The Olympics have always been popular in Japan, and this year’s games in Rio de Janeiro were no exception. While NHK was broadcasting the games in the early hours of Aug. 14, a breaking news message flashed across the screen: “SMAP to disband Dec. 31.”
It wasn’t a complete surprise. The five-member group made up of Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori had reportedly considered a breakup earlier in the year, but were brought back from the brink of dissolution and marched out on television to apologize to fans for the confusion. Those same fans are currently holding their breath hoping something similar happens this time around, but things don’t look good. The group released a greatest hits album, “SMAP 25 Years” on Dec. 21, and its flagship TV show, “SMAP×SMAP,” is set to air its final episode on Dec. 26. And, according to an announcement by the group last week, SMAP will not appear on NHK’s end-of-year TV music spectacle “Kohaku Uta Gassen.”
Maybe it’s a good thing. My non-Japanese friends have never really liked SMAP. My Japanese friends aren’t big fans either, but I’ll still hear “Sekai ni Hitotsu dake no Hana” at karaoke from time to time — a pretty good feat seeing as though most of the people I hang out with like punk. But that song, rendered in English as “The Only Flower in the World,” was released in 2003 and is the country’s third best-selling single of all time, with more than 3 million copies sold. It has been pretty much unavoidable and as such it can trigger some pretty heavy nostalgia.
I get the impression that pop groups overseas tend to fizzle out faster than they do in Japan — the original Spice Girls lineup lasted six years, One Direction lasted six before going on hiatus, even the Beatles only lasted about a decade. SMAP announced its disbandment 25 years after its CD debut. That’s an entire generation born and raised with SMAP in their lives. Tracks such as “Stay” and “Lion Heart” may have kept fans interested, but where SMAP really made an impact was mostly in the world of tarento, TV personalities who specialize in more than one genre of entertainment.
The members of SMAP have been singers, comedians, actors and even chefs — sometimes all of the above on “SMAP×SMAP.” The program, which aired Monday nights on Fuji TV, has welcomed everyone from Lady Gaga (2011) and David Beckham (2004) to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (2010). One episode in 2006 featured Michael Jackson in his first-ever appearance on a Japanese variety show.
“The music programs of the 1980s fell sharply at the end of the idol boom (of the same time),” wrote entertainment columnist Takashi Kimura for Mynavi News in January. “When the 1990s began, almost all the programs that featured both male and female idols had disappeared.”
It was during this small cultural shift that SMAP was formed. Johnny Kitagawa founded the talent agency Johnny & Associates in 1962, scoring hits with musician Masahiko Kondo and pop group Hikaru Genji. In 1988, he formed SMAP, which stands for Sports Music Assemble People. Its six members made their public debut in 1991. One of those members, Katsuyuki Mori, left the group in 1996 to pursue a career in auto racing.
While the idols that had ruled the music scene following World War II were finding it difficult to maintain prominence in the industry, Kitagawa pushed SMAP to branch out by performing comedy skits. It was a successful strategy, the group initially gained popularity with a sketch titled “Otomasu-kun,” a parody of popular anime “Osomatsu-kun,” which aired on Fuji TV’s midnight entertainment show “Yume ga Morimori” in the early 1990s. From then it seemed like SMAP became Kitagawa’s main money-maker. Former Hikaru Genji member Mikio Osawa recently told the Asahi Shimbun that his group wasn’t allowed to appear on the same variety shows SMAP was.
“I would have loved to perform comedy sketches,” he said, before adding that Johnny’s has since altered that policy.
“SMAP×SMAP” debuted in 1996. From 1998 to 2002, members Nakai and Katori also starred in “SataSma,” a program aimed at families. One sketch on the show involved Katori dressing as a housewife named Shingo Mama and showing up at people’s homes to take care of the kids while Mom got a well-deserved break. The sketch, titled “Shingo Mama no Kossori Asagohan” (“Shingo Mama’s Secret Breakfast”) was successful in grabbing a yet-to-be-tapped younger fan base who adopted Shingo Mama’s catchphrase “oh-ha” (“good morning”) and spread it to almost every school in the country.
There was a SMAP member for every type of person: Katori was the younger funny one, Nakai was the leader, Kusanagi was international because he liked Korean culture and Goro had the looks. But Kimura, known affectionately as “KimuTaku” by the rest of Japan, was the star.
Kimura’s TV and film roles played a major part in increasing SMAP’s popularity. His 1996 television drama “Long Vacation” was immensely popular, as were “Love Generation” (1997) and “Hero” (2001). When it aired, “Hero” scored huge ratings, and it went on to spawn sequels in the form of specials and feature films. Explaining who Kimura was to people from overseas, I’d often hear my friends call him the “Japanese Brad Pitt.”
Nakai eventually caught up to Kimura. His role in the 2008 film “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai” (“I’d Rather Be a Shellfish”) won him a Nikkan Sports Film Award for his performance. Eventually almost every drama, commercial and variety show featured one of the SMAP members. Instead of suffering from overexposure, the Japanese audience saw their presence as reassuring.
Where SMAP was most pioneering, though, was in the way variety shows were presented. The group’s success paved the way for other idol acts to branch out from music — Tokio, Arashi and Kanjani 8 all star in multiple programs. Arashi’s Kazunari Ninomiya is even giving KimuTaku a run for his money in the film department after landing a role in the 2006 Oscar-nominated film “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
Arashi is well-positioned to take over SMAP’s dominant role in mainstream Japanese culture, but die-hard fans aren’t giving up. In late September an Osaka-based office worker began a campaign to collect signatures begging the group to reverse its decision to disband. It was reported that more than 373,000 people had signed in support. Johnny & Associates accepted the petition on Dec. 11 and, according to Kyodo News, issued a response stating it “will convey, without fail, your wishes to the members.”
In the response, the agency also said it had tried to change the members’ minds about disbanding, proposing a “direction for the group’s future activities so it can continue to exist.”
“But we failed to break their determination and made an agonizing decision to accept the fact that the group’s continued existence is difficult,” it said.
Fans continue to cling to the hope that this isn’t the end. Some people may roll their eyes when they read that news but, despite any criticism, the final “SMAP×SMAP” is bound to be a big moment in Japanese pop music history. We don’t know what will happen on the show (which was taped in advance), or what’s in store for the five members in the future (I mean, Spice Girls kind of reunited), but we do know that we’ve definitely reached the end of an era.
“SMAP×SMAP SP” will air from 6:30 p.m. to 11:18 p.m. on Fuji TV on Dec. 26. For more information, visit www.fujitv.co.jp/smapsmap.