The arrest of singer-actress Noriko Sakai, 38, this month in connection with illegal drugs shattered the image of a star who in the 1980s parlayed being cute and innocent into idol status.
The drug bust that netted Sakai and her husband came just three months after SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, 35, known for his rather meek character, was arrested for drunken nudity in a Tokyo park late at night.
Both have been regular fixtures on popular TV shows, drawn in droves for concerts and been featured on the covers of magazines. After a brief repentant timeout, Kusanagi returned as a star. Due to the charges against her, whether Sakai can return to public favor is an open question.
Following are questions and answers about idols:
What defines an idol?
For major entertainment reporter Masaru Nashimoto, an idol must be young and have a frenzied following to the point of being a social phenomenon.
The 1980s is considered the golden age of idols, when devout fans formed “shineitai” cheering groups, taking in every concert and other public appearance of the target of their affections: usually a cute teen singer, with the latter being optional.
The 1990s saw attractive young singers snub the idol typecast, preferring to be viewed as artists who could sing, dance and perform, he said.
The concept of idol also evolved into subtypes: photogravure or magazine idols mainly pose as models, often in swimsuits, for magazines and DVDs; variety idols mainly appear on TV variety programs. Nashimoto meanwhile doubts magazine and variety idols actually qualify.
In terms of overall popularity and social impact, the idols of the 1980s outshone all others, he said.
What made the 1980s the golden age?
Idols became money-makers, Nashimoto said. TV broadcasters had singing programs in prime time every night with high viewer ratings, he said.
“TV is about the only medium idols were born in, and talent agencies sought to maximize their TV appearances as much as possible. Broadcasters also wanted their shows stocked with idols to boost ratings,” Nashimoto said.
The early 1980s saw the debuts of singing sweet-girl divas Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori. Kyoko Koizumi (“Kyon Kyon”) and Onyanko Club, mainly high school girls, are also among the decade’s golden idol lineup, critics say.
On the male front, Johnny and Associates established its status as the dominant agency for male talent with several groups, including Shibugakitai (Astringent Persimmon Team) member Masahiro Motoki, who played the main character in the Oscar-winning “Okuribito” (“Departures”) last year. The firm now is mainly associated with SMAP.
What happened in the 1990s and beyond?
In the 1990s, singing programs began to lose viewers mainly because audiences grew tired of such programs, Nashimoto said. Young, good-looking singers were striving to become artists instead of idols.
Music producer Tetsuya Komuro, who was arrested last year for fraud, produced scores of hits for singers who gained fame in the 1990s, including Namie Amuro and Globe.
Amuro was such a phenomenon that female fans emulated her, an activity rarely seen in the 1980s, Nashimoto said. Meanwhile, SMAP’s popularity ensured Johnny and Associates was at the top of the pyramid.
The 1990s and the following decade also saw people turn to the Internet to find idols. Many now are self-proclaimed and boast a small but hardcore fan base.
Who are today’s idols?
“The definition of idols is blurry now. I’m not sure (photogravure and variety types) are idols, because they are very different from what idols were in the 1980s. But if they are, we could say there are numerous idols,” Nashimoto said.
For example, Aki Hoshino, who entertainment researcher Oricon rated as No. 1 in swimsuit photo magazines this month, is arguably a top photogravure idol. Shoko Nakagawa, nicknamed Shokotan, is a blog idol popular due to her sweet looks and knowledge of “anime” (animation) and “otaku” (geek) culture.
Idols with a profound social impact, like Seiko Matsuda and Kyoko Koizumi, are no longer in the forefront, so today’s versions are hard to find, Nashimoto said.
TV in the 1980s reached a wide segment of the population and had a huge impact. The Internet, which is gradually replacing TV, is useful for wannabe idols to gain a small fan base, he said.
“Before, no one could become an idol without an agency’s help. Now anyone can promote themselves via the Internet at low cost. Becoming popular without using the Internet is impossible,” he said.
What happens to idols who lose their luster?
Some start businesses with the money they made. Uno Kanda, for example, is now a successful designer with her own fashion brand. Some open restaurants or other shops, with their success linked to their full exit from show business, Nashimoto said, adding others try to stay in front of a camera, including by posing nude or going into pornography.