I’ve been watching a few Japanese live dramas (‘jdorama’ if you wanna be a dork) lately and they are hilarious but not always for all the right reasons. These shows’ exaggerated portrayals of the rich can sometimes reach levels of self-parody and they are full cognitive dissonance regarding the West.
First, a quick briefing on how I understand live dramas–they really aren’t all that much different from anime besides the obviously animated part. A lot of these live dramas are based off of popular manga anyway so you get the same cliches and tropes. Where live dramas depart from anime is the target audience. The typical person watching an anime is usually an otaku and younger. Live dramas, on the other hand, are typically for the older, more family oriented crowd. If you’re familiar with the cheesy, after school specials of American TV, the sappy nonsense in Japanese live dramas should come as no surprise.
So what appeals to the mainstream TV audience in Japan? One thing that should hit you square in the face when you watch all of these live dramas is the prevalence of a happy family. Contrast this with anime where the main character’s parents are almost never around, but more on this in another article. Let’s continue on with the Japanese family, which–no matter what–are always poor or, at the very least, somewhat homely. They live in a traditional Japanese house, i.e. cramped but full of Japanese knick knacks, and the dad never has a salaryman job (I’ve mentioned in a previous entry on how salarymen have fallen out of favor with Japanese society and nothing reflects that more than Japanese live dramas). At this point, you might be thinking, “Nice observations but so what?” Here’s the main point: live dramas almost always compare and contrast two family situations: rich and Westernized versus poor and Japanese. And in the end, they almost always declare that the latter is not only the better way to live but the right (in a normative sense) way to live. Let’s go through a few examples.
First, Densha Otoko, a fairy tale story of a nerd successfully courting a beautiful girl. The story purports to be real, based off of some wild tales posted on a Japanese message board. Anyhow, here’s Densha’s household:
Certainly very cramped–look how the father has to bend slightly just to walk around. The room is so Japanese, however, full of clutter yet cozy; it evokes a sense of family. And while Densha’s father and sister make fun of him from time to time, their remarks are never truly vicious. These “domestic disputes” are merely played off for comedic effect.
Even more important is the role played by Densha’s father: the surrogate mom. Even if women are becoming more independent and powerful in Japanese society, the values espoused by these live dramas are still very traditional. They have no problems portraying the mom as a working woman–naturally to get more ratings–but if someone is out working, someone else always has to stay home; in this case, the emasculated father. Even when live drams appear to be progressive, they are still very conservative at heart. These live dramas make it very clear that someone has to play the feminine role to maintain the family (see also: At Home Dad).
Now look at the home of Densha’s love interest, Saori:
A very big house that is very Western in comparison to Densha’s household. The most important contrast, however, is in Saori’s family situation. Her brother doesn’t live at home (he eventually accepts coming home as the show progresses), and more significantly, Saori’s mom and dad are separated. Hell, they can barely stand to be in each other’s company. Can you guess what sort of career her dad has?
If you had guessed businessman (just a more successful salaryman), you’d be correct. If you compare the two fathers so far, it’s like night and day. Densha’s father is bumbling and goofy but overall harmless and thus a family man. He stays at home and isn’t very successful, but who needs success! On the other hand, Saori’s dad has this steel-face grimace all the time. For all his successes, he’s so unhappy and his family is falling apart. If Densha doesn’t convince you, maybe another example will work.
Another very popular live drama is Hana Yori Dango, a story of a young girl, Makino, who finds herself enrolled in a top academy run by four very rich and (supposedly) drop-dead gorgeous bishounens. What a shocker. Makino, however, comes from a poorer background than most of her fellow students and, as a result, faces abuse and jeers from her fellow peers everyday ’cause that’s just what rich people do: treat poor people like trash. Thanks to her solid (don’t forget poor) and wholesome upbringing, however, she brings to her new school a tough girl, picking-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality.
Personally, I think she looks ridiculous and I think the premise sounds ridiculous but Hana Yori Dango is much loved by live drama fans in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and fans in the West. I won’t deny that the show has a certain charm to it, but only because it’s so outlandishly over the top. Here, take a look at Makino’s warm and cozy household:
Isn’t that precious? They’re even sitting Last Supper style for no apparent reason. The dad’s advice isn’t necessarily bad, but who the hell ever says something like that? It’s so transparently obvious that this scene is supposed to appeal to the mainstream Japanese family. Now contrast it with the family situation for Makino’s main love interest (oh shit, spoilers), Domyouji Tsukasa:
They’re so rich–they can afford such a big house, maids and fancy food–yet look how dark the scene is compared to Makino’s bright and happy family. All of it screams Westernized whereas Makino’s family oozes kitschy Japanese family values. And see how Tsukasa greets his own mother:
She’s immensely rich and powerful–she’s the successful CEO of her multinational company–and yet her family situation is in tatters. The portrayal of Tsukasa’s mother should offend any woman. Apparently being successful in life means that your husband is gone and your son hates you. Oh, and you eat like thirty feet away from him too. We are being told, “Wouldn’t you rather be like Makino’s mom? Sure, she’s poor and has to do a lot of household duties, but wouldn’t you rather have a cozy and happy family? Don’t be independent and successful–that’s not Japanese!”
We’ve been ramping up the ridiculousness of the rich vs. poor dichotomy in Japanese live dramas and my next example is probably the dumbest. I enjoyed Densha Otoko when I first saw it and while a lot of it annoys me now (Densha’s such a simpering wimp), I still think it’s an okay story. Hana Yori Dango has its moments even though I think the contrast between Makino and her rich school is a joke. Mei-chan no Shitsuji, however, is truly a piece of shit. Once again, a young girl, Mei, finds herself at a rich school–no, an uber school. You gotta see this nonsense to believe it:
Yeah, that’s right–a fucking castle. Japan really has a lot of room for big giant campuses. And oh yeah, “every girl…
And if you haven’t guessed, they’re all incredibly spoiled and bratty except for… one girl~
She doesn’t quite come from a poor background. Her grandfather is immensely rich, you see, but his son decided to marry a poor woman and leave behind the family fortune. Good ol’ Mei-chan only knew of working hard and making udon–even when her parents are dead, gosh she’s a hard worker.
Yeah, her parents died somehow and I’m not gonna bother to check why because it’s not really important. What’s important is Mei’s portrayal as this hard-working girl that’ll appeal to all the moms across Japan. Isn’t she the kind of girl you’d want your son to marry?
Being poor and Japanese gives you all the good values. Being rich and Westernized just makes you lazy and spoiled apparently.
So lazy that you can’t even cross a stream one foot wide. Live dramas like Hana Yori Dango and Mei-chan just hit you over the head with how being rich and Westernized is bad and how good ol’ Japanese values own. At one point, she even participates in a cooking competition where her opponents makes obviously French-inspired cuisine:
…while our Japanese heroine Mei-chan makes-you guessed it!–udon:
The point of this long rant isn’t that there is anything wrong with being poor and Japanese. After all, how can I dislike Japanese culture when I constantly watch their cartoons and live dramas all day? My point in writing this entry is to point out the disingenuous portrayal in a lot of these shows. Do I really think rich people are all jerks? Of course not, but the live dramas constantly bombard you with the sentiment that only poor people have good values. Do I really think the West is all that bad? Of course not–every culture has its pros and cons, but these shows constantly pit Japanese values and culture versus Western values and culture and–guess what–the former always win out. There’s a hint of hypocrisy running through all of these shows; they constantly promote Japanese values yet they can’t resist constantly writing stories about rich academies and butlers and hot bishounens with fancy European clothes. Japan has a love-hate relationship with the West and the struggle constantly plays itself out in their live dramas.