TV in Japan

Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow onogerow
Mon Aug 24 22:53:55 EDT 1998

David Hopkin's challenge:

>Anybody care to declare with no qualifications that there are "good" TV 
>shows in Japan and name them and sign your real name? Interesting, 
>significant, worth studying don't count. Definitions of "good" are 

I must admit I sympathize with the feelings behind this challenge.  When 
I came to Japan in 1992, I watched TV quite studiously, even looking at 
the first episode of all the new dramas or each cours so I could make 
sure I was not missing anything.  It was a worthwhile experience, and not 
only in an academic sense.  One could at first get into even trendy 
dramas like _Tokyo Love Stories_ or _Asunaro hakusho_ no matter how 
cliched their production was.  But I gradually stopped watching dramas.  
Partially it was because of the dissertation, the film festival, 
marriage, and a new job, but it was also because it frankly became less 
enjoyable.  The acting, screenwriting, and direction was often so cliched 
and conventional that I could not help laughing.  Even _Futarikko_, which 
my wife and I religiously watched and which was one of the better asaren 
in a while, had a script full of holes (I can't believe it won most of 
the TV scriptwriting awards that year--are standards that low?)  There 
was little there that could stimulate me like the best of US or British 
TV (though I think the latter are not that much better).  There really 
wasn't anything "good" on.

But I have not given up on TV for several reasons.  First, because I do 
think that if you search for a while and give some programs a chance, 
there are still quite a few that are enjoyable.  TV Tokyo, for instance, 
regularly does special late night half-hour dramas directed by the 
feature film directors whose films we laud: Shinozaki Makoto, Mochizuki 
Rokuro, Kazama Shiori, et al.  Right now, they are doing a series of 
adaptations of the manga of Tsuge Yoshiharu on Monday nights. (By the 
way, did anyone tape the episode directed by Mochizuki?  I missed that.)  
Obayashi Nobuhiko still does TV work and that is always worth watching.

_Shinseiki Evangelion_, for all its problems (ideological, gender-wise, 
etc.), was still a compelling and engrossing anime that rightly caused a 
national sensation.

One of the recent trends in TV has been to have talento put their bodies 
on the line taking on challenges that are then recorded in a kind of 
documentary fashion.  _Denpa shonen_ is the primary example of this, but 
_Urinari_ (done by the same producer) is less exaggerated and often more 
compelling.  While recently it has become more of an example of how to 
manipulate the consumer behavior of the audience (e.g., Black Bisquits 
and save Vivian Su), some of the episodes, like shako dance and Dover 
Odanbu, have moments of "realism" (however constructed they are) which 
are refreshing.  When the Dover Odanbu in one episode basically 
criticized the producer and the demands the program made on them, we were 
seeing a side of the process which is not usually revealed.

Some TV news can be good, like Tsukushi Tetsuya.  I wish there was more 
activist political and investigative journalism, but even a light show 
like _Uwasa no Tokyo Magazine_ can sometimes do some hard-hitting reports.

As for TV game shows, while I don't watch it myself, _Shiawase no kazuko 
keikaku_ was recently selected the best TV game show at a major TV 
festival in Europe--the first time any Japanese TV program has won a 
prize.  It has been so well received abroad, it is being copied right and 

I mentioned Ninety-Nine in a previous post.  My wife and I regularly 
watch their programs because we do think they are two of the funnier 
comedians on TV today (I've liked them since _Kishiwada shonen gurentai_, 
which is a very good movie).  While _Guruguru_ and _Mecha2_ have more 
misses than hits, there are some shows which are hilarious and reveal 
their comic talent.

Comedy is thus worth a try.  We also check out _Karakuri terebi_ because 
Nakamura Tamao can sometimes pull off some brilliant gags that make the 
whole show worthwhile.  There are many talented comedians on TV, from 
Takeshi to Utchan Nanchan, and their style of ad-lib gag comedy can often 
provide a good time.

As a long-time fan of comedy, however, I cannot say I am satisfied with 
TV comedy here.  There is little of the well-scripted, well-acted TV 
comedy one saw on _Monty Python_, _Mary Tyler Moore_, _Murphy Brown_, or 
_Seinfeld_.  They can't have that because of the production process here. 
 When Takeshi does 10 programs a week and Ninety-nine four or five, they 
neither have the time nor the energy to make a good script and rehearse 
it.  One reason well-scripted comedy is lacking on TV in Japan is because 
TV is dominated by manzai and other vaudeville styles that stress 
ad-libs, slapstick, and repeated gags.  There is a long tradition of that 
kind of comedy, but one must also emphasize that such comedy exists on TV 
not merely because "Japanese" like it (for some "cultural" reason), but 
also because it best fits the mode of production (fast, cheap and in 
quantity) that dominates TV.  Looking at cinema, there is a lot of 
well-scripted comedy out there, but little of it has moved to TV.

But this is not a reason to give up on TV comedy.  One of the clues of 
watching Japanese TV is to try to find how best to watch it.  I think 
this is a major point, for in the end - and please excuse me, David - I 
have problems with the attitude that damns all of Japanese TV.  First, I 
think it can easily align with a classic form of Orientalism: the 
Japanese make "bad" and "primitive" TV while we in the West do it much 
better (I'm not saying this is what David is declaring, but we all know 
this attitude exists).  It degrades Japan in order to make the West a 
model for it to copy.

Another problem with damning Japanese TV is that it damns the tens of 
millions of people who watch it and think its good.  One can argue that 
they are all ignorant and don't know what's good, but I can't side with 
that kind of elitism.  One of the issues is to find out how people enjoy 
TV.  My wife insists, for instance, that most people who watch TV dramas 
do not watch them seriously: they watch them parodically, making fun of 
them as much as they get into them (and the producers know this, she 
claims--most of what is excessive in these shows is there on purpose).  
While I don't fully buy that, it does pose the possibility that Japanese 
TV cannot be evaluated simply by its form and content: we must take how 
it is watched into account.  _Plan 9 From Outer Space_ may be an awful 
film, but in the right viewing mode, it is great.  Maybe many Japanese TV 
viewers are also, in their own way, making Japanese TV good and worth 
watching.  They are thus smarter than "we" think and "we" should do our 
best to try to appreciate those modes of viewing.  (In that spirit, I 
have tried to rethink my attitudes towards ad-lib, slapstick comedy, for 

You can disagree with what I think is "good," but arguing over taste is 
an often fruitless endeavor.  More interesting is thinking about how 
taste is produced and shaped and how it functions--or can be 
strategically used--in popular culture.

One final point.  Despite my urge that we do not throw out Japanese TV, I 
still do think we should look at this historically.  While I have still 
not seen anywhere near enough, I do get the impression from my limited 
viewing that Japanese TV was better than it is now.  With scriptwriters 
like Kuramoto So, Yamada Taiichi, and Mukoda Kuniko, dramas were 
well-written and often featured top actors and directors.  Check out 
_Kizudarake no tenshi_ or even _Taiyo ni hoero_ on video and you can see 
a more complex, existential--dare we say "real"--attitude towards the 
story than we see today.  There was also a lot of formal experimentation: 
Jissoji Akio's _Ultra Seven_ shows were better than most of the 
avant-garde films of the day.  Even kids manga like _Umi no Toriton_ and 
_Yokai ningen Bemu_ had a dark, tragic tone to them that touched the 
heart of children more than the fake heroism of _Dragon Ball_.  Much of 
this was due to the times: manga in those days was also more complex, I 
would argue.  But we should also look to see how modes of production and 
viewing have changed since then, especially in relation to shifts in 
leisure patterns and the structure of the viewing space, to understand 
why TV has followed a different road.

Damning TV reminds me too much of the old damning of popular cinema.  It 
wasn't art so it was not worthing looking at, much less studying.  
Changes in attitude--in particular a critique of both the high art/low 
art division and the belief that only "art" is worth studying--were 
crucial in bringing popular cinema back into the spotlight.  I think this 
is necessary with Japanese TV as well.

Aaron Gerow

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