The Ashihara Hinako Tragedy: “Sexy Tanaka-san” and the Moral Rights of Authors

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When manga creator Ashihara Hinako was found dead on January 29, 2024, it drew attention to her work Sexy Tanaka-san and its adaptation for television in ways going against her wishes as author. There is a need to rethink the rights of the original creators when translating their vision to new media.

A Clear Demand: “Remain Faithful to the Manga”

Earlier this year on January 29, 50-year-old Ashihara Hinako, author of the popular manga Sexy Tanaka-san, was found dead in Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture. Reported missing the day before, the police revealed that a note was found at her home and that they were treating her death as a suicide.

Ashihara’s apparent suicide was linked to a blog post only a few days before where she expressed her dissatisfaction with the live-action television adaptation of Sexy Tanaka-san broadcast from October to December in 2023.

Ashihara had previously given Shōgakukan, copyright manager and publisher of the original manga, permission to work with Nippon Television to adapt the original story to television. As a non-negotiable condition, however, she demanded that the screen version remain faithful to the manga.

Ashihara’s January 26 blog post, however, accused NTV of not adhering to the conditions and promises made. Two days later, Ashihara deleted that post and made an apology saying that she “did not mean to attack anyone” involved in the production. She was reported missing the same day.

The reporting and debate following Ashihara’s death have overlooked some vital details, and a lot of misconceptions need to be cleared up relating to the adaptation of original content to the television or big screen. Highlighting these issues helps us put Ashihara’s complaints in the proper context and better hold publishers and production companies responsible for the distress they often cause original content creators who are simply upholding their rights.

Strict Conditions for the Screen Adaptation: “I Would Have Walked Away”

One of the key issues that created the problems between Ashihara and NTV was the question of sufficient preparation time to adapt the original content to a television series. Normally, the content of a production is finalized about 10 months to a year before it is due to be broadcast. However, Ashihara only gave the green light for the use of her work in June 2023 and the screenplay—including for the final episodes—was still being written as the show began airing in October that year.

In addition to the rushed schedule, another complication was the conditions laid down by Ashihara. In her January blog post, she discussed how she had negotiated other conditions with NTV, such as being able to edit the screenplays for the later episodes if she was not satisfied with NTV’s adaptation.

When asked about this, a television producer from another Japanese television station was quoted as saying, “These are very strict conditions. I would have walked away from working with a creator like that at this point.”

This makes one wonder why NTV went through with the production in the face of tough conditions and the very tight schedule. Was the network desperate to get something made because it did not have a replacement lined up? Did it ever really intend to respect Ashihara’s wishes?

There are precedents of screen adaptations being returned to the drawing board due to the complaints of original authors.

One example is Fuji TV’s Nodame Cantabile (2006), based on a popular manga by Ninomiya Tomoko. The original show was to star Ueno Juri and Okada Jun’ichi and scheduled to be broadcast on TBS in 2005. However, TBS eventually cancelled the show when Ninomiya opposed the intervention of Okada’s talent agency, Johnny and Associates (now Smile-Up), which wanted to change the script and select the show’s theme song. The live-action adaptation was eventually remade on Fuji TV the following year, this time starring Tamaki Hiroshi instead of Okada opposite Ueno Juri.

NTV’s Self-Serving Interpretation of Ashihara’s Demands?

The production of Sexy Tanaka-san was beset by various other complications.

The original serialization of the manga began in 2018 in the monthly Anekei Petite Comic. As outlined by Ashihara in her blog post, the manga’s storyline had not yet been completed when production began. Since there was no original source content to base the script on, and the television series would round off the story before the manga had run its full course, Ashihara therefore demanded creative control over the final episodes. She provided an outline of the synopsis and dialogue to NTV for the final episodes and even reserved the right to write the script for the final episodes herself if she was dissatisfied with the proceedings.

Ashihara knew her demands were unusually strict for the industry and repeatedly asked NTV for assurance that the network understood them, and that they would be met. It was only after receiving this reassurance that she greenlighted the project in June 2023.

Production began soon after, and Ashihara’s fears were soon realized. In her January blog post she complained how “every time I saw a synopsis or script, it was substantially changed from the original.” Many scenes that she felt were central to the spirit of the manga were—without any satisfactory reason given—either cut, not depicted properly, or characterized in a completely different way from what she intended. The final three episodes also significantly departed from the ending scenario she had outlined for NTV earlier in the process. This prompted Ashihara to take over the script writing for the closing two episodes herself—a highly irregular event in the TV production world—as she originally anticipated might be necessary.

An unbridgeable gap had therefore developed between Ashihara and NTV during the rapid development and broadcast of the show. The abovementioned producer suggested that NTV may have self-servingly interpreted Ashihara’s conditions at the time of the agreement, simply not taking them seriously.

The Moral Rights of Authors

This is not simply a matter of wounded pride. If Ashihara’s complaints and description of events are correct, then NTV infringed on her “right to integrity,” which is one of the “moral rights of authors” enshrined in copyright legislation in addition to “property” rights.

Article 20 (1) of Japan’s Copyright Act (Section 3, Subsection 2) reads:

The author of a work has the right to preserve the integrity of that work and its title, and is not to be made to suffer any alteration, cut, or other modification thereto that is contrary to the author’s intention.

This effectively means secondary works like screen adaptations can only make substantive changes to the original work if they have the consent of the original author. Producers are obliged to listen to the author if they raise reservations.

For example, the TBS productions of Hanzawa Naoki (2013 and 2020), based on the Ikeido Jun novel, were quite different from the original source. This was not a problem because Ikeido agreed to the alterations. In the case of Sexy Tanaka-san, however, Ashihara had explicitly asserted her demand that the screen version remain faithful to the original content.

The 1994 TV Asahi adaptation of Kusunoki Kei’s manga Yagami-kun no katei no jijō (Yagami-kun’s Family Affairs) was quite different. As the content of the TV production grew increasingly distant from the original content, TV Asahi even changed how they credited Kusunoki’s contribution. At the start of the series, she was credited as the original work’s author but later in the series was only credited with “drafting” the screen adaptation. On January 27 this year, Kusunoki expressed her anger on X (formerly Twitter) regarding Ashihara’s situation, given her own experience. Kusunoki even said that in her case she had stopped watching the television series based on her work halfway through due to the massive differences between it and her source content, and that she did not even know what happened in the final episode.

When original authors complain in this way about the content of screen adaptations, producers usually dismiss this by insinuating that the writers are “too picky” and that they “do not know what goes into making a good drama.” The lack of compliance on display with the adaptation of Ashihara’s work has long been a problem in the television industry.

The reality is that many screen productions that use original content make an endless number of alterations that the original author does not explicitly consent to that could infringe on the “right to integrity.” If authors complain, some producers are unapologetic and simply respond by saying “If you didn’t want any changes to be made, you should have just refused at the outset.”

Lying behind this dismissiveness is a belief that television companies are ultimately doing the authors a favor by putting their work on the screen, as they assume television exposure will lead to a big increase in sales of the original manga.

Authors Also Distrust Publishers

Most of the time when a manga or novel is adapted, the agreement is little more than an oral contract, especially on the finer details. This lack of documentation is another source of trouble and representative of the lack of attention paid to compliance.

On February 2 this year, manga author Satō Shūhō, whose Say Hello to Black Jack and Umizaru were adapted to the screen, also responded to Ashihara’s death by sharing his experience. Known as one of the foremost commentators in the manga world, Satō outlined in a series of posts on the Note platform how his own distrust toward both publishers and production companies grew over time. The publishers, he said, only want “to conclude a contract to turn original works into a film or series so they can sell even more books.”

Satō also shared how his distrust toward the industry accelerated during the adaptation of Umizaru into four films. He has subsequently declared his estrangement from Fuji TV which produced the screen version of Umizaru.

It seems that the original author’s wishes are often of secondary importance in the industry. However, the rights of authors are enshrined in law, and ultimately, it is these copyright protections that allow publishers and producers to make huge profits from the exclusive content produced by authors. However, they continue to cause distress for authors.

Satō suggested in his Note post that the complex relationship between original content authors, publishing companies, and screen production companies is one of the major confounding factors:

Some manga artists assert conditions for screen adaptations through their publishers, but whether these requirements are passed on by the publishers to the TV stations or production companies is another matter. Publishers know that if they assert various troublesome conditions at the outset, the conversation becomes complicated, and the project may be abandoned.

This raises the question of the extent to which Shōgakukan actually communicated Ashihara’s wishes to NTV.

In the end, in order to preserve the integrity of her work, Ashihara had to intervene and write the script herself. Then, in her blog post, she had to explain why she made the decisions she made in bringing the story to an end in such a pressured environment. She should never have had to resort to fighting this battle alone. It was an incredibly sad end for a talented creator.

On February 8, the editors from Shōgakukan’s First Comics Department collectively published a message on their website reflecting on the circumstances surrounding the screen production of Sexy Tanaka-san and Ashihara’s death. In addition to sharing their shock, the editors said that publishers needed to make greater efforts to raise awareness about the “moral rights” held by original content creators—which exist independently of property rights and any agreement—and ensure that they are respected. To avoid another situation like Ashihara’s, the editors said that “authors should be made to feel like it is natural for them to express their opinion on how their work is adapted and assert their rights.”

However, Shōgakukan still has a social responsibility to investigate and publicize the circumstances surrounding their communication of Ashihara’s wishes and whether they really tried to protect her right to integrity in the process.

Authors Protecting Their Rights in Court

There have been court cases involving the adjudication of the moral and property rights relating to the alteration of the original work. In 2012, NHK filed a lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court against publisher, Kōdansha Bunko, which managed the rights to adapt the Tsujimura Mizuki novel Zero, Eight, Zero, Seven. NHK had obtained permission to adapt the novel from Kōdansha and was about to begin filming. However, Tsujimura withdrew permission at the last minute due to a big gap opening up between the original story and the script surrounding the portrayal of the relationship between the main character and her mother—a central theme of the original work.

NHK’s lawsuit sought damages of ¥60 million from Kōdansha for expenses already incurred. However, Tsujimura had requested several revisions to the script that NHK refused. It is bizarre that NHK felt that it could not only refuse the author’s request for revisions given authors’ right to integrity but would be bold enough to go to court claiming damages in response to an author asserting her rights.

Tsujimura, who was uncomfortable with the script, asserted in court that “I am not just going to give away my treasured baby.” During proceedings, Kōdansha also submitted a statement from the author Higashino Keigo, who has had many works adapted to the screen, clearly stating that “only alterations authorized by the original author are permitted” in the production process.

The Tokyo District Court eventually dismissed NHK’s claim in 2015. It ruled that since Tsujimura herself had not ultimately approved the script, “no contractual relationship had been established.” Indeed, there was no written contract between NHK and Kōdansha in this case, as is common in this industry—something that is probably unbelievable in other industries. NHK appealed to the Tokyo High Court, but eventually settled the case in accordance with the decision from the first case.

Preventing Another Ashihara Tragedy

Aizawa Tomoko, the scriptwriter credited with writing the first eight episodes of Sexy Tanaka-san, expressed her own bafflement about the production process on Instagram in late 2023. She said she had “never experienced in the past” a situation where the original content creator intervenes to write the script for the final episodes for a show. Aizawa’s words were at the time seen as expressing frustration towards Ashihara, and this stimulated significant debate on social media. It also likely precipitated Ashihara joining X in January 2024 and seeking to clarify how she came to be involved in writing the script in her January 26 blog post.

Following Ashihara’s death, Aizawa released a statement on Instagram. Dated February 8, said she was “greatly shocked and still in deep sadness.” She was “speechless” at the situation described in the January 26 blog post and that she had not been informed of Ashihara’s conditions, which she said were “all news to me.” She expressed her regret about the situation, saying that “I can’t stop thinking that things might have turned out differently if I’d only known the truth about this.”

On February 15, NTV apologized to readers of the Sexy Tanaka-san manga, viewers, and performers, saying that it was “deeply remorseful for the great distress it had caused.” It also announced the establishment of an internal special investigation team, independent of the drama production department, with the cooperation of Shōgakukan and external experts. The statement said, “We will proceed promptly with the investigation, sincerely review the situation, and strive to implement a process that will allow all original authors, scriptwriters, program producers, and others to work on production with even greater peace of mind,”

This all felt like too little, too late, though, coming as it did more than two weeks after Ashihara’s death.

On February 22, NTV announced that it would not air an adaptation based on a different manga published by Shōgakukan originally scheduled to be broadcast from April. The decision was reportedly the result of discussions between the two companies. One can only hope this decision was made with a view to better protecting the moral rights of original authors in the future.

To prevent a repeat of this tragedy, NTV and Shōgakukan must thoroughly investigate and disclose the facts. Production processes must also factor in awareness of compliance and consultation with original authors. The drafting of written contracts and greater respect for rights of integrity are essential first steps in the process.

(Originally published in Japanese February 25, 2024. Banner photos: Left, NTV Headquarters, © Jiji Press. Right, Covers of the Sexy Tanaka-san manga by Ashihara Hinako, © Kyōdō News.)

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