Another New Year’s break, another two-week onslaught of inconsequential television programs based on the variety show model of comedians talking about themselves, watching videos of other people doing supposedly interesting things and playing games whose main entertainment function is humiliation. The resilience of this model is thought to be evidence of viewers’ affection for certain TV personalities and their desire for fare whose main purpose is mindless distraction.
But a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun theorizes that the model is not as resilient as broadcasters think it is due to “Internet culture,” which has increased demand for more “reality-based” television, meaning programs that rely less on contrived situations requiring editing and direction.
Traditional variety and drama series are losing out to shows that don’t have scripts but instead place people in circumstances that are allowed to “play out naturally” (deta-toko shobu). In Japan, the incorporation of celebrities in travel shows where they interact with “average people” erases some of the distance between viewers and viewed, but there has always been a sense that what you see isn’t what’s really happening, and every so often these shows are hit with charges of yarase — faking situations so as to reach satisfying outcomes. Now, according to Asahi, there’s no need to fake it, because viewers don’t necessarily want pat resolutions.
The acknowledged leader of this trend is TV Tokyo, whose reasons, at least initially, for pursuing reality TV were mostly economic. Series like the foreigner-stalking “You wa Nani Shi ni Nihon e” (“Why Did You Come to Japan?”) are cheaper to produce since all you need is a video crew. Preparation and post-production are minimized. Audience share for TV Tokyo’s reality shows typically reach into the two-digit range, a consistently better performance than comparable programs on other commercial stations.
The show that epitomizes the trend and which is often cited as its source is “Local Rosen Bus Noritsugi no Tabi” (“Local Bus Line Connections Journey”), which TV Tokyo has been broadcasting several times a year since 2007. Three celebrities travel from point A to point B within a given period of time using only local bus lines. Though these kinds of “challenge shows” are common, what distinguishes “Rosen” is its willingness to show its challengers failing to reach their destination or otherwise not making as much of an effort as they should. Though riding local buses long-distances (no highway buses allowed) isn’t much of a hardship, the “reality” of the challenge is that timing and choice of routes are important, and in the end the celebrities do a lot of walking just to make the right connections.
Along the way they have to eat and stay in hotels and inns, two activities that are central to travel shows, but there’s a more spontaneous feel to these activities, thus eliciting less suspicion that the merchants involved have solicited the attention of the producers, which is usually the case on travel shows.
Asahi suggests that the appeal of “Rosen,” which has even been copied by NHK, is its streamlined premise, but an article in the Dec. 29 issue of Tokyo Sports implies something else.
The piece is a profile of 67-year-old cartoonist Yoshikazu Ebisu, one of the show’s two regulars and a more or less in-demand TV personality since the late ’80s. Ebisu’s career has always been explained by his buffoonish slacker image. Since the underlying appeal of comedy-variety shows is their potential for cruelty, Ebisu is a reliable object of derision, but the tabloid quotes several critics who say the success of “Rosen” is actually due to Ebisu’s participation, which has nothing to do with victimization. They believe Ebisu’s popularity boils down to his refusal to play by the conventional rules of TV in that while he is polite, he is also frank about his opportunism and lack of ambition. Yusuke Tagawa, the former idol singer who is the other regular on “Rosen,” makes a show of industriousness, plotting routes and even “faking naps” for the benefit of the camera, but Ebisu makes no show of anything. If he’s tired he says so, and sometimes acts willfully. He doesn’t unduly compliment the food he eats. (He’s famously averse to fish in any form, making him an anomaly on Japanese TV.) As one critic put it, “He only cares about what’s in front of him,” and viewers appreciate the honesty and directness.
In a recently published book, “Hitoribotchi wo Warau na” (“Don’t Laugh at Being Alone”), Ebisu explains that he never turns down a TV offer since it pays better than drawings, and acknowledges that he has received more work since “Rosen” became popular. What you see on TV is the real him, a person incapable of pretension who doesn’t “change” to fit a program’s style. He’s not comfortable around others, and hates words like “harmony” and kizuna (interpersonal bonds). He prefers being alone, but if producers want to use him on TV shows, he’ll take their money. “Ten years ago, people used to criticize my attitude,” he writes. “What changed? Not me, so maybe society did.”
Such a passive approach is not going to help Japanese TV grow up overnight, but it’s heartening to think that viewers may not be as gullible as showrunners think they are. As to Ebisu’s fitness as a role model—he’s also an inveterate gambler—his mild misanthropy has a flip side that bears scrutiny. Last week on an unremarkable New Year’s talk show, he admitted that he’s never been in a fight. “Even when I’m not wrong I’ll apologize,” he said. “I can always get revenge in a cartoon.” The host admiringly said if everybody thought that way “there wouldn’t be any wars,” which is debatable, but the remark does suggest that art can be used to sublimate potentially destructive behavior. “I’m just afraid of being killed,” Ebisu clarified. If everyone thought that way, maybe there wouldn’t be any wars.