By Makoto Hoshino / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterLate-night dramas serve as a platform for broadcasters to test out up-and-coming actors and innovative ideas. While each TV station presents an ambitious lineup of dramas aired after midnight, TV Tokyo stands out in recent years in terms of quality.
In April, the broadcaster, which created a buzz with such dramas as "Moteki" (Love Strikes!) and the "Yusha Yoshihiko" (The hero Yoshihiko) series, increased the number of times to broadcast late-night dramas to four time slots per week.
The longest-standing of the four is called "Drama 24," which starts at 12:12 a.m. early on Saturdays. The slot was launched in 2005 with the drama "Jo-o" (Queen of nightclub hostesses).
Until that time, TV Tokyo had only produced one-off dramas for special occasions, such as samurai dramas for the New Year’s holidays.
Eiko Koike, left, and Arata Furuta act as guides in "Shimokitazawa Die Hard" (Unlucky Day) on TV Tokyo.
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Nijiro Murakami speaks in the interview.
"We didn’t have the know-how [of drama making], and we had little connection with directors, actors and production companies," said Futoshi Asano, a TV Tokyo producer who has been involved in "Drama 24" since its launch. "The slot was aimed to develop [our possibilities for drama producing] by using late night hours."
To procure financial resources, the broadcaster adopted a production committee system, under which multiple companies cover the production costs. As an additional cost-cutting measure, the dramas’ creative teams worked longer hours per day to shorten a shooting period.
Dramas aired in the slot were initially produced under the belief that late-night shows must be provocative, which led to many of them to have many scenes of sex and violence, beginning with "Jo-o," a story about women working at a hostess bar. The turning point came in 2011 with "Yusha Yoshihiko to Mao no Shiro" (The hero Yoshihiko and the castle of the evil king), which starred Takayuki Yamada. It was a comedy that made the most of its low budget by featuring many elements apparently inspired by a popular role-playing game.
"The drama was outrageously nonsensical but became unexpectedly popular," Asano said.
The success of "Yusha Yoshihiko" prompted TV Tokyo to begin putting an emphasis on making edgy dramas no other broadcaster would air.
"We were gradually recognized as doing something interesting, which made it easier for us to choose the right cast," Asano said.
Challenging projects that the TV station came up with began attracting more and more performers with top acting skills, which in turn led to the production of more much-talked-about dramas.
The company started collaborating with a streaming service in 2014 and since then the number of slots for after-midnight dramas has gradually increased. The collaboration helps the station earn fees from the streaming rights, making it easier for the broadcaster to secure production costs.
On the other hand, the streaming service also poses a risk that viewers are watching TV Tokyo’s dramas only via the platform. However, Kentaro Yamato, a TV Tokyo producer in charge of streaming-related matters, remains positive.
"By teaming up with a global streaming service, we can now have more opportunities for many people to watch our shows," he said.
Among the ambitious dramas TV Tokyo is currently showing are "Shimokitazawa Die Hard" (Unlucky Day) from 12:12 a.m. on Saturdays, with each of the 11 episodes written by a different popular playwright, and the touching story "Izakaya Fuji" from 12:20 a.m. on Sundays, in which the protagonist interacts with actors playing the roles of themselves.
"Ratings are not the only important thing. It is equally important how much buzz we can create," Yamato said.
Unprecedented horror story
Nijiro Murakami currently stars in one of TV Tokyo’s late-night dramas, which he described as "a cheeky project."
"I’ve never seen this kind of horror story in Japanese drama," he said with a chuckle of "Dead Stock," which is aired from 12:52 a.m. on Saturdays.
Mixing fiction with reality, the drama is based on a premise that a videotape capturing a supernatural phenomenon was discovered among a trove of footage for TV programs during the operation to move the TV Tokyo headquarters to its current location.
Murakami plays Riku, a novice assistant director at the broadcaster who has been assigned to a center for sorting out the unidentified materials.
Saori (played by Akari Hayami), a senior staff member at the office, is keen on filming additional scenes to add to the videotape to produce a TV show. Although her boss, Sayama (Tetsushi Tanaka), forbids her to do it, she goes out reporting, taking Riku with her. The protagonist thus becomes involved in a series of horrific incidents.
"When it comes to TV Tokyo’s late-night dramas, I have an impression that the creative teams of the dramas are doing just what they want to do," Murakami said. "This drama [I’m starring in] features many taboo-like elements, but I played my part believing that viewers would find it interesting with those elements. Honestly speaking, I was freaked out."
The drama took just one month to shoot its 11 episodes, whereas it normally would take two to three months for an ordinary drama with the same number of episodes. However, Murakami said he did not find the schedule tough.
"The studio was pretty cramped, though," the actor said. "Akari, Tetsushi-san and I had to squeeze ourselves onto a small sofa when we were sitting together. But I had a lot of fun, so it was OK."
For Murakami, "Dead Stock" has become the first drama in which he played the lead.
"When I’m invited to play a role, I just go and live in the part," he said. "It makes no difference if it’s a lead role or any other part."Speech