Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Liar Game: The Final Stage Review

Liar Game: The Final Stage is a movie that was released in early 2010. Based on the manga of the same name by Shinobu Kaitani, it serves as both a finale to the television series and an end to the established storyline's focus on protagonist Nao and Akiyama's relationship. Though a followup movie (Liar Game: Reborn) was released earlier this year, it replaced the character of Nao with a new girl named Shinomiya. 

While in Japan, I caught a few episodes of the second season on TV. It was interesting, but I didn't really become invested in the series until just before I left. My friend had begun reading the manga and was very enthusiastic about it, so I picked up the first three volumes and gave them a read, trying my best to follow the story. Being a seinen manga, the kanji lack accompanying furigana, so I miss some of the finer points. Still, for those readers unfamiliar with the series, I'll do my best to offer up a brief synopsis.

Liar game follows Nao Kanzaki, a young and incredibly honest girl who is drafted into the liar game, a mysterious tournament where players are encouraged to lie and cheat others out of money in order to succeed. Fooled early on by her first rival, Nao seeks the aid of the clever con artist Shinichi Akiyama. Together, they compete in progressively complex games of deception and treachery, always managing to come out on top but also never managing to leave the game completely. They meet various people throughout the games and forge occasional alliances and friendships. However, due to the nature of the game, these relationships are tenuous at best. 


I'll try to keep my critique as brief and spoiler free as possible. As far as the base story goes, the plot is pretty simplistic. Nao believed the tournament was over and that she was finally free of liar game, but it turns out there's a final stage. A few of the players from the television series return along with some new faces, but they largely serve as a means to push the story forward rather than as fully realized characters. Honestly though the real reason to watch this series is to see the game in action, to watch the various betrayals and try to figure out how characters will try and rig the game in their favor. To that end the movie does a pretty good job. The game's rules are simple enough to follow, yet allow for some leeway for some really clever twists. There are a few minor points I could argue were a bit weak, but overall it's everything I've come to expect from the franchise.


As I said, most of the characters more or less bleed into the background until it comes time for their all too predictable betrayal. It seems almost everyone gets a chance to ham it up with some over the top laughter or slow motion drop to their knees. 

It's not a spoiler if they all do it.
Others don't even get that and thus feel like non-entities overall, only there because the plot necessitated the game start with a certain number of players. However, I'd like to give credit where credit is due and talk about the portrayals of Nao and Akiyama for a moment.

One could argue that Liar Game is meant to be about a multitude of things: the destructive nature of greed, the need for trust and cooperation, or power of forgiveness. However, what truly makes all this work is the relationship between Nao and Akiyama.

Nao is an idealist. She believes there is some good in all people and honestly believes that if everyone just worked together, things would turn out alright in the end. What's more is that it has been proven time and again that she is correct in this assertion.

Though Toda Erika might not be the spitting image of Nao in the comics, I think she pulls of the look pretty well. More importantly, she does an excellent job bringing Nao's childlike innocence to life. Toda is capable of shifting from Nao's usual timidity to shock and even jubilation without ever feeling like she is trying too hard.

While I don't feel that Matsuda Shota resembles his manga counterpart at all, I again feel he does justice to the character. Unlike Nao, Akiyama is a realist, though he tries to help Nao bring people together. Matsuda arguably has a tougher job than Toda, as his character must frequently join the fray of the others, laughing derisively and dramatically revealing his plots. Though he does occasionally drift over into the realm of overacting, he certainly does a better job than most.

The two really shine when they're onscreen together. They definitely have some sort of chemistry, though I appreciate that their relationship is never forced into being anything more than it is. Akiyama admires Noa's unfailing spirit and tries to protect and help her in any way he can. You can tell this is difficult for him at times, even within this one movie. Nao relies almost exclusively on Akiyama to help her through tough times, as he is the only person she has a true and lasting friendship with. While some may see this as a weakness, it just makes those moments where Nao pulls off an amazing plan all the more exciting. Besides, at the end of the day it's Nao's empathic nature that usually pulls a group together.


This movie uses slowmotion, ramping, and repetition a lot. It also utilizes a number of distortion effects, making the screen fade and jump like an old television set on the fritz. While I understand the production teams desire to make the events of the film more flashy (this is after all a movie about a bunch of people sitting in a room together) there are times when it comes off as just too much. For instance, there is a point early on when the camera slows down and then speeds up over a coffee table where two characters are talking. Nothing really exciting is happening, they're just sitting there. It's weird. Other times it's a case of just a little too much flair all at once. When Akiyama makes his entrance, their is so much ramping and distortion that the end result is just difficult to look at rather than being cool. The slowmotion is tame by comparison but after the third person falls to their knees in disbelief it's kind of lost its effect.

The soundtrack is great if a little out of synch with the mood at times. Most of the music is provided by the Japanese electronica band "capsule" and while it plays well for most scenes, it comes off as a little too upbeat once or twice. I think the set looks awesome and manages to be both beautiful and dark, punctuating the tense scenes as well as the uplifting ones. The colors likewise help in this regard, though there is a dream sequence that I feel was just a little too extreme in its use of pastels. Again, I understand the intent, but the execution was a bit jarring.


I thought it would be a fun idea to provide a short vocabulary list for anyone wanting to attempt watching this movie or reading the series in its native Japanese. This is by no means comprehensive, but it's a start.

億(おく)- One hundred million (100,000,000)
勝ち(かち)- Win
負け(まけ)- Lose
裏切り(うらぎり)- Betrayal
投票(とうひょう)- Vote
結果(けっか)- Result
揃う(そろう)- Full set
正直(しょうじき)- Honest (Nao is called "バカ正直" or "stupidly honest")


If you're familiar with the series and enjoy it, I'd definitely recommend picking up this title if you haven't already. It doesn't break the formula or anything but it is an enjoyable ride nonetheless. Newcomers to the series might have difficulty with the sudden influx of characters early on, but rest assured that an intimate knowledge of the show is not a prerequisite to enjoy it. If you like a movie with lots of twists and turns or delight in trying to figure out puzzles, I think you'll get a kick out of this film.  Those who are looking for big action scenes or special effects, however, may find the locked room scenario and extended monologues a touch dull. Just be aware that this movie focuses a lot more on mental one-upsmanship than outright fighting. You can, of course, get a copy of your own at CDJapan.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Tale of 3 Sakis

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I taught quite a few classes with students who had the same or similar names. The worst was probably the class with Kana and Kanna because their names were only slightly different, so I had to be extra careful calling on them.

However, today I'd like to talk about my junior high class that contained three Sakis and how I eventually learned to address them. As I mentioned in the other post, I only began to realize this was an issue I'd have to overcome once I really started buckling down and learning the students' names. It also may not have helped that I learned my students given names rather than their family names (though given the number of students with Inoue as a last name I hesitate to say this for sure). The reason for this was simple, everyone called me Eric-sensei. I've often wondered why this was the case. After all, I think they realized it was my first name. Most ALTs I knew were treated the same way unless they insisted otherwise.

So, there were three Sakis in the same class, which was fine for a while. After all, I could call on them while pointing or address them in conversation. The real problem came from talking about them to other students. How was I supposed to differentiate them? Growing up, we would usually just add the first letter of the person's last name to distinguish them. I remember being called "Eric P." for a number of years due to an "Eric E." being in my same class. 

As with most problems like this, I turned to my kids for the solution. During volleyball practice, I asked a group of students how they tell the three Sakis apart when they talk about them. For such a difficult question, it didn't take them long to catch on to my meaning. They explained (mostly in Japanese) that for them the Saki who played volleyball was simply "Saki" while the other two were "Kendo-bu Saki" and "Tennis-bu Saki" (bu is a suffix meaning "division" or "club"). Apparently this is pretty common practice in Japan, even extending to one's professional life. If there are two people with the same name, you affix their division or job title as a sort of prefix.

Mahjong-bu Saki
It took a little getting used to, especially since the students who were in the same club usually dropped the prefix, but it eventually became second nature to use this style of name differentiation. 

Duel Knights

Yesterday, I put together a few small models.

These are called Duel Knights. They are produced by a company called Kabaya and can usually be found in the toy aisle of most Japanese grocery stores. This particular set is called Sengoku Retsuden, which would roughly translate to "Extreme Transmission From the Warring States Period". I'm pretty sure all of the figures in this series are meant to represent historical figures, but I can only recognize one.

The first figure is called Gurenmaru. Guren means crimson but I'm unsure how to translate the maru portion of the names. He wields a huge sword that can be held in one or both hands or pegged into his leg. This is my favorite of the three for many reasons. I love the colors on him for one. I also enjoy the various horns and claws on his body. His weapon is the best part though. It's just so versatile and lends itself well to a wide range of poses.

Next up is Souryuumaru. His name translates to "blue dragon" though I've never seen this particular word for blue before handling this figure. His weapon is a longbow, though it is a heavily stylized one.

I recognize the stylings of this figure as those commonly associated with Date Masamune, in particular the eyepatch and crescent on his helmet.

Last is Shiroganemaru:

This is by far my least favorite of the three. The colors don't come together very well and the shoulder pads look pretty ridiculous. He also has very tiny feet and is rather top heavy, which makes standing him upright very difficult.

His name translates to "white steel". Though I'm unsure if this is a synonym for silver, it is pronounced the same way.

The weapons in this line were meant to be combined into a dragon, but I'm unfortunately missing one so I can't build it. Honestly though, the figures are more than enough.

For the price, these figures are pretty neat. They lack the durability to be great toys as some parts are fit too loose and will often fall off. However, they make excellent models for posing. They can support a lot of weight and have a wide range of motion.

I would like to add that constricting these things can be a bit of a pain due to their small size and the often ill-fitting pegs. I had to take a break after building each one due to the fact that my fingers hurt so much. Overall, I'd still recommend them.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: Erepyon by Ono Erena

Last month, my favorite AKB 48 member of all time released her first single as a solo artist. Naturally, I was very excited to get my hands on a copy or two.

Erena Ono was a member of AKB 48 until 2010 when she left to pursue a career in acting. She was supposed to move to England, but those plans must have fallen through. Since then I'd heard very little about her until earlier this year, when the preview for Erepyon was released on Youtube. I wound up getting the type B and C special editions in order to get the second B-side track and video as well as the 30 page mini-photobook.

Erepyon is not only the name of the A-side track of the single but was Erena's nickname while in AKB. She wrote the lyrics to the song herself and it seems to comment on the trying times she's recently faced and the promise of a new and exciting career. It also calls on fans to support her as she steps out once more into the public eye. The music and arrangement were done by SmileR, who brings a mix of rock and synth that punctuates Erena's strong vocals without ever overpowering them. It's a striking departure from her undeniably cute role within AKB, further illustrated in the PV for the song, which features a tough looking Erena punching out her pastel-clad doppelganger. Unfortunately, Erena's new management has been rather aggressive in taking down the full music video from sites like Youtube, so here instead is her performance from Live B courtesy of Dailymotion. I'm pretty sure she's synced to a recording here, so the quality in that regard is comparable to the CD.

Ono Erena - Erepyon Live B 120529 by Chaos48

The B-side track of all but the type C special edition is a song called Sentimental Girl. It's another collaboration between Erena and SmileR and for me is the highlight of the single. It incorporates perhaps a bit more synth elements than does Erepyon. This extends to some use of autotune on Erena's voice, though clearly as a stylistic element and not one designed to correct a lack of talent. While I have yet to completely translate this track, the subject appears to be that of unrequited love, focusing on a girl who has difficulty expressing her feelings. In spite of, or perhaps due to, this subject matter, the song has every bit of as much energy as Erepyon. If this is the kind of sound we can expect from Erena moving foeward, I'm all in. You can hear the song in full here, albeit not in the best quality.

The last song is called キミがいれば, or I Need You, and strikes me as a "safe" song for Erena lest her new direction not pan out. It's a beautiful song to be sure, but doesn't share the same energy as the other two offerings. Set alongside the fun, lively beat of Erepyon, it comes off as overly serious and ultimately a step back into what Erena was doing before. It's also the only song not written by Erena, making any message it may contain seem less personal. To its credit, the softer music allows Erena's strong, clear singing to be the highlight of the track and any obvious use of autotune is gone entirely. Erena does a great job imbuing her voice with the appropriate resonance for the material as well. Still, I would rank this as my least favorite of the three and decry the fact that this song was given the PV treatment over Sentimental Girl. You can view the video here, though I imagine it's only a matter of time before that link is taken down.

Erepyon debuted at number 3 on the Oricon weekly charts for June11-17 behind KANJANI8 and Arashi, both well established and popular groups under the mega-popular Johnny and Associates talent agency. Erepyon was further used as the opening theme of the drama Legal High. Hopefully all this exposure will mean more excellent releases like this in Erena's future. I'd highly recommend this single to any fan of Erena, strong female vocals, or energetic pop/rock. As always, you can order a copy from CDJapan.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

mAyKB48 (18/48): Chocolove From AKB48

Today we'll take a look at the disbanded subunit Chocolove From AKB48.

Chocolove was comprised of Miyazawa Sae, Akimoto Sayaka, and former member Nakanishi Rena, who  graduated from AKB in November of 2008. While they were the first subunit to release more than one single, hinting at the notion that they were meant to be the first permanent subunit, they nevertheless only produced music from June to November of 2007, with a DVD released later the same year.

Their music consisted almost exclusively of slow, melodic songs. The music is very simple, allowing for the members' voices to be the highlight of the group. Like Warota 7, Chocolove had a clear center in Rena, whose voice falls somewhere between the other two members. The three harmonize well and the overall sound, while maybe not as catchy as the other subunits I've reviewed, is certainly beautiful. Again, this would not be something I would listen to everyday, but it has its place. Here's a video of a performance from 2009.

The real reason I wanted to talk about this group is to illustrate how an early subunit of AKB48 functioned. First and foremost is the name. Chocolove From AKB48 was always promoted with that exact name. It would seem that Akimoto didn't feel a subunit could hold their own at the time without the AKB brand. AKB was still in its infancy, so it's possible that this was simply another way to promote the group as well.

Chocolove, perhaps more than any other subunit, was designed with the intention of highlighting the three girls' voices. I already discussed the way they did this through the music, but it is also evident in the marketing. Though Chocolove released a full CD called Dessert in November of 2007, its 12 tracks represented only 5 different songs. This is because three of the five songs were solos performed separately by each member. The remaining two songs were Chocolove's previous singles, which were released in three versions containing a solo from one of the members. Chocolove's marketing encouraged you to pick a favorite from the three performers and support them by buying the CD with their solo.

If you're a fan of their music or one of their members, Chocolove's singles, CD, and DVD are still available at CDJapan. The special editions are sadly out of print.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

mAyKB48 (15/48): Watarirouka Hashiritai 7

Watarirouka Hashiritai 7 couldn't be more different from DiVA. Though not thematically labeled, Warota 7 has produce some of the most sickeningly sweet music I've yet heard from any AKB subunit.

This subunit has a pretty complex history. In 2008, a one shot unit known as Okashina Sisters was formed to sing the ending theme of the anime Miricle Mimika. It's members included Oota Aika, Watanabe Mayu, and Nakagawa Haruka.

In October of the same year, Akimoto announced he would be reviving Ushirogami Hikaretai, a subunit of his 1980s idol super group Onyanko Club. Ushirogami is mostly remembered for singing theme songs for the anime High School! Kimengumi and only lasted a year before being disbanded. Akimoto revived the group by having Hirajima Natsumi join the Okashina Sisters and renamed them Watarirouka Hashititai.

February of 2010 saw Kikuchi Ayaka increase the membership to five.

Finally, in June of 2010, Iwase Misaki and Komori Mika joined and the group was renamed Watarirouka Hashiritai 7. Most recently, SDN48's Urano Kazumi has been transferred in to replace Natsumi following her scandal and subsequent departure from AKB.

Like their 80s counterpart, Warota 7 has produced a number of anime themes over their three year history, including songs for Blue Dragon, Fairy Tail, and Crayon Shin-chan. In fact, the members of Warota 7 were animated into two episodes of the Crayon Shin-chan anime, marking the first time members of AKB48 voiced themselves in a cartoon.

If you're looking for bubbly pop music, Warota 7 is the subunit for you. For what they seem designed to produce, they do an exceptional job. And while it may not be something I'd listen to on a daily basis, there is definitely a place for catchy, upbeat music in any collection. The membership roster is formed from some of the cutest girls in AKB as well. Here's a small sample from their newest single "Shonen yo Uso wo Tsuke!" I think it exemplifies the kind of music one can expect from this group.

If you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to look at their website (Japanese), official youtube channel, or pick up some of their merchandise from CDJapan .

Monday, May 14, 2012

mAyKB48 (12/48): DiVA- Vocal and Dance Subunit

With my five 推しメン posts out of the way, I'd like to turn the attention of my next few posts to the music of AKB48. While AKB48 has released several songs which I enjoy, like Beginner and River, a good deal of there music is simply too generic to keep my interest. That's why lately I've found myself attracted more to the subunits of AKB.

Yes, there are subgroups to this massive idol phenomenon and in many ways it makes sense to do this. By creating smaller groups, you can assure that the various personalities within AKB are working on projects they enjoy. Smaller groups are also more accessible to new fans, who may not want to learn anything and everything about the whole of AKB, but are more than willing to follow the careers of a few of their favorites. Furthermore, as many of the groups are themed, you ensure that you're providing your broad fan base with music tailored to their particular interests.

I've found one particular subunit which consistently puts out the kind of music I love: DiVA.

DiVA is promoted as AKB's vocal and dance subunit. Formed in early 2011, DiVA initially consisted of four members: Masuda Yuka, Umeda Ayaka, Miyazawa Sae, and Akimoto Sayaka. I'va already spoken at length about Yuka's amazing singing talent and maintain that she is one of best singers in AKB, but the remaining members are no slouches. Sayaka's voice is not only very strong, but quite distinct. She brings an almost haunting quality to each of the songs. Ayaka is likewise a talented singer and dancer, as evidenced by her private video. Sae has the weakest voice of the four, but fits right in as far as the style of the group is concerned. I also know that she is good friends with Sayaka and they were the first two approached about this project.

Shortly after their formation, it was announced that there would be open auditions for new members of DiVA, with the express aim of increasing the subunit to 10 people. This announcement was met with fan backlash, many of whom felt like the four original members would get lost amid the sea of newcomers. Others feared Akimoto would pull members from various AKB sister groups into DiVA and it would lose the qualities that made it unique. On December 20, 2011, this video was released on DiVA's official channel:

The new members were Inoue Yuina, Kasuya Satoko, Fukuno Ramu, Futami Yuuki, Furukawa Atsuko, and Yamagami Ayaka. All were unaffiliated with AKB beforehand and, even with their inclusion in DiVA, still aren't considered members. Each had been through an exhaustive screening process. Thankfully, most people's fears were assuaged when it was revealed that these girls were only meant to be backup dancers and that DiVA would operate in much the same way that Exile, a fourteen member group with four singers, does. As they are brand new, very little is known about these six other than the fact that they are exceptional dancers. If you are interested in learning more about them I would suggest watching the latest videos from DiVA's official Youtube channel, which just began a series of three minute introduction videos for each.

DiVA's sound tends to be dark and their style reflects the same. I've always been a fan of strong female vocals (two of my favorite bands are Nightwish and Sirenia) and this group doesn't disappoint. It's difficult to put into words exactly why I like them, but they have undeniable talent. Take a look at their latest video and see what I mean.

That song, by the way, is the closing theme of the recent Ultraman Saga film. Look who makes an appearance as Team U, a unit of the Earth Defense Force, in that movie.

Awesome! Anyway, I'm getting a little off topic now. Hope you enjoyed this look at one of the subunits of AKB. If you like what you heard, I encourage you to check out DiVA's official Youtube channel (linked above), their official website, or pick up one of their three singles from CDJapan .