When it was announced last year that entertainment Renaissance man Kankuro Kudo would write the script for NHK’s spring-summer 2013 “TV novel,” a few people probably wondered how the iconoclastic writer-director-actor would respond to the broadcaster’s narrative strictures. In a recent interview with Aera, Kudo said that he writes what he wants to write, but if someone complains about something “I’ll change it.” NHK’s 15-minute asa-dora (morning dramas) have been a tradition for more than 40 years. Always chronicling the coming-of-age and beyond of a female protagonist, they highlight special attributes of whatever location is the setting that season, which is why so many local governments lobby NHK to get their areas covered. Kudo was commissioned to write a story that took place in a fictional town on the Sanriku coast of Iwate Prefecture, which would eventually be devastated in the tsunami of March 2011.
The dramatic possibilities inherent in the disaster are compelling, but so far (the series started in April and ends in September) the story has not touched on the tsunami. Nevertheless, it has proven to be not only one of the most popular series in the history of asa-dora, with viewer share as high as 22 percent some weeks, but one of its most shamelessly entertaining, as well.
The lead character of “Amachan” is Aki Amano (Rena Nonen), a withdrawn Tokyo teenager who in 2008 accompanies her mother, Haruko (Kyoko Koizumi), to Haruko’s hometown of Sodegahama, which she hasn’t visited in 24 years. The impetus behind the trip is a note from the town’s station master, Daikichi (Tetta Sugimoto), saying that Haruko’s mother, Natsu (Nobuko Miyamoto), has fallen ill, but it turns out not to be true. Daikichi, who has had a crush on Haruko since they were kids, heard that she was getting divorced and hoped that if she came back she could be talked into becoming an ama, a female diver who collects and sells sea urchins plucked from the sea bottom. Haruko has absolutely no interest in becoming an ama like her mother, and her relationship with Natsu remains frosty, but Aki is brought out of her shell by her contact with the local culture and dialect and finagles Haruko into staying so that she can become an ama. Later, she is accepted into a program for training deep-sea divers.
Kudo has said that “Amachan” is about the Japanese idea of idols. As the plot unwinds, we learn that Haruko ran away to Tokyo in 1984 to pursue her dream of becoming a singer in the same style as the woman who plays her; Koizumi was a major idol in the ’80s. Her biggest hit, in fact, was “Nantettatte Idol” (“An Idol No Matter What”) This story device illustrates the hollowing-out of rural Japan that started during the bubble period and has accelerated ever since, with young people fleeing small towns for big cities, leaving nothing but old people behind. In Sodegahama, all the ama are over 50, so they are especially grateful for Aki’s enthusiasm, even if she proves to be an inept diver.
But she turns out to be a great idol, a calling that requires more than enthusiasm. Though Aki has the sort of defiant streak that asa-dora heroes invariably manifest she has no problem promoting herself as Sodegahama’s “idol ama” to attract media and hordes of densha otaku (train nerds). Aki’s partner in this endeavor is Yui (Ai Hashimoto), the resident teenage beauty queen who was the most popular girl in town before Aki showed up. Yui’s appeal is darker and more sensual than Aki’s, but together they help Sodegahama become a tourist attraction, and draw the attention of an undercover talent scout (Ryuhei Matsuda) who is looking for fresh faces for a Tokyo producer putting together an AKB48-like idol collective.
Kudo’s story line comments on the overarching asa-dora concept — girl pushes the special appeal of a specific region — but he takes it further when the purview of the series expands after Aki goes alone to Tokyo to audition for the producer. Heartbreak awaits her, and we finally find out what happened to Haruko’s dreams of stardom in the late ’80s: She was betrayed by the same producer, who bursts Aki’s bubble and sends her back to Sodegahama, broken and defeated.
Except, of course, she isn’t. Aki returns to Tokyo, because the rightness of her attitude is paramount, and Kudo still has something to say about the idol-making mechanism.
“Amachan” is the ultimate asa-dora not because of its copious use of the sort of dramatic clichés NHK loves, or the even more copious reliance on coincidence and strained credibility, but rather its insistence that Japan’s most valuable resource is virtue. The vector of conflict in an asa-dora follows the protagonist’s pursuit of her dream, which is usually vocational in nature. Aki is the preternatural asa-dora protagonist, since she is given the opportunity to pursue not one, not two, but three dreams — ama, deep-sea diver and idol — even though she demonstrates no natural gifts for any of them. It’s her pure-hearted ambition and eagerness to please — the definition of idolhood — that compensate for her lack of ability and inspire those around her to make the most of their own lives. When Aki first goes to Tokyo, Yui, who has stayed behind due to an illness in the family, turns into a delinquent, as if Aki’s absence has deprived her of a positive life force. When Aki returns, Yui regains her moral composure.
As with all asa-dora, there are no “bad” characters in “Amachan,” unless you count the producer, and there’s still time left in the series for him to redeem himself. Aki carries the potential to correct everyone’s life compass — Haruko’s, Yui’s, even that of the selfish, talentless middle-aged actress (Hiroko Yakushimaru, another ’80s idol) for whom Aki works as an assistant.
What the tsunami of 2011 does to the town remains to be seen, but Shukan Post solicited several writers to make conjectures, and they all predict a variation on the basic theme of Aki returning from Tokyo to help rebuild Sodegahama and restore it to its pristine glory. Idols will save the world.