Nostalgia and News

Ah the joys of satellite TV. It saves me from the noisy, irritating, mind-boggling menagerie that Japanese TV–circa 2012–has become. Satellite TV takes me not only beyond Japan’s borders but back to the days when watching TV in Japan was actually fun. This month, SkyPerfecTV’s Lala Channel 372 is rebroadcasting the 1997 hit drama Virgin Road. (The title is a Japanese-English term for walking down the aisle on one’s wedding day.) Lala is airing two episodes at a time, Sundays from 9 p.m. and it’s a very pleasant journey back in time. Nostalgia for the past is often considered a sign of getting old and refusing to adapt. Yet, when one lives in post-March 11, 2011 Japan, nostalgia takes on new meaning. Who doesn’t yearn for the days when cesium and spent-fuel pools were not a part of our daily vocabulary; the days when, without thinking, one could nibble any local delicacy or swallow anything the TV news presented.

And is it really a sign of getting old and too set in one’s ways to remember fondly the days when privacy was still a valued concept and people were not ruled by their e-mail and cell phones 24/7? Those thoughts have been running through my mind as I watch the reruns of Virgin Road.  Thus, I was overjoyed to find some justification for the pleasure of nostalgia in a 2009 Psychology Today article which argues it is a good psychological medicine. In moderate doses, nostalgia makes people happier, more positive and can heighten self-esteem and a feeling of belonging. (How it effects those who have to constantly listen to someone waxing nostalgic was not mentioned.) But back to our story…

Virgin Road is best known for its rousing theme song “Can You Celebrate.” The Namie Amuro hit sold well over 2 million copies and is still a background music favorite for wedding celebrations. This charming little drama may be 15 years old but it has aged well and is still very watchable. Kazumi (Emi Wakui) is a single mother-to-be who is determined to raise the child herself after the shocking discovery her dashing, older lover–a Japanese jewelry designer in New York–is a married man. She rushes back to Tokyo after receiving word her father is dying. (Dad is played by Tetsuya Takeda in a refreshing break from his decades-long stint as the dedicated teacher on “3-nen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei”). In a previous letter, Kazumi mentioned marriage plans so she is desperate to appear with a fiance in tow.  On the plane home, she meets Kaoru (Takashi Sorimachi), a tough yet sensitive freelance writer who was raised in an orphanage, and talks him into masquerading as her fiance for a one-time meeting with her dying dad. But remember this is 1997. She hasn’t got a cell phone or an e-mail account so she heads home before the airmail letter from her brother arrives telling her it was all a false alarm. Dad’s not terminally ill. On the contrary, he’s very genki and ready to interrogate Kaoru. The couple face plenty of ups and downs as the charade progresses and they fall in love for real.

Watching this drama in 2012, is also an interesting exercise in reflecting on how much has changed in just 15 years. In 1997, most of Japan still existed in a pre-cell phone and pre-Internet world. Only Kazumi’s former lover–the jetset jewelry designer–has a cell phone. Everyone else makes do with landlines and thus spend far less time on the phone. In one scene, we even see Kaoru in a telephone booth. To think prime Tokyo real estate used to be littered with those things–little refuges from wind, rain and prying ears.  Without cell phones, people had lots of time to talk to each other and the scriptwriters had to concentrate on creating amusing dialogue.

Kazumi is unable to find employment but does get a part-time job transcribing tapes on her big box radio-casette tape recorder. (I had one just like it back then. Mine got NHK bilingual radio broadcasts so it was possible to turn down the sound on the old model TV and listen to the soundtracks of “Poirot” and “Sherlock Holmes,” which NHK aired religiously in those days, in English. It was a very useful contraption.

Kaoru writes his articles on a little word processor that displays about 15 lines of type.  I had one of those too. It could be connected to a modem, send primitive e-mails and didn’t even require a printer. You rolled the paper in and printed the page out just as you would with a typewriter. Very cost-effective that was.  The drama also shows us a bit of where we have come work-wise since 1997. Magazines were still prevalent and profitable and Kaoru is paid a hefty envelope of cash for his feature article while Kazumi’s father owned a photography studio, although most of his income came from developing film. Now there’s another business, that, like printing companies and print journalism, has pretty much faded. Yes, it’s amazing how much has changed in just 15 years.

Watching Virgin Road again from this distance, also answers the question of: how did we ever live before smartphones, YouTube and Facebook? What did we ever do without them?  The answer, of course, is we lived quite happily at a slower pace with the technology we had at the time. We didn’t miss what didn’t exist.  Nor did we have to worry about being just one misguided Tweet or drunken uploaded photo away from a social networking disaster. On June 26, NHK’s “Closeup Gendai” focused on how such things are destroying lives and reputations and have given rise to the latest on-line privacy issue which is gaining traction in Europe–the fight for “the right to be forgotten and erasure” from Internet search engines.

Of course, there are probably not too many people who would want to go back to those late 20th century days either. There’s no denying the usefulness of the Internet world. We had another example last week when the anti-nuclear movement mobilized 45,000 demonstrators outside the Prime Minister’s Office to protest the restart of the Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture scheduled for July 1.   Mobilized via Twitter and Internet sites and nicknamed the Ajisai (hydrangea) Revolution (taking a hint from the Middle East’s Jasmine Revolution), the weekly Friday night crowds have grown so large they finally got some mainstream news coverage on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” Friday, June 22. Watching television actually cover peoples’ attempts to be heard on the nuclear issue was a moment of rare excitement. Up to now, the mainstream media has almost totally ignored the protests or given them only a 20-second flash news treatment. TV Asahi actually devoted about ten minutes to the story and showed how the protestors’ voices could be heard inside the PM’s office. As of yet, the other networks have been slow to follow suit.

No, few 2012 folks would want to ditch their cell phones and Facebook and permanently head back to 1997 but it doesn’t hurt to wax nostalgic now and then, especially when the alternative is to wallow in the current programming morass. Oh, and about Takashi Sorimachi who played Kaoru in Virgin Road.  He went on the next year to star in the 1998 dramanga classic GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka). While filming, he fell in love with (and later married) his costar Nanako Matsushima. That dramanga, which earned 35 percent ratings on its final night, has been a classic ever since. It was such a success,  the Fuji network has remade it with Exile’s Akira starring in the role Sorimachi made famous. The new GTO starts July 3 at 10 p.m. on Fuji.  With the current low quality of drama productions, it’s unlikely the new version will garner even half the ratings of the original. Maybe Fuji should have saved their money and just reaired the classic 1998 version, which would have given terrestrial TV viewers too a chance to muse over how much has changed since then. Afterall, as Psychology Today says, a little dose of nostalgia now and then is good for us.