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Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2001

SMAP: the hardest working easygoing 'boys' in show business

What could be more damaging to the image of a boy band (well, a Japanese boy band) than a brush with the law, even for a minor thing like illegal parking? Following his arrest and liberation from a Shibuya police station last weekend for just that, SMAP member Goro Inagaki is finding out just how bad it can be.

How long will the members of SMAP be able to hang on to their boyish charm?VICTOR ENTERTAINMENT PHOTO

Networks were quick to act -- television appearances were canceled, commercials were pulled off the air. A contrite and miserable Inagaki said at a press conference that he "wanted more than anything to work with SMAP again." Which, of course, is a decision left up to the band's agency, Johnny's Jimusho.

Rumor has it that all this will blow over in two weeks: SMAP is in the middle of a concert tour, and Inagaki's presence will be sorely missed. The general feeling in the media is that Johnny's Jimusho will play its hand carefully, but ultimately play it to the agency's advantage. Arrests are temporary but the SMAP brand name . . . lives on forever.

The truth is that Johnny's Jimusho cannot function without SMAP. No other boy band in Japan has been so successful or has had a longer life span: Generally, teen idols are perishables on a par with cheesecake left out on a summer day. But SMAP has managed to retain such adjectives as lithe and boyish (consider that the average weight for a SMAP member is 55 kg, a figure most men zoom past at the age of 15), while maturing in ways that deliberately contradict with the traditional boyishness of boy bands.

Leader Masahiro Nakai, who just turned 29, habitually refers to himself as an oyaji (middle-aged guy). Takuya Kimura is a father. Shingo Katori swills drinks on late-night TV. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi says his favorite role is that of a beat-up salaryman, avec wife and kids. But they still have the power to arouse maternal instincts in Japanese women with their kiddie fragility, something their fans, growing older with each passing year, have had to discard.

SMAP remains Japan's most powerful boy band, but they draw strength from the fact that they have never looked powerful at all. Confirming this is 10th anniversary album "Smac" (apparently an abbreviation of SMAP Music Anniversary CD), a work that could best be described as "halfhearted." Consider the CD jacket, which has the Fab Five sitting in a row, facing the camera and looking tired, even bored. As for their hairstyles, outfits, expressions: definitely low-key. As if none of them were really interested in doing this but did it anyway because they're good sports.

Any other boy band celebrating a 10th anniversary (count 'em, 10 whole years of band boyhood!) would not have resisted a bang, a splash, some kind of aura to charge the jacket photo. They would have at least come up with a better title than "Smac," which sounds like the name of a tasteless impostor group trying to be funny. But, no, it's SMAP all right, their gazes hovering somewhere above our heads, focused perhaps on some distant hinterland.

This lack of muscular commitment, of gutsy enthusiasm, has been the defining characteristic of a group that, collectively and individually, defies most categorizations. But, unlike predecessors Shonentai and Hikaru Genji, the members of SMAP have never been content with just singing, dancing and wowing the girls. From the beginning, they showed themselves willing (in a halfhearted, good-natured kind of way) to do a lot more. And TV network execs leap at the chance to get one guy to do two guys' work. Or three, or four

Consequently, SMAP is game for anything: MC gig, slapstick comedy, trendy drama, female impersonation, cooking, serving and clearing away the dishes. The boys' morphing abilities seem to be limitless. This is why they have managed to jog in perfect rhythm alongside the recession: The history of their 10 years is also the history of the postbubble era.

A huge part of the SMAP attraction is the veneer of effortlessness combined with its "don't-give-a-damn" attitude. In a fashion mag interview, Takuya Kimura was asked at what point in his life did he first realize he was a good-looking dude. His answer: "I haven't really thought about it. I looked in the mirror and all I could see was this pale, bloated face from drinking too much last night, and I'm thinking, 'Shit, I have a photo session in two hours.' "

Shingo Katori, aka Shingo Mama, seems to take positive delight in dressing up as a fictitious Japanese housewife who likes to slather everything with mayonnaise. As for Goro-chan, he excels at self-parodies in which plays the romantic yet overly sensitive lover.

All of this would seem to fly in the face of Johnny's Jimusho main mission: to promote their boys as fresh and earnest specimens of Japanese malehood. Indeed, the agency is famed for eliminating any elements not adhering to this guideline. Consequently, we have a curious double standard of irreverent SMAP behavior in public, with the agency protecting (or denying) this behavior in private.

Or perhaps this is, as the domestic journalists point out, simply a case of "the boys" romping around on the large and dominating palm of their father/benefactor, Johnny Kitagawa.

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