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Television has forgotten its golden years

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Japanese commercial television companies have a problem. The bulk of their programming has always been aimed at relatively young people, because that’s what advertisers want. But young people no longer watch TV, or, at least, not in the numbers they used to. Having grown up in a world ruled by the internet, they may crave the kind of content television offers but have no desire to sit down in front of a TV set at a prescribed time. The people who do watch TV that way are those who have always watched TV. It’s just that they’ve matured while TV programming hasn’t.

So Kuramoto, a well-known TV scriptwriter whose heyday was during that time when television was the vanguard medium, understands this problem and thinks it’s unforgivable that TV doesn’t produce entertainment that appeals to older viewers, who, as a matter of fact, have the disposable income advertisers drool over. As he told Asahi Shimbun in an April 5 interview, boomers now find current drama series “boring,” even though they still enjoy TV. That’s why he’s writing a daily drama series that’s for and about seniors.

Yasuragi no Sato” (“A Comfortable Home”), which started April 3, is broadcast Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. The 82-year-old Kuramoto is churning out 130 20-minute episodes, enough to last until September, and TV Asahi is airing them as a kind of experiment.

The time slot is significant. Afternoon programs are traditionally designed for homemakers, but there may be fewer of those these days than there used to be. Fuji TV and TBS were once famous for their afternoon soap operas, but in recent years they’ve been replaced by information and tabloid news shows. Kuramoto told Asahi that he is making a drama expressly for daytime, when retired people are free. TV Asahi obliged by scheduling it right after its long-running program, “Tetsuko no Heya” (“Tetsuko’s Room“), a talk show hosted by media maven Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who at 83 is already a magnet for the silver set. And each day Asahi rebroadcasts the previous day’s episode on its BS satellite channel at 7:40 a.m., for early risers.

In the Asahi interview, Kuramoto complains of the treatment that his generation of professionals has received at the hands of TV. His bitter reaction was provoked by the 2009 death of actor Reiko Ohara, who was one of the most popular TV and movie stars of the 1970s through to the ’90s. Ohara had all but disappeared by the late ’90s and became a recluse. She died alone, her body undiscovered for several days. To Kuramoto, the indignity of her passing symbolizes what he feels is the heartlessness of the industry.

“Yasuragi no Sato” takes place in a retirement community for showbiz professionals. The average age of the dozen actors who portray the residents is 78. The protagonist, a scriptwriter like Kuramoto, played by 75-year-old Koji Ishizaka, loses his will to write after his wife dies. A mysterious organization invites him to move into its facility — a luxurious Izu Peninsula establishment that overlooks the sea and caters to former TV people free of charge. More to the point, only freelancers are welcome. Former employees of TV networks are not, ostensibly because they already receive generous severance packages and pensions.

In the third episode, after the scriptwriter, Kikumura, moves in, he receives an elaborate episode-length orientation, during which he learns that the community, called Yasuragi no Sato, was built by the former president of a powerful talent agency who resented the way the industry treated his charges. This is Kuramoto’s backhanded swipe at the media, which he told Asahi “made Reiko Ohara disposable.” His sympathy extends to everyone who has ever been exploited by TV, including, presumably, himself. At one point, Kikumura asks the concierge if any of the residents still work. She tells him that in the past TV producers would contact residents with offers but the actors were often disappointed with the jobs, so now all such requests are screened by Yasuragi’s management, which essentially makes the place a talent agency for old folks.

If that were the main premise of the series, it might be fun, but Kuramoto’s purposes are different. Like the characters they play, the actors in the series were big stars in the past, and as each one makes his or her entrance — invariably in slow motion and soft focus — a montage of bromides from the actor’s heyday flashes across the screen. It’s not just that these people are basically playing themselves, but rather that, like their characters, they’ve been discarded by the corporate entities they made rich. The implied thrust of the plot is that Kikumura will come out of self-imposed retirement to write scripts for all these ignored artists who long to work again, which is what Kuramoto is doing with this script.

What makes the premise disingenuous, however, is that few of these stars have actually been discarded. As actors they may no longer get leading roles, and the roles they do get rely on old-people stereotypes, but that has more to do with the general lack of imagination in Japanese TV. While quality is certainly a function of industry prerogatives, it affects everything — not just the employment prospects of old pros. “Yasuragi no Sato,” in fact, is typical. The PR value of having all these old stars in the same place obviates the need to make a series that might appeal to anyone besides viewers looking for a nostalgia fix, though in the Asahi interview Kuramoto says he hopes young people will also tune in.

Regardless of how good or bad “Yasuragi no Sato” turns out, it is creatively circumscribed by the industry conventions Kuramoto despises but which also made him a celebrity writer with the power to do whatever he wants. An executive of rival network TBS told Asahi he is looking forward to the show, presumably because Kuramoto’s name is attached, but he betrayed no belief in the possibility that it would change his mind about anything.

“We still focus on prime time,” he said. “That’s where you attract the most viewers.”