Tama-chan, star of river and screen

The Daily Yomiuri/May 8, 2003

And now the Televiews award for the best continuing series of the spring TV season...and the winner is: "The World According to Tama-chan."

Excitement, action, warmth, pathos, intrigue, trust me folks this series has got it all. The nation is riveted to their TV sets. What else this season could possibly compete with this saga?

Into our lives, a little seal swims. The spectacle he leaves in his wake is especially illuminating for students of Japanese TV sociology. Tama-chan has never uttered a word and yet he shines a spotlight on so many overlooked issues and sends shockwaves reverberating in so many different directions. (Unable to get too close, the gender issue still perplexes, but one expert claims Tama-chan is a "he" even though he has been dubbed as "the national sweetheart." Televiews bows to the expert opinion.)

Here's a recap of the show for those just tuning in.

Episode 1 began with Tama-chan making a Nessie-like head bobbing appearance in the Tama River--that's how he got his name. Unlike Nessie, he did resurface for the cameras from time to time. The human hysteria led to fan clubs and helped a few struggling street vendors sell some popsicles and octopus dumplings. By the end of Episode 1, Tama-chan, the little seal with a lousy sense of direction, was a star and starting to get comfortable in his new surroundings.

The ratings blockbuster had a powerful impact and energized the masses to champion the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--for all the world's wandering seals (including even Andre, a seal living in Scottish waters under similar circumstances who doesn't make a formal appearance until Episode 7).

In Episode 2, the considerate folks at the Yokohama City Office decide to make Tama-chan feel even more at home by issuing him a juminhyo (official residency permit). No sooner had Yokohama done that than some non-Japanese residents dressed up like Tama and headed for the riverbanks in an attempt to get the pesky but useful little form for themselves, too. Not as charming as seals, it was mission impossible.

By that point, the story had taken another novel turn that moved the Yokohama postal authorities center stage. In Episode 3, we discover that although the city has given Tama-chan an official mailing address, they have neglected to provide him with a mailbox. The nation's conscientious mail carriers had no idea where to deliver all the mail that was piling up and their sense of duty prevented them from figuratively dumping it at sea.

It must have been quite a pile of stuff, too. Because by this time, Tama-chan was, no doubt, on a few direct mailing lists like everyone else with a juminhyo and he had two fan clubs! At the end of Episode 3, we were left in suspense as the two rival groups faced off along the riverbanks.

In Episode 4, the confrontation before the nation's TV cameras shook and shocked the archipelago's Tama-chan fans. Fan club A, composed mainly of local residents and photography buffs, denounced fan club B, a well-financed operation that hired a boat and U.S. divers to assist in capturing the little seal and repatriating him up north.

It was mission impossible for the divers, too. As they headed home, at least one of the vernacular weeklies likened the assault on Tama-chan to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Americans were only bit players in this TV drama. It was the confrontation between the fan clubs that was escalating the action. Fan club A complained fan club B was trying to kidnap Tama-chan. Fan club B insisted it was a rescue operation. At the end of Episode 4, a scuffle broke out between the two groups, while Tama-chan, leaving his juminhyo behind, sailed off to explore residence options elsewhere.

In Episode 5, the saga took another implausible twist when the nation's energetic wide show reporters were written into the script. They immediately aimed their impressive investigative skills at the head of fan club B and tracked down the secret, domed swimming pool in Oizumimura in landlocked Yamanashi Prefecture, which club B had designated as possible temporary accommodation for the elusive seal.

Then, as Episode 6 opened, the wide shows were hot on the trail of some eerie fellows clad all in white who they dubbed "shiro-shozoku." Meanwhile, Tama-chan had moved to Saitama Prefecture, where a few fans stood watch supported by a small band of snack vendors, an artisan who sold wooden Tama-chan carvings to the TV people and a guy supplying Tama-chan photos. He revealed he had donated some of his profits to the North Korean abductees support group and proudly produced the thank you note he had received from Niigata abductee Hitomi Soga. Just another example of the amazing ripple effect of Tama-chan's world.

The story reached a stunning turning point at the end of Episode 6 when the wide shows, always willing to serve as the nation's devoted deputy sheriffs, got their first helicopter shots of the Shiro-shozoku (also known as the Pana Wave Research Center), the strange sect that had masterminded the Tama-chan abduction/rescue plan of fan club B.

Despite the fact that the caravan had been traveling through western Japan for the last decade hijacking large sections of public roads in remote areas, sheathing guard rails, traffic signs and protruding trees in white cloth and driving around in all-white vehicles decorated from top to bottom with weird stickers, which they claim are electromagnetic wave-deflecting devices, they had managed to attract almost no attention at all until they aimed their sites on the liberation of Tama-chan.

The series really started to get exciting in Episode 7, aired in early Golden Week. We learned the sect leader was an aging guru called Yuko Chino, who is reportedly suffering from cancer. She abhors electromagnetic waves but loves cats. One van is full of felines.

A former member also claimed Chino lives in a mere one-half tatami mat space in one of the vans. On May 3, Broadcaster (Saturdays at 10 p.m. on TBS), the calculator of all wide show frenzy, reported the wide shows had already devoted nine hours, 29 minutes and 36 seconds of TV time to the investigation.

However, as many Japanese TV dramas do, the story began to get a bit confusing in Episode 7. The sect claimed guerrillas with "sukara" waves were after them, although scientists that wide shows consulted said the waves did not exist.

In Episode 8, the sect grew more agitated by the alleged negative vibes emanating from Japan's powerful paparazzi and dispatched a bulldozer (white, of course) to disperse them. As wide show reporters ran for their lives, the police were called in and soon the sect was fending off both with shiny shields.

The scriptwriters were beginning to forget just who the star of this show was when, in the stunning climax to Episode 8, Tama-chan resurfaced with a fish hook dangling from his eyebrow! The shouts of "kawaii" had turned to "kawaiso!"

By May 5, Episode 9 had begun. The wide shows clocked the "Shiro-shozoku get out of town" countdown all day and by nightfall they were headed east into the territory of the telegenic Nagano Prefecture governor, Yasuo Tanaka.

Meanwhile, Tama-chan, obviously in distress, spent most of the day lulling on a pleasure boat in the Arakawa river in Asaka, Saitama Prefecture waiting for the humans to get their act together and help him. It might be a long wait.

Although a large crowd showed up to gawk, no emergency medical plan appeared imminent. Ironically, Tama-chan exposes yet another aspect of life in Japan--the rather slow reaction time to unexpected emergency situations.

And so the spectacle continues. Four stars for the nation's greatest star and somebody call a vet quick!

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