Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Hour in TV Land - A Year in Fukushima #8

The following account of my Saturday evening is completely true and totally uncensored.

The clock on the wall was ticking toward 10:30. I had just finished hanging the laundry in the living room. (Just go with it, this is Japan remember.) A familiar snoring reverberated from the bedroom, an unintentional but unmistakable message from the wife that I could go ahead and play Lone Ranger again tonight. Twenty-four hours ago I had sketchy plans to meet up with a buddy for that ever-elusive beer; unfortunately on this day, like most recent days, I had been deep into my work and the fascination of how slow my microchips move, and I forgot to get back to him. So there I stood, all alone, between two racks of wet clothes and my sleeping family. It was 10:25 on a Saturday night.

This, by the way, is not the bad part.

The bad part is, I decided to turn on the TV.

I stepped on train tracks and tripped over dinosaurs as I scrounged around for the remote. Then I fell onto the couch and clicked that baby, hoping for…well, anything. After a moment staring at a blank screen I got up and walked over to our TV with built-in VCR, which you have to turn on manually if that’s how your son turned it off. Then I plopped back down as the picture warmed up.

First thing I saw were three walking, singing pollen spores getting their lights punched out by a psychotic football player spray-painted the color of aluminum foil. After a pleasant jingle someone breathed easier, and the scene switched to a computer-generated garden. A woman in red smiled as she walked along, seemingly unfazed by the line of grinning red birds following her. They had a conversation and sang a song before another woman came on, marching down the street in front of a row of levitating tubes of some kind of crème.

At this I went downstairs and dug desperately for the last two cans of beer in the house. As I settled back onto the couch again I swore to never forget to call another friend.

Now on was a commercial not for a sweet bread factory but for an upcoming program about a sweet bread factory. Stainless steel robots squirted caramel and icing everywhere as canned voices went ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Wow!’ Meanwhile a narrator with a voice that made Alvin and the Chipmunks sound like the three tenors squeaked on about how much fun it would be to make bread together so join her at 6:55pm Sunday evening, right there, for a loaf of excitement. Yes, that’s right. 6:55pm. Sharp.

Switch channels.

Two women in power suits are having a dire conversation while standing on a beach and looking at a photo. Right away I know someone has died. This is because in a Japanese drama if someone dies two women have to go talk about it on a beach. (If someone has been murdered, on the other hand, they have to go talk about it on top of a cliff overlooking the beach.) One of the women has a flashback; she once saved the boy in the photo from a nosebleed.

Cut to half a dozen penguins with backpacks on.

The Japanese school year begins in April, so now is the time for all the proud parents out there to equip their kids with new backpacks. These hard shell suckers are shaped like mailboxes without legs and are going this year for 9,900 yen, or about a hundred bucks. Outrageous, maybe, but well worth it to avoid the shame of being the only one in school not looking like those penguins.

The follow-up was a commercial featuring a desk and two matching bookcases, moving around of their own free will, showing all the different configurations four hundred dollars could get me.

Switch channels.

Two commercials of girls having an inordinate amount of fun, first with their cell phones, then with a squeeze bottle of black sugar ice cream sauce. Next, a guy dressed all in white experiences an emotional catharsis as he prepares an elaborate dinner with what must be the most amazing cooking oil known to man – and sits down to eat it by himself, between two lemon trees.

Switch back to the drama.

The woman on the beach who wasn’t holding the picture is now in the home of a man who is pretending to listen as he pours two cups of sake. The woman refuses; the man takes a loud sip as the woman continues her story. Then to scenes of nosebleed boy wearing a certain necklace, a mystery woman wearing the same necklace, then nosebleed boy in a coffin followed by a quick street shot that someone seemed to have forgotten to edit out. Back to the woman talking at the man drinking her sake but I have a hard time getting a handle on the connection between nosebleed boy, the necklace and that street.

Switch channels.

Figure skating sweetheart Mao Asada takes a bite out of a circular chocolate bar thing and smiles at me. I don’t want to risk becoming a figure skater and I reach for my beer instead. Next up is a Nissan commercial featuring some kick-ass computer graphics and something called ‘Drive Life’. Then we go live to the figure skating competition going on right down the road in Tokyo. The next group of skaters is out on the ice warming up, most of the cameras following Daisuke Takahashi, evidently Japan’s best chance at home-spun glory. Interspersed among replays of Daisuke’s practice jumps and close-ups of his styled yet loosely rebellious hair are shots of a white guy going through his final triple toe loopy-loops and a young Japanese kid wearing something that I can only adequately describe as double chiffon. I know it’s part of the deal for these guys to drape themselves in sparkles and silk, but I think even a couple of the other skaters were laughing.

This may have been the reason they went back to commercials so soon.

On came a series of short clips of people from all over, from San Fran to New Orleans to Nigeria, playing whatever instrument and singing ‘Stand By Me’. Before I could figure out why, I was transported to a convenience store where I could witness first hand the sharp quality of Mitsubishi’s security cameras. I wondered how many people sitting at home watching TV right then might be in the market for a higher quality security camera. Next up was a cell phone commercial where the members of SMAP, Japan’s most annoyingly ubiquitous gods of pseudo-talent, are flying through the lower atmosphere on one of about three dozen airborne freight containers. At first cooly composed, they begin jumping from one brightly-colored box to the next, way up high in the sky. That song ‘Come on baby, do the locomotion’ is playing, which makes SMAP’s fake antics even cooler if that is possible.

Before returning to the skating I was treated to twenty seconds of the most voluptuous cartoon women I have ever seen. They were frolicking in a tropical paradise in their cartoon bikinis when a guy with chiseled muscles and green hair rode a massive cartoon wave to shore. They celebrated something, overlaid with the name and logo of one of Japan’s pachinko chains.

Pachinko, in case you are not aware, is a sort of pinball game that has taken Japan’s chain-smoking male population by storm. Maruhan, Dynam, Niraku and Jumbo are some of the biggies; they build huge cement boxes and fill them with rows upon rows of these machines and blare this uniquely obnoxious music which evidently has the capacity to drive out of people’s heads every thought but one: god, more pachinko please.

Back to the skating, and the white guy is already into his routine and wiping out.

Switch channels.

With no Super Bowl, slam dunk contests or hockey fights to ward off the winter blues, and now with the spring sumo tournament on the chopping block, Japan looks eagerly toward the beginning of baseball season. This means fifteen minutes of spring training highlights, thirteen of them devoted to rookie Yuki ‘Yu-chan’ Saito, brightest new member of the Nippon Ham Fighters starting rotation. Yu-chan didn’t pitch on Saturday due to a tummy ache, but earned some quality media attention for standing out on the field talking to his teammates before the game and, later, ignoring hundreds of adoring fans as he walked out of a building and got onto the team bus.

I switched channels when they went to Japan League soccer highlights. I like soccer, quite a bit actually, but J-League is painful to watch with some of the uniform color schemes they come up with.

TV personality 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano is dressed in a red and white bathrobe, baring his belly, a samurai wig on his head as he…ugh, forget it.

Switch channels.

It’s 10:55, which means the weather report. There is a weather report five minutes before every hour all day long in Japan. They will even interrupt a special report about the weather to show the weather report, usually sponsored by an eyeglass store but today we are getting the forecast along with a view of a car dealership in Koriyama, accompanied in the background by the inimitable voice of Steve Perry.

Spring looks to be on the way. Until Tuesday.

Switch channels.

A guy who looks a lot like Orlando Bloom is taking himself much too seriously as he walks in a circle, sporting some of UniQlo’s latest fashions (if that isn’t too incongruous a term). Another guy, then a girl, looking as intense as Orlando, walk in their own circles before we get back to – Yes! It is Orlando Bloom. And you can bet he shops at UniQlo, just like Michael Jordan used to eat Big Macs even when he wasn’t being paid $8 million for it. Another pachinko commercial (a cheap rip-off of the Matrix) and suddenly it’s time to crack my other beer.

In my fridge, by the way: soy milk, noodles (two kinds), miso, some really long and skinny leafy green, pickled vegetables (three kinds) and a little plastic tub filled with sour bite-size plums called umeboshi. No wonder I’ve lost twenty pounds over the last year and a half.

Back in the living room a well-known female TV personality is screaming the praises of another pachinko parlor. She seems to think she can put a little James Brown in her step. She finally shuts up, only so I can listen to a black guy and a dog sitting at a sushi bar having a conversation about a cell phone deal. Then five seconds of this dancing egg singing a jingle about FTV, the station I didn’t know I was watching, followed by two young boys dressed like color-blind golfers talking about how much fun they had at Tokyo Disney Resort.

Next, an actual program: A show called ‘Everyone’s Opinion’ – which tells me I may see people expressing themselves, perhaps even publicly disagreeing. This is exciting. Until a cartoon drawing of a flower-laden city park appears, a gentle pop song playing in the background as a woman with a voice like warm honey begins reading from the cartooned postcards that appear on screen one by one, sent in by people who are very politely against something or other.

The show is soon over – not many people willing to have their anonymous opinions read tonight – and I get two more pachinko commercials.

Switch channels.

A show with two extremely dolled-up girls going gaga over a website about Tokyo life, written by and featuring some fake face female blogger. On the home page, under the apropos title ‘東京大好き!’ is the English translation, in big bold letters for the entire nationwide viewing audience to see: ‘I fucking love Tokyo!’

Switch back to the skating. Daisuke Takahashi is in the middle of his routine. Seriously, just once I want to see a skater come out in jeans and a t-shirt. Among the advertisements lining the rink is a sign that reads ‘The Four Continents Championships’. At least they’re honest. Major League Baseball should take the hint on this one. Daisuke finishes and skates off, looking none too pleased. Ah yes, an immediate replay of a spectacular wipeout. And yet he’s still in first place. On his team warm-up jacket is the name and logo of one of his sponsors, a cosmetic company.

Cut to commercials. A girl is passed out on her pile of schoolbooks, woken up by a marching band of yellow people parading across the top of her desk. She drinks something yellow and feels much better. Then two consecutive pachinko commercials.

Switch to a normally-dressed Beat Takeshi, who is speaking with a panel of guests about a woman who died just that day in Kyushu, her accident involving a big hole in the ground and some nearby construction equipment. Everyone is standing around the hole, looking down into it. No one is doing anything. Then Beat and Company move on to a story that, as far as I can tell, centers on a pair of girls who stole some soy sauce.

Cut to a commercial of a 50-something guy getting the once-over by a perky young girl walking her dog. He smiles and runs his hand over his hair, then suddenly he’s in the barber’s chair, then a close-up of his rich scalp, then a very confident nod of his head as he talks to someone on the phone.

11:15 seems like a good time for the national weather report.

Switch to a drama, or maybe a movie, featuring three white women speaking Japanese in a nice home. Cut to three men having a very serious conversation, also in Japanese, in a dank warehouse. Back in the nice house there are only two women now; one of them hands the other a pad of paper and a pencil. ‘Draw a picture,’ she says in perfect Japanese. ‘Okay,’ the other one says, and starts slamming the pencil point against the page as the first woman watches, blank-faced. Back to the warehouse.

Switch channels.

Commercial of two guys running through a snowy forest, jumping over fallen logs and sliding down three-foot embankments before suddenly throwing themselves across a ten-meter-wide ravine, river rushing by a hundred feet below. One guy slips and begins to fall, the other catches his hand and they start screaming ‘FIGHT-OH!’ as death is averted. They finish by letting me know the taurine shots disguised as the vitamin drinks they are chugging are what kept them on the happy side of disaster.

Commercial for Dynam Pachinko.

A mountain goat and an unidentifiable rodent are talking on a mountaintop about a loan.

100 people in pajamas have taken to the street to adore their joint medication.

Jumbo Pachinko.

Line of grinning red birds following the woman again.

Commercial for iPhone 4, starring a grumpy cartoon man.

Niraku Pachinko.

Back around to the fake face blogger girl with the potty mouth. She’s in screeching hysterics with a small group of fake face friends, first out in a city plaza then in her apartment. They can barely shut up long enough for blogger girl’s white boyfriend to comment about how ‘It’s great she has an outlet for her creativity.’ Then a shot of a computer screen and someone’s comment of ‘I think Maiko’s eye make-up is really pretty.’ Cut to fake-face Maiko with a dozen other girls, all in a line, their arms interlocked, none of them with real hair or real lashes or real skin on their cheekbones.


To a Dynam Pachinko commercial.

A commercial for a show about a wedding.

A herd of talking reindeer; three guys still in the warehouse; talking reindeer again on a different channel; a show featuring Yu-chan’s fans, who are all wearing pink neck warmers because Yu-chan wears one and it makes him look so much cooler than those silky sparkly figure skaters.

With this I down the last of my beer and turn the TV off.

I swear I will never again forget to call my friend.