Film

Is the feudal era over for Japan’s talent agencies?

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Japanese show business definitely has a feudal side. Talent agencies control their tarento (talent) much in the way the daimyō (feudal lords) controlled the samurai in their clans, supporting their livelihoods in return for absolute fealty. And just as samurai were expected to stay with one clan their entire lives, talents typically find it hard — if not impossible — to leave their agencies.

This unequal relationship, observes veteran entertainment reporter Harumi Nakayama, is deep in the DNA of the entertainment industry.

“It’s always been like a factory,” she says. “It doesn’t nurture talents as individual artists. Instead, they’re interchangeable. In Japan you can make your professional debut just by being cute.”

But to raise aspiring singers, actors and comics from nothing (including no perceptible talent) requires investments of time and money — and agencies feel entitled to a return. Making said talents the face of an ad campaign is the preferred way to earn money since ad agencies pay well compared to the relatively stingy TV and film companies.

“If your professional life depends on earning money from TV commercials your image is important,” Nakayama says. “So if you’re an actor that means you can’t freely choose your roles.” Instead, the agency chooses them for you, whether you like them or not.

Agencies commonly impose other restrictions to keep images unsullied — and profitable. Johnny & Associates, an agency known for its popular boy bands, long forbade the use of Johnny’s talent photos on the internet. The reasoning: If fans could get photos free online they would be less likely to buy official shots.

Meanwhile, members of idol-pop groups are subject to strict rules against consorting with the opposite sex. In January 2013, Minami Minegishi, a member of the mega-group AKB48, was demoted to “trainee” following a tabloid report that she had spent a night at a man’s apartment. In response she shaved her head and posted a tear-filled message of contrition on YouTube.

Recently, cracks have appeared in agency castle walls. At the end of 2016, following a long-running dispute with Johnny’s senior management, three members of SMAP, a pop group omnipresent on Japanese TV for two decades, went independent. Goro Inagaki, Shingo Katori and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi have since moved to a new agency, Culen, started by their former Johnny’s manager, Michi Iijima, and forged new web-centric careers.

Even more dramatic was the protest mounted by Takeshi Gundan (Takeshi’s Army), disciples of famed comedian and director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. On April 1, four of this Army’s members posted a joint statement on their blogs criticizing Masayuki Mori, the president of their agency, Office Kitano, for his management style and blaming him for Kitano’s departure from the talent shop he had co-founded with Mori in 1988.

In mid-March, Mori had told a sports newspaper that Kitano would go independent at the end of the month, explaining that he wanted to “lay down the burdens he has been carrying, including the Army.”

The Army statement, however, claimed that Mori had gone behind Kitano’s back to buy a majority share of Office Kitano stock while giving himself and other executives generous salaries without shareholder approval.

Learning of these moves, the statement added, Kitano had asked Mori to distribute his shares to Army members and restructure the company but, when Mori was slow to act, Kitano decided to leave. Soon after this statement appeared, Mori defended himself against its accusations in Shukan Shincho magazine.

The big surprise of this entire affair was less Kitano’s exit — at age 71 he was understandably eager to reduce the insane workload he had been carrying for decades — than the Army’s public revolt. It was as if rank-and-file samurai had drawn their swords against the chief advisor of their retired lord.

Since then, the Army has moved to sort out their differences with Mori and their representatives reportedly met with him on April 9. Nakayama says this was their only option. “Army members can’t make it as individuals,” she says.

In an April 6 column for the Shukan Post magazine, Kitano wrote that: “I’d been working like crazy past the age of 70 to feed a bunch of guys who were just playing and not working hard. Given that situation, you can’t say it’s a healthy organization.”

However, even in-demand talents are likely to struggle after leaving their agencies. When Rena Nonen, the perky star of the popular 2013 drama series “Amachan,” parted on acrimonious terms from her agency, LesPros Entertainment, in 2015 she found TV network and ad agency doors closed.

“They were afraid of the agency,” Nakayama says.

Though Nonen made a comeback voicing the main role in the 2016 hit animation “In This Corner of the World,” she still had to contend with the agency’s claim she had violated her contract — a claim that ended up in Tokyo District Court. She also had to change her professional name — she now goes by “Non” — since LesPros contended she could not use her old one without their permission. That it also happened to be her real name made no difference.

“How in the hell can these companies put so many rules onto people like slaves?” asks Adam Torel, an independent British film producer based in Tokyo. “In the case of many large agencies, talents are lucky to get 10 percent of payments,” he continues. “They treat (talents) like dirt and make them work till near-death with no rights. They make them sign contracts that ban them from working a year or more after leaving. You’d think movements like #MeToo would give actors, directors and idols empowerment, but they’re just too scared to speak out. None of them have freedom.”

Japan’s actual feudal era ended with the arrival of Admiral Matthew C. Perry’s black ships in Uraga Harbor in 1853. Torel believes something similar may happen to its insular entertainment industry.

“People who work for these companies are starting to realize they have rights and can speak out or leave if pushed,” he says.