April 22nd, 2009


Tonsure: shinya sabukaru labo TV

In a split-level, red-walled luxury apartment high in Tange Associates' Tokyo Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in West Shinjuku, a beautiful, formerly-successful young woman is trying to come up with ideas for her fourth novel. Mika Kashiwaba's first two books were wildly successful, her third bombed. Holed up with her bald editor Yabu, dressed up to the nines, she's getting a bit fraught. She's swearing like a trooper, ordering Yabu around like a dominatrix. She's got writer's block.

Welcome to Tonsure (トンスラ), a 12-part Japanese TV comedy drama broadcast between October and December of last year, and now available, thanks to piracy, on sites like MySoju (only one episode, but subtitled in English) and VideoNavi (the whole series, subtitled in Korean). As the Wikipedia page explains, Tonsure started life as a novel (2006) by Tsuzuki Hiroshi, turned into the TV show, and also became a weekly manga in KOMIKKU BANCHI magazine.

People (this guy here, for instance) often say that Japanese TV completely lacks the creative spark of other nations' TV, that its productions are low-budget and formulaic. While I agree that mainstream dramas and comedy shows originated within the networks can be fairly sentimental and cookie-cutter, Tonsure shows what Japanese TV is capable of late at night, when it gives itself a little leeway and hires in talent from the worlds of cinema and alternative theatre.

Tonsure runs in a midnightish Saturday slot NTV have called TV Labo. Like Big Nose Knows Best, it's what's known as shinya dorama; late night, a bit experimental, whacky, creative, and tending to avoid agency talent, shinya has more in common with the kind of fringe theatre you might see in a Shimokitazawa fleapit than normal TV.

The 12 episodes of Tonsure employ nine different directors, including big cinema names like Satoshi Miki. It has, in actress Yoshitaka Yuriko, a hot it-girl who shot to fame after appearing nude in Yukio Ninagawa's thriller Snakes and Earrings, and who retains, in Tonsure, some of the S&M trappings of that role. The violent-but-affectionate, gender-inverted relationship between the main characters, Mika and Yabu, reminds me of Oh! Super Milk Chan or Big Nose Knows Best. But what I mostly notice -- and like -- about Tonsure is its playful attitude towards artifice.

As a fiction about people trying to come up with fiction, Tonsure draws most of its humour out of threadbare or baroque attempts at deception, cajoling and the telling of tales. It's very meta, very theatrical in its fascination with roles and play. In one episode Yabu (whose desk drawer at the office is always filled, bizarrely, with sloshing hot wet food) plays his own imaginary nasty twin brother, staging a fight outside Mika's door; she watches him throwing punches at himself via the doorcam. In another, he amuses her with the tale of his "ugly" stalker. We see the scenes recounted from her perspective, with the stalker played by a fat woman. But it turns out that the real stalker is a beautiful woman, so the whole thing is replayed with a beautiful actress.

There's an episode in which Yabu (always on the lookout for interesting tales to bring his authoress) follows a family who are callously trying to kill their son -- via an industrial accident in a power plant -- for the insurance money, and another in which Yabu (who's meant to resemble the tonsured Jesuit monk Francis Xavier, an important figure in Japanese history) details being chained to a rock by bullies and left to a martyr's death in a rising sea.

The zany liberties Tonsure takes with plot and character recall Gogol, Pirandello or Dario Fo, and the quirkily-subversive sabukaru (subcultural) energy of the show puts it on a par, I think, with anything being produced for TV anywhere right now. I've certainly never heard Hisae laugh so much.