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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001

MEDIA MIX

Politics in entertaining TV shocker


Though the Koizumi revolution has yet to yield anything substantial in terms of fiscal policy, the prime minister's enormous popularity has certainly brought politics closer to the average person, which, considering how apathetic most Japanese were about government a year ago, is a notable achievement.

In the past, pundits were always required to make sense of what was going on in Nagatacho, but now most people, it seems, have a fairly informed opinion of what Koizumi is doing and how he is doing it. The electorate feels it has a stake in him, which is why his image can be marketed (Koizumi photo books, Koizumi mobile phone straps) and exploited (his son, Kotaro, is currently making his "debut" as a talent by shilling for Suntory) without anyone thinking the worse of it, including the prime minister himself.

In the past, if you said politics was a form of entertainment, you'd be branded a cynic. Now, if you said politics isn't a form of entertainment, you'd be branded a simpleton. "Wide shows" that were once solely interested in celebrity scandal and shocking crimes now spend most of their airtime on politics. Lawmakers are sexy . . . in a manner of speaking.

Nippon TV's new fall series, "Let's Go Nagatacho," broadcast Wednesday at 10 p.m., ably reflects the new zeitgeist. It is a thinly disguised reenactment of everything that has happened in Japanese national politics for the past nine months, and if all the principles are not necessarily in their proper places, they are definitely recognizable. I learned more about the workings of the national government during the 90-minute premiere episode than I have watching Sunday-morning talk shows for the past 10 years.

The central character is Gorin Futsui (Takaaki Ishibashi, half of the comedy duo The Tunnels), who is one of three secretaries to Lower House member Ichiro Inayama (Masahiko Nishimura), a weak-willed, opportunistic, fourth-generation politician from Shizuoka. Gorin is the perfect combination of obsequiousness and cunning. He understands instinctively that appearance is everything in politics, and his peculiar genius is knowing how to manipulate appearances to achieve the ends he has in mind.

Though based on yet another popular manga, "Nagatacho" is so up-to-the-minute that viewers could easily believe the scripts were written on a weekly basis. The prime minister and head of the ruling Minji Party, Toichiro Waizumi (Koichi Iwaki), is more handsome than Koizumi is, and this, rather than Koizumi's folksiness, is presented as the main source of his appeal: Women reporters swoon during press briefings.

The most recent episode touched on Waizumi's sudden disillusionment with his embattled foreign minister, Maiko Tasaka (Shigeru Muroi), thus reflecting rumors in the media that Prime Minister Koizumi has become tired of his own foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka.

The writing is sophisticated, and no attempt is made to simplify details for the politically ignorant. An omniscient narrator does occasionally chime in with an explanation of a custom unique to Nagatacho, but in the comic spirit of the series, it comes off sounding like anthropology rather than political science.

Near the beginning of the first episode, for example, we were told dryly that, as a species, Nagatacho inhabitants like nothing better than meat. This joke becomes a leitmotif. In the third episode, the clueless Inayama realizes that he is being ostracized from the powerful Nomoto (i.e., Hashimoto) faction when he attends the faction's weekly curry luncheon and discovers there's no beef in his serving.

In the same episode, the humiliating incident that occurred in January, when LDP discontent Koichi Kato unsuccessfully tried to rally a revolt against the leadership, was reenacted in impressive detail. In a melodramatic denouement, however, the Kato stand-in, a "clean" politician named Aozawa (Takashi Naito), did what the real Kato couldn't get up the nerve to do. He commits political suicide by being the only Minji Party politician to vote "aye" in a no-confidence vote he helped initiate.

But it's the backroom stuff that really makes the show. The slimy, self-satisfied Nomoto (Toru Emori), gleefully distributes money to the members of his faction, knowing that it binds them more tightly to him. "It's the opposite of the yakuza system," the narrator informs us helpfully, "where the underlings must give money to their superior." Gorin uses a cynical newspaper reporter to gain intelligence on rival politicians within the party by paying him off in antique teddy bears. Inayama's handsome, cool apprentice secretary, Kenta (Issa Hentona of the pop group Da Pump), sleeps with a young bar hostess the boss has a crush on in order to find out if she's a spy.

Needless to say, the actors have a wonderful time caricaturing types that everyone knows from the evening news; and for once the overextended Japanese comic style is not annoying. Emori perfectly captures Ryutaro Hashimoto's greasy imperiousness, and Shigeru Muroi's take on Tanaka is all glare and growl. Some will complain she lacks Tanaka's personable nature, but one-sidedness is always funnier than well-roundedness.

One aspect of Japanese politics that becomes even more prominent while watching the show is the relative lack of policy discussion. Everything is a power struggle, and no one -- be they pols, staff or press -- ever discusses just what it is they are struggling for. The bureaucracy, in other words, is conspicuous by its absence and, as everyone knows, it is the bureaucracy that controls policymaking, which is not a sexy activity at all.



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