I’m currently on another planet, namely Japan, which for the average Westerner is an experience tantamount to recovering from a serious head injury, in that while the world around you is largely recognisable, it somehow makes little sense. Westerners have been confounded by Japanese TV for decades, ever since Clive James amused millions in the eighties with clips from a gameshow called Endurance, in which contestants had to undergo a series of increasingly painful and humiliating ordeals. For British viewers, much of the fun came from sheer outraged disbelief that watching people being physically tormented and degraded was considered entertainment.
But of course that was 100 years ago, before I’m a Celebrity transformed low-level torture into mainstream British fare. Nonetheless, you don’t have to watch Japanese TV for long until you see something shocking. The other evening I watched a programme in which a man was shown spooning boiling molten metal into his mouth. This was followed by footage of a man being mauled by a tiger and a rib-tickling sequence in which a studio guest was deliberately poisoned by some kind of sea creature.
Generally though, the TV here is surprisingly dull. The vast majority of programmes consist of several seriously overexcited people sitting in an overlit studio decorated like a novelty grotto made from regurgitated Dolly Mixture, endlessly babbling about food. For a nation so preposterously hi-tech, it’s a curiously old-fashioned approach to television. People talking in studios. Forever. Like it’s the fifties. And yet it’s insanely agitated: as though the participants are simply too wired to make a proper TV show, and have subsequently just switched the cameras on and started yelping. The adverts continue this vaguely old-school theme. There are plenty of super-sophisticated ones starring giant CGI cats and the like, but there’s also a rather charming emphasis on dancing: people unpretentiously dancing and singing about the product on offer (generally a foodstuff, which presumably explains their terrifying level of excitement). It makes the Go Compare tenor seem subtle. Sedate, even.
But while onscreen Japan offers up old-fashioned fodder with an unhinged, frantic glee bordering on malevolence, the moment you step outside, the population itself seems incredibly calm, as though faintly mesmerised by the screaming technology surrounding them.
- Charlie Brooker I Can Make You Hate
One of my most fondly held memories is watching Japanese variety shows with my mom on a tiny CRT, getting roasted by a heatlamp in January. Japan is fucked in a torrent of reasons but their TV beats the shit out of anything on American cable.
Originally streamed on the now-defunct Nintendo Wii No Ma, this 14-episode series follows craftsmen and women at their best. Restoration is the central theme, from blown-out photos to tattered denim jeans. Nostalgia is truly my kryptonite and this series digs deep, the items sent for repair because of their owners' attatchment to them. My absolute favorite is the English dictionary being passed down from father to daughter with the crossed-out crush's name being on the "please make this disappear" checklist.
サラメシ - NHK
Nowhere else can you find a show with this much humanity. Voiced by the eternally youthful Nakai Kiichi, the show outlines lunches of the working class. Simple stuff but it gives you a rare, unobscured on how various people live. Family-run businesses, farm workers, blue-collar wageslaves, airport staff, racecar drivers, the whole spectrum is there.
You could be on the edge of a bridge and watching this show will make your plunge a bit more pleasant.
Good journalism is hard to find in Japan, with the mainstream new organizations stripped of any controversy and tabloids splattered with text you wouldn't wipe an orifice with. Documentaries are one sporatic jewel in the media basket however, and The Nonfiction is the most readily accessible. The various topics the TV series covers can vary from an egotistical starving artist to a single parent dying from cancer. Human interest is front and center, with the show focusing on only a handful of faces through the 45-minute run. One aspect I was surprised by the occasional derision the TV shows presents the people in it, regardless of whether they deserved it.
Another voyeuristic human interest show, a sort of downtrodden Cribs. People are front-and-center as the cameramen follow random background characters to their houses, to which the victims spill something about themselves. There's Ultraman fans making original monster costumes to uni students with ADHD living in trash-ridden hovels. It's cheaply made, lacking background music or more than one production staff but effectively distills people down to a few sympathetic details. It's a fantastic shot of empathy in a country where you pretend to ignore the thousands of nodding heads you walk by every day. 9/16/2020
Found the "Can I Follow you Home" episode with the drunk guitar-toting single dad joking that he wants to die. The newest episode is fantastic, Dagashi shop run by an old man. Used to run a resturaunt, does Sadō, runs the shop for the kids. Human interest at its best. 10/29/2020
It's lovely. One had a hotel-worker turned baker in Ibaraki, extensively using local ingredients. There's this radiating sense of community that more plasticine Japanese shows lack. 10/29/2020
NHK ETV 特集
Watched the ETV special 転生する三島由紀夫, an hour-long documentary on Mishima Yukio's works and the context they were born out of. It's a stunningly shot show, velvety narrations and trees rustling filing in for the complete lack of background music. There were clips of a play based on Mishima's novels and it's just the worst. All the actors sounding like they're about to burst into tears describing Mishima's thematic stink, the fragility and transience of man, the beauty prior to destruction, all distilled down to two glistening student actors kissing through saran wrap. My opinion of Mishima has changed to one of pity in recent years. He seemed to carry the insecurities of the short, vulnerable, sickly child he once was, trying to grasp a hyper-masculine ethnonationalist ideal he could never reach himself or had relinquished the oppourtunity to do so in dodging the draft. He was obsessed with his image, of his sentimentality regarding a country that had brought its own destruction through imperial ambitions. Mishima got his perfect death and with it, the members of his right-wing paramilitary group were left with his own selfish ambitions. The documentary had an oddly reverent air regarding the Tatenokai, even managing to interview a few former members. What a shithole country Japan was, training civilian monarchist larpers at actual military bases. The message sent to Tatenokai members after Mishima's suicide sounded like a parent reprimanding their NEET offspring. "Get a job, get married.." 11/28/2020
Caught the NHK ETV special on TV, mom actually watched it with me. A very somber documentary about hikkikomori structured around very personal journal entries narrated by their authors. It outlined their worries, their family dealings, their approaches to an otherwise unsavory lifestyle. Beautifully shot as always, the contrast of footage between yellowed spinning microwaves and crumbling cut-price apartments with bamboo forests and coastlines was especially jarring. They all more or less had the sensation of being left behind in society. 12/5/2020
The third show, 福島をずっと見ているＴＶ, was a heartbreaking look into the nuclear power station in Fukushima prefecture filmed around 2014. It mainly followed the tide of issues the reactor management staff have to face. The workers' blurred faces dotting the footage, being silently ferried in Tokyo Electric buses like they're being sent off to war. Fatalism is a common theme in Japanese sociology and this show was no exception. Staff retention for such a specialized and precarious job is problematic, some workers haven't told their families they work near the reactor, leaks sprung from Thorium wastewater tanks as they were even filming, it was a torrent of successive (measured) misery. The little things stuck with me like how the photojournalist wrapped his camera in saran wrap and how workers sat on the floor to silently eat prepackaged meals while still dressed in their PPE. Atleast they have PPE and aren't homeless laborers picked off the street in Kamagasaki, quite the colorful past Tokyo Electric has. The whiplash from these thoughtful perception-dialating shows to vapid late-night anime trash is really a slap in the face. I'm for sure going to wake up tomorrow reset as a normal human being, waiting again for that burst of something profound to bring me back to this feeling. 11/28/2020
The latter half of 福島をずっと見ているＴＶ played after, a remarkable follow-up to the footage near the Tokyo Electric nuclear reactors. They managed to interview 7 or so current and former workers on the site. They spoke of chronic manpower shortages, lingering anxieties about exposure, of state compensation disappearing through the grapevine of subcontractors. Harrowing stuff. 12/5/2020
Discovered 達ｘ達, a TV show that pits two industry veterans to interview each other. Ghibli director Toshio Suzuki and novelist Kaitaro Tsuno were on. The atmosphere is loose like a day-long shochu binge with 2 uncles. Suzuki describing his work as personal relationships (especially between Miyazaki and Takahata) is something. Ghibli only has around 150 employees, a stunningly low amount for a studio with such worldwide soft power notoriety. Made me realize I've been overthinking things. Even in something as distant to me as animation, making something compelling, something that resonates with you is what's important. The question is whether I'll land somewhere that permits that kind of thinking. He also said Miyazaki and Takahata's works were driven by the distant allure of Europe, with the messy post-war politics of Japan and the US on their minds. Totoro was originally set in 1955 Japan and investors were hesitant because they had lived through that period. Those feelings eventually transferred into the production of Grave of the Fireflies. The other thing is that both men were old as shit. I've readily discarded the promise that you're never too old to make it, but both of their careers shot upwards when they were well into their 30's. For me aging has always been a slow death. External from how well a particular year has gone for me I've never been able to definitely say I've grown as a person. Interests have expanded, skills have improved, but never "growth." 11/28/2020
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How do you lie with impunity on primetime television without a seat in parliament? Just go on Yarisugi Koji. A show that peddles conspiracy theories and baseless assertions on the dubious disclaimer of "believe it or not XD" One memorable scene I saw was the "dark side of the moon" a belief that there was a hidden city on the surface of the moon that Apollo astronauts had caught a glimpse of. They followed it up with the Challenger disaster, saying that it was a deliberate attempt by NASA to prevent any further exploration of the moon.
Sort of a stone-faced Would I Lie to You?, a distant uncle joking about conspiracy theories later admitting they were earnest. And it ran for 6 years for fucks sake. All it's missing is right-wing propaganda to earn a spot on American FM radio. But maybe the show was an early pioneer for how the media landscape would evolve, our current dystopia of op-eds and opinion pieces, gawping increasingly become the foundation for "journalism" as traditional sources of funding dry up. Why pursue an accurate view of reality when pushing unsubstanciated rumors about vaccine injuries will rake in more rubberneckers?