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Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007

MEDIA MIX

They're fey, maybe not gay, but anyway, the 'talent' are coming out to play


It's been more than 9 months since this column last looked at Johnny's Jimusho, Japan's most powerful talent agency, and in the meantime a lot has happened to the young male charges of reclusive company president Johnny Kitagawa. For one thing, these charges, or at least some of them, are no longer young, which could be seen as a problem for an agency whose mission is to provide Asian females with pulchritudinous boys to gawk at and fantasize over.

In recent years, some of Johnny's most popular stars have reached their mid-30s. For idols of all shapes and genders that would normally mean irrelevancy, but Takuya Kimura (34) is as much of a god as he's ever been, and his colleague in SMAP, Masahiro Nakai (35), may be the busiest person in Johnny's stable. He's currently one of TV's most in-demand emcees.

How much Nakai's job load can be credited to Johnny's marketing efforts and how much to Nakai's skills and charisma is difficult to determine. When it comes to Johnny's, any analysis of normal show-business customs requires adjustment. The company's acts are considered guaranteed ratings-boosters and TV executives are careful lest they offend Kitagawa. Unlike other celebrities, Johnny's artists never talk about their private lives, and the media know better than to ask.

However, recent developments indicate this taboo may be loosening. Nakai is a semiregular on the live noontime variety show "Waratte Ii Tomo (You can Laugh)," and on Sept. 4, guest Dewi Sukarno, while discussing her own "ideal boyfriend," mentioned that Nakai was dating pop superstar Kumi Koda. The entire studio, as one Internet gossip site reported, "erupted into chaos."

Nakai and Koda's romance has been an open secret for months, but the fact that someone, even the famously outspoken widow of a former Indonesian dictator, would mention it on the air hit the tabloid press like a bomb.

The two sweethearts have since been dubbed the "national couple," a phrase that was last used in the early 1960s when singing stars Hibari Misora and Akira Kobayashi wed. Rumors of marriage have been reported openly, fueled by Nikkan Gendai's assertion that Koda once said she would marry by her 25th birthday, which is in November. They also cite intelligence that says the singer recently bought lots of furniture, a sure indication of approaching matrimony. But their main evidence is indirect: Neither party has denied the rumors.

Some commentators say the 75-year-old Kitagawa is too much of a control freak to not be orchestrating the romance, citing the fact that SMAP recently left their longtime label Victor and signed with Avex, which is Koda's record company. A few Web sites conjecture that Koda is camouflage for Nakai's real girlfriend, with whom he has been living for many years, though veteran showbiz reporter Masaru Nashimoto said in his OhMyNews Webcast that he hasn't found anything to support this idea.

Nashimoto thinks the affair shows that Johnny's is willing to grant its charges more freedom, presumably to keep them in the fold. It's believed that the reason Takuya Kimura was "allowed" to get married was because he was the one Johnny's star big enough to leave the agency without inflicting damage on his career. The relationships between talent agencies and media companies is such that if a star goes independent without his or her agency's blessing, the star is blackballed. But Kimutaku (Kimura's nickname) is exceptionally powerful. What he isn't is bold or imaginative. He wants to be Japan's Johnny Depp but seems to understand his limits as an actor. He could leave Johnny's, but that would mean actually taking charge of his career.

Is Nakai that powerful? Perhaps, but why take chances? Still, it seems strange that, except for Kimura, all of Johnny's thirtysomething idols remain single, and, while the media is too cowed to discuss it, Kitagawa must realize how it looks to the general public. That isn't to imply people think Johnny's stars are gay. As feminist critic Chikako Ogura has written, the main appeal of Johnny's acts is their unthreatening sexlessness. But isn't it weird that SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (33) repeatedly gets asked to play young fathers in TV dramas and yet offscreen remains nominally a virgin? The implied reason for the no-open-romance policy is that unattached male idols attract more female fans, but the popularity of Kimutaku almost a decade after his marriage to idol Shizuka Kudo puts the lie to that theory.

So, in addition to Nakai, we have TOKIO member Tomoya Nagase (28) admitting in an interview with fashion magazine Non-No that he recently broke up with his longtime girlfriend, while J-pop queen Ayumi Hamasaki says on her Web site that she, too, ended a relationship not long ago. Neither mentions the other by name, but everyone knows they were living together for almost 8 years. Ditto Nagase's colleague Taichi Kokubun (33), who mentioned superstar singer-songwriter Aiko by name when he admitted at a recent press conference that, after almost 10 years together, they are no longer an item.

Kitagawa has plenty of boys to exploit, but these older guys still make money. Most of Johnny's idols from the '70s and '80s have retired, while a few have made successful showbiz careers away from Kitagawa's grasp. The exception is Shonentai, whose three members are in their 40s and still belong to the agency. One, Katsuhide Uekusa, is, in fact, married-with-kids, but he was never as popular as the other two; in particular, Noriyuki Higashiyama, who has been touted as Kitagawa's successor when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil, but even that's a rumor. Nobody would be surprised if Johnny Kitagawa found a way to take everybody with him when he goes.



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