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Former SMAP stars find freedom online

by

Contributing Writer

When a wrecking ball fell on and destroyed a car, I was hooked on a 72-hour live stream starring three former members of pop group SMAP.

Airing last weekend on the online streaming site AbemaTV, this program found Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori engaging in a hodge-podge of activities over the course of three days. They sang karaoke, worked at a McDonald’s, played games — and caused vehicular damage the likes the pop music world hasn’t seen since the extended version of Michael Jackson’s music video for “Black or White.”

Besides stretching AbemaTV’s budget to the max, the live stream served as a re-introduction to the trio about a year after SMAP’s dramatic breakup (the J-pop equivalent of dropping a steel beam through a limo). The three used the spectacle as a way to re-invent themselves as idols for the digital age — appearing to have a blast in the process — and hint at new paths that Japanese entertainment could take in the future.

The three ex-SMAPers laid relatively low for most of 2017, but this September launched a website promoting something called Atarashii Chizu — Japanese for “new map,” which, when taken alongside a compass-rose logo, lead people to the name “new SMAP.” The 72-hour extravaganza cemented just what that is. It’s not a group like SMAP (stressed on the broadcast), but more like a collective built around solo endeavors.

These solo outings revolve around social media. Each performer has embraced a new digital role — Katori is an Instagrammer, Inagaki is a blogger and Kusanagi is a YouTuber (his initial creations are as good as any other uploads from Japan, a testament to his skill or how cliche Japanese YouTube can be). Large chunks of the live stream found the members learning about their new crafts from younger influencers.

That sounds boring, but the three entertainer’s joy at being able to do whatever they wanted made it compelling. For decades, they were tightly controlled by talent agency Johnny & Associates, an organization that shuns the internet almost entirely.

Now free from that protocol, they seem giddy to the point of posting too much on their preferred social platforms. They can even throw shade at their former overlords — part of the live stream revolved around a fake wedding between Inagaki and a “regular person” (read: Abema employee), a poke at the agency’s control of their private lives.

The live stream wasn’t totally boundary-busting — it often felt like a less-organized variety show (albeit with little music, their weakest field). And it remains to be seen if this marks some greater shift toward independence in Japanese entertainment or is just three already-huge stars taking advantage of their status. But it was fun — far more than most programming — and that was because of the freedom presented over 72 hours. Here’s hoping they keep going their own way — and obliterate more cars in the process.