Eiji Uchida’s scabrous new comedy about the struggles of a down-and-out indie film director, “Lowlife Love” (“Gesu no Ai”), confirms what I have known for years: Japanese show business can be brutal to the weak or clueless. They end up used and discarded, like so many human Kleenexes.
In the film, which premiered at this year’s Rotterdam film festival, aspiring actresses face blatant harassment in the form of pawing hands or even straight-up requests for sexual favors in exchange for work. But Maya Okano’s heroine — who begins as a naive if talented student in the director’s bogus “acting school” — uses sex to pry open doors and climb to the top on her own terms. And she is not the only one. In interviews, Uchida says the film reflects the industry’s sordid reality, while quickly adding that he based the story on secondhand sources, not his own “low-life” experiences.
Are the industry’s heights any better? Recent headlines show that even top stars are under similar pressures to go along to get along, as well as facing the ever-present risk of their names disappearing into oblivion — like a used Kleenex tossed from a cliff.
Becky, the chirpy biracial TV personality who was a fixture on Japanese television for more than a decade, has been unceremoniously dumped from her variety show and commercial gigs following the revelation last month by the Shukan Bunshun tabloid that she was having an adulterous affair with rocker Enon Kawatani. About the same time the five-man pop ensemble SMAP performed an abject group apology on national television. Their sin: Four members had decided to split from their talent agency, Johnny & Associates, in solidarity with long-time manager Michi Iijima. Credited as the driver behind SMAP’s smashing success, Iijima reportedly had a falling-out with Johnny’s president Mary Kitajima and was planning to leave the agency, taking four SMAP members with her.
But bandmate and Johnny’s loyalist Takuya Kimura reportedly persuaded them to reconsider, leading to reconciliation with Mary and her older brother Johnny, the agency’s still-powerful 84-year-old founder. They then made their public mea culpa, ostensibly for worrying SMAP fans.
And if they hadn’t? Johnny’s could have labeled anyone who hired the rebels persona non grata and taken its other wildly popular boy bands elsewhere. Would the four SMAP guys have found themselves blacklisted like poor Becky? Or could they have succeeded on their own, striking a blow for pop idol independence? Now we’ll never know.
What is the connection to the movie business? Members of SMAP and its brother acts at Johnny’s include some of the biggest names in local films. Kimura is the star of the long-running “Hero” film series and TV drama, playing a convention-defying public prosecutor. The latest “Hero” movie was the third-highest-grossing Japanese film in 2015. Even Becky has acted, including a supporting role in the hit “Nodame Cantabile” TV series and 2009-2010 film duology.
In fact, the number of idols and TV personalities who also appear in films is large and growing, though their image — especially in the foreign media — is often that of agency puppets with no real ability foisted on a supine industry and gullible public. The truth is more complicated.
In contrast to Becky’s fall and SMAP’s surrender, certain idols and talents have adroitly used their agency connections to further their film careers, while winning fan popularity and critical kudos. One is Atsuko Maeda, who has become an in-demand actress since “graduating” (retiring) from the all-female idol group AKB48 in 2012. While still an AKB48 member, Maeda acted in everything from the group’s “story” videos and TV dramas to Jun Ichikawa’s high school drama “How to Become Myself” (“Ashita no Watashi no Tsukurikata”), her 2007 feature debut. When she finally left AKB48 — and relinquished the benefits of its industry clout — she had already polished her thespian skills. Maeda has since worked with some of Japan’s best contemporary directors, including Nobuhiro Yamashita, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Ryuichi Hiroki.
The ultimate idol-to-actor success story is that of Kyoko Koizumi. A top idol in the 1980s who sold millions of records, she segued smoothly into acting for TV and films and now, at age 50, owns a long list of awards and credits. Among them is a lead role in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s dysfunctional family drama “Tokyo Sonata,” jury prize winner in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2008 Cannes film festival.
The latest issue of Mekuru magazine features a 90-page special on Koizumi, and at the time of writing is currently the best-seller on Amazon Japan — an indication of her enduring popularity. One interview for the section is with Ikuo Suho, the 75-year-old president of Koizumi’s talent agency, Burning Productions. Widely known — and feared — as the Japanese entertainment industry’s “don” or godfather, Suho has connections that are said to extend from high political circles to the underworld.
In the interview, Suho recalls how he encouraged TV director and producer Teruhiko Kuze to mentor the teenage Koizumi, but then became enraged on learning that Kuze was finding roles for his protege behind his back. “Kuze and I fought a number of times about that,” he says. But Koizumi herself was violating the same industry rule that got the SMAP foursome into so much trouble decades later: Never make a big career move without consulting the agency boss.
She emerged unscathed, however. Her tender age may have been one factor, another may have been Suho’s affection for her. In any case, her skill at getting her way, evident even then, has only sharpened over the years.
The actress heroine of “Lowlife Love” survives and thrives because she also understands the game and plays it coolly, smartly and relentlessly. It’s not pretty but it works. For all those folks aiming to be the next SMAP, Becky or — Lord help them — indie darling, the film ought to be required viewing.