I promised an entry on Japanese TV and here it is.
Japanese TV has many pundits and critics who focus on the more outlandish formats and cite them as evidence of some crazy alien culture. But the reality is that TV out here is not as madcap as we’re led to believe.
The hallmarks of Japanese television can be found in its narrow offering and slightly misjudged production values. Not, as it is sometimes portrayed in the West, in its “Endurance“-style gameshows or “BigSuperCoolCrazyChallenge Show” quiz formats.
True, these do exist but have you had a squint through The Radio Times, recently? Do just that and you’ll see British formats like:
It’s Now Or Never: Contestants deliver a big announcement to their friends and family through a fully choreographed razzmatazz song and dance routine. Presented by Phillip Schofield.
I caught 10 minutes of this before I went away and really it was shocking. The UK hardly represents the pinnacle of TV culture and Alan Partridge’s Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank and Arm Wrestling with Chas and Dave weren’t far wide of the mark.
In fact, then, in terms of naff, off-the-wall formats Japan is no worse than anyone else. But Japanese TV is still a curious beast with the overriding conclusion is that it presents a rather limited offering.
Broadly, Japanese TV falls into three categories: Food shows, news and discussion shows. Often you’ll find a format that straddles all three genres, usually shows where people discuss what food has been in the news recently. I’m not kidding.
There’s a dearth of soap operas. I only managed to find one, but I count 5 in UK. Similarly, there are no sitcoms - any comedy comes in the form of studio based slapstick challenges. Finally, I couldn’t find any drama or any documentaries either.
And for a country supposedly obsessed by Western Culture I could find few imported programmes. Where are The Simpsons and Star Trek? Surely these must be somewhere around here?
Maybe it’s because I don’t have satellite, but I do have at least 12 channels on my box, and there is little evidence of these formats on here.
Good god Japanese like food. They talk about food, they think about food, they breathe food - sometimes they even find time to eat it. It’s like it’s just been invented: Food - from the makers of drink.
Flicking through my twelve channels you can guarantee you will come across a culinary-based show within three touches of the channel-up button.
Usually its 6 or 7 people sat around a curved table sampling various delights from small porcelain bowls. Initially they wear a slightly quizzical expression which, after tasting, is followed by an emphatic and positive “mmmm!”
They also spend a lot of time on the food’s nutritional qualities and how will affect your body - often demonstrated via a computer-generated cat-scan with pulsating arrows indicating the food’s direction of transit through the body.
There does also appear to be a slightly sado-masochistic element to the proceedings. I have seen a few programmes now which involve a panel looking on in gleeful anticipation whilst some unsuspecting guest levers something wet and wiggly into his mouth before they all point, go “aaaaaaaaah!”, and then tell him/her what they have eaten eg bear’s eyes, squid fried in bears eyes or a lionburger wrapped in a bears arse and fried by a man with no eyes
News is a sombre occasion, but the most striking thing here is that the
Japanese appear to have no concept of which colours work together on screen.
Here’s a tip: for a classy news set use no more than two colours.
Presenting the news from behind a red and orange desk in front of a blue and green backdrop, whilst yellow and purple captions scroll left to right does no one any favours. Especially not epileptics.
And why are there potted plants, and wicker chairs and lamps in the back of the shot. Are you presenting this from Focus Do-It-All or something?
Also, there appears to be little foreign news. People talk about the Americans being isolationist but through America’s aggressive foreign policy international issues are often forced on to their news agenda.
Here, I feel that contact without the outside world is reactive rather than proactive. They find out about things when they affect them, rather seeking an international experience. However, I’ve only been here a short while, so I’m prepared to be proved wrong on this issue.
For a country which is notoriously tight-lipped about its feelings, the Japanese appear to be very keen on each others’ opinions on everything.
These shows cover a variety of topics, but like the aforementioned cookery show, largely involve people sat around in a semi-circle having a bit of a chinwag about this and that.
Similarly, like the news, they are often situated in gaudy bric-a-brac sets littered with ornaments, plants, chairs, books, cushions etc.
If you’ve got guests coming round, just have a bit of a tidy up for Christ’s sake.
They are also keen on their picture-in-picture reaction shots. Remember Beadle’s About in the 80s? As they showed the full prank back to the victim from the comfort of the studio, their face would appear in a little box at the top of the screen to see them going “Oh, what I am like, eh?” as they watched events unfold.This mechanism is used in Japan for absolutely everything.
Playing a short piece to the guests about public transport? Let’s have a picture-in-picture reaction shot. Running a piece of reportage about dwindling salmon stocks in the South China Sea? Let’s have a picture-in-picture reaction shot.
What for? When I watch a piece about a new bendy-bus route in Shinjuku, my face is totally immobile. It’s not that interesting.
Except here the guests feel they have to make a bit of an effort if the camera is on them and consequently go for either the raised eyebrows and “ohhh” of surprise, or perhaps the frown and shake of the head as if to say “that’s just not on!”
As mentioned before captions are everywhere. They pop up, fire down, scroll across at very short notice. It’s like Ceefax Tourettes.
Sometimes they are accompanied by sound effects. On the more light-hearted shows they go for a straight big fat “BOOOOOING”, but on the more reserved shows they opt for a more polite “DING” of a bell - almost like “next please”.
Bizarrely, although I can’t read Japanese yet, the captions appear to be simply echoing what is being said on the screen. And they’re not bothered where they put them either. Across people’s faces is quite usual.
Adverts are as limited in their range as the programmes within which they sit, Food and drink seems to be the number one sector here and products are usually pre-packaged curry, noodle-dishes and other microwaveable malarkey.
Strangely, they are often served up by attractive young mothers in massive kitchens on the side of big, expansive, expensive oak-panelled lounges with huge gardens.
Where are these people living? Where are the people in the Tokyo shoeboxes – the ones turn over in their sleep and accidentally fall into their bath or who knock the frying pan off the ring when they open their front door?
Bloody Ad Land.
Overall, Japanese TV is quite poor, but I suspect no worse than UK or America. Perhaps a satellite decoder might unlock some more interesting gems.
But perhaps not.