a little bit like an enigmatic Murakami character. She’s coming to the UK next year, so I’m definitely going to see her live.

But what else did I like besides CollXtion I and Honeymoon? Well, I loved No Romeo by Indiana, Ludovico Einaudi’s Elements, Dark Sky Island by Enya (worth the wait) and I enjoyed Every Open Eye by Chvrches, but following The Bones of What You Believe, I was also a little disappointed (mainly by the lack of Tether-like tracks). I’ve also fallen back in love with Radical Face following the release of The Bastards: Volume 4. I should’ve never stopped.


Video Games

I was really into video games when I was younger, but from 2010-ish until late 2014, I just didn’t really care all that much. Then, in November 2014, when—all of a sudden—Black Friday became a thing in the United Kingdom, my girlfriend suggested buying a PS4 on a whim. From then on, I played video games again.

Grand Theft Auto Online was my main go-to game for a while, with sprinkles of LittleBigPlanet 3 and Minecraft in-between, but it finally went back into its case this year as my video game catalogue grew.

April was all about The Elder Scrolls Online, which was only my second MMORPG following Rift. The following month I dedicated myself to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and then I got madly into Rocket League. I also began playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare — a game I had owned since launch in 2014 but never gave the time of day. I found it surprisingly fun, but also slightly frustrating at times. After that came Fallout 4 and Star Wars Battlefront, the latter of which was fun in short bursts, but the flaws grew evermore apparent the longer I played.

Of all the games I experienced this year, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is certainly the most polished and well-crafted. Despite having played my fair share of action-adventure RPGs, the world of The Witcher is unlike anything I have experienced before. The game is so incredibly immersive and rich in detail that it’s awe-inspiring.

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The main storyline is tremendously enveloping and exceptionally well-written (it is based on a series of novels), but even the side-stories are a cut above the rest. I felt they were so good, in fact, I found it hard to move on with the main quests and head to the next area without finishing even the smallest of tasks, which ultimately left me incredibly over-leveled (d’oh). What’s more, the NPCs weren’t just husks, they felt like actual inhabitants of a functioning world; it made the game all the more captivating. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game you can truly lose yourself in and I love that.

Is it my favourite video game of the year, though? Well, it’s one of them. The other is Fallout 4. While not as polished nor as beautiful as The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 is just bundles of fun. It’s a game I can lose myself in for hours, but also one I can pop onto for a brief moment and have a ton of fun killing some Super Mutants. The storyline isn’t up to The Witcher standards and the NPCs can be incredibly half-witted at times (there’s also a lot of repetition in the quests), but due to the superbly realised world, I find it just as immersive as The Witcher and I love the level of customisation in terms of character creation, items and settlements. I believe The Witcher 3 is ultimately the better game, but Fallout 4 has potentially more longevity thanks to the inclusion of mods. Either way, I love them both.


There we have it. Though our favourites most likely differ, I hope that was as engrossing to read as it was to write. Please stick around for my favourite movies of 2015 in a week or two and let me know what your favourites are! Is there anything I’ve missed? Should I hurry up and watch Fargo already? Regardless, thanks for stopping by!

House of Cards Season 3 – Trailer and Speculation

Yesterday, Netflix released the trailer for House of Cards’ third season… and it’s mind-blowing. For those out of the loop, I suggest you stop reading now (avoid the spoilers), head over to Netflix and binge on the first and second seasons of the phenomenal, Fincher helmed, political thriller tour de force that is House of Cards.

For those up to date and dying from anticipation waiting for season three, here is the trailer and some minimal, yet popular speculation.

00:09 ~ Frank and Remy in the situation room; Remy looks to be Frank’s new chief of staff, replacing Doug.
00:12 ~ Three U.S. military deaths; likely what triggers the tension with Russia?
00:14 ~ The person next to President Underwood appears to be Terry Womack; perhaps now Vice President Womack.
00:45 ~ The absence of Doug kills much of the hope many audience members have regarding his fate. On IMDb, a character named Gary Stamper is listed in the credits for S03E01; likely a relative for a potential funeral? Frank is seen at a cemetery at 00:07 and at 00:31 Claire appears to be at a morgue. Is she identifying Doug’s body?

Episodes for Season 2 were released at midnight PST, which is 8:00am GMT. Season 3 is likely to follow suit, so make sure you have no other plans on February 27th!