Film | Wide Angle

Japan to be given a lesson in idol pop with 'Produce 101 Japan'

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Last week, Japanese talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo and South Korea’s CJ E&M announced a new talent competition TV show for Japan, set to debut later this year. And it’s not just another program to fill up the back end of 2019, but will be a test case to see if the traditional power structures of male idol music in Japan can be shaken.

Produce 101 Japan” aims to bring the popular Korean program “Produce 101” to this country. The original debuted in 2016, gathering 101 women at various levels of the country’s entertainment industry together and getting them to compete for 11 spots in a new pop outfit.

The biggest twists setting this apart from other televised talent competitions? The fact that people from any talent agency in the nation could enter, and that viewers at home determined the winners by voting via smartphone and the internet.

If that sounds vaguely familiar to AKB48’s annual exercise in pop democracy, that’s because it is. While the folks behind the show denied any similarities, it only took two more seasons for MNET, the Korean TV channel making it, to hook up with the J-pop outfit to create “Produce 48.” The resulting group, called Izone (stylized as IZ*ONE and pronounced “eyes one”), has earned success in both countries.

It’s possible Izone’s impressive sales in Japan inspired “Produce 101” to get its own chance here, or maybe it’s the continued love of K-pop by younger listeners who might be drawn to a familiar name.

Whatever the reason, “Produce 101 Japan” will follow the same format as the Korean version’s second season, which focused on creating an idol group from 101 men. It’s arguable that this was the show’s most intensely followed contest. And, in general, boy-centric acts tend to perform better in the current domestic marketplace.

Japan has featured plenty of talent competitions before, ranging from the 1990s “Asayan,” which helped make idol heavyweights Morning Musume, to the more recent “Last Idol,” resulting in a unit with the same name. But “Produce” aims to create a male group. Now that’s a risky proposition given how much power current top dogs Johnny & Associates (Arashi, Hey! Say! Jump) and LDH (Exile) hold. The former, in particular, has long been able to box boy bands not signed to them out of television appearances and other opportunities.

Johnny’s has lost a lot of power in the past few years, but it still has sway. “Produce 101 Japan” has a way to try to spin out from that, though. Unlike the Korean version, contestants for the Japanese incarnation can’t be associated with any talent agency. This is bound to attract a lot of older rejects and TikTok dance inventors.

But what “Produce 101 Japan” aims to do is see if appealing directly to viewers rather than trying to navigate traditional channels can result in a boy band breaking through. Whatever group this show comes up with can’t wrestle airtime away from established Johnny’s and LDH performers, so the best way to get fans backing the group is to hook them during the actual competition, and get them invested early. That’s how “Produce’s” K-pop groups have found success.

Here’s hoping they can ratchet up the drama to help attract viewers and challenge the male idol status quo.

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