THE DORAMA ENCYCLOPEDIA: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2003, 442 pp., 100+ photos and illustrations, $24.95, (paper).
THE COUCH POTATO’S GUIDE TO JAPAN: Inside the World of Japanese TV, by Wilhelmina Penn. Sapporo: Forest River Press, 2003, 202 pp., illustrations by Julie Morikawa, 1,800 yen, (paper).

With the relative success of TV animation abroad, what else can Japan export to the hungry masses overseas? Well, not much, but there is TV drama, quite a lot of it, decades deep and just sitting there.

To help us sort through it, Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, authors of “The Anime Encyclopedia,” have here described more than a thousand Japanese TV series, giving their cast and credits and showing their peak ratings. These are all indexed and cross-referenced, thus making it a handy guide — if you happen to be interested in the subject.

The authors certainly are. Imagine, sitting down and viewing over a thousand TV dramas — home dramas, infidelity dramas, horror dramas, true-love dramas, detective dramas. Such an ordeal must take real dedication.

Such dedication Clements and Tamamuro certainly have, though their selection, TV being the big eater that it is, leaves out more than it includes. We get “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” and “Geisha Detective,” but unlisted is Kon Ichikawa’s multipart version of “The Tale of Genji,” with Juzo Itami as the Shining Prince.

Perhaps this is because it no longer exists, having been dismembered by the network after its single showing. This book is mainly interested in what might be presently available for the overseas viewer. The blurb speaks optimistically of “dorama’s popularity exploding all over the English-speaking world.” (The conceit of using dorama, the Japanese pronunciation for “drama,” continues throughout the book and becomes tiresome indeed.)

Very little is said about the relative worth of what is being cataloged. About “Geisha Detective” we are told that “despite the crew’s deadly serious intent, the result is one of the funniest Japanese dramas ever made,” and that is about as censorious as it gets.

There is no such reticence in Wilhelmina Penn’s “Couch Potato Guide” to Japanese television. She (a nom de plume for a well-known and highly regarded columnist) comes right out with it. The first rule “of Japanese TV viewing [is] don’t ever say: ‘It can’t get any worse.’ It always does. The networks are sure to come up with something even more appalling within a fortnight.”

She should know, having been 30 years in Japan and spending some 20 of them in front of the telly, serving as the TV columnist for “The Daily Yomiuri” and writing of this “TV land of pleasant superficiality where connoisseurs of designer bags, cherry blossoms, hot springs and tasty noodles are able to tune out the real world almost completely.”

Of TV drama she writes, “these provide a window into Japanese society,” and goes on to prove it in a masterly exegesis on the role of the bento (lunch box) as a barometer of human relations. There is also the sociology of mere drama placement. Serials featuring the problems of women are shown in the morning, “designed as an early morning break for women who have just seen their families out the door.” One such, “Oshin” (1983-1984), has gone on to play in over 60 nations, and is presently, I recently read, helping palliate the various worries of Iraqi housewives.

The author is equally clear-eyed on other aspects of life in Japan. For example, “katakana is that ingenuous writing system that allows the misspelling and mispronunciation of names of all nationalities with complete confidence.”

My favorite description — a masterpiece — is her one of Japanese TV news as haiku. This poetic form is already “flash news,” with no unnecessary details required or sought. The haiku-like news spot always features a kigo (seasonal reference), is always in the present tense, is totally fixed on the moment and, like local news reporting in general, seldom provides the context of background or investigative reporting.

After two decades of brave and unremitting watching of Japanese television, the author has created a guide so stimulating and so entertaining that only later do we relish its sound sociology.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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