When media leaked intelligence on Jan. 10 that eternal boy band SMAP might be dissolving, the outpouring of fan emotion overwhelmed anything else that was happening in the show business world. One person who was probably grateful for the distraction was Rebecca Eri Ray Vaughan, the TV personality better known by her nickname, Becky. Since the beginning of the year, Becky’s storied charms had been sullied by her alleged affair with married pop singer Enon Kawatani of the group Gesu no Kiwami Otome, a scandal the press gleefully pursued.

Then the SMAP news broke.

To tabloid reporters, two stories of this scale happening at the same time created an overabundance of riches, and SMAP monopolized the attention — well, in the print media it did. TV was interested but cautious, since the story was still in flux.

The group’s presumed split — or, at least, the departure of four of its five members — from their longtime management company, Johnny & Associates, was related as hearsay, the fallout from an internal struggle between SMAP’s manager, Michi Iijima, who is credited with turning the group into superstars, and Mary Kitagawa, older sister of the company’s imperious president and namesake.

Since Johnny’s is the most powerful talent agency in Japan, TV producers are reluctant to air anything that might upset the company, which is notoriously protective of its commercial prerogatives. If SMAP decided to leave, the agency still had a stable of male idols on whom the industry already relied, so if you listened carefully you could hear a huge collective sigh of relief last Monday night when SMAP’s members appeared live on the air just before their weekly Fuji TV variety show to assure the public that they weren’t breaking up.

Many fans were overjoyed at the news, but others were perplexed. The usual spoilsports took to social media to express their frustration, saying the group had squandered its chance to make a statement about the sclerotic nature of the Japanese entertainment production system, which relies completely on manufactured talent.

Rumor has it the four members planning to quit were doing so in solidarity with Iijima, who has reportedly been at odds with another manager regarding bookings. That other manager happens to be Mary Kitagawa’s daughter, who is set to inherit the company, and the pressure was such that Iijima has been forced out of Johnny’s. Her four charges pledged to leave with her, which, in the scheme of things, sounds like a noble act. Changing their minds thus comes across as a cowardly act. Though the group says they are sticking together for the fans, more likely they thought that their positions in show business away from Kitagawa’s care were not assured. In any event, Iijima’s career would have been over regardless of what they decided.

In that regard, Becky’s fate within this system is instructive, even if the circumstances of her leaving it are different. Her value to her management company, Sun Music, is wholly contained in her image, which is that of a cheerful “good girl” (ii ko). Publicly she has said that she lives to work, and since that work amounts to being chipper and agreeable on television, anything that diminishes the image is seen as a liability by the people who hire her. Sure, she sings and acts, too, but those activities mean nothing without her reputation as a TV personality. Before the scandal, she was appearing in 10 commercials, which is more of a yardstick for gauging success in Japanese show business than CD sales or movie roles.

So when Becky was outed as an adulterer, it negated her image and, in turn, made her less appealing to those who buy it — meaning TV producers and, more significantly, advertisers, whose contracts with Sun Music include clauses regarding the safeguarding of her image, as well as consequences should it deteriorate. Some magazines said she has already been dumped by several companies, and Sun Music will have to pay each one tens of millions of yen in damages. Becky’s perfunctory press conference earlier this month, where she apologized without specifying why, was covered extensively and ridiculed as being insincere, thus making matters even worse.

It’s too soon to declare her career over, but much will depend on how Kawatani addresses his side of the romance. For what it’s worth, he seems to want to divorce his wife of six months so that he can be with Becky, but given that he’s a man and relatively independent as a musician, it’s no skin off his nose if he doesn’t. If Becky were more savvy as a self-promoter she could exploit the public’s sympathy for idols whose handlers contractually limit their love lives, but since she’s bet the farm on her image as a pure young thing (for the record, she’s 31), her value to the industry is already diminished. It has nothing to do with human rights and everything to do with the commodification of personality.

SMAP, on the other hand, has actual fans, which means its members could theoretically break from Johnny’s and still be viable as money-makers. The tyranny of the system Johnny’s exemplifies is that it denies the agency of its charges in selling themselves as “products” on the free market. It threatens them with blacklisting, because the people who would buy their product will continue to want other product from Johnny’s, who could withhold it as a means of retribution.

That’s why so many people were hoping those SMAP members would quit Johnny’s. It would have been interesting to see how the entertainment industry adjusted to such a major challenge to its basic attitude toward talent.

And that’s “talent” in production jargon, as in bodies to place before cameras and microphones, not as a wellspring of performance or thought, because what Becky and SMAP have in common is that they toil in a world where their ideas — if, in fact, they have any — are immaterial. Becky is nothing without Sun Music, and SMAP proved by sticking together at their age that they realize Johnny & Associates is as good as it’s ever going to get.

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