I once interviewed a Japanese TV network executive about the market for selling non-animated drama series overseas. He said Japanese producers primarily make dramas for domestic consumption, and, if they sell them abroad, then it’s just a fortunate, but unintended, consequence. In the past, this was easier because Japanese production values were higher than they were in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries. However, as local productions improved, these countries have less reason to import Japanese shows, so producers now push content sales — typically, story lines of Japanese TV dramas — to overseas broadcasters who adapt those stories to their own situations using local talent.

This might be difficult with TBS Television’s “Naoki Hanzawa,” which scored the largest audience share of any Japanese TV drama during the Heisei Era (1989-2019). Originally broadcast in 2013, “Naoki Hanzawa” took place in the world of Japanese banking, and followed the titular character’s quest to exact revenge against a banker who ruined his father’s company. The plot particulars would be difficult to adapt outside of Japan, given its reliance on Japanese business practices. The series was popular in Taiwan, but Taiwan has always had a special cultural relationship with Japan, which once colonized the island.

The inevitable sequel is now being shown on TBS after being delayed three months due to the COVID-19 crisis. This time, the producers are doubling down on the drama’s Japanese qualities. Not only is the story specific to Japan, but the presentation itself is best appreciated by someone with an understanding of Japanese aesthetics.

In short, the dramatic elements are purposely exaggerated. To illustrate this approach, Sponichi Annex described how in episode two of the series, kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke, playing a securities sales manager at Tokyo Chuo Banking Corp., berates Hanzawa (Masato Sakai) — who was transferred to the company after the events of the first series — for ruining an acquisition scheme and demands that Hanzawa say he’s sorry. Although the script purportedly states that the manager should yell, “Apologize!” two or three times, Ennosuke screamed the word eight times. When asked why he did it this way, Ennosuke said that in Osaka, where the scene is set, people like to repeat words, and he apparently just got carried away.

Masato Sakai won the best actor prize at the 2014 Tokyo Drama Awards for his role in the serial TV drama 'Naoki Hanzawa.' | KYODO
Masato Sakai won the best actor prize at the 2014 Tokyo Drama Awards for his role in the serial TV drama ‘Naoki Hanzawa.’ | KYODO

Being carried away is part of kabuki’s appeal, and “Naoki Hanzawa 2” borrows from traditional stagecraft to heighten its dramatic effect. One of the reasons for the overly stylized movements, facial expressions and voicings of kabuki is that the actors have to convey dramatic details to everyone in the audience, no matter where they’re sitting. On screen, in closeup, this effect can seem ridiculous, especially since the actors are wearing everyday clothing and no special makeup. It’s as if everyone has gone temporarily insane.

All that yelling and spitting may make you wonder about the safety of the people on set, but viewers seem to love this angle, as does the press, which has been playing up the kabuki aspects of the show. An Asahi Shimbun article described how Ennosuke asked his cousin, Teruyuki Kagawa, who played the villain in the original series and returns in the new one, to dictate Ennosuke’s own dialogue and record it so as to give Ennosuke a better idea of how to approach the role, since he believes the two characters overlap. Mimicry is how the art of kabuki is handed down from one actor to another.

Another kabuki performer appearing in the drama is Kataoka Ainosuke, who specializes in female roles. Ainosuke plays his male character with exaggerated feminine traits, and viewers wait in fervent anticipation for him to make his entrances on the screen, just as they would when attending a stage performance. He is apparently quite a hit in Taiwan, where the sequel is already being broadcast.

What this coverage implies is that the appeal of “Naoki Hanzawa 2” is not so much the story, but rather the show itself — or, more exactly, the showmanship. This attraction is also evident in the performances of the non-kabuki actors. Yoko Minamino, a popular idol from the 1980s, appears as the vice president of an IT company battling Hanzawa, and she plays up her Kansai dialect to hilarious proportions. According to an article in Nikkan Gendai, social media commentators have complained about her accent, despite the fact that she grew up in Hyogo Prefecture and, presumably, has a native grasp of the speech patterns. But whether negative or positive, the publicity has only made her participation that much more noteworthy and, thus, mandatory viewing.

The corporate milieu depicted is also an exaggeration, although laypeople may not understand the difference. Economics professor Akio Makabe of Hosei University told the Asahi Shimbun that the kind of internal power struggles that provide the story with never-ending conflicts is virtually nonexistent in banks, which, these days at least, are simply struggling to survive. In that regard, Hanzawa is basically a salaryman with a superhero’s powers.

Then there’s the dated quality of the production as explained by kabuki expert Kesako Matsui to the Asahi Shimbun. While she can appreciate the kabuki elements, she feels the show’s use of women is anachronistic. Kabuki, which does not employ female adult performers, tends to portray women as ideals, and, except for Minamino’s character, all the women in the show are there to support their men. “Naoki Hanzawa 2” could be considered a jidaigeki (period drama) in terms of structure and themes, but Matsui points out that Chinese and Korean period dramas right now include female characters who are independent of male power and stand on their own.

But given that women account for a small percentage of management in Japan, “Naoki Hanzawa 2” could be considered representative of at least that aspect of the business world. Whether that hurts its chances at being exported to foreign markets other than Taiwan and China remains to be seen. People in other countries may not relate to it, but sometimes just being different is enough.

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