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Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007
Princess of pure mystery
The life of illusionist Tenko Hikita -- better known as Princess Tenko -- is veiled in mystery.
Born and raised in what she will only identify as a "snow-deep city in Japan," Hikita will not disclose her real name or birth year because, she says, of "various contractual conditions.''
Those apparently include one with Barbie doll-maker Mattel Inc. that requires her to look 24 years old forever. Others, with TV production company Saban Entertainment and her production companies, seemingly restrict her to only marrying U.S. citizens -- and even set the precise length of her bangs in millimeters.
But long before those veils descended, Hikita's big break came after she enrolled with a relative's talent agency as a teenager. Then, in 1977, she was suddenly asked to stand in for another of the agency's members, the famous magician Tenko Hikita, after he suffered a heart problem.
It was through performing one of the maestro's acts -- "The Great Escape from a Fiery Aerial Cable Car," in which she was suspended upside-down and bound with ropes inside a burning gondola -- that Hikita first shot to fame. A year later, in 1978, she debuted as a singing magician named Mari Asakaze, whose first single, "The Magic," was followed the next year by "Kuseni Narukara (It's Going to be a Habit).''
Then, when Tenko Hikita passed away in 1980, Hikita was asked to take over his name, and to perform illusions and dangerous escape tricks full time.
But with success came animosity, and the young Hikita was attacked for being cheeky and "too young to take over such a big name." Tired of the pettiness, she left Japan in 1986 when Bill and Irene Larsen, who ran The Magic Castle in Hollywood -- a famed venue for magicians -- asked her to move to the United States.
The following year, Hikita spread her international wings even further when she performed at the Cabaret de Champs-Elysees in Paris. After that, in 1988, she starred in both NBC's "Magic Kingdom" and ABC's "Incredible Sunday" shows on U.S. TV.
Such worldwide and small-screen exposure clearly didn't go unnoticed, because in 1990 Hikita was honored by the U.S. Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences with the title Magician of the Year -- previous holders included such big shots as David Copperfield, Doug Henning and Siegfried & Roy.
As her fame continued to snowball, in one month in 1994 Hikita drew an audience of 165,000 to her shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Then, in 1995, she said that a series of eight Princess Tenko dolls launched by Mattel sold 8 million in the first season. Not to be outdone, Saban Entertainment created "Princess Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic," a TV cartoon series that soon shot to third spot in the U.S. cartoon-viewing ratings, according to Hikita's agency.
Such successes led to a host of foreign invitations, including to North Korea, Brunei and Monaco, to perform for heads of state and royalty, Hikita said.
In fact, among her most ardent fans is the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who owns all eight Princess Tenko dolls and built a theater in Pyongyang bearing her name, Hikita said. Nonetheless, during two trips there in 1998 and 2000, she said she was kept under virtual house arrest -- and was then mysteriously followed after returning to Japan.
As to the burning question of romance, Hikita has often hinted about having glamorous relationships -- including one in which she announced that marriage was imminent with a Hollywood celebrity. Although many of her claims cannot be verified, the Japanese media long believed her lover to be Belgium-born Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme -- until he strongly denied it in 2001.
Whatever the truth of all that, Hikita appears to have plenty of other fish to fry. Not only is she on record saying that billionaires and members of royalty have made her offers of marriage, but that their proffered tokens of appreciation for her performances have also included gold, precious stones and even an oil field.
Astounding, for sure -- but so are her shows. During a recent Tokyo performance, this writer and a Japan Times photographer both strained our eyes for the first 30 minutes trying to figure out her "tricks." But try as we did to see through it all, she really just seemed to disappear at times, or float -- or teleport various objects. After a while we gave up, and simply savored the spectacle.
Although a white stretch limo sat ticking over outside the studio in Shinjuku throughout our recent interview, there was nothing but friendliness and cute giggles from the Princess herself -- and only the slightest of tension when her manager occasionally intervened on sensitive "scoops" she bestowed about her love life and times spent with Kim Jong Il.
As a young girl, you wanted to be an actress. Was there no conflict in yourself when you were encouraged to become an illusionist instead?
There was. At that time, Pink Lady [a female singing and dancing duo] was very popular, so my agency decided to launch me as a girl who could sing, dance and perform magic at the same time. But my image of magic was spooky -- like something carried out by a Dracula-like man and a woman wearing a long dress. It was far from an occupation I wanted to pursue. As a young girl, I also had problem about taking over a man's name. So I said that if I had to do magic, I wanted to do it in my own way -- with music I like, costumes I like, and magic I like. I was told I was the only one in Japan's entertainment world who made such demands, but I'm glad I did, as it's a matter that has decided my life.
Are you now able to work in the way you like?
Yes. I wanted to do all the stage direction, like in shows in Las Vegas or New York, so it's good that I can do everything in my own way.
How did you feel when you were named Magician of the Year in 1990?
I was really surprised I got such a big prize. But what surprised me most was that many reporters, like from CNN or NBC, asked me why I thought I got the prize, which mostly goes to white male magicians. Up until now, I understand there has still been no other female winner, and I think it's amazing I got it.
In Japan at the time, though, no one knew about the award, and even Academy and Emmy awards were only just beginning to be recognized. The minds of Japanese people in show business are still quite behind.
According to your agency, you do 300 shows in 200 days per year and earn about 15 million yen per show -- but you never rehearse, despite the complexity of your performance. What other special characteristics do your shows have?
Some people who come along have visual or hearing handicaps, and I'm proud that we have equipment to convey to them what's going on through special sounds, light, vibrations and variations in air flow.
Another specialty is speed. My show has been dubbed as being like a bullet, or "machine-gun magic." We do it in a way that makes audiences catch their breath, because I perform some of the illusions in 45 seconds, while it takes 20 minutes for some other illusionists.
You are sometimes described as living on chocolate and staying 24 years old forever. Do you really eat so much chocolate -- and do you lose at least 3 kg during each show, as it's been reported?
I like chocolate very much. But I sweat a lot -- I run around not just on stage, but also behind. I also have to worry about a lot of things, not just whether I function well, but whether all the equipment is working and other people perform well. There is a special training, called happo in karate, that's taught me to know what's going on all around me even when I'm looking straight ahead. It's difficult to work in this field if you can't do that. I must sense immediately, even behind me, if someone has moved or made a mistake.
So during a performance, my nerves are alert all the way to the tips of my hair and nails -- that's why I lose about 3 kg.
Although you are always smiling on stage, you have compared yourself to a swan that looks elegant but is desperately paddling underwater. As you have been taken to the hospital in an ambulance five times following onstage accidents, that seems quite apt.
On stage, I warp from one spot to another, but human beings can't really warp, right? When I'm gone, it means I'm running where the audience can't see me. But if I'm wheezing when I reappear, they'd know I was running -- so I must look totally composed. The media thought for a long time that I had a twin sister.
Accidents happen, and I often have to perform with broken bones, as actors have stand-ins but not me. For example, a couple of my ribs cracked onstage at Radio City when the equipment on my upper body functioned but not that on my lower body. But my American manager, who looks like Marlene Dietrich, said with a poker face: "Of course you'll do it, right? It's a contract." So I completed my monthlong run wearing a flat plaster cast.
Is it really true that your contracts with Mattel, Saban Entertainment and your promoters require you to remain looking 24 years old like the dolls made after you, and restrict who you can marry?
Contracts with each company are as thick as 2 meters. With Mattel it's mostly about the way I look, like hairstyle, hair color, weight, figure and skin color. That with Saban has a lot to do with name usage.
Manager: They are both lifetime contracts, so she has to maintain her looks for life. She can only marry a U.S. citizen according to the contract, as U.S. children believe from the cartoon that she is an American superstar.
What happens if you violate the contract?
There will be a penalty.
Like in the billions?
Manager: More than that.
Princess Tenko and Tenko Hikita are supposed to have different characters -- like Tenko Hikita doesn't talk or laugh, or make friends. Who determined this, and what are their other differences?
The character of Tenko Hikita was determined when I took over the magician's name. Princess Tenko is a character developed in the U.S., and the promotion company decided the character.
Tenko Hikita is a stoic woman who performs escape tricks risking her life. As magicians must be mysterious, she cannot talk or make friends.
Princess Tenko is an idol and heroine and never carries out dangerous escape acts which children might imitate.
Don't you get confused between the two?
I'm used to it now.
Who are you today?
When I can talk, I'm Princess Tenko.
As you are so restricted by contracts, do you ever feel like quitting?
Yes. But because I always have work the next day, I've learned to control myself thanks to all the support I have had in the U.S.
In Japan, I was often driven into a corner without help and felt I couldn't breathe anymore. But in the U.S., as long as I can attract audiences and maintain high viewing ratings they always take care of me, and that works for me.
Apparently, women in your U.S. audiences love it when you pull a big stunt using many male assistants, whereas Japanese men like it when you look relieved after performing a dangerous illusion. Do you make these distinctions on purpose?
Always. What people like in the U.S. often doesn't work in Japan, and vice versa. Even when my escape act is perfect, Japanese men hate it if I show off or act like a power woman. If I act like it was really tough and difficult, they think, "Poor girl. I must protect her" -- and then they give me lots of applause (laughs).
On the other hand, in countries with an unfortunate history with Japan, like China or Korea, I am careful not to use costumes like old Japanese armor that may remind people of past wars.
Female Japanese fans in their teens seem to admire you for your looks and fashion, while those in their late 20s and up see you as a symbol of career-building -- being independent and successful abroad. How do you feel about that?
I think you get stuck if you stay in Japan all the time. The women who see me and like me get interested in overseas issues, which I think is good for them. When I'm on TV, for example, I try to talk about overseas as much as possible to raise their interest.
So now to that topic. It has been reported many times since 1995 that you are going out with a Hollywood star and nuptials are imminent. Is that so?
Well . . . it's going well. But like many couples, we must respect each other's work.
Is it the same person as the one from 1995?
Well . . . at that time, I had not just one or two, but quite a few relationships . . . all with people in the entertainment world.
Does that mean you are not discussing marriage with one particular person?
That also happens. Sometimes I'm in a marriage-oriented mood, and then we may be talking about it.
So do you get proposals from many different people, and discuss marriage with each?
That's right. As I do 300 shows at different locations every year, I get into long relationships with different people at different places.
You have said that your honeymoon will be in space, and that you were being trained in Russia for a $20-million orbital space tour. Your partner isundecided, but would any of them join you in space?
In fact, one of them is actually training to go to space.
Does that mean you will marry that person?
If we do go on honeymoon, that will be the case.
Is it true that billionaires and members of royalty ask you to perform for them, and then offer you bars of gold, precious stones, and even oil fields and marriage as a reward?
Yes. In our (entertainment) world, big gifts are common.
Who was the person who offered marriage?
There were quite a few, but I can't tell you who as they are still alive. Many are from Asia. There was also one from Africa.
How do you refuse their offers?
I don't. It's too scary. I tell them that I'll visit again and we'll talk. I keep a mobile phone hotline for each, and I record a new message every week. I call back when I get an emergency call.
It is also said that you own about 50 luxurious houses around the world. Is that so?
I perform in many countries, and once there, I stay for one or two months. It gets stressful in a hotel because I don't have my own things, so there's a house in every location where I perform. It's handy, because I can leave costumes, like my kimono, and I don't have to carry them around.
Which house is your favorite?
The one in Las Vegas is my favorite. I have many animals, like a white tiger and a mountain lion. I can relax with them there.
Your pets' feed is said to cost 3 million yen a month. Is that right?
It's probably more. I also have a kinkajou (kind of raccoon), two white lions, eight horses, a Serval cat (African wild cat) and a dozen dogs. Lots of them.
Apparently you also have a Punsan dog from Kim Jong Il, a protected species in North Korea. Is it true that it is the brother of the dog offered to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung?
Yes. I was told they are brothers.
You visited art festivals in North Korea in 1998 and 2000. Is it true that Kim Jong Il is an avid fan and has all eight Princess Tenko figures?
According to some reports, you have not met Kim Jong Il in person. Is that true?
I did meet him.
Why have you not revealed in other interviews that you met him?
North Korean officials kept telling me that the country is at war, and that I can reveal official things but not unofficial things. They kept saying, "Now it's official" . . . and then, "Now it's not." In the end it became confusing. I was also afraid that what I said could have serious consequences, so I decided to tell all the media at the time that I didn't see him.
Is it OK to reveal that now?
Manager: At that time, North Korean relations were even more sensitive than now, with most media not even writing about it. At that time, it was like a taboo, but the situation has changed.
What did you talk about with Kim Jong Il?
Well, about the world of entertainment and about illusion . . . but also ordinary things. He was very interested in Japan. He seemed to have thought I was American, and he praised me for my success in the U.S. despite being Japanese.
The Sankei Shimbun in Japan reported that North Korean officials talked to you about political matters during your 2000 visit -- like the fact that they were not planning to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea in the summit planned later that year. Did that not make you uneasy? What else did they say?
Yes, it made me uneasy. They said other things too, which became a reason for TV companies to follow me. But I think the matter is a bit too sensitive to talk about.
Were you also approached by Japanese politicians?
Yes. I spoke to top-level people in each political party, and to the person in charge of advising the prime minister. I told them what I thought I could.
Was a theater bearing your name really built in Pyongyang?
It was almost ready in 2000. The difference between regular theater and this one was that it has many features that can be used for illusions, like secret doors. They showed me all those.
What was it called?
They called it the Princess Tenko Theater.
In 2006, U.S.-based GQ magazine claimed that your passport was taken away during your visit to North Korea in 1998, and that they didn't let you leave.
Manager: It was a similar situation in 2000. Both times, her return to Japan was drastically delayed.
Did they say you couldn't leave?
Yes. But the first time (1998) wasn't so bad. They let me go after I said I would return in a few months, and that I needed my own stuff.
But strange things apparently started to happen after you refused to visit in 1999.
There were phone calls where someone tells me to go to North Korea, and two men pretending to be policemen tried to take me away.
It has also been reported that a replica of a high-value, antique Mickey Mouse that was stolen from your car in 1998 was mysteriously placed in you home.
Did the police determine these were North Korean plots?
That's what they said.
Manager: From 1998 to 2000 there was less information about the North, and what she saw or experienced was not well known to the rest of the world. In that sense, many intelligence agencies -- from Japan, the U.S., China, South Korea and Europe -- tried to get in touch with her.
Japanese police concluded that was the case, but private citizens like us have no access to the truth.
But then you went again in 2000.
In 2000 there was lots of pressure, including on my family, for me to visit the North. I couldn't cause my family trouble, so I thought I should go and talk. For my protection, I borrowed a TV camera from TV Asahi and broadcast what I was doing there. But again, my stay ended up being long.
There was a report that you fell seriously ill during your 2000 visit.
It was a big mental shock to hear that they would not let me leave. I asked to see Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor I also met in 1998. He said that I should stop using the medicine or drips that were given to me, and he gave me German medicine. But North Korean officials got angry and he had to leave. My condition worsened and I couldn't stand up anymore, so I had to stay in hospital there for a month.
Why did they say you couldn't leave?
They said that in the North there is a theater where I could work, a place to live, a maid -- and I could live comfortably. So they said there was no need whatsoever for me to leave.
So how did you manage to leave in the end?
I said in a very straightforward manner that I promised to return in one month, but there was work I had to do in Japan. I also said there was voiceover work for a U.S. animation that couldn't be done by anyone else.
Did you get chased after that?
Yes, for a long time. There have also been scary things. I had police and security protect me.
Will you go to North Korea again?
I don't go now because there is no need for me to go.
Is it also because you might not be able to come back?
Finally, do you think there will be another Tenko Hikita to succeed you?
One male Tenko Hikita, then a female Tenko Hikita; I think it's complete.
Manager: She is in a "Hitori Takarazuka-jotai (Single-person Takarazuka situation)" -- referring to the Kansai theater comprising many flashy actresses. She is the only star -- forever.