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.