STAR SEARCH STILL ABOUT GETTING BIGSHOTS' ATTENTION

Show biz exploits ‘volunteerism’ image in packaging of latest teen idol

by Hidetsugu Enami

Kyodo News

In March, Rina Suzuki, 16, known as Japan’s first “volunteer idol,” was among those reminding spectators not to forget to vote in the Yokohama mayoral election at a preseason baseball game at Yokohama Stadium.

“Her smiling face is nice, isn’t it?” said Akihiko Takaishi, 31, who videotaped her.

Takaishi isn’t just a baseball fan with an eye for pretty girls, however. He is a producer for The Works Co., a TV production company that creates variety shows and dramas. His company’s latest show is a first — a program about a “volunteer teen idol.”

In real life, Suzuki is a Tokyo high school junior who plays trombone and dreams of becoming an actress.

For Takaishi, something clicked from the first time he saw her at an audition in Tokyo last fall. “There were about 13,000 people taking part in the audition, but I sensed a healing quality only in her face,” he said.

Having caught the producer’s eye, the next step was planning Suzuki’s show business debut.

Takaishi decided to cast her for “Buresuto” (“Brainstorming”), a TV program distributed free on the Internet TV channel itv24, on which the producer himself appears.

The show opens a door on the creative process of Takaishi, a novelist, copywriter, editor and reporter.

“While we were discussing how to plan her debut, the word ‘healing’ came up. We decided the ultimate healing could be (a show about) volunteer activities. We came up with a show about a teen idol doing volunteer activities,” Takaishi said.

While Suzuki was surprised and reluctant at first, the project to transform her into a “volunteer idol” got under way last October.

Since then, she has done a number of volunteer activities, including picking up garbage on beaches and helping out with trade shows sponsored by local governments.

Her efforts appear to be paying off, with firms taking an interest in her activities. Takaishi’s company has tied up with a number of firms doing volunteer work, and a clothing manufacturer has even outfitted Suzuki with a “volunteer idol uniform.”

But for the aspiring entertainer, it’s not strictly about philanthropy. She made her debut as a singer in April.

“Until the 1960s, the songs came first, and singers who were suited to the songs were mostly used,” said Tatsuo Inamasu, 54, a professor at Hosei University in Tokyo and the author of the book “Aidoru Kogaku” (“Idol Engineering”).

“But since 1971, when Saori Minami and Mari Amachi made their debuts, priority has been given to the personalities of idols.”

Starting in the ’70s, the key to creating a star was making use of the power of TV programs. Pop music shows “Birth of Stars,” “Let’s Go Young” and “Hit Studio at Night” were all launchpads for future teen idols.

The girls who won those TV singing contests were shaped for maximum appeal to the opposite sex under a comprehensive marketing strategy that covered not only the songs they sang, but their choreography on stage, clothing and hairstyles.

This teen idol consumer package was well-suited to the early 1970s, when many young people had begun to seek a respite from political violence and turbulent student movements, and turned to fictitious idols.

The first half of the 1980s, when Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori debuted, is considered the golden age for female teen idols.

The number of male idols also grew, but the phenomenon peaked around 1985, when the entertainment industry’s idol-creating machine became increasingly transparent, leaving people disillusioned. Nevertheless, the industry continued to churn out new celebrities, including SMAP, a wildly popular male singing group signed by Johnny & Associates.

Since then, the teen idol industry has fragmented, with several subgenres appearing. “Variety idols,” for example, specialize in appearances on variety shows. “Photogravure idols” appear in magazine photo spreads and “Net idols” have burst onto the Web.

Compared to the 1980s, the entertainment business has tried to have its idols appeal to both sexes in recent years, and it has had some success with pop singers, including Namie Amuro, and the group Morning Musume, Inamasu said.

But Takaishi, who grew up in the idol glory days, deplores today’s trend, saying, “Anybody can become an idol, but there are no real idols.”

For him, a real idol is someone “like Seiko Matsuda, who is popular nationally and an energy source that makes you smile naturally even if you’re down, just by looking at her.”