Late night tv is interesting everywhere, if only because it is so loosely tied to standard advertising revenue schedules. Marginal profit margins for marginal tv where marginal commercials replicate themselves, mirroring the marginal doubts and talents of their not-ready-for-prime-time programmers. Late-night chat shows with comedians in $35 suits, pro-wrestling, and Charlie's Angels appear as cautionary reminders of what insomniacs with undisciplined lifestyles are consigned to endure until we can prove ourselves a viable consumer cohort!
For the past few years Fuji tv's approach has been to offer the first after-hours time slot to a group still in their pock-marked 20's. Everyone involved in developing, writing and directing these programs must fulfil one requirement: they must be under 30. They can be broadly divided into three categories: those that have aspirations towards television (confused, but who cares?); the theorists who thought they were making media history (confusedly influential), and Tanaka Kei'ichi, whose confusion seemed to lie somewhere between deconstructionist tv as an assault by hypertextual infotainment data-burst and advertising as a social experiment in education.
Forget the ones that thought they were making tv. The works of the media theorists viewed like reports from the two influential schools of Japanese media theory. Fukuhara Shinji's Einstein and Ugo-Ugo Lhuga tipped their hats to the 'paradigm shift' approach (Asada Akira/Kyoto University), while Takashiro's Banana Chips Love and Alphabet 2/3 owed more to Takemura Mitsuhiro's 'sensual media' approach. Asada and Takemura, of course, disowned their former pupils' work as hopelessly incompetent diversions from 'the path,' but Fukuhara and Takashiro did become two rare examples of pop heroes born from behind the tv camera.
Fukuhara's Ugo-Ugo Lhuga (see Masuyama's article on Ugo-Ugo Lhuga), is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. A daily semi-interactive kids show using virtual sets and characters, it is already part of the modern Japanese pop lexicon. (Character merchandising, lampooned by the national broadcasting station nhk, cd-roms have been produced of its virtual worlds and snatches of Ugo-Ugo Lhuga slang can be overheard in any video gaming parlour.) Takashiro, the more famous 'personality' of the two, became Japan's first 'hyper-media' pop star, adored by thousands of young fans, and sought after as the most popular spokesman of the Japanese 'multi-media' scene.
Tanaka Kei'ichi was the odd man out. He graduated from the law department of Gakushuin, a prestigious school attended by the Japanese royalty. He is a shaven-headed Buddhist who bows deeply, hands clasped in prayer like a monk, as he sees you to the elevator. If you ask a stupid question, or attempt conjecture, he will cut you to ribbons. He has also enjoyed the same series of phenomenal successes with his programming, but has completely shunned developing a 'media personality' profile. His aim is not to make arty tv, or usher in a new era in mass media. No, his aim is to punish.
His attacks on trends become trends. He ridicules advertising and his ratings go up. He assaults 'sophistic'-ated urbanites, and becomes the 'darling' of this very same 'intelligentsia.'
Tanaka despises Japan's crass commercialism, with its advertising tie-in culture and infotainment education. His response was t create a program called Marketing Heaven to expose the very structure of commercialism in Japanese tv and unmask the sponsorship system. An infotainment 'news' program on Japanese consumerist culture, Marketing Heaven illustrated the rise of products in Japan (marketing heaven) with a play-by-play analysis of how the media, connived with advertising, to create 'life style' trends.
Japanese advertising relies very much on co-ordinated media entry, i.e., a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie will invariably be accompanied by advertising activity, either a new product launch, or Arnie becoming the 'character' for the campaign – much like the Olympics' has adopted 'characters' for each quadrennial event since Dentsu took it over. Any advertising-generated product and media topic will do – Desert Storm, the soft-drink for the fighting spirit is one example that comes to mind – though wars are generally so unreliable, few are as marketable (i.e. morally 'unambiguous') as that block-buster mini-series was. Things like 'the environment' (Suntory is thinking about the earth) are much better, and more quantifiable.
So the planning teams at the new product's advertising company will gather all of their marketing data on an upcoming 'event,' and find that Schuwa-chan (Mr. A.S.), stuffing his face with carbohydrates, with a 'new' (maybe 2% different from the last) flavor concept, is just the ticket to capitalize on the new movie. Meanwhile, a soon-to-be-released pop song by some songbird looking to surf in and beach itself on the body of the public's adulation is chosen as the soundtrack. Et voila! The three find their marriage in advertising; a commercial for the new flavor concept (thinner noodle production technology, etc.), Arnie's pects, and the young starlet is created, all at once - and they all get paid for promoting.
Marketing Heaven identified and quantified Japanese management of the media. In charting the rise and fall of a variety of trends, from instant noodles to weddings, according to how many magazines, lps, movie tickets … they sold, he identified the workings of infotainment as infotainment, and called it news. He turned mass media upon itself. Assuming that network television is an advertising and not a communications medium (and cnn, filled with ads for cnn showing history as viewed by cnn is probably the most obvious example), Tanaka, in effect, created a reference point for watching tv as tv. In it's final weekly episode, it analysed (consumed) itself, illustrating its own machinations. The final proof, was of course, that in the end, those same sponsors were vying for air time. It was a success but it didn't go far enough.
The Humiliation at Canossa
Tanaka was not satisfied. What good was it to pretend critical distance, merely illustrating the phenomenon? Wasn't this itself tv? And weren't people too jaded and apathetic to make this snake eat its tail? Did they not just gape at the program in half-comprehending awe of the mechanism?
And so, Tanaka moved one step up the cultural food chain, to the next level of information resources. Turning his guns on the Japanese educational system, with its examination-oriented, rote-learning 'manual education' methodologies, he made an even more commercialist and far more cynical program whose (seeming) sole purpose was to laugh at how the Japanese are made into assembly-line fact-reciting automata.
The examination-hell syndrome that all Japanese teenagers must undergo is fairly well documented. Their teen years are a blurred rush to position themselves on the right elevator up the ladder of success, like salmon that raced upstream in childhood, to spend the last two-thirds of their lives in the shallow spawning riverbeds. As in many industrialized democracies, if the path to societal position doesn't come from your father's genes, there are ways to pay for the elevator to be extended clear into your mother's womb. Applications into kindergartens must be made before you're even born, so that you can come out running to try and keep up with your parents expectations for you. To determine if you will fail, maintain, or exceed your parents' expectations, tests are the preferred, verifiable mechanism of 'fair' regulation. You have a choice: either trade your childhood for knowledge as approved by the Ministry of Education, or go out and ruin your future, hanging out at the corner 7-11, trying desperately to learn about what concerns the opposite sex, and the rest of growing up. By the time you get to be in your mid-30's, however, you know how much talent and ambition you have, and, with life-time employment, how far you are likely to go -- if anywhere. You also have a pretty good idea if you were a success personally, having married by the age 30 deadline (if you want to remain on the escalator), you can pick up any number of 'women's magazines' filled with tests on mate compatibility.
The Humiliation at Canossa (the name was taken from the incident in the northern Italian town of Canossa in 1077 ad when Henri IV was made to wait in the snow for three days before Pope Gregory VII would grant him an audience and reverse his excommunication) was yet another test – a check-up, if you will - in the format of a cultural documentary. It paralleled the true histories of pop ephemera and the official Ministry-approved textbooks syllabus. An ageing academic seated in a library greeted you at the beginning of the program, to introduce today's topic. You took out your pencils, and a video tape would begin. Then as you (attempted to) followed the parallels between Chinese emperors and Japanese pop idols, or the development of fast-food culture seen in the light of the Enlightenment, you would soon know if you were one of the true elite: those smart enough to have learned something in school and still find time to remain fashionable enough to have had a sex life. It's a joke, but do you get it? If you couldn't laugh, for the right reason and at the right time, and explain to your date while watching (were you un-cool enough to be dating bimbos who needed it explained to them?), exactly what was so clever about that section of the program, it would tell them instantly, which you were: a failure at being a book-worm, or a wastrel. It was, of course, a run-away success.
Now that he had successes with the present and past under his belt, Tanaka decided to take on the intelligentsia, by showing off what they're not at all prepared for, the future. The third program in his trilogy brought advertising and intellectuals into a common arena, ridiculing condescending Japanese 'know-it-all-ism,' with a betting game of upcoming events, pitting the 'intelligentsia' against the 'pop.' A panel of four leading 'opinion makers' were assembled to bet on the little details of the coming week. Did university professors have a better grip on the up-and-coming, or did advertising copywriters? Taking trivial points which would underlie important events, such as where the Prime Minister would stand in the group photo at the g-7 conference, and what this says about Japanese/g-7 relations? (This was even copied by Japan's highest rated news program as a new kind of news analysis.) Literally raising the stakes on their assertions, the game was constructed such that a player received a fixed amount of currency at the beginning of the program, and if they lost on their bets, they were thrown out of the game, and never allowed back on, as someone caught in possession of bankrupt opinions. With such stakes, what percentages would you bet against in asserting your beliefs?
Television Bookmaker borrowed its format from the 'gentlemen's club' betting world of British aristocracy. There were no females ever seen on screen, the show began with the players seated, sipping tea, and awaiting the arrival of the betmaster. Upon his arrival, the results of the previous week's trivia, and who had gained and lost how much currency, following by the upcoming week's issues, details, and their odds. By the end of its run, predictably enough, the educators and businessmen were bankrupt, and the otakki and copywriters ruled supreme.
Tanaka's work addresses the same info-fetishism that bred the shinjin-rui, otaku and all of the other buzz-word classifications, but it assaulted it from the inside, taking these fetishistic impulses to an aggressive extreme.
Frankly his work since doesn't interest me very much. It includes a program on the irrelevance of lifestyle choices and another referring to early Japanese pro-wrestling. However the fact that Tanaka pitted people with non-standard body types into battle in a mud pit (it has long been a self-imposed rule that midgets and handicapped people do not appear on the Japanese airwaves), shows he has not lost his touch of turning tv upon itself.