[28 May 2003]
Here’s the situation: a man is brought into an empty restaurant by an acquaintance. The two take a table in the back. The friend then excuses himself to attend to a business call. The man, a body builder by avocation, plucks up a fork and begins absently probing his biceps and pectorals with the tines. Tiring of this, he adds a knife to the other hand and practices cutting an imaginary slab of steak.
In the midst of this pantomime, a woman walks in. Not just any woman, mind you: a buxom babe, wedged into a short, tight skirt and low-slung blouse. The blouse provides a window onto considerable amounts of upper torso, which, by virtue of the tight apparatus below, is pushed up and out for display. The woman takes a seat on an elevated platform near the male patron.
She doesn’t acknowledge this strange creature practicing with the fork and knife, but makes a certain show of settling in. The man turns his eyes to her at first tentative and furtive; but when the woman bends forward at the waist to fuss with a shoe, her voyeur dispatches all pretense. His knife pauses in mid-slice; his eyes lock in on her nearly exposed upper body.
In an adjoining room, viewing all of this on hidden camera, is a group of men and women. The people behind the hidden camera are entertainers, whose reason for being is to trap unsuspecting scumbags in a series of social missteps. They chuckle and groan and loose commentary both good-natured and mean-spirited as they observe this man struggle with the conflicts between Id and Superego: between personal desire and social conditioning.
One host, dressed as a referee, counts the number of seconds the mark stares at the woman’s cleavage. An inset shows him pounding his open palm on the tabletop, one slap for every passing second. Simulating a wrestling match, when the count reaches three, the ref signals “game over”, the mark has lost. But just what has he lost, other than honor and a clean public image and a considerable amount of money. Had he won the battle of mind over body (and, thereby, resisted the ogle), he would have received large amounts of yen for every second he averted his eyes. Of course, men being what they are which is to say, “animals” they are destined never to earn lucre.
That’s the moral message here, one would guess, and it’s proclaimed as the referee’s count reaches nine before the voyeur retreats from lock-on mode. By then the missiles explode: the woman rises from her seat, gathers her coat and bag, steps toward the mark and shouts: “You are nothing but a dirty old man! You should be ashamed of yourself, you jerk!” The man peers uncomfortably left and right to see who might have heard this public denouncement, as the woman storms off. In the control room the entertainers roar with approval.
That’s just another night on Japanese TV during “golden time” in this murky era of spying and conflict. It’s another spy-day night at the fights. Just one more opportunity for the Japanese to exercise the sadistic streak that ripples through their humor. It has been said that while Americans tend to laugh with each other, Japanese often laugh at others. This is certainly true when watching London Hearts the show which intentionally sets people up to take a public fall. The show, which is hosted by the mazai (comedy) duo, London Boots (or “RonBu”, for short), is extremely popular with kids as young as 12 as evidenced by my son who is a fervent, faithful viewer. (On a personal note this comes as some consternation as most of the London Hearts segments are variations on the “spying plus sexuality” theme. My kid doesn’t fully catch the innuendos, but under RonBu’s persist, skillful tutelage, he’s getting there).
A favorite London Hearts ploy of which there are male and female variants is to bait a person into hooking up with a stranger of the opposite sex, while his or her partner observes with the show’s hosts in a control room. The “London Boots’” website explains the female version (called “The Stinger”) in the following way:
“Is your girlfriend really okay? If the girl you love gets hit on by a guy, would she accept his invitation? Any guy who is anxious about this problem should face the ultimate test: THE STINGER. On the day of your date, your girlfriend will come to the appointed spot and out of the blue you will call to cancel your date. After that the Stinger will come and try to ‘attack’ your girl. With the Stinger’s perfect technique will she be carried away?”
The male version of this perversion is known as “The Blackmail”. Here RonBu’s Tamura Atsush the chap with the red hair (and self-proclaimed “Mail King”) sends e-mails out on his cell phone to 10 guys, ostensibly in the “voice” of a woman. The purpose of the e-mail is to ensnare the mark into responding. If one does, Atsushi continues to send mail with the intent of maneuvering the mark into a date with what he presumes is the flirtatious “babe” on the other end of the message unit.
Once a date has been arranged, an attractive woman is substituted for Atsushi, and a hidden camera is installed in a designated booth (at a restaurant, for instance). The woman arrives with a transmitter in her ear. Her role: to basically serve as a pretty puppet. She stands (or sits) ready to mouth questions and embody commands posed by Atsushi, who, from his years of training as a stand-up ad-libber, is adept at interjecting just the right questions to get the mark in trouble. Questions like, “Do you have a girlfriend?” for instance. Not a Phi Beta Kappa kind of question, but an effective one, it turns out.
On a recent segment the mark foolishly replied “not tonight” an asinine response considering that sitting right next to the RonBu boys was the mark’s girlfriend, a stolid sole, confident of her lover’s faithfulness until a mere moment prior. The camera managed to capture her increasingly sullen expression, as well as the accreting lividity.
As the puppet plies the mark with alcohol, there is considerable patter in the booth. This is depicted usually as an inset in the corner of the screen, along with a voice-over. Some of this banter ends up as fodder for the action going on behind the hidden camera, as was the case when the girlfriend remarked on her beau’s trademark lack of spontaneity. Without missing a beat, Atsushi said: “oh, let’s just see about that!” He thereby instructed the puppet to ask the mark to make rabbit ears with his hands. After initially balking (“See? What did I tell you?” the girlfriend chided) the mark reluctantly affixed fist to either side of his pate (“Unbelievable!” his girlfriend exclaimed; a mix of astonishment and dejection at her boyfriend’s unbridled willingness to please his new pal).
Now Atsushi had him. Entreating the puppet to coo encouragement, the mark was told how adorable he was. From there, the next step was to get the drunken nincompoop to wiggle his rabbit ears back and forth, up and down, like this . . .
“Oh come on, you can do it . . . that’s right. It’s so cute.
“Oh that was great! Do it again. Puh-leeeeease?
“Oh, sooooooooooooooo cute!”
By now the mark had been reduced to buffoon; a fool for the false praise of the fair coquette. And the public humiliation continued. Straight through the:
” “Show me how you kiss a girl . . . no, it’s alright, no one will see.
“Pucker up for me . . . now—that’s good—blow me a kiss.
Oh great! I think I even felt that!
Once more. Puh-leeeeease!
“Oh, sooooooooooooooo cute!”
And so on until the girlfriend has seen enough and storms out of the control room to confront her lover.
Of course, this is where things get dicey and precisely what all the viewers have been waiting for. This is their chance to see faithless blood spray copiously and rotten guts spill sloppily. After the obligatory commercial break to ensure maximal tension (not to mention audience for the goods for sale) the scene is repeated.
Once again we witness the spurned lover’s grand entrance, her words of challenge, the uncomprehending, excruciating expression on the blanching face of the guilty culprit. From here things can generally go either way. In the installment reported above the girlfriend made her man get down on his knees in supplication. She wanted him to publicly stipulate that he’d never chase another woman again. When he balked (his processing capacity was rather slowed by one too many peach fizzes) she delivered a swift blow to his cranium and he quickly fell into line (which is to say he proceeded to cower at her bunions, heels and ankles). The promise duly followed.
Believe it or not, there is more. London Hearts has a segment called “Coming Out Onsen” (hot spring) where couples of long-standing go to a public bath specially configured so that a barricade splits the pool in half. Cameras are positioned to show both sides at once, as well as close-ups of each partner, who sit on opposite sides of the divider.
“Coming out” refers to the baring of a deep secret. This secret in some way has a bearing on their relationship. If the tale becomes too intense (or infuriating), the partner is allowed to turn a spigot that will direct a stream of water at the raconteur. The mad gush of water serves as a symbolic cleansing of the confessor or, more likely, a graphic, potent punishment to a wayward mate. Afterward, however, all is (generally) forgiven. The relationship, having been treated by the searing, purifying waters, may resume afresh (hey, this is Japan, after all; world leader in cultural symbolism).
Less amicable is the segment called Lightening Coliseum in which couples who have split up come together to duke it out. Placed in a cage before a raucous audience (well, okay, not even a scintilla as rabid as a Jerry Springer congregation, but this is decorous Japan, after all, so any form of public dissing is on a par with, say, the Emperor passing) who cheer and jeer every verbal blow. Generally neither is blameless, but the idea here is to heap on the insults, point multiple fingers of accusation, and let the audience chuckle over how screwed up other people’s lives are. Whoever is unable to answer a charge within three seconds is counted out by the ref (Atsushi), and declared the loser. If there is no knockout during the match, a panel of judges has to select a winner (least culpable, most victimized) on points.
Lightening Coliseum has since been put in mothballs, but other segments have proven enduring. Chief among these is “The Triangle”, whose premise is that a woman (generally) or man (less frequently) will seek to determine how faithful her/his lover is by “marking” him/her for a commitment test. A la “The Blackmail”, a relationship is established between a new third party of the opposite sex and the mark (academics will understandably rage here at the implicit “hetero-doxy” of sexuality suffusing these shows: NEVER is it a man trying to hook up with a man, nor woman with woman).
In any case, back in television land, what viewers are presented with is a situation in which wayward partner has found new flame, thanks to a series of e-mails between the mark and RonBu’s staff, followed by actual dates with an enticing shill. Once this liaison has burgeoned into something that appears potentially promising (as in sadistically entertaining), a situation is engineered for the viewing audience’s pleasure.
The original couple goes on an outing, perhaps to a restaurant, at which point the shill enters that space and seats her or himself nearby. Once she/he is spotted by the wandering libido, great discomfort is on display. It’s a squirming captured in great detail (close-up, slow-mo, instant replay the works) by hidden camera and commented on mercilessly by the show’s guests and hosts. And if this weren’t bad enough for the cheating partner, his or her steady suddenly recognizes the third party and invites her or him over, on the pretext that she/he and the invitee are acquaintances. The triangle is thus forged, the die is cast, and the game is fully in the works.
Inevitably, what happens next is pure agony or else delicious retribution, depending on your perspective. The audience can luxuriate in a set of complex dialogues transpiring at multiple levels of awareness. There is the attempt by the mark to interact with his steady partner as if everything is normal (i.e., in a way that won’t signal that anything is amiss here). Thus, there must be a modicum of affection or interest expressed so as to not offend the partner or damage their relationship. At the same time, the mark has to take great care not to act so enamored with the steady as to threaten the new connection, still in delicate stages of gestation.
There is also the pretense the mark must maintain that he or she doesn’t know the invited guest (which, of course, carries the potential of sending the new partner into a cataclysm of violent, public rebuke). The new partner invariably pretends that she/he is meeting the mark for the first time, but that doesn’t make the mark squirm any less: he knows he is walking on the razor’s edge; his deception might be unveiled at any moment. Anxiety is spiked during moments in their triangular interplay when the steady intimates that she/he knows something of the blossoming connection between the mute pair.
As always, Atsushi suggests topics for conversation through the remote earpiece, successfully ratcheting the tension level ever higher. The denouement comes after one or the other of the original couple (and sometimes both) visit the bathroom (which, if we are to believe this is all on the up and up, is also remotely wired). Thus, one week we watched on a pinhole camera as the mark paced back and forth, muttering gloomily about his predicament (“what shall I do? Can you believe THIS (shit)?! What shall I do!”), splashing water on his face, slapping his cheeks to brace up and get through the ordeal.
Meanwhile, back at the table, the two women, near strangers, chuckled at what an ass he was and plotted ways they might make him choke next. In the same way, when the “deceived” steady excuses her or himself to freshen up in the bathroom, it is the new (fake) partner who lights into the mark: “how could you cheat on me!? What is this crap? you didn’t tell me you had a partner. You’re going to have to make a choice, mister. And I mean RIGHT NOW!”
Generally, marks are contrite and opt for the steady, although at times things have gone the other way. What the mark doesn’t know, of course, is that by selecting the glossy side of the triangle, he is actually grasping at a slippery straw (wo)man. As soon as he kisses off the steady, he will be told that the new partner was only a shill; she/he has no interest in continuing with the play beyond today. As in all good jokes, the treat lies in the punch line, I suppose.
But, is this a good joke? Is this something we audience members ought to be reveling in? Alas, so much of Japanese TV these days appears predicated on this harsh formula: spying, confrontation, setting up and exposing the cads, giving them their due, then watching them twist and turn in the turbulent wind. Perhaps this is television displaying social responsibility adopting a policing function, as it were, seeking to socialize community members. Some countries blare leader’s speeches 24/7; others employ public executions. Japan, apparently, prefers public punishment of a different sort. Judging from the number of offenders there seem to be, one might wonder whether this surveillance and confrontation method actually works.
Of course in older Japan, surveillance worked quite well. It was what kept the small villages cohesive. You knew my business, I knew yours; we kept our noses clean, not because we necessarily were good people, but because failure to do so would result in a heavy dose of shame every time we wanted to buy a cup of rice or try to wrangle a zoning permit. But then, Japan has mutated some since then. And it has liberalized.
There are still plenty of small towns in Japan, chock full of their small town mentalities. But there are also plenty of cities that now serve as refuge for those who wish to pursue more libertine lifestyles in virtual anonymity. Along with this liberalization have come other hallmarks of liberal society: in particular, instrumental relations predicated on contract. Thus it is that we not only are witnessing more and more conflict out in the open; we are also seeing more and more Japanese conflicts couched in terms familiar to those in the west: namely, legal action for even the most minor social slight.
Not surprisingly, this emerging tendency to cry “law suit” has found a home on Japanese TV. A couple shows, in particular The Judge and “Gyouretsu no dekiru houritsu jou” (The law office with a queue), stand out in this regard.
Both shows adopt nearly identical formats with popular figures (tarento) brought together to evaluate a legal situation. After being provided with the details of a particular conflict, each guest offers their opinion as to whether an award will be allowed and, if so, how much. Following this, legal experts furnish their (often contrarian) opinion.
In both shows simulation is a key feature, with the situations reenacted by actors. The scenes are dominated by hammy acting and replete with gee-whiz sound effects, gaudy sub-titles, and added colors and charts. The Judge also shoots a number of variations which would these variations have factually occurred might have changed the outcome.
In The Judge most of the cases reflect mundane, everyday life situations often concerning women’s health and beauty (undoubtedly a reflection of the show’s target audience). Thus, for instance, past cases have included two women fighting over a sale dress, ripping it as they grapple back and forth; as well as the liability of a trucker who splattered mud on a woman’s expensive, spanking new ensemble. In one particularly thorny case, a woman placed her undergarments in a sealed trash bag on the street, only to have a neighbor claim the contents as her own. Once the new owner discovered the racy bra and panties, she displayed them publicly, causing considerable embarrassment to the neighbor. Who is right? According to the laws of village society? Or the new, liberalized, law-driven Japan? The result is often quite at odds with social expectation.
The Judge always closes with minor incidents that may or may not be actionable. For instance: a domestic dispute caused by an incontinent father who slips into his daughter’s prized slippers as he bolts to the bathroom, only to have his athlete’s foot ointment ruin her irreplaceable foot-warmers. Could destruction of personal property by a family member only motivated to keep his feet warm be actionable in court? Hmmm. A mystery, perhaps; a trivial thing, for sure; but, a comment, as well, on the cultural evolution of contemporary Japan.
Thus, while “Gyouretsu no dekiru houritsu jou” is by far the more interesting of these two legal entertainments, The Judge may be closer to providing some clue as to what is palatable to the modern-day Japanese: the mundane, spiced-up with a dollop of surveillance, a side of conflict, and a dash of expert opinion. Bon apetité, ReDotPoppers.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden030528/