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Fuji TV’s home-improvement wrecking ball

by Philip Brasor

A popular sub-genre of reality TV is the home-improvement show, and as with many things having to do with television, Japan did it first.

On TV Asahi’s “The Before and After,” which launched as a weekly series in 2002, superannuated, usually cramped properties are magically transformed into marvels of modern design. The producers hit on a foolproof hook for the show that they exploited successfully for years (the show continues to this day, though reduced to semiannual specials) without getting redundant.

People with houses they want to fix up contact the producers, who then sift through candidates looking for the most broken-down or unusual cases. The best installments highlight homes that would seem impossible to renovate due to their environment or state of disrepair. A surefire hit would be a hovel located in a warren-like urban residential area dating from just after the war, when neighborhoods were developed on the fly. These require not just inventive construction skills, but also superhuman feats of planning, since narrow alleys or streets leaves little room to get heavy machinery to the property.

The architects are lone wolves who waive their design fees and charge only for materials and labor. The recipients of their largesse come up with a maximum amount they will pay, thus adding another layer of challenge to the architects’ task. The family is sequestered somewhere while the work is done and documented by a film crew. They are not allowed to view the property until the “reform” is complete. Then the family enters the sparkling new house with tears streaming down their faces and the anodyne voice of the female narrator describing the miraculous makeover.

But while “The Before and After” sparked a boom in home improvement and home-building TV shows that are still extant in Japan, it didn’t spark a boom in actual home improvement. Most homeowners in Japan have come to understand that improving their houses will not necessarily make them better investments or easier to sell, so they don’t bother. Government policy only encourages people to buy new homes, and any tax breaks or subsidies it offers for home improvements are limited and mainly implemented to achieve specific aims such as “barrier-free” or “eco-friendly.” In any case, very few can afford the kind of work featured on “The Before and After.” Its aims are aspirational, not practical.

A special housing-related program that aired two weeks ago on the Fuji TV network is much more to the point, even while its implications throw considerable shade on Japan’s housing market, past and present. The special, titled “Please Tear Down My House” (“Watashi no Ie o Kowashite Kudasai”), literally documents the reverse process of what dictates most current housing-related reality TV: The home on display is destroyed.

Though the show is billed as entertainment, the producers don’t avoid didacticism. Right away, the announcer trots out the well-reported statistic that there are 8.19 million akiya (empty and abandoned homes) throughout Japan and many are fire hazards and eyesores. But whereas the media usually pushes “constructive” solutions to this problem — including local governments using properties to rent or sell, and using them to attract young people to depopulated areas — Fuji TV takes the opposite tack: Just get rid of them. In fact, they continually say that while it’s a seemingly extreme option, demolition is really the most responsible way to go.

The difficulty in this approach is that it is the owners of the houses who have to decide to tear their properties down and, more significantly, pay for it. It’s a complete reversal of the normal housing-related reality show motivation and yet no less compelling. But how do you make it dramatic enough to appeal to viewers?

The hour-long special covered three “cases,” all houses in Saitama Prefecture. One was presented as an introductory example, a very old house that has been abandoned for 13 years. A family of four used to live there, but when the parents died the two surviving offspring had already moved out and the narrator implied that they wanted nothing to do with the house. However, they were also averse to tearing it down because they wanted to “preserve the memories” contained within. Neither heir appears on screen, so we have to take the producers’ word for it, but it’s this idea of a legacy being razed that the show uses to tug at heartstrings.

The other two cases involved homeowners who wanted to leave their houses because they are getting old and want to move on. One, a widow, decided to tear down her 50-year-old single-story bungalow because it would be more difficult to sell the land with a structure on it. The other was a couple whose abode is a book store with living quarters on the second floor. In both cases, the owners are visited by celebrity “reporters” who harp on the sentimental value of the buildings — which otherwise look pretty cheap — in order to provoke indecision in the subjects before they finally put their seal on the demolition contract.

In both cases, the contract was with the same company. Then the machinery moved in and the dismantling commenced, a thrilling mix of melancholy (there goes the door jamb with my kids heights marked on it!), suspense (how will they remove that 1.2-ton boulder from the garden?) and structural violence. In terms of didacticism, it’s the most potent part of the show, since it explains in plain and useful detail how a house is demolished.

The home page for the special does not mention whether Fuji TV plans to turn the special into a regular series, but there are other shows, usually on TV Tokyo, that indicate the demolition genre is the next natural stage in the evolution of housing-related reality TV.

Personally, I found it not only more honest about Japanese housing than “The Before and After,” but also aesthetically more pleasing, especially when the job is finished and the ground has been cleared and leveled. There’s nothing more beautiful than a bare, clean vacant lot.