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Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011
Being amateurish is what makes SMAP such pros
NHK's "The Professional" profiles, through interviews and situational coverage, people who are notable for their dedication to some craft or business vision. The series grew out of "Project X," the very popular documentary series about Japan's industrial breakthroughs of the past, and is meant to spotlight innovators and creative types who are currently operating.
Last week, the series featured SMAP, which may sound like a joke. Though the five-member boy band is the most famous pop act in Japan, their professionalism is not directly linked to their singing and dancing abilities; and the program made it clear that SMAP's success, both as a group and as individual stars, has nothing to do with capability. Because they appear on TV so often, the five men, ranging in age from 34 to 39, have occasionally admitted that they know they aren't talented. It isn't just false modesty. They aren't talented; at least, not in the way that people profiled on "The Professional" usually are. But that doesn't mean they aren't professionals. They are professional idols, and the program was forthright in showing what that means.
SMAP's management company, Johnny & Associates, is notorious for keeping a tight rein on its charges, but NHK freely followed the group on various assignments during this, its 20th year in show business. The centerpiece was SMAP's first ever performance in a foreign country, its September concert at the Beijing Olympic soccer stadium.
NHK also accompanied SMAP to Iwate Prefecture for a gig at an elementary school in the disaster area. The group and its management received some criticism a few months ago after it released an album supposedly for charity and people suspected that very little of the revenues were earmarked for relief. The Iwate event was not publicized or covered by the media, in accordance with the group's wishes. Senior member Masahiro Nakai told NHK that the show was not promotional in nature and that "we expect nothing in return." The purpose was purely tonic, and while they only performed two songs they spent two hours shaking hands.
This is more than "fan service," which, in this case, would be a misnomer since SMAP's core fans aren't in elementary school. (Would real fans, during the Q&A session, ask their heroes how much money they make?) The whole idea of ganbaru (doing your best), which is central to the campaign for rehabilitating the disaster area, is also central to SMAP's appeal and their value as entertainers. As middle member Goro Inagaki put it, "Our job is to make the best effort we can within our abilities." It's why, he added, they take on every job "that's put in front of us."
SMAP's name value has remained high for more than 15 years, and it's clear the members believe it's due to the appearance of making an effort, though NHK explained how Johnny's used SMAP shrewdly at a time when Japanese show business was changing.
For several years after the group debuted in 1991, it was a failure. No one bought its CDs or attended its concerts. TV music shows, which were considered essential to the making of idols, were on their way out. Johnny's then sold SMAP, mainly as individuals, to the producers of the burgeoning variety show format, and they caught on immediately because such shows made idols accessible as people.
This sort of exposure allowed each member to develop his own specialty. Nakai is now a variety-show host, while heartthrob Takuya Kimura and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi are popular TV and movie actors. Inagaki does stage plays, and the youngest, Shingo Katori, is a jack-of-all-trades, not to mention the group's stage director.
However, none of them are creative types and they know it. They are passive entertainers, employees. As Inagaki said, they do what's "put in front of us." "I'm not even an interesting person," Nakai said. As a TV host he spends hours preparing because "I can't ad lib." Inagaki expressed amazement that anyone would want to see them in concert. "There are thousands of professional dancers and actors who are much better than us," he said in a tone that revealed this should be obvious to anyone with common sense.
It's obvious, but there's still an element of denial in SMAP's worldview. The group started out as a sextet, and after attaining stardom Katsuyuki Mori quit to become a motorcycle racer, undermining the other members' confidence. Mori was the most conventionally handsome member and the best dancer. His quitting suggested disillusionment with the whole idol concept, which is based on identification.
Idols don't have to be capable, because they represent the hopes and dreams of people who will never be idols. That's why they do more talking than singing in concert. It's why SMAP spent so much time on its Chinese stage patter. "We have to become partners with the audience," Kusanagi said, laying out the whole purpose of idolhood.
During many of the interviews, the members betrayed ambivalence about their situations. "I always feel like I'm running," Katori said backstage before the Beijing dress rehearsal, "and I've never understood why." Kimura admitted he resented being "made into an icon" (by fans, not by Johnny's) because he couldn't bridge "the image gap."
Nakai tried to be philosophical. "Success isn't guaranteed if you work hard," he said, "but growth is." Actually, he's got it backwards. Mori grew. It's why he quit to pursue something he felt strongly about, something where success was easy to determine. SMAP hasn't grown because Johnny's has never invested sufficiently in the group's capabilities. The members have lived in this world since their early teens.
"This is my job," Kimura said, meaning not singing and dancing and acting, but rather working for Johnny's. When asked for his personal definition of professionalism, Nakai answered, "Being a first-class amateur."