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How to make Japanese TV in the 21st Century

I was dragged into a conversation recently about the state of Japanese TV. Not kicking and screaming, exactly, as I was up for a rant. After the initial groans of despair had subsided, the person sitting opposite me, who arrived in Japan in the early 1990s and is therefore a veteran in such matters, claimed that compared to ten years ago, today’s TV here is tame.

Around that time, British TV audiences, courtesy of Clive James and Chris Tarrant, were being regularly treated to imported scenes from the seminal Endurance (known originally as Za Gaman), a show in which contestants performed tasks ranging from the relatively mild, like sitting confined in a box and having thousands of live cockroaches dumped onto them, to more extreme, even life-threatening stunts involving extreme cold, heat or bodily strain. It was essentially televised comedy torture.

And many producers continued on a theme of humiliation as entertainment throughout the 90s (though Endurance had started as early as 1984). TV personalities put life and limb on the line with regularity for the sake of ratings and their continued career. But the sadism reached a peak in 1998.

There was a Sunday night comedy called Denpa Shonen, full of stunts and skits. In January 1998, a 23 year old comedian known as Nasubi was locked, naked, in a small room, with some newspapers and a stack of postcards and not allowed out until he’d won ¥1,000,000 in prizes.

He was there for 15 months.

When he reached his target, the show’s producers whisked him away to South Korea, locked him in another room with the same scenario, until he’d earned the airfare home.

As John Paul Catton wrote in Metropolis

Recent interviews with the Denpa Shonen producer, Yuki Takagi, display telling insights into the minds of the program makers. She was quoted as saying that the series would never be shown abroad – because of the nudity. “Nasubi is nude. Foreign people would gain a bad image of Nippon Television if they saw it… it might reflect badly on Japanese culture.”

It may well already be too late for that; and Nasubi’s little nasu had nothing to do with it.

Quite so, I would’ve kept the story of Nasubi out of foreign hands too.

Today’s producers, alas, are less willing to take such risks, and as a result, my friend lamented, modern Japanese TV is dull in comparison.

But my argument has never been that Japanese TV today is just dull, rather that is just uniformly dreadful, and sets appallingly low standards for what it brazenly and without irony claims is entertainment. Yes, that’s about the gist of my argument.

That’s not to say that the spirit of the late 20th century doesn’t live on into the present. There are still remnants of Endurance legacy to be found. Like when members of the girl-group Morning Musume (some explanation may be necessary) had to go face to face with big lizards while wearing hats made of meat… Of course, them being teenage Japanese girls, the squealing, screaming and sheer terror were just hi-la-rious. Then there was the equally philosphical work “Girl-with-toy-seal-strapped-to-her-head vs Hungry Polar Bear”. These though really are the brightest highlights.

Modern j-tv has basically been reduced to only 4 programmes which all channels cycle through.

There are the food shows. What can you do with food? Well, you can cook it. There are some shows that do that. And you can eat it. There are hundreds of shows where they do that. Particularly popular is getting together a group of celebrities and sending them to a number of similar restaurants (all in Tokyo, of course) to taste the same dish in each one, and then compare them. All of these shows follow the formula. Gratingly childish voice-over. Celebs coo over arrival of dish. Express melodramatic surprise at how tasty it is. Celebs respond by either murmuring or bellowing “Oishiiiiii” (“Delicious!”). Close up of said item wobbling precariously between shaky chopsticks. Off to the next restaurant. Repeat, quite literally, ad nauseam.

Then there are the performing-pointless-tasks-and-asking-facile-questions shows. Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that there are quiz shows on j-tv. “If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?” is not a quiz question, nor is it any measure of intelligence. And as for pointless tasks, I refer readers with a good memory to that famous hour of celebrities dressed as schoolkids attempting to drop a cork onto a table so that it stood up on end. An hour.

And there are the same group of tarento (means ‘celebrity’, actually means ‘famous for being famous’, and is ironically derived from the world ‘talent’) sitting around telling anecdotes shows. The daytime ones differ from the evening ones, in that they are actually lengthy commercials masquerading as programmes.

And finally there are rather hopefully named ‘dramas’ (serials), blessedly short-lived affairs where former models ham through a script of pure saccharine against a background of soaring music. Even these used to be varied, each dealing with one of a selection of human interest topics ranging from bullying to murder, budding romance to marriage breakdown. These days though, the imagination seems to have run out as most of the dramas are now set in hospitals. Each episode deals with about 3 critically ill patients, one of whom will die, and the other two will pull through against the odds and amid floods of family tears. All of this will happen with no medical supervision, however, as most of the staff will, for large portions of the show, be gathered together in a room while the star doctor makes repeated breathy moving speeches.

And that is 98% of programming accounted for. Some of the rest of it’s watchable.

But it’s not just a lack of imagination that stifles programme-making. A lot of tv is shaped by the power of one huge talent agency, Johnny’s Jimusho. This agency controls almost all major boy-bands, young male stars and many other top names. If your network wants top faces on screen, you have to go to Johnny. And you have to stay in with Johnny, which is true not only for the networks (no criticism of Johnny or his stars) but for the faces themselves who will soon become invisible otherwise. This two-way influence can not be overestimated.

All of this leaves you with programming that has no emphasis on being original, informative or educational, frequently fails to be entertaining, and very often becomes dull, repetitive background noise. But as this is Japan, no one seems to complain about it. TV viewers seem to have expectations as low as the producers’ standards, so there’s a perfect match. I say it’s a shame we can’t go back to the torture. I can think of so many candidates I’d like to nominate. Let’s start with Overoften’s Saturday Night William Tell Re-enactment. I’d call it a cull, but the TV guide would call it “Entertainment!”

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