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Sunday, June 11, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Stick-thin, gay, or preferably both -- a television career awaits


Truth in advertising has never been strictly enforced in Japan, especially with regard to health-related claims. Breweries can get away with promoting "low-calorie" beers as weight-loss aids, while pharmaceutical makers sell vitamin supplements that claim to do everything from clear up your skin to help you get that promotion.

TV programming is worse. Variety shows that presume to offer health advice mask their irresponsibility by implying that they are primarily entertainment. The theme of TBS's "P-Kan Body" (Saturday, 7 p.m.) is "health and beauty," though what the program actually sells is a particular media-reinforced image of the body. Many of the guests are professional models and most of the information is about how to lose weight.

On the May 6 program there was a segment about a "diet" centered on white kidney beans. Viewers were told to roast and grind raw beans and then sprinkle them over rice. By May 30, 965 people had complained to TBS that they became ill after trying the recipe; 104 were actually hospitalized. TBS apologized and placed a message on its Web site that said people who became ill as a result of trying the "white-bean method" could request compensation for medical bills by submitting doctors' reports to TBS.

Once upon a time such a scandal might have gotten the program canceled, but these days people aren't expected to believe what they hear on a variety show even if many do. Certainly, anyone with common sense and a bit of high-school biology will take "P-Kan Body" with a grain of salt. One recent installment discussed how certain women ate as much as they wanted without gaining weight because of a certain intestinal condition. Though it was implied that the condition is inherent in some women and not in others, the program suggested yet another diet that could help you develop it.

In truth, "P-Kan Body" promotes neither health nor beauty. Weight loss schemes are notoriously dangerous and the models who appear on the show are pale and thin to the point of being scary. However, they are representative of a physical type that has become an ideal and thus the norm, at least on TV. Female announcers, for some reason especially those who do weather reports, are so emaciated that you feel pain in your joints just watching them lift their stick-like arms.

Nevertheless, Japanese television is as obsessed with food as it's ever been. It's as if the medium itself were suffering from bulimia: Everybody you see is always eating and yet somehow they're getting skinnier.

With this in mind it was interesting to read an article in the June 8 issue of Shukan Shincho (an English translation of which is available on the Mainichi Shimbun Web site) that said "fat talent" (debu tarento) are on the decline. Apparently, following the success several years ago of TV Tokyo's travel/eating series "Debuya," which features debu tarento, overweight comedians became the personalities of choice on variety shows.

But not any more. Shincho says the demand for fat talent is declining because they have been overexposed, which hardly sounds credible since every "talent" subgroup on Japanese TV, be they big-breasted women, funny lawyers or washed-up pop singers, is overexposed. Shincho's claim feeds the fallacy that viewers somehow determine who is popular, but TV popularity in Japan is a function of visibility. If fat talent are no longer favored, it's simply because producers don't want to use them any more.

The obsession with thinness may be a factor in this development, but that doesn't mean debu tarento can regain viability by slimming down. One showbiz journalist quoted by Shincho mentions that veteran comedian Kunihiko Matsumura has been losing work ever since he went on a diet -- he's lost 30 kg from his peak weight. Though the article implies Matsumura is talentless and has no discernible distinction beyond his girth, he started out as one of the best impressionists in the business. However, his steady weight gain during the '90s, along with his willingness to suffer any humiliation for a laugh, quickly got him pegged as the first major debu tarento. He was the pioneer.

Another popular big guy, Hikaru Ijuin, see-saws dangerously between full-blown obesity and mild chunkiness. Both Matsumura and Ijuin are semiregular guests on another health variety show, "Truly Scary Home Medicine," which goes into grisly detail about common illnesses that can kill you. These two are on hand to provide worst case examples, but if Matsumura is thinking of his health and losing weight, there's no reason to invite him back.

The journalist quoted in Shincho says Matsumura is destroying his career by becoming thinner, but if people are supposedly sick of overweight talent, shouldn't he be gaining in popularity? Apparently, the real issue is not losing weight, but refusing to do food shows. Shincho says that Hidehiko Ishizuka, the star of "Debuya," remains the only popular debu tarento, mainly because of the show. In other words, he does what he's told.

Actually, travel programs that require a lot of eating tend to scrape the bottom of the barrel for talent. More famous celebrities avoid such programs. Eating gorgeous food in restaurants sounds like nice work if you can get it, but the reality is different. A talent might have to visit five establishments in one day. After the second or third, eating becomes a chore, not a pleasure.

But whether you're skin-and-bone or blimplike, the most important consideration for producers is that you give the impression you're happy that way. No wonder, then, that Shincho says gays are now becoming the most popular talent category. TV is the only place in Japan where homosexuals can be themselves. What's not to be happy about?



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