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.)

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