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.