One of the more enduring TV formats is the Ano hito wa ima (Where are they now?) variety special, which tracks down celebrities of the past to find out what happened to them in the decades since they vanished from our collective consciousness. The hunt is more interesting than the capture, since the prey is usually living a typical middle-class existence with spouse and kids. The appeal is in seeing once-famous people brought down to “our” level, but most of the subjects were one-hit pop singers, child actors or someone who made a commercial that defined a certain year. In other words, their celebrity burns brighter in memory than it did in reality.
Some subjects have enjoyed second mini-careers through these specials, appearing on them repeatedly and telling the same stories of what their lives have been like since their respective heydays. Everybody knows where they are and what they’re doing, but the producers still contrive an air of mystery because viewers want that thrill of rediscovery, an indispensable component of nostalgia.
Rarely, however, are their careers fully reignited. A recent exception is Natsuki Okamoto, a relic of the 1980-’90s bubble era, when she was a “race queen” for the Nissin Cup Noodle auto racing team. Race queens are models who wear revealing attire while representing team sponsors at race tracks and promotional events. Okamoto helped popularize the “high-leg” look: bathing suits cut to reveal all the thigh and hip, sometimes even a bit of crotch.
High leg was the ultimate manifestation of the bodikon (body-conscious) trend that peaked during the go-go bubble years, and Okamoto rode it into the 1990s, where she became a fixture on variety shows. Unlike the typical “gravure idol” — women who pose for sexy photo collections — Okamoto conveyed a distinct personality, for what that’s worth. All sexy tarento were hired by variety show producers so that male comedians would have targets for their lust-based humor, but Okamoto discharged her duties with a higher sense of purpose and a greater sense of fun. Her machine-gun delivery and happy willingness to be the butt of a joke (figuratively and literally) guaranteed her more work than her peers.
In 1997, she was supposedly blacklisted by Fuji TV, ostensibly because of her terrible singing, though legend says she had some sexual dirt on Fuji staff. Whatever. She was gone by the turn of the century.
The difference between Okamoto and former celebrities rediscovered by TV is that Okamoto was the one who did the rediscovering. Her renaissance was her own doing, rather than being engineered by management or initiated by a particular TV program. Last year, she launched a blog, and though at a glance it looks no different from any other blog maintained by a has-been singer or actor, Okamoto approached it proactively. As she explained on NHK’s interview show “You-doki,” she wanted to find out if people still remembered her, and when it turned out they did, she made an effort to respond personally to each visitor who commented, first through emails and then face-to-face.
“I used to be vain,” she told the NHK interviewer in reference to her work in the ’90s. “Now I know I can’t do anything without people who support me. It’s why I exist.”
This would seem to go without saying: A novelist has no meaning without readers; an actor is nothing without an audience. But Okamoto’s status as a public figure is based on … her figure, and she knows it. She professed to being shocked when visitors to her blog said they remembered things she said on TV more than 10 years ago, since she didn’t remember them herself. But the reason they remembered is because of the impression she made with her “high-leg bodikon look.” “I actually had an effect on them,” she said.
It’s easy to make too much of the attention, but regardless of Okamoto’s reasons she is up front about her lack of conventional talent. Whatever success she has enjoyed is based on her ability to sell herself. The difference is that the first time she sold herself directly to the media, and now she sells herself directly to the public, and the public has responded positively.
“There were people who hated me (in the ’90s) because of the bodikon image,” she told NHK, “but now those same people like me, even though I haven’t changed at all.” She makes an effort to hold regular meetings in restaurants or bars with frequent visitors to her blog, and these events, which promise access to a star (even a nominally washed-up one), have had a cumulative effect in the past year. She’s recovered thousands of fans, and TV has noticed. She’s already appeared on several variety shows.
As reported in several weekly magazines, one of the reasons Okamoto could invest so much in her rebirth is that she had nothing better to do. Unlike many of the subjects on the “Where are they now?” specials, she did not marry or raise a family. She owned a few apartments and derived an income from renting them out — not a huge income, but enough to allow her, in her own words, to “sleep a lot” and keep her figure looking good. Presumably, she was always planning a comeback, and the Internet provided her with a means to that end.
Television producers are only interested in Okamoto because of her comeback story, which is all the more remarkable since it didn’t involve them or a management company. She represents herself completely, and that just isn’t the way Japanese show biz works. But once this novelty wears off, she may fade as quickly as she reappeared.
In fact, she seems acutely aware of this possibility. Her philosophy has become “live for the moment,” and she is as surprised as anyone that she would be asked to appear on stodgy old NHK. That would never have happened back in the day, which says more about NHK than it does about Okamoto.