National / Media | MEDIA MIX

SMAP put on the spot

Are the not-so-boyish behemoths running scared of younger acts?

The most recent edition of NHK’s New Year’s eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” received more attention than usual owing to a number of production coups.

The most prominent was Scottish singer Susan Boyle’s appearance, her first in Japan. She sang one song, her signature tune “I Dreamed a Dream,” and was reportedly paid £35,000 (¥5.2 million), which, according to the tabloids, probably ticked off some veterans since many usually appear on the show for less than their usual fees owing to the “prestige” of the event, not to mention NHK’s infamous stinginess. In this light, the tabloids also speculated that rocker Eikichi Yazawa must have received quite a paycheck to make his first-ever appearance on the show, but since the appearance was unannounced it’s not as if NHK could milk it beforehand to boost ratings.

The biggest buzz had to do with the fact that talent agency Johnny’s Entertainment contributed four acts to the program. Every year since 1988, Johnny’s participation in “Kohaku” has never exceeded two acts despite the ubiquity of its charges on the pop charts. Some tabloids conjectured that NHK wanted Arashi, currently the most successful act in Johnny’s stable, who had never appeared on the show because they usually host a “countdown concert” on New Years Eve. NHK denied (in this very newspaper, in fact) that it made a deal with Johnny’s to secure Arashi’s presence, but in any case with four acts (SMAP, TOKIO, Arashi, and newcomers New York City Boys), SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai acting as the show’s coemcee and SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura lending a dance number to the Michael Jackson tribute, it’s easy to understand why the tabloids dubbed the show “Johnny’s Kohaku.”

NHK managed to add a few more ratings points thanks to the PR, but what did Johnny’s get? They are the most successful talent agency in Japan in terms of name-recognition. If we take the tabloids’ point and assume that NHK needs Johnny’s more than Johnny’s needs NHK, then the only question that needs to be asked is: What does the company want for its charges in the future, since there are no showbiz frontiers left to conquer?

Taking into consideration other Johnny’s-related TV shows that aired over the New Years break, it would appear that a subtle realignment is going on in the agency owing to the incontrovertible fact that four of the members of SMAP are closing in on the big 4-0. The quintet remains Johnny’s marquee act since no other group in the company’s history has lasted this long at the top. Most broke up by the time their members turned 30. SMAP is now less identified as a group than as five distinct TV personalities who happen to have a musical connection to one another that has become more tenuous over time. They’ve only released four singles since December 2007, which, by Japanese pop standards, amounts to laziness.

In fact, that point was brought up during a rare live program aired last week on TV Asahi called “SMAP Ganbarimasu” (“SMAP will do its best”), which followed, by a week, a special four-hour edition of the group’s long-running Fuji TV variety show “SMAP x SMAP,” also broadcast live. Whereas the Fuji special was essentially an extended version of their weekly show, albeit minus youngest member Shingo Katori, who reportedly was suffering from the flu that night, the Asahi special, right down to its title, suggested a statement of future purpose in the face of their impending decrepitude as an idol group.

During the show, the five were asked questions by a disembodied voice about their direction, including if and when they would ever release “another CD,” if they plan to break up, and whether or not they are “scared” of younger acts who threaten to usurp their throne. The answers to the first two questions were, emphatically and respectively, yes and no. The answer to the third one wasn’t as clear.

One of the mysteries of Japanese show business is how a group as mediocre as SMAP in the singing and dancing department could become such commercial music titans. In the past, Nakai has occasionally let slip his dismay over his own lack of vocal and dancing skills. Even by the standards of idol singing, SMAP has never demonstrated much ambition. Kimura prides himself on his dance moves, which are the best in the group, but the decision to have him pay tribute to Michael Jackson on “Kohaku” had more to do with fame than with talent.

The younger Johnny’s acts are better dancers and, for what it’s worth, better singers, too. TOKIO and Kinki Kids happen to play their own instruments. Like SMAP, they’re also past 30, as is V6, and many of the younger acts like Kanjani, News and Kat-Tun are in their early 20s, which is already over-the-hill in idol terms.

The agency has kept these groups vital through a process of mix-and-match, identifying the most popular members and having them moonlight as solo artists or in other groups. This continues to be the plan with the teen stars. Sixteen-year-old Yuma Nakayama started with Hey Say Jump (West) and then became the focus of B.I. Shadow, a spinoff of Johnny’s Juniors. He’s now in the trio New York City Boys.

But the group the announcer was referring to when he asked SMAP if they were afraid of any kohai (juniors) was probably Arashi. Musically, they’re bigger than SMAP, but as a cultural phenomenon they can’t compare. Every person in Japan knows the members of SMAP, while most people over 40 probably don’t know Arashi, at least not as individuals.

On Jan. 9, all five members of Arashi appeared together in a big-budget drama special, something SMAP doesn’t need to do. They can make much more money appearing together in commercials for Softbank, which reportedly paid Johnny’s so much for the group it had to cut the budget for its very popular “White Family” ads. For Johnny’s, talent and even exposure are less important than cost-effectiveness.

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