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TV delves deep toward darker depths of dumbness

by Philip Brasor

A fter more than a decade of slipping popularity, NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Red and White Song Contest”) roared back to relevancy last New Year’s Eve with impressive ratings.

Though the show has never relinquished its position as Japan’s most important pop-music event of the year, since the early 1990s it has had trouble attracting younger people, whose tastes have drifted away from the industry-sanctioned songs the program champions, not to mention general viewers who were tired of the same old faces year after year.

And while NHK as a public broadcaster is not supposed to worry about “audience share,” the drop in such was seen as a blow to its pride. Since it is considered an honor to perform on the show, the criteria for selection are deemed to be subjective, determined by some vague notions of quality and probity. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more. Almost anyone who had a hit song last year was invited, regardless of genre or public image.

This strategy — or lack of one — resulted in a more or less eclectic evening of music and was reflected in the minute-to-minute ratings for the show. The usual complement of enka (Japanese ballad) stars didn’t fare as well as the well-publicized one-offs, which weren’t limited to idol acts or even younger performers. Fifty-six-year-old Yutaka Mizutani, who last year resumed his singing career after more than two decades with the watered-down rock song “California Connection,” achieved a 43 percent rating during his appearance, his first ever on Kohaku.

Mizutani is mainly an actor. Right now he is starring in the hit TV Asahi detective series “Aibo,” and some pundits noted that NHK recovered at least part of its mojo with the help of rival stations. The highest rated segment for an individual act was earned by the all-male trio ShuChiShin. They attracted a 48 percent share during their performance, which involved cheerleading “support” from other regulars on the Fuji TV show that launched the group last spring. These comrades, including a full-time Fuji TV announcer, cavorted on stage as the group sang, and even waved a Fuji TV flag. It was as if they had invaded the show and taken it over.

That may have been the plan, because while ShuChiShin was doing its thing on NHK, over at Fuji a motley crew of comedians was actually watching it all on TV. This was probably a first: a live TV show where the talent were watching another live TV show. One viewer recorded both, and through the magic of computer software, created a side-by-side video of the two live broadcasts and posted it on YouTube: On the left, ShuChiShin sing their hit, and on the right, the comedians on the Fuji TV show (which, by the way, only captured a 2 percent share) comment on the performance. When the Fuji flag makes its appearance, everyone cheers. “Is that on purpose?” one person asks. “Maybe somebody is going to get fired,” another says.

The only fallout was NHK’s displeasure with one of the “supporters,” comedian Yoshio Kojima, who stripped off his black leotard, leaving him naked except for his trademark Speedos. However, it’s likely that NHK was in on the stunt. On Jan. 7, the public broadcaster and Fuji announced a “linkage” deal that will result in a coproduction slated for this March. Of all the commercial stations, Fuji, with its reputation for lowest-common-denominator programming, seems least compatible with NHK’s high-minded self-image, but in the past five or six years NHK has bitten the bullet and appropriated the variety show format that is the norm on commercial TV. It now uses the same vulgar comedians and talentless tarento (manufactured celebrities) that you see all the time on other channels.

No recent show-business phenomenon reflects this trend as plainly as ShuChiShin, whose name translates as “shame.” The quiz show that launched the trio, “Hexagon II,” single-handedly gave rise to the baka (stupid) TV personality boom of the past few years. At first, “Hexagon,” the brainchild of its emcee, comedian Shinsuke Shimada, sold clueless female idols, whose humorously dumb answers to the quiz questions made them instant stars. But eventually it was the male baka regulars who became the show’s draw. Three of the female bakadoru (stupid idols) from the show formed a singing group called Pabo (Korean for “fool”) in early 2007, and while they were popular, they didn’t sell as many records as ShuChiShin, whose April 2008 eponymous debut went to No. 2 upon release and was the fifth biggest-selling song of the year.

S huChiShin is so successful that the individual members can no longer accommodate its demands. On the Jan. 2 installment of “Hexagon,” the group announced its retirement in a tsunami of tears that swept the studio. Quitting at the top of your game can be a shrewd move artistically, but in this case the decision seems dictated by more practical considerations. It takes time and effort to fulfill the obligations of a music group when the members have talent, so imagine the time and effort it takes when the members have no talent. According to the magazine Shukan Gendai, Yusuke Kamiji, the most popular member, has received so many acting offers that the group has become a drag on his ambitions. One of those offers was from NHK, which cast Kamiji in an important role in its yearlong historical drama series “Tenchijin.” No one believes NHK hired him for his acting chops. Kamiji’s main claim to fame before “Hexagon” was having been superstar pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka’s catcher for one season during high school.

ShuChiShin’s lack of skills and smarts is exactly what people love about them. They flaunt it, in fact. “Laugh at us if you want to,” they sing, “we’re not going to give up.” Inspirational words, for sure, except that they and their respective management companies are also laughing — all the way to the bank. You think Japanese TV is dumb now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.