“Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo”: the Japanese comedy-drama

Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo is a Japanese comedy series that aired on YTV/NTV for one season in 2010. The protagonist Kano Haruko (Naka Riisa) is a quirky shop assistant with a dream to become a high-school teacher. She is asked by an old teacher to teach as a trainee in the school she works at. What Haruko doesn’t know is that this is a Japanese language school for foreigners. Her class consists of nine foreign students with strong personalities.

The first episode outlines her arrival at the school and the troubles that stand in her way. For instance, Haruko has no training as a Japanese language teacher, and strugggles to answer the many questions asked by her students. The biggest problem however is Ikeda Narushi (Takasu Kazuki) her surprisingly evil boss at the school that seems to be counting on Haruko to fail. At the end of the episode, Haruko and Narushi make a bet that if even one of Haruko’s pupil’s fail – she will quit her future job as a high-school teacher. This will most likely be the story that overarches the season.

Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo is very familiar as a comedy show. It is a little less than thirty minutes in length and has a vast array of quirky characters, potential love plots and direct goals for the main characters to aim for. Some cultural differences were apparent though. In the scene in which Haruko first attempts (and fails) to teach the class of foreign students Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo relies heavily on cartoons to convey her psychological state. This is highly unusual in Western television and film. The only examples I can think of are comic-book films such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). I imagine it has something to do with the strong Manga culture in Japan – a medium which would rely heavily on images to convey emotional states – whereas the comic book culture in the West, though still a well-loved medium, is far less prominent.

I feel that Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo is a great example of Asian television being closely intertwined with Western television. The comedy format is almost identical and the production of the show is solid. This style of comedy didn’t personally appeal to me however. The acting was a little melodramatic and the character conflicts were somewhat oversimplified. I feel that perhaps the active – almost slap-stick style of comedy may have a little to do with comedy in Japanese culture – but I doubt this had a lot to do with it. I feel that it is more likely that Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo is a generic comedy-drama format akin to the NBC series Scrubs. These types of comedy shows aren’t exactly my cup of tea anymore – but this style of comedy show certainly appears to be appreciated “transnationally”.

In the past, it could be said that “non-Western countries – have tended to face the West ‘to interpret their position and understand the distance from Modernity.” However television, something which is loved in both affluent and developing countries, is one of the strongest tools for cultural development (both nationally and transnationally) as it is something that is appreciated by all rungs of society. It is becoming apparent that Japanese and indeed other Asian television, though consisting of clear cultural differences (which surely and hopefully won’t dissipate with growing globalization) already is or is quickly becoming equally as “modernised” or culturally dominant as Western television.

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Webisodes: Content vs. Promo

Last Friday, for the first time, I found out what a “webisode” was. The idea was pretty straight forward – an online mini “episode” for a TV show which both enriches the narrative world of the show and advertises for the network. However set with the challenge to actually find my own – I was nervous. How on earth do we find these so called “webisodes”? Naturally I did the most obvious thing and typed “SHOW I LIKE – WEBISODE” into YouTube – with winning results! The show I chose was Breaking Bad – only because I miss it, and I know there’s a lot of hype around the show. I was delighted to find that there was all this official online content for the show available that I had no idea existed previously.

In 2009 after the end of season one, AMC released five three to five minute webisodes to promote season two, including a look at Jessie’s band “Twauthammer” and Marie’s somewhat frightening therapy video log. After the second season in 2010, five more were released in the form of sleazy ads for new character Sol Goodman’s law practice. My favourite webisode was one in the first batch in 2009 entitled “Wedding Day.” It is a flashback to Hank and Marie’s wedding; Walt tries to calm Hank’s pre-wedding jitters.

The key thing I gathered from watching this webisode – something which I feel is common to all the Breaking Bad webisodes I watched – is that the webisode doesn’t actually add anything to the Breaking Bad story arch. Rather, they’re humorous, stand alone “episodes” that enhance our appreciation for the characters we already know and love. In this sense they seem more like a hook for a show – little tasters that make us miss, or rather, not forget about the show between seasons. The fact that the webisodes are much more light-hearted and funnier than the show itself (which first and foremost a drama, with humour being the secondary focus) fits in with the notion of online advertising. Companies are going to get much better results with a funny short than with a snippet of drama. The funny short, if successful, will bring in new viewers, whereas the dramatic short will only appeal to previous fans of the show. This naturally leads in to the topic of advertising – or in this context, promo vs. content.

In Max Dawson’s article Television’s Aesthetic of Efficiency: Convergence Television and the Digital Short he discusses the notion of efficiency of the webisode. He writes, “Television networks program their digital outposts with shorts because… they remain an effective means of bringing culture, content, and commerce into alignment.” We are simultaneously being entertained and advertised to in one foul swoop. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this as watching a television show is submitting to the exact same thing – being simultaneously entertained and increasing the network’s revenue.

However, Dawson continues, “By withholding full-length programming from the web in favour of brief clips, trailers, recaps, behind-the-scenes footage, and other repurposed materials, networks established web presences without incurring substantial start-up costs”. This is more of a problem – networks using the internet to provide cheaply produced entertainment instead of well produced or quality entertainment – something that bodes ill for the future of television. However the biggest problem with the webisode that Dawson identifies is for the writers, namely that “writers identified digital shorts as cynical gambits on the part of greedy media conglomerates to extract additional productivity from the labours of creative professionals.”

As a wannabe writer myself, I am only all too familiar with the concept of big producers and networks profiting of the hard work of the creative underling beneath them. As these networks have branded webisodes as advertising material instead of a genuine off-shoot production – networks have gotten away with paying their writers less (an issue prevalent in the 2007 writer’s strike.) Naturally this is a contentious issue as it is difficult to see where the content begins in the advertisement starts in these webisodes. Are they a show in their own right or merely an ad for the original?

Ultimately I am glad for webisodes. Like I said earlier, I was thrilled with access to more content for Breaking Bad between seasons. I feel that the act of searching for these webisodes, by which I mean making the actual effort to look up these episodes online takes away some of the power from the networks who claim that they merely serve as advertising. Advertising is generally something that is shoved in your face, uninvited, which subsequently manipulates you into buying in. However I am already on the Breaking Bad train and don’t need any pushing in the matter. For me, despite the shift in tone of the webisodes compared to the show itself, the webisodes primarily work as an expansion of the Breaking Bad universe – something I am glad for. And because they entertain me, and aren’t thrust upon me uninvited, and because they do enrich the viewing experience, and more so because these webisodes are well written, official and well produced – I expect the writers to be paid as such.

The Olympics – why bother?

Upon watching experts from the opening ceremony of the London Olympic games, I couldn’t help but be struck by the sheer spectacle of the thing. It was unbelievably huge and (I couldn’t help but think) unbelievably expensive! I remember as an eight year old watching the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and then as a twelve year old watching the Olympics in Athens in 2004. I enjoyed both these events – what I remember liking most was the athletes parading out in turns, clothed in their nation’s cultural dress. As a child I didn’t think about the disparity between the number of parading athletes from say Australia and Moldova – as a child the Olympics is nothing but exciting and wonderful.

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Now, frankly, I couldn’t care less about the Olympics. I’ve never been particularly interested in sport, and as far as I can tell, most Olympic sports are merely stunted versions of real sports (shot-put? No thank you.)  I’m not a child or a teenager anymore; the time I can spend watching television is limited, which means I choose the television shows I watch very carefully! The Olympics doesn’t feature on this selective list. I admit, I haven’t watched a single event of the Olympics this year, including the open ceremony. Olympics stories have been rampant in conversations with friends and family, on the news, on social media, and now even in class. Even with all this second hand Olympic saturation I didn’t feel like the Olympic Games was anything to bother about…Until I saw some excerpts from the opening ceremony.

I was completely bowled over. Yes, the Olympics are a very big deal.  It seemed that my memory had failed me – had Athens been this colossal? Sydney? Perhaps I just hadn’t taken in the hugeness of it all. What blew me away when I watched the ceremony was simple – nothing is as big as this. Nothing in the world is as big a spectacle as the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. It is unique. It happens every four years and nothing in the world can match it (except perhaps the World Cup). So how could it not be something to get excited about?

It seems obvious now. I thought a grand slam was huge – the Olympic Games have a tennis tournament – plus a thousand other things!  Of course millions of people tune in to the Olympic Games around the globe; it’s an international tournament on the biggest scale imaginable. The amount of publicity and income the Olympics brings to the host city ultimately means that the city has a duty, in line with Olympic tradition, to blow at least a large chunk of that money on a loud, crazy, colorful, exciting ceremony that people will wake up at five in the morning in the Southern Hemisphere to watch.

What I had been missing became obvious. What’s so great about this enormous event except for the simple fact that it gives everyone something to talk about? The conversations, the news, the social media – everything that I hadn’t been able to contribute to ultimately focused into the best thing about the Olympics: social participation in the biggest event over the last four years. David Morley writes “The social community is effectively united by the production of a shared sense of reality.” For the next few weeks, the Olympic Games are our reality. It is our national and global reality. It may be just one of the many events and broadcasts that shape our perception of the world around us – but it is certainly one of the biggest, worldliest and most breath-taking.

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The opening ceremony – I certainly didn’t want to be taken in by it; I wanted to hate the enormous amount of money spent on such a vapid, superficial, good-for-nothing glorified light-show when it could have been put to such amazing use in foreign aid. But I couldn’t hate it. I couldn’t help but turn into the unthinking, enthusiastic eight year old at the Sydney Olympics who had to love it, who just had to be sucked in by the spectacle of it all.

News as a TV genre

At some point on weeknights, many families around Australia sit down to watch the news. “The news” is in itself a very loaded term. The myth of “the news” is that ultimately it represents the facts; that it consists of a team of journalists who go out and report on various issues, and then convey what they have reported to the viewers/readers. However it is becoming more and more apparent that this is not always the case.

The news programmers do their best to make the show seem unbiased; as merely a vehicle to relay “the facts” about current events to the viewer. They give this impression through consistent stylistic techniques; for example, by having the anchor talk directly to the audience in a reasoned, authoritative tone, or through their seemingly god-like access to accident footage (how is it that they always get to the scene in time to film the woman being carted away to hospital?)

There is also a reliable structure to the news that is consistent over most stations – something like; breaking news, then general news, then minor news, then human interest stories, then weather and sport. (There are of course different news formats, including comedy news, such as The Chaser, or current affairs programs such as Today Tonight which in their own unique ways contribute to the news genre. However these formats are certainly less respected, and aren’t considered by general television watchers as “the news”.)

The problem with these consistent formal elements is that in a way they serve to trick the viewer into trusting the news program as an impartial authority rather than as one fallible source of information. The consistent use of these formal techniques across all stations in many countries gives the news as a genre a kind of leg up over other forms of communication, as people recognise these formal elements as a sign of authority or an adherence to professional journalism (which is not always the case). When the news program does in fact have an agenda; this manipulates the viewership; who have a preconceived notion of the news as a fair, unbiased source of facts.

In Australia, there are five major stations providing a news service. Channels 7, 9 and 10 seem to have a similar style of news programming, whereas ABC and SBS present themselves and are perceived a little differently. The first three have a stronger emphasis on star-power, ratings (obvious after the “Shit Happens” controversy) celebrity gossip, human interest stories and occasionally biased reporting. On the other hand, ABC and SBS are more respected as news services by liberal minded people by having a serious, professional tone and appearance, a relatively impartial voice and a stronger emphasis on world news.

All five stations however use the tried and true formal techniques used again and again by the television news genre – clearly signifying them as a “news program”, giving them all an air of authority. Despite some clear biased programming in Australian news, I wouldn’t go so far as saying that channels 7, 9 and 10 blatantly misuse their power as a “news station” to manipulate viewers to a particular political agenda (leave that to the Herald Sun.) This manipulation is subtler, such as through negative broadcasting surrounding the mining tax and then the carbon tax, rather than by simply conveying outright Liberal campaigning.

Our news programs certainly don’t go so far as on the Fox News in the United States, who clearly takes advantage of their status as a “news programmer” to manipulate their viewership into taking up the Republican cause. The United States, which is generally a much more conservative country than Australia in a financial, religious and cultural sense, seems to allow a much more conservative style of news programming as well.

The Fox network’s blatant misuse of power and manipulation of its viewership is well outlined in the 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. It is a fascinating yet disturbing film and I can only hope that the news in Australia will not reach this level of corruption (more on an intellectual level than a financial one) despite Gina Reinhart’s foul and lingering influence on the Australian public and media. The fact that Rupert Murdoch is in fact Australian born is an embarrassment that is probably best cast aside.

Television and Art – better, worse, or the same?

On reading Alan McKee’s article,“Why do I love Television So Very Much” I can’t help but agree with his overall sentiment. Television isn’t respected as a medium – at least not nearly as much as it should be – and television watching is generally seen as some sort of useless, vapid activity. However I did disagree with some of his more impassioned points.  

My central problem with McKee’s argument is in his statement that television “is a generous, warm, inviting, kind medium–defined by its desire to reach out and draw communities together.” I don’t really think that this is the primary agenda of television at all. I feel that a key difference between contemporary art (independent film, visual arts, and self-published literature for example) and television is that television is ultimately funded by a large bureaucratic enterprise hoping to cash in on the success of the show. While published literature, commissioned art through the ages and even theatre is also dependent on funding and commercial success, they are not quite in the same league as television – which is hugely commercial, heavily sponsored and wide-reaching.

My problem with this element of commerciality, apart from the obvious – that the artistic merit of the show is placed as secondary to the financial success the show – is that when companies and networks have primary control over what goes on the air, this of course leads to filtering, censoring, biased or manipulative programming (the most obvious example of this is the FOX network, which McKee found need to exclude – or in Australia, programs like Today Tonight ) and a preference for the reflection of the dominant groups in society. (How many non-white protagonists are there in television shows, for example?) So I’m not sure that his comment, “Television doesn’t want to put anybody offside” is really all that true.

McKee feels that one of the merits of television is that it “wants to bring everybody into the audience.” While I agree there is something nice about the accessibility of television, as appose to the elitism of art, I can’t help but think of When the Whistle Blows – Ricky Gervais’ fictional sitcom in Extras. Due to interference from BBC, When the Whistle Blows (which was intended as a real-life office comedy, akin to The Office) turns out to be a crass, low-brow comedy which is popular with the public but unpopular with critics. When the Whistle Blows serves as a kind of vehicle to explore the idea of ‘good’ or ‘artistic’ television compared to ‘popular’ or ‘broad’ television. I’m not sure that the artistic merit of the writer, or the television program should be secondary to public opinion and ratings.

However!  This of course is not an either-or kind of situation. An obvious example is Breaking Bad, which enjoys widespread popularity and critical acclaim. I get the feeling that people are yearning for that kind of ‘good’ television, which is partially social commentary as well as being entertaining. The US network HBO probably has something to do with this – or else cottoned on to that part of the market early. I feel another cause of this is – as McKee mentioned – The Simpsons, which is an early example of clever writing, social satire and most importantly – humour.

Ultimately I feel that broad television reinforces the gap between real society and the ideal whereas art, including ‘good television’ embraces real society. However I’m not sure that one is always inherently better than the other. Sometimes it’s fun to glorify the ideal – who doesn’t prefer a TV show with unrealistically attractive characters? There is a place for both kinds of programming on television – that which is ‘art’ and that which is just…television. And commercial aspect or not – really there’s nothing wrong with that.