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In Japanese showbiz, the sins of the son visit the mother

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Veteran actress Atsuko Takahata called a press conference on Aug. 26 to apologize for the actions of her 22-year-old son, who had been arrested several days earlier for sexually assaulting a hotel employee in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, while on location for an acting job. Some media observers mentioned that such press conferences are unique to Japan. American TV personality Dave Spector told The Japan Times that celebrities in the U.S. aren’t expected to take responsibility for the misdemeanors of their adult offspring. This is true but misses the point of this particular scandal.

It’s an open secret that the children of many Japanese stars get work in show business due to the lobbying efforts of those stars rather than through the children’s own efforts or talents, a situation known as nanahikari (seven lights). Everybody understands this situation, and those parents are, realistically speaking, responsible for their children’s actions if those children are public figures, because they are the ones who made them so. Nanahikari is especially relevant in Takahata’s case because, according to showbiz journalists, she had aggressively pushed her actor son Yuta on producers while ignoring his antisocial proclivities. An NHK employee told the weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi that last year, when Yuta was appearing in NHK’s morning serial “Mare,” he “made passes” at almost every woman on the set in a disturbingly indiscriminate manner, as if he didn’t care what other people thought.

Similarly, when actress Yoshiko Mita’s son was arrested for drugs in 1998, she was blamed because she had gotten him acting jobs and he was already infamous for his immature professional attitude. Several years ago, ubiquitous TV emcee Monta Mino quit the business after his son, for whom he secured a high-powered position at the Nippon TV network, was arrested for attempted robbery. Mino’s sin of paternal association was compounded by his own on-air modus operandi: He hosted a popular morning news show where he aggressively derided celebrities involved in scandals.

In contrast, when Reiko Takashima, another veteran actress, recently apologized for the arrest of her husband for possession of illegal drugs, the requisite press conference seemed like an exercise in going through the motions. Though Noboru Takachi, whom Takashima subsequently divorced, is an actor, he never really rode on Takashima’s coattails, so when she told the press she was partly responsible for Takachi’s crime simply because she was his wife, it sounded forced.

But making distinctions with regard to a culturally mandated ritual gets you nowhere. What’s important is the underlying reason for the ritual, and in the cases of Takahata and Takashima the purpose of the apology was to safeguard the speakers’ positions in show business. The real difference between the two gestures is the difference between the crimes themselves. Though prosecutors decided to drop the case after Yuta reached a settlement with the victim, he admitted to the attack, and his crime is — by any standard — worse than Takachi’s, which means Atsuko Takahata will suffer more than Takashima will, professionally speaking.

Takahata’s commercial for a major cosmetics maker has already been pulled from the air, but the actual measure of how much damage she has incurred is the scandal’s effect on her acting career, and, interestingly, Takahata and Takashima happened to be appearing in the same TV series this summer. The series’ last episode aired the night before Takahata’s press conference. According to Sunday Mainichi, TV Asahi, which produced the show, had been thinking of continuing it. But that seems unlikely now.

The show is called “Onnatachi no Tokuso Saizensen” (“Women on the Front Line of Special Investigations”). Takashima and another middle-aged actress, Yoshiko Miyazaki, play police detectives who often discuss work in the department cafeteria, where Takahata, as a food service employee, joins in and helps them solve cases. The show premiered last December as a one-off mystery special, the kind of format that tends to feature older actors who no longer have broad appeal, and garnered a 12.4 percent audience share. Though not spectacular, it was good enough for TV Asahi, which was looking for a series to fill the summer slot for its “Thursday Night Mystery.” They ordered nine episodes.

As they were shooting the first one in June, Takashima’s husband was arrested and she made her public apology. TV Asahi and the show’s producers were in a bind: Protocol demanded they cancel the show, but they’d already spent a certain amount of money on the production. In the end they compromised, cutting the series run from nine episodes to six so that the show would finish before Takachi’s trial started and media attention returned. Later, after the scandal died down, they could revive the series.

But things didn’t turn out the way they thought. Ratings for the first episode were an acceptable 11.6 percent but dropped steadily thereafter. A person at TV Asahi told Mainichi that everyone involved blamed the plunge on “Takachi’s case.” When Yuta was arrested several days before the last episode aired, “we no longer thought about continuing” the show, the source said.

This reasoning sounds like a convenient excuse. Initially, the producers believed the viewing public’s concern over Takachi’s crime would dissipate over the summer, which is why they decided to end the show before he went to court and that concern returned. Now they’re saying viewers’ disgust with Takachi increased, resulting in an inverse ratings reaction.

A more likely explanation for the drop in share is that the show wasn’t very good, and with each successive week more people stopped watching. Yuta’s arrest was the last nail in the coffin. The scandals were a means of shifting the blame for a failed show on someone else, namely Takashima and Takahata — and not because of their acting but rather something related to their public personas, which are beyond the control of the producers.

Some scandals have their uses.