Two weeks ago I received a message from a reader who asked me to ask NHK why the public broadcaster had changed the name and the hair color of the female protagonist of its new daily 15-minute asa-dora (morning drama series) “Massan,” which is based on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, the first person to make whisky in Japan, and his Scottish wife.
Rita Taketsuru’s name in the series is Ellie and her brown hair has been bleached blonde. It’s common for producers to take true stories and alter them for dramatic purposes, and at the March news conference where American actress Charlotte Kate Fox, who plays Ellie, was introduced to the media, it was announced that some of the tale would be fictionalized.
NHK is a public broadcaster and has a policy of not using the names of actual commercial enterprises in its dramas. The writer, Daisuke Habara, saw fit to change the main couple’s family name from Taketsuru to Kameyama, and since Nikka, the company that Taketsuru eventually founded, makes a type of brandy named after Rita, it might violate NHK protocol to retain such an association. The same goes for the character representing the man who would become the founder of liquor giant Suntory. His name has been changed from Torii to Kamoi — tori being a homonym for the word “bird” and kamo meaning “duck.”
As for Rita’s hair color, that will remain a mystery, but as everyone in Japan knows, this is the first morning drama featuring a non-Japanese female lead, so certain promotional priorities probably proved irresistible. If you want to make the most of the fact that the main character in a series famous for turning Japanese ingenues into stars is going to be a 28-year-old Caucasian woman, then you might as well go all the way and make her blonde, a feature that, along with blue eyes, still possesses a certain exotic cachet in Japan.
In any case, the show, now in its fourth week, is a hit, and while the audience share may have something to do with the novelty of the casting, as the business magazine Toyo Keizai has pointed out, NHK’s morning serial has been on a ratings roll since “Ama-chan” in early 2013, so it may simply be a matter of inertia. The two subsequent six-month series followed the classic asa-dora concept: coming-of-age story about a young, impoverished woman taking place in a period of historic flux, usually during or just after World War II.
“Massan,” which starts in the 1920s and reportedly will take in the war years, breaks this mold, not only by making the nominal lead a male, but a male from a well-to-do family. Nevertheless, the narrative devices and production values that characterize NHK dramas have not changed much, and while the title is Ellie’s pet name for her husband, it has become clear that Ellie commands just as much screen time and so should be considered at least the co-lead.
Another question that arose before the series began is why NHK went abroad to find an actor for the part when there are plenty of foreign women in Japan who have lived and worked here as actors for years. Apparently, the thinking was that since the development of the story would align with Ellie’s becoming acculturated, it makes sense to hire someone who didn’t have any direct experience with Japan either. Such a methodology is understandable if your aim is naturalism, but NHK dramas, not to mention Japanese TV dramas in general, are contrived down to the smallest detail.
Contrivance is especially important here because the story arc of “Massan” appears to be bending toward the kind of great-man stories that were the stuff of NHK’s popular “Project X” docudrama series, which chronicled Japan’s postwar economic rise through its world-changing technological innovations and business leaders. Every plot point shows how Massan struggles against conventional thinking to make a uniquely Japanese product, even if that product is inspired by something uniquely foreign — Scotch whisky. And with all such stories, there has to be a patient woman behind the great man.
What makes this one different is that Rita /Ellie is not Japanese, so she has to struggle not only with the effort to “support” her husband, but with an unfamiliar culture at the same time. The message is doubly inspiring. If the Japanese ethos is worth preserving, what better proof than the story of an outsider who suffers while trying to assimilate?
Ellie’s determination to “become Japanese” is depicted with scenes showing her practicing her chopsticks technique and attempting to make a perfect bowl of rice, tasks that are apparently more difficult than speaking the language. Ellie’s Japanese is almost fluent as soon as she arrives in Japan and she seems to understand everything that’s said to her, give or take a local term or two. Obviously, the producers are making their jobs easier, just as Hollywood does whenever it sets a movie in a non-English speaking place, but in this case convenience undermines the dramatic power of Ellie’s transformation.
Even the expected xenophobic reaction to her presence — Massan’s mother, played by Pinko Izumi, rejects her out of hand, and one potential landlord won’t rent to the couple once he learns the wife is foreign — doesn’t seem to faze her very much. This lack of sustained conflict makes for colorless dramaturgy. Whenever Ellie is confronted with a cultural situation she doesn’t understand, as when Massan and his father engage in some sumo wrestling for old time’s sake, Fox is made to assume the same expression of head-tilted, open-mouthed puzzlement. It inadvertently becomes a running joke.
As does all the hugging, a habit the weekly magazine Bunshun finds gross. Ellie’s preferred show of affection is meant to demonstrate her artless sincerity in a country where physical contact is avoided in public, even among family members, but it feels anachronistic, almost American. At least the producers draw the line at kissing, something Japanese actors have never been very good at.