November 30th, 2006


Perfect Man Play-Off

Japanese television is proving a continuing enigma to our good friend Marxy. "My brain fails to build up a fourth wall around the actors under the standard conditions of Japanese audio and video quality," he told us yesterday, admitting he only watched one show regularly and complaining that they didn't "filter the colors down to more "attractive" or film-like settings", and that "you can hear the same hums and buzzes that populate real life".

Marxy is quite explicit about what constitutes good TV. It's stuff on Rupert Murdoch's Fox network back home in the US: The Simpsons, 24, Get a Life and Arrested Development.

Enlisting some academics to help him answer the question of why Japanese TV is so much "worse" than Fox, Marxy quotes Japan and the Internet Revolution by business-friendly academics Coates and Holroyd as they explain "the gap between Western and Japanese television production".

"Production values are mediocre by western standards," opine the academics, "and there is little evidence of the availability and use of advanced digital technologies and computerized production techniques... The television companies have substantial revenues (and a captive market, as cable services have made few inroads in the country) and very large audiences. It is choice," they conclude, "rather than resources or ability, which results in the low-key, low-tech television programming."

Are Coates and Holroyd right that Japanese TV is "low-key, low-tech"? Marxy goes with their judgement: if it's not lack of money or technological backwardness that makes it so, it must be a conscious choice on the part of the production companies.

"No question that our moral anthropologist superiors" (that's meant to be the Neomarxisme "culturalists" -- me and Alin and Dzima) "will automatically [say] that television stations are directly responding to a consumer need for low-tech programming -- because they believe all products to be a perfect reflection of tribe desires. Surely, the fact that the viewing public in Japan is generally Japan's least sophisticated demographics (old folks, stay-at-home spouses, teenagers, boring people) means a mass of viewers comfortable complacent with low-tech TV."

But who says we on the cultural team even agree that J-TV is low-key, low-tech and lacking in innovation? Let's not even go into the cultural arguments -- the view, for instance, that Japanese TV isn't a crappy version of the cinema, but an electronic izakaya. Let's look at something very specific -- a screenshot from a show aimed at some of the "unsophisticated" people Marxy disdains: stay-at-home spouses.

This is from a Japanese TV show I happened to be watching yesterday (I was at Smart Deli in Friedrichshain, where they pipe in J-TV for us cosmopolitan unsophisticates); TV Asahi's "Perfect Man Play-Off".

Now, in addition to the TV picture you'll notice that there are three different text areas on the screen, an inset reaction monitor, and a scoreboard. These aren't just digital effects, they're also interactive feedback devices, monitoring how participants in the scene reacted afterwards, and how the studio audience and an invited panel of judges is feeling about the situation.

The theme is "20 beautiful women choose the perfect man". The situation being illustrated is a hypothetical scenario in which a man (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi from Smap) comes home to discover his wife is having an affair. Kusanagi reacts in a super-casual, empathetic way by saying "Hey, let's go out for dinner!!" 20 of the beautiful women on the judging panel approve of this cool-headed reaction.

Now, all this complex information about the situation and the reactions to it can be gleaned from a single screenshot. I find that terribly interesting. It's very Japanese to want to cram that much information onto a screen. It's also not "low resolution" at all if you consider resolution to be a matter of information-per-frame. What's more, the information here is much more semantic and contextual than it would be in a single frame from the American shows Marxy is championing as self-evidently superior. It allows latecomers to grasp the show's concept, it allows people to watch TV with the sound down, it allows you to catch up quickly if you've been zapping, looking away or talking to someone in the room, and so on.

So it's over to you, the Click Opera studio audience. Is this really low-res TV? Is this TV that fails to use digital effects? Is it made by, and aimed at, unsophisticates? And how about the ethics and morals on display here? If this were on Rupert Murdoch's exemplary American TV wouldn't somebody be getting applauded for pulling somebody else's hair out? Wouldn't there be a murderer onscreen describing how he would've murdered his wife, had she been having the affair she was in fact having?