Endure New Year’s on TV with the rest of Japan

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Last year, NHK’s annual New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (7:15-11:45 p.m.), enjoyed its first ratings boost in more than a decade. As the most hallowed tradition in Japanese broadcasting, the program offered some needed end-of-year holiday solace for a nation still recovering emotionally from the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Nobody expects the same ratings for this year’s show, which is being characterized for what it isn’t going to feature. There will be no K-pop because of the diplomatic chill over the Takeshima/Dokdo territorial dispute, and enka (Japanese ballads) singer Sachiko Kobayashi wasn’t invited.

For three decades, Kobayashi has been the biggest draw on “Kohaku” due to her outlandish costumes. Some think she was snubbed because of a scandal involving her ex-manager, while others assume that enka is being shoved off of the “Kohaku” roster by J-pop. Enka aficionados are actually more miffed by the fact that NHK rejected Miyuki Kawanaka, a 14-time veteran of the show, despite the fact that in 2012 she attracted viewers to NHK’s morning drama and saw one of her singles scale the pop charts, which is quite unusual for enka. The big news for this year is the debut of both Momoiro Clover Z and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

But the “Kohaku” loss may be another show’s gain. According to an article in Shukan Post, commercial broadcasters are willing to pay Kobayashi and her getup (apparently, she had already spent ¥100 million on it when she learned NHK dumped her) big money to appear on their own New Year’s Eve programs. So far, none has announced a deal, but the most likely employer would be TV Tokyo, whose live-music special, “Nippon no Uta” (“Japanese Songs,” 5-9:30 p.m.), has, for 45 years, welcomed all the enka stars that NHK hasn’t. The Post implies that any station would be happy to get a PR boost from Kobayashi, since they’re all struggling to impress viewers who need to be convinced they should spend New Year’s Eve watching a particular show in the company of relatives they’re already sick of. Apart from NHK, Nippon TV is considered the ratings front-runner this year because it was the front-runner last year with a 15 share and it’s airing the same show, a special six-hour edition of the variety series “Dauntaun no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende” (“Downtown’s This Is No Job for Kids,” 6:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.). It’s the seventh New Year’s in a row that NTV has resorted to the show, despite the fact that ratings for the weekly series have been dropping steadily. The content normally involves “punishment games” and watching little kids run errands unsupervised. This year’s special is about “enthusiastic teachers,” and the sketches have already been taped on location at real schools. Reportedly, Hitoshi Matsumoto, the half of the hosting comedy duo Downtown who writes all the material, has grown tired of the show and hopes it’s canceled. The Post described the New Year’s special as a few good jokes tied together by “long stretches of monotony.”

Such a report should be good news for NTV’s main rival, Fuji TV, which is betraying desperation with “Aian Shefu Omisoka Namakessen” (“Iron Chef End of Year Live Battle,” 6-11:45 p.m.). “Ryori no Tetsujin (Iron Chef)”, in which famous cooks competed with one another by whipping up dishes in front of a live audience, was one of the seminal TV series of the bubble era, and became even bigger as an export. This past fall, Fuji TV revived it under its English title and only the premiere episode earned a 10 share. The latest installment scored only 5.7, making it ripe for cancelation. Fuji’s 2011 New Year’s special, a parody of “Kohaku” stuffed with mono-mane (impersonator) singers, only garnered a 4.6 share. That’s even lower than TV Asahi, traditionally the bottom feeder, but thanks to the FIFA World Cup preliminary matches and the popular medical drama, “Dr. X,” Asahi is on track to be this year’s overall ratings winner. Its New Year’s Eve show, however, is an underachiever. “Onegai! Rankingu Tokubetsuhen” (“Please! Ranking Special Edition,” 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m.) is four hours of rankings and lists, most of them centered on Asahi programming, so it’s essentially one long self-promotion clip. The network is mum on specific content, obviously hoping that secrecy will sharpen its appeal.

In recent years, TBS offered live Mixed Martial Arts extravaganzas, and will continue the sports theme this year. King of all media Takeshi “Beat” Kitano and comedy team Bakusho Mondai will host “Kyokugen 2012 Shijo Saidai no Genkai Batoru” (“The Utmost 2012 Maximum Battle in History,” 6-11:39 p.m.), featuring Takeshi’s patented low humor in service to live sporting contests, including a real WBA light flyweight championship bout. But if that’s your thing you should note that TV Tokyo will broadcast three professional championship boxing matches after “Nippon no Uta.”

Couch potatoes with more refined sensibilities will likely want to know if there’s something on that isn’t self-consciously dumb or, at least, relatively cerebral compared to the usual New Year’s fare. No broadcaster this year has asked super-explainer Akira Ikegami to review 2012′s news stories, which is strange since last year his New Year’s Eve special was a modest ratings winner, but there is TV Asahi’s annual debate on the issues of the year, “Asa Made Nama Terebi” (“Live TV Until Morning,” 1:30-5:50 a.m.), hosted by journalist Soichiro Tahara, if you like to watch political pundits lunge at one another. And if you’re really refined, NHK-E will present Japan’s favorite holiday musical epic, Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” at 8 p.m., followed by 2½ hours of “highlights” from classical concerts that NHK broadcasted over the last 12 months. TV Tokyo also airs a good portion of the annual Sylvester Concert live from Orchard Hall in Tokyo (11:30 p.m.-12:45 a.m.) featuring the Tokyo Philharmonic performing Elgar, Bach, Wagner and a clutch of Disney tunes in case the kids are still up — but they’ll probably be watching “Downtown.”

If none of this sounds challenging, NHK’s BS1 channel will be rerunning London Olympics highlights all day and night; BS Premium will show five movies starring Ken Takakura (6 p.m.-5 a.m.); Wowow’s Cinema channel will raise that with more than 12 hours of Tom Cruise (5 p.m.-6 a.m.); and Wowow Prime will test any TV freak’s mettle with the full Season 4 of “24,” shown in order (Dec. 30, 11:10 p.m.-Dec. 31 7:20 p.m.). When it comes to New Year’s Eve in Japan, it’s all about endurance.