Can Twitter Save Taira no Kiyomori?

This week’s questions: Can Twitter save Taira no Kiyomori?  Is the eruption of Mt. Fuji imminent? And why is Fiji becoming a favored destination for Japanese students?

Some 1500 Japanese students a year are now heading to the South Pacific island nation of Fiji to boost their English language skills according to Future Century Zipangu (Japan), broadcast Mondays at 10 p.m. on TV Tokyo. On June 11, the series took us to Fiji to meet a Japanese expat who, in 2004, decided to turn Fiji’s declining school enrollments and increasing teacher unemployment into a business opportunity. He hired some unemployed teachers, established an English school, incorporated a strict EOP (English Only Policy), and watched enrollment soar.  Why study in Fiji? The price (less than 100,000 yen a month including homestay), the tropical environment and a very friendly population with which to practice their language skills is making Fiji the campus of choice for many.

Last week’s most interesting and most frightening TV experience was the excellent June 9 NHK special “Megaquake II Part 3: Time of Great Change-Worst Scenario,” which used state-of-the-art computer graphics to clearly outline what could happen if a devastating earthquake hit Tokyo or Mt. Fuji erupted. (The special will be rerun early Sunday morning, June 17 from 1:20-2:33 a.m.). Ominously, the program also pointed out that, worldwide, all earthquakes of magnitude nine invariably have been followed by volcanic eruptions. NHK noted 20 of Japan’s volcanos-including Mt. Fuji-have been sputtering or registering some sort of activity since last year, making a Mt. Fuji eruption a realistic possibility.

NHK’s morning serial “Ume-chan Sensei” (8-8:15 a.m., Mondays-Saturdays), with a regular viewership of over 20 percent, has consistently been leading the Video Research Co. drama ratings. No other drama this spring comes close. In fact, the current TV scene is so sad that it is now possible to make the drama top-ten list with ratings of just 11.7 percent. Despite that low hurdle, the NHK 2012 taiga historical drama Taira no Kiyomori, a 12th century history of the Taira and Minamoto warrior clans, fell off the top-ten list in the first week of June.  That’s a shocking state of affairs for the national public broadcaster. The taiga drama has been a winning Sunday night institution on Japanese TV for decades. But Taira no Kiyomori, which thus far has overall average ratings of just 13.9 percent in the Kanto region, is poised to change all that and may even set a new record low. So far, it is even doing worse than the greatest taiga flop ever–“Hana no Ran” which averaged just 14.1 percent overall ratings in 1994. Last week, the Taira tale, which earned 11.6 percent in Kanto, fell to an unthinkable single-digit level in the Kansai region tallying just 9.2 percent. What’s worse, the series runs until December. There are still another six months of episodes ahead to see just how low it can go.

So what can be done to save the series? In yet another merging of TV and the Internet, NHK has come up with a novel rescue attempt. The chief producer will take to Twitter during the airing of the June 17 episode to provide background and explanations in real time. They hope this added knowledge will make the drama more enjoyable for viewers unfamiliar with all the ins and outs of 12th century history and lure back viewers who have bolted.  Although one should never underestimate the power of the tweet, this doesn’t really seem like a viable solution. Does NHK truly believe the older couch potato demographic, who have traditionally favored taiga dramas, will want to be bothered balancing a zapper in one hand and a smart phone in the other as they watch TV?

So what’s the real problem with Taira no Kiyomori? A capable cast is trapped in a series being brought down by a powerful triumverate –an unlikeable hero, a complicated script and dull, unattractive costumes–especially the hats! Taiga dramas require viewers to follow the hero for an entire year. Why watch if the hero is not lovable or at least likeably flawed? As for the script, it’s true TV viewers are not overly familiar with 12th century history. Yet for some viewers, the story’s timeless plotline-about bitter, internecine fighting among the powerful elites-may just seem too much like modern times. For a story like that, they could just watch the evening news.