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Sunday, Dec. 4, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Japan's show-biz hacks fail to raise ante 24 / 7


Last Monday was a pretty busy day for Tokyo's entertainment reporters. At 11 a.m. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, fresh from spending Thanksgiving in Pakistan, held a press conference in Shinjuku to promote their movie "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"; and then at 2 p.m. across town at the Imperial Hotel in Hibiya, the press conference for "Sayuri," Hollywood's blockbuster version of Arthur Golden's international best seller "Memoirs of a Geisha," began with seven members of the all-star Asian cast and director Rob Marshall in attendance.

Big coverage of both events was guaranteed given the star power on hand, but one wonders what would have happened if Kiefer Sutherland's press conference, which took place Nov. 24, had somehow been scheduled at the same time as either of the aforementioned events. Though it sounds like a long shot given Sutherland's B-movie status, I might have put my money on more reporters showing up to see him. Sutherland was making his first trip to Japan to promote the DVD box set of Season 4 of the hit American TV series "24," in which he plays U.S. counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer. As an action figure, Bauer rivals anyone of comparable bulletproof heroism at the moment in terms of name-recognition.

Japan, in fact, has become such a huge market for the show that the box set was released here more than a week before it goes on sale in the United States, which may be a first for any major American movie or TV production. In addition, Sutherland is currently appearing as his action alter-ego in an advertising campaign for Calorie Mate, a sugar-and-margarine concoction that supplies instant energy for people who don't have time for meals. Since one of the jokes about "24" is that Jack Bauer is too busy saving the world to eat, he fits the image perfectly. In one TV spot, he saves the Tokyo Metropolitan Government while munching on a Calorie Mate bar. Carlos Bernard, another actor in the series, came to Japan in early November to do his own promotion, which included an appearance on a comedy show where he spoofed his character Tony Almeida.

"24" is easy to spoof. Though the structural aspect of the show -- each episode proceeds in real time, meaning that 24 episodes combine to form one full day -- is its main gimmick, over four seasons its dramatic sales point has become its air of anything-goes desperation. Within a 24-hour period, Jack Bauer kills and tortures a dozen or more people, and because he is racing against time to head off a nuclear or biological attack he doesn't have the luxury of pausing to consider the legality -- or morality -- of what he's doing.

In other words, "24" reduces the classic save-the-world spy genre to its most elemental decisions, the kind of grisly choices adolescent boys love to ponder: If you had to choose between getting a finger or a toe chopped off, which would it be?

On "24," however, you get two or three of these unusual choices in every episode.

Given the current "War on Terrorism" and, more specifically, America's use of torture by its agents and proxies in that "war," "24" could be considered up-to-the-minute and might have something to add to the debate. However, none of the 400 people who showed up at the Park Tower Hall in Shinjuku, Tokyo, even came close to asking anything about the show's effect on -- or reflection of -- America's officially sanctioned siege mentality.

Which isn't to say they didn't have questions. More than the usual number of reporters who come to this sort of event had their hands up, and as it became clear that they were there as fans rather than as journalists, I felt increasingly sorry for anyone who might have sincerely wanted to know Sutherland's feelings about, say, Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. Everybody wanted to know how the show maintained its relentless pace, or about how Sutherland felt when Jack finally killed his arch-nemesis Nina Meyers ("Actually, I've shot her twice"), or whether or not Jack would ever be able to keep a girlfriend ("You can save the world in 24 hours, but you can't fall in love"). "24" is just another action orgy. Though it exploits viewers' fear of terrorism and their suspicions that most governments condone extralegal means to fight it, it's too ludicrous and manipulative, and the people who make it want you to know that. You'd be a fool to take it seriously.

Then again, Japan's show biz reporters are cultivated in such a way that larger issues are usually the last thing on the agenda. You're not supposed to ask questions that might make the guest uncomfortable, as evidenced last spring when a non-Japanese journalist was reprimanded by a local distributor for having asked Ridley Scott about the Muslim reaction to his Crusades epic "Kingdom of Heaven." And while "private" questions are also a no-no, journalists can get personal as long as the comment is meant to put the guest at ease. When one reporter remarked on Sutherland's smoking on the dais at the press conference, it was a show of solidarity: Isn't it great that you can relax like that in Japan? Subsequent TV coverage of his visit dwelt positively on his cigarette habit. When singer Akiko Wada interviewed him for her variety show, she encouraged him to have a smoke with her.

Show business reporting in Japan is all about positive public relations, which is why foreign celebrities feel so comfortable with Japanese reporters. They may ask dumb questions, but they're so sweet about it.

In any case, the occasional insight can still be revealed. "Nobody in Hollywood holds a gun as well as you do," the host of Fuji TV's "Toku Da Ne" said to Sutherland. "Where did you learn such excellent technique?" "Actually, I grew up in Canada," the actor replied, "where guns are illegal."



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