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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001


Schools of hard knocks and TV docs

Several of the new fall drama series begin this week, and one of the season's topics is education. Trendy drama mainstay Masakazu Tamura steps out of character as the title character in "Sayonara Ozu Sensei" (Fuji, Tuesday, 9 p.m.), playing the former manager of the New York branch of a major Japanese bank. Under orders from his superiors, Ozu carried out improper stock deals and was caught. He went to jail and lost everything -- his job, his wife, his family and, most importantly, his reputation as an elite businessman.

Kinpachi Sakamoto (Tetsuya Takeda) teaches tirelessly in the TBS show "San-nen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei."

The only job available for a 50-year-old ex-con banker is teaching at a private high school in Tokyo. Ozu has no interest in teaching, which is fine with his students since they have no interest in learning. The administration doesn't seem to mind either, since this is one of those institutions attended by kids who can't get into good schools.

Though the series has a certain seriousness of purpose, it's mainly a comedy. Ozu still wears tailor-made suits and an air of superiority. He crashes at the apartment of another teacher named Kato without paying rent. He even cadges Kato's booze.

Eventually, Ozu's cynical attitude crumbles, but not in the usual sense. Having once occupied a position where he made important decisions, he questions many of the school's policies and attitudes simply because he finds them illogical. Soon, his skepticism infects his colleagues and even his students.

For a more traditional take on educational responsibility, there's "San-nen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei," which returns for a sixth season of 23 episodes (TBS, Thursday, 9 p.m.). The series, which stars Tetsuya Takeda as the naive but tirelessly dedicated junior high school teacher Kinpachi Sakamoto, was first broadcast in 1979. Kinpachi has become such an icon to educators that real-life junior high school teachers have been known to refer to videotapes of past episodes to learn how to deal with classroom problems. The show's writers meet with bureaucrats to gain knowledge about specific trends in the nation's junior high schools.

In August, the producers auditioned 1,215 young people to play the students in Kinpachi's third-year homeroom class, B-gumi. Thirty were selected.

This season, the trials and tribulations come faster than usual. At the start of the second semester, "3B" receives several transfer students, one of whom, a girl named Tsurumoto, is teased by the other students. Tsurumoto subsequently closes down and won't respond even to those students who try to be friendly. Meanwhile, the teachers aren't getting along with their new principal, whose policies rub them the wrong way. To top it off, Kinpachi, a widower, learns that his teenage son has been diagnosed with leukemia.

Takeda is also the host of the new health variety show "Kusuri ni Naru TV," whose popularity has spawned imitators. Tonight at 9, Fuji TV will present a special two-hour episode of its informational variety program, "Hakkutsu! Aru Aru Daijiten," that will offer advice on how viewers can diagnose their own physical condition.

The theme is mental and physical fatigue, and health questions are divided into three general categories: tairyoku (physical strength), bones and brain. In addition to the usual contingent of in-studio celebrities, 500 people between the ages of 20 and 50 will participate in the survey.

In terms of tairyoku, the main problems to look for are dizziness when either walking up or down stairs, and stumbling over things. Bone checks involve details about how much processed food one eats, whether or not one becomes irritated easily, and crash diets.

The brain questions, however, may strike some as arbitrary: Do you change subjects during conversations? Just prior to payday, do you live off a diet of cheap food? And has it been years since you've been impressed at all by a movie? Yes, it has, but I'd like to think it was the filmmakers' brains and not my own that's the problem.

C elebrity health really gets a going-over on the special "Ningen Dokku, Dai-Hakken" (NTV, Saturday, 7 p.m.). Ningen dokku is the Japanese term for comprehensive health checks that often take a full day. Ex-yakuza Joji Abe, roly-poly comedian Kunihiro Matsumura and magician Mr. Marik, among others, will undergo state-of-the-art checkups right on the air and then have their results announced in the studio.

Stomach, brain, lungs, every part of the body will be probed and poked and photographed as the TV audience watches. This kind of program is not new. The difference here is mainly in the presentation. Announcer Monta Mino, host of Japan's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" plays the show's MC, giving each celebrity the rundown on his or her results. As anyone who has watched Mino in action knows, he can draw out the tension like no one else. The show's entertainment value, thus, lies in making Japan's favorite celebrities squirm as they wait anxiously to find out what exactly that little bump in their large intestines is.

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