Jesus is My Flatmate

Morning Two’s greatest success story was a manga that began running in its very first issue, Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men. At one level, it is a slice-of-life comedy about two with-it hipsters sharing a Tokyo apartment. They squabble over vegetarian recipes; they experiment with a boutique T-shirt business, and they go shopping for noodles at the corner store. But Nakamura’s high concept has incredible bite, because these young men are really Buddha and Jesus, roughing it in an earthbound vacation.

In this month’s chapter, they argue about the washing up, and then go on a trip to Ikea, because even God-made-flesh needs a working hob and an extractor fan. Buddha enthuses about how idyllic life must be for all those Viking gods and Valkyries in their beige Swedish wonder-kitchens. Jesus goes a bit crazy in Home Furnishings, and then realises he has to carry his purchases home.

Nakamura’s storyline injects a much-needed humanity and humour into figures usually viewed only through translations of ancient books. Jesus is a resolutely happy person, who can laugh at the fact that schoolgirls mistake him for Johnny Depp. He runs a blog about TV drama, and frets about how to keep his crown of thorns dry in the shower. Buddha likes reading manga (particularly Osamu Tezuka’s famous Life of Buddha), and has an irritating ability to somehow get infinite lives whenever he plays a video game.

This could have all too easily gone horribly wrong. Nakamura is well aware of this, and has been reluctant to allow her manga to receive an English-language edition, because she is afraid of the likely knee-jerk reaction from the Christian Right in the USA. This doesn’t appear to have stopped it getting translated in Italy (the home of the Pope), or in Spain (the home of the Spanish Inquisition – nobody was expecting that). This is a sad state of affairs, because Saint Young Men is a truly charming story, rich with humour and compassion, and oddly respectful of its protagonists. Its satire is not directed so much at them, but at the modern world in which they find themselves, repeatedly confronting 21st century customs and attitudes with the nature of old-world religious figures.

If you think that gay marriage causes hurricanes, that tattoos will send you to Hell, and that a prawn cocktail is forbidden, then you are never going to like Saint Young Men. If you believe that “reverence” means never laughing at absurdity or imagining “what would Jesus do”, then this manga is certainly irreverent, and that makes it literally blasphemous. Nakamura is an equal opportunities satirist, and throws in a bunch of other gods and goddesses – this is typically Japanese eclecticism, but unlikely to play well with anyone who refuses to accept that others believe differently.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #144, 2015, and is reprinted now because of the Saint Young Men live-action TV show, currently creating waves online.

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Yae no Sakura

6e9509ddc8In Japan, currently in a hotel in the middle of the Inland Sea, with giant tankers gliding past a backdrop of green, hilly islands, stretching back into the mists. And because I’m been busy writing all year, I haven’t been following this year’s Sunday night taiga drama, Yae no Sakura, all about a gunsmith’s daughter from Aizu-Wakamatsu, who gets dragged into the Boshin War — the last gasp of the samurai. This is a topic I have written about twice already, as it was also a proving ground for a young Admiral Togo, and I’ve got all the materials assembled for another book about its end, called Samurai Republic, which I have yet to sell. But today it’s mainly an excuse to print a picture of Haruka Ayase with a gun, in her role as “the Bakumatsu Joan of Arc.” The titular Yae (Yaeko Yamamoto, a.k.a. Yae Niijima, 1845-1932) went on to become the first non-imperial woman to be decorated for service to her country, serving as a nurse in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. Then she helped found Doshisha University.

Don't You Know Who This Is?

mito komon

I wander a traditional Japan of backstreets and stone lanterns, with wooden buildings and paper walls. I think I took a wrong turn somewhere by the blacksmith’s, and need to retrace my steps if I want to get back to the pleasure quarter. As I head back towards the Yoshiwara, I bump into a samurai leading two associates across a stone bridge. We bow at each other curtly and he rustles onwards with a scowl. The lower-ranking lieutenant behind him rolls his eyes at me playfully, pointing at his sullen associate as if to say, “Bad Agent Day.”

Toei’s Kyoto studios, a series of nondescript warehouse buildings in a long line by the railroad tracks, is closed to the public, but literally anyone can walk in off the street to wander the neighboring Movie Village backlot. Comprising several blocks of period housing, the Movie Village stretches from a Victorian-era town square complete with trams and coffee house, to a sector of samurai-era Tokyo that includes an attractive replica of Nihonbashi bridge, a pleasure quarter, merchant housing, a courthouse, and a prison. Wait for a gap in the milling school children and tourists, and the opportunity presents itself for a snapshot of the Japan of two centuries ago — a situation helped greatly by the many samurai, artisans, and geisha wandering the lot in full costume.

The Movie Village isn’t so much a theme park as a working studio. Sure, there’s a museum to the Power Rangers and their greatest enemies, some of the houses have been turned into snap joints where you can have your photo taken in samurai get-up, and there’s a ninja booth where you can throw shuriken at targets to win prizes, but all the minor attractions play second fiddle to the Movie Village’s true function, as a giant location set for samurai dramas.

Attend the Movie Village on any given day, and you can easily find that the courtroom area has been cordoned off to shoot a finale for next season’s Toyama no Kinsan. Don’t bank on always seeing the robotic sea monster that pops out of the SFX lake, since there remains an eternal possibility that it will have been turned off for the day so that someone can film a dockside sequence for Ooka Echizen. On the day I’m there, they are recording the latest episode of Mito Komon, a series that has been running intermittently since 1969. Mito Komon is the apocryphal tale of Tokugawa Mitsukuni, uncle of the Shogun Tsunayoshi, who wanders seventeenth-century Japan in disguise, observing criminals as they prey on the innocent. At the right moment towards the end of each forty-five-minute episode, Mito’s retainers will stop proceedings and brandish the Shogun’s seal. They point at the unassuming old man and bellow: “Don’t you know who this is!?” and Mito throws off his disguise.

A runner with a loud speaker tries with increasing panic to control a group of bewildered kids from San Francisco, who still think this is your average run-of-the-mill theme park, and don’t understand why they can’t cheer every time the samurai on the other side of the square fight each other.

There is a rustle among the Japanese crowd and a series of excited “Ooohs!” as a man in peach-colored robes and a white goatee rides onto the set on a small silver scooter ready for his next scene. It is Kotaro Satomi, the latest of several actors to play Mito Komon, who has been with the series for so long that he also played one of Mito’s young companions during the 1970s and 1980s. He stares in bewilderment at the San Francisco school kids, who stare in bewilderment back. As the seconds tick by, it becomes obvious that if someone were to brandish the Shogun’s seal at this moment and ask the 64,000 yen question, these kids wouldn’t have the faintest idea who he was.

“This man is very famous,” explains their tour guide desperately. “He’s a very famous actor who plays a very famous person in a very famous series.” He says this all with the characteristic vagueness of many Japanese tour guides, who have long since given up trying to get foreign tourists to remember people’s actual names.

The Americans nod excitedly and immediate start demanding to have their pictures taken with Satomi. Perhaps realizing that this is celebrity snapshots for the sake of it, and that none of them know who he really is, Satomi agrees with a weary smile. But he has the magnanimous charisma of a true professional, and the tourists go away happy, ready to tell all their friends that they met “someone really famous” while they were in Japan, and that he was “really nice”, whoever he was.

The peak rating for Mito Komon is 43.7 percent — a night in 1979 when almost half of all the TV sets in Japan were tuned to the show. Satomi knows that there are already plenty of people in Japan who know exactly who he is. San Francisco’s chance will have to wait.

This article first appeared in Newtype USA, July 2003, and was reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Mito Komon finishes its decades-long run on Japanese television this month.

Things I Learned From Japanese Television

Rain makes you sneeze.

Any injury can be healed with a white sticking-plaster on the cheek.

Sex always leads to pregnancy.

Nothing good will come of foreign travel.

Women in white are psychos (unless they are getting married).

Old women are either mad or Kaoru Yachigusa

Every Japanese home has a spare green-ink divorce application form.

It’s impossible to find a deserted roof-top from which to throw oneself.

If you have a college reunion, someone is going to have an affair.

If you have a college reunion, someone is going to die.

Episode one marriage = episode one widow.

End with a wedding, but not the one everyone expects.

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

If Shakespeare Wrote Japanese TV

As an exercise, imagine a familiar storyline, after 15 minutes with a Japanese TV script editor:

Romeo Tanaka is a young business executive at Montague, a prominent Tokyo trading house. He sneaks into the latest product-launch by rival company Capulet Inc, only to fall in love with Juliet Nakamoto, a pretty marketing executive. After an initial set of misunderstandings, the two begin a clandestine affair, aided by Romeo’s comedy sidekick Mercutio, who is secretly in love with Juliet’s personnel manager Nurse. Meanwhile, sneaky Capulet manager Tybalt has taken an undercover job at Montague. Things appear to settle down, until Romeo’s ex-girlfriend Rosalind reappears and tries to lure him back.

Juliet wrongly believes that Romeo loves Rosalind, and gives in to her father, the chairman of Capulet, who wants her to go on a date with Hong Kong business associate Paris Wong. Meanwhile, scheming Capulet manager Tybalt plots to get Romeo thrown out of the company.

Discredited at head office, Romeo is offered a foreign business placement, but turns it down, not realising that Juliet has taken a similar post in order to be with him. Romeo’s friend Mercutio finds Tybalt doctoring company documents, and is injured in a fall when he tries to stop him. Reunited at Mercutio’s bedside at Apothecary Hospital, the cast realise that Romeo is innocent. Romeo is exonerated of all accusations, but Juliet slips away, to prepare to fly abroad for her posting in Taiwan. Romeo rushes to the airport, where he stops her just before she gets on her plane.

In a surprise twist, Rosalind meets Mercutio as he is discharged from hospital, and confesses that she has fallen in love with him. At the double-wedding that follows, Juliet and Rosalind both throw their bouquets, which are caught by Nurse and Doctor Apothecary, who smile shyly at each other.

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

Next Season's Japanese TV

The Japanese TV world moves fast; there are approximately 30 new series each season, of which perhaps a dozen will go out in prime time, and only a handful will comprise remakes or sequels to earlier shows. In order to help you guess what the storylines might be for as-yet unmade series like Hairdresser Detective, My Boyfriend is an Alien, Get Away From My Husband You Bitch, and who knows, perhaps Undertaker Cop, we offer this handy plot generator. Delete as applicable, or add your own variables:

Janet is a (reporter / photographer / traffic cop / nurse / princess / florist / teacher / stewardess / designer) who finds herself falling for John, who is a (detective / bail jumper / salaryman / architect / doctor / samurai / pilot / musician / student/ undercover alien / terrorist). After first meeting during a (wedding / crime investigation / blind date / robbery / swordfight), they initially fail to get on with each other, but are miraculously thrown back together by their (interfering parents / shared interest in an unlikely hobby / unexpected relocation to shared lodgings).

However, their burgeoning relationship is threatened by (old flames / intrigues at their workplace / the fact they’ve switched bodies / their removal to a different time period), and by the fact that Janet is (already married / a celebrity / impersonating someone else / on the run from the police / diagnosed with only three months to live / on an undercover mission / pick one from the next list) and that John is (leaving the country / in love with someone else / supposed to defend the world from attacking aliens / pick one from the previous list).

Nor is anyone expecting the sudden mid-season appearance of (an old flame / a long-lost relative / an ultimatum that could ruin their careers). They must also deal with a dark secret, because one of them is (also married / still getting over the death of a loved one / a parent / suppressing the memories of a terrible trauma / actually a ghost / hell-bent on revenge against the other’s father). Luckily, they grow closer thanks to an incident involving (zany friends / a talking dog / someone’s parent / a wacky DJ) and the fact that they are forced to cooperate on (rearing a child or children / chasing a story / an arrest / saving the planet).

Though the story appears to resolve itself, a surprise twist involving (another murder / a revelation about the boss / a sudden hospitalisation) leads to a last-minute reunion at (Narita airport / a wedding / a sports meet / the hospital). And everybody lives happily ever after, including two supporting cast members who have unexpectedly fallen in love, unless there is a second season, in which case at least one of the leads will (turn up with an unexpected spouse / change jobs / lose their memory).

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

Pure of Heart

Sachiko (Ryoko Shinohara) has a problem child. Her son Hikaru (Ryusei Saito) never seems to pay attention. Whereas his kindergarten classmates can’t stop talking, he sits in silence. He develops strange obsessions with drawers and closets, and delights in creating a mess. If she tries to stop him, he throws a tantrum, and when she scolds him, he stares idly into the distance, not even acknowledging her presence. Sachiko simply doesn’t know where to turn…

NTV’s Wednesday-night drama In the Light: Living with Autism might have seemed to be an unlikely choice for the 2004 schedules. It lacked both the tacky high-concept of TV Tokyo’s Vampire Gigolo, or indeed the slavish fad-following of the spring season’s two (count ’em!) unrelated fire-fighter dramas. But it was also the latest in a long line that stretched back almost 20 years to a distant Hollywood ancestor.

Barry Levinson’s 1988 road movie Rain Man featured Tom Cruise as a car-trader who discovers that he has a long-lost relative, and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cruise’s autistic brother. Rain Man’s plaudits helped usher in a new age of worthy disability-centred dramas in Japan, starting with a wheelchair-bound cast member in Under One Roof. Before long, the “rain man” element had been taken perhaps a little too literally, with the release of From the Heart, the tale of an autistic weather girl. From there it was a short while until 2000’s Pure, the show by which all other subsequent disability dramas are judged. The tale of down-at-heel photographer who falls for an autistic artist, Pure was such a success, that it even lent its name to the genre. When producers say their next show is going to be “Pure”, they mean that it will hinge on a handicap – blindness, deafness, personality disorder, you name it, it’s been the subject of a drama series.

Considering the number of disability dramas on Japanese TV, In the Light requires considerable suspension of disbelief – has Sachiko really never heard of autism before? Unfamiliar with the term, Sachiko first assumes it is some form of disease from which her son can eventually be cured. When she is told this is not possible, she enters a state of desperate denial, trying to convince herself and others that Hikaru’s behavior is completely normal. Her family are little help. True to Japanese TV tradition, her mother-in-law is a heartless harridan who blames Sachiko for Hikaru’s condition. She turns to her husband for comfort, but eventually he admits that he, too, regards Hikaru’s handicap as her fault. It’s only when she meets a kindly therapist that she finds some solace… and hope.

Sachiko’s ignorance, however, is a benign trait. It was designed from the very beginning to create a character who would ask questions on behalf of an audience, because In the Light began life as an educational manga.

Creator Keiko Tobe graduated in economics, and first found herself a job in public relations. She moved to Tokyo when she got married, and discovered that the capital city offered her opportunities to turn her manga hobby into a job. In 1985, after working as an art assistant in girls’ comics, she enrolled on Princess magazine’s annual Manga School program. . A year later, Princess Gold published the result, the marathon-runner story Aki’s Goal. Tobe stayed in girls’ comics through the late 1980s, following a contemporary fad by writing a story set in the world of women’s wrestling. The same era that saw the Dirty Pair parodying lady wrestlers also saw Tobe’s Dream Warrior Shadow appear in several instalments in Princess Special.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Tobe began writing titles such as Glass Staircase and Mystery Theater, and her most prominent early work Bakumatsu Sorcery. Set at the end of the samurai era, it told the story of a surgeon trained in ‘Dutch’ (i.e. Western) medicine, who becomes involved in lifting curses from unlucky people. But she followed it with a very different form of affliction – she turned from girls’ comics to women’s comics, and picked a new way of haunting her lead character.

In the Light began running in For Mrs magazine, a title aimed at young mothers. The manga aimed to educate its readers with steely fervor, regularly running additional features on real-life mothers whose children suffer from autism, tracking their progress from birth, through school, and into the workplace. In Japan, of course, getting a day-job is a happy ending. The TV version, however, sticks resolutely to Hikaru’s early years, as Sachiko fights to put her son into a normal school, deals with the prejudices of the people around her, and observes his separation from the everyday world. It doesn’t take long before her son goes missing, and she is forced to deal with the worry of how a boy who can barely talk can somehow navigate his way back home. In regularly returning to the concerns of every parent, Tobe’s story skillfully reminds viewers that Hikaru is not all that different from other children after all. It’s an unusual addition to the world of Living Manga, but its motives are pure of heart.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, August 2004, and was subsequently reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Keiko Tobe died last Thursday, aged 52).