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I'm immortally interested in cultural/literary deconstructions, feminism, anti-racism, South Korea, Supernatural, Sherlock Holmes, Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones, food (including but not limited to maple butter, tomatoes, and toast), fairy tales, parentheses, paper airplanes, films and books.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Plain Badassery That Is Keizoku 2: SPEC Part 1 (WARNING: MAJOR PIMPAGE)

I started SPEC a while ago and after nearly having a heart attack at the end of the 1st episode due to the sudden but awesome change in genres, I've been probably talking to my screen more than actual people. Then came "paper" season and I had to put it off. I kept putting off because I knew I'd need at least half a day to soak in the last two episodes.

I've touted SPEC before as epic. It has become beyond epic; it's just been promoted to my top ten films/shows. You know, there's a reason most of that list is occupied by foreign shows and that is because unlike American shows that milk their cash cow for all their worth, everyone else in the world knows that sometimes less is more. Japanese dramas and UK shows seem to know this best. Their nightly television caps at maximum 12 episodes and for jdramas, that's it. Forever. Sometimes, but rarely, there are two seasons and when there are most of the time, the show has been revamped with a new set, a new kind of spin and a brand new cast - sort of like Skins except the maximum seasons I've seen any Japanese drama is 3. Obviously, the reason for bringing back any show would be to milk it and the ones that do come back in Japan are usually guaranteed to have the same consistency in ratings and therefore the same consistency in raking in the dough.

Korean dramas usually last longer but having a second season is even rarer there. In fact the only show I can remember coming back for a second one is IRIS, which introduced a whole new genre into the Korean system of sageuks (period pieces), trendies (rom-coms) and melodramas (basically soap operas). IRIS even spawned a spinoff called ATHENA which aired last winter but did miserably in ratings and plotwise as it went on so about that second season, I wouldn't even hedge my bets this time.

My point is that the shorter the show, usually the better the quality. Especially when the show comes from Japan where writers are given 10 episodes to fascinate a viewer into buying DVDs and collectibles and miscellaneous merchandise. Clearly this doesn't always work but not only does this mean that the writers have to actually focus on developing characters and engaging plots, the actors also have to actively find ways to interpret a character whose background and motives may not have enough time to be aired. I'm not saying anything to the American (Hollywood) system of running their shows and their gifted actors, but it seems to me that there are a lot of chances for these actors and writers to be lazy but more often than not - in my experience - the pressure and the limited time actually makes them work better.

Coming back to SPEC, I think it's a show that could teach writers/actors/ producers anywhere that literally everything is up in the air when it comes to creating something. (I admit, I admit) I've never seen LOST but I did watch LOST in 3 minutes by Alex Day and it's really hard to believe that they were able to successfully stretch that plot into six seasons. When compared to all the praise that has gone into LOST for the symbolism in all of its glory, SPEC seems to make it pale in comparison. I think SPEC was able to bring up enough questions and unsolved yet strangely solved mysteries in just 10 episodes to rival what LOST was able to in six freaking SEASONS.

If you don't believe me then just go look up the forums, the blogs and the livejournals (coughdarkeyedwolfcough) and marvel at the huge amount of debate over the mystery of just the main character. OK, wait, don't do that. You'll definitely be spoiled of the outright shock you get part way into the show. I mean, I was so freaking pissed when I was reading comments of the first episode and someone spoiled it. It is just that good - I didn't even believe it at first. Seriously, the cliffhangers/shockers start at the end of the first episode and they don't ever stop coming! As a word of advice, don't start watching this four hours before your intended bedtime because you will just end staying up and up and up.

SPEC, despite the comparison to LOST, is more like Sherlock Holmes meets Fringe (that comparison made by the lovely ladies over at MustHaveSubs) and yet it still manages to be utterly and completely original. Where else would you get the usually prettified Erika Toda stomping around in her makeup-less-and-yet-a-thousand-times-gorgeous-ness, arm in a perpetual sling, breath reeking from garlicky Japanese dumpings (gyouza!) and rolling around her purse suitcase and making faces at no one and yet everyone?! Breath. Her character, Saya Toma, is a detective with an IQ of 201 and believes that everyone is capable of ESP-ish powers they call SPECs.

Toma also happens to be so quirky that she sometimes borders onto the land of weird. She never brushes her hair (or changes her clothes) leading her constantly look like a nun - which is just plain wicked because how many actresses do you know can look hot in clothes that remind you of why working in a church can be terrible. Then there's the faces. Oh, God, the faces alone should be reason enough for anyone to check it out. Oh and the absolute pure yesness of the OTP that is Toma and Sebumi (Kase Ryo).

How many shows do you see the male lead hitting the female lead? They're so bloody violent that it just screams unresolved sexual tension. Which is one of the only flaws of several of my favorite Japanese dramas but ones I can live with, leaving them to the imagination. And before you freak out over this case of abuse, if you watch the show, you'd be able to tell that Sebumi doesn't view Toma at all as a woman when they first meet and that is completely understandable. He transfers into Toma's department Unsolved Cases after being displaced from SIT (think SWAT) and indirectly blamed for the mysterious shooting of a comrade. Then Toma goes all up in his face with her garlicky breath and absentmindness and pretty much expresses her disappointment in him being so normal despite being involved in the "strange case" which put his subordinate in a coma. Excuse me while I break out the champagne. I can't remember the last time I met such a freakishly awesome female character before. She's just ... augh.

Rounding out the trio is the chief of Unsolved Cases (he also appeared in the original case and hasn't really aged in 10+ years. That's an award-winning achievement right there.) Nonomura. He's having an affair with one of the (... interns? I never really got what she was doing. OK, let's settle for) servant/secretary/guard. Anyway, Nonomura, this old guy, is having an affair with this twenty-something year old, Miyabi, and basically is the second funniest thing when not discounting the Toma-Sebumi pairing. He has this picture of Miyabi posted above his desk - like right above his desk and pretty much spends his day controlling his diabetes and talking to her - immediately sliding off his wedding ring whenever Miyabi comes up to the office to announce the next guest. (May I add that what he does in the end just about broke my heart into a million pieces?) When placed beside Erika Toda and Kase Ryo's characters and stellar performances, it's undeniable that he'd be outshined but for a short moment, I definitely say that Ryu stole the show.

To be honest though, this show was pretty much dominated by actors who knew what they were doing. Never do you get the feeling that "Oh, wow, she's so great at acting!" because you never see it and it doesn't hit you till it's all over and you're like whoa. Whoa because some of the things they've just done and said are beyond you're understanding. Whoa because what just happened and your character's reactions to it made you feel like they just rammed a stake through your soul. Whoa because you're still reeling from the fact Toma or Sebumi or some other fantastic character just blew your mind.

I've been a fan of Erika Toda ever since I watched her in Death Note and then Liar Game and then all the lesser roles (though I'm not sure about her newest one ...) and at one point, I started watching the second season of Liar Game and Toda's character came on and I felt uncomfortable. Because for a second, I actually thought I was watching SPEC and that was just Toma in disguise. Of course, after the acting began, Toda swept me away and I focused on the show itself. That's how good she was in SPEC. Internet bloggers and talkers have all been saying that it's her best performance to date and I enthusiastically agree.

Let's not forget about Ryo of course. I didn't like his look at all when I first saw him being interrogated but within about two seconds of the show, I was hooked by him, by Toda, by them all. I also have to mention the young actor who came out of nowhere to play another great character, Ninomae Juichi, the time-stopping teenage boy whose part time job is killing off people who are stupid enough to give away evidence of SPEC holders to people who haven't been allowed to know. It also doesn't hurt that he's the cutest, most innocent looking serial killer to grace the screen since Kristin Dunst. Annnnnd he didn't end up being the terrible cliches that killing children loathe to be. Most of the typical-crazy-cartoon villian stuff that unfortunately populate many Japanese dramas only happens at the end and for a very brief moment and one that is pretty much a clue to a piece of the mystery. So kudos for the writer to turn into a plot piece while having her kicks!

It speaks volumes to say that I did not at any point or time fast-forward. I was glued to the screen like the hat to the uncle in Matilda and if this show is available with English subtitles on DVD, I'm ordering it faster than you can say "a new Old Spice commercial!"

Part 2 to follow

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