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Sunday, May 13, 2001

CHANNEL SURF

Death and the maidens

TBS's "Sekai Fushigi Hakken," currently the longest-running quiz show on commercial TV, was also one of the first series to combine education and entertainment in a way that didn't compromise either. Whereas the previous record-holder, "Naruhodo the World," which went off the air several years ago, presented foreign lands as they are now, "Sekai" takes a historical perspective.

The format is simple: A "mystery hunter" goes to the country under investigation and digs up information about some historical figure or specific period in time. Every 10 minutes or so, the hunter comes up with a trivialike question that the celebrity panelists back in the studio have to answer.

Having been on the air now for more than 15 years, the show has had to return to certain countries a number of times (they seem to go to Egypt about three times a year), and recently there has been an increasing number of programs about Japanese history. On May 19 at 9 p.m., the program combines the two by profiling Mitsuko Coudenhove-Kalergi, who is referred to on the show as "the mother of the European Union."

Born Mitsu Aoyama, the future countess made an impression on Heinrich Coudenhove, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat stationed in Japan, when she helped him after he fell off a horse. They eventually married and had two children, Hans and Richard, the latter of whom would grow up to write a book in the 1920s titled "Pan-Europe," which would become the conceptual seed for the European Community.

Though the program takes off from Mitsuko (who is mainly remembered in Japan because a famous perfume was named after her), most of the questions will be about Richard, who was the basis for the Paul Henreid character in "Casablanca."

Another historically important woman, Maria Callas, will be profiled on NHK's ongoing "Legendary Heroes of the World" series tomorrow night (NHK-G, 11 p.m.). The show will be hosted by lyricist, librettist and novelist Rei Nakanishi and actress-author Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who has portrayed the diva onstage (and who is also a regular on "Sekai Fushigi Hakken").

The program will focus on the opera singer's ascendance to prima donna-hood at the age of 29, when she revived the bel canto tradition at La Scala, as well as her lifelong infatuation with Aristotle Onassis, who everyone knows threw over Callas for an arranged marriage with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Callas famously went downhill, both artistically and psychologically, after that. The two hosts discuss the events that "changed a diva into a woman and, in the end, the heroine of her own tragedy."

Callas made one of her last performances in Japan before her death in 1977, and NHK is sure to show at least part of it since it is in their archives, as are other, earlier performances. Callas could escape the paparazzi and scandalmongers in Japan and, consequently, performed here often, where people also didn't complain about the deterioration of her voice.

Heroines of an entirely different sort are the subject of TV Tokyo's "Onna to Ai to Mystery (Women and Love and Mystery)," an anthology mystery series that features a different female detective every week.

This week's mystery (Wednesday, 8:54-10:48 p.m.) features Pinko Izumi as a contracted insurance investigator looking into the mysterious death of a woman who, while hanging her laundry, fell off the veranda of her apartment. The woman took out an insurance policy on her life only three days before her death and the insurance company naturally smells something fishy. The husband, who is the beneficiary of the 20 million yen policy, turns out to be the woman's second spouse and not the father of her child.

Though there's not much in the way of "whodunit" here, the appeal is in watching Izumi and her partner, played by veteran sanmaime (comic actor) Takehiro Murata, solve the crime. Given the epidemic of insurance-related murders in the past few years, viewers may actually learn something.

If you think all housing in Japan is small and boring, you might want to check out TV Tokyo's "Sunday Night Special" tonight at 7 p.m., when celebrity reporters travel throughout Japan looking for unusual houses and apartment buildings. Among the residences they discover are a modern urban dwelling made completely from zelkova wood that also has a thatched roof; a house modeled after the famous "Cinderella castle" built by a Disney freak; and an apartment complex that the owners keep augmenting a unit at a time in an effort to create a real community, rather than the closed-off kind of beehives that most Japanese apartment buildings resemble.



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