Masafumi Endo, head of drama at Japanese broadcaster NHK, tells DQ what series need to be successful in the Far East and why viewers can look forward to meeting the ‘Japanese Harry Potter.’
DQ: What are the most popular dramas currently on NHK and why are they a hit with viewers?
Masafumi Endo: NHK’s traditional drama slot features series that could be described as Japanese telenovelas. We have created 93 of these in the past 55 years. They air for 15 minutes at 08.00, Monday through Saturday. Each work consists of 156 episodes that are broadcast from October to March.
Here Comes Asa! is the 93rd series of this kind. It explores how a girl, born to a merchant family in Kyoto in the 1860s, fights for the advancement of women and goes on to establish a women’s college. With help from her understanding husband and people around her, she battles to clear her path in male-oriented times and strives to shape an era in which women being in work is taken for granted. Her efforts have captured the imagination of the viewers.
The drama stars Haru, Hiroshi Tamaki, Aoi Miyazaki and Masaomi Kondo. Another appeal for the viewers has been watching the lead actress, Haru, who won the part via an audition that drew more than 2,000 applicants, mature as a performer over a six-month period.
NHK has also produced 55 year-long historical sagas, which we call taiga dorama (big-river drama), in 53 years. Sunday at 20.00 has become a fixed timeslot for families to enjoy these epic stories. This year, Sanada Maru (pictured top) focuses on the life of the second son of a feudal lord of a small province during Japan’s warring-states period in the 1500s. The drama, which follows the struggles of the Sanada clan that survives the uncertain age on the strength of its family ties, seems to have inspired a growing number of viewers. It stars Masato Sakai, Masao Kusakari, Yo Oizumi and Masami Nagasawa.
How would you describe the television drama business in Japan at present?
The time people spend watching TV is falling regardless of age or gender. TV dramas are also faring poorly in general. Exports overseas have reached no further than Asia, and Japan lags behind Korea and China in this respect.
What genres are most popular in Japanese drama and why? Do viewers prefer a certain type of drama, such as serialised stories or procedurals?
Two recent hits among Japanese viewers were both serial dramas made by the commercial TV networks. Many Japanese viewers are used to watching serial dramas and the challenge is making sure they return week after week.
The first, Naoki Hanzawa, airs on commercial network TBS. The show sees the titular character join a major bank to avenge his father, who died when Hanzawa was young. Faced with a torrent of challenges, he finds a way out using his intellectual power. The phrase he utters when he is cornered, “Baigaeshi da!” (I’ll pay back double), has become a slogan.
Downtown Rocket (also on TBS), meanwhile, is set in a modern Japan mired in economic turmoil and bleak prospects. The leading character, who heads a small company that is on the brink of going under, talks eagerly about his dream. The drama depicts how the heads of small factories join forces and gather their technologies to launch the first grass-root-level rocket. A quote from the main character – “What’s wrong with smaller companies having a dream?” – gave courage to many Japanese people feeling the effects of recession.
Both of Downtown Rocket’s protagonists have many shortcomings but they are upbeat and positive and work hard to achieve their goals. The viewers seem to appreciate dramas that depict some kind of success story, where the characters never give in to adversity.
What makes NHK drama stand out compared with other broadcasters’ series?
Since NHK is a public broadcaster, it is not judged by the ratings or expected to generate advertising revenue. Thus it is free from the will of sponsors. Consequently, we can produce dramas that not only reflect what viewers want but also deal with themes of public nature and value. We can also take the risk of creating historical dramas with universality and discover less-known talents to appear in our shows.
We have the tradition and skill accumulated through creating 55 historical sagas in 53 years and 93 TV novel series in 55 years. NHK is also capable of making programmes incorporating new technologies such as 4K and 8K.
How well does Japanese drama compete with international drama?
NHK produces programmes that target viewers in Japan and is not focused on overseas sales. In terms of technology, we believe our quality enables us to compete in the global market. But international acceptance of stories based on Japan’s unique culture, customs and religion, and the fact that the protagonists are Japanese, poses a challenge.
How are your TV dramas financed? Are budgets increasing as viewers expect cinematic production values?
It’s the same in Japan as around the world, with viewers now expecting high quality in TV drama. This affects production costs but, being a public broadcaster, NHK revenues do not increase annually. Our budget for drama production has barely increased in the past few years, which means we have to cope and come up with ways to overcome our budget situation.
Can you explain your drama development process?
Many of our dramas are produced in-house, with our producers working out projects and proposing them to the programming department. When the plans are approved, they go on to oversee the production. They choose a screenwriter and work on the casting.
The drama is then created by the in-house producer, director, production staff, assistant director, art and technical staff. However, in recent years, an increasing number of dramas have been outsourced to external production companies.
Do you take part in international coproductions? Do you think this is a good model for making drama?
Since 1980, NHK has coproduced around 20 dramas with overseas broadcasters and production companies.
For instance, A Son of the Good Earth (1995) was jointly produced with CCTV of China and focused on a Japanese orphan left behind in China at the end of the Second World War. The drama received a great response when it was first aired and has been rebroadcast a number of times.
Likewise, The Ginger Tree (BBC, WGBH), The Last U-Boat (ZDF, Capital Cities/ABC Video Enterprises, ORF, Manfred Durniok Filmproduction), Mission Top Secret and Escape from Jupiter (coproduced with Australia in 1993 and 1994 respectively), The Menam Never Sleeps (Channel 3, Thailand) and The Best Bad Thing (A Cinar Production, WQED, ZDF) were international coproductions.
What new dramas do you have coming up in 2016?
The historical saga Sanada Maru, which began airing in January, is an original work of Koki Mitani, a leading screenwriter in terms of popularity and talent. Its protagonist is Nobushige Sanada, a hero in Japan’s warring-states period. The story follows how the Sanada clan, a samurai family lacking in power, navigates the raging waves of the period amid powerful feudal warlords. The drama features popular performers both young and seasoned to appeal not only to the elderly, who are fans of historical drama, but also the younger generation. It has performed well so far.
NHK has also purchased the format of The Sniffer, the hit Ukrainian detective series that has been remade worldwide. We will produce it as a local drama. It will be NHK’s first such attempt, and will debut this fall.
A major fantasy drama called Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is also awaiting broadcast. The show was given a special 4K screening on the opening night of MipTV – marking a first for an Asian broadcaster. Based on a series of bestselling fantasy novels, the drama depicts otherworldly adventures in great scale. It’s reminiscent of a Japan-made Harry Potter. Fantasy is a genre that is not often seen in Japanese television drama. We hope this show will reach a wide audience and we plan to air 20 episodes over three years.
How do you see Japanese drama changing in the next 12 months?
We do not expect a drastic change in the coming year or so. But we may see gradual changes as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other video streaming services become more popular.
For instance, there is a tendency for edgy videos or works that appeal to a niche group of viewers being streamed first before going on to be accepted by wider audiences. Although TV stations cannot produce overly edgy programmes due to the nature of broadcasting, the industry may need to make certain changes.