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Young at heart, but never free of Johnny

by Philip Brasor

On Aug. 30, former idol singer and tell-all autobiographer Hiromi Go staged an unannounced live show from the back of a tractor trailer parked near the Hachiko intersection in Shibuya. The five-minute performance, which featured four other dancers, stopped traffic and clogged up the area as pedestrians rushed to catch a glimpse of Go’s hairless, flabless torso.

The police, however, were not entertained and have since raided several show-biz companies to determine whether or not laws were broken and someone should be punished.

Pretty reckless stuff, especially for a singer who once epitomized the nice-boy idol image that the mavens of J-pop have hoisted on the Japanese public over the last three decades. No one in show business pulls a stunt like that without a good reason and at least some guarantee of a beneficial return in the long run. What did Go accomplish with his high-wire act? He showed everybody that, at 43, he’s still got the stuff of idols, if maybe not the manners.

Moving beyond the confines of idoldom is pretty difficult, which is why most former teen singers either quit or settle for a significantly downgraded career. If they’re lucky they can get jobs as washed-up talent, meaning singers or actors whose careers ended a long time ago but who become active as guests on variety shows because they were once famous.

Go is one of the more successful alumni of Johnnys Jimusho, the famous talent agency and charm school that has been responsible for practically every male teen star since the late ’60s. As far as I know, he is no longer connected to the agency, but he still performs like a Johnnys act, meaning when he’s on stage he’s preternaturally cheerful and energetic. And he hasn’t lost that nasal whine of a voice. The boy-man can’t help it.

He also knows he has to maintain a certain look, which is why he’s been careful to remain skinny and wax his chest. Johnnys’ genius is in understanding what Japanese girls look for in a boy, which, according to social critic Chikako Ogura, is someone who is the total opposite of their fathers. Japanese teenage girls don’t want anybody who smells, sweats, puts on weight or grows hair anywhere but on his head. In fact, the more feminine the better.

This makes it difficult for Johnnys charges to grow up, though some have managed to give the appearance of doing so. Recently, we’ve had SMAP-man Takuya Kimura dancing and gulping in whiskey commercials. Tsuyoshi Domoto, one half of the Kinki Kids, occasionally appears on late-night variety shows making risque jokes as if he were a 50-year-old salaryman.

They can’t do anything without Johnnys’ permission, so we’ll assume that any ostensibly adult behavior has been sanctioned. In any event, there are always new idols ready in the wings. They’re called Johnnys’ Junior, and every week they are on display on a variety show called “Hachi-ji da J” (Asahi, Wednesdays at 8 p.m.).

The program contains the usual mix of brainless variety show components — quizzes, comedy skits, funny conversations with guests. But it also offers one regular feature that is almost subversive in the way it spreads the Gospel according to Johnnys.

Every week, two of the Juniors travel to a hot-spring community and teach a team of five middle-aged men from the area to dance in unison to a Johnnys’ Junior song. The team then goes to the studio and competes against the team that won the dance contest the week before.

The hot-spring connection is a brilliant idea because it makes it easy to get volunteers. The domestic travel industry is hurting right now, and when the Juniors go to the hot spring to teach the oldsters their steps, they provide the resort and its attendant businesses with invaluable publicity.

It also gives the folks at Johnnys a chance to see which kids have the stuff to be future Kimutakus and Domotos. The boys who travel to the hot spring, some of whom look no older than 11, have to do the same things that all TV talent do on travel shows — eat food, interview the natives, visit the local attractions, comment on the hospitality, crack jokes.

The dancing, in fact, is beside the point since it doesn’t last more than a minute. The point is to bring the mountain to Mohammed, as it were. As Go’s career dilemma illustrates, Johnnys charges have a hard time adapting to the greater freedom and individuality of adulthood, so instead of trying to change themselves, they’ll change adulthood. The basic premise of the “onsen oyaji” contests is to show that everyone, no matter how old, how fat, how hairy, is at heart a Johnnys idol.

It’s important to remember that while Japan is aging rather rapidly, the country’s cultural mean age is constantly dropping. Everything is aimed at kids, and any adult in show business who acts his or her age gets left out. That’s why you see actresses in their 50s and 60s sporting chopped, garishly dyed hairstyles. The comedy duo the Tunnels, who are closing in on 40, hire a chorus line of hip-hopping boys as backup and take it on the road. Considering how much the Tunnels’ Nozaru revue looks like a V6 show, it’s surprising that Johnnys doesn’t sue for copyright infringement.

Hiromi Go certainly noticed this trend and saw an opportunity to reignite his career. He chose Shibuya for his impromptu show because that’s where the teenagers are. After all, he was there at the beginning; he has more of a right to cash in than do hypocrites like ’60s folk god Takuro Yoshida, whose own comeback was achieved on the back of Kinki Kids. All Go has to worry about is those damn police. It’s a bitch to be young at heart.