The world of entertainment in Japan is referred to as geinōkai, encompassing television, movies, the radio and the internet, with those working within it referred to as geinōjin. There is a sub-group of performers known as tarento (talent), who are usually not actors, singers or comedians, although a career in one or more of these areas might eventually open if the required ability can be shown. Rather, these people have come to public attention through some other vocation, calling, activity or hobby and appear on one or more of the many talk and variety TV shows to express their opinions or provide pithy comments at suitable times, which may be serious or funny, according to the nature of the show or topic under discussion. Some of these people, who might include Japanese-speaking non-Japanese, gain prominence in the community and make a career out of their television appearances.
Some travellers have a habit of turning on the television as soon as they first enter their hotel room. For those who have gone from aeroplane, to airport, taxi, English-speaking check-in counter and then hotel room, each stage a hermetically sealed environment, they may as yet have little inkling of the country they’ve just entered.
The television might thus provide their first exposure to the language, sights and sounds of that country. For this purpose of getting a feel for the country, Japanese television is worth exploring, as a window on life throughout the nation.
The government channel NHK offers good quality documentaries about Japan and other countries in Asia and Europe, period and modern dramas, talk shows with popular identities and experts discussing serious topical issues, plus news programs. The modern dramas usually utilise good quality costumes and sets, and tell believable stories about modern-day living. The historical dramas feature stories providing a glimpse of life at some point in the past, including when the samurai were a force in the community.
The most common programs on commercial channels are talk shows, game shows and modern dramas. Talk and game shows are compered by a well-known entertainer, with a group of panelists usually drawn from the entertainment industry, such as actors, sports stars, singers and pop stars, and possibly someone in the industry sector relevant to the topic at hand. Not uncommonly a foreigner might be included too. Discussion takes place on current national topics, which may or may not be of a serious nature, or on people in the news.
The game shows might involve some kind of interesting and imaginative activity contestants are required to perform; alternatively they might revolve around some inane activity involving panelists or members of the public that is occurring at the same time or has been pre-recorded. In these programs, making fun of participants is common. In the dramas over-acting and poor quality indoor sets seem recurring themes.
One feature running through the Japanese television industry is the saturation use of a relatively small number of top stars, each of whom might appear in a period or modern drama, one or more variety shows, advertisements in all forms of media, and perhaps the movies. Thus, in one day the television viewer might notice the same person in three or more different commercials, as a guest or panelist on a variety show and in the lead role in a weekly drama. That same person might elsewhere be seen in billboard, newspaper, magazine and other advertising. At any one time, the same actor might feature in advertising touting a mobile telephone, a brand of beer, hair shampoo, coffee, a brand of car and more. A foreigner speaking fluent Japanese might be seen in these roles too.
Consumers and television viewers just don’t seem to be able to get enough of their favourite entertainers, with over-exposure for the most popular actors and presenters an unknown hazard. The rise in popularity of some entertainers, from a nobody to leading acting role, regular appearances on variety and game shows then advertising, can be meteoric, followed by unceasing coverage of their every move by Japan’s insatiable entertainment media. As noted above, international movie stars also are commonly used as product endorsers in Japanese media, an excellent source of easy money, but something they’d never do in their home country.
Weddings involving popular entertainment figures receive full live coverage, with any subsequent separation and divorce announcements given equal attention. In early 2013, a video posted on YouTube by Minami Minegishi, a member of the very popular all-girl singing group AKB48, showing her apologising for spending the night with her boyfriend, received over three million hits.
English speaking viewers in Japan are catered for to some extent by the two satellite stations, 7 and 11, which screen news programs from the American broadcasters CNN and ABC, plus the BBC and other European companies, as well as American, British and Australian movies and sitcoms, with a bilingual facility on many TVs enabling these programs to be broadcast in either Japanese or English, or both at the same time. The NHK and Channel 4’s nightly news is also bilingual, as are some of the weekly movie screenings on various channels, plus the final session each day of the quarterly national sumo tournaments.
Every household that possesses a device capable of viewing television (and not just a television) is obliged to pay a fee to NHK, plus an additional fee for satellite connection, which is often paid at the front door in cash to a fee collector.
Because of the resistance to payment put up by many people, and the proffering of the most outlandish explanations as to why payment hasn’t been made or isn’t necessary, especially by university students, the collector’s job is not a desirable one, and in the present age of advanced technology would appear to be a rather outmoded way of fee collection.
Of necessity, or through on-the-job toughening, all fee collectors seem to display the same traits of suspicion, scowling, unfriendliness, resolute stubbornness, weather-beaten facial complexion, and uncompromising ability to respond to every excuse with a more credible reason as to why payment must be made.
They are, for example, completely immune to the rationale that where the sole occupant is a foreigner, and thus incapable of understanding Japanese, the television is placed in its dominant position in the room purely as a piece of furniture. Or that the Japanese occupant’s non-tertiary level of education precludes him or her from a proper understanding of the high intellectual standard of NHK programs, and that consequently this channel is never viewed. All in all, reports indicate these collectors are at times not the most pleasant of characters, seemingly devoid of any trace of sympathy and understanding, except at times when payment is offered willingly and immediately, when a hint of a friendly demeanour will be emitted.
The Japanese film industry has been in existence since the late 1890s, beginning with silent movies. As noted above, Japan already had a long history of entertainment by way of story-telling, so it was a natural progression that such people (known as benshi) would be used to embellish the mute screen, thus drawing together a traditional form of entertainment with a modern one. Film magazines began appearing within about ten years, and some of the film critics who wrote for these went on to direct films.
From the end of the 1920s films with political messages began appearing, coinciding with the introduction of strict censorship and government control, which continued until the end of World War II. Sound was introduced in the 20s, but silent movies continued to be made into the 30s.
Although the industry declined during the latter 30s and much of the 40s, during the war period the government made use of it for propaganda purposes. Unlike in the West, some war films portrayed life for soldiers as it really was.
The 1950s and 1960s were the most artistically creative and best patronised years for the industry, with Akira Kurosawa first achieving international acclaim at the 1951 Venice Film Festival with Rashomon, and subsequently with Hidden Fortress and Kagemusha. Along with Rashomon, two other films made during this time, Seven Samurai and Tokyo Story, are considered to be among the best ever made in the world. Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda, also was made in the 1950s, and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes in the mid-60s. This period also witnessed the emergence of Seijun Suzuki as a director in the pop culture milieu.
The incredible popularity and penetration of television brought this burst of success for films to a shuddering end by the late 1960s and early 70s. As a way of clinging onto audiences, what became known as pink films, soft porn, appeared, along with films about yakuza. The emergence of Yoji Yamada in the 1970s with his Tora-san series of forty eight films gave the industry a boost. Mid-decade Nagisa Oshima achieved critical acclaim and notoriety for his avant-garde pornographic musical In the realm of the senses, which led to him being tried for obscenity. Juzō Itami in the 80s with his social satires further helped the film industry fight back, his Tampopo (dandelion, about a noodle shop) achieving much popularity.
Other award-winning movies of the 1990s, plus the construction of multi-cinema complexes put the industry on a firmer footing. Shinji Aoyama, Takashi Miike and Hayao Miyazaki achieved some international acclaim at the turn of the century, with Aoyama’s Eureka winning the International Critics Prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano is another very active director of this era, also starring in many of his films, such as Hana-Bi and Kikujiro, as well as constant appearances on television talk shows in Japan.
Most younger Japanese prefer American imports, the more action the better. The community standing of American actors is evidenced by their use for product endorsements in television, magazine and billboard advertising, a practice portrayed in the Sofia Coppola directed Lost in translation, starring Bill Murray as an ageing American movie star in Japan to promote Suntory whisky.
The kind of movies Japan has become truly well-known for internationally is animation, anime, a term exported to the world in the 1980s, and otherwise known as manga cinema. The very first Japanese animated film appeared in 1917, and by the 1930s it was an entrenched form of entertainment. In the 1960s Osamu Tezuka emerged as the foremost manga and anime artist. It was he who originated the giant robot genre, which included major successes such as Gundam.
Anime films, and of course subsequently video games, proliferated for all age groups. Millions of Japanese children grew up on a staple of Doraemon, Digimon, Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Future Boy Konan, with plenty more titles and series devoured as they grew up, including Dragonball, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mushishi, Serial Experiments Lain, Naruto, Space Battleship Yamato, Elfen Lied, Yu Yu Hakusho and more. Astro Boy was one of the earlier series to become famous internationally.
Although each frame of an animated film is still drawn largely by hand, all drawings are now scanned into computers and, where considered appropriate, enhanced digitally. A landmark production of this nature was Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Ishii, with its futuristic settings and striking female lead actor.