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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.”

As Shimizu notes elsewhere in the interview, the overwhelming priority in this production was to make it as easy to understand as possible — at the level of a “picture book.” That way they can avoid alienating the wide range of female viewers that comprises the natural Kimutaku audience.

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.”

July 29, 2008

Adam Richards lives in Tokyo and is a founding member of the blog Mutantfrog Travelogue.

12 Responses

  1. Alex Says:

    I just finished watching the series, and I wanted to make a few comments about my own impressions and some feedback on what you’ve written here.

    First off, let me just say that I am actually pretty hooked on Japanese dramas. Having said that, CHANGE was a pretty standard one. I was let down by there being minimal actual political discussion on real issues that need to be addressed (bid-rigging for construction projects and the inevitable bribes that accompany them, an antiquated educational system which emphasizes worker-bees instead of free-thinkers, immigration, a plan to reduce the deficit and ease the tax burden on a new generation of workers, etc.).

    The portion of the drama featuring the U.S. government was just embarassing. It’s really sad to see that in a primetime show; how naive it was.

    Also, while watching the drama I was constantly thinking, “はやっ!” as it took just a minute and a half for 朝倉総理 to win over nearly all of his political adversaries. He would say something like, “Hey. I don’t know much about politics, but let’s work together for a brighter future, because we work for the people,” to which the former opposition would reply, “All right. You’re an OK guy. You remind me of myself when I was young. I support you fully.”

    Minor point – Kimura Takuya’s character was a school teacher in Nagano. His home-prefecture was Fukuoka.

  2. Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » We Fear Change Says:

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  3. Adamu Says:

    Alex: Which dramas have you hooked? I am waiting to be entertained and enlightened by J-dramas, but they have so far never failed to disappoint… Even the “Train Man” drama that was supposed to be so cutting edge and savvy ended up being nothing special (save for the return of Nasubi in a minor role).

    What Japan really needs is its own version of The Wire… the subtitled version is being shown on cable, but just imagine how awesome a homegrown, truly honest look at social issues would be. It wouldn’t have to be about drugs (since Japan’s drug problem is non-existent by comparison) but there is probably about 20 seasons worth of issues ripe for the David Simon treatment (any of those Alex mentioned above, for starters).

    I am sure such a show would hardly generate 20% ratings but, much like America selecting a black presidential nominee, the mere fact that it happened would be a huge step forward.

    And this idea shouldn’t be so far-fetched. Can Japanese TV studios really be satisfied with a show like CHANGE, which ran with respectable ratings for 6 weeks but has absolutely zero resale value or potential for years of continuous appeal? How can they sit and watch as shows like The Sopranos rake in millions?

  4. Joe Jones Says:

    OK, it’s fun to dream and all, but we know that the moment the “serious” Japanese media broadcasts anything seriously critical about the country, the 2ch mafia (if not the real mafia) will come out of the woodwork and shut it all down.

  5. M-Bone Says:

    Good stuff on Change.

    Japan has two versions of `The Wire`.

    The first is `Ghost in the Shell – Stand Alone Complex` which ran on cable, is just as well produced as `The Wire`, and actually won a larger domestic audience. It is science fiction, but this does not mute serious themes like refugees being placed in concentration camps by Japanese neo-nationalist politicians in order to preserve Japan`s homogeneous character. The series also looks at the Jieitai, Japanese-American alliance, etc. Science Fiction is a potent way to critique the present and GITS is one of the best examples ever. It is also mad marketable internationally.

    The other version is `Odoru Daisosasen` which is the most popular Japanese drama ever, is a complete piece of garbage from an aesthetic POV, but actually puts foward many of the same themes as `The Wire` – the police are more concerned about their political position and jockeying for promotion than actually helping people, etc. There is even a similarity between what happens to Oda Yuji`s `Aoshima` and West`s McNulty in the end. Now I`m not saying that `Odoru Daisosasen` is any good, but it actually does trash the Japanese police very strongly and for the same reasons that Simon made `The Wire`. One could also make the point that its sappy, melodramatic way of putting forward its themes is actually a more impactful popularlizing formula than that used in `The Wire` which alienated audiences with its excellence and was hovering on the verge of cancellation.

    There are plenty of examples of decent Japanese dramas that absolutely RIP the system. Two important ones are throwbacks to the great `shakaiha` novels of the first postwar decades – `Shiroi Kyoto` and `Karei naru Ichizoku` (that one had Kimutaku, come to think of it). Shiroikyoto has Japanese doctors playing with the lives of patients in experimental treatments so that they can move up in the ranks (this is a total trashing of Japanese university, hospial, and business culture). This theme also pops up in `Black Jack ni yoroshiku` (which was crap compared to the manga. The manga, in my opinion, actually does a better number on Japanese journalism than `The Wire` did – that element of season 5 was the weakest part of the whole series). Karei naru Ichizoku is all about how irresponsible business practices in Japan destroy lives.

    Even silly dramas like GTO take shots at some of Japan`s most cherished national myths like gakureki – one of the teachers with a todai degree and monbusho connections is actually a perv / date rape drugger and uses his `elite` status to hide this. In the end, the monbusho are also the main bad guys.

    I`m not sure what Joe means by serious media broadcasts, but the TV that I watch brought down Abe`s thug government and apart from the dramas and other seires that I mentioned has a variety of series and programs that are very critical of the current state of things in Japan. NHK runs a variety of programs where teens debate serious national issues, Tahara Soichiro`s stuff on Asahi over the past decade has not only spread critical war knowledge on TV, but has looked at just about every issues you could imagine. Just last week, Beat Takeshi`s TV Tackle show did a feature on the Communist Party (which apparently has gotten 10,000 new members in the last year) where JCP members were allowed to give their opinions on just about everything and one of the show regulars described them as having the `best ideas for Japanese politics`. Yesterday, Asahi did a feature on just how many hundreds of percent of tariffs Japan slaps on agricultural goods, deconstructing things nicely before the new WTO round concludes (while journalists outside of the country suggest that the Japanese people are not `allowed` to know how high their tariffs are), etc.

    Japanese TV is, of course, not perfect, and 99% of dramas are poorly made (of course, `The Wire`, being the best thing ever made for televsion anywhere, is an unfair means of comparison). There are, however, plenty of alternatives to `Change`.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    I tried to watch Odoru Daisosasen a few years ago and it’s aged pretty poorly. Sure, it deals with “internal bureaucracy” but saying that you can ignore the aesthetics of it in order to equate it to The Wire? I mean, it’s supposed to be a form of art.

  7. Alex Says:

    Adamu: I liked HERO the drama (the movie was mediocre). It took some shots at the judicial system (which also needs an overhaul…with such a high conviction rate, “You have the right to remain silent,” effectively means, “Case closed.”)

    The recent Edison’s Mother (エジソンの母) was also lightheartedly amusing, and at the same time it brought into question the idea that the most capable (creative) students who stand out are being driven back in with the rest of the nails. It also addresses the issue of “monster parents” as a second theme. One of my favorite episodes was when Kenta (the main character) draws a snow scene on a white piece of paper with a white crayon, and the “art teacher” tries to destroy it with criticism in front of the class (along with other creative pieces that students had drawn that didn’t fit the “ideal composition”)

    For purely entertaining reasons, I enjoyed Sleeping forest (眠れる森), which also stars Kimura Takuya, but as a very creepy character; completely the opposite of his cool-guy persona.

    Trick was also a fun drama.

  8. Joe Jones Says:

    M-Bone: You’re right, I honestly don’t know. I only watch Japanese TV when the girlfriend of the month has it on, and so far I haven’t been party to any decent programming, which has led me to believe that it all must suck.

    Now that I think about it, it could just be that my girlfriends suck.

  9. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    This Asakura Keita guy reminds me of a presidential candidate by the name of Barack Obama (no policies, but charismatic, although didn’t get to where he was through a politician father).

    BOB BARR’08!

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  12. Japan 2008: change and politics | East Asia Forum Says:

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