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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001

CHANNEL SURF

Remembering the year that was

It's the penultimate week of the year, which means regular variety shows get to save a bit of money by looking back at the year's highlights. "Sanma's Karakuri TV" (tonight at 7, TBS), a mix-and-match assembly of out-of-studio comedy skits hosted in-studio by Osaka funnyman Sanma Akashiya, presents an extended two-hour special tonight.

The highlight portion of the show will reprise the year's best home videos, which always open the show. These videos are usually categorized into animals, children and family themes.

Another popular segment is "Funniest Japanese," presented by No. 1 gaijin tarento Thane Camus, who actually grew up in Japan. Originally, this segment was titled "Funniest English" and had Camus going to various places in Tokyo and asking average people to describe personal experiences in their best English, which usually turned out to be very bad English. "Funniest Japanese" turns the tables by quizzing foreigners who describe experiences in their best Japanese. On tonight's show, however, the segment has been revamped, with Camus offering lessons on "correct Japanese" to three "unique" foreign guests.

Then there's "Sarariiman Hayashirabe Quiz (Salaryman's Quick Investigation Quiz)," which usually takes place in Shinbashi or Higashi Shinjuku, two of the more famous watering holes for Japanese businessmen. Drunk salarymen are waylaid on their way home and asked trivia questions. They must then use pay phones to call someone to get the answer. Needless to say, the quiz portion is superfluous; the point is watching inebriated men (and sometimes women) make fools of themselves. This is weird even by Japanese standards. On tonight's show, the quiz is taken out of Tokyo and brought to regional cities such as Sendai.

Nihon TV's "Ito-ke no Shokutaku (The Ito Family Table)" (Tuesday, 7 p.m.), the most popular show on TV, will present a two-hour Christmas special of the 100 best ideas presented on the show in the last year. The Ito family is not a real family, but rather, well-known actors and TV personalities "playing" a family, who receive suggestions from viewers on how to make life easier or more pleasurable. These suggestions are divided into urawaza (clever tricks) and daihakken (fun ideas) and tested by the family in the studio.

The show, which racks up an amazing 25 percent viewer share week after week, has its own massive fan club, which came up with 10 categories of suggestions and then chose the 10 best of the year for each category. These categories include laundry tips; ideas for saving money; things to do outside the home; cooking and culinary ideas; cleaning and storage ideas (especially helpful at this time of year); brainstorms that make life easy (like how to get all the yogurt out of a carton); card tricks, games and little things you can do to entertain family and friends.

Tonight's guests include enka singer Hiroshi Istuki and the comedy team Neptune.

'Unbelievable," the Thursday night variety show featuring "true" tales of miracles and the supernatural (Fuji, 6:30 p.m.), will also have an extended special this week. Though the show began several years ago as a weekly omnibus of interesting true stories re-enacted in dramatic form, it has since become the main TV showcase for scary stories and shinrei (ghost) photographs and videos.

This week's show is Part Two of an onmyoji special broadcast in October. Onmyoji are exorcists and this past fall, a Japanese movie called "Onmyoji" was a box-office hit.

"Unbelievable" ghost stories follow the same pattern. In the studio, celebrity guests are presented with normal snapshots or home videos that are believed to include images of spirits not seen at the time the photos or videos were taken. On this week's "documentary special," the shinrei photo was sent by a woman who, since early childhood, has been plagued by ESP-like visions. An onmyoji is recruited and accompanies a TV crew to the woman's house, where they proceed to find out the secret behind the woman's troubling visions.

If it's December, then there must be at least one TV version of "Chushingura," Japan's favorite tale of honorable revenge, which has been staged, filmed, and written about thousands of times.

The tale of the 47 ronin who plot to avenge the death of their master supposedly speaks volumes to everyone with a drop of Japanese blood in their veins, and it is something of a custom for every generation's stars to perform in a re-enactment of the story at least once.

On Friday, a new three-hour version titled "Chushingura 1/47" (Fuji, 9 p.m.) will premiere, starring SMAP-man Takuya Kimura as Horibe Yasubei, the only one of the 47 samurai who actually killed someone with a sword. The drama is centered around Yasubei's life, rather than the revenge tale (which all Japanese know, anyway), following his development into an expert swordsman and his spiritual awakening. Kimura himself chose the odd subtitle, "1/47," which, he says, stresses the fact that, although the drama is about Yasubei, he is only one hero among 47 heroes.



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