“Unnan Kyokugen Neta Battle” on TBS, “NHK Special” on stem-cell research and more

On TV, Japanese comedians are called upon to be funny in both prepared standup routines and in ad-lib conversational settings, but few seem to be able to combine these two skills into improvisational routines.

This week, the comedy team of Utchan-Nanchan will host the “Unnan Kyokugen Neta Battle (Utchan-Nanchan’s Ultimate Improv Battle)” (TBS, Tuesday, 9 p.m.), a two-hour special featuring 15 of Japan’s most popular comedy acts competing with improvisational routines. Each act is given a subject or situation and must come up with a routine instantly. Any group that makes the audience laugh five skits in a row wins a prize of one million yen.

One of the most popular “shojo manga” (girls’ comic) of all time is Suzue Miuchi’s “The Glass Mask,” which, since it was launched in 1976, has sold more than 40 million complete sets in book form. It was first animated in 1984, and in 1988 the basic story was adapted for the stage and directed by kabuki superstar Bando Tamasaburo with Shinobu Otake in the lead. In the late ’90s, it was made into a live action TV serial starring Yumi Adachi.

This week, TV Tokyo starts a new animated series based on the comic (Tuesday, 1:30 a.m.) that goes back to the beginning of the story, which is about Maya Kitajima, a plain young girl who has an extraordinary gift for acting. In the course of the story, this talent is discovered by a veteran stage actress, who develops her into a great thespian.

The first episode shows how the teenage Maya becomes interested in the theater. She and her single mother are very poor and support themselves by working at a Chinese restaurant. Maya does extra deliveries so that she can buy tickets for a performance of “Camille.”

Stem-cell research is one of the most controversial medical issues right now, since stem cells are usually harvested from aborted fetuses. This week’s “NHK Special” (NHK-G, Saturday., 9:15 p.m.) will look at current advances in stem-cell research and how researchers are securing materials.

As an example of the former, NHK visits a woman in the state of Kentucky who suffered from blindness brought about by a genetic condition. However, she regained her sight through experimental procedures using stem cells. In interviews, researchers in various parts of the world admit that the demand for aborted fetuses is very high, but that laws limit such usage. It is, in fact, a growth business, and some biotech companies are working on cures for Parkinson’s disease using stem cells.

China does not have such limitations, and patients from all over the world with spinal-cord problems are traveling to China to undergo operations using stem cells that are differentiated into nerve tissue.