ER 緊急救命室


I was feeling a bit depressed last week, and at first I thought it was a post-holiday slump or a bout of homesickness. After a while, though, I realised that my depression was caused by the gaping void which had opened up in my life since Mrs M and I finished watching the final season of ER.

I was addicted to ER way back in the mid-nineties, and Mrs M caught the bug when a friend of hers lent us a huge pile of DVDs last year. Once she had reached season 5 or 6, I picked up where I had left off, and we both became more and more obsessed, until we practically sprinted through the last few episodes.

Bizarrely, the Japanese DVDs use Roman numerals, so it wasn’t until I accompanied Mrs M to the local video shop that we realised season XV was in stock, although the show’s secondary title in Japan is a helpfully literal translation of the phrase ’emergency room’: 緊急救命室 / Kinkyu-kyumei-shitsu. Mrs M watched some of the early episodes dubbed into Japanese, but this always felt a bit odd, particularly as the voice actors performed as if they were working on a more, as it were, ‘grown up’ production. So for the most part we chose the original soundtrack with Japanese subtitles, which gave Mrs M her English listening practice and me my Japanese reading practice (not that I’m ever going to use words like ten-teki – 点滴 / intravenous drip – hin-myaku – 頻脈 / tachycardia – and hohwa – 飽和 / saturation – in real life, but anyway).

To be honest, the glory days of ER were its first few seasons, when the show was fast-paced, technically superb and genuinely gritty (in a way that I assume Hill Street Blues used to be, although I never saw it). Somewhere around series 11 or 12, the makers seemed to lose their mojo, and we nearly gave up on it altogether, as the pace slowed to a crawl and it all began to look a bit daytime-y. But while the budgets had clearly been cut, with noticeably fewer set pieces and special effects than before, there was enough good acting and good writing that, by the two-hour finalé, we almost didn’t want it to end at all.

What the early shows in particular did well was to keep several story strands going at the same time, balancing action, romance, comedy and tragedy, against a backdrop of (so far as I could tell) realistic and well-researched medical-type stuff, and all wrapped up in a smooth, stylish, studio-based package. (Geeky technical note: as a former sound engineer, I was particularly impressed with how they managed to avoid post-synching dialogue when such liberal use was made of the steadicam, and with so many of the actors wearing radio mics.)

At the peak of its success, the show’s stars were getting paid seven-figure sums per episode, which is pretty mind-boggling when you consider they were making 22 a year. The sequences set in the Congo in seasons 9 and 10 really did look more like a feature film than a TV show, and I suppose from that point onwards, they only way they could go was down.

While the female characters remained strong until the end – Angela Bassett acts the rest of the cast off the screen as Doctor Banfield in season 15 (where on earth had she been since What’s Love Got To Do With It?), and Parminder Nagra (of Bend It Like Beckham fame) got better the more seasons she starred in – once Anthony Edwards and George Clooney had left, no one ever quite managed to fill their surgical gowns. Doctor Kovac, Doctor Gates, Ray what’s-his-name: they were all a little too pretty and a little too shallow. Mekhi Phifer as Doctor Pratt was the pick of the bunch, although Mrs M’s vote for studliest doc went to Noah Wyle as Carter.

Carter was in many ways the heart and soul of the show: he started pretty much when it started and the two grew up together, and you could almost say we saw the world of the ER through his eyes. Carter also starred in what was probably my favourite episode, in which he and a medical student are stabbed by a psychopathic patient, although the way he left the show, by being dragged off to Africa by his frankly annoying wife (sorry, Thandie Newton – it wasn’t you, it was the role), was a little anti-climactic.

Conversely, if I had to choose my least favourite episode, it would probably be the one in which Ewan McGregor adopts one of the thoroughly unconvincing accents for which he has become so renowned, playing a ‘Chicago’-ite who holds up a convenience store (McGregor is so rubbish at accents that on occasion I even find myself doubting his Scots, although I should probably leave it to someone better qualified for the job to trash the likes of The Phantom Menace).

Another stand-out episode (a double- or possibly even triple-bill, if I remember rightly), was the one in which Doctor Romano gets his arm chopped off by a helicopter rotor blade, which leads me on to one of the few gripes I have with the normally excellent scriptwriting.

Because there is more time in a TV series than a movie in which to create realistically complex characters, it’s very satisfying to watch those characters develop as time passes, but for whatever reason, Romano was never allowed to do so. He was bullying and insensitive from the very first minute he appeared on screen until the very last, and particularly after the arm / rotor blade incident, you felt there was a chance he might redeem himself. In one of the more bizarre curtain calls the show has seen, however, he died just as he had lived: as the guy everyone loved to hate.

In contrast, there are characters like Frank: on the surface, Frank is a doughnut-eating, old-school conservative, racially insensitive male chauvanist. While his main function is to provide comic relief to contrast with the blood-and-guts being spilled around him, in a couple of key episodes we are given insights into his life that cast him in a completely new light. In one we meet the daughter to whom he is devoted, and who happens to have Downs Syndrome, and in another, when he finds himself on the wrong side of the reception desk as a patient, he delivers an anaesthetic-induced monologue about the African-American soldiers he fought with and came to admire in the Vietnam war.

In the old days, when the writers had run out of ideas and the film crew needed some time off, sitcoms used to do a flashback episode: scenes from previous series would be interspersed with ‘Hey, do you remember when so-and-so did that hilarious thing?’ dialogue and wiggly screen special effects straight from an episode of Scooby Doo. Apart from one very short sequence just before Doctor Rasgotra jumps ship, mercifully, the makers of ER didn’t stoop to such nonsense. While a lot of the actors who had left the show returned for cameos in season 15, it was all done with a reasonable amount of subtlety, so that rather than a big, back-slapping party scene in the final episode, characters pop up in relatively credible circumstances – or in Doctors Greene and Romano’s case, a rather ingenious and newly filmed flashback that fills in some of Doctor Banfield’s back story.

Sure, there are a few more loose ends in the plotlines than before, the way in which characters are introduced and retired from the show is sometimes perfunctory, and the camerawork isn’t quite as easy on the eye as it used to be, but even season 15 is gripping, and funny, and moving, and stomach churning, and all kinds of other things that make you want to keep watching, and for those many reasons, I shall continue to feel a bit depressed for at least another couple of weeks – or until Mrs M and I start watching seasons I to VIII of XXIV, whichever comes first.

Japanese TV – a beginner’s guide

I had a TV when I first moved to Japan, but apart from the first half of England v Switzerland in Euro 2004, I never watched it. This was simply because I didn’t understand a word that was being said, and in the intervening seven years, to be honest, not a huge amount has changed. TV is the same wherever you go – quick-fire, fast-paced, and with as much information and entertainment packed into as short a time as possible – so I still have trouble keeping up, but I have realised that while a lot of foreigners label the programming here as ‘mad!’ ‘weird!’ or ‘bonkers!, that’s because they’re consuming it on a purely aesthetic level, with no real idea of the content. Admittedly, Japanese TV tends to be fairly noisy, in both the audio and visual senses of the word, but it has also been influenced by – and come to have its own influence on – TV from abroad.

The archetypal Japanese TV programme goes something like this:

A panel of celebrities sits in a studio and discusses things – often food, sometimes bizarre happenings from around the country / world which they have watched along with the punters at home, and sometimes gossip or other celebrities. There may well be a quiz and / or challenge element to the show, often involving the Japanese language or general knowledge, sometimes a more physical or craft-based activity like cooking, skipping rope or limbo dancing, and sometimes getting out and about and visiting a fish farm, dressing up in a silly costume and accosting members of the public, or going to New Zealand and bungee jumping off a rope bridge.

During these VT sections, the reactions of various members of the panel will pop up in a little window in the corner of the screen, and in this sense, Japanese TV is good example of post-modernism in action – ie. the viewers’ experience of a real or filmed event is mediated because they see and hear it through the eyes and ears of said celebrities, who in turn cannot ‘switch off’ their performance during a VT, since at any moment the vision mixer could cut to a shot of them looking surprised / amused / horrified etc.

While plenty of celebrities appear in this kind of context several times a week, there are three colossi of the format, all of whom have been nationally famous for many years. The first is Sanma (not his real name – sanma / 秋刀魚 is a variety of oily fish which in English is called Pacific saury), who has an all-year-round tan, glowing white false teeth, and is in the habit of literally rolling around on the floor if he finds something funny. The second is Shinsuké, who somehow reminds me of Jimmy Carr, although more in hairstyle than personality, and who teases his guests almost to the point of bullying. The third is Beat Takeshi, who Westerners will know as a brilliant film director, but who is much more famous in Japan as a comedian / presenter. Partly because he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident a few years ago, causing his face to be partially paralysed, I can honestly say that I do not understand a single word Takeshi says, which is a shame, because I get the feeling he is the most satirical voice on TV – one of the programmes in which he currently appears is a discussion of the week’s news, and covers everything from politics to sport.


Separated at birth? Shinsuke and Jimmy Carr.

Elsewhere, Takeshi can often be seen dressed in a shell suit, comedy glasses and a bad wig and bashing his co-hosts over the head with a squeaky toy hammer, a habit that betrays his roots in what was known as the manzai boom. Manzai (漫才 / stand-up comedy involving double acts) became hugely popular in the early eighties, to the extent that even today, almost all comedians start out as one half of a double act. In the series Turning Japanese, which was shown on Channel 5 earlier this year, Justin Lee Collins very bravely tried his hand at manzai, and realised in the process that as the stooge in a double act, you have to be prepared to get hit over the head approximately once every five seconds for the entire course of your performance (although not necessarily with a squeaky toy hammer).

Believe it or not, this doesn’t mean that manzai is unsophisticated, a fact that is exemplified by probably my favourite member of a double act currently doing the TV rounds. Nezuchi is an unbecoming bloke with prominent front teeth, a centre parting and a tartan jacket, and has an incredible talent for coming up with ingenious puns and plays on words, some of which are pre-written, but many of which are clearly improvised. Nezuchi’s manzai buddy is almost completely superfluous, but without each other, the two of them may never have made it into the public eye in the first place.

Anyone on a panel show who is not a comedian is either a model, a singer or a serious actor or actress, and the most ubiquitous of these at the moment are members of the girl group AKB48. AKB48 are ubiquitous partly because there are, I think, forty-eight of them to choose from, so that at any one time, AKB48 are appearing on several different TV shows, in numerous commercials, and gigging at one or more music venues. Like many girl and boy bands, their members are essentially interchangeable, and for every one of them who outgrows the group and moves into acting / presenting / appearing on panel shows, another has already passed the auditions and is poised to replace her.

No celebrity, incidentally, has the slightest qualms about doing advertising: Takeshi is currently starring in a commercial for ECC English school in which he speaks very poor English indeed, Sanma is doing one for Sedes painkillers, Shinsuké is doing one for Miura water softeners, and it is not unusual to spot the occasional Hollywood star earning some extra cash. Tommy Lee Jones has been the face of Boss coffee for the past five years, and whenever I watch the ads in which he appears, I can’t help thinking that for him, Lost In Translation must seem very much like a home movie.

The other main varieties of panellist that are worth mentioning are foreigners and homosexuals. One or two of the former have lived in Japan for many years and become fluent in the language – Dave Spector and Daniel Kahl being the most notable – but the majority are mixed race and were born and raised here. When Mrs M and I have kids, we are seriously considering pushing them into showbiz, since so long as one of your parents is foreign, even if you have no discernable talent whatsoever, you can make a very decent living indeed on the panel show circuit. One haafu (ハーフ / half-Japanese, half-foreign) in particular, who I shall not name for fear of litigation, barely has two brain cells to rub together, but has long, flowing blonde hair, looks good in a mini-dress, and probably earns more for a single TV appearance than I do in a year.

While there is an element of tokenism about foreigners on TV, homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites do seem to have gained genuine acceptance, even if they are more likely to get hired if they are outrageously camp. About five years ago, a straight comedian came up with a character called Hard Gay, who appeared on TV dressed in a studded leather cap, aviator shades, black leather waistcoat and black leather hot pants, and was fond of doing pelvic thrusts in the faces of his fellow panelists and / or members of the studio audience. At the height of his fame, and in an act that in retrospect speaks of quite overwhelming hubris, Hard Gay actually held a press conference to unveil his latest catchphrase. Onii-san tells me that soon afterwards, Hard Gay’s popularity began to wane, and that having fallen on hard times, he – or rather, the comedian who created him – was forced to get a proper job.

Now, though, there are enough authentically gay celebrities that the panel on one recent show was exclusively gay and transgender. The show’s format was to find a suitable partner for Tanoshingo, who is probably the most seen face on television at the moment, and who for sheer camp-ness makes Alan Carr look like Chuck Norris. As with Ai-chan – a transsexual who is attractive enough that he / she must have had men all over the country beginning to question their sexuality – Tanoshingo’s funniest lines are often delivered when he reverts to his ‘male’ voice, and while his fame may, I suspect, be as short-lived as Hard Gay’s, it must surely be a sign that homosexuality is a more accepted part of Japanese society when several other members of the panel were straight-acting celebrities who happened to be gay.

Speaking of which, Japanese celebrities have no qualms about discussing the most intimate details of their private lives on national television: Shinsuké made one of his female panellists (Kiriko Isono) cry when he joked about her divorce – a divorce that was precipitated by her husband being unfaithful to her with a younger woman – and a couple of weeks ago procured Isono’s mobile phone from her PA and sent a text message to her new boyfriend, before reading the reply out to the studio audience. In a programme about unbalanced boyfriends and girlfriends, Nezuchi talked about a previous relationship in which he was hen-pecked by a woman who lived the high life on his hard-earned cash, and Satoshi Ishii, a judo gold medallist at the Beijing Olympics, openly discussed his marriage to a girl who wrecked the house or threw crockery at him when she suspected he was having an affair (hey presto, they have since divorced).

Another recent show devoted a good half-hour to the character assassination of one of its comedian panellists. Other members of the panel related incidents where they felt he had been insensitive or deceiving, before a series of dramatic reconstructions, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with friends and colleagues were shown to back up the accusations. On the evidence presented, he was prone to ignoring people when they talked to him, to bouts of obvious insincerity, to breaking promises to his friends in order to get a laugh, to deliberately putting people in awkward situations, and to horsing around on location to the point where it was no longer funny but embarrassing. While the comedian was given the chance to defend himself – and to make light of the accusations – the programme ultimately portrayed him as a sociopath, and whether or not the incidents depicted really were true (was it all an elaborate, Andy Kaufman-esque stunt, and was everyone, in fact, in on the joke?), I wonder how his career may suffer as a result.

Even for someone who has grown accustomed to British celebrities baring their souls in public, stuff like this makes me feel a little uneasy, and sure enough, it’s not unheard of for matters to take a more sinister turn. Mrs M and onii-san filled me in on the details of another incident involving a woman called Ai Iijima, who started out as a hostess, found her way into the world of TV, and subsequently became a best-selling author. As part of a show broadcast in 2007, she was given an on-screen consultation by a fortune teller, who made various portentous statements about her future, including the assertion that she would ‘no longer be around in two or three years’ time’. A year and a half later, Iijima died as a result of what was officially diagnosed as pneumonia, but which may well have been suicide, and while she may have been mentally unstable in the first place, the incident exemplifies the pitfalls of exploiting celebrities for the sake of higher ratings.

Perhaps because of this, the programmes I like best on Japanese TV tend to exploit ordinary members of the public instead: Big Daddy is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows the fortunes of several families with large numbers of children, and is all the more interesting because such families are even more of a rarity in Japan than in the UK. Contrary to what you might think, Darts Holiday doesn’t involve Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, but Johji Tokoro (whose trademark is to balance his glasses on his forehead rather than over his eyes – you will quite literally never see Tokoro in public without his glasses balanced on his forehead) throwing a dart into a map of Japan and sending a camera crew to wherever it lands. The crew will then drive around and find local people going about their business: a farmer taking his prize cow for a walk next to a busy A-road, for example, or a woman foraging for wild vegetables, or a group of singing skateboarders practicing in their front yard. Similarly, Nihon Hikkyou-dé-Hakken (日本秘境で発見 / Discoveries in Japan Off the Beaten Track) seeks out eccentric characters from around the country and follows them around with a camera, and while there is some research involved, large parts of the programme appear to be genuinely off-the-cuff.

The more informative brand of Japanese documentary is rather different from our soberly presented, David Attenborough-style fare, and treats its subject in more of a comic book style, through an information overload of voiceover, music*, graphics, charts, animation, video footage, stills and subtitles. In fact – and for no apparent reason – almost all Japanese TV programmes now have subtitles, which is a godsend for people like me, as it gives us a better chance of understanding what’s going on.

Anyone who grew up in the UK in the eighties will remember Endurance – aka. ザ・我慢 / Za Gaman – which was made famous by Clive James on Television, and the Japanese still have a fondness for ridiculous challenges: every 2nd and 3rd January, an event called Hakoné Eki-Den sees teams of university students run a total of 217km in relay from Tokyo to Hakoné and back, and every summer, one lucky celebrity gets the chance to jog around Tokyo for twenty-four hours as part of the Children In Need-style charity telethon 24-Hour TV (I could have sworn the woman who did it in 2008 hopped in a taxi at one point so she wouldn’t be late arriving in the studio, but anyway). Also in 2008, a team of celebrities attempted to swim the Sugaru Straits between Aomori and Hokkaido, which are like a much tougher version of the English Channel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they failed, an outcome that led to much on-screen crying. In fact, and in a way that belies their reputation for stoicism, the Japanese are quite an emotional bunch, particularly when there’s a television camera around to capture the moment for posterity, and there is nothing the networks and the viewers seem to like more than an emotional reunion, a teary confession or a televised memorial service.

As you might expect, daytime TV is a mixture of Richard and Judy-style chat shows, teleshopping infomercials and cheesy dramas, many of which originate in Korea. Japan, too, has its own soap operas, one of which changes its location, scenario and characters every six months or so, and the most recent of these was about a teppanyaki shop, which brings me back to that most essential ingredient (if you’ll pardon the pun) of Japanese TV: food. It’s probably best to save this topic for a future blog post, but for now, I feel obliged to mention the signature shot of Japanese TV, a shot that cameramen and women must spend years of their working lives perfecting.

This shot – let’s call it the CCU or Chopsticks Close-Up – is of a morsel of food held between chopsticks or on a fork and poised above plate or bowl, ready to eat and filmed in as mouth-watering a way as possible. Imagine, if you will, a slice of sashimi drizzled with soy sauce, the fingerprint-like whorls on its surface glistening in an atmospheric backlight; or a tumbling tangle of noodles, steaming hot and drenched in ramen stock or rich miso, with a few delicate slices of spring onion balanced on top; or a wafer-thin slice of Kobé beef, drenched in its own aromatic juices and…well, I’m sure you get the idea, although it’s a shot that I can’t recall ever having seen on British TV, which tends to go in for hand-held, quick-cut shots of the food being prepared, followed by formal portraits of the finished dish on a table-top, or of Jamie Oliver / Nigel Slater / Nigella Lawson tucking in and telling us how great it tastes. The CCU is lingering, loving and so extreme that you can see the chopsticks quiver slightly as whoever is holding them – probably the production assistant – struggles to keep perfectly still.

But anyway, all this talk of food is making me hungry – I’m off to the supermarket to buy some Choco Pie.

(*An interesting point about the use of music on Japanese TV: in the same way that during British TV programmes, when someone gets on a train, Mystery Train by Elvis Presley starts playing in the background, or when they get in a car, ditto Drive by The Cars , or when they get on a bicycle, ditto Bicycle Race by Queen, so the musical cues here are almost always based on English language lyrical associations. I assume TV stations must hire researchers with a) a very good grasp of English and b) an encyclopaedic knowledge of overseas music.)

From the archives III


For the past couple of years, a good deal of my Japanese practice has consisted of reading those free newspapers that are published by the Japanese expat community in London, namely News Digest, the thrillingly titled Japan Update Weekly (formerly known as Bay Spo) and Weekly Journey.

Weekly Journey is my favourite of the three, and its most interesting feature is a page of bizarre stories  trawled from the week’s news, stories that usually involve bungled crimes or deviant behaviour of one kind or another.

Once Mrs M and I have moved to Japan, I’ll be rather disappointed not to be able to pick up Weekly Journey any more (sadly, the bizarro stories do not feature on its website), as reading a real-life Japanese newspaper is much more like hard work. So before that happens, may I be so bold as to present you with one or two gems found in translation, as it were:

‘Looking at them was exciting’ – 78 saddles are seized from a man suspected of theft, who has been re-arrested in Tochigi Prefecture.

37-year-old company employee Yuichi Fukuda was arrested on the 22nd and taken to Sakura Police Station in Takanezawa Town, Tochigi Prefecture, on suspicion of stealing a young girl’s bicycle saddle. He is already being prosecuted for a previous offence of damage to property.

‘Looking at the saddle made me excited,’ the suspect confirmed. A large number of saddles and student’s bicycle helmets were found at Mr Fukuda’s residence, and Sakura Police are investigating further offences.

According to Sakura Police, between the afternoon of the 6th March and the morning of the 7th March, Mr Fukuda is suspected of stealing a bicycle saddle (worth around 100 yen) from the residence in Takanezawa Town of a nine-year-old girl who is in the fourth grade of elementary school.

Mr Fukuda was previously arrested by Sakura Police on 29th May on suspicion of damage to property, when he was caught in the act of covering the bicycle helmet of a junior high school girl with a urine-like liquid. When officers searched Mr Fukuda’s home, they discovered 78 bicycle saddles, 10 bicycle helmets and various items of PE kit.

According to investigations, Mr Fukuda has been targeting bicycles with junior high school markings, and has testified to stealing saddles and helmets. ‘Women of my own age don’t take any notice of me,’ he is quoted as saying.

And in case you fancy reading the Japanese instead:

「見て楽しんだ」サドル78個押収 窃盗容疑で男を再逮捕 栃木

A picture of Mr Fukuda’s horde of stolen goods can be seen here.