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Sunday, April 22, 2001


Big novels get the small-screen treatment

Jiro Asada won Japan's prestigious Naoki Prize for literature in 1997 for his novel "Poppoya," which was later made into a hit movie starring Ken Takakura. His followup, "Tengoku made no Hyaku Mairu (The One Hundred Miles to Heaven)," was published in the fall of 1998. Veteran TV director Katsumi Oyama read it when it first came out and immediately secured the rights.

Every TV network, including NHK, wanted to produce the drama. The director chose TV Tokyo on the assurance it could get popular actor Toshiyuki Nishida to take the lead role of Yasuo, an unsympathetic hero who loses his company, his money and his family, only to be redeemed when he sets out to help his ailing mother.

Another TV veteran, Toshihisa Matsubara, boiled the huge book down into a two-hour script, and Oyama decided to film the entire drama on location and with only one camera. Sadly, Matsubara, who died on Feb. 6, was never able to see the finished product, which airs Thursday, 9-11 p.m.

Oyama says Asada's story "is symbolic of contemporary society" in that it shows how the profligacy that characterized the bubble period has led to a loss of basic social values. Yasuo's miseries have resulted from a combination of selfishness and bad luck, but when his mother becomes ill his priorities change. His relationship with his ex-wife and estranged daughter is transformed, and through the love of his girlfriend and "miraculous" chance meetings he has while trying to save his mother, he rediscovers his humanity.

Oyama hopes that people will watch the drama together with their families, since the basic theme is the relationship between parents and children.

Rei Nakanishi's Naoki Prize-winning novel was also turned into a hit movie with a legendary Japanese actor. "Nagasaki Buraburabushi" was released last year with Sayuri Yoshinaga in the lead role. TV Asahi will broadcast a new two-hour made-for-TV version Saturday at 9 p.m.

Nakanishi is one of Japan's most respected lyrics writers, and his book is a fictionalized account of the story of a cultural scholar named Koga (Tatsuya Fuji) who, during the Meiji Era, went to Nagasaki to record traditional popular songs before they vanished forever. Without recording equipment or, for that matter, any musical education, Koga enlists the help of an aging geisha (Etsuko Ichihara), who still knows the old songs by heart.

Ichihara brings an earthier quality to the role of the old geisha than the more glamorous Yoshinaga did. This saucier aspect is important for those scenes depicting the competition that existed among geisha, who were divided into ranks. Akiko Nishina plays Ichihara's fiercest rival, and former ingenue Rie Miyazawa also appears.

This week, "Kin'yo Entertainment" (Friday, 9 p.m., Fuji TV) will present the third installment of Zhang Liling's series about expatriate Chinese in Japan.

Several years ago, Zhang, who was working for a trading company in Tokyo, went to Fuji TV and asked if she could borrow a video camera to make a documentary about a Chinese girl who, within a year's time, had gone from not knowing any Japanese to the head of her class at a public junior high school in Tokyo. The resulting program became one of the highest-rated shows in the history of Chinese television. Zhang followed it up with another documentary about the privileged son of a bureaucrat who lived for a time in Japan.

This time, Zhang focuses on a 45-year-old man who, having grown up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, received no formal education until the age of 34, when he came to Japan to study. He is presently enrolled in the graduate school of Chiba University, but his dream to build a school somewhere in China is upset when he becomes embroiled in an elaborate swindle.

NHK will take a look at the history and culture of onigiri, the ubiquitous "rice balls" that make up many a Japanese lunchbox, on its "Saturday Special" this week (NHK-G, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.).

Sales of onigiri have increased markedly in the past decade with the spread of "convenience-store culture." Once considered the epitome of "home cooking," onigiri are now cultural artifacts all to themselves and have single-handedly allayed fears that the Japanese are not eating enough rice (2 billion onigiri a year are sold through convenience stores).

People over 50, however, may not recognize what onigiri have become, especially those that incorporate mayonnaise, an ingredient that young people now consider as Japanese as umeboshi. The program will look at the history of rice balls (which appear in "The Tale of Genji") as well as their nutritional content.

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