/ |

The same old story on rural depopulation

by

Special To The Japan Times

A story that is constantly upbeat quickly becomes tiring. Conflict and resolution are necessary to maintain interest, and while happy endings are still more popular than depressing ones, characters should go through some sort of emotional turmoil before arriving at them.

After producer Masanao Takahashi came up with the idea for the TBS drama series “Napoleon no Mura” (“Napoleon’s Village”; Sun., 9 p.m.), he developed it in order to “encourage people who live in places that they think have nothing to offer,” he told Sports Nippon in a recent interview. Takahashi is talking about towns and villages with shrinking populations. He mentions that the central government has shown its determination to reverse this trend by creating a ministry for reviving regions, and “Napoleon” represents his “grand dream” to assist in this endeavor.

TV shows and movies designed to have a social impact are common, but in order to be effective they usually have to convey a sense of possibility. Takahashi obviously wants these localities to survive and even thrive, and in order to promote such a demographic movement, he has to focus on the positive aspects of rural life, and pretty much all the time.

The show’s hero appears to be an avatar for Takahashi himself. Eiji Asai (Toshiaki Karasawa) is a tireless, utterly dedicated employee of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government who is transferred to the local city office of Hoshikawa, a fictional municipality in the western rural Tama part of the prefecture. Asai is the kind of worker who thinks you can accomplish anything as long as you have the right attitude. His model is Napoleon — not the pint-sized military dictator but the leader who got things done.

Asai’s assignment is to revive the fortunes of the village of Kagura, which has lost so much of its population over the years that it’s about to disappear, a prospect the mayor of Hoshikawa (Ikki Sawamura) is looking forward to because an influential national lawmaker is eyeing the village as a site for a hazardous waste dump, and if it’s built there the city will receive government subsidies. It’s a compelling conflict: As Asai earnestly strives to make Kagura viable again, the mayor attempts to undermine his efforts so that they are sure to fail.

This dynamic is not only dramatically interesting, it also has social significance because it mirrors a lot of real-life situations now affecting local governments throughout Japan. Municipalities make devil’s bargains with public and private concerns all the time in order to guarantee their survival, but Takahashi’s aim is to not only give people in those situations hope, but also to make people outside those circumstances appreciate what they’re going through, and to do that he feels he has to maintain an optimistic tone since the purpose is promotion, not edification.

Takahashi got the idea from a nonfiction book titled “Roma-hoo ni Kome o Tabesaseta Otoko” (“The Man Who Served Rice to the Pope”), which is referred to in the series, but which he has taken plenty of liberties with. The book was written by Josen Takano, a local bureaucrat who helped revive a village in Ichikawa Prefecture, but that tale was too specific for the producer’s aims. What Takahashi does is pick and choose different ideas from similar revival projects all over Japan, turning Kagura into a kind of aggregate representation of a depopulated rural area. And while some of the location shooting was done in western Tokyo, much was done in other places as well, depending on what the script calls for.

And the script calls for a lot. In the second episode, Asai gets the idea of bringing together the local rice farmer, who grows a special strain named after the village, and a local potter who makes earthenware kama (rice cookers) to create the best tasting okayu (rice porridge) by taking advantage of Kagura’s delicious spring water. The following week, Asai extends this line of thinking by creating an al fresco restaurant next to a gorgeous waterfall, and enlists the help of the village’s only chef, whose little restaurant has fallen into disrepair following the death of his wife. The new facility will help publicize not only the local rice variety but also sansai (wild vegetables) collected by elderly women of the village (whom Asai certifies as “sansai sommeliers”). The mayor’s assistant derails the scheme by using her feminine wiles to hijack the rice for other uses. But the chef saves the day with handmade pasta instead. Media coverage is ecstatic and extensive.

The pattern is always the same: Asai comes up with a brilliant plan that the mayor tries to ruin, but to no avail, so every episode ends on a hopeful note. But since Asai seems to start every week from scratch, there’s an air of repeated anticlimax to the ongoing enterprise. It’s likely that Takahashi will make Asai’s job harder during the remainder of the series, but we all know where it’s going to end up and it’s difficult to imagine viewers sticking with it until then.

“Napoleon” isn’t the first TV series to tackle the issue of rural depopulation. Earlier this year NHK aired a five-part drama called “Genkai Shuraku Kabushiki-gaisha” (“Limited Settlement Incorporated”) about a farmer who tries to revive his vanishing community. It was a darker story — someone died in the first episode — and thus more conventionally dramatic. At the same time, it wasn’t designed to make people want to move to the sticks, and it’s clear that Takahashi thinks that there are viewers who will be sufficiently inspired by “Napoleon” to want to relocate to a place like Kagura.

There’s only one problem: Kagura is completely made up. It’s not so much that its natural scenery is basically a construct — a collection of perfect landscape snapshots from different places in Japan — but rather that the life these residents lead feels contrived for the purpose of making viewers long for that kind of life. It’s a fantasy, and it looks like one.

  • J.P. Bunny

    The script outline seems to been taken straight from The Little Rascals films.
    “We need to keep the bank from taking away the farm.
    Why don’t we put on a show in the barn?
    Right. Alfafa can sing and Darla can sew scenery.
    We’re saved!”

    I’m familiar with several of the small towns that probably stand in for Kagura, and, short of some miracle, there is no way to stop them from disappearing. Children grow up and then move away, causing the population to drop, schools and business close. Unless you are rich enough to just live in the country without having to work, there is no reason for anyone to move to those places.

    The local specialty shops are really not enough to revitalize an area, as they only get business on the week-ends and holidays. There was a “wedding palace” overlooking the river gorge that received the same type of extensive coverage as in the drama. The seldom open tea house that now operates in the now defunct palace also received a lot of TV coverage. Unfortunately, people are not going to travel several hours just to patronize a shop or two.

    Many small towns are naturally dying out, and no amount of rah rah feel good fantasy drams can change that. It’s called real life for a reason.

  • A.J. Sutter

    I haven’t yet seen the show, though based on the description and past experience with Japanese TV I’m inclined to accept the author’s conclusion that it is a fantasy. But while that might make for a weak drama, being a fantasy isn’t necessarily a strike against it in practical terms: fantasies and utopias are necessary for political vision. While it might be ridiculous for all the plots to be relevant to one town or village, each plot could potentially ring a bell with some viewer somewhere, and inspire them to action. E.g., the okayu one sounds very real to me.

    I write now from Morioka, Iwate-ken, where I live a couple of months a year (the rest in Tokyo). My wife was born here, but she and her siblings mostly grew up in other parts of Japan, my father-in-law lives in Morioka now but still speaks with his native Kagoshima dialect, and my mother-in-law was born and raised here, and has by now spent most of her life here. Guess who’s the most negative about how boring Iwate is? My mother-in-law, of course. Everyone else in the family thinks it’s great and interesting, and we’re constantly finding new stuff here — cultural, natural, culinary, etc. After years of exposure to this, my mother-in-law is finally changing her tune a bit. Sometimes the eyes and imagination of outsiders can help locals appreciate more what they have all around them. The show isn’t fantasy in that regard.

  • Tania

    Well all I have to say, is if they would allow me to come over and live I would happily live in the rural areas and have a farm of veggies ect. And I also have a BA degree. I would give anything to move to Japan.