Pre-premiere hype is important for Japanese TV drama series since their broadcast runs tend to be limited to 13 weeks. They don’t have time to build an audience the way more open-ended series do in the West. As many people as possible have to tune in right from the start.
Fuji TV’s “Change” (Monday, 9 p.m.) has it easier than most since it stars Takuya Kimura, the most bankable actor in Japan. The opening episodes of all his series since 1998 have ranked at the top of the ratings charts. More significantly, the news that Kimura, who tends to play strong silent types in glamorous professions, was going to take on the role of a nerdy public schoolteacher elevated to the position of Japan’s youngest prime minister, made the series more topical since it seemed he would be playing against type.
But around March, rumors started circulating that the show wouldn’t be ready by mid-April, when all the other spring drama series would start. Some weekly magazines speculated that the delay was due to unfinished scripts, while others thought the producers wanted to avoid a head-to-head confrontation with “Gokusen,” a Nihon TV series that was also a guaranteed ratings winner even though it was scheduled for a different night.
The jitters seemed to be justified when the May 12 premiere of “Change” came in second to “Gokusen” in that week’s ratings race. The left-leaning weekly Kinyobi said the show’s writing was characterized by “poor imagination and low intelligence,” and derided the casting of Kimura, who had admitted in interviews that he was uninterested in politics. The more conservative Shukan Bunshun was just as scathing. The reporter called the first episode “devoid of content” and complained that Kimura’s character, Keita Asakura, doesn’t rise to Japan’s highest office through ambition and vision, but rather because he is the scion of a political dynasty. Even worse, he’s totally ignorant of the workings of politics and government. What could be more incredible?
There’s more than a touch of schadenfreude in these verdicts, and while “Change” suffers from the poor pacing and lackluster direction common to all Japanese TV dramas, contrary to Bunshun’s contention that the story “reveals nothing” about its subject, it does give the impression that the producers did their homework, and not just because they secured permission to use actual Nagata-cho facilities for location shooting.
In the first episode, Asakura’s father, a Diet lawmaker from Fukuoka, and older brother are killed in an airplane crash. The ruling Seiyu party has to find a replacement and pressures Keita, an awkward elementary school teacher working in Nagano Prefecture, to run for the empty seat. Keita is estranged from his family and disillusioned with politics, but agrees because he believes he will lose.
During the campaign, he’s coached by Rika Miyama (Eri Fukatsu), the representative of the party bigwigs in Tokyo, and the hired “election planner,” Nirasawa (Hiroshi Abe), to do things by the book. But when his opponent brings up a 20-year-old scandal involving his late father, Keita bucks his handlers and admits publicly that he believes his father did once accept a bribe, which was why he vowed never to enter politics. This uncommon show of candor wins him the election, though only by a few hundred votes.
We already know that Asakura’s rise is being stage-managed by Miyama’s boss, Kanbayashi (Akira Terao), a party executive, for reasons that have little to do with change. Like the current ruling coalition, the Seiyu Party is unpopular and trying to avoid a general election that might remove it from power. When the boorish prime minister (Shiro Ito) is forced to step down due to a sexual-harassment accusation, Kanbayashi cultivates Asakura for the post of party president. Despite his lack of political experience, he is very attractive to the public. After only a week in Tokyo, he’s a star in the women’s magazines and on the wide shows. Kanbayashi’s plan is to install Asakura as prime minister to boost the popularity of the party, after which a general election can be called and a more seasoned party member — himself, presumably — will step in.
The cynicism inherent in this plan sounds familiar to anyone who follows what goes on in Nagata-cho, and you don’t have to be a psychic to see where the plot is going. The party expects a good-looking puppet, but Asakura will rebel in favor of what he believes is right — what’s best for “the kids,” as he always puts it — and thus bring about the “change” that Japan needs. By the fourth episode he is already locking horns with the bureaucracy, which is shown to be smug and out of touch, over a dam project that threatens the livelihoods of local fishermen. And he does it completely on his own, carrying out his own research, seemingly in the space of 24 hours. At that rate, Asakura will probably be signing a nonaggression pact with Kim Jong Il by episode nine.
The point of Asakura is that he’s both innocent of the normal machinations of Nagata-cho and dedicated to “keeping his promise to the people.” It’s hardly an original idea, and given Kimura’s limitations as an actor and the sentimental detours the script often makes, it doesn’t promise to be a compelling one either. At worst, the series could turn into a pale imitation of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but at best it could remind viewers, in a way that’s easy to digest, of the self-serving nature of politics and how it’s led to the current malaise in government. Whether or not Kimura’s legions of fans take such knowledge to heart and vote the bums out of office is another thing, but in the end “Change” could do us all some good.