Essays: Swamped by the samurai |
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Swamped by the samurai

STILL giggling with jet lag, I must confess that most of this week’s television went by in something of a blur: I got back to London on Sunday, having left Tokyo the following morning, but it takes days to recover from a transpolar flight, and even when the internal clock has caught up with the external world, the brain is still seared with the memory of Japanese television.

In due course a full account of my Japanese adventures will appear in another part of the paper, but it is perhaps appropriate, in this place and at this time, to say a few words about Japanese television. There is an almost endless list of things that the Japanese do brilliantly well, but making television programmes is not one of them.

A Japanese television set is an exquisitely constructed precision instrument which on its home territory can bring the viewer his choice of about 10 different channels. Unfortunately these channels, with the exception of public-funded NHK, are concerned almost exclusively with purveying the electronic equivalent of raw fish.

The samurai saga is the staple programme. Half way through the evening, every channel screens the latest episode of its current sword opera, with the result that wherever you search the dial you find yourself looking at a pack of characters threatening to carve each other up. The actual rumble occupies only a few hectic seconds at the end of each chapter. The bulk of the instalment is consumed by the preliminaries. Among these, glowering is the main activity. The samurai squat around on the tatami and glower a great deal. Commercial breaks occur every few minutes but the samurai glower on regardless.

At the present moment, the great film director Akira Kurosawa is in retirement at his country house near Mt. Fuji, working on his memoirs. The old genius has a lot to answer for, since it was his tremendous sequence of action pictures — ‘Seven Samurai,’ ‘The Hidden Fortress,’ ‘Yojimbo’ and ‘Sanjuro’ — which established the sword opera’s basic vocabulary. Toshiro Mifune, he of the beetle brows and flaring nostrils, set the standard for all the glowering to come.

It was Kurosawa who made it obligatory for one tired old samurai to face up to another tired old samurai in the last reel. After a final bout of glowering, the two veterans would erupt into a quick-draw contest for the title of Fastest Sword in the East. It would be all over in one stroke. There would be a sound of ripping calico. Sadly Mifune would sheathe his gleaming blade while his opponent, looking suitably stunned, fell apart in slow motion.

Just such a scene now occurs at the end of every episode of every samurai serial on Japanese television, which means that about 70 people are being sliced in half every week. The only thing that varies is the shocked expression on the bisected loser’s face. In most aspects of its everyday life, Japan is one of the most refined countries on earth, but in that region of experience known to us as the Media it tends to dreck, tat and bombast. Almost the exact reverse, when you think about it, of what happens here.

In contemporary Britain a heterogeneous, chaotic society devoid of a unifying style nevertheless produces a surprisingly high standard of mass entertainment. Every country fills the little screen with soap operas but only here can you tune into a soap opera like, say, Send in the Girls, (Granada). I have seen only one chapter so far. It wasn’t perfect, but it was boiling with ideas.

This particular episode was contributed by Alma Cullen, a writer of high quality. The story-line was some run-of-the-bath rigmarole about a gang of girls promoting merchandise, but there were half a dozen subplots of real interest, since they concerned anxious marriages bumping into one another out there in the streets of new houses that one of the characters called Legoland. Cooped-up tension fizzed and zapped. Tempers were as thin as the walls. It was the kind of wildlife-in-suburbia subject matter which so often turns up, less searchingly explored, in West End plays.

Annie Ross plays the show’s heroine, Velma. A bluff, no-nonsense kind of chap is Velma. The soapiest role in the script, it is hard to make much of. Ms Ross has enough gravelly charm to get away with it, although monotony is inevitable in a character who spends her whole time being down to earth.

The up-in-the-air neurotics must inevitably corner more of your attention. Foremost among these is the bitterly envious Rosemary, a trend-conscious, Habitat-haunting virago for whom Hunter Davies’s word is law. Rosemary is played by Christine Hargreaves, who has the gift of being able to look crackers just by focusing on some simple problem, such as trying to remember the capital of Denmark.

Away for the first episode of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (BBC1), I caught the second. Straining, I could just about see why the opening instalment was well received. The plot has a certain charm: in a long-ago Britain when cars had running-boards, an inarticulate travelling salesman falls for a shy school-teacher. They, and everybody else in the story, express their deeper feelings by dint of popular song.

A mime-to-playback throwback, the show ought to work, but on the evidence of its second episode the light touch is fatally absent. Potter shows welcome signs, for once, of wanting to lift our spirits, but there is so much social analysis going on that there is hardly any room for people.

The principal actors cope nobly with the rough-cast lines allotted to them, but there is something inescapably patronising about giving the humble so little to say. In pre-war American musicals the low-life characters sang and danced because they were not allowed to make love, not because they didn’t know how to talk. It’s a class attitude to suppose that the lower orders must be tongue-tied. Potter is more British than he knows.

Staged at the hideous Wembley Conference Centre, The British Academy Awards (ITV) was the full slap-up do, complete with Princess Anne, heroic music, sealed envelopes and Special Material by Barry Cryer. Helping Andrew Gardner to conduct the proceedings, Susannah York was as inaccurate as she was lovely. (‘Last year’s winner was a man who limped and stampered...’)

You don’t need a sense of the absurd to despise such an occasion — all you need is a sense of occasion. But Tom Stoppard and Peter Barkworth undoubtedly deserved their awards. So, even, did Alan Whicker. When you’re stuck with 10 channels full of glowering samurai its amazing how much you miss him.

The Observer, 19th March 1978