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Sunday, April 11, 2004


NHK's "Sonotoki Rekishi ha Ugoita" and more

Zenigata Heiji is an enduring fictional character in Japanese popular culture. Many of Japan's top leading men have portrayed him in dozens of movies and TV series.

On Monday, it's Hiroaki Murakami's turn, as he stars in the fifth TV series to focus on the hero (TV Asahi, 7 p.m.). Zenigata is slightly different from the usual jidai-geki (historical drama) hero in that he is not a samurai and is not from a noble family. He is an okappiki, which is a kind of freelance policeman authorized by the Edo authorities to catch criminals. Okappiki were recruited from the ranks of ex-criminals. As his name implies -- zeni means "money" -- Zenigata's weapons of choice are coins, which he flings at his enemies with deadly accuracy.

In the opening adventure of the new series, a retired official is murdered and a rival okappiki captures the main suspect. The suspect admits to killing the official and says that he did so because the official molested his girlfriend. But then the girlfriend comes forward to say that it was she who committed the murder. Zenigata has his suspicions.

Moving further back in history, NHK looks at the first group of Japanese youths to travel to Europe on its "Movements of History" series (NHK-G, Wednesday, 9:15 p.m.). In the late 16th century, during the Sengoku Period in Japan, four Japanese boys, aged 12 and 13, went to Europe for the purpose of initiating exchange between Japan and the West.

Interest in the mission -- organized by three Christian daimyo -- was revived last year when portions of the Bible copied by the boys in Latin and Japanese were found in Poland. Rather than being treated as curiosities, the youths were welcomed as scholars, famous for their politeness and studiousness. During their three-year sojourn they studied languages, the classics and science, and on March 23, 1585, had an audience with the pope.

More untold history. On Friday, TV Tokyo premieres a new historical variety show, "Tokoro-san & Osugi no Idai Naru Tohoho Jinbutsuden (Tokoro and Osugi's Odd Legacies of Great Men)," at 8 p.m. The show is hosted by ubiquitous comedian Joji Tokoro and movie critic Osugi and, as the title suggests, looks at some lesser-known facts about the lives of powerful men.

The subject of the first program is Isamu Kondo, the leader of the Shinsengumi, which was a private army of samurai that became famous during the civil strife that led to the Meiji Restoration. Kondo came from a poor farming family and became a samurai through sheer force of will, but was always self-conscious about his humble beginnings. Tokoro and Osugi look at how his "obsession with status" affected his life. They relate unflattering anecdotes that are probably not included in the hagiographic series about Kondo NHK is currently running on Sunday nights.

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