What do you call a drama that stars an actor whose very fame has been described as a sort of “conventional wisdom,” pushes the idea that the inheritor of a political dynasty from the ruling party is Japan’s best hope for a brighter future, and is substantially no different than every other Japanese soap opera? Well if you’re a TV studio with an enormous amount of guts (or total lack of self-consciousness), you call it CHANGE.
The Monday night television drama, which aired from May 5 to July 14, stars Kimura “Kimutaku” Takuya as an unlikely prime minister. But if you had thought this show would attempt to tackle Japan’s many political failures, prepare to be disappointed. This show existed mainly as a vehicle for Kimura and consciously avoids difficult political themes. A shame, seeing that the broader topics are ripe for a prime-time takedown.
Kimura plays Asakura Keita — a schoolteacher in Fukuoka Prefecture. When his father, an MP for the ruling party, and older brother — the handpicked successor — suddenly die, he is faced with the choice of running in his father’s place. He reluctantly decides to throw in his hat and ends up winning a tight race. Once in Tokyo, senior party officials take notice of his instant popularity and decide to exploit Keita to distract the public from the current prime minister’s devastating sexual harassment scandal. Keita’s mentor, the scheming Kanbayashi, hatches the Grinchiest of schemes: install Keita in the Prime Minister’s office, use him to prime the party’s approval ratings and then call a snap election while they remain at a relative advantage.
To the ruling elite’s consternation, however, Keita proves astonishingly able: he can memorize tariff schedules overnight, knows exactly how to procure flashlights in a disaster, and is generally a really swell guy. His chief strength however, is his outsider status — frankly admitting that he cannot understand political jargon makes him a hit with the public. Can Keita, who is more comfortable in his nerd glasses and curly hair than the strait-laced and straight haired world of politics, beat expectations and outsmart his rivals, all the while balancing difficult relationships with his quirky live-in election assistant and a strategist who just won’t leave?
The plot is divided between political intrigue and the antics of Keita’s entourage. In the scenes featuring the entourage, the dialogue consists mostly of rapid-fire, sarcastic banter — rude screechings and non sequitur interruptions that produce the distracting feeling of eavesdropping on a loud, drunken argument on the commuter train.
I am not sure what they were going for — The West Wing had similar bantering, but it always remained plot driven and worked to advance character development. With at least half the running time devoted to side plots, CHANGE seems to have exchanged character development for slapstick and goofiness in an attempt to fill time.
To the extent that it exists, the show’s political message, while not undemocratic, is unapologetically pro-establishment. The show’s hero naturally hails from the ruling party. And not only that, he’s a a second-generation MP, one of the defining aspects much of Japan’s ruling political class. Could there be any greater antithesis of democracy? As Observing Japan observes, “[People are against hereditary Diet seats because] they are an offense to democratic sensibilities. And they are! If hereditary members are not inherently superior to non-hereditary members, why not give non-hereditary candidates a chance to…represent the people.”
Also mildly troubling is the sort of leader that Keita turns out to be — apparently, Japan needs a take-charge, charismatic leader (who also studies really hard) to get anything done in this country. And by the way if politicians could be just a little less greedy for power and spend a little less time infighting there’s a chance everyone could work as one toward the glorious national interest.
Sure, the show ends on a perfunctory “power to the people” note (SPOILER ALERT: Outmaneuvered and defeated by the rats in Nagata-cho, Keita calls a general election rather than step down). But rather than address any real national concerns, Keita is mostly flustered by a fictional lack of pediatric care (a transparent excuse to toss a sick kid into the plot).
On-air attempts at teaching viewers about the political system are facile to the point of incoherence. When explaining the ruling party committees, Keita’s staff assistant compares them to the various committees involved in planning the sports festivals at Japanese schools, an analogy that instantly clicks with Keita (and presumably viewers) but, in fact, teaches nothing.
These observations are just general impressions, but that is precisely the point — it is clear that the show really could not care less about Japanese politics. In fact, I cannot discuss this program without emphasizing that for all of CHANGE‘s political trappings, the show has almost as little to do with political analysis as Kimutaku’s other efforts. While the show may be nominally about Japanese political institutions, CHANGE is essentially the same as other dramas starring Kimutaku — the lessons focus on “working hard” (gambaru), valuing friendship, standing your ground when you know what’s best, and sacrificing for the good of others. These are all fairly common territory for most Japanese dramas.
I freely admit that I am not a fan of the J-drama medium, which makes me perhaps a less than passionate observer. But before you reproach my dismissal of the show’s political message, allow me to quote from none other than the program’s producer, Mr. Kazuyuki Shimizu:
[The creative process] depends on the drama, but in this case we started with the concept “Kimura Takuya in a drama,” so in that sense it was casting first… Having Kimura Takuya play the prime minister, that came first. Honestly, the format became about politics because to become prime minister, you have to be a Diet member first. […] When the casting is decided [before the rest of the production], the production itself tends to move in the direction of deciding what role to put this person in… We probably could have suddenly shown Kimura Takuya as the prime minister, but [the question of] whether it was better to start from the beginning and have him start as a Diet member and then follow the process to become the prime minister is a little late in the game.”
One representative scene is Keita’s surprise breakout performance as an international trade negotiator. He lectures the Americans, “The US and Japan are allies. But Japan has its own national interest. So there’s no way we can agree on everything.” The US trade rep fumes but comes to respect him as a fair dealer at the end of the show.
Several dramas have attempted to cover politics before, but they have been consistently low-rated due to the prime-time soap opera viewership’s natural avoidance of serious topics. CHANGE does not make that mistake. According to the ratings, the strategy of putting Kimutaku in a fluff drama has paid off handsomely. They have captured consistent 20%-ish ratings and are apparently competitive with or beating the heavily promoted rival Gokusen. Thanks to the enduring appeal of Kimura, the show has escaped the fate of previous political dramas.
This popularity constitutes a major opportunity cost, however. Despite the common stereotype that the Japanese public is apolitical (“Japanese television, though rich with social satire, has no history of lampooning the country’s political leaders,” declared the NYT in 2006), politically-themed shows are all over Japanese television. People thirst for public discourse. They just happen to be woefully underserved by their televisions.
The aforementioned NYT article correctly observes that on one popular debate program, “[panelists] tend to take extreme positions to fuel debate.” It would be more accurate to say they take preposterous positions to keep people entertained. With CHANGE, we have the opposite problem — political issues are dumbed down and trivialized to keep the Kimutaku fans sedated.
Both types of show may make for good television, but they effectively take up all the oxygen in the room. After watching CHANGE, the housewife may gain some self-satisfaction from the notion that Tokyo’s leaders need to be more like Kimutaku, but it’s 10pm and her husband is still not home from work. Every joke about the election planner’s eccentricities is a missed chance to wonder why politicians are banned from using the Internet during election campaigns. And it’s easy to condemn the cynical power-addicts in Tokyo, but why is it so difficult to kick them out? For answers to those questions, the Japanese public would do well to turn off the TV for a “change.”