The main idea powering the talent competition show “Produce 101 Japan” isn’t a new one for the nation’s idol industry. People love to see an entertainer go from nothing to something, and this journey has been just as — if not more — vital to the success of groups such as AKB48 and SMAP as their actual music.
“Produce 101 Japan,” now six episodes deep into its run, started with 101 aspiring pop performers trying to prove they deserved a spot in a new 11-member group set to debut in 2020. Viewers vote for their favorites, meaning that the performers themselves have to win them over. Each episode captures the trainees as they experience the triumphs and failures of trying to make it (along with conversations among themselves about how much body hair they have).
This formula has always been central to pop music and, especially, reality talent competitions around the world. The “Produce 101” franchise started in 2016 in South Korea, where it quickly became a hit. It spawned sequels and a version in China, and “Produce 101 Japan” is the latest effort to expand the brand.
The series might need it, since its existence in Korea could be in jeopardy. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency is currently investigating the series and other similar shows over alleged vote manipulation. While probably not the best allocation of law enforcement in the grand scheme of things, the devotion these shows sparked in young viewers — who spent lots of money to support their favorite would-be stars — does reveal a betrayal that possibly scammed thousands out of cash. It’s hard to imagine the series picking up again in South Korea after this.
Here, limitations placed on the Japanese version are lending it the same magic as the early seasons of the Korean iteration. Save for the first and final episodes, “Produce 101 Japan” airs on the Gyao! streaming service, a platform in search of a significant audience since 2008. As a result, so far it has been nowhere near the hit it was in South Korea. However, it has cultivated a passionate following both in and outside the country. Like most fandoms, it functions much better just outside of the spotlight than right in the center. It’s refreshing and more fitting for the idol narrative.
There’s one more bit of fantasy fulfillment lurking in the Japanese version of the show. K-pop has developed a reputation over the past decade for precision-focused choreography and singing. J-pop … not so much. This difference was so stark that it practically became the focus of the third season of “Produce 101,” which was a tie-up with Japan’s AKB48. The bulk of that run saw Japanese performers flounder at vocals and dancing — attributes usually preferred in artists — while their Korean equivalents excelled. It bordered on propaganda.
In this version, however, J-pop exists equally with K-pop. We have heard songs by South Korea’s BTS, Japan’s One OK Rock and Exile, acts whose international inroads vary, but who are presented here as if on the same level. The idol path from the bottom to the top is nothing new, but this re-imagining of the pop music hierarchy adds a nice new wrinkle.