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NHK may need to rethink its ‘taiga’ formula

by

Special To The Japan Times

An article that appeared in December in the Yomiuri Shimbun weighed the prospects for the 2016 edition of NHK’s year-long historical taiga drama series, which premiered Jan. 10. “Sanada Maru” is the title of the 55th marathon show, and the name of a fortification added on to Osaka Castle to protect it from a planned siege in 1615, 12 years after the Tokugawa shogunate started unifying Japan under its rule. The Yomiuri says this particular period in time is “obviously NHK’s favorite,” since so many taiga dramas are set around the Warring States Period (in the 15th and 16th centuries). Big events and players from the period have been dramatized multiple times over the years in these series.

The focus of the article is whether or not NHK can reverse its fortunes for the program, which suffered its worst ratings ever last year with “Hana Moyu,” starring Mao Inoue as Sugi Fumi, a woman who was positioned by birth to witness firsthand the violent changes that took place as Japan transitioned from the Edo to the Meiji eras in the mid-19th century. The series’ audience share had dropped to below two digits by mid-April and never recovered. Though critics think the status of media is to blame — young people are not much interested in watching TV any more — NHK’s daily, 15-minute morning serial is still popular, so it must have something to do with the content. Ever since 2010, when that year’s taiga drama starred rock god Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryoma Sakamoto, ratings have loitered well below 20 percent.

Kasuga Taichi, an expert on historical dramas, told the Yomiuri that the problem was presentation. He said that NHK “insults viewers’ intelligence” by purposely dumbing down the scripts so that they are “easy to understand,” disappointing “habitual viewers” in the process. On the other hand, Internet commentators complain that there are too many characters and subplots. Moreover, history is forced to accommodate dramatic expedience: Facts are streamlined, characters made to appeal to post-millennial sensibilities, heroes injected into familar historical incidents they didn’t have much to do with.

These remarks, however, are limited to enthusiasts, the kind of people who already know something about history, which may not apply to the larger audience NHK wants to attract. When the series does try to be rigorous with accepted truths, as it did with 2011’s “Go,” about the niece of warlord Oda Nobunaga, viewers complained it was “dark” and “boring.”

The Yomiuri thinks the main culprit is casting. TV prioritizes talent that is very well known, so every other consideration ends up being secondary. The joke about taiga dramas is that stars who play the main protagonists alternate between female idols and men who belong to the most powerful talent agency in Japan, Johnny and Associates. Everyone is chosen for their name recognition, regardless of acting chops. Given that the productions are huge and rushed, the directing and writing are just as weak and come off as amateurish when set against the production design, which is usually first-rate.

And by “first-rate” I mean “the best that money can buy.” NHK has gone all-out this year to ensure that “Sanada Maru” is a hit. To play hero Nobushige “Yukimura” Sanada, they hired Masato Sakai, probably the most sought-after legitimate actor in Japan right now thanks to his lead role in the hit TBS drama series “Hanzawa Naoki” in 2013, and who was considered the main reason for the success of the last taiga drama to earn consistently high ratings, 2008’s “Atsuhime,” in which he played the possibly mad shogun Tokugawa Iesada. The producers also wrangled Koki Mitani, the biggest playwright and screenwriter working in Japan right now, to pen the script, ignoring the fact that the last time Mitani handled the writing chores for a taiga drama (2004’s “Shinsengumi!”), the show was a ratings dud.

NHK has also commandeered other programs on its channels to shill for “Sanada Maru.” Travel shows like “Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kanpai” (“Tsurube’s Salute to Families“) and “Buratamori” have been directed to cover locations associated with the epic and feature actors from the series as guests. History documentary and discussion programs provide background for the drama. Even news shows plug it whenever possible.

According to the online edition of Cyzo magazine, NHK made Sakai available to all major media last fall to promote the show, but he proved to be uncooperative in interviews. Entertainment reporters could not care less about Sakai’s portrayal of Sanada. They wanted to know about his married life and new child, but he never talks about such things. Consequently, some of these media didn’t even run articles or TV spots. In addition, one show biz pundit told the magazine that Sakai’s acting style is so rarefied that often other actors don’t know how to work with him, and thus the ensemble “can’t develop a rhythm.”

So far, all these efforts seem to have paid off. Episode 1 earned a 19 percent share and episode 2 broke 20 percent, but it should be noted that “Shinsengumi!” started out with an impressive 26 percent and eventually tanked, ending up with a disappointing average rating of 17.4.

What no one discusses is why NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, whose generous funding is provided by legally mandated subscriptions from all households, is obsessed with ratings. NHK would probably answer that it believes it has to satisfy the public, but if that’s true it’s going about it in a strangely results-oriented way. Its schemes to make “Sanada Maru” popular are the same ones used by commercial stations, whose end game is attracting and pleasing sponsors.

NHK has the luxury of not having to please anyone, at least in theory. The way it goes about giving people what they supposedly want is like putting the cart before the horse. Wouldn’t it be more practical, not to mention more responsible, to just make the best series they can? Maybe what people really want is quality.

  • GBR48

    Most likely the same reason the BBC has dumbed down and shovels stinkers so much more than it used to: the low quality of the individuals making the important decisions.

    It’s no different to Hollywood’s dismal production line, where most movies are designed to work well for those with limited attention spans and minuscule IQs. Creative insecurity and focus groups are killing filmed drama.

    It’s not unusual to pull famous faces into TV (or stage) dramas to boost ratings, but they do have to be able to act. If you are forced to kiss the well-connected hindquarters of the talent agencies, it always helps to add this to the requirements and underline it in red ink. It won’t make much of a difference, but at least you tried.

    If they do send you someone useless, fight back by leaking a scandal. You might get a better replacement. It sounds mean, and is, but when you work in a damaged industry, you need a few tricks in your locker, or you’ll drowned in a sea of other people’s inadequacies.

    15 minutes seems a bit short to actually develop any sort of plot line, especially if it includes the regular TV ‘fail’ of spending the first 5 minutes rehashing what happened in the previous episode, and the last 5 minutes showing you what is going to happen (or ‘spoiling the plot’ as we call it in the trade). It’s more of a historical advert than a drama. 30 minutes is surely the bare minimum you should ask someone to write for, for anything other than a children’s cartoon (and I mean cartoon, not anime).

    Almost everything in the media works on the basis of who you know. Quality is usually a happy accident. If your reservoir of talent is good, the odds rise. The BBC benefits from a large storehouse of well-trained (if not regularly employed) acting talent. If NHK’s talent pool is less geared towards drama and more towards general variety (because of the interests of the talent agencies) they will have a tougher time.

    Some historical drama is at least better than none at all.

    • Yosemite_Steve

      Booo. Sorry, rather a bad comment. This comment is unfortunately based on a failure to read the article with enough care, nor any background check on ‘taiga drama’ e.g. on wikipedia. The article *contrasts* this drama series with the 15 minute morning NHK drama. Although not stated (perhaps it should have been, but it really was quite clear enough to me that Brazor never even implied this show is 15 minutes, if you read with enough care), this show is actually a weekly 45 minute show. So the most specific complaint in this comment is based on your false reading that the taiga drama is 15 minutes, an entirely false premise.

      • GBR48

        Thank you. I have edited the original comment and withdrawn the time-related paragraph. It did seem weird that any drama episode would be 15m long.

  • JimmyJM

    I’ve seen the first two episodes and am beginning to enjoy them. My Japanese isn’t fluent enough to keep track of all the subplots and diversions though. Even my (Japanese) wife gets confused. But the acting seems to be done well. The historical diversions mentioned in the article are a problem though. I keep a history book at hand while watching. Unfortunately, the Sanada clan only gets two brief mentions in my book so trying to understand what’s going on isn’t easy. I only watched two or three episodes of last year’s Taiga drama and found it boring and in many cases, ridiculous. Here’s hoping for a better production this year.

  • AlfredvonTirpitz

    “Atsuhime” and “Ryomaden” were absolutely fabulous and top-notch. But I haven’t seen anything to keep my attention since. (And I am a history buff.)

  • olihist808

    Perhaps it depends on who you’re trying to attract to your show. In general, I’ve found the Taiga dramas to be quite interesting, although at times they can get a bit melodramatic (especially near the end). I’m not a big fan of “dumbing down history” either, but there’s only so much you can do within the time frames of a film or television show. Historical dramas are not meant to be documentaries, but they can inspire people to watch documentaries or read more about the subjects portrayed in their dramas. As long as the historical drama does not take too much artistic license with their subject(s), then I’m ok with a little bit of condensing or stretching of historical facts in order to make a good story.

    And yes, I have to agree with GBR48 – “Some historical drama is at least better than none at all.”

  • olihist808

    Perhaps it depends on who you’re trying to attract to your show. In general, I’ve found the Taiga dramas to be quite interesting, although at times they can get a bit melodramatic (especially near the end). I’m not a big fan of “dumbing down history” either, but there’s only so much you can do within the time frames of a film or television show. Historical dramas are not meant to be documentaries, but they can inspire people to watch documentaries or read more about the subjects portrayed in their dramas. As long as the historical drama does not take too much artistic license with their subject(s), then I’m ok with a little bit of condensing or stretching of historical facts in order to make a good story.

    And yes, I have to agree with GBR48 – “Some historical drama is at least better than none at all.”