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TV Dramas and the Tsukkomi Culture

Minako Okamuro
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Why aren't romantic dramas popular right now? Romantic dramas—such as the trendy dramas during the bubble years, and later “Long Vacation” and other dramas featuring Takuya Kimura (typically called Kimutaku) and written by Eriko Kitagawa—always used to captivate viewers. Recent TV dramas, however, rarely focus on the theme of love, except for pure love stories like the once dominant drama called Fuyu no Sonata (Sonata in Winter) and fanciful stories like Hana yori Dango (Boyfriends more than Flowers). As I considered this while giving a course called TV Culture Studies—part of Studies in Media, Image, and Body at the School of Culture, Media and Society—I had the opportunity to talk about love with the author Shion Miura, who is a graduate of the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, for an interview in the Waseda Campus magazine “Shinsho”. Though I had not seen Miura for a long time, we talked enthusiastically about TV dramas and boys' love stories, and she pointed out something interesting. She said that the reason why romantic dramas were not so popular was associated with the tsukkomi or quipping culture.

When you hear about your friend's ever so romantic date, for example, you will often make a quip, even though you actually want to go on a romantic date with your lover as well. Similarly, you feel compelled without even thinking about it to quip about love stories in TV dramas and comic books. We viewers used to be emotionally involved in romantic dramas, smiling and crying as if we were the heroes or heroines, and experiencing love vicariously. In those days, dramas were truly our model of love. The tsukkomi culture, however, won't allow for such simple-hearted sympathy. For Miura, “quipping that way makes for lively conversation, but it is not tolerant.” Preferring a sense of distance to sympathy, fewer and fewer people seem to indulge in the virtual world of dramas, because they feel embarrassed first.

As we all know, tsukkomi is originally a term of manzai (Japanese comedy form, often a comedy duo with a straight man (tsukkomi), who quips, and a funny man (boke), who plays the silly/ditzy part) jargon. By quipping, the straight man indicates how the funny man deviates from the standard, and helps the audience to laugh. That is, tsukkomi used to be thought of as the ability to relativize things and make perceptive comments on them. The question, then, is how tsukkomi has penetrated so deeply into our daily life. Though the funny man and straight man have returned to the mainstream for the first time since the manzai boom in the 1980's, it was in the 2000's that the tsukkomi culture achieved astonishing popularity. I would like to introduce two significant effects below.

The first significant effect is Summers. In 2000, the comedy duo Bacardi was renamed Summers and attained great popularity among young people. Their performance is characterized by rapid quipping by Masakazu Mimura, called one-phrase tsukkomi. Mimura's instinctive quipping with “______ kayo? (Hey, is it (or are you) ______?)” in response to silly/ditzy comments by his partner Kazuki Ootake soon became widespread among young people because of its short and simple expression. This has no small impact on our daily conversation style, in which we try to make quick quips responding to others. I think many young people have sensed the quipping style in Summers' manzai act and learned the rhythm of the conversation as they enjoyed it.

The other significant effect is the Internet. Especially blogs, SNS including mixi, NICO NICO DOUGA, and Twitter, all of which became remarkably widespread in the 2000's, allow anyone to send comments on arts and society to the world via the Internet, as clearly demonstrated by the comment feature in NICO NICO DOUGA, though such activities were traditionally limited to some commentators and specialists. As NHK's year-end music program Kohaku Utagassenn aired last year, many tsukkomi comments on (or quips about) the program were posted on Twitter in real time, which gave us a new way to enjoy the program. Consequently, the tsukkomi culture is approaching a new stage as it is closely connecting to the Internet and TV.

Naturally, there are many problems with this tsukkomi culture as well. Anonymous quipping on the Internet always involves the risk of evoking irresponsible and one-sided verbal violence. Further, since mobile phone email and Tweets are instinctively sent without any delay in response to comments from others, I think they cannot be regarded as responsible opinions.

What we should do now, then, is not to reject tsukkomi, but rather to make the most of the critical capability that is fundamental to it. In fact, there are some noticeable TV dramas that leverage the tsukkomi culture to develop its critical ability. Examples of such dramas include those written by Kankuro Kudo (often called Kudokan). In Kisarazu Cat's Eye (Cat's Eye in Kisarazu), one of his dramas, characters often make conversation in the readily understood style of tsukkomi (regrettably, I won't elaborate here due to limited space), which attracts young viewers. On the other hand, the baseball-like top/bottom structure is used to present the story as fluid rather than absolute. We recognize that the world presented in the drama is actually a continuation of our own daily lives, though it seems chimerical at first glance, and then this scheme evokes criticism in our daily lives. Further, the drama intentionally illustrates the daily life of the protagonist who has been given half a year to live in jest (while delivering the message about the importance of being normal), so that it can quip about the conventional weepy battle-with-illness dramas. This drama also successfully quips about the opportunistic dramas by thoroughly sticking to opportunism. Actually, in the drama thieves easily succeed in stealing. That is, Kisarazu Cat's Eye also works as meta-drama that quips about the meaning of dramas themselves, and acquires great critical value in various senses.

In recent years, it is said young people do not watch TV. In fact, there are a decreasing number of dramas that everyone can watch and enjoy together. TV and one of its genres dramas, however, are searching for a new potentiality as the tsukkomi culture is developing. As a TV researcher as well as a TV fan, I eagerly hope that more and more programs are created of a quality high enough to transform the tsukkomi culture into a great critical resource, rather than simply adopting new tools such as Twitter.

In writing this article, finally, I asked on Twitter for one-phase tsukkomis that people would make in response to hearing about a friend's romantic date. A great many tsukkomis were posted in response right away, including “Itchy! (i.e., TMI!/Too much information!, etc.)”, “Just like after school in junior high school days!”, “What kind of penalty game is this?” “Is this a trendy drama?”, “Uhuh, and then which one of you contracted an incurable disease?”, and “Rea Ju Otsu (Wow! I envy your nice REEAL life! (as opposed to cyber-life, Second Life, etc.)” We adults should consider how we can parlay this quick instinctive reaction of young people to develop a new culture and eschew the practice of irresponsible verbal violence.

Minako Okamuro
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The author received her Doctorate from the Doctoral Program in the Faculty of Arts at the University College Dublin (UCD). She is currently a professor of Studies in Media, Image, and Body at the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University. Professor Okamuro specializes in the study of Beckett and other modern plays as well as TV dramas, and gives lectures on media and occult arts. Her main works include Ireland on Stage: Beckett and After (Dublin: Carysfort Press), Theater of Knowledge, Knowledge of Play (PERIKANSHA Publishing Inc.), and All about Beckett (Hakusuisha Publishing Co. Ltd.). She was appointed as an editor for Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd'hui No. 19 (Amsterdam: Rodopi), an academic magazine specializing in Beckett published by Rodopi in the Netherlands. She extends her activities globally and serves as an official advisor for the Beckett International Foundation, which is based at the University of Reading in U. K., and for the Journal of Beckett Studies. Further she is engaged in the translation of Beckett's plays which fit into modern linguistic and bodily senses.