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NHK’s hollow take on easy-money bubble era

by Philip Brasor

What’s impressive about the new Steven Soderbergh film, “Traffic,” which opens here in April, is how thoroughly it presents all the ramifications of America’s drug war by exclusively dramatic means: no charts, no explanations of cause and effect, no polemics. The movie’s three separate plot vectors intersect only incidentally, but together they show how the drug war is actually fought by the people on both sides of the front line and, by clear implication, how it can never be won.

NHK’s current 12-part drama series, “Bubble” (Fridays 9:15 p.m.), attempts something similar with regard to the effects of the financial speculation frenzy of the late ’80s, but the script, by veteran “trendy drama” scenarist Tetsuo Kamata, doesn’t incorporate its journalistic and editorial elements as smoothly.

Set in Osaka during the early ’90s, when the bubble era had ended on paper but not in the public’s imagination, the series follows the financial ups-and-downs of a group of characters centered around a family that owns a small factory. The theme is abukuzeni, meaning “easy money,” which here is made through land and stock speculation. Intrigue is provided by a series of mysterious shootings, at least one suicide, and a lot of underhanded dealings between the public and private sectors.

Though all the characters shoulder the script’s dramatic responsibilities, the journalistic ones are carried solely by Okitsu (Tsunehiko Watase), a company president. Okitsu is a lone wolf, a successful businessman who got where he is through shrewdness and cunning rather than hard work. Watase, who epitomizes the nihiru (nihilist) school of Japanese drama, walks through the series as if he is on his way to the gallows.

His main purpose as a character is to provide commentary on historical background and insider dirt that will help the viewer make sense of the plot developments. In one scene, he and a budding real estate consultant named Tetsu, played with overbearing rectitude by Masanobu Takashima, share a taxi. Okitsu explains everything that was wrong with the bubble period: companies not investing windfalls productively, lazy bureaucrats who didn’t think of new areas for investment, etc.

“I wish I understood the rules,” he concludes ruefully, but apparently he understands them all too well, or at least better than anyone else we meet.

Okitsu’s information is nothing you can’t get from the news, and Kamata presents it baldly, thus preempting viewers from drawing their own conclusions based on the actions of the characters. Kamata doesn’t seem to have the confidence or the talent to fold these truths (which, in any event, are only truths in hindsight) into the plot itself. Okitsu and Tetsu work together on a golf course development project that provides a perfect paradigm of the fiscal irresponsibility characteristic of the bubble mindset.

We learn how development projects require the approval of local politicians and bureaucrats, how the purchase of overpriced goods and services is encouraged by politicians who have a financial interest in such goods and services, and why golf club memberships can be sold at such artificially high prices. But, again, these juicy tidbits are not presented dramatically, but simply explained by Okitsu as he and Tetsu sit in a gorgeously furnished office worrying about the states of their souls.

The motivation behind the acquisition of money is never presented in a way that most people will identify with. None of the characters desire money for what it can do. Takashima, with his clenched jaw and penchant for wide-eyed disbelief, can’t get through a scene without mentioning that money doesn’t buy happiness. He and his wife, played by perky idol Emiri Henmi, come into the possession of 2 billion yen which is too large an amount “to provide us with the small happiness we want,” and so they have no choice but to eventually invest it in risky enterprises.

This idea that money is not a tool but a mind-altering drug is epitomized by Tetsu’s sister-in-law, Masami (Yumi Aso), who lost her husband and most of her sanity after disastrous land dealings. She sells some valuable paintings to raise money that she can then invest frivolously in the stock market. The move is presented as suicidal, and therefore attracts the interest of the fatalistic Okitsu.

“That’s a great idea,” he says when he hears of it, since he believes that life should be lived on the edge or not at all. “You and I,” he tells her later over an expensive bottle of cabernet, “we’re going to hell.”

Despite her self-destructive bent, Masami’s investments turn out successfully and she becomes a celebrity sobashi (stock speculator guru), thus setting her up for another big fall in a future episode.

“Bubble” doesn’t wallow in retro style, which it probably would have had it been produced for commercial TV, but at the same time the story doesn’t seem to exist in any particular historical context. A few scenes take place in a Julianna’s-style disco, but otherwise the plot is generic in terms of time and place, as if the venality on display were always with us.

And in a way, it is. But Kamata’s emphasis on eternal amorphous truths at the expense of the specific factors that brought the Japanese economy to a standstill makes the series less compelling than it should be — and undeserving of its succinct, titillating title. Most likely, Kamata didn’t think viewers would find the nuts-and-bolts of the debacle as dramatic as characters looking to money for spiritual fulfillment and not finding it. But considering the fact that the Japanese economy is still stalled, I think the nuts and bolts are plenty dramatic.