Media Personalities of the Year: Koichi Tanaka and Tama-chan

Japan’s salaryman Nobel prizewinner received more media coverage than any other single Japanese person this year. When asked by a group of curious Swedish reporters why, the female TV Asahi announcer assigned to stalk the scientist while he was in Stockholm earlier this month replied, “because he is not an extraordinary man.”

The dissonance at work here — ordinary guy does something extraordinary — is a favorite media theme. It informs the same kind of fascination we have for the nice neighbor who turns out to be a serial killer.

Tanaka’s value as an object of attention was reportedly his power to “heal” the spirit of the Japanese citizenry, which has supposedly been battered the past year by scandals and malfeasance from on high.

The lost seal, Tama-chan, who popped up unexpectedly in this or that Kanto area river, was also said to have a “healing” effect on those who saw him. Tama-chan is even more “unextraordinary” than Tanaka, since one can’t pin any kind of achievement on an animal that lives on fish in filthy canals (unless you count surviving in such an environment).

The real media story about both these figures is that the reporters and film crews who covered them were themselves the object of media scrutiny simply because there were so many of them. The media covering the media is the next logical step on the road to no media at all (we will all eventually cover ourselves).

But the question has to be asked: How come you never see Tanaka-san and Tama-chan photographed together?

Best TV series: “Daikaizo! Gekiteki Before/After” (TV Asahi, Sunday, 7:58 p.m.)

The “reform boom” was already in full swing when this program about cramped, dilapidated dwellings being transformed into small palaces of style premiered last spring, but it has since left all the programs it rips off trailing in the dust.

The reason it’s better is that it addresses one of the more negative aspects of Japanese life — the sorry housing situation — and milks it for drama.

Each week, a family living in a certifiable dump is visited by a “reform expert” who looks the place over, interviews the family and then remodels the abode from the ground up, replacing it with exquisite design married to superior functionality that takes the family’s peculiar tastes into consideration.

More importantly, the expert shapes the design to meet the family’s budget.

Everyone cries when they see the results, and thanks the expert as one would thank a holy man for deliverance.

But the point the program is actually trying to make is that these experts are not saints or magicians, but merely professionals doing their jobs. The subliminal message of “Before/After” is unavoidable: Why do you put up with substandard housing when you don’t have to?

TV talent type of the year:

Effeminate males who are presented as being closeted homosexuals.

Best TV commercial: Sankyo Corporation

Nicolas Cage, in full hick mode, wearing a cowboy hat and driving a pickup, encounters extraterrestrials in the middle of the Texas flatlands and does a square dance with them. This is a commercial for a manufacturer of pachinko machines, but the only visual reference to the product is the aliens’ pinball heads.

In another ad, Cage, dressed in evening wear, sits at a piano and improvises cocktail music while droning on about something that may or may not have anything to do with the product. In both spots, Cage, whose recent choice of movie roles and short-lived marriage to Lisa Marie Presley prove what everyone suspects — that he’s not all there, appears to be winging it. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s hilarious nonetheless.

Quote of the year: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi

Upon hearing that Koichi Tanaka had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Koizumi remarked: “See, Japan isn’t an altogether worthless country.”

Most Valuable Player: Momo

The pot-bellied pink teddy bear was originally created by Sony as the mascot for its So-Net e-mail service. Momo-chan would essentially “deliver” your mail. The character is so popular in her own right that she has become a franchise unto herself. She’s been contracted out to shill for other products, including the curiously named “stamina drink” Post Pet (which sounds like a porn site for mailmen), and was one of the most ubiquitous faces on TV commercials this year.

She ran for office last spring and can currently be seen parodying ’70s black music shows in a TV commercial. She’s certainly the inspiration for all the other stuffed-animal characters that dominated advertising in 2002.

Ten years ago, banks, beermakers and beauty clinics used female idols, and about five years ago they were mostly represented by popular cartoon characters. Now it’s guys dressed up in anonymous-looking, ursine-affiliated animal suits: polar bears, yellow pandas, another pinkish teddy bear who looks like Momo but isn’t. Real animals were also all over the CM map, but people in animal suits are so much easier to control. Cheaper, too.

The In Crowd The Out Crowd:
Chihuahuas dachshunds
Tokio SMAP
K-1 pro wrestling
Avril Lavigne Utada Hikaru
violent monkeys rude crows
disco Eurobeat
Mohsen Makhmalbaf George Lucas
medical malpractice teenage alienation
Kabira Brothers Kano Sisters

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