Can samurai period dramas be revived?


With TBS' dropping of the hour-long period drama "Mito Komon" from its Monday night 8 p.m. slot after a run of 42 years, many entertainment critics are saying the genre of "jidai-geki" (period dramas) is approaching its end.

Writing in Shincho 45 (April), Taiichi Kasuga, a scholar of jidai-geki, examines the factors that have led to the genre's declining popularity in both films and TV.

Following pioneering efforts by silent-movie director Daisuke Ito (1898-1981), period dramas flourished in the 1950s when -- bolstered by the efforts of such creative geniuses as Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) -- Japan's movie studios were cranking out some 150 period films a year. The number began dropping sharply from the 1960s, but TV came to the rescue, and teams of directors and scriptwriters, who took cues from popular Hollywood spy films and later spaghetti westerns, livened up plots to create cutting-edge entertainment.

One reason movies' popularity shrank was due to the emphasis on production of big spectaculars, which by virtue of being more costly also entailed greater financial risks. By the late 1970s, the main focus of jidai-geki had shifted to television, which served to keep more actors and support staff regularly employed.

TV at first gave the samurai movies a good run for their money, but unfortunately, Kasuga points out, TV eventually became an assembly-line process emphasizing productivity over quality. Entertaining episodes featuring eccentric anti-heroes, like "Kogarashi Monjiro" and "Hissatsu," began to vanish as salaryman producers adopted repetitively stereotypical story themes, usually adhering to the tried-and-true formula of "kanzen choaku" (good rewarded and evil punished).

As a result of TV dramas becoming increasingly caricaturized, younger viewer segments began tuning them out in droves. By the mid-1980s, the genre became associated with mostly elderly viewer segment.

From 1996, the situation turned for the worse when the method of surveying TV viewer ratings changed. Up to that time, the ratings merely tabulated how many households were viewing any given program. Then they began focusing on which age segment and gender were watching, from which it was determined that period dramas were viewed overwhelmingly by seniors -- a consumer group with limited purchasing power. Major sponsors began deserting the programs in droves, and from 1999 to 2000, period dramas were successively dropped from prime-time broadcast slots.

Eventually it came down to "Mito Komon," which continued to be sponsored by a single company: Panasonic. Even after ad agency Dentsu determined that the show's viewers differentiated from the targeted purchasers of Panasonic products, the program was kept going by a process of trial and error by the ad agency and program sponsor. But the prolonged recession was exacerbated by the "Lehman Shock," and by the summer of 2010 the production studio Eizo Kyoto, where "Mito Komon" was shot, shut down and a year later, the decision was made to drop "Mito Komon."

Another problem was the relegation of the Toei and Shochiku studios in Kyoto to the status of "subcontractors" for the distributors' Tokyo headquarters. Since they were no longer in a position to exercise their own initiatives, their former role, as "guardians" of the filmmaking tradition employing many veteran specialists in costuming, make-up, etc, were employed, they no longer exhibited the teamwork of yore, being treated by the studios merely as shooting locales.

The shift to digital technology, both for films and television, realized high-definition images that expose unnatural edging of the "chonmage" (samurai topknot) wigs worn by male actors, making them appear artificial and tacky -- further alienating viewers. While NHK's Taiga dramas have the budget and talent to overcome such problems, other productions filmed at the studios in Kyoto do not.

When it's all said and done, Kasuga writes, the period drama genre should not be seen as something worthy of preserving merely for nostalgic reasons; it still offers plenty of potential as a form of progressive contemporary entertainment. But if the genre is to be salvaged, the creators will need to return to their roots, and "take the offensive." At the same time, audiences will need to put aside any preconceived, narrow-minded views and be receptive to the producers' creative efforts.

If Japan's jidai-geki are to be saved from extinction, everyone concerned will have to pitch in and help.

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Personally, I prefer Jidai-geki than those stereotyped dramas of "boy finds girl - boy loses girl - boy recovers girl" (or the same with the opposite gender). There is so much lack of creativity nowadays that it is depressing, really. Of course, this phenomenon is not restricted only in Japan. Same happens around the globe as young generations prefer cheap entertainment than educational TV programs, which is a pity actually.

Unfortunately, you can not beat the demands of the audience.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

On the other hand, historical dramas in Korea are booming (ratings often exceed 40%) and not only in Korea. Even my mother-in-law who is almost 80 is hooked on them. Why? They are appealing to every audience, young and old. Historical dramas are much more interesting, just like Antonio said. But except for Jin, we haven't seen any dramas with high ratings. Actors are terrible, stories are boring - that's what's wrong with those dramas and a bridge between the past and present is missing. In many of those historical dramas, a very formal, old fashioned Japanese is used, young people get tired listening to it. Japan has many interesting historical figures, so the potential for great dramas is here. All they need is a good plot, change the story a bit to accommodate feelings of people in the present, and good actors. Nobody expects it to cost billions.

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These are basically Japanese Westerns or costume dramas. So they will go in and our of fashion, as those genres do in US and Europe.

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With the exception of NHK's Taiga Dramas, almost everything I see on Japanese TV these days seems to be done on the cheap. And with all the fuss and feathers over the switchover to digital TV, viewers are still basically stuck with NHK and the five stooges: NTV, TBS, Fuji, Asahi and Tokyo TV. As for jidai-geki, I think they won't die, they're just going through an inevitable decline. The same thing happened with US TV westerns, in roughly the same years, with "Gunsmoke," "Wanted: Dead or Alive," and "Have Gun, Will Travel" receiving good ratings in their time.

One thing for certain: There are enough jidai-geki in the archives to broadcast re-runs for the next two centuries.

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At the same time, audiences will need to put aside any preconceived, narrow-minded views and be receptive to the producers' creative efforts.

Well if flattery doesn't work, there's always the large club to the frontal lobe, ploy...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

One issue the article failed to mention is product placement. I hate product placement as much as the next thinking viewer, but it is a fact of life that many programs get more than a little extra reward by placing products (cell phones & what-have-you) in a typical drama. Naturally, you can't do that in a good historical period drama!

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high-definition images that expose unnatural edging of the “chonmage” (samurai topknot) wigs worn by male actors, making them appear artificial and tacky

I thought they looked artificial and tacky 30 years ago without any high-definition images.

And every single person who is stabbed by the samurai spins in a circle - and out of camera range - in exactly the same way - to avoid having to pay for and apply fake blood. An old drinking game: for every bad guy killed by the samurai, bottoms up. At the end of an hour, you're well on your way to getting very wasted.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Add subtitles and market the programme abroad.

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Tie in relevant issues in modern society to the theme of the episode - this formula was used incredibly well with the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Say, if Mito Komon was tacking the exploitation of underage women (enjo-kosai), tackling a corrupt daimyo taking advantage of a crisis situation (TEPCO/Fukushima). I haven't analysed the K-historical dramas, but can't helped their fuelled by a swelling of national pride backed up by increases in GDP.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Mito Komon went downhill when they started shooting it on video and the old man became a badass in lieu of Suke-san and Kaku-san.

and don't get me started on this year's Taiga

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I think the audience doesn't want to see anymore the boring plot where the main charactor changes into a super hero or a shogun or something in the last 10 minutes of the program. If they can think of a more interesting drama but using the edo era or whenever more naturally, it could attract audiences like they did with O-oku or JIN.

BTW, O-oku is a harlem for the Shogun they had in the edo era, and JIN is a story of a doctor who time-travelled back to the end of edo.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

TSR nailed it. Get rid of the boring plots that are used over and over. Jin, Jin2, and Tempest had unique plots that made them somewhat more enjoyable to watch.

Subtitles? D-Addicts offers subtitles for dramas usually around 3 or 4 days after they originally air. Easy enough to use too.

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And what,do stuff like medical team dragon ,over and over ? Oh god.....

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They always say Cowboy movies have approached their end, but it is not true.

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TV eventually became an assembly-line process emphasizing productivity over quality.

Then these "period dramas" are just a microcosm of Japaese entertainment, and much of J-industry, in general.

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