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Sunday, April 15, 2001

CHANNEL SURF

Love and commiseration, all in a day's work

Show-biz synergy reaches critical mass Saturday with the premiere of "Ashita ga Arusa" (NTV, 9 p.m.). The title, which translates as "there is a tomorrow," meaning you should work hard because the future is always staring you in the face, was also the title of a popular song by Kyu Sakamoto in the '60s. Several years ago, it was revived by the rock group Ulfuls and then picked up as a theme song by Re:Japan, who are also members of the Osaka comedy production company Yoshimoto Kogyo.

Fellow comedian and former Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima, who wrote the lyrics for the song, dashed off a dozen new verses, and the group performed it for a Georgia coffee commercial.

The Re:Japan version is the theme song for the series, but the synergy doesn't stop there. The cast is made up of Yoshimoto employees, and even Aoshima appears as a regular character. The main actor is Masanori Hamada, the shorter half of the comedy duo Downtown, which also toils for Yoshimoto. He plays a put-upon salaryman approaching middle age -- essentially the same character he's been playing in a series of Georgia ads since August.

Hamada is Hamada, a middle manager in an Osaka trading company who is transferred to the Tokyo office where he comes face to face with the kind of problems white-collar workers are experiencing right now. He is assigned to Section 13, which handles restructuring and is thus filled with mostly redundant employees. Though the series is ostensibly a comedy, it is also "heartwarming," meaning it treats the characters' career crises with sympathy. In the first episode, Section 13 throws a welcome party for Hamada, who has a problem holding his liquor and, dropping his usual melancholy facade, lets it all hang out. To make the synergy complete, the other half of Downtown, Hitoshi Matsumoto, appears as a "mysterious man" who will pop up repeatedly throughout the series.

The female side of the workaday blues is taken up by "Love Story," which premieres tonight at 9 on TBS with a special 90-minute opener. Miho Nakayama plays Misaki Sudo, an energetic, ambitious career woman who after eight years with a book publisher has seen no success. None of the books she's edited have become best sellers, and none of the authors she's cultivated have made an impression on the public. Part of the problem seems to be her abrasive personality. Though her good looks gets her lots of dates, her "pushy attitude" guarantees that romance rarely progresses to a serious stage. And having recently reached the big three-oh, she finds that acquaintances no longer see her as promising omiai (marriage) material.

Sudo knows she'll never get on the promotion track, but apparently things are even worse. She is put in charge of the publisher's most difficult novelist, Ko Nagase (Etsushi Toyokawa), a proud, 37-year-old genius who has suffered from writer's block for the past two years. To make matters worse, he is a misogynist and a misanthrope, and has driven every editor away in frustration. Sudo's bosses figure they can kill two birds with one stone: Misaki will likely quit in frustration, and Nagase's continuing unproductivity will give them an excuse to drop him. But, obviously, Cupid has other plans.

Synergy-wise, "Love Story" reunites Nakayama and Toyokawa, who first appeared together in the 1995 film "Love Letter," which was a hit overseas as well Japan. Shingo Katori of Smap plays an illustrator-cum-club DJ who thinks quite a bit of himself.

Synergy of an altogether different type is offered on TV Asahi's "Sekirara White Paper," which premieres Wednesday at 7 p.m. with a special two-hour installment (starting April 25, the show is from 8 p.m.). Touted as the "first-ever intellectual variety program," the show features veteran announcers Tomoaki Ogura and Kumiko Okae, who can be found battling it out every morning on completely different networks -- Ogura as the host of Fuji TV's "Toku da Ne" (the best of the "wide shows") and Okae as co-host of TBS's "Hanamaru Market."

"Sekirara" means "frank." The show carries out in-depth investigations of everyday matters that "the government would never spend time and money studying." Viewers can find out, for instance, just how many minutes a day the average 50-year-old married man talks to his wife, or the number of times the average bath towel is used before it goes into the laundry hamper, and, thus, determine how "average" they themselves are.

Media maven Kyosen Ohashi will appear regularly on the show in virtual form, but on the premiere he'll show up in the flesh and do his usual making-fun-of-Japan-in-a-nice-way thing, which is easy to do when you're retired and have houses in New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

On Friday night at 7:30, NHK's BS2 will air an 80-minute special about Yutaka Ozaki to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the singer's death from a drug overdose. The program will feature footage of Ozaki performing live, interviews with young artists who have been influenced by his personal songs of teenage disaffection (rumor has it that Hikaru Utada is planning an album of all-Ozaki covers), and comments from his legions of fans, whose numbers seem to increase every year. There will also be a film never before broadcast showing Ozaki on a trip to New York when he was 20 and on a sabbatical from performing. During the show, viewers can call in and request their favorite Ozaki tunes.



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