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Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010

WEEK 3

Dangling around with the stars

Reporting from NHK's 'Kohaku Uta Gassen' ('Red and White Song Battle') TV spectacular live on New Year's Eve can be like grasping for celebrity straws blowing past in the wind


Staff writer

There is a type of reporting known as burasagari shuzai in Japanese. Literally, it means "hanging reporting," or "dangling reporting," and there can be no better illustration of why it is given this name than the keyed-up backstage zone at "Kohaku Uta Gassen" ("Red and White Song Battle"), NHK's annual New Year's Eve musical television extravaganza.

News photo
Dummy run: Mitsuko Nakamura, a popular enka (old-style ballads) performer belts out a number while stand-ins for members of the J-pop band Tokio get into the groove at NHK Hall in Tokyo's Shibuya district by waving uchiwa fans at a rehearsal for last year's "Kohaku Uta Gassen" ("Red and White Song Battle"), NHK's annual live New Year's Eve TV extravaganza. The Press are allowed to take photographs of the rehearsals, but not of the event itself. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS

The live-to-air "Kohaku" has so many performers — well over 50, if you count its MCs, celebrity judges and comedians in addition to the singers — that they have to use dressing rooms not only in the event venue, Shibuya's NHK Hall, but also ones next door in the NHK Broadcasting Center. It's during the stars' return trips from the stage to their dressing rooms, and, in particular, along a 20-meter stretch of corridor leading away from the stage, that the dangling reporting occurs — the only journalistic option available on the night.

At the most recent "Kohaku," held on the last evening of 2009, a Thursday, it looked something like this:

The reporters stood up on their toes the moment the NHK PR officer emerged from the stage end of the corridor, both arms held up as he proceeded to shepherd someone through — someone, a man with longish brown hair, someone who was . . . Takuya Kimura (!), a superstar member of (erstwhile) boy-band SMAP.

The realization prompted the media pack to swarm at the singer and his escort, who quickly barked a warning: "Keep clear at the front!" The journalists obliged, keeping in line until the pair had passed and then joining the chase from behind, holding out their microphones and voice-recorders and stepping on each other's feet as they threw out questions in the hope that just one would elicit a response; one did: "How was it?" Kimura was asked, and he turned his head and said, "It was great." Even as he spoke, though, he kept moving briskly forward and by the time he finished his three-word oration he had passed through the glass door at the far end of the corridor — the glass door that, the journalists had been sternly informed in advance, marked the end of the zone within which they were allowed to report.

The "dangling" in dangling reporting refers to the way the reporters pursue the subject as they move from one place to another (like wash behind a boat, or a bunch of keys hanging from a key ring). In the hierarchy of journalistic approaches to a source, dangling wouldn't rate highly — at least a few ranks below kakomi (surround) reporting, for example, which is what happens when a subject deigns to remain stationary to answer questions.

At "Kohaku," each dangling pursuit lasted around 30 seconds: short bursts of exhileration that — as they say about combat during war — were separated by long and tedious waits. While biding their time, the asssembled reporters stood on the side of the corridor assigned to them, comparing notes or watching one of several wall-mounted televisions (tuned to "Kohaku," of course). Alternatively, they could watch what was happening directly across the corridor from them — the side assigned for performers to line up along for the few minutes immediately before going on stage.

News photo
Pep talk: NHK's Keisuke Inoue, the 2009 show's chief producer, addresses its 50-plus performers assembled at a rehearsal for "Kohaku" held a day before the musical spectacular was broadcast live nationwide on New Year's Eve.

An unspoken rule of dangling reporting at "Kohaku" is that you can talk to the stars after their performances, but not before (and you can't take photographs at any time). And so, while postperformance journalist-performer interaction takes the form of a mad pursuit, preperformance interaction is a silent, awkward affair involving the two parties lined up, no more than two meters apart, pretending not to look at each other. Pretending.

Before singer Angela Aki took to the stage, she could be seen holding her hands in a prayerlike gesture. Shunsuke Kuroda, from the folk duo Kobukuro, got his voice in order by singing Bette Midler's hit "The Rose" into a water-bottle microphone substitute: "Some say love, it is a river . . ." and so on. Techno-pop band Perfume snapped photos of each other and their crew, while J-pop diva Kumi Koda chatted to her staff as a stylist fiddled with the half-meter-long plait that coiled snakelike over her shoulder and down her front.

The chief producer of this latest edition of "Kohaku," Keisuke Inoue, estimated that if you include all of the performers' attendants, there were around 5,000 people directly involved in the four-hour event. All of it — down to the last MC sound bite — was planned in a script that ran to more than 500 pages.

As for the dangling journalists, there were about 100 in attendance. Most major newspapers had sent two reporters; the sports tabloids and women's gossip magazines tended to have more.

Extra numbers were a significant advantage as they made it possible to cover both the main exit corridor and a "secret" back corridor by which some big-name performers tried to slip out unnoticed. One such "runner" was the night's biggest non-Japanese star, Scottish singer Susan Boyle.

"We got her at the back corridor," a stringer for the Tokyo Sports newspaper proudly informed me. "We asked her if she liked Kimutaku," he continued, using the nickname of Takuya Kimura, the SMAP member who had been tasked with escorting Boyle onto the stage.

"What did she say?" I asked.

"She smiled," he said.

"And?," I continued. But that was all they got, he said.

Slim pickings? Perhaps. But in a world where at least some members of the public are keen to read about the facial expression of celebrities, it's important for media outlets to have someone dangling around to record them for posterity.

That exchange with Boyle was deemed important enough to be reported, in varying degrees of detail, by three tabloids the following day, Jan. 1 — the first day of a new year that will surely come to a similar, dangling end come Jan. 31, 2010.



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