SOS, Semiotics, and Society

{我也想了好一陣子,要否把這篇文章 post 上來作分享呢?因為我始終想這個 blog 集中於討論書籍設計,但最後,我也決定放上來。這是一篇以符號學的角度去分析日劇《Strawberry On the Shortcake》的文章。我想,如果我把電視劇當作是「書籍的延伸」或「劇本的延伸」(以一系列的流動畫面去說故事)去看的話;那麼,我們可以以相同的手法分析一套日劇或分析一本書。《SOS》是著名劇作家野島新司先生的作品,他在這作品大玩符號。}

“Television is absolutely central to contemporary Japanese culture.”_*1]

—Andrew A. Painter, 1996

To a certain extent, the Japanese TV dramas, or dorama reflect the reality in the society. They are closely related and some of the plots in the story are always picked up from the social phenomenon. If you want to know more about Japanese culture, watching Japanese TV drama is inevasible. In this passage, using a TV drama “Strawberry On the Shortcake” (SOS) as a specific example to explain how the TV drama reflects the society and its impact to us. Through breaking down SOS by using semiotic means, we can go deeper to see what’s behind the story and the spirit the writer really wants to tell us.

First, there is a short introduction about the story SOS. You may not watch it before and it is not as famous as other Japanese TV drama such as Long Vacation and Love Generation. However, the script, the dialogue and the props in SOS are well designed. This is a teenage love with bittersweet touch. When you’re watching it, you will feel some kinds of burden on your heart.

A shy schoolboy Manato 入江真斗 (Takizawa Hideaki 滝沢秀明) has developed a crush on Yui 入江唯 (Fukada Kyoko 深田恭子), a free and somewhat infantile spirit who has just become his stepsister by marriage. Yui, however, has eyes only for Tetsuya 佐伯哲也 (Kubozuka Yusuke 窪塚洋介), who has become the toughest kid in the school by default, since a mysterious illness has kept him in the same class for two years. Love triangles in Japan, of course, are never that simple—Tetsuya has really failed his exams twice in a row because he is conducting a secret affair with his school teacher Mariko 真理子 (Ishida Yuriko 石田ゆり子), a confused twenty something who nurses a broken heart over the death of her fiancé. Meanwhile, as if you couldn’t guess. Manato is adored by his neighbor Haruka 石川遙 (Uchiyama Rina 內山理名), a literal girl next door.

SOS & Semiotics

This is a teenage love story with full of signs. Therefore, I try to use semiotic approach to analysis SOS. Semiology/ semiotics is usually defined as the science of signs. It begins with the assumption that the meaning of words, images or objects is neither natural nor inevitable. Meaning do not come with mental labels attached on them, they are socially constructed. The meaning of things is inscribed within discourses and social practice. The meaning of things is therefore fixed by culture, not by nature.

The central unit of meaning is the sign. A sign refers to anything that carries a meaning, be it an object, a word, an image or a symbol. Semiology deconstructs meaning to see how it is constructed. The sign is therefore broken down into 2 parts, signifier and signified. A signifier is the object, word, image or symbol before it has been given a meaning. On the other hand, the signified is the meaning we associate with it.

The signifier and the signified exist in very different fields. The signifier exists outside our heads in the material world: we relate to it by using our senses. The signified has no material presence. It is what we think of or feel in response to the signifier, and it therefore exists purely in our minds. The relation between the signifier and the signified is therefore something we construct._*2]

Then, we can go deep inside SOS to see the signs and their relation to the Japanese society.

Strawberry On the Shortcake & Love

The title of this TV drama “Strawberry On the Shortcake” is, in fact, a psychology test. Manato asks a simple question repeatedly throughout the show: the hypothesis is that you are a strawberry lover; when you eat a shortcake, do you start with the cake or with the strawberry on the top? It shows that different people have different values/ attitudes towards LOVE.

Some are passive, just like Manato and Haruna in the show, gratification-deferring cake eaters who save the best until last. This kind of people just wants something like Manato says in Episode 4 “That there’s a little bit of happiness even in ordinary lives.”

Some are active, just like Yui and Tetsuya, go-getting strawberry eaters who want everything now and give little thought to the consequences. They are different from the former one. They want something like Yui says in Episode 4 “Even if it’s just for one second, I want to feel utter happiness in this world.”

The audience has some kind of resonance with this. Don’t you think that the society is full of these two kinds of people?

Apart from this, it is quite interesting that Japanese love to make “love story” TV dramas. The subject matters of the TV dramas in Hong Kong and the Mainland China are different from Japan. Hong Kong makers like to mix all the things in one while China makers like to make TV dramas about “History”. There is a cultural and historical difference. In the past, linked with acknowledgment of the significance of the natural world as it stands is the affirmation of human desires and emotions. The Japanese tend not to suppress such feelings. The ancient Japanese composed love poems expressing their emotions frankly and joyfully. This tendency has persisted down to the present. In Japan, the fiery reformer Nickiren (1222-82) confessed, “I shed tears when happy, I shed tears when sad.”_*3]This is exactly what Yui do in SOS. Sexual and emotional love was affirmed in the society for a time. The Japanese way of thinking went a step further to emphasize “love” now.

In the last episode, Tetsuya gives a valedictory speech in the graduation ceremony. The script writer also wants to end the story with LOVE. Here is part of it:

“We were born into this world to love. We weren’t put into this world to suffer. The 20th century that has been created by irresponsible adults is filled with conflict & deceit. However we were not born into this world to suffer.”

So, the Japanese make that much touching love stories is not a sudden. There is a historical base.

Glasses & Masks

In SOS, the glasses Manato wears aren’t the real thing. They are actually not powered. When he puts them on, it’s as if he lives his life looking through a filter. Even if he is bullied at school, has no place either at school or at home, as long as he is playacting the script he writes, it’s not the ‘real’ Manato, or so he thinks.

Glasses are nothing special in our life until it is given a meaning. Glasses, alone, are the signifier (the thing we wear when we have eye disease). The signified is the ‘fake me’, someone Manato playacts. So, when Yui throws Manato’s glasses onto the road and let the truck crushes the glasses into pieces, she tell him that “The fake you is dead.”

People (adult and teenager) always put on different glasses/ masks in different situation. They always use different attitudes, faces to deal with different people in the society. But, they seldom use their ‘real’ face to deal with people and even “friends”. They are afraid of hurt. Don’t you think so? It is not a special phenomenon for the society in Japan. It is a global issue.

Although it happens everywhere, it is serious in such an extreme society, Japan. On the one hand, there are some core values and beliefs in Japan. These include: collectivism (an emphasis on the interests of the family, village, company or nation rather than those of the individual); consensus (a preference for harmony and agreement over open dissent and disputation); and hierarchy (accepting the importance of seniority and status)._*4] The core values are over kept and the Japanese become depressive.

So, on the other hand, they may set the dissatisfactory free in other ways. The suicide rate is very high in Japan especially in these few years of economic collapse. In SOS, Manato want to commit suicide because of the peer pressure. Besides, some Japanese may also develop some eccentric action. Also, because of teenage curiosity, Manato steals the underwear of his female teacher.

Strawberry, Cherry & Apple

Lots of small props are used in SOS. Three fruits are used as signs and there is signified behind.

Strawberry
The first one is, of course, strawberry. Strawberry is not as simple as the one on the shortcake. It has its implicit meaning. It represents a kind of people known as “Strawberry Clan” (草莓族). This term is very popular in Japan and Taiwan. This kind of people is born in or after 1980s. (The main characters in SOS) They are just like strawberry. They are young and have pretty and sheen outlook. But they are soft and week inside. Their surface is full of small holes; people should deal with them carefully. Some of their characteristics are: first, they are the only son/ daughter at home and the parents love them dearly. Second, they do not worry about money. Their pressure-resistance is very low. Third, when they meet some problem or pressure unexpectedly, they will be crushed at a sudden._*5]

The script writer is satirizing at or reminds the youngster to be strong.

Cherry
As we all know, cherry represents virgin. Even we do not have the same cultural background; we can get the signified as well. It has its globalized meaning. When you check in the dictionary, you can find one of the meanings of cherry is virgin.

In SOS, Manato feels shameful of being a male virgin at the age of 18. Even his stepsister has experience. He thinks the girls would not like this kind of boys.

Treating sex, Japanese is open-minded though they are conservative in some aspects. The plot reflects a phenomenon. They have sex with each other, especially the first time, is not because of love or happy or whatever; just because they want. In SOS, Manato give his first time to the artist just because he does not want to be a virgin any more.

Apple
In the beginning of the world, Adam and Eve eat the apple secretly in the Garden of Eden. Since then, some of the meanings such as evil, dirty, mysterious, etc are added to an apple.

In SOS, Tetsuya is conducting a secret affair with his school teacher Mariko. And Tetsuya like to eat apple. Almost every time, he is eating apple. This red and big apple implies the immoral relationship between him and his English teacher.

To certain extent, Japan is a conservative society. The love between teacher and student is unacceptable in this society. The teacher has heavy burden and has the shackles of conservation. They think that the teacher is immoral and she just plays tricks to students. This is the inherit values in the people’s mind.

Colours

It is very common to use colour as the signs in the media. We can feel the colours and there is an imagination space.

The main characters in SOS have its own colours.

“This is really something! Everything’s pink!”
Yui, putting on pink cover on her pillow, replies “It’s my lucky color, don’t you think it’s romantic?”
“Don’t you get a headache?”
“No, I love reds & pinks.”

The above is the conversation between Manato and Yui. It shows how Yui love red and pink. The colour also represents one’s character and nature. Red is suitable for Yui because she is healthy-looking and vivacious.

Haruka stares at him “I like the color blue.”
Not understanding Haruka, Manato goes “Eh?”
Haruka explains “The color blue is like the sky & the ocean, they go on forever.”

The above conversation between Manato and Haruka which Haruka states the reason why she like blue. Blue is like the characteristics of Haruka who is graceful, gentle and quiet. And it is not that eye-catching.

Manato asks “Why did you decide on the color green for me?”
“Ah, you’re wondering about that?”
“Uhm, sort of.”
“Because of oxygen.”
“Oxygen?”
“Uhm. When I’m with you, the air suddenly feels very fresh.”
“Is that so?” “The Manato that is green in color, gives me pure oxygen.”
“But even if there’s a lot of greenery, without the red colored sun, photosynthesis can’t happen.”
“Red color? Ah what is that! So it’s thanks to me?”

The above is the conversation between Yui and Manato. Maybe it is too obvious and odd to say all the things by mouth in the TV drama, but it is still interesting to describe someone’s relationship by colours and imagination.

Conclusion

The TV drama is a powerful media. Not only can the dramatic plot entertain us, but also the cultural and social issues deep inside. When we watch one country’s television series, we can understand their habits, social phenomenon and favourites.

Furthermore, television culture is the product of a remarkable combination of technologies, institutions, practices, and publics. The Japanese TV drama suggests that TV is not the same everywhere. How the medium is used and interpreted has much to do with the ways in which people see themselves and their relations woth others in society.

Television is both reflective and constitutive of modern societies.

footnotes:
*1] Please refer to Andrew A. Painter (1996). Japanese Daytime Television, Popular Culture, and Ideology. In John Whittier Treat (Eds.), Contemporary Japan and popular culture (pp. 197-198). Richmond [England]: Curzon

*2] Please refer to Bernadette Casey, Neil Casey, Ben Calvert, Liam French and Justin Lewis. (2002). Television studies: the key concepts (pp. 210-211). London; New York: Routledge

*3] Please refer to Nakamura Hajime (1977). The way of thinking of the Japanese people. In Japan Cultural Institute. Guides to Japanese Culture. (pp. 61-65)Japan: Japan Cultural Institute

*4] Please refer to Duncan McCargo (2000). Chapter 4: Social Structure and Social Policy. Contemporary Japan. (pp. 59-61) Basingstoke [England]: Macmillan

*5] Please refer to 草莓72變 at XINHUANNET. COM
http://news.xinhuanet.com/food/2004-08/03/content_1702863_1.htm

References

1. Andrew A. Painter (1996). Japanese Daytime Television, Popular Culture, and Ideology. In John Whittier Treat (Eds.), Contemporary Japan and popular culture. Richmond [England]: Curzon

2. Bernadette Casey, Neil Casey, Ben Calvert, Liam French and Justin Lewis. (2002). Television studies: the key concepts. London; New York: Routledge

3. Nakamura Hajime (1977). The way of thinking of the Japanese people. In Japan Cultural Institute. Guides to Japanese Culture. Japan: Japan Cultural Institute

4. Duncan McCargo (2000). Chapter 4: Social Structure and Social Policy. Contemporary Japan. Basingstoke [England]: Macmillan

5. Mark Schreiber (Eds.). (2001). Tokyo confidential : titillating tales from Japan’s wild weeklies Tokyo : East Publications

6. Jonathan Clements & Motoko Tamamuro (2003). The dorama encyclopedia : a guide to Japanese TV drama since 1953 Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press

7. CJ Morikai’s Japanese Dorama Page: http://www.geocities.com/morikai/index.html

8. 草莓72變 at XINHUANNET. COM: http://news.xinhuanet.com/food/2004-08/03/content_1702863_1.htm

(written in 2004, an Critical Essay of Subject: Media Culture)

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Contributor

Hei Shing
chanheishing@gmail.com

書就是… A Book is…


一片紙不但表現時間,也表現空間。而一片片的紙張組合起來的書就是一個高深的容器,盛滿文字,既能從中不斷汲取智慧,又能裝入無限的智慧。

A piece of paper reflects not only time but also space. Books are formed by binding papers together to become containers of words that serve as a reservoir as well as a spring of wisdom.

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