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Sunday, July 17, 2005

MEDIA MIX

How gei can one get? 'Pretend gay' is as far as it gets


"Talent," or tarento, is the cushiest job in Japan -- maybe in the whole world. Though you are expected to have some kind of skill (gei), once you achieve a level of regularity as a TV variety show guest, the work is self-perpetuating, though it's by no means guaranteed forever. And rarely do successful tarento have to actually demonstrate their skills. They just have to be themselves.

If comedy seems to provide the shortest route to tarento stardom, it is also the most crowded, and distinguishing oneself from the next chucklehead is becoming more and more of a challenge. That's why many of the comedians who've had the most TV exposure in the past few years aren't always comedians in the strictest sense. They're more like guys with gimmicks.

One such guy is Michael, who performs elaborate aerobic dance steps while smiling broadly and telling one-liners that are mostly pun-based. Another single-monikered funnyman is Hiroshi, a former host-club employee who dresses the part (tacky suit, open collar) and, with hands in pocket and gaze cast downward, frets about the injustices he suffers and the general pointlessness of life in a woebegone voice.

Michael, whose act is clever but limited in scope, will probably be no more than a memory a year from now. Hiroshi, however, is gaining in popularity, which is ironic as his act is premised on the idea that he's a failure in everything he does. Now, when he appears on a variety show, he isn't always expected to stick to the act, which means he's graduated to tarento status.

Success-wise, there are more Michaels in Japanese show-biz then there are Hiroshis, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Laser Ramon (Masaki) Sumitani, a guy-with-gimmick who made his broadcast debut only last February and since then has become one of the most talked-about personalities on Japanese television.

At the moment, Sumitani only appears on one show, TBS's Saturday night comedy program "Daibakuten" whose segments are mostly suggested by viewers. Apparently, Sumitani got on the show by actually requesting to see his own alter ego, Hard Gay, a hardbody dressed in stereotypical S-M couture: black-leather hot pants, tight sleeveless zippered leather jacket, Beatle boots, big motorcycle sunglasses, and a leather cap.

Sumitani performs acts of yonaoshi (social improvement) in his Hard Gay persona, which, in addition to the striking costume, incorporates a great deal of suggestive pelvic thrusting and periodic outbursts of "Woooo!", a cry of abandon that has become as much of a trademark as Crayon Shin-chan's mischievous nasal tones.

Sumitani's gimmick is juxtaposing two manifestations of attitude that, while not mutually exclusive, aren't normally placed together in the same thought: being a responsible citizen and being a homosexual libertine who can't control his libido. Thus, when he approaches an elderly woman in the Sugamo district of Tokyo and offers to carry her across the street, it looks very strange.

Many people reject Sumitani's offers and suggestions. The sight of him with his crotch bobbing up and down and fingers furiously unzipping his jacket to expose his perfectly smooth abs and pecs seems to turn a lot of people off. "Gross!" exclaims a bunch of Shibuya girls when he appears in front of them on Fathers Day and asks if they've properly thanked their dads for all the work they have done. He waylays a couple of punks nearby and, after putting out their cigarettes in his pants ("You're not supposed to smoke while walking"), gets one of them to call his father on Hard Gay's own cell-phone (the "gay-tai") right there and then.

Hard Gay's beyond-the-pale antics position him closer to the anime/manga species of characters than they do to his fellow comedians. The gay thing is so stylized that it's impossible to take it at face value. Bondage freaks who dress this particular way make up a subculture that seems as corny as the Village People's "Greatest Hits." He's a stereotype in appearance only.

But it's a resolute stereotype. Almost all the messages on the "Daibakuten" BBS are about Sumitani, and they're invariably approving. Everyone from 11-year-old kids to middle age salarymen love the guy, mainly because he works so hard at his "gei," a pun that everyone uses. On camera, Sumitani never sheds his Hard Gay persona, which is irrevocably positive. Even when people on the street flee his advances screaming in terror, he has a joke at the ready and an ecstatic cry of "Woooo!"

But can he take the Hard Gay gimmick further? So far, Sumitani hasn't appeared anywhere else on TV, either as Hard Gay or with his partner in the comedy duo Lazer Ramon, or with yet another partner in the comedy sketch group Big Porno, a stage act.

Hard Gay's appeal is in the way his character interacts with people on the street, so he may not have much to offer in a variety show setting, where people mostly sit around and talk. Last week on "Daibakuten," he broke out of the yonaoshi pattern and tagged along with former idol singer Hiromi Go (their initials match) before a concert in Nagoya, and while it was funny watching Go squirm as Sumitani cajoled him into spanking him with a whip and joining him in a "Hard Gay dance," it wasn't nearly as interesting as the yonaoshi segments. . . . It was simply a series of dumb gay jokes.

Which brings up another question. Right now there are many popular tarento who are widely believed to be homosexual, but who never "come out" because it is still considered unacceptable. Here is a comic who, based on available intelligence, is not in fact gay but pretends to be in the most exaggerated way. If they all appeared on the same show, would they cancel each other out or double the fun? Everybody say "Woooo!"



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