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Sunday, May 3, 2009

MEDIA MIX

SMAP star Kusanagi causes naked rage among media


Between the time the media first heard the news that SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi had been arrested for public indecency and his press conference the next day, there was a frisson of titillating anticipation over what the scandal might reveal and how Kusanagi would emerge from it. Even now, speculation runs to whether or not the 34-year-old star is a miserable guy with a drinking problem who may be totally fed up with the control-freak tendencies of his management and the soul-sapping demands of his bizarre occupation.

It certainly would have been a bombshell had he announced at the press conference that he was packing it in and moving to a mountain hut to grow sweet potatoes. But that wasn't what happened.

Kusanagi was predictably humble and apologetic, and if his answers to silly questions ("Have you gotten naked after drinking in the past?") sometimes raised eyebrows ("Once while drinking with [fellow SMAP member] Shingo Katori we got down to our underpants"), they nevertheless seemed designed to remove any doubt that he wanted to put this embarrassing incident behind him and return as quickly as possible to the life of a wind-up panda.

Kusanagi's fans have been loud in their support for the fallen idol and in their condemnation of the arrest itself. What exactly did he do that was so bad? At least he admitted he drinks too much, unlike former finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa, who still denies he was drunk at that hilarious Rome press conference in February.

And even if he woke a few people up, what is so criminal about getting naked and stupid in a park? How many inebriated salarymen humiliate themselves in worse ways every night in the vicinity of, say, Shinbashi Station? Kusanagi even neatly folded his clothes after he took them off.

In actuality, discounting communications minister Kunio Hatoyama's characteristically hyperbolic eruption ("He's the lowest form of human being!"), most people don't think it's a big deal. The overreaction is a function of cognitive dissonance — Kusanagi is the last idol one would expect to be caught drunk in public, and therefore the incident invites more than the usual scrutiny.

And it's the scrutiny that's the problem. Kusanagi's management company, the seemingly invincible Johnny's & Associates, may lose billions of yen as a result of the scandal. The government has already removed Kusanagi as its representative "character" for promoting the changeover to digital television broadcasts in 2011, replacing him with somebody in a deer costume. More significantly, Toyota Rent a Car and other companies have canceled contracts for TV commercials featuring Kusanagi. Johnny's may even have to pay damages.

The advertisers' extreme move is not really a manifestation of prurient attitudes. When it comes to TV ad campaigns, image is everything. Apparently, several makers of alcoholic beverages removed their commercials, none of which featured Kusanagi, the day after the scandal broke because they thought people would be turned off by any suggestion of drunkenness. As pointed out in last week's issue of Aera, Toyota voided its contract because it was afraid viewers would make a connection between the SMAP star's alcohol consumption and the touchy issue of drunk driving.

Aera quotes an unnamed showbiz reporter who says that Kusanagi is at the bottom of SMAP's price pyramid. At the top is sex god Takuya Kimura, who commands ¥80 million for a commercial message (CM). Next are leader Masahiro Nakai and youngest member Katori, who get between ¥60 million and ¥70 million. Kusanagi and Goro Inagaki, who himself was involved in a scandal in 2001 after a hit-and-run traffic incident, rate ¥40 million each.

Though Kusanagi is considered the least "popular" of the five members, at times he's been the most productive in terms of total earnings, owing to his nice-guy image, which was solidified almost overnight after he starred in the hit 2002 movie "Yomigaeri" ("Resurrection"). He may not make as much per job as stud muffin Kimura, but he gets more of them.

Advertisers who wanted to reach young housewives used Kusanagi because he conveyed a credible gentleness. He was cast in roles as considerate husbands and fathers in CMs and TV dramas, even though in real life he remains single and, reportedly, unattached.

Though most people came away from the scandal thinking that Kusanagi is sad and lonely (he was, after all, drinking by himself), these advertisers, according to Aera, are afraid that consumers will equate the drunkenness with the kind of violent men who mistreat women. At the time of his arrest, Kusanagi was appearing in four frequently aired commercials that have since been taken off the air. TV stations are already reeling from diminishing ad revenues, so even the loss of four CMs is a big blow, which means their resentment against Kusanagi and, in turn, Johnny's is acute. How that resentment will translate monetarily is anyone's guess.

But whose fault is that? The principle at work here is the old truism about the higher you climb, the further you fall. Johnny's isn't the only talent agency to oversell its charges, but it may be the least prudent. Despite the company's tight grip on its idols' portrait rights and personal lives, it doesn't really show a lot of concern for the quality of their image. Johnny's will take any job that pays.

The media refer to SMAP as "monster" idols, because they have devoured Japanese pop culture. Their reputations are based on the perception that they are everywhere and inescapable.

Still, it's assuming too much to believe that Kusanagi has become disillusioned with his lot. He may be overworked and cognizant that he's a manufactured star, but that doesn't mean he dreams of being something else. It's damn nice work if you can get it; you just have to be more careful about where you take your clothes off.



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