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Sakai’s twin personalities were falling apart before bust

by Philip Brasor

The advice column in the Aug. 1 Asahi Shimbun ran a letter from a 30-year-old woman who despaired over her obsession with male idols, wondering if it was the reason she didn’t have a boyfriend. The guest adviser was University of Tokyo Professor Chizuko Ueno, who told her to relax. She’d survived 30 years without a boyfriend, she could survive another 30 without one. And having a thing for idols is normal, as long as you understand they’re “illusions.” If you ever met one you’d probably be disappointed. The nice thing about idols is that when you get tired of one you can exchange him for another. Boyfriends are more difficult to discard.

Ueno’s advice was tongue-in-cheek, but her paradigm of the idol-fan relationship is worth keeping in mind when discussing the media circus surrounding singer-actress Noriko Sakai, who last week turned herself in to police after almost a week on the run for possession of illegal drugs. A number of celebrities have recently been busted for drugs, and while those arrests were covered by the tabloid press, they were nothing compared to Sakai’s story, which even made the front pages of the national dailies.

Sakai is repeatedly referred to as the “last seijun idol,” and thus her carefully maintained image as a “pure and innocent” girl has been shattered by her reported admission to smoking methamphetamine with her husband. The allegation, in fact, was almost impossible for people to believe at first. Sakai’s husband, Yuichi Takaso, was stopped on the street in Tokyo on Aug. 3 and found to have speed on his person. Sakai was waiting in a car nearby and when she showed up the police asked her to stop by the police station and submit to a urine test. She disappeared for almost a week, during which the media placed all the blame on her spouse, a bogus “pro surfer” who they claimed wanted to pull his wife down with him.

But when police searched Sakai’s Tokyo apartment and found drug residue and paraphernalia, the media had to change tack. They still characterized Takaso as a spoiled slacker, a botchan (child from well-to-do family) who couldn’t make it on his own and therefore depended on his wife’s livelihood, but it was getting difficult to defend Sakai as his victim. When evidence came to light that Sakai sported tattoos and DJed at “raves” patronized by what one commentator called “drug addicts,” people felt betrayed.

Or, at least, TV people did. Fellow showbiz personalities said they could never look at Sakai the same way again, which sounds disingenuous if not downright naive. They know better than anyone how the celebrity-making machine works, and regardless of their views on drugs, tattoos, or electronic dance music, they surely understood that Sakai’s image is as phony as Taro Aso’s smile. And it’s not as if the media didn’t know this, either. The show biz press has as much interest in maintaining a star’s image as the star does. It’s hardly a secret that Sakai came from a broken home — many idols do, since, traditionally at least, “respectable” families don’t allow their children to go into show business, which everybody knows is a meat market.

Sakai was born in Fukuoka in 1971. She was 4 when her mother died, and for the next decade, her father, a member of the criminal underworld and now deceased, handed her off to various relatives in the Kanto region and Kyushu. In 1985, she entered a beauty contest and was spotted by a representative of the Sun Music talent agency, who thought she was cute and signed her. The following year, the 15-year-old moved to Tokyo and started living in the house of Sun Music’s president.

Sakai grew up listening to the first really big seijun idol, Seiko Matsuda, and she adopted the same hairstyle and bubbly manner. But Sun didn’t seem to know what to do with her and she debuted not as a singer, which is the usual route, but as an actress in a TV drama. By the late 1980s she was releasing singles, but seijun idols had already become old hat and it wasn’t until her third that she scored a modest hit, which was enough to boost her virginal image. She devised an infantile manner of speech to use in public appearances, which gave rise to her nickname, Nori-P. In 1999 her fame spread to Taiwan, Hong Kong and even China.

Except for her 1995 song “Aoi Usagi” (“Blue Rabbit”), none of her singles were considered smash hits, but she was a ubiquitous TV presence, and her kokuminteki idol (idol for the populace) image was perfect for PR campaigns. The police even hired her to do an antidrug spot.

No idol can maintain her image indefinitely, and it was her marriage to Takaso in 1998 that signaled the end, not because Sakai decided to retire, as most idols do, but because, as former Sony Records producer Masatoshi Sakai (no relation) said, once a star gets married, her agency loses control over her life. Actually, what he should have said is that once a star becomes pregnant her agency loses control, since Sakai was already with child when she married Takaso.

Sun made the best of this situation and started selling her as a mama-doru (mama idol), but by the mid-’00s she was running on fumes, figuratively and maybe literally, too. Like all idols who try to stretch their career past 30, she seemed desperate and ill-used. Journalist Shuntaro Torigoe speculated that she may have “turned to drugs” because she still had to switch on her cutesy demeanor for the public. On one wide show, a former prosecutor conjectured that she had finally realized the “gap” between her image and her real self.

Why does it take a drug bust for people to tell it like it is? If Takaso is only a pro surfer in his mind, what does that make Nori-P, who plays up an image that has nothing to do with reality and which she only assumes because advertisers pay for it? You’d have to be stoned to think you could get away with it forever.