Last week, the Asahi Shimbun published an article about the suicide of actor-singer Park Yong Ha. The pieceanalyzed South Korean show business to ascertain why so many stars have killed themselves in recent years, and concluded that their relationships with management agencies grind them down. Park has been handling his own affairs for several years now and apparently had a tough time getting work in South Korea since leaving his agency. Like the three members of the popular boy band TVXQ (known as Tohoshinki in Japan) who sued their management and are now working on their own, Park relied on his Japanese fans to make a living. He was in the midst of a Japanese tour when he hung himself.

Though Japanese management contracts are less Draconian, the situation isn’t appreciably different. Japanese artists can leave their agencies if they think they’re being underpaid or over-worked, but they may have trouble finding jobs since it isn’t in the interest of “talent buyers” (TV stations, concert promoters, etc.) to cross talent providers. If Japanese stars seem to be more complacent with this state of affairs, maybe it’s because they are less emotionally demonstrative than Koreans are.

Some will say that’s a facile generalization, but two weeks ago while watching “The Poison Tomato Murder Case,” a TV special starring the five members of aging boy band SMAP, I was struck by how matter-of-fact the producers were in taking advantage of the group’s professional docility. The whole point of the show was that SMAP didn’t know they had been exploited. The drama itself wasn’t the main attraction, which was just as well considering how bad it was. The main attraction was that the five members hadn’t been aware they were actually in it while they were making it.

Last January, TV Asahi aired a special variety program in which each member was given a challenge. Leader Masahiro Nakai was deposited on a “desert island” where he took part in a survival game. Heartthrob Takuya Kimura had to live through his normally hectic life for four days on nothing but tomatoes. Shingo Katori subsisted as a prehistoric Jomon man, catching his own food, making his own fires, and even fashioning his own tools. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, he of the 2009 naked-in-the-park scandal, had to run up hills throughout Tokyo. And Goro Inagaki spent 24 hours in a karaoke booth trying to achieve a perfect 100 on one of those singing evaluation machines.

Though the January special was presented as a stand-alone event, the challenges apparently had a larger purpose. Scenes from the group’s travails were edited together with separately shot sequences into a murder mystery. At the beginning of the recent special, SMAP was ushered into a video room where the truth behind their ordeals was revealed. They were surprised, to say the least, because they had no idea that this was going on at the time. Nakai, always the most straightforward of the bunch, seemed a bit ticked off, but acknowledged the cleverness of the basic concept. “You’d never see this on Fuji TV,” he commented, referring to the station that airs “SMAP × SMAP,” the only regular TV series where all five members appear together. Kimura was less philosophical. “This is completely stupid,” he said.

That much seemed obvious, but it was beside the point since, as an announcer pointed out, “This has never been done before anywhere in the world.” The appeal of the show had nothing to do with any intrinsic entertainment value associated with the drama, let alone “quality.” It was all about the process, which is why half of the two-hour special was taken up with showing how they did it. While Kusanagi was breathlessly dashing up slopes, cameras were pointed over his shoulder at a man in a trench coat pursuing him without his noticing. After Kimura had woken up one morning, a man came to his door to ask him questions about his tomato diet. Kimura thought it was just part of the challenge.

Both the man in the trench coat and the man at Kimura’s door were actors playing police detectives investigating the murder of a TV announcer who appears to have succumbed to a poisoned tomato. In the drama, all the members of SMAP are suspects, and the detectives are trying to figure out which one is the culprit.

Because the plot itself is so convoluted and nonsensical it’s easy to get the feeling that much of the drama, if not all of it, had been conceived after the original variety show was put together and not before, as the announcer claimed. Many scenes were obviously manipulated with computer graphics, and some tweaking seems to have been done even after the group sat in the video room watching the completed tape. At one point, the members commented that they didn’t understand how Katori’s caveman stunt fitted into the story, and then at the very end there’s a plot twist that corrects this seeming oversight.

The enjoyment derived from “The Poison Tomato Murder Case” has nothing to do with whatever talent SMAP may possess. Within the context of the story, for instance, Kimura’s “performance” was noticeably better than it is when he’s actually making an effort to act in real TV dramas. During an interrogation scene, he appears cagey and ill-at-ease, though he was just sleepy. This is exactly the sort of thing the producers want, though I doubt Kimura feels a sense of accomplishment.

But talent has always been incidental to SMAP’s value, which has more to do with availability. Their management company, Johnny’s and Associates, hires them out to almost anybody who pays their considerable fees. At the end of the program it was announced that there will soon be a multi-disc DVD of the “Tomato” project, and I wouldn’t be surprised if another special is cannibalized from the remaining footage. In showbiz, you exploit what you can.