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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000

MEDIA MIX

SMAP star finds true love, new role


When the public recently learned that 28-year-old idol Takuya Kimura was marrying singer Shizuka Kudo, who is already four months pregnant with his child, the SMAP-man's image immediately changed from sex symbol to . . . well, actually, the image still seems to be under construction.

At the impromptu press conference "Kimutaku" (his abbreviated nickname) held two weeks ago outside the venue where he and the other members of SMAP had just performed, he came across as a starry-eyed romantic. This is probably closer to his true nature than the Love God image that grew out of his reputation as the man Japanese women most wanted to take to bed, not to mention ads where he appears with an Elvis sneer and a come-hither expression.

To me, he's always been a kid, especially compared to the other members of SMAP, all of whom have successfully developed individual public persona that reveal a mature understanding of their strengths and a real talent for self-promotion. Whether he's bumping and grinding in a whiskey commercial or playing a classical pianist in a TV drama series, Kimutaku still looks like the ingenue who just had stardom thrust upon him. In fact, he's most appealing when he makes fun of his sexy image, as he does in a recent series of credit card commercials playing a self-consciously macho but nevertheless attentive boyfriend.

The new romantic image becomes sharper when you learn that, as a teenager, he was a huge fan of Onyanko Club, the idol girl collective to which Shizuka Kudo originally belonged. The Love God himself, it turns out, is like the rest of us: in thrall to pop stars. The main difference is that he got to sleep with his idol.

Kudo's image, on the other hand, hasn't changed at all. "Shizuka" also means "quiet," and despite her career as an idol singer, she has never played the role of the bubbly, eager-to-please boy toy that so many of her professional peers were forced to assume. Unlike Kimutaku and his facade, Kudo's smoky, secretive image seems to be closer to her true self.

Dekichatta kekkon (marriages as a result of an unexpected pregnancy) are less scandalous in Japan than they are in the West, especially for celebrities, but some of the women's magazines have been hinting that Kudo planned her pregnancy and without necessarily consulting her partner beforehand. In the eyes of the press, Kudo, having hit the big three-o, is desperate for a child.

So in a sense, the roles that usually emerge in a high-profile celebrity wedding have been reversed. Kimura is the gushing, blushing bride and Kudo the grounded groom. A gang of TV reporters managed to ambush the singer outside her home on Nov 26, but she effectively brushed them aside. The only question she answered was a rather stupid one regarding just what it was about Kimutaku she liked best. "Everything," said Kudo, "as a human and a friend." She could have been talking about her accountant.

The fact that she could go so long without the press knowing about the pregnancy is an amazing feat in itself. Kimutaku's production company, Johnny's Jimusho, which handles all the major male idols, probably already knew about it. Ironically, the lyrics to the current SMAP hit, "Lion Heart," refer to the narrator's unborn child. Given the audacity and skill, not to mention the speed, with which Japanese talent agencies combine their charges' private and professional lives, it's not difficult to imagine that the song was written with Kudo's baby in mind and its release timed to coincide with the public finding out about it, but actually the song predates the pregnancy.

I'm not even too sure if Johnny's is pleased with the news. The company keeps a notoriously short lease on its charges, controlling everything about their lives. Marriage means that they are going to have to share Kimutaku with Shizuka.

Then again, there is the baby. If it's a boy, you can bet Johnny's will be there in the delivery room with a contract.

One thing's for sure, SMAP will be singing "Lion Heart" on NHK's "Kohaku Utagassen" Dec. 31. Last week, the broadcaster announced the lineup of singers who would appear on the traditional New Year's eve music show, and the media has been busy ever since analyzing the choices, which are mostly no-brainers since they're either the artists who sold the most records during the past year or enka singers who show up on an annual basis. Being invited to appear on "Kohaku Utagassen" is traditionally considered the greatest honor a Japanese singer can receive all year.

Most of the media talk has been about three veterans who will appear despite the fact that each was involved in a scandal this past year. Though NHK has never said so outright, artists supposedly have to have spotless reputations before being considered. Any whiff of scandal disqualifies them.

Though this unwritten law seems to exist more in the minds of the press than in any secret memo the broadcaster has ever circulated, because the three tainted artists are slated to appear there's been speculation on the "wide shows" that NHK no longer wields the kind of power it once did. Some commentators have even said that the show's days are numbered, at least in its present form as a competition between rival teams of singers.

In any case, "Kohaku's" irrelevance is showing. Of the domestic artists who produced the five best-selling singles and five best-selling albums in Japan this year, only one, Ayumi Hamasaki, has accepted an invitation to appear. The others, having better things to do, politely declined.



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