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Variety shows seek insights into people’s lives

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

One of the better Japanese reality shows in the first decade of the new millennium was TV Tokyo’s “Inaka ni Tomaro” (“Let’s Visit the Countryside”), which premiered in 2003. Ostensibly a travelogue, it featured second-tier celebrities who were dispatched to rural areas where they had to secure a night’s lodging in private homes. Supposedly, there were no setups. The celebrity had to approach strangers on the street and ask if they could stay the night. Normally, the people they met recognized the celebrity, but, depending on when that person’s heyday was and the age of the interlocutor, sometimes they didn’t. And even if they did know the celebrity, it didn’t always mean they wanted them in their house, so the negotiations were always awkward. I remember one show where it took the guest 10 tries before he secured a bed.

TV Tokyo specializes in travel shows because they are relatively cheap to produce and TV Tokyo is apparently stingy. By the same token, the network has always come up with imaginative twists to the format. “Inaka ni Tomaro,” which was canceled in 2010, was TV Tokyo’s version of NHK’s “Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kanpai” (“Tsurube Toasts Families”), which is still on the air. Rakugo storyteller Shofukutei Tsurube and a guest celebrity travel to towns and villages and chat to people on the fly, getting themselves invited to homes to meet these people’s families. Tsurube and his guests are major celebrities and don’t spend the night, so it’s easy for them to gain access to people’s lives, which is the main point of “Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kanpai,” “Inaka ni Tomaro” and their copycats: getting to know the inhabitants of a specific region rather than just eating the food or seeing the sights.

It was inevitable that this strategy would be adapted for overseas situations and, about 10 years ago, “Tsurube” started bringing its cast and crew to foreign countries. Of course, the people they meet don’t know Tsurube from Adam, so they don’t have as easy a time of it. For the Aug. 13 episode, they went to Rotterdam, and two of the local families they visited were accessed through members who either were Japanese or spoke the language.

TV Tokyo inevitably made its move in this direction, and, like NHK, the network has done it by expanding the travel scope of an existing show. “Ie, Tsuite-itte Ii Desu ka?” (“Is It OK to Go Home With You?”) is a more mercenary take on “Inaka ni Tomaro.” Video crews without celebrities in tow approach people and offer them something for allowing them to visit their homes and look around. A common gambit is to show up at a train station taxi stand after the last train has left and offer to pay for someone’s ride home as long as the crew can tag along.

The bribe makes it easier to gain an invitation than it was for the celebrities on “Inaka ni Tomaro,” which offered nothing in return except face time with a famous person. The crew’s only goal is to get into somebody’s house, and they’ll do anything toward that end. Unlike on “Inaka ni Tomaro,” they don’t always seem curious about how people live. The only thing they’re consistently interested in is the contents of the refrigerator.

But when the crew goes overseas, everything changes, from the nature of the negotiation — you have to be careful what you offer as incentive in some cultures — to the etiquette of being a guest in someone’s home, and in that regard the show can be more illuminating than it has a right to be.

On a recent two-hour “overseas special,” the crew entered a Tokyo pub and happened upon an extended family celebration. The crew offered to pay the bill if they could go home with someone, and immediately latched on to one young woman who was returning to New York the next day with her American boyfriend, who was visiting Tokyo as well. They agreed.

The crew met the couple at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and flew to New York without any preparation. They took Uber to the couple’s sixth floor room on the Lower East Side and looked in the refrigerator. That was it. The couple was very tired and the crew left without finding out much about them except that they met on Tinder. The next day, they patrolled Washington Square Park offering to buy groceries for anyone who’d take them home. They eventually hit paydirt with a New York University student whose father was Japanese but who didn’t speak Japanese himself. He brought them back to his dorm room and entertained them with his life story, which was quite moving.

The sojourn wasn’t particularly edifying — Japanese travel shows go to New York all the time — but it highlighted what makes the show intriguing. The anonymous crew, who we never see, is artless and fearless. They act on impulse and, as a result, the interactions are credible and natural even when they’re pointless.

In one segment they went to Ethiopia, where they offered a bottle of sake to anyone who’d show them their home. Revealing their preconceptions of Ethiopians as great athletes — the most famous Ethiopian in Japan is Abebe Bikila, marathon gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — they gravitated to a young man exercising in a park. He brought them to his small two-bedroom house and talked about his dream, which was to represent Ethiopia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

This compulsion to make Japan connections has always colored foreign travel shows in Japan, but it’s presented in a less self-conscious way on “Ie, Tsuite-itte Ii Desu ka?” In Iran, the crew first tried to engage a man who once worked in Japan, but he failed to show up for their appointed rendezvous, so they traveled to a dusty town on the Iraq border where they offered a six-pack of nonalcoholic beer to a cattle herder who brought them back to his house.

The gamble resulted in a jackpot in the “Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kanpai” style: a large extended family who explained not only their situation, but also the local livestock culture and the Iran-Iraq War that devastated the area. The crew didn’t ask questions. Just their presence and willingness to listen gave rise to an exchange that was effortless and enlightening. Still, the crew had to look in the refrigerator. That much is mandatory.