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Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

ENTERTAINMENT SPOTLIGHT

Otaku star Shokotan offers a little fan service


Special to The Japan Times

"I really care about how much proof of my life I can leave behind; how many concerts I can give and how many photos I can have taken," admits Japanese celebrity Shoko Nakagawa, better known to her legion of fans worldwide as Shokotan. "I'm just afraid to have any free time and I'm scared of doing nothing."

News photo
Confessions of a J-pop queen: Singer Shoko Nakagawa, better known as Shokotan, uses her blog to share with fans her obsession for anime, manga, "cosplay," video games and more. © 2008 SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT (JAPAN) INC.

It's been a typical day in the life of Shokotan. So far, the 23-year-old Tokyoite has participated in a photo shoot for a fashion magazine, filmed a musical number for a TV show and updated her blog numerous times via cell phone. Forget about dinner. After frequent wardrobe changes and whirlwind visits from hair and makeup staff, evening sets in with a round of press interviews at Sony Music headquarters in Ichigaya.

The constant grind of a pace like this might make lesser talents come down with a case of showbiz-induced "exhaustion," but it seems to sit just right with Nakagawa.

She explains, "I have lots of dreams and right now is the only time that I can make them come true." It's something every idoru (manufactured entertainer) knows, but is seldom willing to admit: The work hours are long, but the moment in the spotlight may be brief.

Although she's a comic artist whose work is serialized in a literary journal and a glamour model with a quartet of photo books to her name, Nakagawa is most often positioned as a J-pop act (her most recent album, "Magic Time," was released on New Year's Day).

But it's a willingness to embrace, and share with the public, her enjoyment of a wide gamut of geeky hobbies that truly defines her. It's impossible to imagine another female star of Nakagawa's stature who would say, "I like stuff like anime, comics, blogging, 'cosplay' (costume play) and drawing manga. After I get home, I sit in front of the computer for five or six hours straight. I play video games and enjoy anime until the early morning."

But in spite of her fondness for drawing manga (such as "Shocotan Quest") and dressing up as assorted anime characters, and having an encyclopedic knowledge of Bruce Lee movies at her disposal, Shokotan — daughter of the late singer Katsuhiko Nakagawa — seems ambivalent about identifying herself as an otaku (obsessive fan).

"Normal people might think I'm an otaku just because I'm into anime and video games," she says. "But hardcore otaku, who might know much more about anime and manga than me, could say, 'No, she's not really an otaku.' "

Even so, she's willing to admit, "Since I was in school, people have always called me an otaku. I was an only child, so while growing up I often had to pass the time by drawing or watching anime. Everyone does that kind of stuff when they are little, but years later I was still watching anime. My friends thought something was wrong with me. I tried to get interested in the things they were into, like fashion and pop singers, but I never really did."

By the time Nakagawa made her entertainment-industry debut in 2001 by winning a "new face" audition held by Popolo magazine, she figured, "I wasn't supposed to show this side of myself to people at all. But when I started writing about myself on my blog, people who had similar interests began sharing their comments with me. I finally felt some kind of acceptance. And I realized that since life is short, I should just be who I am and not try to hide it anymore."

Nakagawa's blog, which went online in 2004, played a major role in cementing her fame. She recalls of its origins, "When I started blogging, I was a very negative person. I felt like no one would want to read it, so I just wrote about things that I simply enjoyed, like anime and manga. But it was well received by people, and every time I updated my blog, I gained some kind of energy. Instead of being negative, I tried to be pleasant and write about things that I liked. I got addicted and I started updating and updating, sometimes as much as 50 times a day, and gradually I became a more positive and happy person."

By 2005, Nakagawa found herself a regular on TV shows such as "Osama no Brunch," where she tried to explain anime, manga and Internet culture to baffled panelists. Japan was in the grips of an "otaku boom," typified by massive interest in otaku havens such as Tokyo's Akihabara district and maid cafes, and Nakagawa was in the right place at the right time. Her blog's hit count skyrocketed along with her fame.

Then as now, Nakagawa's blog offered both a behind-the-scenes look at the daily life of a media personality and the inner workings of an impressively demented mind. Along with the expected snapshots of tasty desserts and fancy goods were pictures of Nakagawa sniffing her cat's rear end and sticking its head in her mouth, and covering her hair with the shells of dead cicadas ("When I discover their shells I become so happy. I want to thank them for living such a hard life and for leaving proof of their existence behind," she explains).

Over 1 billion blog hits later, a special link between Nakagawa and her fans has been forged.

"The fans who come to my shows also read my blog, so they understand what I'm interested in," she says. "I put everything on my blog, so they know about my personal life too."

You might think that this level of accessibility would lead to an army of devoted male otaku followers, and no shortage of stalkers, but Nakagawa insists, "It's not really like that. Maybe that sort of thing would happen to some other idol, but my male fans actually kind of look down on me in a way. The relationship between us is very close, but it's more like we're just buddies. They joke about how I can't cook and sometimes they even say I have a flat butt!"

As for female fans, "Sometimes I see normal, decent-looking girls at my shows," she says, "but down inside they can be deep, deep otaku. I sometimes get letters from them that say, 'I'm an otaku, but I can't tell any of my friends about it. But thanks to you, I don't feel so ashamed to be an otaku anymore.' I'm always really happy to hear that."

Having won over hearts and minds at home, Nakagawa set her sights West in 2008, making her U.S. concert debut as a guest of honor at the Anime Expo convention held in July in Los Angeles. Music acts from Japan have become commonplace at such events, but few aside from Nakagawa would relish the chance to walk the halls dressed in elaborate anime cosplay.

Still, she confesses, "I really thought that no one knew who I was and I never expected that I'd get a chance to do a live show in America." But thanks to YouTube clips of Nakagawa's many TV appearances and her association with anime such as "Gurren Lagann" and "Hakaba Kitaro" ("Graveyard Kitaro") — for which she provided theme songs — thousands clamored to meet her at the convention.

"I've never felt that nervous before in my life, but my live show went well and it wound up being a great experience for me."

Now Nakagawa believes that "American otaku are even deeper than the ones in Japan. Here, we have places like Akihabara and there's anime everywhere, so being an otaku can be an everyday thing. But foreign fans have to be really hardcore."

Yet while today's Web-fed otaku clamor for what's hot and the next big thing, Nakagawa says, "I'm really interested in the otaku culture of the '80s. Back then, there weren't so many anime and manga around. As time has gone by, there's been more and more titles released, but it's harder to find one that's original. Back when there were fewer, each title had more personality and distinguishing traits."

This keen interest in past pop culture has even extended to Nakagawa's musical career. "In the '80s and '90s, there used to be many singing idoru. But now, there's really not so many. People singing songs now are more like artists. If you are an idoru today, you just put on a bathing suit and someone takes pictures of you for a book. But I feel like they should have to wear a big pink dress and sing, too!"

True to her word, Nakagawa's 2008 single, "Kirei a la Mode" ("Beauty a la Mode") featured music and lyrics by Takashi Matsumoto and Kyohei Tsutsumi, who had previously collaborated on some of the biggest hits for legendary idoru such as Seiko Matsuda. Their involvement made the project yet another dream come true.

But the busy multitasking idoru is quick to point out, "We only have a limited life. You don't know how many more pictures you can draw. You don't know how many more songs you can sing. You don't know how many more times you can play with your cat."

Nakagawa's most sobering realization is saved for last. "You don't know how many video games you can complete while you're alive. . . . I'm constantly thinking about playing 'Final Fantasy 7.' "

"Magic Time" is out now. Nakagawa's blog can be found at blog.excite.co.jp/shokotan/ Patrick Macias is the editor in chief of Otaku USA magazine. He can be found on the Web at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com


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