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Job-seeking comedy avoids real issues

by Philip Brasor

In 2004, novelist Ryu Murakami published “13-sai no Hello Work,” a job guide for 13-year-olds, though most of the copies were bought by adults. The book did not offer practical advice, but rather job descriptions in all lines of work, from engineer to prostitute, in order to give readers an idea of what was actually out there in terms of employment. Ever since he shot to fame in the 1970s Murakami’s reputation has been that of a playboy iconoclast, but starting in the late ’90s he focused his intellect on economic issues, and the book was a means of stimulating young people’s curiosity about the world of work.

TV Asahi is now about halfway through a dramatization of “13-sai no Hello Work” (Fri., 11:15 p.m.). Turning a nonfiction guide into a narrative-based comedy series requires imagination, if not nerve, but it’s been done before. Woody Allen adapted the early ’70s bestseller “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” into a movie that was basically a series of comic skits premised on nothing more than chapter titles from the book.

Asahi’s show isn’t nearly as funny. Teppei Kogure (Masahiro Matsuoka) is a cop working in the public safety division. His job is to make sure minors don’t smoke or drink or behave badly, but he wanted to be a detective, like his old acquaintance Takano, who rose to his position through real ability. Kogure, who’s prone to impatience and hyperactivity, regrets that he never possessed enough self-discipline to form goals as a child.

He gets an opportunity to change all that. At the start of each episode, Kogure magically slips through time and returns to 1990, when he was 13 years old. He meets his younger self and tries to steer him toward a more rigorous life, getting him to enroll in a juku (cram school), where Kogure hangs out to check up on him, pretending to be his uncle. He becomes friendly with the school’s owner (Jun Fubuki), an entrepreneur who, with her garish sense of style, represents the money-worship of the times. Japan was right at the end of the bubble era, and things were about to go bad. Kogure knows this, but he can’t tell people about the future because if he does he risks obliterating his younger self. At the end of each episode he just as magically slips back to 2012 and discovers that something has changed in response to something he did in 1990.

The point of intersection between the book and the show is the focus on a better understanding of specific jobs, though the series takes a more frivolous approach. Kogure believes that the source of his dissatisfaction is the fact that he didn’t go to university. He went straight into the police academy after high school, so he wants to make sure that his younger self gets on a track for higher education. However, in each episode the juku owner, whose business empire is varied and far-reaching, gets him a job in some particular field, and while performing that job he learns that the nature of the work is less important than what you make of it.

In one episode he becomes a trainee hospital nurse and hates it because all the patients treat him like dirt. Then he notices the full-time nurses’ considerate bedside manner and how well patients respond. These nurses are dedicated to their jobs, even though their pay is low and they don’t get much respect from others, even their own children.

The jokes play on the differences between the two eras. In 2012, Kogure attends a matchmaking party with some flight attendants who work for low-cost carriers, desperately looking for husbands in order to escape what they see as dead-end careers. In the same episode, he attends a party in 1990 with a trio of JAL stewardesses who act as if they are European royalty.

One of the main characters in the 1990 setting is a juku teacher, Shoko (Mirei Kiritani), who is graduating from university and sifting through dozens of job offers. It was a sellers’ market then, and Shoko is wined and dined by companies desperate to hire her.

Viewers are meant to pick up on the irony. College grads today are desperate to secure jobs, while Shoko’s concern is that potential employers see her as a fish that has to be caught. They don’t value her as a person. Grads in 1990 can find jobs easily, but the implication is that they’ll be treated like meat. Does that make the job environment in 2012 more realistic? It’s not an idea the show is prepared to tackle, though dramatic logic would seem to demand Kogure lose his conviction that a college degree by itself would have made a major difference in his life. Most likely, he’ll either find value in the work he’s doing now or change jobs to something more fulfilling.

But that may be expecting too much from a show like this, which is so caught up in slapstick and deriding 1990s sensibilities that it doesn’t even have time to follow plot points through to their natural conclusions. Moreover, the writers have so far concentrated on jobs for their topical appeal — manga artist, musician, host-club employee. When such jobs are discussed, there’s little difference between 2012 and 1990 other than the hairstyles. If the show really wanted to test Murakami’s somewhat questionable thesis that work is what you make of it, it would offer some perspective and have Kogure wash dishes or stand on an assembly line.

In an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, one of the producers said that the main challenge he faced in creating the program is that 1990 is recent enough so that “everyone remembers it.” He has to be diligent about authenticity — but only up to a point. If he pays too much attention to fashion, say, he risks alienating viewers who might find it all so dasai (corny); which makes you wonder what the point is. If the show isn’t going to make an effort at showing how attitudes toward employment have really changed, then it can at least make fun of women who wear shoulder pads.