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Sunday, Sept. 1, 2002

CHANNEL SURF

The pros and cons of character typing

If you need help with a problem and want to make a bunch of celebrities feel good, check out Nippon TV's "Power Bank" (Sunday, 12:30 p.m.). For each episode of the show, individuals register as "helpers," meaning people with some kind of skill or experience, and when a viewer requests assistance, this "bank" of expertise is utilized. But just in case there isn't anyone in the bank with the skills required, the show's main host, sports tarento Kane Kosugi and his two celebrity assistants are always on hand to do what they can.

Among the tasks for which viewers requested assistance on past shows were English conversation, renovating an old judo dojo, showing someone around Sugamo, training for a marathon and helping a child learn how to swim. On this week's show, Kosugi and his experts will help someone find good homes for 36 dogs.

Sunday is the election for the governor of Nagano Prefecture, and you can bet your Shinshu soba that after the polls close at 8, all the TV stations will be indulging in "flash news" reports about the possible results based mainly on exit polls.

This coverage will continue on the wide shows Monday morning, by which time the winner will be known. However, both Nippon TV and TV Asahi are planning coverage of the election on two of their regular prime-time shows Monday night.

"Super TV" (NTV, 9 p.m.) will present an hourlong documentary of the campaign. Because of strict fairness laws, the media are limited in what they can cover during the designated campaign period. If they cover one candidate, they have to cover them all equally. Consequently, while the campaign is on, news shows only provide perfunctory coverage. They are all taping and interviewing fully during this time, but they don't show this material until after the election. "Super TV" will present a digest of the entire 18-day campaign, which presumably means that the show's producers will be up all night Sunday editing the material they have.

At the exact same time, Asahi's "TV Tackle," the long-running current affairs talk show hosted by Beat Takeshi, will offer its in-studio analysis of the campaign and the results. "Tackle" is famous for its revolving panel of present and former politicians, so expect some very pointed and lively discussions.

One of the more interesting and less-remarked aspects of NHK's wildly influential documentary series "Project X" is that, ratings-wise, it isn't a big deal. Though individual programs have hit the 20 percent share mark since the series started in March 2000, most of the installments have had much lower ratings. According to Aera magazine, college students never watch the show. In fact, the show's popularity is based on a single demographic: middle-aged men.

The subject of "Project X" is the business and technical derring-do that made Japan the economic powerhouse it is today. Some find it infinitely inspiring, while others see it simply as a salve for older salarymen whose egos have been bruised by the ongoing recession. The show's ojisan fans have purchased billions of yen in tie-in products, including 600,000 books, 170,000 comic books, 280,000 videos, 155,000 DVDs, even socks and stationery with the program logo.

This week's topic (NHK-G, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m.) is the development of the Japanese word processor. With its two syllabaries and 50,000 Chinese characters, the Japanese writing system is one of the most complex in the world, and following World War II, this complexity put a drag on the country's economic recovery. It is estimated that drawing up a document cost a Japanese company three times what it would cost a Western counterpart for an equivalent document.

A group of young engineers at Toshiba decided to tackle this problem in the late '60s. The main difficulty, of course, was that Japanese has many synonyms and homonyms. How could they program a machine to distinguish them all? When they finally succeeded in the '70s, Toshiba was rewarded with sales of 30 million word processors.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Fuji TV will present the final installment of "Kita no Kuni Kara (From the North Country)" (8:07 p.m.), the story of a motherless Hokkaido family that started in 1981 as a 26-episode serial.

Authored by veteran scriptwriter So Kuramoto, "Kita no Kuni" is about Goro Kurosaka (Kunie Tanaka), who, broken-hearted when his wife falls in love with another man, leaves Tokyo with his two young children, Jun (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and Hotaru (Tomoko Nakajima), and moves to the almost primitive village of Rokugo, located in the central Furano area of the big northern island. Starting from scratch, with no water and no electricity, the three are continually beset by physical and emotional hardship.

The original series was so popular that Fuji TV and Kuramoto presented dramatic updates of the Kurosakas in 1983, '84, '87, '89, '92, '95 and '98, following Jun and Hotaru as they go through school, fall in love, get married and suffer the normal disappointments of young adulthood, all the while receiving spiritual solace from their gentle, hardworking father.

It is a measure of the iconic power of the series that Kuramoto has never written anything else for television since 1981 and that both Yoshioka and Nakajima have trouble getting work as actors, being so closely identified with their "Kita no Kuni" alter egos.

It will all end this week. Goro is diagnosed with a terminal illness and sets out to provide a legacy for these two children before he dies.



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