I just got to the end of Let’s Learn Japanese Basic II, a language-learning video series the Japan Foundation produced in 1995. Before that, I watched Let’s Learn Japanese Basic I which they put out in 1984. Together, they form a 52-episode series that not only teaches the mechanics of the Japanese language but follows the extended narrative of Yan, a youngish Westerner (I’ll guess Egyptian-American, though the show keeps it vague) in Japan to study and practice architecture. He also buys a boom box, visits famous shrines and beaches, falls for a co-worker, gets jerked around by said co-worker, flees to the snow country for solace, and gets drunk viewing cherry blossoms.
The last quarter-century’s Anglophone Japanese-learners regard Yan as legend. Some have even tracked down Nick Muhrin, the actor who portrays him. Japanese teachers screened these videos in class when they were new — when Japan rode high on the global scene — and seem to continue doing so today. I can see why; their production value strikes me as obsessively high, at least by the standards of language-learning shows. Sure, you have to get yourself in a mid-eighties mindset (which I’m always in) to really appreciate some of the computer graphics used in the strictly instructional segments, but man, those skits? The costumes! The sets! The camera movements! The sheer variety!
I have a hard time engaging with episodic art forms the way they’d like me to — hence my non-participation in our current televisual “golden age” — but something about the anti-dramatics of this type of show keeps me hooked. (Well, that and my desire to learn the language.) Let’s Learn Japanese and its brethren don’t care about doling out precisely engineered doses of plots about bombs planted in the middle of D.C. or desert islands brimming with polar bears or cheerleaders sticking their hands down garbage disposals. Their characters go shopping, mail letters, take day trips, clean the house, and hang out on rooftop beer gardens.
These bare-bones, everyday life-derived stories free the show up to concentrate on its own distinctive texture. I want to label the resulting style something like “cheerful utilitarianism.” Each episode’s form follows its function, but it does so with a stereotypical Japanese verve for somewhat ramshackle slickness and slighty goofy efficiency. In these qualities, I sense the indescribable aesthetic-philosophical sensibility that first turned my head toward in Japan way back when.
I’ve already started missing one thing about watching Let’s Learn Japanese: the characters. Or should I just say “the people”? You’ve got the stout, resilient Yan-san, of course, but you’ve also got the hosts, the amiably robotic Althaus-sensei and Umino-sensei, she of the elaborate sailboat sweaters. Above all, you’ve got the skit players: Basic I young dude Kaihô-san, Basic I gamine Sugihara-san, Basic I middle-aged combover guy Mine-san, Basic II young guy Ando-san, Basic II gamine Koyanagi-san, and Basic II middle-aged combover guy Kodama-san. I’ll miss those middle-aged combover guys the most — or should I say, I’ll miss those middle-aged bākōdo otoko the most.