When the announcement came through that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics would have to be postponed due to a global coronavirus pandemic, broadcasters had to scrap or delay a lot of their content. NHK, however, has decided to go ahead with one idea that will hopefully remind viewers that tough times go hand-in-hand with athletic greatness.

During this year’s Golden Week holiday period, the national broadcaster will, for the first time ever, broadcast an English version of its trademark taiga drama. “Idaten” looks at the history of Japanese sport from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics up to Tokyo’s landmark Olympics in 1964, over six episodes that will feature English subtitles and narration by American-born Japanese entertainer Patrick Harlan.

The taiga drama itself is an institution, having come into existence a year before the original Tokyo Olympics. Typical taiga dramas play out over the course of a year, with one episode airing every Sunday evening on NHK. Tsuyoshi Inoue, the director of this international version of “Idaten,” says that condensing it provides a tighter focus on the main characters. The original, which ran over the course of last year, consisted of 47 episodes.

“Subplots were slashed and excess parts were trimmed and pared down,” Inoue says. “We chose the best and most important components that make up this story and, as a result, this ‘Idaten’ carries a more universal message. It’s tailor-made to entertain a much wider audience.”

Producer Kei Kurube agrees with Inoue and believes this “highlights version” to be fun and very watchable.

“Even some in the Japanese audience may find it more lucid and comprehensive than the original,” Kurube says. “It’s also an excellent starting point for people who missed ‘Idaten’ when it was airing a year ago.”

Each English-language episode of “Idaten” is 47 minutes long, and two episodes will air back-to-back on May 2, 3 and 4. Inoue believes this is a watershed moment for the taiga drama.

“The taiga have dealt mainly with Japan’s pre-modern history, and this is the first time the drama series has depicted mid-20th century Japan,” he says. “While it’s a slice of Japanese history that many people overseas might not be familiar with, we think it will have enormous appeal.”

Idaten is a Buddhist deity known for being fleet of foot, and the term is also used as a nickname for people who love to run. One such runner was Shiso Kanakuri (1891-1983), who had the distinction of being one of only two Japanese participants at the Stockholm Olympics. The first half of NHK’s “Idaten” focuses on Kanakuri, who is played by kabuki actor Nakamura Kankurou VI.

Jump for joy: 'Idaten' also focuses on the efforts made to secure the 1964 Olympics for Tokyo and instill the idea of sports in Japanese society. | ©️ NHK
Jump for joy: ‘Idaten’ also focuses on the efforts made to secure the 1964 Olympics for Tokyo and instill the idea of sports in Japanese society. | ©️ NHK

The storytelling baton is then passed to swimming coach Masaji Tabata (1898-1984), who is the focus of the drama’s second half. Tabata, played by Sadao Abe, fought and struggled to bring the Olympics to Tokyo in 1964.

“Both Kanakuri and Tabata were crucial players in modern Japanese history and yet very few people know of their existence,” Inoue says. “Before Kanakuri came along, few people had any concept that moving your body could be enjoyable, or that you could actually make a living from running marathons. And until Tabata campaigned for the Olympics to be held in Tokyo, no one had an inkling that sports could be used as a device to promote international peace and friendship.

Inoue characterizes Kanakuri as “an innocent, through and through.” He outlines his arrival in Tokyo as a boy fresh off the train from rural Kumamoto who had dreams of becoming a teacher.

“Somehow, he finds himself training to run the marathon in the Stockholm Olympics,” Inoue says. “Initially, this is not what he wants at all, but he’s propelled by his innocence and desire to make his family proud.”

After Stockholm, Kanakuri is bitten by the Olympic bug and sacrifices everything in his life for another shot at the Games and a possible medal. However, World War II, marriage and his age deter him from realizing his dream.

Inoue describes Tabata as “a man with huge plans.” In “Idaten” he can’t keep still and refuses to keep quiet in his quest to stage the games, which would go on to be the first Olympics held in Asia. For all his love of sports, Tabata isn’t that athletic. However, Inoue says that “he was convinced that sports and the Olympics would change post-war Japan for the better.”

The third pivotal character in “Idaten” is judo superstar Kano Jigoro (1860-1938), played by a determinedly exuberant Koji Yakusho. Kano was arguably Japan’s first international athlete and sports celebrity, and was tireless in his effort to nurture Japanese athletes and have them compete in overseas sports events. In “Idaten,” he is portrayed as an ambitious but utterly selfless campaigner. Inoue says that before Kano came along, the Japanese didn’t even have a word for sports, as the closest equivalent was taiiku (physical education).

“In one definitive scene, Kano says, ‘Why don’t we all just enjoy sports for its own sake?'” Inoue says. “I think that mindset contributed to the Japanese eventually having a deep love of sports.”

“Idaten” attempts to make the connection between Japan’s courtship with athletics and its ongoing modernization.

“We were an island nation with little ties to the outside world,” Kurube explains. “Sports, and the Olympics, enabled someone like Kanakuri to travel outside of Japan, mingle with people he had never met before, and broaden his perspective in a way that he had never thought possible. And, when he returned, he brought that experience back with him.”

The longer, domestic version of “Idaten” also takes its viewers through Japan’s wartime past, which is a controversial period that is rarely touched on in NHK’s taiga dramas. By focusing on Kanakuri and Tabata, the abridged version tries to present a story that emphasizes the challenge and success of bringing the Olympics to Japan, something that the director sees as possibly giving viewers something of a spiritual boost amid the current global pandemic.

“It’s fun, entertaining, often hilarious and carries a special message of hope, especially in the times we are in now,” Inoue says. “‘Idaten’ shows us what we were able to achieve back in 1964. We have that capability within us.”

The series’ narrator, Harlan, agrees that the story is sure to bring some relief to an audience that is pretty distressed from stay-at-home orders and health fears.

“The road to the first Tokyo Olympics was no sprint, but a marathon, and the effort to achieve it could not be better symbolized than by the legendary marathon runner, the Idaten,” he says. “This is a great story for all of us struggling to keep our feet on the road and our eyes on the prize during these difficult times.”

“Idaten” will be shown on NHK World on May 2, 3 and 4. For more information, and for local broadcast times, visit www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/tv/.

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