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Trite TV drama about children’s home misses a chance to edify and entertain

by Philip Brasor

Since mid-January, Nippon TV has been the target of condemnation from various organizations for its Wednesday night drama series, “Ashita, Mama ga Inai” (“Tomorrow Your Mother Won’t Be Here”). The show is set in a privately run group home for children who, for whatever reason, cannot live with their parents. The protesting groups, which include the National Council for Children’s Group Homes and Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto, accuse NTV of “violating human rights” and displaying “prejudice against the children as well as the staff who are working in these childcare institutions.”

Sponsors, at least initially, took the protests to heart, and all eight had pulled their ads by the third week of the show, which didn’t hurt NTV financially, since the advertisers are obliged to pay for the time they reserved during the run of the series, according to Nikkan Sports. And the publicity, regardless of its tenor, has kept the show’s ratings at a respectable level.

However, the broadcaster’s executives and the show’s producers have tried to counter the criticism by saying that their intentions are good, and while admitting their research into children’s group homes and the situation surrounding those who live in them could have been better, they think they have been misunderstood. After refusing calls to cancel the series, NTV told the Mainichi Shimbun in early February that it would make “certain improvements” to the show to address the complaints.

Mainichi described the scandal as a conflict between sensitivities over a social issue and freedom of expression, but it’s really something else. The drama’s selling point is its two 9-year-old stars, Mana Ashida and Rio Suzuki. Ashida plays the group home’s most tough-minded and resourceful resident, a girl who is not only whip smart, but also more knowledgeable about life than the adults around her. Her nickname is Post, because she was abandoned in the kind of receptacle — a “baby postbox,” in colloquial Japanese — that Jikei Hospital runs, and doesn’t really expect to be adopted. Suzuki plays a girl who ends up at the group home after her mother is arrested for attempting to kill her boyfriend. She expects her mother to show up any day to take her home, and she does turn up, but only to tell her that she’s going to marry the boyfriend and that there’s no room in their new life for her daughter. “When you grow up and fall in love yourself,” the mother says, “you’ll understand.”

Specific complaints have centered on the nickname Post, which Jikei says reinforces discrimination, and the atmosphere of the group home, which is run by a bitter disabled man who constantly reminds his charges that they are at a serious disadvantage, comparing them to dogs in a pet shop. Meanwhile, foster/adoptive families are depicted as being either desperate or perverse.

It’s obvious that the show’s producers want to direct viewers’ attention to the prejudices faced by abandoned and orphaned kids, not to mention children who have been removed from homes because of abuse and neglect, which is why NTV has said that offended parties have misconstrued the show’s meaning. In one scene, an orphaned boy tries to tell his classmate at a regular public elementary school not to eat a cookie the classmate dropped on the ground. The classmate’s mother thinks the boy is trying to steal the cookie and says that’s “just the way an orphan behaves.”

But the show’s priorities are dramatic rather than didactic. The producers are exploiting the public’s increased awareness of children’s homes for the sake of entertainment, not edification, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the show might be more acceptable as both social commentary and entertainment if it weren’t so trite. The facility is depicted as a kind of haunted house and the production values are those of a cheap horror movie. The kids’ situations are modeled on orphan clichés that haven’t changed since Charles Dickens’ time. And the character Post, with her wise-guy attitude, wouldn’t have been out of place in an “Our Gang” comedy from the 1930s. It’s difficult to imagine viewers forming “prejudices” against parentless children because of the drama, as its detractors claim, but it’s even more difficult to imagine they would accept this as being representative of reality.

NTV did say in its initial apology that it would not explain any changes it might make as a result of the complaints, “due to the nature of the program being a drama.” In other words, the fact that it’s fiction gives the company license to do anything it wants to do, and the changes have been mostly cosmetic.

But two weeks ago, the network aired a special that came off as damage control, even as the series nears its finale. Two regular NTV variety shows, “Fuka-ii Hanashi” (“Deep and Good Stories”) and “Shabekuri 007″ (“Talking 007″), were merged into a single two-hour special. The “Fuka-ii” half focused on “what most people don’t know about childbirth,” and included graphic documentary footage of women going through prenatal checkups, giving birth and nursing their babies. The segments and commentary explained what really happens when a woman has a baby.

The “Shaberi 007″ half of the special, however, had nothing to do with childbirth — or child-rearing, for that matter. It was the usual celebrity comedy-talk show. The guests were Ashida and Suzuki, but they didn’t even discuss “Ashita, Mama ga Inai,” though they were clearly there to promote it. The two girls showed off precociously and talked about their families.

What the two variety shows had to do with each other wasn’t clear, though they were advertised and presented as being somehow linked and coordinated. Maybe NTV wanted to show viewers that it supported families by presenting the reality — and the joy — of having children. In contrast, the controversial drama was just that — a drama — but with two unusually gifted child actors. How could anyone hate a show with such amazing little girls?