Six years ago this month, the public learned that Japan’s most popular male showbiz personality, Takuya Kimura, was set to marry former singing idol Shizuka Kudo, already pregnant with his child at the time.
The press wondered how marriage and fatherhood would affect the career of a star who had been voted Japan’s sexiest man half dozen years in a row by readers of the weekly fashion magazine an-an, not to mention the fortunes of SMAP, the aging idol boy band he belonged to (and still does).
Though getting married doesn’t stunt a male star’s prospects as much as a female star’s, idols are a different breed since their appeal among members of the opposite sex is directly linked to their availability.
Johnny’s Jimusho, the talent agency that keeps a notoriously short lease on the young men in its stable, has actively discouraged reporting of any romantic business involving members of SMAP, Kinki Kids, Tokio and its other artists. It’s good business sense.
There were rumors at the time that Johnny’s wasn’t pleased with the marriage of Kimutaku, as Kimura is nicknamed, but there was nothing they could do about it. A long article in the December issue of Cyzo about the talent agency implies that one of Johnny’s managers close to SMAP once threatened to leave the agency to start his own — and that he would take Kimura with him.
For any other artist, leaving a talent agency without the agency’s blessing is career suicide. The talent will be blackballed for years, unable to find work with producers who use the agency.
But Kimura is different. He would have no problem finding work and Johnny’s would be helpless. In any case, domestic life has not dimmed his popularity, but maybe that’s because Johnny’s has been as successful in keeping a lid on the particulars of Kimura’s family as it has been in stifling reports about Tokio vocalist Tomoya Nagase’s rumored romance with a certain superstar J-pop singer or SMAP member Shingo Katori’s long-term live-in relationship with a noncelebrity.
Johnny’s lets Kimutaku do whatever he wants, and what he wants is to be taken seriously as an actor. This is hardly a breakout ambition, since all idols get plenty of work in TV dramas, movies and on the stage.
Kimutaku is the most sought-after TV actor in Japan. His starring vehicles garner huge ratings, but being a star in a dramatic serial that has been written to take advantage of the star’s specific appeal is not necessarily the same as being an actor; which partly explains the recent PR blitz for Kimura’s new movie.
In “Bushi no Ichibun” Kimura plays a samurai. Almost everyone in Johnny’s has worked at one point or another in NHK’s Sunday night historical dramas, but “Bushi no Ichibun” has more to do with the sociology and economics of samurai life than with the genre’s action prerogatives.
Kimura’s character is a food taster who loses his sight after ingesting some bad shellfish. The movie is a chamber drama that requires emotional nuance, and in terms of accommodating whatever acting skills he possesses to the needs of the ensemble, Kimura does a worthy job.
However, if all you had to go on was the PR, you might think he had accomplished the thespian equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. In a series of TV appearances, Kimura, looking genuinely embarrassed, has had to endure countless gushing testimonials.
When other members of the cast, all veteran actors of stage and screen, showed up on Fuji TV’s “SMAP x SMAP,” the only variety show that Kimutaku appears on regularly, they spoke not about the movie but about how wonderful Kimura was to work with. The blushing idol was spared having to respond to the love-in since at the time he was busy preparing a meal for his guests.
He wasn’t so lucky on the full hour devoted to him by TV Asahi’s “SmaStation 6,” hosted by Katori and filled with videotaped interviews of a dozen people who have worked with Kimura over the past 18 years.
Yoji Yamada, who directed “Bushi,” expressed the gist of the comments (though not their over-the-top tenor) by saying, “He knows how to work in a group.” It was Kimura’s character that was being honored, not his acting chops.
“Bushi no Ichibun” is already a box-office smash and would have been even without Kimura’s PR participation, which seems to be an end in itself. Everything related to Johnny’s is based on the power of underestimation: See, he’s more than just a sex god. Idols are recruited as children based on their looks, and everything they know is drilled into them.
In the Cyzo article, three of Johnny’s former charges talk about how they left the agency and had trouble finding work because they had no real abilities, even though they had sung, danced, and acted while in the company. “When you are in Johnny’s,” one said, “you don’t realize how poor your skills are.” SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai often jokes about this, which is why he channels his energies into emcee work. On New Years Eve he will co-host NHK’s popular song contest for the third time.
It’s a give-and-take situation. World-renowned stage director Yukio Ninagawa uses Johnny’s talent in his productions not because they’re good actors but to draw audiences, and if the fees they receive are less than what they can make with one 15-second TV commercial, the stage appearances lend the agency prestige. In the end, acting skills are beside the point.
Ironically, this tradeoff sometimes means genuine talent gets overlooked. Here’s hoping that Kazunori Ninomiya’s performance in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” is recognized for what it is — a moving portrayal of a reluctant soldier who will do anything to survive — and not as another feather in Johnny’s cap.
As a member of the boy band Arashi, Ninomiya was raised by the agency, though based on his work in “Letters,” it would appear he knows real life. Where did he have time to learn about that?
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5