A Show That Makes Young Japanese Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s

The younger generation in Japan has frequently called out their elders for their casual sexism, excessive work expectations and unwillingness to give up power.

But a surprise television hit has people talking about whether the oldsters might have gotten a few things right, especially as some in Japan — like their counterparts in the United States and Europe — question the heightened sensitivities associated with “wokeness.”

The show, “Extremely Inappropriate!,” features a foul-talking, crotchety physical education teacher and widowed father who boards a public bus in 1986 Japan and finds himself whisked to 2024.

He leaves an era when it was perfectly acceptable to spank students with baseball bats, smoke on public transit and treat women like second-class citizens. Landing in the present, he discovers a country transformed by cellphones, social media and a workplace environment where managers obsessively monitor employees for signs of harassment.

The show was one of the country’s most popular when its 10 episodes aired at the beginning of the year on TBS, one of Japan’s main television networks. It is also streaming on Netflix, where it spent four weeks as the platform’s No. 1 show in Japan.

“Extremely Inappropriate!” compares the Showa era, which stretched from 1926 to 1989, the reign of Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, to the current era, which is known as Reiwa and began in 2019, when the current emperor, Naruhito, took the throne.

Both the writer and executive producer are 50-something Generation Xers whose nostalgia for the more freewheeling bubble years of their youth permeates the ditsy comedic drama, whose characters occasionally break into madcap musical numbers.

Not so subtly, the show also comments on the evolution toward more inclusive and accommodating offices, caricaturing them as places where work is left undone because of strict overtime rules and employees apologize repeatedly for running afoul of “compliance rules.”

Such portrayals strike a chord in Japan, where there have been complaints, often expressed on social media, about “political correctness” being used as a “club” to restrict expression or to water down television programs or films. Part of what fans have found refreshing about “Extremely Inappropriate!” is how unrestrained the portions set in the Showa era are.

While critics have called the series retrograde, some younger viewers say the show has made them question social norms they once took for granted — and wonder about what has been lost.

Writing for an entertainment-oriented Web publication, Rio Otozuki, 25, said that the series “must have left many viewers thinking inwardly that the Showa era was more fun.”

She was initially shocked by some of the 1980s behavior it depicted, she wrote. In an interview, Ms. Otozuki said she was glad not to have grown up in the earlier era after seeing sexual harassment and extreme disciplinary measures portrayed as “so normal back then.”

But she also wondered if people then felt more empowered to make their own choices. She pointed to a television variety program depicted in the show, where young women cavort in skimpy outfits and compete to let their nipples slip out of their shirts, while a male host crawls between their legs making sexually suggestive comments.

At first, Ms. Otozuki recoiled from it. In the end, though, she decided that if the stars “realized that their bodies are their tools and wanted to use them for entertainment,” then she could accept the variety show’s approach.

Kaori Shoji, an arts critic who was a teenager in the 1980s, said she loved “Extremely Inappropriate!” She particularly appreciated how the series illuminated the chilling effects of today’s tighter policing of workplaces.

“Everyone is just playing a game to see who can be the least offensive person that ever walked the earth,” Ms. Shoji said. “Everyone just exchanges platitudes and inanities because they are afraid to say anything. Surely that cannot be good for a workplace.”

The show pays homage to “Back to the Future,” the classic movie about a 1980s-era teenager, played by Michael J. Fox, who travels back in time to the 1950s of his parents’ adolescence. In “Extremely Inappropriate!” the point of view is primarily that of the parent traveling to the future — Ichiro, played by the Japanese character actor Sadao Abe.

Some other characters, including a feminist sociologist and her teenage son, travel back in time, while Ichiro’s rebellious teenage daughter spends an episode in the future getting to know a television producer and single mother who struggles to balance her work and personal life.

Both eras are often played for laughs, but the extremes are more pronounced in the contemporary scenes. A producer at a modern-day television network interrupts the on-air talent every few seconds to deem his comments inappropriate. A chorus of young women instruct the time-traveling teacher that the punctuation in his text messages is considered offensive.

Aki Isoyama, 56, the executive producer and a longtime collaborator with the series’s writer, Kankuro Kudo, 53, said they wanted to create a show that reflected a “sense of discomfort toward compliance and the trends of the modern era.”

“Of course, we feel like things are moving in a better direction” generally, Ms. Isoyama added during an interview at the TBS headquarters in Tokyo. “But we felt uncomfortable, and we had been talking about that.”

Ms. Isoyama said she was surprised by the show’s popularity. “I did want people to have a discussion,” she said. “And, of course, I did want the younger generation to ask their parents, ‘Was the Showa era really like this?’”

For Kumiko Nemoto, 53, a professor of management at Senshu University in Tokyo, where she focuses on gender issues, the show is merely “going back to and embracing 1980s Japan as if it was the best time.”

She took issue with its portrayal of modern young men as “very confused and hypersensitive about harassment.” Its female characters, she added, seemed stereotypical, with the contemporary feminist sociologist portrayed first “as a ‘feminazi’” but ultimately as “a nice good mother.”

In the end, the show posits a can’t-we-all-find-a-middle-ground message, and the grumpy old teacher ends up evolving the most.

Ms. Shoji, the arts critic, viewed the series as a “fairy tale” that imagined what would happen if the grizzled fathers of the earlier era “got a second chance” to become gentler and more mindful of the feelings of others.

Anna Akagi, 23, a freelance writer, said that the show made her think that maybe times hadn’t changed that much. Things that people used to express publicly — and without shame — have now simply migrated to anonymous postings online, she said.

“Maybe the shape has changed, but the things that existed in Showa exist in Reiwa in a different form,” she said.

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