Torrents of water gush down the towering rocky mountain on the stage of Tokyo’s Imperial Theater as samurai warriors cross swords with their foes under heavy rain in a scene depicting the famous revenge of the Ako Roshi (47 Ronin).
In other scenes, 66 young boys play shamisen in perfect unison, and other boys fly over the stage while holding colorful long strips of cloth that hang from the ceiling.
“Johnny’s World” is a new entertainment show created by Johnny Kitagawa, the seclusive and influential producer who built an empire of idol groups such as Shonen-tai and SMAP.
The show celebrates Kitagawa’s accomplishments in the entertainment business, recognized three times by Guinness World Records. The 81-year-old president of Johnny & Associates holds world records for producing 232 No. 1 singles between 1974 and 2010, putting on 8,419 shows between 2000 and 2010, and producing 35 acts as of last September that have had at least one No. 1 song.
“For me, show business is excitement and pleasure,” Kitagawa says. “It’s a joy to encourage young people to develop their talent, just like you would with your own children.”
“Johnny’s World,” scheduled to run at the theater through this Sunday, follows the journey of a young boy and a producer who set out to find a whole new world of happiness.
Led by members of the groups Hey! Say! JUMP, A.B.C-Z and Sexy Zone, 180 performers from as young as 8 years old portray scenes from the 12 months of the year with singing, acrobatic dancing, midair stunts and all kinds of other stunts dreamed up by Kitagawa.
“The most amazing scene is the waterfall with all the fighting,” said Alistair Richards, managing director of Guinness World Records. “You wonder how in the world you can do that on the stage. But one memory that will stay with me more than anything else is sitting in the audience with hundreds of happy and enthusiastic girls who ‘Ohh’ and ‘Ahh’ every time the boys do something dramatic.”
The show is filled with elements of Japanese culture, including scenes with cherry blossoms in full bloom, boys playing shamisen and “taiko” drums, and episodes involving legendary heroes such as Minamonoto no Yoshitsune and Oishi Kuranosuke.
“I hoped that the young audience here would turn their eyes to their own culture, which is actually adored by people from other places in the world,” Kitagawa says. “The splashing water on stage is not just a spectacle. It’s meant to remind them how Japanese people have faced and tried to overcome the devastating earthquake and tsunami disasters.”
As a teenager growing up in the United States, Kitagawa was fascinated by the excitement of live entertainment, which he eventually pursued as his career. It was the film version of “West Side Story” that inspired him to start his own entertainment business in Japan.
“In those days, Japanese boys were not expected to dance like the boys in that film,” he recalls. “Japan had succeeded in developing its own technologies to manufacture cameras, television sets and automobiles, but when I saw ‘West Side Story,’ I thought Japan lagged behind America in terms of show business.”
Since beginning with an idol group of four boys in 1962, Kitagawa has produced numerous groups and individual acts from Johnny’s Junior, a reserve of performers who dance and sing on stage behind his idol groups.
“What’s incredible about Johnny-san is that he keeps his eyes on each and every member of Johnny’s Junior and picks the right ones who can really make it big,” said Kento Nakajima, an 18-year-old member of Sexy Zone.
But Kitagawa maintains that he doesn’t really know whether his choices will become stars.
“I’m not God,” he says. “It’s not whether a boy has good looks that I keep in mind but his willingness to try new challenges.”
Kitagawa takes pride in his own way of creating new shows.
“I don’t want to imitate others,” he says. “I always do what I believe is good, and that’s the only way to make a great show. Today, our kids have become much faster at learning steps and stunts, and that inspires me with new ideas.”
And so the show goes on.