TV in Japan

Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow onogerow
Sun Aug 30 11:04:06 EDT 1998

Wow! Suddenly a lot of discussion on TV!  While most of it is not 
approaching specific shows or genres, it is bringing up the basic issue 
of how to discuss Japanese TV that I brought up a long time ago.

But since the discussion of "cliches" in part refers to my posts, I guess 
I should make myself clearer.

>I'd like to make two points.  Cliches are the core of the narrative
>strategies and attention has to be paid to them: what do they mean? how
>are they used? what is their value in terms of performance and
>production as well as reception? 

I'm afraid SAT, as Michael seems to emphasize, is confusing terms here 
(or at least is using a very different definition from mine) and I think 
we need to clarify the difference between such terms as "cliche," 
"formula" "strategies," and "convention" before we proceed any further.

Cliche is, by most usage (including my own), an overused device, one that 
is so recognizable it stands out as such and in some ways has lost its 
semiotic power.  The use of the term can be academic (referring to a 
certain historical moment in the use of a narrative style), but it is 
most often evaluative.  

A cliche is not a formula, though it may be what a formula turns into.  A 
formula is a set of strategies which work, either to ensure narrative or 
box office success.  Usually, the conception is that if a formula becomes 
cliched, it no longer works.  Formulaic is often an evaluative term, but 
formula usually is not.

Technically, formulae and conventions are different.  The latter refers 
to a contract between the sender and receiver of a message in which they 
agree on what signs or sign structures are to denote/connote what 
meaning.  The implication, as with the notion of a conventional language, 
is that conventions establish artificial sign-meaning relationships.  A 
formula is less a question of semiosis than effect: a combination which 
produces a bang.  Cliches are definitely conventions, but one could argue 
that they are ones that have lost a substantial amount of "receiver" 
agreement as to their operation.  Not all conventions are cliches.  When 
we discuss any form of semiotic production that involves conventions (and 
all do) we are in general NOT talking about cliches.  These are very 
different issues.

Michael uses the term "language" which in use is often close to that of 
convention.  However, given the definitions often used of language (for 
instance, Metz in his consideration of whether film is a language), it 
might be better to distinguish between the terms convention and language. 
 That, however, is a LONG argument which I don't want to get into here.

I hope my understanding is clear (though please correct me if it's not). 

Thus I would disagree with SAT's statement that cliches are at the core 
of narrative strategies.  I would agree that conventions are, but that is 
an entirely different issue.  Perhaps it would be best to argue that 
cliches appear when narrative strategies are beginning to break down.  
SAT's call for us to consider how these strategies are used is right on 
the mark.  I would just never use the word cliche in that context without 
clarifying its meaning.

>Just because these narrative strategies are not American does not mean
>that they have no value in their own culture.  I thought that the
>prupose of studying Japanese film/TV was to figure out what the Japanese
>were doing? The American model has to be addressed and then dropped.
>Japanese cultures and traditions get ignored by American
>specialists/scholars of Film/tv and we all lose by it.

I wholly agree with this, and I hope my previous messages have shown 
this.  I don't think, however, I have ever once argued that these 
narrative strategies have no value because they are not American.  I have 
argued the opposite.  However, the citing of cliches brings up issues 
which can be completely different than the issue of ethnocentrism which 
SAT is right to be concerned about.  Again there are problems with her 
use of the word cliche, but I do want to consider what it would mean to 
have a Japanese term Japanese TV cliched.  Certainly this could not be 
reduced to an East-West issue.  It would rather indicate that there exist 
evaluative strategies that are in oppostion to certain narrative 
strategies dominant in a genre.  Dare I say that it means that one is 
witnessing competing Japanese cultures?  That is why I have a problem 
with another of SAT's comments:

>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. 

Apart from the repeated problem with the term cliche, I always get the 
feeling it is not very useful talking about Japanese culture.  There are 
Japanese cultureS.  "The Japanese" is also a problematic concept which, 
with the critiques of nihonjinron, etc., should also be used with care.  
I think the issue of the cliche is crucial because it shows how narrative 
strategies are both historical and particular, that they change over time 
and rarely have hold over an entire "culture."  When someone calls 
something cliched, they are asserting their culture against another.  I 
just want to emphasis that this occurs between Japanese as much as it 
does between Japanese and Westerners and we should never lose sight of 

SAT is right to point to the issue of change, but we should start 
thinking about our model of culture and the nation.  Are we talking about 
a single entity that metamorphized like a caterpillar, or are we talking 
about multiple cultures within a national sphere that are competing for 

This relates to one of Dick's points:

>P.P.S.  And another post in from S.A. Thornton which seems to resonate
>nicely with a point above, namely >>  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. <<  I think that when one starts looking for these cross-media
>connections, the stated awfulness is transformed into something else,
>something "better."  Try looking at 400 hours of home movies...

I like Dick's emphasis on cross-media connections.  They certainly are 
worth investigating and, if not helping make something look "better," can 
at least help us understand the intertexts that many readers are using to 
understand or appropriate works.  SAT's example is one, but we should 
again be aware of the complex and varied nature of reading through 
intertexts.  Some viewers may read the newscaster structure in terms of 
the traditions SAT cites, but many who are unfamiliar with those 
traditions do not.  Even those, like feminist critics, who know such 
traditions, look at that structure in relation to other cultures which 
make it seem "cliched."

What then does it mean when I use the term "cliche"?  Certainly I must 
beware of an ethnocentric attitude and I thank SAT for warning me about 
it.  I do defend any non-evaluative use I was making of the term: I think 
it is important to point out the fact that some television conventions 
are "tired" because underlines the existence of other strategies.  Noel 
Burch may argue that Japanese art valorized repetition over originality, 
but even if that it was valid for the pre-Meiji, it certainly was not the 
case for Japanese film criticism after 1920, which has laid a heavy 
emphasis on originality.  Thus the citation of "cliches" has been an 
important part of the struggle over taste and culture in the 20th 
century.  Filmmakers themselves, by polemically opposing their styles to 
others, are often also complaining about the cliched nature of other 
directors (e.g. Masumura or Oshima critiquing Ozu and Kinoshita) in order 
to found a "new" style.  If we follow Juri Lotman, the history of cinema 
is defined by the conflicts.

However, I was also using the term in an evaluate sense.  There certainly 
is a problem if I am solely using Western standards of evaluation 
(though, I must stress, those are also plural and in conflict), but, as 
Michael said himself, I think I have been studying Japan long enough to 
say that my reference points are more complex.  I am also in the peculiar 
position of being a critic who writes in both English and Japanese for a 
varied audience.  I have to evaluate, and so I try to do it from multiple 
angles while still emphasizing the polemics I value.  It's a very 
difficult position and clearly full of pitfalls (which I have fallen into 
more than once), but having committed myself to being an academic and 
critic in Japan, I see no reason why I should abandon a polemical stance. 
 Still, I encourage warnings and criticisms.

This relates to Dick's warning that there are only limited times we 
should talk about whether there are any decent Japanese shows.  I wholly 
agree (and I hope my post reiterated that I find arguments about taste 
unproductive), but I do want to add a comment to the following:

>More to the point, I feel, is to ask which Japanese shows/programs are
>favored and disfavored in the context of Japanese production and reception.
>As stated by SAT: >> I thought that the purpose of studying Japanese
>film/TV was to figure out what the Japanese were doing? <<

If one is confining one's study to Japanese reception, I would agree, but 
I want to stress here that the study of Japanese TV is not restricted to 
the study of Japanese reception (I would thus hesitate to say "the 
purpose of studying Japanese film/TV was to figure out what the Japanese 
were doing").  First, there are many non-Japanese who watch TV in Japan.  
Second, "the Japanese" is a problematic concept: what about women, men, 
the young, the old, regional differences, etc.?  Third, there are many 
non-Japanese who watch Japanese TV outside of Japan, either off of 
satellite or through sold programming (remember _Oshin_ has been seen in 
dozens of nations).   We can try to separate these points of reception, 
but they do remind us that Japanese TV is an international phenomenon 
operating within global capitalism.  Think of this: would anyone ever try 
to restrict the study of Super Mario to Japan just because Nintendo made 
it?  One can study Super Mario's reception in Japan, but that has to 
include a discussion of the internationalization of Japanese culture.  
Frankly, Michael, David, and I are all examples of this 
internationalization.  While it may sound conceited, to completely ignore 
us in the pursuit of some "pure Japanese" reception is problematic.

In the end, however, I prefer arguments about how and why over what's 
good and bad.  That's the sense I think I get from others, so maybe we 
can start moving the discussion there.

Aaron Gerow

P.S. Sorry for the rambling comments.  While I have a deadline tomorrow, 
I thought I should say something soon.

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