Liar Game: A Review

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In anticipation of the Korean drama Liar Game, I decided to check out the Japanese version per junny‘s suggestion. I hadn’t seen a Japanese drama in so long, so it took me a while to get used to the style again. But I’m glad I did, and I do think I’ll check out the second season now.

The Story

It’s a pretty simple and straightforward drama, though I’m not sure if it cuts out a lot of the frills because it’s based on a manga. In any case, it starts off with Kanzaki Nao (Toda Erika), an incredibly naïve and honest young girl with a father in the hospital, receiving a letter to participate in the Liar Game. Her habit of opening things before reading the letter or instructions leads to her getting sucked into the game without much choice.

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The Liar Game involves cheating and swindling one’s opponent in as much money as possible. They all start off with 100 million yen, and can win up to 100 million yen at the end of the game. Nao discovers that her opponent is her former school teacher, and so she trusts him implicitly. However he ends up swindling her out of 100 million yen. If she does not have 100 million yen at the end of one month to return to the Liar Game organization, she will be in debt.

Desperate to at least stay out of debt, she tries to convince her teacher to give back the money. However greed (and his own debts) take priority and he refuses to give it back. A kindly police officer (who ends up being a part of the organization) suggests that she search for Akiyama Shinichi (Matsuda Shota), an expert con artist who took down an entire pyramid scheme but ended up in jail. She reminds him of his mother for her naïveté, which convinces him to help her get the money back.

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In eleven episodes, we watch as Nao goes through four rounds of Liar Game, and the show works on an almost procedural basis each episode. We watch as she and Akiyama outsmart her teacher each episode, getting closer to getting the money back but then somehow getting foiled until the very end. Then in the second round she is subjected to a Minority Game where the minority vote wins each round. Once again, Akiyama manages to find his way into the game (by serving as another person’s proxy) and outsmarting everyone in order to save Nao. Akiyama finds a way to save her and the other participants from going into debt by giving them his winnings and continuing on into the rest of the rounds of the Liar Game. But Nao’s good conscience won’t let him continue, especially when she learns of his past, and so she participates in a ‘resurrection’ round where the losers of the second round can try to enter the third round.

This resurrection round is the ‘Restructuring Game’ where the person with the lowest votes is kicked out (very much like the show Survivor). Nao ends up needing Akiyama’s help in winning the game because no one trusts her, despite her being the most honest of them all. And just when you think she’s finally learned how to be duplicitous, Nao shows that the games have not corrupted her just yet. Everyone’s mistrustful of everyone, relying only on contracts to get anything done. But when she shows kindness even to her worst enemy, the flamboyant and manipulative Fukunaga Yuji (Suzuki Kosuke), she proves to everyone, and the Liar Game Organization, that she’s someone whom they can trust and will make the games interesting.

It is because of her pureness that she is saved in the game through Akiyama and the other handlers’ help, always ensured to make it to the next stage. Eri (Kichise Michiko) takes a special interest in her and notifies Akiyama every time Nao needs help. It turns out that the man who organized the entire Liar Game, Hasegawa (Kitaooji Kinya), took a special interest in Nao ever since he saw her at the hospital where he receives treatment. He wanted to see if a pure person like her could stay uncorrupted in such a corrupt world. Acting in his stead, Eri makes sure Nao passes each round without interfering too much.

Nao is nearly ruined in the third round – the Contraband Game – by Akiyama’s enemy, Yokoya (Suzuki Kazuma). He manages to outwit Akiyama at every turn and only loses when he is betrayed by his own manipulations. Thinking that he won by having Fukunaga at his side, it is his very own ally Fukunaga that betrays him at the very end.

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My Review

For Liar Game, I really enjoyed the procedural aspect of the game because it reminded me of my other favorite Japanese drama Kurosagi. I liked seeing how the participants would outwit each other because it was almost like a “mini case” each episode. What they would do, how they would do it, and would they succeed? I even liked the exposition part when they explained their tricks at the very end. They had really good mind games going on in each Liar Game round. I could see how you could outsmart the system, but it impressed me more when Akiyama or Yokoya would outsmart each other beyond that.

What I didn’t enjoy was the over-the-top performances by the side characters and the crazy editing that required multiple close-ups for every character in reaction to one’s triumphant laughter. I did not need close ups of every single character after someone makes a revelation, nor did I need the close-ups of one person happen three times in quick succession. If these close-ups were to make me feel some kinship to the characters, well, it didn’t really work on me. There were too many characters and close-ups for me to care.

What was surprising was how straightforward this drama was. I don’t think it really built up the characters’ backstories as much as I expected, nor created enough depth with them. The most change probably occurred in Fukunaga, who started off really evil and annoying but saw to his senses. Thanks to Nao, he realized that by helping Yokoya he was perpetuating a belief about the world that didn’t have to be true. It was kind of surprising to see that a side character like him had more growth than Akiyama and Nao. Then again, I felt that Akiyama and Nao were essentially perfect from the get-go. Neither really had flaws, and anything that seemed like a flaw actually worked in their favor in the end. Akiyama seemed like he had anger management issues, only to reveal that he actually was acting; Nao is ridiculously honest but she ends up convincing everyone that there is good in the world, so her flaw becomes an asset. So what can you do with such perfect characters as these? Give them external conflicts by throwing them into scenarios where bad things happen to them, and then watch them deal with it with their never-changing personalities.

Liar Game is not a bad show. It’s just entertaining enough while being very straightforward.

My Judgment

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I’m going to say right now that comparisons are going to be inevitable when I watch the Korean drama Liar Game. This Japanese drama actually made me anticipate the remake more. I’m not someone who generally watches remakes willingly or knowingly, but for this particular drama I actually look forward to it, and here’s why:

While the story and the acting from Matsuda Shota and Toda Erika were quite good, I was not attached to the characters in any way.

What makes remakes sometimes so hard to watch is that I am really attached to the characters and the actors in the original. Either they had the best chemistry, or they were the perfect actors for the characters. But because I felt something for them and was so attached to them, they made the story better.

In a remake, the story is going to be generally the same. There’s no reason to really anticipate anything different with that. What would be different is the performances put forth by the actors. It’s one of the reasons why I could not continue watching the Korean Fated to Love You, or why I would not watch Boys Over Flowers after Hana Yori Dango: I was far more attached to the Taiwanese/Japanese actors in the original and could not let them go. For me, when I watch a drama that’s particularly good I like to preserve that memory in my head. I want to keep my memory of the original just like that without the remake getting in the way. If Coffee Prince ever gets remade in the far off future, I may never watch it; Yoon Eun Hye and Gong Yoo were it for me. So in this case, while I do think Matsuda Shota was very good in this role and Toda Erika was sweet, they did not pull me into the drama. I was not sucked into their characters’ stories as much as I was interested in how the game worked and how they manipulated others.

Granted, Japanese dramas and Korean dramas are pretty different in style, and it was obvious that with this Japanese drama it was clearly based on a manga based on its production style . The Korean drama seems to want to focus more on making it a drama rather than a drama based on a manga; Boys Over Flowers, To the Beautiful You, and even Tomorrow’s Cantabile all are outrageous enough in some way to reflect its manga origins. It’s possible that Liar Game (Korean) is not trying to reflect too much of its manga origins based on its dark, more serious teaser, which then gives the drama a totally different feel from the Japanese drama. I don’t want to pass judgment on the actors just yet, though my gut instinct says Shin Sung Rok is going to be the most excellent villain for this series. We shall see…

Verdict: 6/10

 

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  1. junny 20 October, 2014 at 17:06 Reply

    I’m glad you checked out Liar Game even though it didn’t suck you in as much. I personally liked both seasons and the first film, though season 2 may be better – Nao smartens up a little and Akiyama gets a better hairstyle! Haha. Akiyama also meets a much worthier foe in season 2 and I really liked their face-off. I also loved the music and thought it amped up the tension very well. As for the close-ups, I agree they could have been overused, but I don’t think they were meant to make you like or root for the characters any more – rather, a lot of close-ups tend to focus on the ugly expressions of those who are losing, betraying or scheming. If you think about it, the game is a mirror of our own human tendencies and a lot of self interests play out with intriguing consequences. It is also about deception – what you see is not always what you get, and I think the execution in this aspect is generally good throughout the franchise. Also, the whole underground, illegal aspect of LGT makes it that much shadier and insidious.

    I find Akiyama fascinating, and a lot has to do with how Matsuda Shota plays him. He is flawed, even though he seems the perfect cool brainy guy you’d want on your team any day. He’s deeply cynical, is not above making use of others to gain victory and can be ruthless – that gets tempered by Nao, whose greatest asset is also her biggest flaw and weakness. I personally found Nao very frustrating as a character, but she got slightly better as the episodes progressed. I liked that Akiyama was always there to give her a huge reality check, but in the end, you wonder whether he could have survived the game without her, or she could have done just as well without him.

    The backstories are built much later – you find out more about Akiyama in season 2, and there are small segments between season 2 and the first film that fill you in on Nao, Akiyama and Yokoya. For dramas/stories like this, I find it’s better that backstories aren’t handed on a platter in round 1 – it’s the unveiling, and how, that makes it worth watching on for.

    The Korean remake says it’s adapting from the manga… but then goes and changes the format. Oh well.

  2. Gerwin 22 October, 2014 at 01:15 Reply

    You definitely have to watch Season 2 because it’s better than S1 in terms of character development, acting, and production value.

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