You and whose Ami?

Surviving music-industry politics and blacklisting, Ami Suzuki proves it possible to defy the hit-making machine

by Robert Michael Poole

When singer and actress Ami Suzuki appears in the TBS drama “Love Letter” this month, she’ll finally realize the end of a remarkable comeback.

The toast of 1999, when she sold 3.2 million CDs (not to mention DVDs and so on) as a 16-year-old electro-pop princess, her fall from grace was infamous. As she attempted to distance herself from her management company, which had been implicated in a fraud scandal, the music business responded by blacklisting her.

After years fighting against the very industry that made her a star, she now celebrates her re-emergence as a singer with a 10th-anniversary album, “Supreme Show,” while maintaining an acting career that she sees as crucial to her future.

“I’ve only really just started (focusing on) acting, so to become accepted as an actress in my own right would make me very happy,” she says with the glee of someone given a second chance.

As we settle down into the couches of a cafe in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Suzuki puts on a brave face — not just from a clearly exhausting day, but from a topsy-turvy few years. Given the impressive feat of her return from the cold, she is surprisingly bashful and hesitant to elaborate on the achievement, concentrating instead on purveying the image of the wide-eyed teenager that first endeared itself to the public’s imagination 10 years ago.

“I was really looked upon as a child back then, and I don’t really feel like that feeling has changed for me. In work, I want to enjoy myself as much as possible too, so I haven’t changed much,” she explains.

Now 26, she’s taking on her biggest challenge yet, in “Love Letter,” by playing the hearing-impaired Minami Tadokoro, whose dramatic love life is explored over a 15-year period. In the drama, set on Shodo Island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, the elementary-school-age Tadokoro is played by Yukina Matsushima, by Rio Yamashita in junior high school, and by Suzuki as an adult.

“I want to try things that make me feel different,” she says. “Playing a role that you would not normally ever get to experience is a great feeling.”

Suzuki’s own experience began in an electric fashion. Brought up in a family that loved music and frequently took her to karaoke, she entered numerous singing auditions.

“At the start, I was not so interested in (the auditions), because I was very busy with my school athletics team,” she recalls. “I didn’t have time to come to Tokyo from (my hometown in) Kanagawa, but a friend convinced me (to go to the auditions), and I skipped athletics practice.”

In May 1998, she took first place in an audition for morning TV Tokyo show “Asayan,” where her lack of nerves shone through.

“Looking at everyone rehearsing their singing and lyrics intensely, I thought it was a bit of a shame,” she says. “I thought I should show the true me and just be natural, so I was eating sweets and talking to staff.”

Signed to management company AG Communications on the back of the audition, Suzuki prepared for her debut single, “Love the Island,” released in July 1998 by Sony. This was followed by a string of hits for the label such as “White Key” and “Be Together,” many produced by Avex’s pioneering producer Testuya Komuro, who has, ironically, been at the center of a recent fraud scandal himself. She beat superstar Ayumi Hamasaki’s ninth single, “Boys & Girls,” in a race to the No. 1 spot in July 1999 with “Be Together,” which sold 318,000 copies in its first week. She seemed unstoppable.

“When I debuted, I was really young,” she says. “I was not free to do what I wanted to do; I just did anything that I was told. It’s probably kind of a bad thing to say, but I honestly felt pretty disheartened and down, like there was no future.”

Showing frustration at having been seen as just a pretty face, she continues, “I was perceived more as an aidoru (manufactured entertainer) than an artist, and I was expected to perform a wide variety of activities (such as modeling, acting and presenting a radio show), not focus on music. (So, despite my sales success) it didn’t feel right to me to think, ‘Great, I have a hit.’ ”

But the hits piled up, and Suzuki was able to use her own lyrics for the first time on January 2000′s “Don’t Need to Say Goodbye,” a rare feat for aidoru even today.

“I had actually written lyrics from an early stage, hoping one day they would be accepted (by my producer or management),” she says. “It was more important to me than sales and chart rankings to know that I had put my thoughts and feelings into what I was singing. During performances, I could really feel the difference with those songs that I had written lyrics for.”

It was during one live performance that she truly felt she had made it as the singer she has always wanted to be. “I suddenly found myself not singing a note, and the entire crowd was singing those words and melodies back to me,” she says. “That was the (most special) moment.”

In July 2000, though, her world came crashing down. Eiji Yamada, then president of AG Communication, was arrested for tax evasion, and despite attempts by AG to distance Suzuki from the ensuing negative publicity by creating a subsidiary called Music Tribe, her parents Tadao and Miyako Suzuki acted on her behalf as a minor and filed a suit in the Tokyo District Court to sever the contract.

“I really didn’t know what was going on,” she recalls. Rumors spread that her family, seized by greed, were only out to win Suzuki a better deal. “Lots of lies were being thrown about in the media, and I couldn’t believe that. For people to hear little things on the TV and believe that to be the truth about me was a surprise, and I suddenly realized the kind of world I was in!”

The Suzukis won the court case, but the inner workings of the entertainment industry were quickly exposed. Within weeks she lost her radio show, drama roles and sponsorship deal with Kodak, and even her producer, Komuro, refused to comment. Sony rushed out a greatest hits package (“Fun for Fan”), and Ami Suzuki effectively vanished overnight.

“What kept me going was the thought of one day being able to tell the truth myself,” she explains, acknowledging the failure of the media to even discuss the blacklisting and the court case. In fact, it was Steve McClure, then Asia bureau chief for U.S. music-industry periodical Billboard, who, despite warnings that it could end his career writing about Japan’s music industry, exposed the whole affair to an unknowing public on Dec. 8, 2001.

“I had been advised by an industry insider that it would not be a good idea, but it was fairly easy to get all the records from the courts,” McClure recalls. “I thought it was interesting to show how this industry really operates and the practices that go on, and I guessed that since this was a foreign media, it didn’t matter much for those involved.”

One of the fascinating facts that McClure discovered was that Suzuki was earning a paltry ¥200,000 a month, with less than 0.4 percent of CD sales revenue as a bonus, at the start of her deal; and despite phenomenal sales reportedly grossing billions of yen, this rose to just ¥1 million a month and just under 0.55 percent by the time the deal was terminated.

At the time, Tokyo lawyer Atsushi Naito stated, “Even though she won, nobody will (work with) her,” and McClure himself wrote that Suzuki’s ostracism “has reinforced the impression that the system cannot be fought.” Yet they both underestimated the ingenuity of the determined and wily Suzuki.

Unable to get a record deal anywhere, she instead released a book through Bungeishunju Ltd. called “Tsuyoi Kizuna” (“Strong Bond”) in April 2004.

“Making a CD was a way to connect with fans, and if that would not be possible, I would find another way,” Suzuki says. “After some research, I found that adding a CD to a book, such as those found in language-teaching books, would be a possible alternative.”

The enterprising scheme brought sales of 150,000, enough to confirm that her fan base was still active, and she then went on to set up her own label, Amity.

Suzuki says that the first single on Amity, “Forever Love,” released in August 2004, “was essentially an independent release, so there was perhaps initial apprehension (within the industry) about what its quality might be, but I wrote the lyrics with all my feelings at the moment and people responded well to that.”

Speaking of this time, Suzuki is thankful for the encouragement of her famously dedicated fans.

“My acting on impulse and will to succeed was something they wanted to support,” she says.

Suzuki finally got her chance to return to the big time when Japan’s largest independent label, Avex, announced on Dec. 30 2004 that it had signed her.

“I wanted to make sure that both sides understood the situation, how tough it had been. Avex did do that, and so I felt I could trust them,” she explains.

Despite three albums on Avex thus far, poor sales suggest that the public have yet to cotton on that she is back. This is something she aims to rectify with her TV drama, always a profile-rasier, and with “Supreme Show,” an album that reinvents her as a disco queen in the vein of Kylie Minogue.

“I was wondering what kind of music would fit me now,” she explains. “And as I searched, I realized that house and electro really fits me. I had been going to a lot of club events recently with DJ Nakataya, who is the producer for this CD. That scene attracts hardcore music fans, and I realized that working with this producer would be extremely cool and would transcend Japanese pop convention.”

While Suzuki’s previous Avex releases have been a mixture of dance tracks, pure pop and ballads, her latest doesn’t even separate the individual songs, playing as one continuous mix, like Madonna’s 2005 album “Confessions On a Dancefloor.” “Don’t stop the music!” exclaims Ami.

“I have made a lot of different styles of music in my career, and I want to be free to go with what I feel in my bones at the time. People may wonder which form is the one I enjoy the most, or which one fits me best, but at this time I can say with confidence that this electro style is great for me.”

She may be a reluctant role model, but Suzuki’s determination to be an artist on her own terms is a rare one in Japan. When young girls dream of being a star, they rarely know what they the Japanese entertainment industry holds in store. Yet despite all of her troubles, Suzuki still believes that following one’s dreams is ultimately the right thing to do, and she would encourage any aspiring girl to follow her footsteps.

“If she really wants to do this, if this is her dream, then it is worth it,” she says. “You can never lose your dream, and I think if you can make it come true when you are young, you should really go for it.”

“Supreme Show” is out now. “Love Letter” starts Nov. 24 and will be shown every weekday at 1 p.m. on TBS.