Thursday, May 10, 2012

Manufacturing empathy through abusive workplaces in Jdoramas

Came across this article that deconstructed why Ruffalo's Banner in Avengers worked. The one keyword that stood out for me as 'assumed empathy'. The concept that the audience would care about a character just because he/she is the main character. The writer goes on to say that the script has to present a character that is engaging and flawed in order to capture the audience's attention.

After I read that paragraph, the first thing that popped into my head was one of my most hated cliches in jdoramas; the abusive workplace. The main character who sticks out because his/her colleagues and superiors are useless and hate the main protagonist for no reason. This is most prevalent in police and teacher doramas.

For a long time, I have always wondered why dorama writers always felt the need to present additional obstacles in police shows? Why always the boss who is shouting and abusing the main character at all times but never doing anything useful? Why does the abuse continue even after our protagonist has proven him/herself over and over? Why always present the other police officers/teachers/etc as incompetent?

Is the answer to the question that this is what jdorama writers think will create empathy for the main character? That a main character who silently and continuous tolerates the abuse from his/her superiors while saving the day every episode would arouse the audience's sympathy? Are we suppose to care about the main character who cannot tell his/her boss, "Fuck you and your shouting tirades. I solved the last three cases no thanks to you. If you don't give me the respect I deserve let's see you do some actual work"?

Instead the main character has to trudge through 10 episodes to at least get some respect. Are the writers telling the audience; see, the main character may stand out but he/she is just like you, putting up with unreasonable bosses and stupid colleagues! Now feel empathy because you are both experiencing an abusive workplace!

The evil principal and teachers worked in GTO because it was funny as hell and the principle was likable and actually got my sympathies when his wife and daughter went to live with Onizuka, lol. This pattern or formula has been repeated so many times without the writers thinking do we actually need the whole police organisation to be against the main character to make him/her interesting?

I'm not saying cops in police doramas should all get along but rather if they don't, its because of interesting reasons that create more tension like clash of jurisdictions (Marks no Yama) or wanting to get credit. It has to serve the story and explore the protagonist's character/personality. Maybe I'm thinking too much and its just a case of too many writers just applying the GTO template to workplace doramas because they assume its a one size fits all. Maybe main characters who put up with abusive workplaces just somehow arouse the empathy of the average Japanese viewer.

For me, I feel empathy for a character when I start to understand him/her. When I need more than one sentence to describe the character. I don't need to like or even agree with the character. The important thing is I need to see that the character is not 2D. Showing the audience instead of telling is important. I don't feel empathy for a character just because he/she is enduring hardship. Its when I see what type of character that protagonist is and how he/she responds to difficulties. Hope this made some sense.


Captain Banana said...

For the most part I think it's laziness, they know that sympathy for the underdog resonates the most with viewers......maybe viewers feel in a similar boat to the protagonist?

Are these the most popular dramas? or are other new concepts getting the most attention these days?

It'd be interesting to get the most popular dramas from this season and see if underdog dramas have better or worse ratings than other concepts........might be cut and dry as to why they persist with this style.

Anonymous said...

Which is why I love DOCTORS. Instead of taking the abuse as it is, he slowly steered the hospital into his direction.

maiku said...

If I were to guess I'd say the explanation is cultural. Traditional Japanese society is all about hierarchy and conformity, right? You're on an island with limited space and resources, you have to get along to survive, the group trumps the individual, etc.. All the stuff they teach in Japanese studies programs. I've heard young people are moving away from these values but I imagine they remain deeply instilled in government and large companies.

In contrast, many dramas celebrate the unconventional individual that challenges the establishment. GTO, Salariman Kintaro, Suzuki-sensei, Doctors, Hero, Bull Doctor, Haken no Hinkaku, Saito-san. These shows cater to office workers, young people, housewives, anyone who feels oppressed by their superiors or frustrated with the societal expectation to conform. It's an outlet. Fantasy.

I think it's natural for the environment to grow abusive when the rebel takes on the establishment. Unfortunately this typically leads to the generic structure of the protagonist having to prove himself and win over the members of the group. (Typically one per episode.)

Antspace said...

Challenging the establishment is always a fantasy though. I don't think we're all that different.

Many of our western dramas show people challenging conventions and thus the establishment. Winning people over by proving themselves is indeed part of the process.

I'm somehow happy with the flat cliches in J-dorama, because You don't have to go to great extremes to prove your point that way. in our western drama's these things are less clear. In Dexter you have to be a serial killer, in House an autist.

But take it from me; everyone wants to conform. Japanese are just more honest about it, read more conservative : )

Jesus Christ Supercop said...

maiku, I don't think Japan being an island has anything to do with it. And it's not like the Japanese got along that well in the past, considering all the wars.