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Sunday, June 24, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Big breasts, funny hair, anything dumb — the way to go on TV


Last spring, TV tarento Rei Kikukawa made news when she appeared in a bra commercial. TV commercials are the bread-and-butter of most tarento (media stars), and Kikukawa has done her fair share, but since gaining stardom she's managed to avoid overt exploitation of her sex appeal. That's because she has always been promoted as an "intelligent idol," a young star with brains to match her looks.

Kikukawa is a graduate of the University of Tokyo, an accomplishment that carries with it the aura of intellect. However, a survey of her TV work reveals very few obvious differences in intellectual capacity between Kikukawa and the average female idol. On the Sunday evening Nihon TV news show "Bankisha," which she co-hosts, she rarely offers opinions and mostly reads from the script. The show doesn't require her to be smart, only to represent smart.

The bra commercial may indicate that such a label is no longer enough if Kikukawa wants to maintain her workload. Intelligence, in fact, may be falling out of fashion.

Obaka-aidoru (dumb idols), or, more simply, bakadoru, are the current rage. One program seems to have created the fad: "Hexagon 2" (Fuji, Wednesday, 7 p.m.), a quiz show hosted by caustic Osaka emcee Shinsuke Shimada, who was a juvenile delinquent before becoming a popular comedian in the 1980s. Since then, he has turned into a preening autodidact; a bullying funnyman who shows off his self-education and success (he has published several books about investment and finance), usually at the expense of others. If the Osaka style of comedy is basically the art of picking on the weak, Shimada has created his own niche of picking on the intellectually inferior.

"Hexagon 2" purposely draws out the cerebral shortcomings of its guests as fodder for Shimada's humor. The original "Hexagon" was considered a little too difficult for average viewers, who couldn't quite make sense of the rules. When Shimada revived the show in late 2005, he made sure that it was easy to understand. In the beginning, it followed the same basic idea as the original show, which is not so much answering questions correctly but guessing whether or not an opponent will answer a question correctly. Shimada's idea was wickedly clever. Guests may purposely answer questions incorrectly as a strategy to foil their opponents, but their egos often prevent them from doing so since they want to show off their knowledge.

This core idea has evolved to its natural end. It's funnier to simply expose the lack of knowledge of the guests right away. Before the program, all 18 celebrity contestants take a 50-question test and are divided into three teams according to the results, with each team set up as a hierarchy of brain power. Some of the games are built around the contestants with the lowest scores. In the "Announcer Quiz," the team's designated bakadoru reads a question that includes difficult kanji. Based on the reader's garbled interpretation of the characters, his or her teammates have to guess what the question is and answer it correctly. However, most of this segment is given over to the post-question analysis of the reader's cognitive blight.

Needless to say, the bakadoru are the stars of the show, and tend to make repeat appearances. What's required is that they accept the insults and expressions of disbelief with smiles, and while a few men have managed to gain entrance to this special club, the membership is overwhelmingly female and cute. Several months ago tarento Ayako Hatta, another graduate of the University of Tokyo, appeared on "Hexagon 2" and didn't do as well as expected. Shimada had a ball.

Since the show entered full bakadoru mode its ratings have soared, even beating out Nihon TV's "Ichioku-nin no Daishitsumon (The Big Questions of 100 Million People)," which has ruled the same time slot for more than a decade. As a result, other quiz shows have started to feature dumb idols.

Though the focus on airheads is new, the media obsession with general mental capacity isn't. Anyone who graduates from a reputable institution of higher learning automatically enters the ranks of the elite, regardless of how he or she utilizes that education. Traditionally, show business was the sanctuary of the poor and socially marginal. This has changed over the years, but as Shimada's case illustrates, entertainers are still self-conscious about being seen as uneducated. It's often noted in the showbiz press that the male idols who belong to Johnny's Jimusho, the most powerful talent agency in the country, are almost never allowed to appear on quiz shows. They are basically raised by the agency, which emphasizes sellable showbiz attributes. General education is not a priority.

But what passes for "intelligence" on TV is usually just a bigger store of trivial information. Certainly it reflects poorly on someone — parents? teachers? the government? — when a comedian who graduated from high school cites Korea as a city, as one did several weeks ago on "Hexagon 2." But even the tarento who get the answers right are essentially just proving that they remember what they studied in school, which is hardly an extraordinary accomplishment. No utility value is placed on intelligence except as an advantage on quiz shows. It's treated the same as big breasts and funny hair. In real-life terms (job offers), the intelligent idol is really no different from the dumb idol.

In a current TV commercial for the Yomiuri Shimbun, a talent agent informs his young charge that he's to appear on a quiz show the next day. "Don't look stupid," the agent growls, "or you'll ruin your image." The kid grudgingly picks up a copy of the Yomiuri Shimbun and starts reading, muttering to himself, "It's probably too late." Yes, but if your agent doesn't know by now that stupid sells, then maybe you should get a new one.



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