October 27, 2008
I'm not a big fan of television soaps, day or night. I watched the first season of 24, but I just don't like being dragged along from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, so I've avoided it since. I generally avoid sneak previews for the same reason.
One exception to the rule is NHK's Asadora or "morning (asa) drama (dorama)," except that watching on satellite in the U.S. means it's on at night. It belongs to the renzoku terebi shousetsu genre, or "ongoing television novel."
An Asadora features a spunky female lead confronting personal, family and romantic conflicts. The story takes place in a distinct setting. Each episode is fifteen minutes long, broadcast Sunday/Monday through Friday/Saturday. New series start in April and October, last six months, and come to a conclusion.
Every week's worth of episodes is a "chapter," and each chapter adds to the narrative arc of the entire series. Subtracting opening and closing credits leaves 75 minutes or so for each chapter in six acts, including the teaser for the next weeks' chapter.
It's fascinating to see the skeleton of a television drama so plainly exposed. You can watch the plot turns coming down Fifth Avenue. But that doesn't detract from the fun. Granted, some stories work better than others and some casts have better chemistry than others.
Conventional romances fare the worst. As Erica Friedman archly observes, "I can clearly remember a J-Drama I watched for weeks and weeks and when the lead male and female finally got together . . . the kiss sucked the romance right out of my house."
That's been true of every Asadora series I've watched. NHK's writers are much better at family dramas with a strong sense of community and tradition (of which Japan has heaps): everybody related to everybody else, with lots of nosey relatives and neighbors.
Although romantic subplots were hinted at in Hitomi (2008), the story thankfully never went there. Instead, it focused on the estranged relationship between Hitomi's mother and grandfather, and between her mother and father, who divorced when she was a child.
Hitomi's grandfather is a foster parent. Some of the most interesting episodes were about Japan's foster care system. And both Hitomi and Dan Dan have worked in themes about Japan's aging population (this educational aspect is also common; hey, it's NHK).
As noted above, an Asadora series draws attention to a geographical area. Hitomi takes place in the shitamachi neighborhood of the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, exploring the idiosyncratic lives of the people who work there and the history and customs particular to it.
The most recent series is Dan Dan, starring identical twins Mana and Kana Mikura. It begins with the plot device straight out of The Parent Trap, about twins separated at birth whose paths cross on their eighteen birthday.
The one sister aspires to become a folk-rock singer, the other is a maiko (apprentice geisha). The story takes place in Kyoto and scenic Matsue in western Japan. Watching the twins delve into the mystery of their separation is as entertaining as the best whodunit.
As you can see, the first time Nozomi and Megumi meet, Nozomi is heavily made up, which conveniently hides their similiarities, and Nozomi lies about her birthday just to drag out the suspense a few more episodes.
Up to the point they switch roles, we've only seen Nozomi in a kimono, with her hair done up in the momoware ("split peach") style. So when she changes into Megumi's jeans and T-shirt and literally lets her hair down, you really do lose track of who's who.