Around this time last year Japan’s NHK World television network put out what was claimed to be the first English language scripted sitcom. I’ll be honest, I was never clear if this claim was for the station itself or the country as a whole. Since the show was also available online, I checked it out. I came away with very strong views that you can check out here. Well, here is the second season. And more reviews. (Just in case you don’t want to read any more, it is still away.)
Home Sweet Tokyo, Season 2 Episode 01: It’s All Calligraphy
writers: BJ Fox, Yukihiro Toda and Teruyuki Yoshida
director: Yu Fukumoto
If we were to view this episode by one of its goals, to introduce Japanese culture, then it would probably merit a C+. This particular episode focuses on shodo/shuji (Japanese calligraphy). But is does so while barely adding any useful information and by making the main characters into stereotypes that squarely fall into the realm of insulting. Tack on the other goals of the show, to depict family life and to entertain, and the show’s score plummets. It continues to punch down and exploit the foreign cast while using them to underscore the superiority of all things Japanese.
Spoilers Lurk Below
For anyone new to this site, this is where I unpack the claims made above.
So, let’s start by looking at this as a glimpse of Japanese culture. So, there are some little things that stretch believability to the point that effect the grade, but ultimately don’t matter. This would be the setting of the class in such a picturesque location, the teacher entering to utter silence (by hidden signal) and in full kimono. Sure, this might be the case in some places, but a multitude of these styles of classes, at least those that pass out such flyers, happen in community centers by teachers dressed for ink spills. Again, this doesn’t hurt the episode, but does count as a strike against teaching the reality of the culture.
And then we have to look at how much time was spent describing calligraphy as being an instrument of the heart. Sure, expression of the heart is a part, but I think it is fair to say the episode dialed at up to unrealistic. In all of the explanations, there is barely any discussion time to it being an art that also has some basic utility. Instead we get a psychic teacher that can read ice cream habits in the stroke of a brush.
I know, that is in the name of comedy, but if the comedy fails, and the lesson given is hyperbolic to the point of misinformation, and no relevant information is actually given, is there any value added?
So, now lets look to the characters. BJ Fox continues in the role of Brian. He also continues to play himself as a cultural nincompoop and embarrassment. Really. Take a look at the conflict that sets the show into action. He doesn’t see the value of calligraphy because there are computers. Can this show be even more naked in its attempts to say that foreign people can’t understand Japan? This very argument makes as much sense as someone saying that CD players exist so why should someone learn the piano.
But that is okay because Fox continues to lower the bar by still being mystified at pretty much every word of Japanese other than kawaii. We pretty much have his father in law showing more growth in English than Brian has in Japanese. There were also several times in this episode where the daughter would speak to him in Japanese and he would then turn to the mother for translation. This is where own experience as a father with a three-year-old spoke up to the bad form of this guy’s parenting skills.
For all intent’s it seems they want to make Brian an everyman (foreign) character. But he is so inept and unlikeable, easily getting frustrated and just willfully ignorant, that he is very much unlikable or the work of someone who has a very low opinion of foreigners living in Japan.
Also deserving mention is the new friend, Vijay. From this episode you could argue that Vijay is shown to have a slight leg-up on Brian in terms of knowledge. However, the 70’s outfit and mustache makes me wonder who made is costuming decisions and what look they were going for. That he is also an Indian character that runs a Japanese curry shop because he “fell in love with the not so spicy flavors” makes me think this is an example of being both a failed punch line and another instance where Japan media loves presenting foreigners that find the Japanese way of doing things superior.
By the way, I was discussing this show with my co-worker. She really wants to know if there is anyone form India, Nepal, or even Thailand who truly prefers Japanese curry to their own curry. I told her I would ask for such comments. Personally, I like them all, but would probably prefer Indian or Thai to Japanese curry (even though it is some yummy stuff.)
Listen, the best thing that can be said for this particular episode is that it is not the worst one they have made. It is still insulting. Still poorly written and directed. The family dynamic still seems built on spite. But there have been worse episodes of Home Sweet Tokyo. You can stream it form the NHK world site.
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