Hisashi Tsugiya


Two of the biggest drama exports out of Turkey over the last few years were actually born half a world away—in Japan. Woman and Mother have blazed a trail across the globe in their adapted versions; the latter also has a Korean edition that was among the ten finalists of this year’s CANNESERIES festival. Both shows come from prolific producer Hisashi Tsugiya, who has developed a knack for articulating societal problems in his creations.

WS: What are the major themes you like to focus on in your dramas?
TSUGIYA: It is actually about developing a story around the family or society, and in that process, the “problems” come to the surface. The problems are simply phenomena and not the core, but in shedding light on the core, the problems get noticed. As we portray a family, it is not just the problems that emerge—we see their joy, delight and suffering. At the root of it all, I want to depict humans and what they are making out of their lives. This might be complicated but, to go even deeper, I have been thinking about the possibility of creating dramas that delve into memory and existence. What does it mean to exist? What does it take to exist? I also believe that it is memory that keeps humans alive. I have this desire to use “memory” and “existence” as themes in future dramas. Hollywood has tended toward those themes for 10 or 20 years, as well as neurological phenomena. People will be sad when you die, right? But what if I could snap my fingers and suddenly erase my existence from the entire world? If my existence is erased from people’s memories, then it becomes OK for me to not exist. I am thinking of how I can create a story that delves into this.

WS: Why do you think Mother and Woman have been able to be produced locally in other markets? What qualities have resonated with international audiences?
TSUGIYA: The core themes are family, motherhood and child-rearing, which I believe are universal. [When we first produced] Mother and Woman, we did not have the rest of the world in mind. Yet, looking back, the fact that they have been remade beyond our borders gives me the conviction that the love that families and mothers have for their children is universal. Those core themes became the launching pad that allowed the dramas to cross borders. Japanese drama series run shorter, so, after watching the localized versions, I was struck by the meticulously detailed character development. As the Japanese originals are produced with 10 or 11 episodes, we cannot always develop the characters as deeply as we want. [The adapted versions] also allow us to see the unique aspects of each culture; for instance, certain professions that do not exist in Japan. It is such a delight to see how the overseas portrayals enrich what we originally created, and I feel that we have so much to learn from our partners abroad.

WS: In the U.S., the showrunner is the person who has the final say on all aspects of a series. Who takes full responsibility for a drama series in Japan? Is it a team or a single voice?
TSUGIYA: At Nippon TV, in terms of overall responsibility, including promoting the title, I shoulder that role as the producer. Yuji Sakamoto [the screenwriter] has the final say on the story and Nobuo Mizuta [director] and I respect and prioritize that because we believe in his talent. [Mizuta], as the director, is in charge of visualizing the story. It seems that in Hollywood, whether for dramas or movies, there are several screenwriters that get involved. They discuss the turning points of the story and how it should unfold. In Japan, the director and producer also take on that role and form a creative team with the screenwriter.

WS: What are the biggest challenges in developing Japanese dramas that can resonate with audiences globally?
TSUGIYA: We need to be careful not to create dramas with the desire to showcase Japanese culture. For something to reach the global market, the primary motivation should be to create a human drama. You can find Hollywood movies where the main character likes to wear kimonos, and I see these as showcasing Japanese culture. But we must not go down that path and introduce Japanese people and culture as having such and such qualities and charms. To establish a foothold on the world stage, it is important to focus on people in general and create human dramas. So, in terms of challenges, it is crucial to suppress the temptation to feature Japanese culture and any details that are too Japan-specific. I grew up watching a lot of stories from the West, like Aesop’s Fables and Hans Christian Andersen, so I have this profound belief that humans are fundamentally the same.

WS: Tell us about anone. How did the idea come about?
TSUGIYA: From the time we were planning Woman, I was already having discussions with our screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto on how Japanese society tends to worship money. It turned out that he had also been thinking of ways to illustrate how people give utmost importance to money and even go crazy over it. Then we started wondering how a story would unfold if the money was fake. A lot of things are fake in this world, and there are many lies. There are fake items that look authentic. But what if money, which is what we treasure the most, turns out to be fake? What would happen to Japanese society? This was how the concept of anone came about, and each brainstorming session turned out to be quite engaging. We would imagine interesting scenes, such as a lady who takes care of an orphan putting fake money every night into a vending machine and flashing a grin when the juice would come out. With that as a starting point, we dug into the meaning behind money, and because it is a Yuji Sakamoto drama, it was in the context of a family story. So at that moment, we were already talking about using this theme in a future drama series, but then we realized how difficult it was to actually show counterfeit currency on television and reached a point where we felt it was going to be impossible. We put it off to the side for a while and went on with Woman, and when [Yuji] and I met again for the next title, the fake money story sprang back up and anone was born.

WS: Medyapim in Turkey has adapted both Woman and Mother. What advice have you given them and other producers about adapting your dramas?
TSUGIYA: With [Fatih] Aksoy from Medyapim, for instance, I made sure to communicate the true essence of what I wanted the audience to feel. I left it completely up to the Turkish production team to decide on the details of the plot and how the story would unfold because I knew that he and I were completely aligned on what message to convey to the viewers. I did not discuss specifics, but instead got on the same page with regards to the theme, then put my full trust in them to take care of the rest. You can see that they truly grasped the theme and did a wonderful job with the story. In terms of specific advice, when the local Turkish producers of Woman wanted ideas on creating an episode that went deeper into a character or adding an extra dynamic in a family relationship, I was more than happy to throw in my two cents. Japanese culture tends to simplify, so I was asked what the true meaning is behind some scenes. Sometimes, the way we create allows for multiple interpretations, so I got questions on what is really going on [with the characters] and what actually happened afterward that was not shown in detail (but our audience understood).

WS: Do you prefer working on a series where the entire story is told in one season, or do you like to be able to tell stories about characters over many years?
TSUGIYA: While the convention in Japan is to produce dramas series that conclude in one season, there have been times when we were asked to create a part two, so sometimes we produce the final episode in a way that leaves the door open for a sequel. The thing is, there is so much that I want to do and I am not all that young anymore, so I prefer to create many dramas instead of spending years on one project. I want to finish one title in one season and move on right away to the next.

WS: Tell us about the creative environment you have found at Nippon TV.
TSUGIYA: Nippon TV dramas are now being distributed throughout the world, thanks to content markets like MIPCOM. In the past, however, the top priority of the drama production teams was to get high viewer ratings domestically. This continues to be important for us, but now we have a new wave of Nippon TV creators wanting to share their content globally. It is no longer just about capturing the highest viewer ratings in our country. There is this new desire to obtain reaction and acclaim from sources other than the traditional linear broadcast business, and they factor in the international market when they pitch projects.

WS: We’ve seen Turkish dramas travel well across the globe, and Spanish series are starting to do the same. Do you envision Japanese dramas, in their original versions, being able to cross into Europe, Latin America or other markets?
TSUGIYA: Let’s look at Mother, for example, because it has been localized in several countries, but a lot of people do not know that it is from Japan or only realize it later on. I hope that when viewers realize that it came from Japan, they will want to see the original. It would be great if those who saw the Turkish remake decide to see the Japanese version and become interested in Japanese dramas in general.