Review: The Ramen Girl

After Brittany Murphy’s passing in late December, I learned about her role in The Ramen Girl, a “culture clash” film released in 2008. I finally found the time to watch it last night, and was pleasantly surprised by its exploration of Japanese tradition and culture. The movie goes beyond the surface appeal of most American films by exploring identity when two worlds collide.

DVD cover of The Ramen Girl. Source: Media 8 Entertainment

The story follows Abby (Brittany Murphy), a 20-something material girl who moves to Tokyo to live with her boyfriend. Not long after she arrives, he confesses that the move was too soon and leaves her to work in Osaka.

Alone and out of work, Abby finds herself bawling in a local ramen-ya (ramen shop). The owner, Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida) gives her a bowl of ramen, and the rest is history as Abby vows to become a ramen chef.

 

Tonkostu (Pork-bone) ramen, one of the dishes featured in The Ramen Girl. Source: Wikipedia

The most impressive aspect of the film to me was the celebration of Japanese culture and way of life. From the art of ramen cooking with tamashi (精神, spirit) to the traditional sensei/seito, teacher/student hierarchy, The Ramen Girl is a cultural experience any person with an interest in Japan should see.

At one point, Abby’s crush, Toshi (played by the handsome Sohee Park) bursts out: “Why do Americans think that every other person should act like them?” Abby’s symbolic evolution from self-seeking girl to mature woman relates well to Generation Y’s transition into the adults of the world. While we may find ourselves lost in this phase, acceptance of responsibility and understanding of others’ struggles finally sets Abby free–a beacon of hope for the rest of us.

Liz’s Rating: ★★★★   

Advertisements

Review: Bamboo Blade

Sports manga is both a well-esteemed and tricky genre—especially when your target audience is females. With most of the plot, characters, and dialogue revolving around preparing for or playing in competitions and a string of athletic terminology, these series can be either engaging and educational or one dimensional and boring.

To me, it’s really all about how the surrounding subplots and characters carry themselves, the team drama, and their lives outside of the game that must be established before the manga can expect you to care about the protagonist team’s victory.

Just think about other female-targeted sports series like Crimson Hero and S.P.Y. Both stories feature ambitious newcomers to volleyball and swimming who have to prove to their parents, the boys’ teams, and the rest of the school that they are worthy of playing. When team practice gets rough, it’s the tension between characters and their secretive backgrounds that make you want to read more. You can’t really care about their wins and losses until you feel this connection.

With that said, Bamboo Blade v3, while well-intentioned and an insightful look into the world of kendo, misses out on this reader appeal factor due to static characters, a competition-driven storyline, and not enough explanation of the match terminology, aside from a few translator’s notes at the end. While I’m sure volume 1 focused more heavily on the latter, if you’re not a kendōka, it’s easy to get lost in the continuous motion of the match until a winner is clearly declared.

Volume three picks up in the middle of a practice meet between Muroe High and Machido High’s girl kendo teams. Muroe’s coach, Toraji Ishida, plans to disguise their all-star player, Tamaki, as an inexperienced freshman to trick the other team and win a bet he made with Machido’s coach. However, Captain Kirino instantly recognizes Tamaki’s shy yet powerful presence and plans to win, no matter what. The volume continues with a few small subplots, including Tamaki’s obsession with anime and an amusing montage of Toraji’s poor eating habits.

While the story is predominately told from Toraji’s point of view, it’s hard to take him serious as a sensei, and you’re left wanting to hear more from the other characters. However, outside of the action sequences at the kendo meet, there’s no inside look at the other teammates besides Tamaki, whose quiet personality and solitude produce more blank panels of her staring off into space than anything else.

Again, as a first-time reader of this series, I tried to take into account that the other characters might have been covered more in the first two volumes and that this was the first “inside look” at the mysterious character of Tamaki. Even still, the storyline of volume 3 would have been enhanced with more balance between the teammates and their background stories (if only to fill the awkward silences created by Tamaki).

The artwork of Bamboo Blade v3 is intriguing during the opening kendo meet—the back and forth switch between the outer view of competitors fighting in the traditional keikogi (jacket), hakama (wide-legged pants), and men (protective helmet) gear to the perspective underneath the men of the characters’ face and inner thoughts helps the readers understand the level of concentration and technique required in kendo.

Dark shading and full panels give the series a feeling of motion, but even this starts to slow down when the story shifts to Tamaki’s life outside of kendo practice. But all in all, readers will enjoy the art for its attention to detail and unique angles.

I won’t make any critical judgments on Bamboo Blade as a series until I read the next review copy provided for the series, volume 5, but as a first-time reader with a limited interest in sports manga, I can only say volume 3 appeals to a narrow audience by limiting the storyline and character development. So unless you’re a die-hard kendo fan or just curious about the nature of the sport, volume 3 won’t fulfill a reader’s hunger for school life drama, team angst and struggle, or romance.

But then again, if you do enjoy watching girls beat the crap out of each other with a tough bamboo shinai, there’s a little something for you in this volume as well.

Liz’s Rating: ★★

Ketchup Mania: J-Rock at Its Finest

I was saddened to recently hear that one of my favorite Japanese rock bands, Ketchup Mania, has disbanded after nine years together. The band was relatively unknown in the U.S. until they debuted at the 2007 Dallas A-Kon anime convention, and ever since gained popularity by also performing at 2008’s Sakura-Con.

All the way back in 1999, Ketchup Mania began in Nagoya, Japan with three main members–Hiro the vocalist, Dai the guitarist, and Fanfan the bassist. In 2000, their song “Hime no Omoi” gained recognition by other Japanese bands like Love Psychedelico, Cymbals and Ereki Hachimachi.

Ketchup Mania’s first EP (Strong Music Story) was released in 2001. In the next few years, they solidified their members with Wani the drummer and Yosei the bassist.

They gained national recognition for their 2006 album Greetings From Tokoyo and song “Your World,”  which was used in the anime series Itaden Jump. They released two albums back to back, U-R-G-E and L.O.V.E. in 2007, and Flag in 2008. (http://www.answers.com/topic/ketchup-mania)

Ketchup Mania’s sound is incredibly unique–hard grunge guitars with cute, chipmunk-like vocals. Many of their songs don’t go longer than two minutes, but all have a high energy drive behind them. Just listen to the song below, Namida Vaccum (one of their most popular tunes). Hiro’s voice sounds tough and adorable at the same time–not something you come across everyday!

Only a select few of Ketchup Mania’s songs are available to download through the iTunes library, so anyone’s best bet is to visit Japanfiles.com for mp3s from every album.

Currently, vocalist Hiro is now in the band Cat Loves Strawberries, Yosei in Na-No, and Dai and Wani in Kill Kills.

Liz’s rating: ★★★★