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Fuji TV’s wishful thinking is food for thought

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Since 1987, Fuji TV has owned Monday night, specifically the 9 to 10 p.m. time slot, when it broadcasts fluffy romantic drama series starring the season’s hottest actress and often a prominent member of a boy band.

This phenomenon has its own name — getsu-ku “Monday nine” — which has always haunted the network. Ratings for TV shows have dropped across the board over the past 20 years, but Fuji is still expected to command that hour, and it hasn’t for a long time.

This autumn’s offering was announced last summer and, according to the web magazine Litera, the industry buzz was that the series, “Minshu no Teki” (“Enemy of the People”), slated to start Oct. 16, would be a real Fuji TV type of drama, meaning preposterous plot-wise and starring someone major. However, it would be about politics, so critics assumed nobody would watch it.

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threw a monkey wrench into the plan by dissolving the Lower House at the end of September and calling an election. Oct. 16 fell within the official campaign period, and while the show’s producers didn’t think it violated the Public Election Law, since the characters and situations were fictional, Fuji TV executives demanded the first episode be pushed back a week to Oct. 23.

The postponement earned the series some bonus coverage, but it made no positive difference. The premiere garnered a disappointing 9 percent share, which prompted Litera to wonder if the show might be cancelled before it gets to the end of its scheduled run. It’s happened before. Many seasonal drama series are written and shot on the fly.

But Litera found the show, or, at least, the first episode, better than expected, saying that while it was as dramatically absurd as any getsu-ku series, it was also accurate in its depiction of politics and, given the premiere’s storyline, might have boosted voter turnout had it aired on Oct. 16 as originally planned. On the other hand, the episode also attracted right-leaning internet trolls who blasted it for supposedly making fun of Abe. Litera dismissed these charges as ridiculous.

But they weren’t. The preposterous plotting is populated by characters obviously based on recognizable political personages. One of the candidates of the city assembly election featured in the episode is an eight-time incumbent named Shinzo Isobe (Takashi Sasano), and while he doesn’t look or act anything like Abe, that name is unmistakably a dig at the prime minister. Likewise, the handsome, quietly intelligent novice whose election is guaranteed by his multi-generational political pedigree is clearly based on Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) current rock star.

But this character, whose name is Makoto Todo (Issey Takahashi), is not the protagonist of “Minshu no Teki.” That’s Tomoko Sato (Ryoko Shinohara), a 40-year-old woman who loses her call-center job at the same time her husband is laid off.

Desperate for work, Sato reads an article about politicians’ high salaries and decides to run for the local assembly, even though she has no knowledge about or interest in politics. The series charts her education as a citizen of a democracy.

In true getsu-ku fashion, that education is a sentimental one. Sato is a high school dropout from a broken family who has been working minimum wage jobs since she was 17. Unable to formulate a coherent platform and running her campaign on the cheap, she’s going nowhere fast when, one day, while campaigning in a public square, Todo shows up in a flashy, expensive sound truck and commandeers her crowd. Angry, she pulls out a bullhorn and drowns out her charismatic opponent, ditching her notes and giving a heartfelt speech about her background and “dreams of happiness” that captures the hearts of the assembled residents, most of whom are mothers like her. Even Todo is impressed.

It’s a cheap plot device but provides the series with a theme — namely, how one woman overcomes the second-class status of her gender to have an impact. A group of working mothers help Sato as volunteers, including Kazumi Hirata (Yuriko Ishida), a reporter for a local newspaper who was demoted to clerical work after returning from maternity leave. Hirata understands the ins and outs of politics and becomes Sato’s adviser, though, in the end, it’s Sato’s sense of fairness, usually wielded impulsively, that saves the day.

She squeaks by in the election and joins the city assembly with Todo and other rookies, including a bubbly but backbiting ex-idol played by former AKB48 member Atsuko Maeda, as well as the whiny, lazy Yasushi Maeda (Kenya Osumi), a sycophant of the assembly’s self-appointed “don,” Kazuhisa Inuzaki (Arata Furuta). When Sato publicly scolds Maeda for sleeping during their first day on the job, a video of the incident goes viral, but rather than crush her, Inuzaki attempts to draw her into his controlling orbit so as to exploit her popularity for his own ends.

Meanwhile, Inuzaki’s nemesis, the mayor (Kimiko Yo), who is patterned after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, silently encourages Sato in her resistance to Inuzaki’s designs.

No prizes for correctly predicting where this story is going, but it would be nice if the writer, Hisako Kurosawa, addressed issues brought up two weeks ago when Japan was placed 123rd out of 144 countries in terms of political empowerment for women in the World Economic Forum’s most recent rankings.

When it was pointed out in a recent Asahi Shimbun interview that only 8 percent of her party’s candidates in the October election were women, LDP veteran Seiko Noda blamed Japan’s seshū (dynastic) political culture. Her colleague, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, touched on this idea when he was asked about the paucity of female contenders and replied that candidates should be chosen “naturally, not because they are male or female.” Though herself a political scion, Noda said in response to Nikai’s remark, “The LDP still thinks of politics as a man’s job.”

In real life, Sato wouldn’t stand a chance.