TV dramas depict country's Showa Era

TOKYO AMC’s “Mad Men” has won a devoted following, and armloads of Emmys, with its brand of Kennedy-era cool.

Now Japanese broadcasters and pic producers are building their own nostalgia boom for the same era, from roughly 1955 to 1965, when Japan had recovered from the devastating effects of WWII and was busy building the world’s second-largest economy.

The trend began with “Always — Sunset on Third Street,” Takashi Yamazaki’s 2005 pic about good-hearted folks living in a working-class neighborhood in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, a landmark that was under construction in pic’s 1958 time frame.

“Always” and its 2007 sequel, “Always — Sunset on Third Street 2,” were hits that attracted baby boomers eager to bask in the glow of a simpler, more energetic era.   

Now TV networks have got into the act, salting their skeds with dramas set in what the Japanese call the Showa Era, named after the 1926-1989 reign of the late Emperor Showa (aka Hirohito).

“Summer of the Bureaucrats” (Kanryo-tachi no natsu) is a weekly, 10-part drama, which kicked off on commercial web Tokyo Broadcasting System in July. It’s set in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, a key architect of Japan’s high-growth era.

The hero is modeled on Shigeru Sahashi, a Ministry of Trade and Industry official famous for butting heads with powerful politicians and businessmen, while inspiring (and at times, terrifying) his subordinates with his precedent-defying, results-oriented approach.

“There was a lot of energy back then — people were trying hard, with a clear goal in mind,” says Akira Maki, the show’s producer. “We show the sweat and the tears. Bureaucrats are not very popular nowadays, but these characters are different.”  

Meanwhile, pubcaster NHK plans to air a three-part drama special from Sept. 21 to 23 on Jiro Shirasu, a bureaucrat and businessman educated at Blighty’s prestigious Cambridge U. He is famous as the only Japanese to stand up to General Douglas MacArthur, Japan’s Occupation-era ruler from 1945 to 1950 following the end of WWII.

Shirasu was also a bon vivant who enjoyed driving fast cars almost as much as he did building an industrial empire in the postwar boom.

In October, Fuji TV will start airing “The Waste Land” (Fumo chitai), a drama based on the life of soldier/businessman Ryujo Sejima.

A battle-tested officer and strategist in the Imperial Army, Sejima spent 11 years in a Siberian prison camp after WWII.

Returning to Japan in 1956, he joined the C. Itoh & Co. (today, Itochu) trading house and, over the course of two decades, rose to president while making the company a global powerhouse.

Fuji plans to broadcast “The Waste Land” for six months, double the length of the usual drama.    

Will the Showa boom fade when the boomer generation passes?

“I can’t say,” says Maki. “It’s too soon to tell if (Showa) dramas will become a programming staple.”

What he does know, however, is that “Summer of the Bureaucrats” cost twice as much to make as a samurai period drama.

“We had to look all over the country for locations,” he explains. “Also, whereas we have samurai-era costumes and props on hand, we had to find or make everything for this drama.”

TBS is planning similar dramas set in the Showa, though is not yet ready to announce titles.

“We’d better make them,” Maki jokes, “otherwise we’re wasting our investment.”

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