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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

February 05, 2010

Bloodsuckers of the World, Unite? Part 3

Last week, I outlined the differences in plot and resolution between Koishite Akuma and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, as a way of demonstrating how closely the former fitted with Japanese tastes. This week, I want to consider some of the reasons why this was necessary, and see what lessons we can draw from it.

As a first step, I think it’s yet more evidence, if it be needed, of the omnivorous internationalisation of popular culture. The vampire theme is perceived as being currently popular, and so the Japanese media ‘cash in’ with a version tailored to their own audience. That being said, however, it’s also evidence of how much plot-lines have to be adapted to be acceptable to that audience, or the sponsors, producing a version which closely follows the stylised conventions of the dorama form.

There is no doubt that dorama are highly formulaic: no matter what the programme is, one can predict, within certain limits, exactly how it is going to develop. I’m not saying the British or American dramas are not formulaic – just think of 24, now in its eighth season and still following the same arc as in all its previous ones – but it’s more obvious in dorama, as if all the TV writers were following the same ‘Bible’: first, the two main characters and the supporting group ensemble is introduced; second, a variety of external circumstances both push the protagonists together and pull them apart, while simultaneously affecting the dynamics of their relationships with the group. Events build to a climax, which is resolved by a cathartic, emotional confrontation, which leads to the final denouement, whether it be happy, or sad. There are other dorama plot staples, but I think the above is a reasonably summary which any fan could identify. Again, I can only speculate as to why there should be such a high level of repetition: the imposed conservatism of an entertainment agenda frequently dictated by commercial sponsors and major talent agencies; a limited pool of successful TV writers who come from similar backgrounds; or, maybe, simple, unintellectual tastes on the part of the audience – any and all of these could play a role.

Whatever the reason, the end result is that there are certain, set, scenes which occur regularly in dorama, and so must be included. For example, the cathartic final confrontation: here, the individual and the group face each other, confess their mistakes, and draw closer together through an outpouring of emotion. This reaffirmation of social bonds, presented in a highly sentimentalised fashion, provides the audience with a major emotional ‘hit’ from their viewing, and is so much a staple of the form that it has to take place, and does so again, and again, in programme after programme. Again, I can only speculate as to why this is so popular – possibly because such open displays of emotion are extremely unusual in public in Japanese society, and showing them in fictional form reassures people that their friends, families and work colleagues do, indeed, care, even if they don’t show it that often. It also provides reassurance that no matter what the crisis, the supportive network of intra-group ties can overcome it, allowing viewers to feel hopeful that their own networks will support them in their real lives.

Returning to Koishite Akuma and its differences from Twilight, a further adaptation and one of the most striking, I think, is in the identity of the heroine: from someone of the same apparent age as the vampire to an older woman. In order to understand why this is necessary and, indeed, imperative in Koishite Akuma, we need to consider the stereotyped images of and attitudes to women prevalent in Japan. Over the last twenty years – or even longer –Japanese opinion has agonised over ‘acceptable’ ideas of womanhood, women’s roles in society, and ideas of ‘appropriate’ teenaged, and older behaviour. In this it’s no different from many modernising, or post-modernising states, and many academic authors have written about it. Notwithstanding the undoubted eroticisation and fetishisation of the image of the high-school girl in some areas of Japanese popular culture, and the complicated realities of teenage sexuality and experience, television dorama tends to present teenaged female characters as two distinct character types: first, there is the ‘good’ girl – studious, quiet, possibly interested in a boyfriend, but entirely innocent and able to do no more than hold hands, if she’s particularly daring. Second, there’s the ‘bad’ girl – noisy, interested only in clothes, make-up, having a good time, and probably sexually active and promiscuous.

Example of both this character type are present in Koishite Akuma: there's the serious Kaori (Sakuraba Nanami 桜庭ななみ) and the lively Tomomi (Okamoto Rei 岡本玲). But neither would do as a heroine: the ‘bad’ girl because she’s a bad girl, and the ‘good’ girl because it’s inconceivable that she could ever let go enough to engage in the semi-sexual activity that being bitten by a vampire involves. Hamstrung by these conventions, the writers of Koishite Akuma had no choice, therefore, but to make the female lead an older woman, which provides greater leeway in acceptable behaviour. Makoto is presented as being ‘good’: she lives alone, socialises little – because she’s so committed to her work and the children in her care – and, despite going out with the vice-principal, has not even kissed him or held his hand. Nevertheless, because she’s in her twenties, it would not be problematic, or unusual for her to do so, and so the writers can build up the tension with suggestions that she may surrender herself to Luka, in a way that would be impossible with a girl of his own, apparent, age. Of course, her actually doing so would be a step too far, and so inevitably viewers know that the relationship must remain unconsummated, and that the dénouement will involve an element of tragedy, as indeed it does – Romeo and Juliet again, but with a semi-sad ending. This plays sentimentally on the heartstrings of the Japanese viewer, allowing them to be moved by the characters’ plight, while also reassuring them that the correct social norms have been upheld.

Thus, the bloodsuckers of the world may be united in their popularity, but also remain very much a part of their own cultural milieu.



« Bloodsuckers of the World, Unite? Part Two | Main | Honour and Humility - Japanese Style »

Comments

I haven't seen Koishite Akuma yet, but I think your summary of the dorama formula is quite succinct. And though I have come to enjoy dorama, I have never gotten used to the sentimental out-pour of emotions that is the catharsis episode. I generally find it too much for me, and a big turn off.

Its interesting how the introduction of the vampire theme requires the development of new character roles. I have noticed an increase in American dramas that have Japanese episodes where they represent Japanese believably - be it the Hiro character on Heroes, or the Flash forward episode with Yūko Takeuchi. I wonder if there is a greater exchange occurring between Hollywood and the Japanese TV scene that will lead to more dynamic plot lines, and perhaps an alteration of the dorama formula in Japan. A little variety certainly is overdue.

Not so Japan-specific, perhaps.

Watch, for example, a season of Desperate Housewives, then read the following again, but replacing "Japanese society" with "suburban America:"

...such open displays of emotion are extremely unusual in public in Japanese society, and showing them in fictional form reassures people that their friends, families and work colleagues do, indeed, care, even if they don’t show it that often. It also provides reassurance that no matter what the crisis, the supportive network of intra-group ties can overcome it, allowing viewers to feel hopeful that their own networks will support them in their real lives.

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