Staging stellar shows at bargain prices

As the commercial networks wind up their holiday offerings of low-budget blooper specials and celebrity-heavy quiz shows, regular programming slowly returns. However, things don’t really get back to “normal” until next week.

NHK, which — “Kohaku Utagassen” notwithstanding — can be counted on for more compelling yearend fare, provides an intimate look into a year in the professional and private life of Japan’s most famous artistic export, conductor Seiji Ozawa, on its “NHK Special.” (Jan. 5, NHK-G, 9:15 p.m.) The past year was a particularly auspicious one for the maestro. It started out with his triumphant New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Symphony, a show that not only wowed the usually skeptical European critics, but also produced an album that became one of the biggest selling classical CDs of 2002, both in Japan and worldwide.

In the spring, Ozawa closed out his long career with the Boston Symphony prior to his debut as the musical director of the Vienna Opera in September. For his premiere work, Ozawa chose the little-known 1920s opera, “Jonny Spielt Auf,” a jazz-tinged opus by Ernst Krenek, which the maestro tells NHK he selected because of its obscurity. The program will show Ozawa leading rehearsals up to the opera’s opening in December.

NHK will also follow Ozawa around Japan, where he found time to conduct an opera with the New Japan Philharmonic in early summer and carry out his usual concert duties with the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Matsumoto in late summer. In between, he toured northern Japan in a series of concerts that were not publicized beforehand. Outside of music, Ozawa is shown partaking in his favorite pastime, skiing.

One of the easiest types of variety shows to produce is the “ranking” special, in which items belonging to a certain category are ranked according to quality. The value of ranking shows is debatable, even if their appeal is undeniable, but this week TBS aims to bring some utilitarian purpose to the genre.

On the three-hour live broadcast, “Price Hunter” (Tuesday, 6:55 p.m.), the most inexpensive goods and services available in Japan are sought out and ranked according to quality. Obviously, finding the cheapest of the cheap is a dodgy undertaking given that the whole country is eligible for scrutiny, and that’s where the live aspect comes in. Viewers who know of a comparable good or service that is cheaper than the one being described by the reporters are encouraged to inform the show’s hosts by phone, fax or e-mail and another reporter will be dispatched to confirm the claim.

The categories cover all possible commercial interests, from food to clothing to real estate. In addition to listing inexpensive merchandise, celebrities and average people in the studio will analyze the products in question and try to figure out how cheap things can also be good. Among the items that are analyzed are curry-rice dishes, Japanese inns with outdoor spring baths, gas stations, land prices for vacation homes, condominiums in Tokyo and even luxury cars.

E ffeminate enka star Kenichi Mikawa embodies a blend of outrageous style and over-the-top showmanship. This Friday, on Beat Takeshi’s art-centered variety show, “Dare demo Picasso (Anybody Can Be Picasso)” (TV Tokyo, 9 p.m.), Mikawa will be joined by two other musicians who supposedly evoke a similar level of “Mikawa-ness,” even if their chosen vocations demonstrate more dedication.

Since Mikawa’s artistry was long ago overshadowed by his prickly personality, the main reason to watch the show is Tomotaka Okamoto, one of only three working sopranistas in the world. A sopranista is a male soprano. Unlike counter-tenors or falsetto vocalists, sopranistas sing within the standard female soprano range without altering their normal voices. Usually, men who sing with high voices are small or slight, but Okamato stands 174 cm high and weighs 105 kg. Not only that, but on stage he favors outrageous costumes that actually exaggerate his heft, thus producing an image that is doubly striking. (He says that he got this idea from soprano Jesseye Norman, a large woman who also likes to wear costumes that accentuate her size.) On the show, he will sing an aria from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”

The third guest is shakuhachi player Dosan Fujiwara, who by the time he was a teenager was performing with orchestras and was even invited by the Imperial Household Agency to play for the Emperor.