Friday, April 22, 2011

The Maid

Those who've seen a television or movie adaptation of  "Nanase Futatabi"" or perhaps read the manga "Telepathic Wanderers" would no doubt remember its heroine being hunted down by a secret organization intent on eliminating those with paranormal abilities. This book features the same Nanase Hiita only earlier in the timeline, prior to the events narrated in the second installment of the series. What's interesting though is that while the second novel has been the subject of numerous television and movie adaptations, the first book alone had an English translation.  

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She didn't know when it started but for as long as she could remember, Nanase Hiita always had the ability to read people's minds. Knowing that her telepathic powers would earn the ire and revulsion of the people around her if discovered, she decided to work as a maid to remain transient and inconspicuous, moving from one family to another, going wherever her line of work would take her.

Through the years, she's trained herself to control her powers, ever careful not to let it slip that she knew more than what she was told. However with her extraordinary ability to peer into people's thoughts and hidden desires, it was inevitable for her not to be drawn into the drama---nay, the farce that made up her employers' lives. Each household carried its own tale and each member had his own secret, but Nanase could see through the lies; for she knew better, she knew what was going on.

 Described as a picaresque journey into the inner sanctum of the lives and psyches of ordinary Japanese people, Yasutaka Tsutsui's The Maid is a deceptively simple piece of literature that harps on the age old adage not to judge a book by its cover made possible by a touch of the paranormal. Divided into eight chapters, representing eight households that Nanase Hiita has come to serve, Yasutaka Tsutsui cleverly presents a somewhat dismal portrait of the modern family steeped in intrigue and personal turmoil as observed by a cynical, unsympathetic outsider.

Written in 1972, The Maid  isn't so much a paranormal thriller like its sequel but plays out more as an anthology that makes use of old-fashioned storytelling techniques in tackling a central theme. On the surface, it's about the lies that people tell to each other and the things that they can't say; to a certain extent, it also explores man's base desires, the ones that are kept hidden and suppressed under the social order. As a satire, it can be considered as an unflinching critique of a society where the appearance of propriety and the observance of niceties transcend any act of impropriety or moral transgression.  It can also be argued as a harbinger of the slow but steady disintegration of the family unit that plagues today's society as inter-generational ties get broken and people increasingly fail to commit and communicate with each other on a personal level.
Everyone in the family knew their roles. They'd roam through the house with malice in their hearts, avoiding physical contact at any cost, and adopting poses they had mastered from soap operas.
The book is essentially a bundle of contradictions---on one hand, there are aspects of it that remain oddly relevant and haunting despite some notably archaic touches to certain chapters, on the other, it merely rehashes familiar storylines with very little regard for style or exposition. All the characters featured in it are generally vile and atrocious, in the midst of a breakdown or in denial of the truth, making them easily recognizable as common domestic tropes. There's the philandering husband, the suspicious trophy wife, the restless elderly and resentful children just to name a few, and these assortment of characters serve not only to tell minute stories but also to highlight culture-bound concerns framed in such a way as to produce both tragic and hilarious results. The issues confronted by the characters in the novel are familiar, even a tad universal; where a woman's frantic quest to remain youthful, a married couple's longing for greener pasture leads them to contemplate starting an affair with their neighbors, and an painter's narcissistic attitude spills onto his artwork reflect the worse of man's fears, selfishness and ambition. And yet despite this tired scheme, this collection of stories is undeniably Japanese and firmly rooted in modern culture. The context in which these stories are told bravely whittles through traditional preconceptions, going as far as to call attention to the duplicity in the observance of time-honored values in Japanese society such as modesty, discipline and hierarchy.  

It's hard to judge The Maid based on character and plot development because the novel in itself is episodic and choppy. Furthermore, very little is known of its heroine by the end of the story. In this regard, Nanase serves as nothing more than a conduit, a means by which the writer can cross the private and public divide and intrude upon his characters' thoughts and convey their feelings. There is an economy of words used, none of which would hit hard like a sledgehammer, but if there's one thing that can be said about this book is that the language used matched its indeterminate tone. Things are not always what they seem as every chapter often demonstrates the opposite of that which Nanase has come to expect would occur.

Writer Yasutaka Tsutsui utilizes an interesting technique to lull the reader into a false sense of reality, peppering the book with simple, seemingly inconsequential sentences that would eventually be discarded or negated, drawing attention to something and then dismissing it altogether, thus:
Red flowers were blooming in the front yard, but Nanase had no idea what they were; the names of the flowers did not interest her. 
Here's another example from the second chapter wherein the first sentence is dismissed by the one succeeding it, throwing the reader for a loop:
Every household has its own smell. Sometimes only the people who live there can perceive it; in other cases the reverse is true. Often the smell does not really exist but is only a psychologically induced association.
The language used is far from being descriptive yet there's a good amount of negation and misdirection involved if one were to pay close attention to the tight, conventional prose. Each chapter offers a premise that would eventually be shattered, as if to remind the reader that his telepathic guide is far from infallible and often guilty of misjudging people. Perhaps what's most interesting of all is that despite having some insight as to what motivates the characters to act the way they do, they can hardly be considered as predictable or manageable as Nanase can attest to---there's more to the floating landscape that makes up the consciousness of a simple housewife; an unspeakable fury locked within the saintly appearance of a neglected spouse; and a predatory instinct that burns inside a bored, seemingly harmless senior. The stories may appear drab and familiar but there's always that element of surprise, the possibility of discovering something new, for ultimately, human beings are complex creatures. 
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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 
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