Thursday, April 07, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole We Go - Part 2

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
- Andre Gide

Some of you might remember a piece on this blog last year about my strange and unsettling [ad]venture into the world of JE idols after coming into possession of and doing a weekend "viewing" marathon of a couple of JE concerts. To  be honest, I really struggled to approach this with an open mind and while I found it hard to put my thoughts and observations into words, I was determined to follow through and finish up this experiment last December. The only hitch was that things got stranger and weirder the more I looked into things, and this excursion had way too many twists and turns, that at one point, I was tempted to just forget about it and scrap whatever draft posts I had on the topic. Unfortunately for me, the sheer horror of it all got trumped by my curiosity and before I knew it, my little brain-attic got stocked with way too much furniture on the subject than I could ever manage to use or care about, let alone fully understand.

Short and desultory though it was, I found the whole idol experience to be in part revolting and fascinating. From fastforwarding thru the theatrical spectacle that was Takizawa Enbujo to taking a sneak peek at random JE concerts, to stumbling upon distressing sound bytes of Sakurai Sho's unfortunate rendition of Can't Take My Eyes Off You to a video clip of SMAP's most recent yet pathetic attempt at singing along with a foreign artist like Taylor Swift [or Justin Bieber]---this so-called journey to the land of JE idols was an auditory and visual assault like no other; one that left me feeling cold and empty, and slightly annoyed at myself for diving into this. I've been wracking my brain, thinking of a way to present this in a fairly organized manner, before realizing that I had no other choice but to settle with a rambling post. Because dammit, there has to be an end to this madness and the best way I can go about this is to walk you through how things went down in this addled head.

If you're still with me, then kindly extend a little patience because I'm afraid part 2 of this series will come out as one big mess for my approach was less than systematic (which goes to say I skimmed through the material in the same way that a person might carelessly leaf through a glossy magazine while awaiting his turn in the dentist's office). Bored, fidgety and utterly clueless how to proceed, I did manage to discover a few things about these prized idols from Japan, some of which, I would like to place on record that I wish to be wiped away from memory; while some others, I must admit, turned out to be surprisingly illuminating in a sense that if one were to draw inferences and follow things to their logical conclusion, one would most likely be saddened and disturbed by the implications of this frivolous, nonsensical query.

As much as I wanted to provide an overview on the Jimusho which launched an army of idols that now lay siege in countless homes through various forms of media, I realized early on that I wasn't interested so much on the groups per se or the different personalities that made up the company's stable of talent as much as I am about the inner workings of the agency. My primary concern was really looking into how things worked, which meant spotting bizarre unique attributes or elements within the industry that may or may not make sense to an outsider/non-fan like me and gathering enough data to come up with a hack[-unified] theory. 

To be clear, it's not like I started from scratch going into this. I was first introduced to jdoramas in 2002, vaguely aware of the fact that most of the "actors" featured on the dramas recommended to me would write down the word "idol" as their main occupation. Indeed, any fledgling viewer would no doubt have encountered at least two or more of these creatures in his or her initial foray into the dorama world before eventually taking a peek at infamous performances---which in my case turned out to be a black-clad SMAP singing Lion Heart, wiggling/knocking their knees... err... dancing around mic stands, and a fancam clip of  a skin and bones version of a Chippendales number, popularly known as Tackey's Ero-ero dance. Whether you take to them or not is a whole other story; it's first and foremost a question of taste and in most cases, a matter of how receptive or open you are to fangirl (or boy) indoctrination.

Personally, I tend to agree with this blogger who described Japanese idols as all cut from the same mold; they generally do sound alike and dance as if they're fighting a rhythm impairment disorder, most of all, they do have a limited shelf life. And while idol groups come and go, what's painstakingly clear in all this is the immutable influence wielded by Johnny & Associates, which appears to have an unholy alliance with television executives. Rocked by scandal and often accused of deploying unsavory tactics to promote and discipline its musically/artistically challenged progeny, the agency known as Johnny's Entertainment has done one thing right through the years---it's positioned itself to maximize product visibility, taking care to provide sufficient media exposure for its idol picks, in turn utilizing the most basic and effective form of mind control on an unsuspecting public.

Repetition, that's the key.

When the company was said to be suffering from poor record sales in the 90s and public interest in their new band SMAP fell below expectations, the top dogs decided to make their boys into multimedia stars; in other words, bombarding folks with the sight and sound of its cheeky troops became its standard operating procedure.

Switch on the radio, turn on the t.v., walk by a newspaper stand or get a soda from a vending machine, these boys' faces will be there, make no mistake about it. You don't like their latest single? Well, tough luck! You'll be hearing it every week because it'll be the theme song to a drama that will (you guessed it--) star one, maybe two idols in need of additional acting practice. You don't like watching dramatic features? Well, you can always opt to watch one of many variety shows tailor-made to showcase each boy's personality and have you picking your favorite[s]. You think they look and dress kinda funny? Stick around long enough and I assure you one of them will eventually grow on you.

In some ways, it closely follows the same precepts enunciated in Barnee Stinson's Mermaid Theory, such that an idol's appeal---as measured in units of how much you love, adore and cherish him by means of shelling out moolah for JE concerts and goodies, amount of time spent squeeing and/or flailing, surfing the net, blogging and sleepless nights watching everything and anything said idol has appeared in---increases in direct proportion to the time exposed to him. In expanded form, it can be written thus, where k stands for the mode of transmission  (e.g. dramas, PVs, CMs, variety shows, etc.) and x being an unknown variable that determines the limit or threshold of exposure:

If an Idol's Appeal  α  Time of Exposure (ToE) → Degree of Fandom = k*(ToE/x)

[To illustrate, it takes a fraction of a second for a person to accede to the fact that Takizawa Hideaki is a good-looking man; a little more time to warm up to the likes of Nishikido Ryo and a far longer period to appreciate someone styled like Tanaka Koki. Now suppose, the very same person catches Boku dake no Madonna or Orthros no Inu and gets bored to death, then Tackey's appeal would significantly diminish while conversely, one might experience an increased interest in someone as skittish as Aiba Masaki or dopey Ohno Satoshi (pun intended) after watching some variety shows they appeared in.]

Far from being foolproof, the above postulate does in part explain an aspect of fandom however it fails to account for the good number of people immune to the phenomenon, more so, it does not completely explain how others outgrow this j-pop malaise and break the idol spell to eventually become normal and productive  individuals (i.e. bone-tired members of the working community). It's also interesting to note that fandom is something that is nurtured and best appreciated in online groups, giving those who live outside of Japan enough access to fuel their idol-crack addiction; this, despite the company's [and JASRAC's] strict policy and efforts to prevent the unofficial distribution of its precious merchandise. Casting aside the difference in the quality and impact of the medium by which an idol is branded or made known worldwide, what remains constant in all this though is the Jimusho's ability to promote and keep the groups under its management in the public eye---which alone makes for solid marketing.

*     *     *

Observational Report #2: The Pure, Sexy Beast and Other Stories

I was going over Tackey and Tsubasa's 2002 Hatachi Debut Concert when I realized that it was the very same concert I saw years ago that made me swear off JE productions. To me, watching it was the equivalent of wandering into a dark, seedy club where young boys dance in thrall of a cult leader or an unspeakable ancient religion. I wasn't thrilled to relive the experience but somehow ended up watching snippets of it to complete my idol regimen long enough to notice how Yamapi and Ikuta Toma were singled out from the Juniors and  how Taguchi Junnosuke clearly resented the fact that he had to carry Tackey on his shoulders back when the members of KAT-TUN merely served as backdancers. I believe there was also a point during this screening where I kept wondering why Tackey couldn't keep his shirt on and how a lot of the costumes worn appeared to have been stolen from Elvis' and Liberace's Vegas wardrobe, but we'll get to that later on...

Anyway, between hearing NEWS sing about the days of the week and contemplating whether to grant my sister's request to take another look at the Arashi Anniversary 5x10 Concert while providing real-time commentary, I started wondering about how ordinary boys relinquish the joys of a regular childhood in favor of being molded into cosmetically-enhanced and sexed up bubblegum pop sensations. So how does one join the ranks of JE?

Based on a cursory review, it appears to be a five-step process:   
  • Step 1 : Get into the program.
  • Step 2 : Learn the tricks of the trade.
  • Step 3 : Pay your dues, stand out from the crowd and get noticed.
  • Step 4 : Pray that you debut.
  • Step 5 : Be a model artist and strictly abide by JE rules.

From what I understand, boys all over Japan send in applications and audition to be admitted into the Jimusho. Now the default story is that most if not all the boys that form part of the idol groups currently promoted by the company were prodded or encouraged by a friend or relative who "secretly" filled up and sent in an application form thinking that they'd be perfect for the part. There were also those who were actively recruited and therefore form part of the "elite" and some who were asked to join by parents who wanted their boy[s] to have an after school activity---making Johnny's Entertainment sound as if it were a daycare center or a summer camp for kids. In this regard, it can be likened to an East Asian version of Nickolodean or Disney's the Mickey Mouse Club, except that it has a wider breadth and scope but the objective's the same, which is to produce/discover the genuine article, something referred to in the industry as a triple [or quadruple] threat.

Once a boy gets in, he learns the essentials: he gets to sing and dance like everyone else, act all cute and innocent; he'll grace magazines posing with anything from sporting goods, flowers, potted plants to cute, furry creatures; he'll get to dance behind his seniors, wear flashy clothes, get made over and placed in sub-units until the powers that be decide to give him a break and let him debut. It all sounds simple enough but the road to stardom in such a big company is no different from being in Fumi Yoshinaga's imagined all-male Ōoku, where all the aspiring young boys' first task is to get noticed. Exactly how they get chosen out of hundreds, nay, thousands is still a mystery but it seems that once an idol debuts, he's doomed to become a creature of myth---one I'd like to refer to as the "pure, sexy beast".

He becomes an abstraction, a jumble of contradictions. He's supposed to exhibit a boyish charm and yet be sexy and desirable. He's to remain pure and chaste in the public's perception which is why it's almost unthinkable for him to admit that he's dating someone without the company's permission. And even though no person in his/her right mind can be made to believe that these boys remain innocent, they just go on with the charade and pretend for the sake of the fans that they're romantically unattached, available.

The chastity belt might be imaginary but the vice like grip that Johnny's Entertainment has over its boys' testicles public image and persona is ludicrously real and undeniable. What's bizarre is that the policy extends way beyond the boys' teen years, and therefore what you get are mixed signals and an even more ridiculous situation where you see grown men feigning ignorance when it comes to relationships, inevitably cultivating a system or culture of mendacity. You have SMAP members pushing forty still playing bachelors who don't know what love is; Arashi members peddled as boy-next-door types who've done a sexy pictorial and/or have been embroiled in a scandal and yet still do tight-lipped kissing scenes; a former KAT-TUN member whose rakish behavior would lead one to believe that he's taken his skills in hip thrusting off stage and to the bedroom; and a member of NEWS made out to be the next hot, sexy thing to draw attention away from his expressionless face to his abdominal muscles. I'm not saying that the company should do away with image-marketing, it's just that it should be a little more flexible in handling its artists, allowing them to tackle stuff that's more age appropriate; cutting them enough slack  to appear and behave closer to the mean. Placing too much emphasis on image-building, fanservice and media streamlining just validates claims of exasperated viewers that these idols are nothing more than manufactured goods---cheaper by the dozen, highly consumable with a short expiration date.   

As I was left to ponder the fate of those who entered show business via the Jimusho, a few more questions regarding the idol trek to fame came to mind---What happens to a Junior if he doesn't debut? What happens if an idol gets caught breaking the rules? What happens if an idol decides to quit at the height of his career? What happens to those who are past their prime? Would it still be possible to pursue a career outside the protective blanket of fandom and JE machinery? If this were a game of Jeopardy, the possible answers would be---Who is Ikuta Toma? Who is Uchi Hiroki? Who is Katsuyuki Mori and Kohara Yuki? Who is Sato Atsuhiro? Who is Motoki Matsuhiro?---but these names would represent only a few of those who got lucky.  It doesn't even begin to cover the countless names and faces who've gone on to obscurity; those who would most likely be forgotten once a new generation comes in.

Out of the ones mentioned above, Ikuta Toma would no doubt have made an interesting case study. He was one of the more popular Juniors in his day, he belonged to a number of temporary sub-units and yet got cut when it came right down to launching idol groups. I initially wondered why until I heard him sing Love Together in that Hatachi Concert and saw him perform White Christmas only to realize it was a stupid question. He's said to be one of the few idols under the JE banner that concentrated on his acting career but then again, it's not like he has anything else to do but focus on his acting career. Some people would refer to him as the omega of the pack formerly led by Tackey and Tsubasa but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  So off I went to google and see what this boy's been up to this past year when lo and behold the trending led me to this April 2010 issue of An-An Magazine which in turn led me to this photoshoot comparison picspam by scankychops on LJ, which torpedoed me back to the concept of the pure, sexy beast. I found it funny how they keep shuffling back and forth, donning a mature persona and at the same time insist on maintaining an almost childlike appeal for public consumption. It doesn't really make much sense to me but hey, that's what sells.

I understand fans have raved about this particular magazine issue so I decided to check out the short interview and like others, one line stood out to me as well:
Some sempai actors say, ‘“Experience with women enriches the skill in your art, so you should gain a lot of experience,” but it makes me want to object. I think that rather than the number of women you experience, what makes a man mature more is to deeply love one woman. At least that’s the way I want to be.
Far from going, "awww, shucks," the first thing that came to mind was that I had to amend my 5-Step Program on how to become a JE idol. It seems that I missed a crucial step, a rite of passage between steps 3 and 4 which can be denominated as the baptism of hoochies, a personal quest to the isle of AV actresses or a crusade on the neighboring country of gravure idols and starlets. There are signs everywhere and it's quite interesting to see what one can discover when one takes the time to read between the lines.

* End of [Jumbled] Report on JE Idol Culture triggered by An-An Magazine Photos dated 4/14/2011*

Further research on the subject matter terminated.
Objective as to why this series is still ongoing remains unclear.
Researcher can definitively say that she does not like where this is going.

Main photo/screencap taken from: Ikuta Toma in Hana Yori Dango 2
Additional photos and magazine courtesy of: The Sound of Light, ----JiNg----, 寝ても覚めても嵐,, menchie007's album and JpopAsia.
Ikuta Toma's AnAn April 2010 article translated by enshinge 


  1. Cutting to the chase, yes the whole idol business in Japan doesn't make sense.

    It sounds like you went pretty deep into the JE Idol culture which I didn't touch mainly because I'm a straight guy and don't find other guys attractive (duh) but it sounds fairly similar to the way female idols are treated, except the girls have an even shorter lifespan. They tend to either fall off the face of the Earth or transform into aunties whose only use is to be silly on variety shows.

    One thing I've found you didn't mention was the variety shows that no doubt most of the names you've sprinkled around ur post would have taken part in, KAT-TUN cartoon to name one. Those shows are probably the only reason I recognize some of the idols you mentioned and they make the 'journey down the rabbit hole' alot easier due to the lightheartedness and sometimes interesting interactions between the idols and whatever guests they deem to have on the shows. Personally, I've found the guys from KAT-TUN to have reasonably interesting personalities while SMAP and arashi were totally bland - I actually watched all of KAT-TUN cartoon but only selected eps of arashi where they had guests I liked.

    I terminated my study when KAT-TUN cartoon stopped airing...what took you so long? lolol...but then now I'm stuck in akb48 =X

  2. What took me so long? The truth is that this post along with parts 3 & 4 of the series have been on draft for the longest time ever, it's just that I got really sick of the topic and was tempted a couple of times to press delete. It started off as something that I tried out of curiosity and then turned into a big joke somewhere along the way, and came out as a mock study in the final stretch.

    Re: your comment on female idols---they do have a shorter lifespan mainly because there's just too many of them at a given moment. I can't even keep count. Just look at how Morning Musume and AKB48 undergo a never-ending process of graduations and auditions; they change their line-up almost every year. In effect, female idols have a shorter time to get noticed. Appearing in such a huge group at a time doesn't exactly help in being distinguished unlike in JE where being asked to debut makes up for half the battle already.

    Another thing is that Johnny & Associates is big enough to ensure that its artists keep working on projects. In doing so, it gets to check out which group is currently in demand. I think it comes in 10-year cycles. SMAP has had a good run for a decade now until all the company's attention shifted to Arashi in preparation for the latter's 10th year anniversary. I'm not too sure but there might be a pecking order to this. They tend to lobby or push harder for a group before the members turn thirty. Who knows? Maybe in 3-5 years, it'll be KAT-TUN's turn... With the girls though, I'm not so sure. I find it kind of sad really. They can't be cute forever so their only fallback is to later on become variety show fixtures. :(

    Speaking of variety shows, I deliberately skipped it since I was planning on dedicating another post to it but with the way things are going, I might never get around to doing it. Been swamped at work and I still have some stuff to finish. But you're right, variety shows are idol bait---for one, they're easier to appreciate and an effective tool to ease you into everything else they do on the music scene. They even make you more lenient in judging their acting abilities because they cultivate a sense of familiarity and a certain fondness for how they behave as seen on t.v.

  3. Wow. Interesting report. I can stomach male idols most of the time, but the idol industry is amazing, especially with Johnnys. They are a walking contradiction of having almost no talents and yet being amazingly popular while other idols groups not lucky to be a Johnny struggle to compete against them.

    As for female idols, I tend to stay away from them as much as possible. To me, I hate that female idols are stamped in 2 categories and 2 categories only: Cute and innocent and sexy mamas. It is disgusting to see these overly cute acts and sometimes very explicit sexuality that female idol groups display (mostly going off of Korean idol groups here). That, to me, is a big turn off. Maybe because I am a female, too.

    But good delve in trying to dissect this. It's really an interesting conundrum.

  4. They are a walking contradiction of having almost no talents and yet being amazingly popular while other idols groups not lucky to be a Johnny struggle to compete against them.

    Puwahahaha, sad but true. There's at least a 5:1 ratio of JE idols as opposed to non-JE idols working on something every season. Can't blame the boys though for wanting to belong to an agency that would give them the best chance at stardom. JE is a force to reckon with. That being said, I'm glad to find that Koike Teppei and Seto Koji are holding up quite well despite being outside the JE umbrella.

    Ah, have to echo your sentiments on female idols. One of my sisters is into kpop and she would often watch Korean channels on cable and I also couldn't help but notice how the emphasis on girl groups would always be on being cute and/or sexy. As for female idols in Japan, it is quite a conundrum seeing doll-like faces gush and squee on cam and then turn around to find them in sexy photo spreads. Can't even begin to wrap my head around gravure idols turned actresses or actresses with good girl personas appearing in men's magazines. I find the image-shift disconcerting.