What “Norwegian Wood” and “Kaseifu no Mita” Have in Common

Takeshi Usami
Professor of Modern Literature, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Modern Japanese Literature

The significance of researching TV drama shows

I have been conducting research into the work of Haruki Murakami and other modern Japanese literature, to locate it within the history of the Japanese novel. In recent years, more and more people have been expecting Haruki Murakami to be the next recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the importance of research into Haruki Murakami and other modern Japanese literature is growing.

However, at the same time, I have also recently been devoting considerable efforts to research into TV Drama Shows and this year published Academic Study of TV Drama Shows [Terebi Dorama o Gakumon suru] (Chuo University Press). Compared to literary works or movies, Japanese TV drama shows have rarely been the subject of research until now. This is partly for the reason that, as compared to literary works or movies, TV drama shows have tended to be seen as a lower, more popular form of expression, just for entertainment.

Of course, given the assumption that the number of people viewing a TV drama show will be larger than that of a movie and than the number of readers that a literary work could expect, it is certainly true that TV drama shows tend to adopt more stereotyped and easily understood forms of expression. However, one cannot condemn TV drama shows as simply being popular or mere entertainment based just on this. In fact, because TV drama shows are watched by large numbers of people, many of them deal with important issues that large numbers of people can relate to.

What Norwegian Wood and I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper. have in common

Haruki Murakami’s biggest best-selling work, Norwegian Wood was made into a movie in 2010. In 2011, the final episode of the TV drama show, I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper. [Kaseifu no Mita] had viewing ratings amounting to an astounding 40%. These two works perhaps seem unrelated at first, but actually they have a lot in common.

What these two works have in common is their treatment of the issue of survivor’s guilt. This is the sense of guilt that is often experienced by those who survive or are left behind after a major accident or incident that causes the deaths of others.

Many characters commit suicide in the works of Haruki Murakami, but they appear in particularly large numbers in Norwegian Wood. Kizuki, the best friend of the main character Toru Watanabe, Naoko’s older sister, and Nagasawa’s girlfriend Hatsumi all commit suicide. Later, Watanabe also loses Naoko to suicide. How does one get over the death of someone close and go on with one’s life? This is the critical issue at the heart of this work.

Similarly, I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper. is a story about a housekeeper coming into the Asuda household. This housekeeper, Akari Mita, is a woman who has lost her husband and son in an accident. Moreover, Mita believes that she herself was responsible for the deaths of her husband and son, and so that she is racked with precisely this sort of sense of guilt. The Asuda family where Mita has come to work in as housekeeper has lost its wife/mother to suicide, and is almost at the point of collapse from the wounds that the loss of a wife/mother has wrought upon the husband and children who are left behind.

However, with the appearance of Mita in this family, the feelings of these people who have lost a family member who was important to them resonate with each other, and they begin upon the long path to recovery from their emotional wounds. The idea is that because these people share the same sense of guilt, they are able to help each other.

Survivor’s guilt for people today

What exactly is this survivor’s guilt that racks people today? And why is survivor’s guilt such a serious issue for people living in the modern world?

One major reason why survivor’s guilt is such a prevalent issue today is the number of people committing suicide: there are more than 30,000 suicides each year in Japan. Far more so than in the case of death through illness or an accident, there is often a great sense of personal guilt when one loses someone close through suicide. In other words, it is very hard to escape from feelings of guilt or self-reproof such as “Was there nothing I could have done to stop this happening?” or “If I had done something to help, they might still be alive.” In addition, experiencing major natural disasters such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 or the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, often produces a sense of guilt at having survived among survivors.

However, the question posed by these works does not only resonate with people who themselves have actually lost someone close to them. Even if they have never had this sort of experience, many people living in modern society today have some sort of emotional scars and are living their lives almost within a hair’s breadth of mental illness. For these people, the world portrayed in Norwegian Wood and I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper. overlaps with their own emotional scars, and they can feel themselves working through their emotional issues alongside the characters in these works.

Not everyone who watched Norwegian Wood or I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper. will have been thinking about this sort of thing, but in the background of this sort of works is the sickness of modern society and the suffering of people living in the modern world. Because they raise and address these sorts of issues relating to modern society, questions posed by these works are weighty. The role of research into TV drama shows and fiction in general should be, in turn, to highlight these sorts of issues.

Have TV drama shows really become dull?

As seen above, the content of TV drama shows, just like literature and movies, etc. is intimately connected with the issues facing people living in modern society.

TV drama shows today are unable to win the same levels of high viewer ratings that they achieved in the past and some people claim that this is partly because TV dramas themselves have become boring. However, viewing ratings only take into account the number of households that watch a program at the time it is aired in real-time. In the modern world where the spread of recording devices has become so prevalent, measuring popularity on the basis only of real-time viewing figures certainly cannot be considered a sufficient measure. Moreover, despite the prevalence of computers and the internet and other media in modern society, the fact that 10 to 15% of all households are still sitting down to watch these TV drama shows in real-time cannot be ignored. For many people, TV drama shows remain a significant presence and research into them is an important task for the future.

Takeshi Usami

Professor of Modern Literature, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Area of Specialization: Modern Japanese Literature


Academic Study of
TV Drama Shows
[Terebi Dorama o
Gakumon suru]

Professor Usami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and graduated with an undergraduate degree in Education from Tokyo Gakugei University. After completing credits in the Doctoral Program at the Graduate School in the Division of Humanities at the University of Tokyo in 1990, Professor Usami earned a PhD in Literature from Chuo University. Professor Usami served in various posts including Lecturer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature at Chuo University before assuming his current position in 1998.
Professor Usami have examined modern literature, beginning with Haruki Murakami, from an historical perspective and located it in the history of novels after the Meiji Period. In addition, recently he is proposing comprehensive fiction studies which include not only literature but also plays, TV drama shows, etc., with particular emphasis on TV drama shows.
Professor Usami’s primary works include Modernity as Fictional Expression [Shosetsu Hyogen toshite no Kindai] (Ohfu), his collaborations as coeditor of Haruki Murakami and the Eighties [Haruki Murakami to 1980 Nendai] and Haruki Murakami and the Nineties [Haruki Murakami to 1990 Nendai] (both published by Ohfu), and Academic Study of TV Drama Shows [Terebi Dorama o Gakumon suru] (Chuo University Press), among others.

His faculty homepage can be found at http://c-faculty.chuo-u.ac.jp/~usami/index.html


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