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Sunday, April 12, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Entertainment as a fun family soap


Last weekend, actor Shunta Nakamura was arrested for possession of hashish while sitting in a parked car in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. The suspect's father, veteran actor Masatoshi Nakamura, quickly obliged the showbiz media by performing one of those tearful apologies that everyone looks forward to under such circumstances.

Masatoshi is not only Shunta's father, he's also the president of the talent agency that manages his career. He told reporters that his son is no longer a client and that he will never work as an actor again. Such a strong statement might have made an impression if Nakamura Junior was popular or in-demand, but he's not. Still, from the tone of the pronouncement, it's clear that the elder Nakamura was speaking as a father, not a boss, and if Shunta is Dad's only client other than Dad himself, which seems to be the case, then it would be fair to assume that Shunta's calling has less to do with acting than with carrying on the family name. That's why Masatoshi took responsibility and unilaterally revoked Shunta's membership in the showbiz community. He can't very well fire him as his son.

If show business can be called a family business, it has more to do with ease of entry than anything else. As one showbiz reporter told Shincho magazine last week, in the 100-meter dash to viability as an entertainer, offspring of already famous entertainers start about 30 meters ahead of everybody else. Some, like Shunta, have been groomed and promoted by their parents, while others enter the trade simply through inertia.

Take the curiously monikered Imalu, the 19-year-old daughter of comedian Sanma Akashiya and actress Shinobu Otake. Several weeks ago it was announced that she would make her geinokai (entertainment world) debut, mainly as a model, since she will be featured prominently in the fashion magazine Zipper later this month. She will also soon appear as an FM radio personality, and there's talk about a CD somewhere down the line. Neither of her parents seem to be involved in these projects. They've been divorced since she was a toddler, and her father has only had occasional contact with her over the years; though, as he likes to joke in his self-deprecating fashion, he's been shelling out incredible amounts of money for her upbringing without really knowing how the money was spent.

Part of her education has taken place overseas, which isn't to say that Imalu is academically ambitious or even cosmopolitan. By all accounts, including her father's, she was a washout in school, and it's common for celebrities to send their kids to foreign private institutions that take anyone as long as the tuition is paid.

That's all beside the point when it comes to Imalu's career. Her potential as a future star is measured by her ability to generate coverage, which in turn makes it easier for her talent agency to sell her for . . . whatever. Does it matter if this coverage is derisive in tone? Bring it on. The wide shows and tabloids have made a fuss over Imalu while stating plainly that she has "no experience doing anything," as Shincho pointed out.

O f course, there are second- and third-generation entertainers who've transcended their family associations and made successful careers on their own merits. The most obvious example is Hikaru Utada, the daughter of singer Keiko Fuji and one of the biggest-selling J-pop artists of all time. Koichi Sato, the son of actor Rentaro Mikuni, is probably the most ubiquitous male movie star at the moment. Both got their starts with help from their parents, but they managed to take it from there.

They're exceptions, however. As music producer Masatoshi Sakai told Shincho, juniors are "in principle" inferior as artists. "They tend to grow up in an environment where they are always being flattered," he says, and that flattery is not for what they do but for what they are. They see celebrity as a given, and while the kind of awe their pedigree inspires can be transferred to the public by a resourceful talent agency, if the junior in question displays no originality, sooner or later the public realizes he or she is "just a normal person."

For that reason, most juniors vanish soon after they debut, a development that seems truly pathetic when parents take an active interest in promoting them. The king of Japanese media, Beat Takeshi, helped launch his daughter Shoko's singing career in 1998 by directing her first music video, and for that reason it received more than the usual amount of media attention. But then so did Shoko's decline into insignificance. She released two singles, got pregnant, married the father, divorced, and disappeared. She hasn't been heard from since 2005.

The only place juniors "with no distinction," as Sakai calls them, can be truly successful is on talk-variety shows, where the only requirement is a willingness to talk about oneself. Everybody wants to hear what it's like growing up in the home of a famous person, thus as long as these juniors are candid, they can get jobs. This has become such a lucrative sideline for talent agencies that some are going in the opposite direction, signing noncelebrity parents of younger stars who have established careers on their own and then selling them to TV shows where they talk about their famous kids.

But even with all the advantages that come with a recognizable name, it pays to start early. Several weeks ago, Yuko, the 11-year-old daughter of Takashi Aoyama, a member of the original idol boy-band Four Leaves, formally announced her intention to enter the music business at the group's farewell performance. Her father, it should be noted, was not present because he had died a month earlier, which explains the farewell performance. But whoever is handling Yuko obviously felt it was the perfect setting to make her move. The secret of success is to grab every opportunity.



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