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Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003

MEDIA MIX

That obscure object of trivial pursuits


Last week, I read a review of the new Sofia Coppola movie, "Lost in Translation," on the Web. The movie, which was received enthusiastically at the Venice Film Festival, is about two Americans who strike up a friendship in Tokyo, and the writer referred in passing to the "unfathomable craziness of [Japanese] TV." In the context of the movie, where the two visitors try to cope with a foreign culture, the remark makes sense, but the writer seemed to be making a general comment: The weirdness of Japanese television transcends language and cultural barriers. It's just plain bizarre.

As someone who spends way too much time watching and thinking about Japanese TV, I found the remark itself unfathomable. I've always considered Japanese TV to be very conventional, and not just conventional within the parameters of Japanese culture. The bulk of nondramatic prime-time programs mix and match elements of quiz shows, talk shows, burlesque comedy and light documentaries. Most producers try to figure out new ways to reconfigure these elements rather than devise completely new ones. "Reality TV" was a reality in Japan long before it became popular in the United States and Europe, and not because it was innovative or edgy, but because it was cheap.

In fact, I'm more intrigued by the production values of a program than by its concept or content. Right now, the highest rated series on commercial TV is Fuji's "Trivia no Izumi -- Subarashiki Muda Chishiki" (Wednesday, 9 p.m.), whose very title trumpets its frivolity: "Fountain of Trivia -- Wonderful and Useless Knowledge." Like the old American "Gong Show," which was recently given a fresh coat of topicality with the release of the movie "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Trivia" revels in its own marginality.

The concept is about as deep. Viewers send in silly facts and a panel of five celebrities award them between 1 and 20 points depending on how impressive they are. Each time one of the panelists hits the button, a point is registered. Submissions receive a measly 100 yen for every point up 99. But if the celebrities give it 100 points, however, the award jumps up to 100,000 yen.

The items can be interesting in the way trivia often is: The man who founded Puma footwear is the brother of the man who founded Adidas footwear; a turtle's penis is bigger than its head; Japan's Self-Defense Force tanks are the only ones in the world that have turn signals. Many of the items only mean something to certain people. Even if a non-Japanese person knew who folk singer Keiko Fuji and comedian Paako Hayashiya are, he or she likely wouldn't be impressed by the fact that they apprenticed together as enka singers. The panelists, however, were quite amazed at this revelation and gave it 85 points.

The impression gains a lot with the presentation. The items are worded in such a way that they build interest as the announcer reads them. In addition, the points system is pegged to an electronic recording of a woman uttering the Japanese exclamation "he," which is sort of like the English word "Really?," but with a flat inflection to indicate that the speaker finds the information difficult to process. But the hes don't stop after the item is read. They continue into the explanation, which is where the show's superior production values kick in. Every item is researched thoroughly, and the results of the research are much more interesting than the item itself.

It's also more labor-intensive. I can't decide if "Trivia no Izumi" is the cheapest show on television or the most expensive. A recent item explained that a group of Edo Period samurai once had their picture taken in front of the Great Sphinx. Not only was the photo shown, but the whole story behind the photo shoot was also revealed (early diplomats on a junket).

What was doubly interesting, however, was the followup item, which stated that if you follow the Sphinx's gaze, it will lead you to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. This fact produced a lot more hes than the samurai one, but not as much as the video clip used to illustrate it. After we are shown the face of the magnificent Sphinx, the camera spins around 180 degrees to show us the words "Sphinx KFC." As many times as that huge stone figure has appeared in books and on TV, no one has ever bothered to turn the camera in the other direction. The Sphinx faces a strip mall.

The producers somehow got a video crew to Egypt just for this brief clip (they are even shown going into the KFC and ordering food). For another item, a video crew was sent all the way down to the tip of the Japanese archipelago to get a shot of the southernmost traffic sign. The clip lasted 30 seconds.

It is the dynamic of juxtaposing useless information with state-of-the-art production values that provides "Trivia" with its irresistible appeal. This dynamic is exploited to the full on a regular segment called "Seeds of Trivia," where attempts are made to "create" new trivia items. A viewer once suggested they find out how much hair is cut in Japan every day in terms of length. The staff visited 300 hair salons in Aoyama and collected all the hair that was cut in those establishments during a single day. Then they took it to the Budokan, where they weighed it (145 kg) and connected 0.1 gram of it end-on-end to find its length (47.5 meters). Assuming there are 350,000 haircutting establishments in Japan, they extrapolated their findings and estimated that if all the strands of hair cut in Japan in one day were laid end to end, the line would reach from Earth to Mars.

Scientifically, this sort of research is pretty dodgy, but the show's claim that the information they provide is "totally useless" is disingenuous.

The cumulative effect of watching "Trivia no Izumi" week after week is to form a conception of the world as a wondrously diverse place. The show is completely comprehensible. It's life that's unfathomably crazy.



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