Tuesday, November 07, 2006
(Pictured: Beautiful food like this curry could never find its way onto Japanese TV)
Youtube, the internet’s most popular video sharing service was recently forced to wipe 30,000 files from its website due to copyright issues. The Japan Society for the Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers is considering lobbying for a screening process for videos being posted on the site, to prevent copyrighted material from being illegally screened. Most of the clips that find their way onto the internet from Japan are from TV shows or commercials. They are also immensely popular viewing. But why?
The answer lies presumably in the innate quirkiness of Japanese TV programming. It seems that westerners regard the everyday weirdness of Japanese TV with a mix hilarity and confusion that makes viewing compulsive. Indeed receiving an email with a link to a befuddling or disturbing clip featuring Japanese people maltreating or otherwise embarrassing themselves is not by any means an irregular occurrence for many.
I remember some time ago I received an email with a link to one such clip. The show was one of these physical challenge type shows where the guests have to perform feats of limited athletic prowess to an audience who invariably laugh as they are humiliated. In this show, a group of pretty young Japanese women had balloons stuck to their backs, and had to run around for sixty seconds and evade an aggressor who was determined to burst them. The aggressor in this case was a muscular seven-foot-tall shirtless black man bearing an expression of affected animalistic cruelty. Having a microphone shoved into his face, he bellowed in English “I SHALL DEFEAT YOU ALL.” Then the referee blew his whistle and he was off. For such a huge guy, he moved with the swiftness that surprised and terrified his cutesy-girl opponents, who squealed and shrieked in naked terror as he pursued them relentlessly around the room, bursting one balloon after another, howling and ballooing. The Japanese girls slipped and slid around in a futile effort to escape his terrible wrath, but when the sixty seconds were up, not one balloon remained. The presenter broke up the melee and separated the victorious gaijin from his vanquished foes. A couple of the girls were actually crying. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Aside from doing absolutely nothing to negate certain ingrained racial preconceptions in Japanese culture – that all foreigners are animalistic and rapacious - this clip serves to highlight the sadistic edge of Japanese comedy. The Germans would call it Schadenfruede. As the Japanese would say: “Tanin no fukou wa mitsu no aji” which roughly means “others misfortunes taste of honey.”
Popular with internet viewers is the game show “Silent Library” where inexplicable and terrible things happen for no reason at all. The game plays like Russian roulette, each player picks up a card, one of which has a skull and crossbones motif on it. If they draw that card, a horrendous punishment will be inflicted upon them by their fellow contestants. Among the tortures I witnessed was “Wasabi Roll”, where the hapless contender is forced to consume the some sushi laden with the aforementioned foodstuff. He of course then hacks, coughs, slavers a bit and demands some water. Later on in the show the poor fool falls victim to two other pranks – “Bad Smell Air” and “Slapping Machine”, the first of which involves the donning of an air mask which supplies the contender with foul air, as he once again nearly loses his lunch, the second of which needs no explanation: his colleagues hold him down while a machine delivers a series of painful looking slaps. The most terrifying of the torments inflicted though was “Old Man Bites Tenderly”. This involved an elderly Japanese man who removes his dentures and then furiously gums the ears of the unfortunate bearer of the skull and crossbones card. He whimpers and moans in obvious discomfort as the old man takes his fleshy earlobes into his toothless mouth and jaws on them. Truly awful. Also I forgot to mention as it's set in a library they have to be silent at all times.
I have to confess, I don’t really “get” Japanese TV, and not just because I suffer from the twin curses of cultural ignorance and lack of Japanese language ability. Japanese TV programs, in general are a great deal cheaper-looking than their US, Canadian or UK counterparts – the sets seem to be sparsely decorated and the props seem to be primarily made out of card. Possibly it only seems this way to me because there are so many variety shows on Japanese TV and they are reportedly very cheap to make, or because my TV set is broken and I can only get two channels.
I remember the first time I switched the TV on when I arrived in Japan. The show that I watched featured a man with a red coat, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to wake people up really early in the morning, for no discernable reason. He would drive around town in his car, wearing his red coat, in the early hours of the morning, when it is still dark outside. Then he would select a house and go up and knock on the door. When the residents emerge, bleary-eyed, he announces they are on TV and their expression immediately changes from weary irritation to delight. Usually then the resident will invite the red-coat-man in for tea and they will discuss the prank in detail. One time, the red coat man arrived at a door to discover that the resident had left it unlocked, so being as quiet as he could he snuck himself and his camera crew in, and made his way to the residents bedroom. Seeing a woman asleep, he shook her awake. She immediately freaked out, thinking the intruder was either there to rob, rape or otherwise mischief her. But the red coat man explained she was on TV, and she soon saw the funny side of it. I cannot begin to comprehend what the point of this Endeavour of his was was.
But it’s not all juvenile torture and dubious pranks on Japanese TV. From my experience, Japanese TV is generally very boring. For instance, most shows on Japanese TV in the evening - especially around mealtimes - stick to the following formula. Some food will be cooked. The food will be Japanese in origin, or if foreign in origin at least so thoroughly Japanified for public consumption that it will be unrecognizable as such. Generally speaking, I have no idea what the food is, often it is sushi, which is easily identifiable, but more often than not it will be a food that the gaijin does not know and is possibly not meant to know. Ask your Japanese wife. In any case after the food has been thoroughly examined a middle-aged woman in a kimono will pick up a pair of chopsticks and gingerly take a bite. She will usually look shocked for about three seconds then cover her mouth and say “O… O… Oishi!”, elongating the last syllable for an inordinate amount of time to accentuate just how delicious the food is. I myself gain no pleasure from watching middle-aged women eat sushi so this type of programming does not interest me, but there does seem to be quite a lot of it, so it must appeal to somebody. God only knows who though. Some degenerates no doubt.
The other thing that bothers me about Japanese TV is that there’s always so much clutter on the screen. Numerous titles and assorted text cover the screen at any given interval. What they say is an enigma for my non-kanji-reading self, but much of the time they seem to have a sense of mysterious urgency about them, or so the double-exclamation points would suggest. Also, is there any reason why there needs to be a box with somebody’s face in it in the corner of the screen constantly? Why is the host’s reaction to a woman eating sushi deemed important enough to merit being shown in a separate frame while the event is taking place? My theory is this: just as Japanese school students will seek to confer with others before answering even the simples of questions, so the Japanese TV viewer needs complicity before reacting to the images the TV shows. It has the same effect essentially as the laugh track does, it encourages the audience to react thereby strengthening the empathy between the viewer and the people on the screen. Ha! Nice psychological voodoo, but you won’t fool me. I can see through your cheap parlour tricks.
So am I selling Japanese TV short? Am I missing out? I decided to spend the whole day watching TV to try and find out. I witnessed rather a lot of baseball coverage, which given the season is unsurprising. Also I saw a documentary on the Japanese volleyball team. In this documentary the exquisitely coiffed members of the volleyball team are harangued and pushed about by their menacing coach, who forces them to perform various menial tasks around the gym to learn self-discipline. He has them scrub the floor and sweep up. Then he forces them to write some kind of essay. This both amused and delighted me. The boys of the volleyball team are of the bangs-and-white-jeans type you see in trendy clothes stores, with immaculately plucked eyebrows and vacant expressions. The kind of feminine-looking guys my good friend Mike was referring to when on one lagery evening he said in his broad Southern drawl “Some of these guys, Dave, if I was drunk, I’d fuck ‘em.” Which makes it all the more hilarious to see them being savagely berated by a squat, square-headed minotaur of a volleyball coach.
Later on in the afternoon I witnessed a singular event, a father/son swimming competition which pitted three families against each other. Not too interesting except that the men were all rake thin with a ghostly pallor, and clearly in far worse shape than their kids. Too much work and not enough exercise perhaps? The best bit of this show was when the presenter tied the kids together and made them swim in opposite directions. How nobody drowned I have no idea.
The next show I watched actually was quite transfixing. It was that show where the hosts reunite families who have been separated for years. In a series of reconstructions it told the story of Yumi-chan, the guest on the show. A child of mixed Japanese and Filipino parentage, when her parents split up she is forced to return to the Philippines with her Mother who abandons her in the rural Philippines. My favourite part of the reconstruction was when the mother tells her this is where she is going to live and the child-actress says “eeeeeehhhh???”. Of course, of course the poor girl doesn’t want to stay in the smelly Philippines, poor thing! God forbid. In any case, she eventually goes back to Japan to live with her mother and “new father” an abusive drunk. Eventually Yumi-chan’s mother snuffs it and leaves her alone. Quite sad, of course but that’s when TV does its magic. The presenters locate her father and they are reunited on the show. Yumi-chan, now an 18 year old mother, who has been sobbing solidly since she entered the studio, finally meets her father, who also starts blubbering and raking his hands through his thinning hair. Then the host, who had surely been selected for this job due to how dignified he looks when he cries also let a noble tear roll down his cheek. And then the other presenters started sobbing uncontrollably too. Then the audience. I could hear the woman in the apartment next to me start to cry too. That must be good programming.
Later on I watched a solid action movie about a Japanese Naval ship that gets taken over by bad army men, and are fought off by two navy guys who save the ship with only minor scratches. Having not seen a decent boat movie since Under Siege this was refreshing to me. Lots of people get shot and one of the heroes drowns a woman in the ocean. Fresh.
So in the end of the day, behind all the juvenile humour and arbitrary punishments, perhaps Japanese TV is worth watching after all. It’s just like TV back home, if you sift through the tripe for long enough, eventually you might come up with a golden example of televisual ambrosia. But at the end of the day maybe you’d be better of reading a book or getting some exercise. I feel ill.