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Sunday, June 1, 2003

MEDIA MIX

Travel or reality show? A bit of both and neither


The TV Tokyo series, "Inaka ni Tomaro" ("Let's Spend the Night in the Countryside"; Sunday 7 p.m.), which started several months ago, is categorized as a travel show, but its appeal is similar to that which characterizes reality shows, namely the spectacle of people placed in real-life situations that test their character.

Taking advantage of the current interest in Japanese rural life exploited on shows like Nippon TV's "Ichi-okunin no Daishitsumon" and NHK's "Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kanpai," the producers of "Inaka" send camera crews into remote villages where they confront people on the street and in fields and get themselves invited into their homes to enjoy rustic hospitality.

Like "Tsurube," "Inaka" uses Japanese celebrities for infiltration purposes, but they are charged with something more difficult: They not only have to get invited into private homes, they have to spend the night there. So while the usual features of travel shows have a place on the program, they are by necessity secondary to the "negotiations" for securing shelter for the night.

As simple as it sounds, this aspect gives "Inaka" enough depth to launch a hundred cultural anthropology theses. In an article in the current issue of TV Serai, the show's producer, Nobuhiko Oshima, says his purpose is to present the "healing" power of a simpler life in the countryside, where the "virtues of traditional Japan" are still in evidence.

In this regard, the use of celebrities could be seen as counterproductive. Oshima seems to understand this and says, somewhat condescendingly, that people in the country "don't know that many famous people," which is important because he doesn't want the natives to invite strangers into their homes just because they're celebrities. In other words, he wants them to do so completely out of the goodness of their hearts.

In actuality, most of the celebrity travelers end up staying with families who are at least familiar with them from TV. But even when it's obvious that the family has no idea who the visitor is -- the elderly couple who grudgingly allowed Takanori Hatakeyama to stay the night didn't find out he was a world champion boxer until the next morning, and even then hadn't heard his name before -- they certainly notice the film crew that's tailing the person. Oshima says that he tries to make the exchange "as natural as possible," but how natural can it be when you have four other people hanging around lugging equipment?

Another important point, and one that Oshima doesn't address, is that the celebrities are not looking for a place to stay because they actually need a place to stay. They are looking because that's their job -- in essence, they're being paid to do so. Consequently, everyone on both sides of the negotiation ends up perplexed and looking a little foolish. A celebrity can obviously afford to stay at a commercial establishment, and this fact dilutes the presumed kindness that Oshima wants to convey, no matter how heartfelt it might be.

Because the exchanges take place in front of the camera, they take on extra layers of meaning, one of which has to do with the locals' feelings about being on TV. Oshima says that the most common reason for turning down a request for accommodation is that the house "is a mess," an excuse that seems to indicate the residents don't want to be embarrassed on national television. Indeed, some travelers have a tough time finding accommodation, though Oshima says no one has had to "sleep outdoors" yet.

This desperation can be discomfiting. Several weeks ago, a lesser-known comedian went to almost 10 houses before he found a place to stay (the head of household, in fact, seemed to be the only person the comedian encountered who knew who he was) and was practically in tears. His entreaties for shelter became almost unbearable, but why should we feel sorry for him? It's not as if he's a lone backpacker who lost his wallet.

Once a bed has been secured, the pattern is always exactly the same: a meal that the celebrity invariably cites as the best he or she has ever eaten, a bath and sleep. The next morning, the guest tries to do something to repay the kindness (ongaeshi), such as helping out with the chores or repairing something.

This pattern prompts more tacit questions. Where does the crew sleep? Has everyone who appears in the final broadcast version signed a release, including the people who turned down requests for accommodation?

More important: How does the show demonstrate that noncity people retain "traditional virtues" if we take traditional virtues to mean treating guests as family? Just as some people may turn away the celebrities because they don't want cameras in their homes, some may feel that they have to invite the celebrities in lest they appear coldhearted on TV.

The only thing you can say definitely about the program is that the people who do put up the celebrities follow a predictable pattern for hospitality because they know what's expected of them. They may possess the virtues that Oshima wants to show, but those virtues are at least partly coaxed out of them. Each adventure ends with a celebrity bonding with a family, and just as anthropologists factor their own observing presence into their analysis of isolated cultures, the viewer factors the knowledge that the host's kindness was exploited for entertainment purposes into the resulting friendship, which will fade as soon as the celebrity returns to Tokyo.

As a travel program, "Inaka ni Tomaro" is unexceptional, but as a reality show it might offer at least one valuable tip for rural sojourners: Make reservations.



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