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Sunday, March 15, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Japan's 'silly couple' reunite despite domestic violence


For the past few weeks, America's showbiz media has lingered over the alleged beating that R&B star Rihanna received at the hands of her boyfriend, the equally popular singer Chris Brown. Below the titillating layer of scandal is the story's more sobering subtext of domestic violence (DV), a social problem that still remains mostly out of sight. Quite a few commentators, including talk-show goddess Oprah Winfrey, have pointed out that such a sad case might have a silver lining if it prompted battered women and their violent mates to seek help. The effectiveness of the example was undermined, however, when it was reported that Rihanna had returned to Brown's arms.

A similar story made the headlines here recently when 50-year-old singer Koji Tamaki and 45-year-old actress Mariko Ishihara were declared an item23 years after a domestic violence episode shattered their relationship. Tipped off by a scoop in the tabloid Nikkan Sports, reporters met the couple at Tokyo Station on Feb. 25. Dressed in matching reversible winter coats and caps that reminded one journalist of the kind of tacky "pair look" you see on honeymooners, the couple told the media they were on their way to register their marriage.

Few celebrities are as famously dysfunctional as Tamaki and Ishihara, whose affair goes back to the early 1980s, when he was gaining stardom as the lead singer of pop group Anzen Chitai and she was the hottest teen ingenue in the land. Legend has it that Tamaki, married at the time to a woman who was a fan prior to his breakthrough, met Ishihara even before the release of his first hit single, "Wine Red no Kokoro," in 1984. Ishihara later claimed that the song was written for her.

The media didn't find out about the relationship until February 1985, by which time the two were living together in Ishihara's home. Tamaki divorced his wife in April 1986, but the affair didn't last much longer. Ishihara was hospitalized for a month with a fractured vertebra reportedly caused by Tamaki, but according to the magazine Shukan Bunshun that wasn't the reason for the breakup — his father disapproved of the relationship and wouldn't give the union his blessing.

No charges were brought against Tamaki, and he resumed his music and acting career. Ishihara, however, was for all intents and purposes washed up. Though she appeared in the occasional TV drama over the next decade, it was usually in a sequel to "Fuzoroi-na Ringo" ("Irregular Apples"), her hit TBS series from 1983.

Though the scandal had something to do with her lack of job offers — professionally, women suffer more for romantic indiscretions than men do — Bunshun says that she never got over Tamaki, and that this obsession made it difficult to concentrate on her career. She moved to Los Angeles where she eventually wed an American man, but the marriage didn't last long.

In 1991, Tamaki married Hiroko Yakushimaru, another actress who became a big star as a teenager. Unlike Ishihara, Yakushimaru had a reputation that was as pure as the driven snow, and the tabloids wondered what she saw in damaged goods like Tamaki. Shukan Shincho interviewed a former colleague of Tamaki's who said that the singer also wrote a song for Yakushimaru (apparently, he does it for every woman he meets, even reporters who interview him), which may have sealed the deal in her heart, but part of that deal was that he live with her in her parents' home. It was a promise he couldn't keep, and they divorced in 1998.

Veteran record producer Masatoshi Sakai told Shincho that Tamaki has an "infantile tendency" to purposely stimulate "the maternal instinct" in women he's attracted to; an observation supported by a former friend's assertion that Tamaki expects to be indulged by his staff. If he writes a song in the middle of the night, he immediately summons them to hear it. He married his keyboard player, Satoko Ando, in 1999, because she was willing to take care of him despite this temperamental neediness.

Ishihara returned to the public eye in 2006 with her tell-all book, "Fuzoroi-na Himitsu" ("Irregular Secrets"), in which she graphically described not only her sexual relations with 13 famous men, including actor Kiichi Nakai and comedian Sanma Akashiya, but also the infamous beating Tamaki gave her in 1986, which almost left her paralyzed. She also wrote that they tried to commit suicide together.

The book was a hot topic. Ishihara even directed the film version. However, according to Bunshun, Sato was shocked by the DV revelation, and in 2007 she divorced Tamaki. Ishihara heard about the split and contacted her former lover last July. He was suffering from pancreatitis and wallowing in self-pity. Eventually, the talking led to a reconciliation on Valentine's Day, when Ishihara visited Tamaki at his home in Nagano Prefecture. That was it. "I realized she had come to save me," Tamaki told the reporters at Tokyo Station, who noted that he looked bloated and unwell.

The idea of lovers reuniting after decades apart is a popular subject for romance fiction, but when the media refer to Tamaki and Ishihara as a "silly couple," they don't mean in it a romantic way. Some reports have even questioned if the elopement is legal, since it isn't clear that Ishihara finalized her American divorce.

In most reports about the reunion, the DV issue is a footnote, but Shincho asked a psychiatrist for her opinion, and she was told that people who reconcile in such an emotional manner often repeat past mistakes, adding that Tamaki's alleged violence was probably switched on by something specific to Ishihara's personality. It sounds like the sort of justification that defenders of Chris Brown have reached for: She made him do it. In any case, veteran showbiz reporter Masaru Nashimoto, asked for his opinion by Shincho, wasn't optimistic about Tamaki and Ishihara: "I give them six months."



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