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Sunday, May 13, 2007
One culture's dirty old man is another's dandy
Despite the close proximity of the world afforded by the Internet and global media conglomerates, intercultural ignorance is still pretty common. Richard Gere almost got himself arrested in India when, during an AIDS-awareness event last month, he grabbed Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty and kissed her.
Public physical displays of affection are no-nos on the subcontinent, and, besides having his likeness burned in effigy by conservative Hindu groups, Gere was also threatened with incarceration by one offended judge. Cooler heads in the country tried to play down the prurient reaction, saying that it reflected badly on India's profile as an emerging economic power.
But even if you grew up in a Vegas whorehouse the sight of Gere grabbing Shelty and bending her over backward in a comic attempt to sweep her off her feet may make you wonder if he shouldn't be arrested for something. Isn't there a law against being corny? At 57, Gere is no longer the stud-muffin he was when he made "American Gigolo." Cary Grant and Fred Astaire were still romancing ingenue Audrey Hepburn in movies when they were well into their 50s, but off-screen and on they maintained their poise.
Like many boomers, Gere thinks it's more natural to act like a dumb kid in public (remember when he waltzed with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi?), but kissing a woman half your age in a display of mock passion makes you look like a dirty old man.
Still, there are some celebrities who want to look like dirty old men. Keisuke Kuwata, the leader of one of Japan's biggest-selling pop-rock bands, Southern All Stars, was already a sukebe ojisan in the 1980s, even though he's a few years younger than Gere. In fact, last summer his band released a single called "Dirty Old Man," as if to make sure nobody forgot.
As it turns out, Kuwata has replaced Gere as the celebrity symbol for Dandy House, an "aesthetic salon" where men can get rid of wrinkles, remove body hair, lose weight and generally try to look more like a stud-muffin than a dirty old man.
The old Dandy House ads featured Gere with no accompanying catch copy, implying that by himself the actor conveyed the image the company wanted. The new ad campaign raises suspicions that maybe the very white Gere strained the fantasies of the Japanese target demographic a little too much. The catch copy of the Kuwata campaign is "Nippon Dandy?" That question mark says it all.
In the new Dandy House TV commercial, Kuwata is standing around uncomfortably at a high society function in a Western ballroom. He spies a white woman in an elegant evening dress coming down a staircase, and then a distinguished older gentleman kissing her hand in greeting. He gives it a try. Maybe he uses a little too much tongue, but after the kiss the woman wipes her hand on her dress with a disgusted look on her face.
Maybe it's easier for Japanese men to identify with Kuwata than with Gere, but what is a viewer supposed to take away from this ad? That Dandy House will make you attractive to glamorous Western women? It's more like: You really think you have a chance?
But that sort of thinking would be putting the cart in front of the horse. One thing to keep in mind when digesting Japanese advertising is that the sale is not always as important as the hook, which in this case is Kuwata. Rather than consider the import of the commercial based on its message, it makes more sense to consider the messenger.
Kuwata is releasing a new single this Wednesday, his first in five years as a solo artist. "Ashita Hareru kana" is already being used as the theme song for "Propose Daisakusen," Fuji TV's springtime, trendy drama, which is broadcast Mondays at 9 p.m., traditionally the time slot Fuji reserves for its most important serials.
One of the B-sides on the single is "Otoko-tachi no Elegy," which is used in the Dandy House ad, and the B-side is "Konna Boku de Yokattara," which soundtracks a new commercial featuring Kuwata for American Express. Similar in style to the Dandy House commercial but different in mood, the spot again features Kuwata as a less-than-confident Japanese abroad, but once he flashes his AmEx card he's given a primo hotel suite where he can strum his guitar to his heart's content.
That's not all. Kuwata also appears in a new Meiji Chocolate ad in which he's playing chess with a young white woman dressed as a maid. Scheming to catch a peek up her very short skirt, he purposely drops a chess piece on the floor, but while bending down to pick it up he sees not the object of his desire but the woman's beaming face. "Checkmate!" she declares. Kuwata dons an apron and proceeds to clean the room as the maid reclines with a bar of chocolate — the dirty old man tripped up by his libido.
But that libido makes money. Maintaining his image as he grows older is important, especially since Kuwata has more or less rewritten the same three songs since Southern peaked creatively in the early '80s. The reality of the image is beside the point. He's been married to his band's keyboard player, Yuko Hara, for 25 years, but that doesn't stop him from pointing suggestively to his manhood and dry humping the hired dancers in concert as his wife sunnily sings along stage right.
Besides, political correctness has never gained much of a foothold in Japan, and Kuwata's popularity is limited to the archipelago, meaning his shenanigans are less likely to offend other sensibilities the way Gere's did.
The worst that could be said about Kuwata's image is that, like Gere breaking a move on Shetty, it's vulgar. But there is a difference. As the American actor finds it difficult to retain his residue of dandy sophistication entering his twilight years, Kuwata naturally grows into his dirty-old-man image.
It pays to know your culture.