September 26, 2019

Telling the how-to story

A common criticism of Hollywood is that it cares more about what sells in China than what sells in middle America. That Hollywood can sell its wares in China at all is a testament to the universality of storytelling and the structured approach to the craft that Hollywood has polished to a shine.

At the same time, what makes universality equally interesting are the exceptions that are not so universal. Here I'm thinking about a unique interplay between subject matter and genre, quite apart from cultural specificity, that has no real equivalent in Hollywood when it comes to narrative fiction.

Call this one the "how-to" genre.

In the non-fiction space, there is no lack of DIY and "how-to" programming in the North American market. PBS Create does nothing else 24/7. But while there is often an element of DIY in scripted television shows coming out of Hollywood, it's hard to think of an example where it is the single defining element.

The setting of any series will dictates a certain amount of expository material, as will the occupations of the characters. At the very least, in the name of verisimilitude, a show that, for example, takes place in a radio station (NewsRadio, WKRP in Cincinnati, Frasier) must necessary provide some insights into broadcasting.

In Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, Tim Allen comes close, epitomizing a "how-to" man working in "how-to" businesses.

On Japanese television, and specifically anime, "how to" is not only a defining element but often the entire point. The hugely popular "gourmet drama" pays the kind of attention to the nuts and bolts of cooking otherwise only found in reality shows and the occasional feature-length Hollywood production.

It is certainly a defining element in the ever-popular sports genre, appealing to its audience with a focus how to play the game better.

Thus the protagonist in a mainstream sports drama commonly starts off with a great deal of promise but an Achilles heel that must be overcome. Tsurune begins with our protagonist suffering from a bad case of the yips in the form of target panic. Big Windup features a pitcher with incredible control but no speed.

Especially in baseball series, multiple episodes can be devoted to a single game, with the granularity of the narrative resolving to a pitch-by-pitch analysis.

Then there is the "oddball sports" category, which features sports or games the audience may be familiar with but probably doesn't know a lot about. Again, an excuse to work a great deal of exposition into the narrative.

Examples include Chihayafuru (karuta), Saki (mahjong ), Hikaru no Go (go), Tsurune (archery), and March Comes in like a Lion (shogi). The latter gained particular resonance when real-life Sota Fujii turned professional at the age of 14 (youngest ever). These sports-related series do also generate a great deal of melodrama.

And finally we come to the "how-to" genre distilled down to its essence.

The Japanese fascination with "how-to" is fully on display in what I call the "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way" genre. The typical approach is to have the protagonist get interested in a somewhat obscure activity, discover that her friends are interested in it too (or recruits them), and plunges in.

The result are slice-of-life stories, often with little actual drama and only the rudimentary scaffolding of a plot, but with great attention given to the specific details of the activity. Recent examples include Encouragement of Climb (hiking), Laid-Back Camp (camping), and Long Riders (bicycle touring).

Even the shamelessly silly and purposely low-brow Bakuon!! explores the world of motorcycling in considerable technical detail.

The result is part how-to guide and part promotional video in a surprisingly entertaining format. And who knows? Maybe viewers here and there will be convinced to put down their phones and venture into the great outdoors. (Along with a great many DIY aficionados, I'll settle for watching the great outdoors on television.)

Related links

Bakuon!! (CR HD)
Big Windup (CR Fun)
Chihayafuru (CR HD)
Encouragement of Climb
Laid-Back Camp
Long Riders (CR HD)
March Comes in like a Lion
Tsurune (CR HD)

Food fiction
Cute girls doing interesting things

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