TV in Japan--in response to Michael Badzik"

S.A. Thornton atsat
Fri Aug 28 21:37:19 EDT 1998

I certainly appreciate your considered remarks.  

If I might respond:  
> Now, if by cliches being the core of narrative strategies you are referring
> to what I would call the native symbolic language of the medium (or the
> shared nonverbal language of a culture, if you prefer), then we may just
> have a definition problem here. I am a fan of the _Otoko wa Tsurai Yo_
> movie series and have never viewed it as cliched; although it does use a
> lot of the same elements in every story they work to strengthen the
> meaning of the story as a whole (or the series, actually).

Technically speaking, and I do mean technically speaking, the "cliches"
in Yamada Yoji's films and those in the TV shows and dramas are all
formulas.  Somebody like Yamada makes a reputation specializing in a
specific repertoire of or even creating formulas.  Both are determined
by the need to perform (or produce) and some are under heavier demands
than others.  The question is neither of degree or kind.  The question
is whether or where the culture (or market) will support it.  
> But when "cliches" are used to avoid having to write good dialog, or to
> attract attention in the way a game show might hire a young woman to just
> stand there and be beautiful, or so that the writer or viewer doesn't have
> to
> do a lot of thinking, than I think that there are legitimate grounds for
> complaint. 

Again the issue is pressure to produce.  We see the same problem here
that we see in all private, mass market, consumer oriented production: 
the lowest quality for the greatest number.  The question has been
haunting us for years:  where does quality fit in?  Not only that, but
how do we determine what quality is?   I assure you that most of the
stuff on American and European TV is just as bad.

>My remarks on cliches were in regards to the NHK morning
> dramas; for a perspective from a Japanese writer on the subject consider
> the following by Sata Masunori (from "A History of Japanese Television
> Drama", edited by Masunori Sata & Hideo Hirahara; Tokyo, Japan Association
> of Broadcasting Art, 1991):
>    The decline, however, can also be attributed to the changes in the
> quality
>    of television drama itself. NHK's morning Television Novel still has a
> high
>    rating. Although the stories are different for each novel in the series,
>    there is a tendency to follow the same formula, and it cannot be denied
>    that the program does seem to exist as a convenient "clock for telling
> the
>    time" in the morning with audiences watching the series from force of
>    habit. The same may also be said of the Television Saga series, in order
> to
>    make the tale interesting to and provide suspense, the plot tends to
> fall
>    into cliches that rely upon technique only.
> Further evidence that the Japanese don't like cliches any more than anyone
> else can be found in the morning drama ratings at
> (in Japanese only), where you can see a
> year-by-year decline in ratings until the big jump up when _Futarikko_ was
> shown.
> I am in complete agreement that Japanese television has to be judged as a
> distinct medium - and have said so here before. And yes, its meanings are
> tightly bound with the culture, which is part of why I also see television
> as a real anthropologist's playground.
Oh, I do sincerely agree.  And I think that the cliche of the fast
talking male "presenter" and his purely decorative and adoring female
sidekick has a long history in Japanese folk and folk religious
performing arts, not to mention monologue conversation patterns.  These
cliches, as the path of least resistance in production, are Japanese
culture.  If the Japanese themselves don't like it anymore, then that 
means that something is happening to change the tastes of the Japanese. 
What I find disturbing, more in the scholarly literature, which I have
been looking at recently and not just amongst ourselves, is that the
choice of what and how to discuss Japanese film and TV seems to be
circumscribed by Euro-American assumptions of what quality, film, TV
--and yes, even scholarly methodologies--ought to be, and less by an
interest in what makes the production  and reception  of media in Japan
work.  If reception of Japanese TV (ratings) is on the decline, why
isn't this getting back to the producers? Is there a buffer between the
two that makes production independent of the real/perceived audience? 
To what do we attribute the decline in ratings?  The rejection of the
audience or the availability of other forms of amusement ?(music, for
example, has really suffered here in the US due to the rise of the

I've seen Japanese TV productions I've adored and lots I've hated.  When
push comes to shove, there just isn't the production power to produce
the  amount needed to feed the available hours of broadcast time.  But
that was more than apparent 13 years ago when I was last in Japan.  I
really am glad I am not a professional anthropologist:  as interesting
as I might be in TV, I couldn't stand watching it all day every day.  I
can't say I've seen more than a couple of Japanese films in the last ten
years.  I am a medievalist.  Do you want to talk formulas in epic in the
sixteenth century?  It's pretty awful then, too.  If you think formulas
awful.  Maybe it's Zen: formulas as a way to perform without thinking.  


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