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Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Highlights and lowlights of a year in the media


Media Person of the Year: Bae Yong Joon

The overwhelming popularity in Japan of the bespectacled Korean actor carries with it a multitude of meaning that has yet to be fully grasped, despite the equally overwhelming coverage he's received. On the most obvious level -- the one having to do with Bae's hold on the imaginations of older Japanese women -- the press have exhausted every analytical resource to reveal something that was hardly news: These women are starved of romance, which most lack in their own marriages and many have never even experienced.

Given the sappy sentimentality of "Winter Sonata," the soap opera that made Bae a star, the sort of romantic love these women long for is a pipe dream, and Bae's character is so tragically "good" that his main appeal to his fan base -- his consummate sensitivity -- can just as easily be viewed as a weakness when applied to real life.

Japanese male celebrities dismiss his fanatical female fans as being dumb and impressionable, but given that these men are in show business (Beat Takeshi is one such critic), their reasoning sounds defensive. They don't resent Bae because he's Korean but because he has managed to keep himself above it all without being condescending to his fans. These fans also made "Untold Scandal," a movie starring Bae, a box-office hit when it was released in Japan last summer. Bae's character in the movie, a Korean version of Choderlos de Laclos' infamous 18th-century French novel "Les Liaisons dangereuses," is a scheming sexual libertine -- in other words, the complete opposite of his character in "Winter Sonata" -- and he was totally convincing. In the final analysis, the meaning of Bae's popularity shouldn't be considered in terms of Japanese husbands, but in terms of Japanese heartthrobs. Compare Bae's performance in "Untold Scandal" with Takuya Kimura's in "2046," and you'll realize there is no comparison.

Runner-up: Megumi Yokota

Two years ago, when Kim Jong Il revealed that North Korea had indeed kidnapped Japanese civilians over the past 30 years, the media made Yokota, only 13 when she was spirited away in 1977, the poster child of the abduction issue.

As the affair has become more clouded amid realpolitik considerations and Pyongyang's lack of credibility in all matters diplomatic, Yokota's iconic status has become more intense, mainly because a larger portion of the media and the public have come to suspect that she still may be alive. Such suspicions, reinforced by simple, evocative photographs of the young woman leaked from the North, are almost impossible to bear.

Best TV commercial: Staff Service

The purpose of this series of spots for an international recruiting and temporary employment service is to get people to quit their jobs.

Each commercial explicates, with hilarious brevity, the intolerable silliness of corporate culture: two salarymen compete to see who is the most obsequious; sycophants help a company president cheat at a round of golf; a new girl walks in on a gaggle of fellow OLs in the ladies room as they gossip about her.

A caveat is in order: Just because Staff Service finds you a job elsewhere doesn't mean you won't be expected to follow dumb social rules. The situations are universal, but it's heartening to see them lampooned so ruthlessly.

Worst topic: Blood types

Like the stereotype about the Japanese having longer intestines than Westerners, the physiological myth that blood type determines behavior and attitude is written in stone simply because no one has bothered to debunk it, but this year the topic was the subject of an inordinate number of variety shows and seasonal specials, so much so that the government agency in charge of monitoring broadcast content asked networks who aired such programs to cool it, since they encouraged stereotypes: A-types are obsessive, B-types are self-centered, etc.

The topic was also very popular in Korea this year, but there the stereotyped attributes were the opposite of those in Japan. In Korea, B-types are obsessive, A-types self-centered, etc. Nature or nurture? "Must be the kimchi," one Japanese celebrity commented.

Most annoying TV personality: Kazuko Hosoki

Combining the fashion sense of a seedy bar mama-san with the imperiousness of Leona Helmsley, this veteran fortuneteller has become a nightly fixture on the commercial networks. The appeal is not so much the supposed accuracy of her predictions but rather her abrasive manner. Celebrities, whose job it is to offer up their private lives to scrutiny, are hauled in front of Hosoki, who tends to provide put-downs rather than reassurances. "I'm going to tell you everything" is her mantra, but she has more to say about their checkered presents than about their uncertain futures.

The attraction is that you get to watch famous people squirm, but the anticipated schadenfreude is counteracted by Hosoki's arrogant convictions. If any celebrity dares challenge her opinions or predictions, she always tells them they are "going to hell." Even worse, they may not be invited back on the show.



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