According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, Sesame Street owes its general aesthetic to the NBC comedy variety hour Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The educators at Children’s Television Workshop borrowed the fast-paced, psych-pop style after noticing that children seemed to love Laugh-In and its zany punchlines. In the early 1970s, Japanese executives at Nippon TV must have realized this lineage for the Sesame Street formula and reunited the production staff of NTV’s popular late ’60s Laugh-In rip-off, Kyosen • Maetake Geba Geba 90pun, to make a daily kids’ show. The result — Curriculumachine (『カリキュラマシーン』) — premiered on April 1, 1974, and for the next four years, the fifteen minute educational program was shown six days a week to pre-school and early elementary school students in the early morning. Curriculumachine featured many talented members of the Geba Geba cast, plus adorable idols Okazaki Yuki and Sakurada Junko, and early Johnny’s Jimusho stars The Four Leaves.1
Visually, Curriculumachine is as close to The Electric Company as humanly possible. The opening title sequence is almost an exact copy, perfectly reproducing EC‘s lysergic video distortion techniques. The theme song (from Miyagawa Hiroshi) is equally groovy, although a bit more Pizzicato Five club-jazz than Fifth Dimension sing-a-long soul-pop. Analog synth squirts provide clever sound design, while dreamy animations, lacking any real resemblance to modern anime conventions, teach kids in whimsical ways. And yes, Curriculumachine even has its own gorilla — named Ichiro. Unlike my earlier disappointment with the Japanese adaptation of Hair, I can happily report that Curriculumachine is incredibly good and stands up well over time. (A more commercial blog would write: Click here to buy the DVD boxset.)
Children’s programming, however, very rarely pleases everyone and is always under attack for being a “bad influence” on its young viewers. Wikipedia notes that Sesame Street was not only criticized for its attention span-reducing style, but also for sometimes featuring “inappropriate” content:
For an animation on the letter “J”, the writers included “a day in jail.” This drew criticism from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Terrence O’Flaherty, despite executive producer David Connell’s assertion that kids are familiar with the word through shows like Batman and Superman, and that “when you’re trying to come up with a lot of words starting with J, you soon run short” of words they are already familiar with.
If the mere mention of “jail” was enough to sound alarms in the United States, what would child advocates have thought about these live-action sketches on Curriculumachine?
• To teach words with three syllables, a guy goes to a bar and orders a beer (bi-i-ru).
• A girl tries to make “beautiful tears” by repeatedly pounding her head with a hammer.
• A man with a noose around his neck — his execution has failed — returns to his family, who are inexplicably eating nonchalantly in his prison cell.
• To teach the difference between お (the sound “o” used in words) and を (the sound “o/wo” used to mark objects), the example sentence is “おならをする” (to fart), accompanied by a man happily farting in a bathtub.
• To teach the word “certificate of commendation” (表彰状), a man is presented with a certificate for fighting with a robber, but we later see that he had been stabbed in the back with an enormous knife during the fight. The knife still sticks out of the still-bleeding wound.
• To teach the word “gun”（鉄砲), a man points a gun off screen. The gorilla Ichiro comes out, bends the gun’s muzzle backwards, and the man shoots himself in the face.
• To teach the difference between “penki” (paint) and “benki” (toilet bowl, urinal), a city worker places a toilet bowl on a bench. Then an old couple come by, throw money into the toilet, and pray as if it is a shrine collection box (賽銭箱).
• To teach the word “rubber band” (輪ゴム), a man in a lookalike Mishima Yukio military uniform holds the rubber band to his head, apologizes to his parents, and “commits suicide.”
• To teach the the word “hose” (ホース), a girl holds a hose with water coming out. We then see that the hose leads to the inside of a man’s pants and he has been “providing” the “water.”
• To teach words with the sound pe we get a homeless guy (“lumpen”). For pi, we get “pistol,” and for pa, “pipe” (paipu).
• To teach the word “waste basket” (kuzukago), a woman separates her garbage, finds a corpse, and then wonders aloud whether it is “raw garbage” or not. She asks the corpse.
• To teach the usage of the subject-marking particle “ha/wa” (spelled は), the show provides two examples: yakuza playing cho-han bakuchi and Nazi soldiers (with swastika arm bands) handling bombs.
• To teach “stamp” (kitte), stamps are attached to giant coffins with addresses written on top.
• To teach “match” (matcchi), a man lights a wick that leads to another man’s anus.
• To teach the hiragana for the sound ta (た), a doctor shows a red-and-silver colored “specimen” making out the shape for ta. It is a tanken (dagger). We learn that a killer had used this knife, explaining why it is bloody.
• To teach the word cradle (yurikago), a bartender rocks a cradle on his bar counter, then pulls out a drink tumbler that had been inside, and pours a martini into a glass.
Special Needle Humor Section:
• A doctor throws dozens of needles at his patient like darts.
• A doctor uses a hammer to force a needle into a patient’s arm.
• A doctor rushes in to a room to administer a giant shot to the chest (Pulp Fiction style) of a senile grandpa who has been “seeing things.”
• To learn how to use the small tsu (っ) to make geminate consonants, we learn that yakuza families are called ikka (一家).
• Cavemen kill each other with giant clubs in a race to get apples, samurai kill each other with swords in a race to get scrolls, and then cowboys kill each other with guns in a race to get whiskey. The final cowboy shoots himself in the head for no reason.
• A cute Free Design-esque song about the wind features a wind gust blowing up the skirts of not one, but two college-aged girls, letting us see their panties.
• A samurai failing to learn how to use a pencil commits ritual seppuku.
• A guard overseeing the “Lost & Found” section of a train station flips the sign to “Sales” and starts selling the items.
• A naval recruit has his hand repeatedly burned by a lit cigarette to learn morse code.
• To teach “o/wo” (the object marker を) in the sentence “to dance a dance” (odori wo odoru) , a typical helmeted student protester sits on top of a wooden barricade surrounded by riot guards (機動隊) dancing around him.
• To teach words starting with the sound ka, nurses (kangofu) hold small enemas (kanchou) and then battle it out gladiator style to try to stick the enema up the other’s skirt.
• To teach words with long vowel sounds, a cake is shown with a single candle (rousoku). As a family sings happy birthday, the mother reveals her one-year-old baby boy (a doll), then tickles his fake testicles, and the boy pisses out the candle flame.
and my favorite (featured in the YouTube clip),
• To teach the word “shoeshine” (靴磨き), a shoeshiner is sitting down while a customer comes by, drops his briefcase, opens his fly, and urinates on his face.
These examples are not really “cherry picked” out of the many skits included in the DVD boxset. There may not be a single episode of the series that does not involve smoking, drinking alcohol, or funerals/ghosts/corpses in some form. Bottles of whiskey, pipes, cigarettes, cigarette boxes, bloody knives, and pistols are all fair game for learning how to count objects. The producers got daily usage out of the classic Japanese triangle-headband outfit for the deceased (and oddly, wooden Christian coffins), as the recently deceased are always up to silly things in the pursuit of primary education. Even the gorilla is bad boy. In one scene, the violent simian appears in the nick of time to save a girl being held at knife-point, but as soon as he has subdued the criminal, he pushes the girl down and trashes the room.
Judging from the material, perhaps Curriculumachine was actually targeted towards teenagers or adults, almost like a proto-Wonder Showzen. Or with humor on the same “tasteless” par as 100%-non-educational You Can’t Do That on Television (vomit-flavored burgers, anyone), maybe Curriculumachine should not be judged as an education endeavor at all. But let’s again consider the stated goal of the show: to bring Sesame Street-style children’s entertainment to the Japanese television market. To this end, they attached professional educators to advise, picked an early morning time slot best suited for children and not adults, and then set the level of educational content at basic colors, basic addition/subtraction, and the most basic reading elements. Official materials stated that the target audience was 4-7 years old. The content was supposed to entertain parents as well, but the show was first and foremost an attempt to improve the minds of Japan’s children.
We thus come to the cognitive dissonance: why would producers intentionally fill an educational children’s show with skit after skit of black humor, violence, smoking, drinking, and death? Needless to say, today’s NHK kids shows like Pythagoras Switch do not really approach such topics. Although Curriculumachine should not incriminate the entire Japanese nation, the show’s long-run throughout the ’70s at least suggests that it was not particularly scandalous. In The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America, sociologist Merry White points out that Japanese society long lacked distinctions for teenagers or adolescents. Basically anyone yet to be an adult was equally a “child” (kodomo). Perhaps this meant that anything deemed appropriate for older teens was also appropriate for four year-olds.
More realistically, however, the issue may not be about cultured conceptualizations of “appropriate” content. If Sesame Street episodes were created by Education PhDs, teams of psychologists, and advanced focus group testing to ensure the most effective and enjoyable material for children, Curriculumachine appears to have been written by four or five chain-smoking veteran television writers cracking themselves up over a bottle of Suntory Old. More than sadistically pushing “black humor” on young viewers, the Curriculumachine staff just seem completely uninterested in real pedagogy or providing children with anything familiar to their world. In fact, no children ever appear on the variety segments of Curriculumachine. The producers must have believed that the aesthetics of Geba Geba were pleasing enough that writers did not have to switch gears to talk to kids on their own level. Almost like, if Jerry Seinfeld’s routine killed in the Catskills, why would he change it for open mic night at the Apollo? The Curriculumachine gags are definitely funny: guys line up to get a big red kiss from a woman and then proceed in line to the next woman who slaps them for “cheating again.” I can dig it, but why they thought kids in Suginami-ku would be in hysterics over this, I dunno.
But since the “naughty” parts of the show feel so self-consciously “naughty,” surely the staff had confidence that children would enjoy a “He farted!!” appeal to their baser comic instincts. The skits, therefore, should not be taken as self-consciously anti-puritan, like Shinta Cho’s The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts, attempting to humanize potty talk instead of letting sensitive topics become forbidden fruits. The writers of Curriculumachine probably picked the sentence “to fart in the tub” precisely because you are not supposed to fart in the bathtub. Toilet humor must have seemed like the most obvious way to bridge the generation gap.
If Curriculumachine sees no need for self-censorship in ritual suicide, gunshots to the head, medical malpractice, and pee-pee, what are the topics that they implicitly marked off as taboo? Sex — the actual coital act — does not really come into play. There are scenes referencing hostess bars, women’s jealousy, and up-skirt peeking, but no breasts, vaginas, pederasty, menstruation, or penetration. As far as I can tell, there were no fellatio jokes during the entire run of Curriculumachine. Even on the skit where two parents are in a hospital to give birth to their son, they do not show the woman actually giving birth: the kid arrives stork-like on the scene. In another, a groom lays down his bride on the bed, ready to pounce, when someone off-screen exclaims, “Congratulations!” and leaves their new baby on the bed. The man’s expression is priceless, a nice satire on the predominance of social responsibility in marriage over the erotic. I see the meta-humor in the sexual removal, but kids just see babies born without prior causative action.
I don’t want to overpraise the proto-political correctness of Sesame Street, but the Big Bird gang’s values seem deeply rooted in the 1960s American countercultural moment: peace, love, and understanding. The death and violence of Curriculumachine are a bit of a bummer in comparison. But since the social revolution in Japan during the 1960s was more about beating fellow students over the head with big sticks in political protest rather than smoking dope on the lawn and listening to “Itchycoo Park” over and over again, maybe Curriculumachine‘s violence was a reflection of its times.
Regardless of whether we can now guffaw over the political incorrectness of Curriculumachine, I highly doubt that the show’s iffy content ever resulted in a palpable negative influence on Japanese society. Did handgun deaths or seppuku rates increase in the ’80s? Or, did Japanese adults start overindulging in cigarettes and alcohol? Okay, that last one may prove TV’s power to pass on social norms, but since close-to-home factors such as parents’ behavior, socioeconomic class, and educational environment shape the individual child more than his TV intake, this whole reflection on Curriculumachine is basically reduced to an abstract debate on the state of moral values in society. Today, we can enjoy the show as entertainment, but moreover, Curriculumachine plays a historical role in archiving attitudes towards childhood existent in an earlier age. We can agree to disagree: some may slightly recoil from the distasteful and desperate attempts at laughter, while others may see Curriculumachine as the Golden Age before political correctness devoured good old-fashioned humor. Good news is that we will all learn to count to 10.
2The actual educational methods used in the show are so convoluted and arcane that they make the solutions to easy problems look impossible. I thought I was pretty good at addition until I tried to decipher their bizarre systems for counting, where fives are “katamari” and tens are “taba.” When the show teaches a word that starts with the featured syllable of the day, the other letters are replaced with dots, long syllables replaced with dashes, and the geminate double-consonant (like “tt” in “chotto”) is a dot followed by an inverted triangle. These are perhaps the old ways of teaching these things, and I can see why they’ve been updated.
(Special thanks to Matt Alt for introducing me to the series.)