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Kimutaku — enduring heartthrob

Female fans put SMAP celeb on highest pedestal of popularity for 15th straight year

by Minoru Matsutani

Of Japanese male celebrities, actors Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai” and Masi Oka of “Heroes” are among the better-known overseas. But domestically, no one beats Takuya Kimura.

Foreigners living in Japan who follow the entertainment scene undoubtedly recognize the singer-actor who goes by the nickname Kimutaku.

Kimutaku has become an absolute super idol. Debuting in 1988 as a member of SMAP, the male pop group managed by Johnny’s Office Co., the handsome heartthrob ever-present on television rose to stardom quickly. In 1993, at age 20, women chose him as the most popular man among celebrities in Japan.

This year, at age 35, he still holds that status. In the Sept. 24 issue of the popular female weekly magazine anan published by Magazine House Ltd., Kimutaku was chosen as the readers’ favorite male celebrity — for the 15th consecutive year.

The magazine, which sells around 260,000 copies a week according to the Japan Magazine Publishers Association, mainly targets females from their late teens to 30s. The popular lifestyle magazine’s annual survey asks readers who they think are the most admirable and least favorite male celebrities in the entertainment scene.

According to Magazine House, the survey was carried out over three weeks in July. The magazine asked readers to send back either the postcard questionnaire attached to its July 2 issue or respond through its Web site before the July 23 deadline.

An anan editorial department official said it received 17,457 responses but declined to give their demographic breakdown.

In its Sept. 24 issue, bearing Kimura’s photo on the cover, the magazine carried comments from readers who count themselves as fans. One by a 28-year-old woman reads: “He is getting more attractive and sexier as he grows old. I don’t think we will see a star like him for a while.” A 31-year-old respondent added: “Everybody admits he is a top star, but he is humble and always tries his best. I admire his way of living.”

No one can deny Kimura’s appeal, or his achievements.

Numerous songs by the five-man SMAP have topped the J-Pop charts, including the 2003 hit “Sekai ni Hitotsu dakeno Hana” (“The Only One Flower in the World”).

Kimura’s acting has further enhanced his reputation. Most of the TV dramas he has starred in have enjoyed amazingly high ratings, exceeding 30 percent, according to Video Research Ltd.

2003′s “Beautiful Life,” in which Kimutaku plays a hair stylist who falls in love with a librarian in a wheelchair, enjoyed an astonishing 41.3 percent viewer rating.

Critics applaud Kimutaku for his talent. Kathleen Morikawa (aka Wilhelmina Penn), who authored “The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan: Inside the World of Japanese TV,” said the high ratings were not just the result of Kimura’s inherent appeal to fans but also his ability to choose good scripts.

The Pittsburgh native, who has lived in Japan for the past 35 years, also observed that Kimutaku is careful about his presentation. He only clowns around on his own show, the hourlong “SMAP × SMAP,” which airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on Fuji TV, allowing him certain control over what goes on. He does not appear on other silly variety shows like the rest of SMAP, she noted.

“It is a combination of all his talents and charm and the fact that he has been discerning in his choices and worked hard to maintain his integrity by refusing to appear in silly and mediocre shows,” she said.

Cartoonist Mayumi Kurata, known for her keen observations of men and her work “Damen’s Walker,” which features women stuck with unfavorable men, is also fascinated by Kimutaku, hailing him for his great name recognition. “Damen” is a combination of the negative Japanese adjective “dame-na” and the English word “men.”

“With so many TV dramas and high commercial exposure, Kimutaku is known by everyone from children to people in their 70s,” Kurata said.

“The (anan) ranking shows his fans have been behind him for the past 15 years. That is really amazing,” she said, suggesting many of the same survey respondents have been voting for him year after year.

Teenagers may prefer Jin Akanishi, 24, a member of KAT-TUN, another Johnny’s Office group, she said. In fact, Akanishi was ranked third in the survey, after Kimura and singer Masaharu Fukuyama, 39, who has been runnerup for a decade.

Despite Kimutaku’s undeniable popularity, however, there are critics, including renowned entertainment reporter Masaru Nashimoto, who doubt the anan ranking.

Observing celebrities for more than 30 years, Nashimoto believes Kimutaku’s career has peaked and questions his 15-year uninterrupted run at the top.

“Kimutaku is at a turning point as a celebrity,” he said. “It does not make sense he still reigns as No. 1.”

Magazine House “needs to make its research methods transparent,” he said.

Nashimoto even slammed SMAP, saying the group is also past its prime.

He admitted, however, that the group still remains highly popular and will probably not break up as many others do when they start to decline.

Whatever people may say, Kimutaku remained humble when he reacted to the annual magazine survey, which gave him full support.

“I appreciate being chosen as well as nominated,” he said. “It’s as if I was given priceless gasoline, and I feel I have responsibility to use it effectively.”