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Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Shades of the BBC in NHK's own 'The Office'


Two months ago I heard about a comedy sketch that appeared last May on the American show "Saturday Night Live." Actor Steve Carrell was the host and he and the cast of regulars did a parody of his own show, "The Office," an American version of the famous British sitcom about white-collar workers. SNL presented a Japanese version of "The Office" in correct, though heavily accented, Japanese.

It was said to be good and available on YouTube, but NBC Universal has blocked it in Japan. I keep looking for it, and in the meantime I've run across comments from people who recommend anyone who enjoyed the SNL "Office" parody to check out "Salaryman NEO," a Japanese comedy sketch show about Japanese office life.

I saw "Salaryman NEO" once about two years ago and didn't find it very funny. It is broadcast on NHK, and to me the terms "NHK" and "comedy" are mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, the show has garnered a substantial following since it first appeared in 2004, and it was nominated for an International Emmy in the Comedy category in 2007. So when NHK announced it would run an all-day marathon of season 3 on its BShi channel Nov. 23, I decided to put aside my prejudices and see how much I could endure.

I managed to make it all the way through, which isn't to say my opinion changed. I still don't think it's very funny, but now I also think that maybe I'm not meant to think it's very funny. Most of the sketches are conceptual in nature — rather than looking at office life in a humorous way, the show attempts to explore certain aspects of the white-collar world using irony. Nevertheless, as I continued to watch, I realized that the stereotypes normally attached to Japanese salarymen have become outdated, even if the customs and mores that circumscribe their work are still in place.

This realization was provoked by a recurring sketch called "80s Kissa," which is set in a small coffee shop that plays foreign hits from the 1980s for its regular clientele of businessmen frequenting the establishment in order to regain what the proprietor calls "that bubbly feeling." It was during the storied "bubble era" of the '80s, when Japan seemed poised to take over the world, that the idea of the Japanese salaryman as a "corporate warrior" became widespread. Things have changed considerably since then, not least of all Japan's image of itself in relation to the world. But despite the show's qualifying subtitle — "For the new age of office workers" — the stereotypes of that era persist in the sketches.

The salarymen depicted have bad hair, poor complexions, and atrocious social skills; but they know how to bow and scrape before the right people and how to talk down to those who have yet to rise as far as they have. They are also generally clueless around women, though it must be said that the show allows white-collar females an equal amount of exposure — if not an equal measure of ridicule.

In "Sukeban Oeru Yasha," one of the more popular sketches on the show, the titular "Patrol of OL She-Devils" secretly terrorizes male colleagues who pull the usual salaryman stunts, like ordering the office ladies (OLs) to make coffee and then taking only two sips. Every episode follows the same pattern: Two OLs corner the miscreant in the locker room, their leader walks in and threatens him with violence if he pulls the stunt again, and then an executive male shows up unexpectedly and the three women revert to stereotypical obsequious OL behavior. What makes the sketch interesting is not the humor, which is overplayed, but the premise. I'm sure women office workers want to see which complaint they handle next.

These complaints are probably still relevant though not necessarily as pressing in today's corporate world, which relies more on temps for the kind of roles that OLs traditionally filled. Other sketches tackle other anachronistic themes: the kacho (section chief) who whines like a baby when his subordinates inadvertently leave him out of their social plans; the two colleagues who seethe against each other because neither can leave the office at night until the other one does; and lots of sloppy drunks, which is not really anachronistic, just trite.

Still, "NEO" is edgier than most TV comedy in Japan, which is why it's surprising to find it on NHK. Journalist and critic Hiromichi Ugaya recently praised the show in Kinyobi magazine, saying that some sketches are "self-parodies" of NHK's staid image: extremely dull newscasts, female interviewers turning on their guests, bizarre exercise shows. But these parodies are lightweight, and sometimes they even give their subjects a positive spin. There are sketches that start out as spoofs but end up as straightforward, non-ironic reports. One offered an inside look at real-life skilled professionals, while another was a survey of in-company lunch services.

The show improves markedly when it looks beyond corporate life to the larger society structured around that life. A sketch called "Garden Party" is pure black humor. A man who has worked hard his whole career finally buys his suburban dream house and is so proud and happy that he can't see that the place is as dark, cramped and depressing as any urban rental apartment. It's a joke on him — and maybe on viewers as well.

Ugaya compares "Salaryman NEO" to "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in that NHK finally seems to have caught up with its main overseas model, the BBC, in its approach to comedy. But "Monty Python" went way beyond parodying the BBC, and as Ugaya points out, NHK will probably never allow the kind of political satire found on "Python." For that matter, "NEO" will probably never go as far as another BBC production, the original "The Office," whose depiction of the white-collar world was downright poisonous. Salarymen may be strange and deluded, but they aren't sociopaths.



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