Hear yea: ‘This country is rotten!’

by Edan Corkill

Barack Obama hasn’t yet lived long enough to win the United States presidency; he has, however, influenced Japanese comedy television, where, true to his mantra — or perhaps because of it — “change we can believe in” has already occurred.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Masato Sakai, president of the Love Newpolitical Party. First of all, I’d like to tell everyone that this country is rotten!!!’

So begins the first of 26, 15-minute stump speeches by the leader of the fictional Renai Shinto (Love Newpolitical Party), in the brilliant late-night television program of the same name.

We don’t often feature television shows in the pages of Timeout, but “Renai Shinto,” a throwaway comedy that aired for six months through September on the Nippon Television Network, was so clever, so well executed and so original that, well, we thought it deserved an Academy Award. But as we didn’t have any of those lying around, here’s the next best thing: a Week 3 writeup.

“In Japanese television, when you have a 15-minute slot the usual approach is to either bring celebrities into a studio and get them to talk, or go filming somewhere and show the footage,” explained Kyoko Matsumoto, the program’s producer. “We thought it would be interesting if we established a central character who just berated viewers, nonstop.”

Enter the U.S. presidential candidate. “We were developing the show in January this year, right when Obama was beginning to grab headlines. We realized we could build something out of the sort of speeches he was making. It would be humorous, but we would also draw on real phenomena and real information.”

The president of Renai Shinto, Masato Sakai, is played with flair by the actor Masato Sakai — with the use of his real name adding to the slapdash skit feel of the program. He believes only love can save Japan; declining birth rates are thrown up as one of many forms of evidence. The only problem, he says, is that in contemporary Japan love must contend with many obstacles.

“We, Renai Shinto, vow to abolish things that would impede love!” he proclaims.

It turns out there are a lot of them, especially in the form of women’s trends. And therein lies the program’s exquisite irony: “Renai Shinto” launches assaults on the very trends that Japanese television generally thrives on.

First up was “Ladies’ Plans” — those night-out-with-the-girlfriends deals offered by restaurants and hotels. “For every happy woman enjoying a ladies’ plan, there is a lonely man,” declares Sakai. “If these plans are not an impediment to love, what are they?”

The program’s other great irony is that to illustrate just how pervasive these ladies’ plans have become, Sakai gives examples — specially equipped ladies’ rooms at the Westin Hotel Tokyo in Ebisu, a whole ladies-only floor at the Prince Park Tower Tokyo in the shadow of Tokyo Tower — and even ladies-only stays in the Jelly Fish Fantasy Hall at the Enoshima Aquarium in Kanagawa Prefecture. In the context of the speech, these amount to delightfully backhanded plugs.

I asked Matsumoto if the hotels appreciated this ballyhoo. “I was worried about that at first,” she said. “But when we explained the show, they all understood.”

In another episode, Sakai launches into a discussion of pets. Noting that surveys show the number of single women who want a boyfriend drops from 71 to 55 percent when the woman has a pet, Sakai announces that excessive doting on canine and feline friends shows “woman are using pets as a way to avoid relationships!”

I asked Matsumoto how women reacted to the show, which, according to Video Research, had a ratings high of 5 percent — very good for its late-night time slot.

“They know it’s all an exaggeration, but that it also has elements of truth,” she said. “Some people write in full of remorse, saying they now realize why they haven’t been able to meet new men. Others say they want Sakai to run in the next election.”

The program takes swipes at men, too. Sakai’s nerdy so-called First Secretary, played by Muga Tsukaji, is an endless fountain of cringe-inducing asides — “You mean women would rather spend the night with a jellyfish than a man?” he asks during the Ladies’ Plan episode.

If there’s a lack of love in Japan, then he and his ilk are as culpable for their inanity as the poodle-petting women. Some episodes are also deliberately positive.

Sakai kicks off one promising to “demonstrate how love can perform miracles.” Women, he declares, should fall in love because love can save the world’s animals from extinction. In a flurry of irrefutable facts and figures reminiscent of the logic of “Monty Python,” he demonstrates that ice cream is women’s favorite food to eat on a date, that the most popular flavor is vanilla, that the world’s two biggest producers of vanilla beans are Indonesia and Madagascar — and that those two countries are home to more than 700 of the world’s almost 8,000 officially endangered species.

In a told-you-so climax, he shows a 10-second interview with an economics professor at Tokyo University who, unprompted, mentions “establishing funds to save endangered animals” as one of three likely benefits stemming from economic development in the two countries.

“See! Love can save the animals!” he exclaims.

Matsumoto says she didn’t expect the show to coincide with such political turmoil in Japan as its recent merry-go-round of prime ministers — let alone the global economic meltdown. But, along with Obama’s rise, the compelling instability of the last few months in politics have helped make Japanese viewers more knowledgeable and more interested in the political process.

“A few years ago, if you had have done a show like this people wouldn’t have looked at it seriously. This year, talk about political parties, party presidents and political oration has entered people’s lives. I think people have lost a fear of politics, and that’s why the show worked.”

Watch out for Renai Shinto popping up on the ballot . . .