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Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Plea to a TV comic: Take on the big boys and take on politics


To Hikari Ota, c/o Titan Talent Agency.

Oct. 22, 2006.

Dear Ota-san,

I write a column for one of the local English language dailies. The column is about Japanese media, which means I have to watch a lot of television, though, frankly, I try to watch as little as possible. The reasons I try to watch as little as possible have to do with the nature of television in general and the nature of Japanese television in particular.

Long story short, if you've seen one variety show you've seen them all. In fact, if you've seen one variety show, you've probably seen one too many.

You and Yuji Tanaka, your partner in the comedy duo Bakusho Mondai, host many variety shows. I seem to remember that at one time not too long ago you had a program on every night of the week. More power to you. Nice work if you can get it. I know that the more of these shows you appear on, the more influence you have in the fickle world of television.

You yourself have reached a position of influence that few Japanese comedians can claim. I am specifically referring to your Friday night Nihon TV show, "If I Were Prime Minister," where you preside over a mock national assembly made up of real politicians and the usual complement of television personalities. Having watched Japanese TV for longer than I care to remember, I no longer have much patience for this mixture of serious themes and frivolous presentation, but I've become a fan of the show. The reason is you.

The so-called debates over issues you bring up in this assembly often descend into the kind of verbal pillow fights that characterize all political talk shows on commercial television -- people screaming their points of view past each other. No one listens, and no one learns anything, including the audience. I know that is what the producers want, but I can also tell that it makes you uncomfortable because it's obvious that you do, in fact, listen. You always address the points being made by others, even if they are totally stupid.

That's because you have actually read and thought about the topic at hand. The most annoying factor about issue-oriented variety shows is that experts share jaw time with celebrities who know nothing about the issues. I suppose these celebrities can be seen as representing viewers' ignorance, but more likely they are there simply to be humiliated. It's fun to laugh at the sexy idol who thinks poor people are cute.

My main concern is that you get carried away yourself. Several weeks ago when you brought up a proposal to make a holiday to commemorate Article 9 of the Constitution, you became red-faced trying to explain your reasons. You believe that Japan occupies a unique position in the world because of Article 9's renunciation of war, which will be removed when the revisions proposed by the current administration are realized. By making a holiday, you believe that such revisions can be put off indefinitely. You made it clear that your opinion was based on pure idealism, but you also made it clear that such idealism cannot be discounted out of hand, that it deserves serious debate. What impressed me was how thoroughly and ruthlessly you had interrogated your own ideas beforehand.

These issues mean a lot to you, and I think the producers want to see you get red-faced, your veins popping out of your forehead as you try to make these politicians understand things you went to a great deal of trouble to work out. That is why they offered you this show. But don't forget. You are a comedian, and you know that any issue, no matter how difficult, makes a bigger impression when it's presented in a humorous way.

In your new book, the one where you discuss Article 9 with anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa (by the way, congratulations -- I hear it's No. 5 on Maruzen's best-seller list), you say you don't have the ability to translate your "sense of justice" into comedy. I've always been puzzled by the lack of political humor or satire on Japanese TV. Rakugo storytellers poke fun at authority, and I read in an interview with your manager-wife Mitsuyo on the Nikkei Web site in which she said Bakusho Mondai is one of the few comedy duos who tackle current issues, though I assume she's referring to your stage routines. TV seems allergic to this sort of humor, and I can only guess that it's because producers are afraid of offending viewers. Or maybe it's something worse.

The second biggest box-office hit in South Korea this year is a movie called "The King and the Clown." It will open here in December. You should definitely see it.

Set during the Chosun Dynasty, it's about a group of itinerant entertainers who are arrested for staging street plays that poke fun at the king's sexual habits. At one point, the leader of this troupe asks, "Is it a crime to perform in public something that everybody laughs about in private?"

I'm sure you joke about politicians in private all the time. I do. Everyone does. In your book you say you could never be a politician because being a comedian is everything to you. Given your zeal to understand current affairs, it must be frustrating to not make fun of politicians.

Don't be like those other comedians. Beat Takeshi has hosted the political variety show "TV Tackle" for more than 10 years and the only people he pokes fun at are the weak and helpless. Have you ever seen the American fake news program "The Daily Show," or its spinoff "The Colbert Report?" That's exactly the kind of thing you'd be good at. Take on the big boys! Use your sense of humor and your sense of justice!

I know you can do it. Maybe you're the only Japanese comedian who can. It would be a shame to not even try.

Yours truly,

Philip Brasor



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