Buzzer Beat

Fuji TV’s Buzzer Beat (2009) was the focus of this paper’s first case study. Buzzer Beat enjoyed considerable success on its release with the production picking up several ‘Best Drama’ accolades from the industry, among them Japan’s Television Drama Academy Awards and the 13th Nikkan Sports Drama Grand Prix. With Tomohisa Yamashita as the series’ main star, Buzzer Beat was broadcast on Mondays at 9pm, a timeslot colloquially known as Getsuku (typically reserved for the industry’s most popular dramas).  

 Buzzer Beat is essentially a love story; a narrative focusing on the relationship between Naoki Kamiya (Yamashita) and Riko Shirakawa (played by Keiko Kitagawa) played out amidst career aspirations, suburban living and additional, interrelated subplots. In this respect, the drama’s success was very much emblematic of the industry’s adherence to the trendy formula in guaranteeing a considerable audience (Hara et al 2004, Valaskivi 2000). Buzzer Beat featured an all-star cast with the majority of those a part of the production already established stars in their own right; of those featured, the series’ central character Yamashita Tomohisa functioned as arguably its biggest draw. Having starred in no less than 35 drama series since his debut in 1998, Yamashita epitomizes the Japanese ‘idol’ - his role as one of Japan’s biggest on-screen talents reinforced through numerous product endorsements, countless television commercials, variety show appearances and an established music career.

 Professor Aoyagi Hiroshi of Kokushikan University – an authority figure on idol discourse – laments the extent to which idols account for Japan’s media industry landscape as a practice actively contributing towards informing audiences of a lived experience deemed ‘socially appropriate’ (2005, p. 3) – to what extent does this framework displace or reinforce notions of alternative masculinities? Throughout the series, Naoki is constructed as a sensitive, caring and hard-working individual. His compassion for those around him in both professional and personal contexts serves to reinforce an identity an audience want to support, a persona further embellished through the character’s love interests; an innocent party to Natsuki’s betrayal (with his teammate no less), obviating any culpability on his part and better framing the subsequent relationship between himself and Riko. Fittingly then, Naoki’s character reflects Darling-Wolf’s depiction of Japan’s male idols – portrayed in dramas as a personality accentuating physical and mental characteristics that appeal to a demographic with disposable income (2004). The decision to utilize basketball as Naoki’s main occupation enhances this framework further; an unstable profession amplifying the character’s detachment from the seemingly unappealing salaryman ideal whilst reinforcing the ‘body’ as a tool of female gaze (as evidenced in various scenes through the series). Even so, despite the apparent focus on Naoki’s career – what Condry (2011, p. 265) defines as an element linking both herbivore and salaryman masculinities (each practice as ‘grounded in productivity’) – the series nonetheless indulges in constructing an identity of female desire. As Murphy notes, the notion of a ‘cultured, sensitive aesthete’ as a historical ideal held by Japanese women is often lost on current scholars with the salaryman’s reputation as the epitome of masculinity somewhat embellished during the country’s bubble economy (2014). In Buzzer Beat, Naoki is portrayed as capable of balancing responsibilities in both the public and private sphere, no more evident in his role at home. With an absent father and thus framed as the head of the family unit, this indirectly supports a characteristic attributed to herbivore men’s commitment to their mother (Song & Hird, 2014). As such, his character appears to reflect qualities this thesis has evidenced as associated with a number of Japan’s emerging masculinities – Hirata & Warschauer noting a man’s willingness to actively engage and even prioritize family over corporate life as an aspect of herbivore many career women perceive as husband material (2014). 

Even so, the difficulty in simply assigning the ‘herbivore’ label to Naoki may lay in a number of factors, not least the superficiality attributed to trendy dramas in addition to the dichotomy of idol placement/female demographic. In evidencing similar East-Asian audiences as identifying with drama settings as an index of ‘realism’ – Ko’s 2004 investigation framed the specificity of urban-based living as constructing a referential metaphor composed of both reality and the drama itself (2004). By extension, Huet & Iwabuchi frame this perception of a capitalist-consumer modernity as a signifier of inspiration for its audience (2008). This thesis proposes that combined, this process amplifies the already symbolic power attributed to Japanese idols - in turn disrupting any plausible construction of masculinity as accurately reflecting current gender identities. This latter point may not be entirely accurate however. For one, this argument must contend with past research framing Japanese TV productions as more emblematic of society than its Western counterparts. In his eponymous Television Culture, Fiske attributes all texts as home to ‘structures of preference’ – a nexus of unequal meaning constructed through its audience, content, and wider social ideologies (2010). Nagaike’s exploration of male idol imagery and female desire suggests that for texts such as Buzzer Beat, a construction of masculinity is often bound by the industry’s production of culture – a process demanding a character possess a mix of both ‘unattainability with apparent accessibility’ (2012, p. 102). Despite an apparent grounding in Western thought, theories such as Fiske’s serve to highlight this paper’s analysis of masculinities as somewhat impeded in its avoidance of an audience-centred approach. Whilst Yamashita’s character accounts for just one element of the production, this paper suggests that despite the many narratives present, they collectively serve to accentuate Naoki and in doing so widen the distance between masculine unattainability (an ideal), and accessibility (reality). Take the drama’s inclusion of several male co-stars who, despite being tied to on-screen love interests, throughout the series are cast as identities either subordinate or in opposition to Buzzer Beat’s protagonist. Shuji acts as Naoki’s unassuming, seemingly harmless friend, Toru is perhaps the character most emblematic of mainstream herbivore ideals (charming yet nervous around women – see Noack 2014), whilst Yoyogi and Tomoya – admittedly both dominant personalities - in separate pursuits of Naoki’s love interests find themselves invariable framed as the series’ antagonists. 

In observing such pronounced attempts to maintain the construction of Naoki as both infallible yet dominant, a narrative emblematic of Buzzer Beat’s would appear to support the argument that dramas designed for female audiences may provide a feminine ideal, but one somewhat detached from contemporary Japanese masculinities. Whilst herbivore’s are often cited as sensitive characters (Song & Hird, 2014), Naoki seems to present a distorted construction of this ideal with a personality considerably more ambiguous and less defined in comparison to the majority of clichéd supporting cast. With an identity seemingly devoid of tangible emotion - a trope already recognised as indicative of trendy drama’s avoidance of negativity (see Nakano 2002), Nagaike instead repositions this argument as Japanese idols requiring an ‘absence of self-consciousness’ designed specifically for female audiences (2012, p. 101). In attempting to account for Naoki’s superficial emptiness, this analysis proposes that if he is indeed representative of male idols in trendy dramas, productions such as Buzzer Beat utilize masculinity as a conduit in which reality is merged with reality to encourage what Mulvey perceives as a ‘narrative of desire’ (1989). In the context of trendy dramas, this theory is not new – Nagaike already having recognised this as an ‘indispensable’ element of the consumer-capitalist framework Huet & Iwabuchi identified as a nexus of audience ideals (2008). Critically however, this paper proposes that in contrast to the hegemonic salaryman - an identity synonymous with relationships and assertive heterosexuality (Charlebois 2013, Hidaka 2010), Buzzer Beat’s depiction of these same themes in the context of contemporary masculinities may illustrate a disparity between reality and that of what the drama presents.

Discussions on herbivores and relationships are wide-ranging with one area of consensus being a far more passive attitude towards romantic engagement (Kroo 2014, Chen 2012). In Buzzer Beat, whilst Naoki’s hesitance and lack of assertiveness towards either Natsuki or Riko serves to underline this, his character displays a number of traits that diverge from herbivore parameters. Again, this paper proposes that for trendy dramas reliant on the commercialisation of male idols, masculinities are portrayed as adopting a mode of sexuality detached from herbivore and similar gender identities evidenced in preceding chapters. Glasspool frames idol construction as a ‘status of desirability’ – a process of balancing a ‘perceived’ interest in the opposite sex (thus retaining their appeal) but through behaviours that also reinforce the character’s sensitivities (2012). We may want to consider this narrative in the context of what Mulvey recognises as desires either ‘active’ or ‘passive’ (1975); within dominant cultures such oppositions become mapped to gender (Easthope, 1990) and for Japan this is perceived as a process Morioka claims many herbivore men increasingly struggle to accommodate (2013). Desire has historically framed men as active (Tolman & Brown 2001, Makinen 1996, Butler 1990), a pattern aggravating passive herbivore masculinities in its expectation of men to perform and adapt – a trait far removed from archetypes associated with the salaryman doxa. As such, it could be suggested that portrayals of emerging masculinities as evidenced in Buzzer Beat may influence societal preconceptions of herbivore identities in addition to repositioning the active/passive dichotomy in which idols are constructed less as a reflection of contemporary gender relations but as a consumable product around which female audiences incorporate their own flexible narrative. 

By extension, in considering a commercialised, sexualised representation of herbivore masculinity in the context of Japan’s current gender relations, it could be argued that characters such as Naoki do little to equalize gender disparities. For whilst there exist arguments framing such productions as liberating in their framing of ‘commodified’ masculinities (Takeyama, 2010), it could be argued that such productions also reflect what Jones & Ericson cite as an established Japanese practice of various public Japanese institutions (architects, intellectuals, sexologists) implicit in the manipulation of societal ideologies surrounding sexuality and the body (2007). Furthermore, such constructions would amplify Charlebois’ assertion that in the absence of established gender practices associated with (previously hegemonic) salaryman behaviours, alternative ideals move into this space and reconfigure the hegemonic archetypes - reiterating Morioka’s claim that such practices simply reinforce gender paradigms of masculinity as dominant (2013). Yet, as Ehara notes, the social construction of gender occurs on two levels:  through widespread discourses available for many people in addition to discussions performed among individual social interactions (2001) and as such, constructions seen in Buzzer Beat are also dependant on the use of such representations as pervasive. Arguably then, in a public space in which Japan has had to contend with the emergence of multiple new masculinities, identities such as those seen in Buzzer Beat – as sexualised as they are - could just as well be interpreted as being more emblematic of East Asia’s cultural shift towards increasing acceptance of soft masculinities (Charlebois, 2013) – without the need to categorise as herbivore. 

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