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April 14, 2004

All about apples and oranges

Daily Yomiuri, Japan - Apr 14, 2004

Wm. Penn / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

First, it was an apple. Now, it's an orange. It is not clear just where scriptwriter Eriko Kitagawa is headed with this fruity symbolism but we have definitely been there before. Her new Sunday night series Orange Days (9 p.m. on the TBS network), which started April 11, bears a very strong resemblance to one of her greatest hits.

Kitagawa is the creator of some of the best romantic dramas of the last decade, including the Takako Tokiwa mega hit Beautiful Life. But her most endearing and perhaps most enduring work is her 1995 TBS winner Aishite Iru to Itte kure starring Tokiwa and Etsushi Toyokawa.

In the drama, which is often rebroadcast on satellite TV, the opening scene shows Toyokawa, a hearing-impaired artist, plucking an apple from a tree and presenting it to Tokiwa, a drama student searching for success. The small-screen chemistry between the pair was perfect, and sign language was soon fashionable.

Well, here it is nine years later and the opening of Orange Days has Kai (Satoshi Tsumabuki) presenting an orange (of the natsumikan or iyokan variety) to Sae (Ko Shibasaki). He is a fourth-year social welfare major with sign-language skills, who is desperately searching for a full-time job. She is a hearing-impaired violinist who smokes, can sign in both the Kanto and Kansai dialects and enjoys making shockingly outrageous X-rated sign language statements.

Kai's very shy best friend has been eyeing Sae for months and has an intermediary arrange a date for him with her. But when he learns the girl cannot hear, he chickens out and coerces Kai to go to the amusement park in his place. Kai is shocked to find Sae is the girl he tossed the orange to in the opening scene. But after some initial conflict and confusion, they begin to enjoy themselves and episode one ends with a kiss. This will lead to more conflict in episode two because Kai already has an older girlfriend. Coincidentally, she is also a specialist in sign language so she will be privy to all of the new couple's conversations.

We learn the violinist only lost her hearing four years ago through an illness. She is bitter, wary and still adjusting. As she explains it, when she looks at a bird, she wonders what happened to its voice before she remembers it is she who cannot hear it.

Kitagawa is an excellent scriptwriter, and interesting observations like this are scattered throughout the dialogue but the first installment was slow-moving and the supporting cast rather weak.

Is Kitagawa merely trying to repeat a past success or has she developed a new take on the topic? She did not reveal her motives in episode one. All that was clear is that it will be a mammoth task for the 2004 cast to compete with the 1995 hit. Perhaps, she should have rested on her past success in the disability drama genre and explored some new territory. Watchable but not entrancing, this one rates no more than a B- for episode one.

The long-awaited debut of Hodo Station on TV Asahi the night of April 5 brought in ratings of 14.6 percent, according to Video Research Co., but Ichiro Furutachi earned only a C- the first few nights. His hairstyle, clothes, even his manner of talking gave the impression of a desperate Hiroshi Kume wannabe. Despite years of on-stage experience, the excitement and stress of anchoring TV Asahi's top show made it appear like he was yelling into the mike. It was obvious he needed to calm down and develop his own news style, and by Thursday night he got the chance and met the challenge.

The news of the kidnapping of three Japanese in Iraq arrived on our TV screens shortly before the NHK 9 p.m. news on April 8. That gave newcomer Furutachi just less than an hour to get his act together, but he did. He presided competently over the Hodo Station discussion, asking some sharp questions and making some pertinent points. Friday night, he did even better as he faced the daunting task of doing a "How do you feel?" interview with people who had just been told their loved ones might be immolated. It may be the most difficult interview he will ever have to do, but he did it, and it was as least as good, if not better, than the interview that veteran Tetsuya Chikushi presided over on News 23 at TBS that night.

Furutachi had quite a debut week but by the end of it he had earned an A for effort. Let's hope he continues to meet the challenge.

Tenka, which started out with Video Research ratings of 18.6 percent, the lowest ever for a new NHK morning serial, also has a challenge ahead. I have been checking it out for the better part of two weeks, and the plot and characterization are neither clear nor convincing. Numerous scenes have been downright silly. If Tenka continues meandering, NHK faces the prospect of losing even its core following of loyal older viewers.

The May issue of Nikkei Entertainment magazine features its annual survey of the best loved and most hated comedy acts in the country. Akashiya Sanma keeps the top spot for the sixth year in a row while Egashira 2:50 holds on to the most hated spot for the third year in a row. London Boots 1 and 2, my own annual bottom-of-the-barrel pick, moved up from third to second place on the detested list. The magazine revealed voters had said the pair bullied the weak and their programs featuring entrapment of the unsuspecting could not be contrived to represent any sort of comic talent.

The public seems to be onto the pair. They may just be in line to challenge Egashira 2:50 for the top spot next year.

Ahh...there is hope for the world yet.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun