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If at first you don’t succeed

by Steve McClure

Teen idol Ami Suzuki is apparently on the verge of making a comeback after disappearing from the J-pop radar more than a year ago.

Various “sports” newspapers and TV shows recently reported that Suzuki has signed a management deal with the powerful Osaka-based production company Yoshimoto Kogyo and that she will be releasing a “sai debut” (“re-debut”) single in the near future. According to these reports, the as-yet-untitled single will be produced, like Suzuki’s previous material, by Tetsuya Komuro and will be released either by R&C Japan (Yoshimoto’s record label) or Avex.

The reports are based on information from unnamed sources. R&C Japan President Takeyasu Hashizume, usually a pretty forthright guy, tells me he has no comment to make on these reports. Avex Chairman Tom Yoda says they’re wrong about his label’s supposed role in Suzuki’s putative comeback. And a Sony spokesman says Suzuki is still signed to that label.

My guess is that word of “Ami-go’s” re-emergence on the J-pop scene has been leaked to build up a buzz ahead of an official announcement. If the reports are true, then Suzuki will have pulled off a phoenix-like revival of a showbiz career that seemed to have burned out altogether.

Until last spring, Suzuki was one of J-pop’s most visible faces. After finishing first in a nationwide talent contest sponsored by the TV Tokyo program “Asayan,” she released her first single, “Love the Island,” in July 1998 and soon become a top-selling idol star.

But it all started to fall apart with the July 2000 arrest on tax-evasion charges of Eiji Yamada, president of AG Communication, the production company to which Suzuki was signed.

Fearing that Yamada’s arrest was tarnishing Ami’s squeaky-clean image, Suzuki’s parents filed a suit in January 2001 to end the management deal with AG, which did not want to let Ami go. (Yamada was convicted in February.)

In July, the Tokyo District Court ruled in the Suzukis’ favor, but it was very much a Pyrrhic victory. By that time, Ami had been blacklisted by the Japanese showbiz world for having had the unmitigated audacity to resort to legal action against AG — something that is just not done in the cozy, paternalistic entertainment world here. Artists, especially of the idol variety, are supposed to be good little boys and girls who do what they’re told. Of course, all too often they find themselves without a yen to their name at the end of their all-too-brief showbiz careers.

Ami’s syndicated radio show was canceled. She lost her role in a Nippon TV drama series. Her commercial endorsements dried up. Sony rushed out a CD of her greatest hits — always a sure sign that a record company wants to squeeze the last bit of revenue from an artist before he or she signs to another label or — as in this case — they become persona non grata. Even her fan club was dissolved. Other production companies refused to sign her.

To give you an idea of the kind of paranoia surrounding the case, one of my colleagues warned me that if I wanted to keep working as a music journalist in Japan, it would be better that I not write about l’affaire Suzuki.

I’m not a big fan of Ami’s music, but more power to her if she can make a comeback with Yoshimoto’s help. Maybe, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in the life of a J-pop idol . . .

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Female vocalist Mai Kuraki is the latest J-pop artist to try her luck in the American market. Following the October 1999 release of her single “Baby I Like” under the simplified name, “Mai K,” Kuraki will release her latest album, “Secret of My Heart,” on Jan. 22 on Giza U.S.A., a Los Angeles-based subsidiary of her Japanese label, Giza Studio.

“Secret of My Heart” is a competent, well-performed slice of pop/R&B, Kuraki seems reasonably comfortable singing in English and makes few obvious pronunciation mistakes. I get the feeling, though, that she’s a little self-conscious about singing in her second language, since her vocals could use a little bit more soul. If this project isn’t just a one-off, maybe Kuraki will get a little more funky on her next English-language effort.