Saturday, May 14, 2011

Behind the Waterfall

According to the flap copy to Behind the Waterfall, Chinatsu Nakayama, the author, "has been an actress on both stage and television and a member of the Japanese Diet...Born in Kumamoto in 1948, she now lives in Tokyo." The book was originally published in 1980 under the titel Kyoyaku no jikan ("A Child Actor's Time"); the translation by Geraldine Harcourt was published in 1990.

The book contains three stories, "Star Time," "The Sound of Wings," and "Good Afternoon, Ladies." Nakayama tells the first from the point of view of an 11-year-old girl who has been successful on Osaka television dramas and brought to Tokyo to act in what turns out to be a hit play. We see the girl trying to make sense of the adult world, caught up in her own cares and desires, and showing the first signs of wanting more...more attention, more fame.

The second story begins with a young wife telling her somewhat older husband that she has fallen in love with a young man. The husband, who by Japanese standards of the time is a model of marital bliss, seems to take the news well. He will give her a divorce, but to save face he asks that the wife have no contact with her lover for three months. She agrees, then almost immediately breaks her promise.

I found the story fascinating because Nakayama is able to convey both the wife's infatuation with her younger lover (we have a sense that she is experiencing sexual pleasure for the first time) and her strong feelings for her solid, good, reasonable husband. She is being torn in two, and neither the lover nor the husband care.

The third and longest story concerns an afternoon television show and Nakayama, who clearly knows the milieu, tells it from several points of view. The show invites spouses whose partner has run away to make a personal appeal on the air for the partner to return. The show hires detectives to track down the runaways, and tapes them when found. All involved—husband, wife, lover—are brought into the studio and a regular cast of experts analyzes the situation and recommends—or insists—the principals change their behavior. It is a show, in other words, that trades on people's misery for the enjoyment of the audience.

Although Nakayma wrote the story in the late 1970s, one character's justification for what they do sounds timeless: The show's ratings are high, he says, because people love to watch the sordid show. "When I say sordid, I'm speaking in terms of my own personal tastes. I would never be so arrogant as to force those tastes on the viewers. Television doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the public, and it must be responsive to public demand. As the makers of what goes on television, it's our job to deliver what the public wants. One way or another. It can't be helped if in the process the privacy of stupid and ignorant people has to be sacrificed to some extent What does that matter if you look at the valuable services that television as a whole is providing?"

He never explains what that "valuable service" might be. All this before reality TV.

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