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August 9, 2007

JDrama – Gal Circle (2006) Review

by Master Pillow

Gal Circle is a totally off the wall Japanese comedy series filled with a cornucopia of Native American stereotypes that would normally spell doom for Western viewers but is ultimately saved by the fact that everything is so incredibly light-hearted that political correctness is rendered moot. It also helps that it features three up and coming young actresses and a bevy of scantily dressed girls who bounce around the screen dancing para para in almost every episode. However, that is not to say that feminists will be up in arms since the series ultimately preaches strong family values albeit with modern sensibilities and most of these characters are merely misunderstood and lacking direction rather than being dumb as a doorpost.

As setups go this one is firmly in the crazy genre – kindhearted Japanese/American Indian Kitajima Shinnosuke (Fujiki Naohito) parachutes into Shibuya in the heart of downtown Tokyo on a mission to find an enigmatic girl named Imoko but he unfortunately lacks enough information to properly begin his quest so he teams up with various members of a gal circle dance group called Angel Hearts. These girls having lost their way due to numerous reasons have found a type of emotional oasis within the Angel Hearts group as they are amongst their peers whereas they are shunned by mainstream society. It’s soon revealed that Shinnosuke was sent there by his mentor Geronimo (Furuta Arata) to find and thank Imoko for sending him a bottle full of seeds that were just what he needed to finish a medicinal recipe that saved a young girl’s life.

At first the Angel Hearts girls want nothing to do with Shinnosuke thinking him totally weird but the show quickly settles into an episodic format where our morally upstanding Japanese Indian teaches life lessons albeit in varying odd methods to individual girls giving them the power to confront their demons. That is not to say that some of the issues dealt with here are deep insights into the human soul but rather ones that pertain to young women such as social acceptance at school, gaining self-confidence, coming to terms with one’s weight etc.

What clearly makes the series watchable though is the ridiculously broad humour that usually revolves around Shinnosuke’s Indian background clashing with the hip hop culture of Shibuya. Let’s be frank though by saying that Shinnosuke is about as Indian as Hillary Clinton is a man – in other words, not at all! That’s firmly because the screenwriters are basing all their knowledge on North American Native American culture on Looney Tunes cartoons and old stereotypes. Now’s not the time to go into Japanese television and their sometimes totally warped views on foreign cultures but I will say that clearly much was lost in translation.

Therefore, we get old clichés such as Geronimo living in a teepee and wearing war paint while Momo his daughter is in pigtails and wearing long feathers on her head. Even Shinnosuke is decked out in every episode with a ten gallon hat and leather cowboy boots with spurs while forever carrying a lasso. Still, Westerners can accept these elements just because the intent to insult is not at all here as everything that takes place is made fun of such as the fact that Shinnosuke never ever takes off his hat even when he’s lying comatose in an operating room table. Or how about the fact that occasionally Shinnosuke or Geronimo would lapse into broken English dialogue that is downright laughable such as when they shout, “Oh NO!” or even “SH*T!” to punctuate their sentences. Surely this is all tongue in cheek stuff and only the most sensitive viewer might feel uncomfortable with all this Indian stereotyping.

At the heart of the series is the always reliable Fujiki Naohito as Kitajima Shinnosuke who I must admit surprised me with his comic timing and hilariously overwrought pronunciation of English. Since I’ve usually only seen him in downright ponderous philosophical roles such as the dying teacher in Kou Kou Kyoshi 2003 or the wannabe second banana suitor in Proposal Daisakusen his comic turn here is truly enlightening. This is an actor who usually plays straight roles and normal but nice guys so to see him cut loose in a show that could very well embarrass most people certainly shows some gumption.

In fact, the show soars whenever Shinnosuke, Geronimo or Ichinose-kun (Sato Ryuta) are on screen as the pace noticeably quickens and the crazy wit will leave viewers rolling in their seats. Sure, it’s sometimes juvenile but this trio of actors all throw caution to the wind deciding that the best way to tackle absurd roles like these is to just have a blast. Usually the comic relief sidekicks get some truly awful segments where their crazy antics throw a serious monkey wrench into the proceedings but Sato Ryuta as Ichinose-kun funnily enough never falls off the edge with his completely maniacal take on a down and out patrolman. Other actors would probably stretch their performance out too broadly yet he manages to make his character funny while never losing sight that he’s also lacking self-confidence.

Furuta Arata as Geronimo easily steals nearly every scene he’s in a remarkable task considering his character spends almost the entire show based in a teepee back in Arizona and therefore only appears through a webcam on a laptop. His laconic but authoritative delivery makes Geronimo sound like a kind of Obi-Wan wise man yet he also has a tendency to lapse into sheer camp aided by some snazzy camera work which often times goes into rapid zooming in and out of his face that somehow works wonders when he delivers witty lines of dialogue. Taken at face value this spastic editing and camera trickery should be totally disconcerting but it works here to amplify the kookiness of the show.

Unfortunately, the members of the Angel Hearts are a bit of a hit and miss affair with some actresses pulling off their modest roles with assurance while others are just completely wooden robots whose only goal is to look fetching in their skimpy outfits. In fact, the show noticeably stalls whenever the focus shifts to them as they are rarely involved in the comedy (falling into pits doesn’t count) and instead partake in more serious drama. With a bunch of nubile young girls dancing around in revealing outfits one would think the comedy or any sort of excitement would emanate from them but this is clearly not the case. Instead, they’re constantly embroiled with in fighting and general cattiness that permeates the first half of the series which makes for less than engaging material. I can understand that this is teen drama yet the audience is going to feel distant from them precisely because they lapse into formulaic backstabbing and bitchiness that is not at all endearing.

For instance they begin to pick on one girl so much so that she decides to end it all and commit suicide by leaping off a building. This is melodrama at its worse and doesn’t do anything but generate hate for those girls who are too dumb or too ill-hearted to push one of their own members to the point of ending her life. Things do turn noticeable more amicable as the show progresses no doubt based upon the fact that our cowboy hero Shinnosuke begins to educate them to see the error in their ways.

As mentioned before the show features three up and coming actresses in Toda Erika (Saki), Suzuki Emi (Remi) and Aragaki Yui (Nagisa) but the way in which the show is built it doesn’t provide them with many opportunities other than sulking or throwing major tantrums. Of the trio Toda Erika is the lead actress here but she really doesn’t impress with a lack of subtlety deciding that the best course of action is to constantly whine or go bug-eyed with broad facial expressions. That is not to say she’s lacking but this is not the sort of role to prove acting prowess.

However, as overblown as Toda Erika sometimes gets it stands in total contrast to Suzuki Emi who truly turns in one of the most stiff and exasperatingly forced performances I’ve had the dishonour of seeing. It probably doesn’t help that she appears anorexic but her tall toothpick frame just accentuates her robotic movements and less than natural sense of dialogue delivery. In short, she should stick to modeling. Even though this is a comedy you can’t help but laugh for all the wrong reasons when she decides to physically punch multiple people including our hero with as much force as a feather drifting into your face. This is someone who would collapse if all you did was stick your finger on her forehead.

Aragaki Yui sticks out the most precisely because her character is much more introverted and subdued and while you can’t say she gives an award winning performance at least her character shows some inner turmoil although it’s entirely based on a series of weight issues which are about as believable as Suzuki Emi’s nonexistent acting skills. Let’s be honest Aragaki Yui is not at all fat, in fact she’s darn thin, yet her narrative has her constantly in a battle to lose weight. I’m sorry but if the pinnacle of beauty is being as thin as Suzuki Emi’s wafer thin body then girls today are surely learning the wrong lessons.

Gal Circle is simple breezy fun that unfortunately ends with its worst episode that drags on due to the excessive amount of flashbacks and a bad tendency to wrap everything up in a neat package. Without revealing more it even decides to go all out and throw away whatever semblance of reality is left by plunging the show into serious melodrama coupled with one truly groan-inducing effect involving Shinnosuke’s now magical lasso. Then again, weak finale excluded, the show simply works as light entertainment even if it takes the Indian stereotypes a bit too far. For a show featuring cute girls the draw for Gal Circle is surprisingly not them but everybody else.

**1/2 out of ****

2006, Japan, 11 Episodes, Approx 600 Minutes, NTV
Directors: Iwamoto Hitoshi, Sakuma Noriyoshi, Nagumo Seiichi
Screenwriters: Fujimoto Yuki, Ono Toshiya, Takeda Yuki
Producers: Toda Kazuya, Chiba Yukitoshi
Music: Ike Yoshihiro

Kitajima Shinnosuke: Fujiki Naohito
Saki: Toda Erika
Remi: Suzuki Emi
Nagisa: Aragaki Yui
Rika: Iwasa Mayuko
Yurika: Yaguchi Mari
Shizuka: Satsukawa Aimi
Sumire: Natsuko
Geronimo: Furuta Arata
Momo: Yamauchi Nana
Yayoi: Kamiwaki Yu
Akiko: Miura Rieko
Ichinose-kun (Police Officer): Sato Ryuta
Youko: Takase Yukina

© 2007 The Galactic Pillow

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