Thursday, 19 March 2015

Spring Break J-Dramas: Liar Game

This is Day 4 in a series. You might want to start at the introduction.

Well, yesterday was the best of the week, so naturally today it's time for the worst. After finishing Galileo, I really wanted to watch another mystery focused J-drama, so I picked the one from Crunchyroll's catalog that looked the most like it fit that bill: Liar Game. I did a bit of research on it, and saw that some people had made some comparisons to Death Note, so I figured "what could go wrong?" and dove in. I did say that it's the worst of the week (and it is), but it's not really a bad show. Well, it kind of is, but only because it's so very over the top cheesy, in every possible way. Writing, acting, costumes, everything. But that also makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Liar Game is about a "stupidly honest" girl, Kanzaki Nao, who gets sucked into a "game" run by bored wealthy people that ends up destroying the lives of most of the participants, who are forced to play against their will (similar to CH:OS:EN, but without the murder). The game that is played is different each round (officiated by a masked man on a television screen, like in Saw), but they are all based around the idea of making money. Every player starts out with a certain amount of money (usually ~$1 million) which they are required to repay at the end of the game. Any money they win from other players that puts them over their initial amount can be kept at the end, so every game is designed to have some players deep in debt by the end, which is where the danger lies.

The main characters, Nao and Akiyama, posing with playing cards in the air.
Nao looks correct here, but Akiyama looks nowhere near that creepy in the show.
Liar Game is based off of a manga of the same name, though the manga ended just this year, well after the J-drama ended (back in 2010). I had never heard of it before watching the show, which I recognize is not the best judge of popularity, but it seems to be a fairly low-key production. It has never been licensed in North America either. There was a K-drama adaption that aired just this past Fall, though I haven't watched it.

Nao is the main character (played by Toda Erika, who was Misa in the Death Note movies), and she has basic faith in the goodness of human nature, which is why she gets tricked so often. It's almost like she doesn't know that lying is a thing, she falls for it so often. Naturally, this makes the liar game quite difficult for her, so she recruits an ally: Akiyama Shinichi (played by Matsuda Shota, apparently known for the J-drama version of Boys Over Flowers), a con artist who just got out of prison. He's the man of few words who thinks that he's the smartest guy in the room... and is right. He's the L or Light of the show, and no one else can quite match his level of strategy. Each round is usually won by following his plan. As a funny aside, he apparently attended Teito University, the same university that Professor Yukawa from Galileo teaches at (the ACME of Japan).

The best word to describe this show is campy. Everyone is overacted, but especially the character Fukunaga (one of the early opponents), who can't seem to go two sentences without shouting that everyone else is stupid in comparison. What really sells the camp factor though, is the camera work. Specifically, the over fondness for reaction shots. Any time that something dramatic happens (i.e. Akiyama reveals that everything that has happened was actually part of his master plan), the camera cuts to the face of every single character that's playing the game, to show their shocked look. I think that there are 14 characters in one of the games, and sometimes they do this reaction cut not just twice in an episode, but twice within a minute. I guess the director really wanted to drive home the point that everyone is shocked, and you should be too... The show also features the other main hallmark of campy shows, which is villains giving long speeches gloating about how they won before the results are officially published, only to see that they actually lost. I swear it happens every game, but it doesn't really get old. It's really satisfying to see the villains lose in such a spectacular and humbling fashion.

The main character Akiyama accusing someone else with a super condescending look.
This is what Akiyama actually looks like: condescending.
It may be campy, but the games for each round are actually quite interesting and well designed, with clever solutions too. It doesn't have too strong of a start, with Round 1 being probably the most boring of all the games, but it's all uphill from there. Some of the games are pretty complicated to explain, so I'll try to describe some of the simpler ones to give a picture of what the show is like. The first round is very straightforward: two players are paired up and each is given a briefcase with ~$1 million in it. The objective is to steal the other player's money before the end of the week, at which point the "Liar Game Agency" will come to collect $1 million from each player. If you were stolen from, you will be in debt; if you stole from the other player, you can keep the extra cash you stole. Or there's the game "Minority Rule." There are multiple rounds where a yes or no question is asked, and you must enter your "vote" (the truth doesn't matter). If you voted for the answer that had the fewest votes for it, then you win and can continue to the next question. If you voted with the majority, you lose, are kicked out of the game, and owe the Agency $1 million. The last man standing gets all the money. The way to win that particular game was really clever, I thought.

Rounds 1, 2, 2.5, and 3 are all covered in Season 1 of the show which aired in 2007, over the course of 13 episodes (which are 36 minutes long... why?), though two are mostly recap. Season 2 aired 2 years later in 2009, and unlike Galileo and GTO, there were no major changes with the cast. Everyone returned to their roles and no one was written out, including side characters, which is nice. It ran for 9 episodes of 45 minutes, and covered round 4 and the semi-finals. The primary opponent in this season was actually played by Rinko Kikuchi, known for her role in Babel, though I know her from playing Mako in Pacific Rim. The final round was saved for a theatrical movie, Liar Game: The Final Stage, released in 2010, which wrapped up the series.

After the main series finished, a spin off movie Liar Game: Reborn with Akiyama and a new female lead was released, and a new series Alice in Liar Game focusing on the character Alice from that movie was launched. There are also various side story specials (such as one called Liar Game: Episode Zero), but I haven't seen any of these. I stopped when the main series ended. All in all, I would say that it was a fun show to watch. It's campy enough that you can almost watch it with your brain turned off, but the games are smart enough that you really do have to give some amount of thought to them. It's an interesting combination, and, like I said at the top, it's a whole lot of fun to watch. I regret nothing!

Both Season 1 and Season 2 are available for legal streaming in North America on Crunchyroll. It has very specific worldwide availability, but it includes most of the world minus Asia. The ending movie Liar Game: The Final Stage and the sequel / spin-off Liar Game: Reborn and Alice in Liar Game are not currently available, which is the same with the specials. The K-drama version is available on Viki.

Full Series

Day 3: Galileo
Day 4: Liar Game

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