Can Netflix’s ‘Hibana’ spark a revolution in Japanese TV?

by

Special To The Japan Times

With the recent announcements made by both Netflix Japan and Amazon Japan that they will be putting out original locally made content, the country seems to be moving further into the age of internet-based TV. And it appears that the team at Netflix could be one step ahead with the recent release of its latest homegrown show.

“Hibana” (“Spark”) became available to stream via the service on June 3, and the title is currently available in 190 countries and territories — a first for Netflix Japan — and subtitled in 19 languages, with the ultimate aim to have that number reach 24. The 10-episode drama is based on the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by comedian Naoki Matayoshi, which has sold more than 2.5 million copies, and Netflix is hopeful for a high viewer count both at home and abroad.

“It’s just a really good story, when it comes down to it,” Greg Peters, president of Netflix Japan, tells The Japan Times at the company’s office in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood. “While it’s set in this manzai (Japanese stand-up comedy) world, which can seem extremely domestic in one sense, the core story elements are really about the interaction between two people. And this human interaction is set in a broader theme of what happens when you fall in love with an art form and pursue it despite all rational reasons not to. I think that these two elements have a degree of universality to them.”

The two characters Peters is referring to are aspiring comedian Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi) and manzai talent Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka). After a chance meeting, Tokunaga pleads with Kamiya to take him on as an apprentice. The older comic agrees and their journey together begins, but the pair eventually follow different paths.

“The mentor-apprentice, or senpaikōhai relationship, as well as the passion in pursuing something are also very Japanese,” Peters says. “So it’s a great opportunity to present a story that is authentically Japanese, but relatable to a much broader audience.”

The production team on “Hibana” is also promising. Although the episodes have been split up between five directors, Ryuichi Hiroki — known for “Tokyo Trash Baby” (2000), “Vibrator” (2003) and “Yawarakai Seikatsu” (2005) — is at the helm of the creative alliance.

“Basically, you can consider this a 10-hour Japanese art movie,” Peters says. “The (leading) director, Ryuichi Hiroki, makes visually stylized, emotional, atmospheric works, and people around the world love his films. With this project we can give them a drama that has the same sensibilities, and connect them to the story.”

And he’s positive that Netflix will even be able to reach out to film fans that are new to Japanese content and culture. Peters believes that “Hibana” will make its way to screens around the world, with a little help from its ever-expanding user database.

“Because of the nature of our service, global availability and, more importantly, our recommendation system (at Netflix), we can have people who love French movies or art movies and have never seen a Japanese drama in their life,” he explains. “But we know the kinds of stories and treatments that they like, so we can recommend ‘Hibana’ to them, and find a much bigger audience.”

But can the project appeal to a mass audience?

“I think the thing you don’t want to do is shift away from something that is authentic to make it globally appealing,” Peters says. “It’s about being authentic and giving the creators all the tools to tell the story at a really high level of quality, both in terms of a production and technical standpoint.”

Sure enough, Peters is confident that Netflix provides creators with the necessary financial backing to make a quality production.

“We have around $6 billion to spend on licensing and production this year,” he says, referring to a recent announcement by the head office. “And our job is to find the places to make the best of that. In fact with ‘Hibana,’ when there were opportunities to, we would spend more. We didn’t want to be limited by budget.”

And with the production being led by entertainment conglomerate Yoshimoto Kogyo, which represents the country’s most popular comedians, there are no doubts with regard to the show’s cultural credibility.

“The things that make people laugh differ between countries,” says Katsuaki Yamaji, the director of content business and production at Yoshimoto’s creative arm. “So we put our effort in trying to make something that is not forced to adapt to an international audience, but to show that ‘Hibana’ is funny in Japan. Manzai is simply about talking into a mic — it’s something that anyone can try their hand at if they want to. It’s a job full of dreams and we want to express the appeal of manzai to the world through this series.”

When it comes to quality entertainment, however, many internationally minded film and TV show aficionados might be cautiously skeptical when it comes to Japanese drama and mass-media entertainment in general. A firmly established commercial tie-up system in addition to predictable casting from the same pool of big-name actors and, in many cases, tarento (showbiz personalities) and teen pop stars, are often seen as major detriments to the industry’s reputation.

“It’s important that the team has artistic freedom, and they’re not restrained by what the sponsor is going to think or other ‘administrative’ people around them,” Peters insists. “So they can realize the potential in their work, which I think makes something globally attractive. Our job is to be ‘creator-enabling’; the team’s job is to have a vision, and then execute it. Ours is to enable them and then get out of the way. And I think the creators are excited by it and enjoy the freedom.”

Indeed, Yamaji agrees that Netflix’ creative process has allowed for a solid adaptation of Matayoshi’s novel.

“We like the ‘creativity first’ attitude that Netflix has,” he says. “We were able to express the story while staying true to the original work.”

And when it comes to casting, the roster has a distinctly indie feel to it — though there is the arguably questionable addition of Sayaka Yamamoto, who belongs to mega-idol group AKB48’s sister unit NMB48. Peters admits that Japan’s is a talent-driven entertainment world.

“We don’t know yet if it’s because this is inherent to Japan, as in its viewer preference, or if it’s an artifact of the ‘structures’ in the industry,” Peters says. “But I think what we’ll be able to do is experiment and see how a great story told by unknown actors does, and discover exactly what it is that people get attracted to when they want to watch a piece of content.”

And again, when it comes to authenticity, the team paid special care to a certain linguistic criterion.

“We made sure that the cast could all speak in the Kansai dialect,” Yamaji says. “With Yoshimoto productions, there sometimes tends to be comedians cast for leading roles. However, with ‘Hibana’ we made sure that the main characters were played by professional actors, and added more reality by casting real comedians for supporting parts.”

The era of online television continues to grow overseas, but it’s still too early to tell if it will be as big in Japan. “Underwear” (“Atelier”), a series that was produced by Fuji Television for Netflix Japan, received some good reviews from critics abroad but who knows if a local production will be able to manage to create the kind of international buzz a series like “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black” has received.

“The global virtual audience that now exists spans all these borders,” Peters says as he spreads his arms out. “Just as there are fans of Hollywood in Japan, there are die-hard anime fans in France, Brazil, the U.S. and all over the world. There’s this tremendous potential in Japan; so many stories — the manga, the novels — and now we have the opportunity to unlock this potential in a way that hasn’t been able to be done before.”

“Hibana” is now available to stream via Netflix Japan. For more details, visit www.netflix.com/jp.


Just for laughs: Japan’s most popular comedians come in a variety of styles

“Hibana” is set in the world of manzai, a form of Japanese stand-up comedy that’s often performed in pairs. Below are the four most popular comedic acts from last year, according to rankings agency Oricon.

1) Tonikaku Akarui Yasumura

A comedian with the Yoshimoto Kogyo agency, he is well-known for his go-to catchphrase, “Anshin shite kudasai, haitemasu yo!” (“Don’t worry, I’m wearing something!”). That’s because Yasumura usually does his act in his underwear, but poses so as to appear completely naked.

2) Okazu Club

A Yoshimoto Kogyo duo formed by Okarina, who plays the boke (fool), and Yui P, who plays the tsukkomi, (straight woman). The two women usually perform short skits, and one of their most famous had Yui P yelling at her partner: “Kore ga omaera no yarikata ka?!” (“This is your way?!”).

3) Pistachio

Formed in 2010, this pair consists of Hiroki Ijichi and Shinichiro Ozawa. Their gimmick is their original shirome manzai (eye-roll comedy), in which they roll their eyes into the back of their heads while they speak. It’s admittedly strange, but funny nonetheless.

4) Naoki Matayoshi

Matayoshi made history when he became the first comedian to win the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for his novel, “Hibana” (“Spark”). He is also one half of Yoshimoto duo Peace, the other being Yuji Ayabe. In an appearance on Fuji TV comedy show “Bakusho Red Carpet,” the pair parodied John Lennon’s “Imagine” by asking people to “imagine a miso soup without miso” — it’s easy if you try. (Chinatsu Yajima)