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Koreeda’s daring TV drama stands alone

by Philip Brasor

Once upon a time television was considered much less prestigious than the movies, and then cable and other forms of pay TV showed up. Producers no longer had to think mainly about sponsors and family sensitivities because they could target programs at specific demographics. Delivery delineated content, because when network shows and specialized cable fare were coming out of the same set-top box (or router) no one made a distinction. Cable dramas forced broadcast counterparts to up their game and vice versa. Now the movies have nothing over TV except scale, which is why the only cinematic product Hollywood is interested in any more is that which can be projected in 3-D or on giant IMAX screens.

I’m talking, of course, about the United States. Japan has not enjoyed this entertainment revolution. In fact, over the years movies have stooped to the level of TV, owing to the ever-increasing dominance of idol culture and the homogenization of media beholden to major advertising agencies such as Dentsu and Hakuhodo, who control the money for both TV and movies. In such a noncompetitive environment, cable TV isn’t even a player, much less a stimulus.

Consequently, some people had high hopes for Fuji TV’s “Going My Home” (Tues., 10 p.m.), a drama series written and directed by world-renowned filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda. The series premiered on Oct. 9 to considerable fanfare, not only because Koreeda, whose “Maboroshi,” “Nobody Knows” and other movies have won awards all over the world, was making his first television series, but also because of the high-profile cast, which includes Hiroshi Abe, Toshiyuki Nishida, Aoi Miyazaki and, in her first TV drama appearance in 16 years, Tomoko Yamaguchi, the queen of “trendy dramas” in the 1990s. But the initial rating of 13 percent was a little disappointing, and then every subsequent week audience share became even smaller. By the time episode six was broadcast it was only 5.9 percent.

The explanation, summed up by an article in the magazine Cyzo, is that viewers can’t properly appreciate the subtle humor and dramatic niceties of Koreeda’s cinematic aesthetic. More to the point is that there are no boys from Johnny & Associates or girls from AKB48 to attract the kind of people who normally watch prime-time TV. Though Abe, Nishida and Miyazaki have all done their fair share of television, nowadays they do most of their work in film. At any rate, the dwindling ratings obviously indicates that the show isn’t holding people’s interest from week to week.

In a promotional interview with Sankei Shimbun, Koreeda said his movies are influenced by the “home dramas” he watched with his parents growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. Many of his films focus on the interrelational dynamics of families and, in fact, “Going My Home” shares not only themes and plot points with his 2008 film “Still Walking” but also several key cast members, including Abe, who in the TV drama plays Ryota, a mid-level ad man married to “food stylist” Sae (Yamaguchi). They live with their young daughter in Tokyo, and one of the show’s signature distinctions is that, while the couple have the kind of glamorous jobs characters in TV dramas tend to have, Koreeda has purposely deglamorized them. Ryota may hobnob with big stars on the sets of his commercials but he still has to stand in line to take the bus to work.

When Ryota’s father, Eisuke (Isao Natsuyagi), falls ill while visiting his hometown in Nagano Prefecture, Ryota goes to visit him in the hospital, connecting with his sister and mother and getting to know the locals including his father’s childhood friend, Osamu (Nishida), and his “mysterious” daughter, Naho (Miyazaki). In the process he learns about kuna, tiny mythical forest people specific to the area who act as mediums between the worlds of the living and the dead. Ryota obsesses over them to the point that each episode opens with a dream in which Ryota interacts with the little folk in his cluttered room. He persuades a client to sponsor a PR-related “search event” for kuna, seemingly as an excuse for him to spend more time in his father’s hometown.

The series’ hook is the relationship between Eisuke, Osamu and Naho, which so far remains vague but is characterized by conversations that indicate they share a secret. Koreeda throws in allusions to environmentalism and the depopulation of rural Japan, but despite the emphasis on family “Going My Home” is nothing like the classic home dramas the director cited in the Sankei interview. The lighting is dim and the pacing slow. Japanese TV serials tend to be written and developed as they are being broadcast, and reportedly Koreeda barely finishes a script before taping it. Some of the dialogue sounds extemporaneous, even ad-libbed, and though it’s refreshing to see the actors eschewing the kind of broad, exaggerated style that’s typical of Japanese TV (or even movies, for that matter), their limitations as actors are apparent. Miyazaki has yet to turn Naho into a consistently intriguing character, and Abe’s Ryota has the disconcerting habit of laughing at his own jokes.

Visually, the series has more in common with movies, but Koreeda thinks in TV terms with regard to the way each episode is shaped, and while he has been promised no interference from producers or the network, he knows what’s expected. A major sponsor of the show is condiment maker Kewpie, and one of the running jokes is Ryota’s mayonnaise addiction, a peccadillo that bugs his culinary-minded wife.

What habitual TV drama viewers probably find off-putting is the digressions. Koreeda includes small but carefully crafted set pieces, many having to do with meal preparation, that do nothing to advance the story but nonetheless establish the emotional parameters of the various family units in compelling ways. Like its syntactically challenged title, “Going My Home” is hardly perfect but it is unique. If it weren’t for the ratings, it would probably be considered a success.