NHK puppet show offers a rare glimpse into unconventional lives

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Arguably the best interview show on terrestrial TV at present stars a bunch of puppets exploring the often unexamined corners of Japanese society.

Nehorin Pahorin” airs every Wednesday at 11 p.m. on NHK’s educational channel, wedged between English and Korean language shows. The 30-minute broadcast, which has aired since 2016, has become required viewing for many in Japan, who discuss its contents on Twitter while it airs using a hashtag of the program’s title in Japanese — an activity encouraged by “Nehorin Pahorin” itself.

Get past a cast that consists entirely of felt creatures and the concept behind the show resembles that of many domestic interview programs. Two hosts — Ryota Yamasato and You, represented as moles — sit on one side of a couch and grill a special guest, represented as a pig (as are most of the nonstaff people on the show).

The majority of interview-centric shows on major broadcasters, however, lean on celebrity appearances of the softball variety. The guests that appear on “Nehorin Pahorin,” on the other hand, are all regular people involved in interesting subculture spaces or activities that rarely get mainstream media attention. This season, which started last September, has focused on idol otaku, child actors and women obsessed with “boys love” comics, among others. Normally, people wouldn’t want to talk about these topics because of privacy issues. Yet “Nehorin Pahorin” circumvents this via its use of puppets (alongside voice modulation technology).

The guarantee of anonymity enforced by the decision to turn every visitor into a pig prompts those on the show to go into greater detail about their story, whether they worked as a secretary for a member of the Diet or became addicted to host clubs. Topics that typically get discussed in rather broad strokes reveal new nuances — while others, for those not native to Japan, reveal all sorts of wrinkles, like the existence of “circle crushers.”

It helps that “Nehorin Pahorin” features two hosts perfectly suited to the social media age. Yamasato had been kicking around for years as a comedian and TV personality, but came into his own on Twitter. You, meanwhile, has been active since the late ’80s in almost every entertainment discipline.

Both broke out on recent seasons of the reality show “Terrace House,” where they offer commentary between scenes of the show’s participants. While Western media have painted “Terrace House” as “the nicest reality show on television,” Japanese viewers seem drawn to You and Yamasato’s ability to mock the often boneheaded participants on the show. For the latest “Terrace House,” Yamasato even got his own spin-off YouTube show.

The two — in human or fuzzy form — seem tailor-made for “Nehorin Pahorin.” They are as curious as most journalists, while at the same time being personable and good at connecting with their subjects. Neither hesitates to dig deeper into particular points, getting more interesting info along the way.

Its status as an online hit owes a lot to the community that has sprung up around its hashtag. In real time, people log on to Twitter to comment on what’s happening, in much the same way people around the globe offer up “insta-takes” on award shows or sporting events. They post screenshots of interesting factoids or highlight the many pork-related puns lurking in the show’s details. The fact that the visual style of “Nehorin Pahorin” basically subverts the conventions of children’s programming makes it all the more surreal.

Ultimately, however, it’s the information the show shares with the world that underpins its popularity. “Nehorin Pahorin” has become a favorite of matome sites, or online venues that basically sum up news and viral stories. Popular destinations such as Togetter practically summarize the best tidbits of each episode, while other sites effectively post transcripts of notable editions. It reminds me of a few years back, when American sites raced to post the opening monologue of comedian John Oliver’s weekly show. It’s entertaining, sure, but also revealing and downright educational.

“Nehorin Pahorin” shows how a Japanese TV show can successfully utilize digital media. Despite the increasing relevance of YouTube, television still dominates. Just check Japan’s YouTube Trending corner and see how many uploads are of shows anyone can watch via a flat-screen TV.

“Nehorin Pahorin” — alongside other favorite Twitter and matome series such as “Matsuko No Shiranai Sekai” (“The World Unknown To Matsuko”) and “You Wa Nani Shi Ni Nippon E?” (“Why Did You Come to Japan?”) — offers content that’s fun to talk about while it’s unfolding and reveals new information from perspectives often ignored elsewhere. It’s a format that perhaps more domestic networks would do well to consider adopting.