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Sunday, April 7, 2002


Guess who's coming to dinner?

Thanks to a series of scandals, Snow Brand Dairy Products has seen one subsidiary fall and its image seriously damaged, but that's not the worst of it. Last Sunday, "Ryori Banzai," one of Japanese TV's longest-running cooking shows, signed off forever with a long, tearful thank-you speech. Ever since its inception several decades ago, the show's sole sponsor was . . . Snow Brand.

This Sunday, "Banzai" 's time slot is taken up by a brand-new food show, "Meals at the Hidden House: The Restaurant With No Menu" (TV Asahi, 6 p.m.). Less a cooking show than a talk show about food, the premise is suitably contrived. Set in an old Western-style restaurant in a remote corner of a major Japanese city, the series drips sophistication. The restaurant is so exclusive, in fact, that it can only accommodate one patron a night. Not only that, but the patrons are always "top people in their respective fields," with discerning tastes to match their reputations.

Popular actor Masahiko Nishimura plays the restaurant owner cum series host. His "young wife," played by Kei Yoshida, is always on hand to lend the proceedings a feminine touch, and impressionist Akimasa Haraguchi plays the comic maitre d'. Each week's guest is presented with a menu tailored to his or her "special attributes." The guest and Nishimura discuss the meals as they eat.

The guest for the premiere program is none other than the premier himself: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Japan's big cheese will discuss his love of opera and the hard-rock band X Japan. Please, no politics, we're eating.

A growing social problem in Japan is the number of hikikomori, people who suffer from a form of agoraphobia and never leave their homes -- or, in some cases, even their rooms -- for years on end. A young director for Nippon TV, Nobuhito Hiyoshi, became interested in the topic several years ago when his wife became a virtual shut-in. As a teenager, she had stopped going to school altogether but eventually recovered. After they were married and she'd had a baby, however, she stopped going out altogether.

A year ago, Hiyoshi presented a special in which he documented several hikikomori cases, including his wife's. Monday night on "Super TV" (Nippon TV, 9 p.m.), he returns to these people after a year to see how they have changed over the past 12 months.

The most striking story is that of a 39-year-old man who lives by himself in a large house in Shibuya. The man has supposedly not left the house since his first year of junior high school. His family, it turns out, lives in a different building on the same property and only visits to deliver him meals. Though Hiyoshi and his staff have made friends with the man, in last year's documentary he still refused to allow them to enter his own room, supposedly because "it holds secrets." This year, the crew is finally admitted into this inner sanctum.

In addition, Hiyoshi uses the Internet to seek out a subculture of "hikikomori wrist cutters." This is exactly what it sounds like: young women with severe self-image problems who obsessively mutilate themselves. He focuses on a woman who was once so disturbed that she had to carry a knife with her at all times; without it she became a nervous wreck. The woman has now learned to leave her room without a knife and gives lectures on this specific disorder.

Hiyoshi also presents an update on his wife, who, in last year's special, seemed to be getting better. Unfortunately, since then she has had a relapse.

The World Cup is less than two months away, so if you're American or otherwise ignorant of the finer and not-so-fine points of soccer, it's probably too late to learn now. Nevertheless, NHK has been kind enough to put together a 13-part series called "This is Soccer" on BS-1 starting April 9 at 10 p.m.

The series is designed for soccer beginners and covers everything from the game's history and rules to famous players and even its social aspects -- including hooligans. The explanations are simple and down-to-earth, and the programs include lots of interviews with major soccer stars.

April 9: The roots of professional soccer in England in the mid-1800s; the game's rapid spread to the continent.

April 10: The development of modern soccer since 1930.

April 11: Soccer as a cultural phenomenon.

April 15: Brazil, where soccer is more than just the national sport.

April 16: How different countries in Europe have dominated the game since the 70s.

April 17: Soccer in Africa and Asia.

April 18: Soccer in South America.

April 22: Superstars of the game: their glories and disgraces.

April 23: How France's World Cup victory in 1998 helped the country acknowledge its rich cultural diversity.

April 24: Club teams as opposed to national teams.

April 25: The commercialism of soccer and how it gave rise to hooligans.

The subject of the last two programs are to be announced.

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