October 14, 2023

The Showa drama

The Showa drama is a staple of narrative fiction in Japan, especially movies and television. According to the still active practice of giving the era of each emperor a unique name (or nengou), the Showa period is named for the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926–1989).

The era name of his son Akihito is Heisei, so Showa 64 and Heisei 1 both refer to 1989. Confusing? You bet! Historical references prior to the Meiji period often include the Gregorian year in parentheses because it's confusing to Japanese too.

In Carnation, Itoko has to work hard to save her precious sewing machine from getting recycled.
A Showa drama can begin in the late Meiji (ending in 1912) or Taisho (ending in 1926), as long as it continues into the Showa. The story typically gets rolling during or immediately after the Occupation (1945–1952).

Political events such as the February 26 Incident are noted in passing (if at all) and the war is depicted from the point of view of a middle-class housewife—coping with draconian rationing while watching the young conscripts go off to war and come home in boxes.

And in series like Hanako and Anne and Massan (the former because Hanako was an English translator, the latter because Ellie was a British national), fending off the loathed Kenpeitai, the Gestapo-like police force.

The Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923, the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 and the broadcast of Hirohito's Surrender Rescript a few months later, the Tokyo Olympics and debut of the Shinkansen in 1964, all frame the Showa drama as metaphorical turning points.

The genre has eclipsed even the popularity of Edo period (1603–1868) samurai dramas. With every milestone (almost eight decades have passed since the war's end), it is increasingly steeped in nostalgia. Of the ten Asadora serials broadcast on NHK between 2010 and 2015, seven were Showa dramas.

Including Hanako and Anne and Massan. Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is in many respects a very conventional Showa drama.

The more upbeat Happy Days version of the Showa drama is prefaced by the Occupation and ends in 1964 with the Shinkansen and the Tokyo Olympics. Ume-chan Sensei belong in this latter category, as does Goro Miyazaki's From up on Poppy Hill.

There probably isn't a more sepia-steeped example of the latter than Always: Sunset on Third Street. Literally, in this case, as you can tell from the title.

Always tells the story of a working-class neighborhood in Tokyo, focusing on Ryunosuke Chagawa, a struggling novelist, and Norifumi Suzuki, an auto mechanic who can't resist buying the latest gadget—a refrigerator and B&W television in the first film, a color TV by the third.

The trilogy ends in 1964 with the Tokyo Olympics and a pair of newlyweds leaving for their honeymoon on the brand-new Shinkansen.

Yasujiro Ozu's slice-of-life family dramas from the 1950s and early 1960s make for an interesting comparison. The only nostalgia on display in Ozu's postwar films is for those few remaining remnants of a world destroyed by the war and now fading away.

Ozu spends little time looking backwards and instead focuses his attention on the world around him. Not knowing what was going to happen hence, Japan in the 1950s was a less than reassuring time. For all anybody knew, it was going to be the Taisho period all over again.

In 1953, Donald Keene visited Kyoto as a graduate student, at one point attending an economics conference sponsored by the Institute for Pacific Affairs. He observed that the Japanese attendees were uniformly "convinced that Japan's future was dismal."

The general impressions of the conference, at least to an outsider like myself, were of resignation on the part of the Japanese and friendly but unhelpful attempts by non-Japanese to cheer them. I could not detect anything positive arising from the discussions.

None of them could imagine that the three decades of double-digit economic growth right around the corner would turn Japan into an industrial powerhouse.

This evolving realization can be read into Yasujiro Ozu's films. The sober realism of Tokyo Story (1953), Early Spring, (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957) brightens markedly with Good Morning (1959), The End of Summer (1961), and then Late Autumn (1963).

His later films are suffused with a bemused wonder at the new world blossoming around him. Ozu delights in framing old, worn, wooden architecture in facades of glistening glass and steel; characters leave one scene in traditional kimono and enter the next in suits and skirts.

People move from old businesses to modern office buildings, from old houses to concrete apartment blocks. The glowing technicolor turns them into photo spreads out of National Geographic, preserving a point in time as it really was rather than how it is now remembered.

Still, Showa nostalgia is more than a trick of memory. Japan went on a thirty year winning streak, temporarily tripped up only by the oil shocks of the early 1970s. It became the second largest economy in the world and not a few "big thinkers" predicted it would soon pass the U.S.

Little wonder that Japan's most popular anime series today remains the long-running Sazae-san, a family-friendly Showa dramedy that take place roughly between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

Come the 1990s and the bubble burst. For the next two decades, everything that could go wrong did: a stock market crash, two devastating earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, birth rates below replacement and a declining population that shows no sign of leveling out anytime soon.

Except when that declining workforce is factored into the equation (GDP-per-worker), the Japanese economy is doing rather well. Now it's only the third biggest in the world. Per-capita GDP in 2014 is over three times that in 1964. Japan leads the world in life expectancy.

A few years ago at TEDx Kyoto, Jesper Koll enthusiastically made the forward-looking argument.

Which isn't to say that the good old days weren't, just that they weren't quite as good as we like to remember, and the present day isn't quite as bad as we like to pretend. This too shall pass and Japan will still be here, doing better than most.

Related posts

Hanako and Anne
The Wind Rises
Ume-chan Sensei
From up on Poppy Hill
Showa nostalgia

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