Japan finally gets politicians worth a TV satire

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

An aging politician sits in a dressing room, his face layered with makeup for a campaign photo shoot. A winsome aide peeks in for a last-minute pep talk. He is beautiful and handsome, the aide says.

"But we all agree, would you please wear this?"

Four aides avert their eyes as they present a fluffy toupee.

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This scene from "Let's Go Nagata-cho," a new Japanese political parody is a blatant jab at the legions of voters - and politicians - who have succumbed to the wavy, permed locks of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

While such shtick is unremarkable in most countries, "Let's Go Nagata-cho," goes where no prime-time Japanese show has gone before. The program is named for the Tokyo neighborhood that houses Japan's equivalent of Capitol Hill. And it combines the political drama of "The West Wing" with office antics à la "Ally McBeal."

"A parody is definitely something new here. In the past, the people in politics weren't interesting," says Nobu Mizuta, director of programming and production for Nippon Television, which launched "Let's Go" last month. Mr. Mizuta is also the show's producer.

While political cynicism has bubbled beneath the surface for years, Japan has never had the equivalent of a "Saturday Night Live," or the biting spoofs shown in Europe, leaving many here to conclude that lampooning politicians was off limits or simply not part of the culture.

But the rise to power of charismatic politicians like Mr. Koizumi, say the show's creators, is largely responsible for changing public attitudes, paving the way for a look at the lighter side of politics.

"It is only since Mr. Koizumi became prime minister [in April], and since Makiko Tanaka became foreign minister, that politics have become something people would want to watch on TV," says Mr. Mizuta. "Now that we have a politician who is closer to the people, we thought that maybe they would enjoy a drama about the politicians."

On "Let's Go Nagata-cho," Koizumi gets a gentle ribbing. A well-known, handsome actor plays Prime Minister Shunichiro Izumi, deftly mimicking Koizumi's movie-star appeal and husky eloquence.

While he spouts a stream of inspiring, catchy sound bites to reporters, Mr. Izumi (not unlike his near-namesake) has yet to implement any of his promised reforms.

Receiving far less kind treatment is Ms. Tanaka, or, in another thinly veiled fictionalization, Maiko Tasaka. The actress who plays Tasaka has the real-life foreign minister's mannerisms down pat, turning the character into a screechingly funny, if cruel, political operator who cuts up subordinates like so many pieces of sushi.

Not everyone is a fan, however. Author Chiaki Aso commends the show's creators for their audacious effort, but sees the program as slapstick and lacking in sophistication.

At the moments when the story line goes deeper, Ms. Aso says, and casts a cynical light on abuse of power in Japan or on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its ties with big business, people miss the point. "The audience, with a few exceptions, will not understand the satire. The audience here lacks in understanding" of political parody, she says.

Aso also suggests that the show's mediocre ratings - a 10 to 12 percent audience share in the five weeks it has been on the air - are because the mass media have given it short shrift. " 'Let's Go Nagata-cho' has many must-see moments. But the professional critics only flatter the programs that earn high ratings, so the quality of critique here is not good," she says. "They stick to ratings, and ratings mean money."

To be sure, "Let's Go" doesn't yet pose much of a challenge to its main competitor - state-run NHK's nightly news program. But those who are watching say the show exposes a side of Japanese politics only hinted at in mainstream media.

"They've made the politicians look more human," says Emi Watanabe, an art student at Meisei University in Tokyo. She particularly enjoyed an episode in which political aides beg construction company bosses for lucrative endorsements. "For me, it confirmed that they might do something like that, or that they act really passionate in front of the media just for show."

Masahiro Mizutani, who works for a design company, says he thinks the program will be good, at the very least, in getting young people to take note of politics.

"We don't trust politicians much anymore," he says. "But I think that watching what the real politicians are doing is far more interesting."

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