Monday nights at 9? Nodame Cantabile. Not gonna front like I ever read the manga (manga?) or even that I manage to keep up with the show every week, but yes, I sometimes watch one television show in the Japanese television “golden time” prime time hours. Like a lot of Japanese dramas, the show gets a bit of energy from its dedication to adapting manga (Japanese comic book) timing and direction to real-world moving visuals: some tiny gags only last 18 video frames and as hypothesized they use a dash of CG to recreate the nonviolent hyperviolence of the original manga (漫画). Another highlight is fake German Maestro Franz von Strezeman (played by professional ham Takenaka Naoto) who speaks fluent Japanese in an impossible Italian-esque manner of over-stressing the second-to-last syllable as in “dekimaSHIta.”
For some reason, the producers were able to escape the trap of using the yakuza-backed oligopolistic jimushos’ talentless talents and actually have a pretty able cast of film actors to play the leads. In order to recreate the cartoony over-exaggeraton of the manga — the static version of anime — the director presses his actors to their limits of real life mannerism. But “overacting” “well” is not so easy. Most of the time I don’t buy it — it just looks like non-intentional overacting and not like stylized performance — but I have started to notice it’s not just the actors’ problem in a lot of the cases.
On a total subconscious, non-snob level — as a Westerner accustomed to at least two-and-a-half decades of American television and the occasional BBC import — my brain fails to build up a fourth wall around the actors under the standard conditions of Japanese audio and video quality. My cognitive channels interpret the mediated information as a bunch of actors acting out a slightly amateurish play and being filmed with someone’s Beta camera and the footage going out on the airwaves without any attempts to filter the colors down to more “attractive” or film-like settings. Moreover, the sound seems to be recorded in live settings and not closed sets, and so you can hear the same hums and buzzes that populate real life. Ironically, the sound is too “real” to project a fantasy reality. I am no audio engineer and cannot explain the technical settings of why Japanese TV sound is at a lower quality than what is seen in Japanese commercials and films etc., but most people will just instinctively sense something verging on the amateur. Our brains are hardwired to pick up technological difference.
Some weeks ago, I made a (weak) case that money was not the central constraint of Japanese TV quality, but reading through Coates and Holyroyd’s Japan and the Internet Revolution yesterday, I found this tasty blockquote:
Despite marked success in other areas of digitized entertainment — most notably anime — Japanese television is decidedly low tech. Game shows operate on 1950s-style North American stages, with few of the bells and whistles that dominate American productions. Television news is particularly intriguing in this regard. News hosts often hold up hand-held graphics to illustrate their stories, or use a pointer and wall-board to provide detailed information. Production values are mediocre by Western standards, and there is little evidence of the availability and use of advanced digital technologies and computerized production techniques. The gap between Western and Japanese television production is likewise evident in televised sports, which are low-key, offering limited camera angles with few gimmicks from the announcing booth.
The issue with television is more complicated than this summary suggests. Japan has the technological capacity to do a great deal more. In fact, many of the key components in television production in other countries are made in Japan. Sony, Hitachi, Matsushita and others are world-leaders in digital imaging and produce many of the world’s editing suites. It is puzzling, therefore, that this technology is not used to full effect. The television companies have substantial revenues (and a captive market, as cable services have made few inroads in the country) and very large audiences. It is choice, rather than resources or ability, which results in the low-key, low-tech television programming. That decision, in turn, appears to rest on the Japanese respect for simplicity in the domestic sphere; the country does not demand American-style reporting of baseball or soccer, is not overly impressed with glitzy high-production value game shows, and is comfortable with the homey, accessible ‘feel’ of the vast majority of the mainstream television programming.
(Bold mine, and for the record, the book is a pretty “rah-rah/Japan-will-bury-us-in-their-advanced-keitai-future” work and not the kind of pessimistic track you all expect me to champion.)
So let’s break down what we know:
1. Japanese television has no technological barriers to improved content (i.e., they have the resources on hand)
2. Japanese television has no financial barriers to improved content (i.e., TV in Japan is one of the most profitable industries in the country.)
3. Japanese companies are intentionally producing low-quality content
I think we can all agree on #1 and #2, so Number Three is where the argument begins. Here are the common rationales to explain the situation:
1. Abilities: Japanese television creators are incompetent at creating better quality content due to lack of skill/craft in using resources
2. Consumer Pull: Japanese TV watchers want low-quality content and TV channels are creating content to their wishes
3. Producer Indifference: Japanese television channels have a captive market, little competition from cable or satellite sources, and generally stable market stares, and therefore, have no real incentive to increase the quality of their content
No question that our moral anthropologist superiors will automatically pick Option 2 — that television stations are directly responding to a consumer need for low-tech programming — because they believe all products to be a perfect reflection of tribe desires. Surely, the fact that the viewing public in Japan is generally Japan’s least sophisticated demographics (old folks, stay-at-home spouses, teenagers, boring people) means a mass of viewers
comfortable complacent with low-tech TV. Does this mean they are explicitly expressing this desire for homely content to stations? Are Japanese TV channels making innovative shows with impeccable visual quality only to have viewers punish them with low ratings? This seems doubtful. Having Japanese not complain about something they are not expecting in the first place is not the same as active approval. If the Coates/Holroyd Nihonjinron theory of “down home television” was true, Japanese viewers would broadly reject 24 or Sex in the City as looking “too high-tech.” But they don’t; Tsutaya is always home to hundreds of empty DVD boxes in the foreign drama section. Whether viewers are content with current content does not mean they are the direct impedance for its production. This is true in almost every cultural industry.
What about the cartel idea in Option Three? Certainly, Japanese network TV has no real rivals — whether in cable channels or in FOX-esque 4th channel upstarts. Don’t want to go conspiracy theory (again!) but no one in the Japanese “system” ever had anything to gain from cable TV diffusion: networks did not want to lose ratings, Dentsu and Hakuhodo did not want to lose their monopoly on TV ad space nor see that monopoly ad space get devalued with lower ratings, and the government is probably secretly pleased to see Japanese eyes all focused on the same 5-6 shows every night to main a general cultural homogeneity from Hakodate to Hakata. Whatever the reason for the anti-cable realities, Japanese cable now is like American cable circa 1986, where sometimes you see only one or two second-rate commercials loop over and over in-between the acts of an ancient ’70s sitcom.
What’s important, though, is that oligopoly generally leads to indifference to innovation — especially when consumers have nowhere else to go. There must be a correlation between the fact that American network TV continued to lose viewers from the ’60s on and the increase in better and more intelligent programming. And while Fox may have lowered the bar in “values,” their “nothing-to-lose” last place scrappy underdog position let them throw out The Simpsons, 24, Get a Life, and Arrested Development into the mix. (That may explain why Japanese late-night TV is often the most interesting, as well.) Then think about HBO stepping up to the plate out of nowhere and raising the bar even higher.
As I saw with my research into the Japanese music production world, oligopoly seems to stifle innovation on another front: Even if these massively powerful companies have the power to actively introduce innovations or improvements with no fear of losing share in a failure of product reception, they aren’t going to, because innovations ultimately outmode all of their pre-existing stock. If Johnny’s Jimusho makes one of their groups full of actual singers and songwriters and goes all hipster, this style change could make V6 or Arashi or whomever immediately look last year. They want to control obsolescence on their own terms, and in a lot of cases, that means never ever changing anything until their “product” has run its course. The most comfortable position is no change at all, and the only real incentive for innovation is the threat of competition or the fear of losing customers. Japanese TV has no real fear of losing their core base — even now in the Net age since old people are so hopeless with computers and calculators — so why would they want to make some of their programs look cheap to make one look new and fancy?
Japanese TV fits another model perfectly: Japanese products marketed for international sales are top-notch while protected domestic markets are full of profitable oligopolies of second-rate content and trapped consumers. Fuji TV dramas are like made-in-Japan detergents or aspirin — weak and un-exportable — but the populace has no other options.
Yes, I will concede that most Japanese viewers do not mind their television content. Hell, even I like watching the dog-cat shows once in a while. But I still think the “culturalist” explanation gives them too much market power in determining what is coming out of that glowing box. The frustration with Japanese TV is again one of nonplus rather than anger: Why are they failing to mobilize resources that exist? Why is the 6’7″ center sitting down on the sidelines when he could be blocking shots and slam dunking? Nodame is fine for what it is, but in a more perfect arrangement of resources, I would actually make an effort to watch it every week.