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Skeptics searching for super powers

by Philip Brasor

The laziest attributes of Japanese TV come to the fore during the New Year break, namely, the over-reliance on repetitive talk-show formats, the use of quizzes to liven things up, and lots of amateur videos and old news footage.

It’s also a time when whatever is currently fashionable gets a concentrated push, though sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether the fashion is on its way in or on its way out.

The two most prominent themes over New Year were “big eating contests” and shows about unexplainable phenomena. Big eating shows (ogui) have been around for years and transcend fashion (not to mention common sense, given that many are broadcast around dinner time), but unexplained phenomena, which comprise magic, ghost stories and demonstrations of so-called super powers have made a notable comeback recently.

I say “comeback,” because for the past 30 years or so, super-power programs have gone in and out of popularity with a certain frequency, starting in the ’70s with Canadian Uri Geller and his telekinetic shenanigans and peaking in the early ’90s with housewife Aiko Gibo, who communed with the dead.

The fall of Aum Shinrikyo supposedly made “super powers” untenable as an entertainment theme, since many of the ideas embraced by people like Geller and Gibo were taken up in one form or another by Shoko Asahara in Aum’s hodgepodge belief system.

Since the Tokyo sarin attack, super powers have become more a target of ridicule than fascination, especially on Beat Takeshi’s Monday night talk-show, “TV Tackle,” which every few months invites experts on ESP, UFOs and Nostradamus to lock horns with academics who call them fools and charlatans. Asahi TV apparently had enough confidence in Takeshi’s show to schedule a three-hour special version on New Year’s Eve, opposite NHK’s “Kohaku Utagassen.” According to the latest ratings, it didn’t do very well.

“Kohaku” should never be underestimated, but by now viewers may have become tired of the basically bogus nature of super-power entertainment. Even Takeshi and his panel of cutups couldn’t resist commenting that the program they were hosting was a pretty flimsy excuse for a New Year’s special.

By “bogus,” I’m not necessarily referring to super powers themselves, but to the idea that their existence can be reliably proved or conveyed through television. In his recently published book, “Spoon,” documentary director Tatsuya Mori relates his experiences making a video about spoon-benders and other TV personalities who possess super powers. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, Mori doesn’t seem to believe in super powers, but he saw enough demonstrations that he couldn’t explain to make him feel that he can’t in good conscience put all of them down as pure fraud.

What bothers him more is the professionalism of the anti-super power faction, exemplified by Waseda professor Yoshiyuki Otsuki, who has developed a lucrative side business “exposing” super powers and their practitioners. These people are rarely called upon to actually refute super-power claims but instead simply provide academic credentials to back up their bullying behavior in knock-down-drag-out “talk battles.”

TV has made Otsuki rich because right now, super powers are ripe for ridicule, whereas 10 years ago they were a credible form of entertainment in their own right. (Interestingly, Mori reveals that most super-power practictioners are paid next to nothing for their TV appearances.)

This induced skepticism has been reinforced by a slew of recent variety specials in which the secrets behind many famous magic tricks are explained. The main perpetrator of this violation of international prestidigitational standards is Nippon TV, which has broadcast several programs with the Masked Magician, a Western illusionist whose showbiz m.o. — he wears a mask and never speaks — is itself a kind of illusion.

The Masked Magician performs grand illusions of the David Copperfield variety; meaning he’s less interested in sleight-of-hand, which is the basic skill component of performance magic. He mostly stands around and makes dramatic gestures to divert the viewer’s attention from what is really happening. The effectiveness of this kind of magic gains a great deal from imaginative camerawork. On one program he made a helicopter disappear, and then revealed that it was done with an elaborate mirrored contraption, which swings the camera around imperceptibly. Who needs sleight-of-hand when you’ve got a big production budget?

The only difference between the Masked Magician and Uri Geller, we are told by skeptics, is that the magician admits he is fooling you whereas Geller wants you to believe he actually has special powers. But with TV as the medium, everything becomes a potential fraud because we have become so used to the idea that TV can and will manipulate anything it wants.

Including our feelings. One afternoon during the New Year’s break, I watched a special with two dozen female celebrities, two of whom received the attentions of a spiritual medium. He communicated with their dead relatives and revealed secrets he couldn’t possibly know as a way of helping them deal with personal problems. Both women burst into tears, grateful not so much because their loved ones were watching over them, but because this man acknowledged their troubles in a sympathetic way. To me, his real talent wasn’t the ability to talk to the dead but his capacity for listening and understanding. Those are super powers we could use more of.