Taketsuru, “The Father” Of Japanese Whisky Gets A Soap Opera Treatment

If you want to know more about the history of Japanese whisky, there is a Japanese TV drama out there that might have you interested: The life of Masataka Taketsuru, the first man in Japan to master the art of whisky making, the founder of Nikka distilleries and the brain behind Suntory, is being dramatized in an NHK morning TV show called Massan.

The show stars Japanese-Korean actor and model Tetsuji Tamayama as Taketsuru and American actress Charlotte Kate Fox as his Scottish-born wife Rita.

Reportedly there were over 500 actresses who applied for the role. Fox came out on top and is the first Western actress to play a lead role in an NHK morning drama series. She earned much praise for her performance and has now been invited to play a leading role in the long-running Broadway musical Chicago.

The role wasn’t easy for Fox, a New Mexico-born American actress with no prior experience working in Japan. “They set out before me all of the scripts of 150 episodes (in Japanese) … and I think it was to scare people … This whole process has been continuously the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.

She did however learn a great deal from all this. “Now I’m a much stronger woman, I’m a much stronger actress,” Fox said. “Japan has given me everything … Now, I’m just amazed at what I’m doing. It’s really incredible they were able to make this piece of art … in the most unlikely and most impossible circumstances.”

Reportedly the news that an American actress (who for the record has a Scottish grandmother) would be playing the Scottish Rita raised some eyebrows in the rather small Scottish community in Japan but most people are just happy that the story is getting a TV treatment.

The show takes place in the early 20th century, during what the Japanese call the Meiji and Taisho periods (named after reigning emperors). Japan was a very closed-off society, suspicious of foreigners and outsiders in general. The show mostly focuses on the relationship between Taketsuru and his wife Rita, and her troubles in adjusting to Japanese life.

And their stories are quite interesting. Taketsuru’s family owned a sake brewery, and it was expected that he would carry on this tradition; as a result he went to the University of Glasgow in Scotland to study chemistry. There, however, he became familiar with whisky, a drink which, although vaguely known in Japan, hadn’t really caught on. Taketsuru was infatuated with this strong, amber-coloured drink and decided that he was more interested in introducing the beverage to Japan than becoming just another sake brewer.

He met Rita during a dinner at her house; he had been instructing her brother in judo and was invited for a family dinner. He became smitten with her and eventually asked her to come with him to Japan. The family disapproved of the idea, but in a spirit of defiance, the young couple ignored the family’s wishes and married in Glasgow in 1920. The newlyweds then moved to Japan and lived in Osaka for a while where Taketsuru was busy setting up the Yamazaki distillery, the first in Japan, on behalf of Torii Shinjiro. He would later move to Hokkaido to open up his first Nikka distillery.

Rita stood by her husband through everything. She also established the Rita nursery, and in Yoichi, Hokkaido, there is even a road named after her.

The 1930s were especially difficult for Rita and Masataka as the paranoid security police suspected her of spying on behalf of the allies. Her neighbors gave her the cold shoulder, and children would at times throw stones at her house. But Rita endured. She lived in Japan for the rest of her life, dying in 1961.

Each episode is only 15 minutes long, and the show airs every morning. In total there are 150 episodes, making this an almost 40-hour epic saga. The target audience is actually housewives, who reportedly are drinking a lot more whisky these days; in fact the demand for whisky has exploded in Japan since the show aired. Nikka reported that sales were up by a whopping 50 percent domestically. The company is capitalizing on the popularity of the show, launching a limited edition whiskey especially aimed at Massan viewers.

“We hope to make women more familiar with domestic whisky to keep this boom alive,” a Nikka spokesperson said. A spokesperson for Suntory concurred and said that the company was unable to meet the current demand for whisky even though it drastically increased production about two years ago.

Inspired to watch? The episodes can be found on Youtube.