When the six cast members of the hit American comedy series “Friends” recently agreed to a 10th season, no one was really surprised, even though the six had implied that the present season would be their last.
After all, each actor receives $1 million per episode. Since each episode costs $9 million to produce, that means two-thirds of the budget goes to the cast. The economics imply that it’s the actors who have made “Friends” a success, but situation comedies are group-intensive endeavors. Over the past decade, the six actors have developed characters that viewers have come to love, but they couldn’t have done it without scores of writers who have helped shape those characters with funny lines and situations.
It is this long-term collective aspect that has prevented the situation comedy from taking root in Japan. Over the years, American imports such as “I Love Lucy,” “Bewitched” and even “Friends” have been popular here, but they never spawned local equivalents the way cop shows and medical dramas have. Most Japanese TV shows are built around one or two famous people, be they performers or writers, and they are conceived for short runs.
Writer-director Koki Mitani, who started out with the theatrical troupe Tokyo Sunshine Boys and has since graduated to well-received films such as “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald” and hit stage productions such as “Orchestra Pit,” decided that he was the perfect person to create “Japan’s first situation comedy,” which is what he is calling his current series “HR” (Fuji TV; Wednesday, 11 p.m.).
In many ways, Mitani is the perfect person. His Neil Simon-like works are filled with sharply drawn characters who are placed in situations that highlight their differences humorously. Mitani was one of the last people to interview director Billy Wilder, and while Mitani lacks the biting cynicism that was Wilder’s comic suit, he shares the master’s dedication to crack timing and snappy rhythms. And because his background is the theater, Mitani understands the basic production rules of situation comedy, which ideally are filmed in front of live audiences.
But he takes on too much. In a weekly column he writes for the Asahi Shimbun, he often discusses the difficulties of coming up with 30 minutes’ worth of jokes week after week. The idea of a single person handling all the writing chores for a situation comedy would be unthinkable in the U.S., where jokes are bandied about by committees of writers before they’re given to the actors, who often fine tune them even further.
“HR” stands for “home room.” The show is set in a Tokyo teijisei high school, meaning a night school for people who never finished regular high school. The setting is convenient since it allows Mitani to populate the show with sympathetic losers who represent a diverse range of ages and backgrounds.
The star of the show is SMAP’s Shingo Katori, who plays English teacher Shingo Todoroki. Todoroki has a crush on one of the students, a former hostess named Ryoko (Ryoko Shinahara), while Todoroki’s female assistant harbors a crush on him. Other running themes include a nascent romance between two students, a middle-aged construction worker and a divorced woman who works as a supermarket cashier and dresses outrageously; and a salaryman student who left high school to take over his family’s printing business and now suffers from an inferiority complex because he never attended university.
The difficulties that Mitani explains in his column are evident in the final production. While many of his lines are funny, he tends to extend situations past their logical end points. He once stretched a class production of “Hamlet” over two consecutive half-hour shows.
Sometimes, he seems to give up. On Christmas, he offered a “digest” of the series since it premiered in October, and last week, rather than a new episode, he had Shingo explain to his fellow SMAP-mate Tsuyoshi Kusanagi how the show is made.
The actors, many of whom have worked with Mitani before, are solid professionals, but their theatrical mugging style tends to emphasize the desperation in the writing. When the jokes start to wear thin, the actors compensate by pumping up the volume and exaggerating their already oversize gestures.
Katori, who is new to the acting game, is conspicuous in this regard. In the column, Mitani has stressed how happy he is with Katori and how surprised he is at the young idol’s efforts. This emphasis on Katori’s work ethic has the effect of drawing attention to his undeveloped comic skills. Mitani seems to be impressed by the fact that Katori can memorize his lines and hit his marks, but as a director he overlooks Katori’s lack of balance. The director envisions Todoroki as a kind of Jack Lemmon character: an earnest everyman strung tighter than a ukelele. There’s no depth to Katori’s overboard excitability.
But such an acting style may serve the show’s real purpose. Katori’s newfound identity as a comic actor, Mitani’s self-aggrandizing column, the behind-the-scenes peeks — they’re all as important to the concept of “HR” as the writing is, perhaps more so. For one thing, Mitani never lets you forget that the show is taped in front of a live studio audience: During commercial breaks, viewers are shown shots of the audience from the stage.
“HR” makes more sense as an experiment than it does as a situation comedy. Mitani considers the project a personal challenge, but the challenge isn’t to make it a success. The challenge is simply to get through it. “I want to show people how difficult it is to produce such a show,” he said to the camera in last week’s “Making of ‘HR’ ” special.
Maybe I’m being too materialistic, but to me a successful situation comedy is one that, like “Friends,” runs for more than one season. “HR” will end in March, after which Mitani will go on to other challenges, including, it’s rumored, the script for NHK’s yearlong Sunday night historical drama for 2004. Someday, he can proudly say he created Japan’s first situation comedy, and probably its last, too.