The grand illusions

Since celebrity is more a matter of exploiting opportunities than exploiting talent, this week’s “Friday Showtime” (NHK-G, 8 p.m.) can be seen as an object lesson in cross-disciplinary synergy. Billed as an “astonishing entertainment” program featuring “music, comedy and illusion,” the show brings together on one stage three stars whose respective successes are interrelated.

The central link is Kenichi Mikawa, the effeminate enka singer who started out 30 years ago as a boy idol with an exaggerated singing style that made him a campy hit. Nevertheless, by the late 1980s he was thoroughly washed up. Enter another link, the musical impressionist Korokke, who made his name in the early 1990s by impersonating a whole range of singers from the ’60s and ’70s. His main two targets, however, were enka superstar Masao Sen and Mikawa, because both were so easy to lampoon. Consequently, as Korokke’s star rose, Mikawa hitched his career to it with Korokke’s permission (they often appear together in concert). Mikawa is now one of the biggest stars in Japan, and every washed-up singer has Korokke’s number on his speed-dialer.

The third link is Princess Tenko, a magician who first gained fame staging grand illusions for children in English in the United States, and who acquired a kind of infamy a while back when she was invited to perform in North Korea by no less than Kim Jong Il himself. In Japan, however, she made her biggest splash providing illusions for Mikawa’s annual extravaganzas in NHK’s New Year’s eve song contest.

Japan and the United States remain the only two G7 countries that still have capital punishment, owing mainly to the fact that the majority of citizens in both countries say they want it. Because of Japan’s institutionalized secrecy with regard to its penal system, anti-death penalty groups have a tough time making themselves heard, but in America, at least, similar groups have been making headway by fighting the system on its own grounds.

On April 12 at 10 p.m., NHK’s BS-1 channel will present a documentary about a group of journalism students at Chicago’s Northwestern University who conducted an in-depth survey of criminal cases that had resulted in death sentences. The students’ work eventually convinced the governor of Illinois to commute the sentences of 164 inmates on death row to life.

The work was essentially an assignment from professor David Protess, who charged his students with reinvestigating both the police procedures that led to the capital cases, as well as the trials themselves. In many of the cases, the students found that the procedures were sloppy and that the media simply accepted whatever the police gave them. The students went as far as revisiting crime sites and talking to witnesses.

Four years ago, they began investigating a 1982 crime in which a couple was murdered. They found that the police had no material evidence, and upon closer investigation were able to prove convincingly that a different man than the one convicted was the real killer. They were even able to extract a confession from this man.

The Illinois governor, who had been elected on a pro-death penalty platform, was so impressed with the students’ findings that he suspended the death penalty outright last January, a move that has had huge repercussions across the entire United States.

This week, Nippon TV’s popular travel-variety show, “Ichioku-nin no Daishitsumon (The Big Questions of 100 Million People)” (Wednesday, 7 p.m.), is being expanded to two hours for a seasonal special that takes host Joji Tokoro and his crew out of Japan for one of their occasional international romps.

On the regular “Darts Journey” segment, Tokoro throws a dart at a map of Japan and a film crew then visits the town or village that the dart landed on to interview residents. This week, Tokoro throws his dart at a world map, and it lands on Papua New Guinea.

In the “Girls School” segment, a crew visits a female-only high school in Sweden to look for extraordinary students. In the “Japanese Language School” segment, they travel to an as yet undisclosed Japanese language school in a foreign country and quiz the students on their nihongo skills.