Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Japanese Entertainment Farce: It’s all an Act—Thanks for your Purchase!$$

Japanese Entertainment Farce: It’s all an Act—Thanks for your Purchase!$$

With an Ode to Ayumi Hamasaki

Recently I have been listening to more and more Japanese music. Next to the U.S., Japan probably has the strongest music industry in the world. What surprises me the most, however, is not their massive recording industry (which is perplexing since Japan is nearly 1/30th the size of the U.S.), but unlike the West, Japan publishes and produces the largest underground current of talent I’ve ever seen, or for that matter, heard. Astonishingly, for every major platinum selling artist’s release there seems to be twenty independent or small labels being produced simultaneously. The competition is enormous—and if not rivaling America’s music diversity then it out does it.

This competition, in part, derives from the myriad of album sales and new releases here in Japan, but also by advertising. For example, I see fliers for garage bands and upstart bands on every major street corner in Hiroshima city. They perform outside coffee houses and nightly on the strip mall streets after the stores have closed. The evening walk becomes a block party of sorts. Like most city landscapes, Hiroshima city offers a venue of great eclectic taste where Arvil Lavigne, Ayumi Hamazaki, Eric Clapton, and numerous others have taken the stage. Yet this contrast of amateur (underground current) and professional (mainstream current) doesn’t deter the massive overall current of the rock/pop music industry. If anything, it propels it.

Yet beyond touring and paper pushing the best way to advertise your new song is to throw it on a commercial. Most desirably mobile/cell phone ads or car commercials, since these are the most viewed (or should I say paid attention to?) by television viewers. Thelma Aoyama is one such lucky girl, whose hit single played on NTT Docomos series of commercials for March and April, having accumulated in her single going triple platinum. Not bad for a first release for an unheard of artist. But it’s not just the advertising either, Aoyama’s song is so catchy and moving that it can’t but compel you to support her by rushing out and picking up her single. Her freshman album released earlier this month is far above your average J-Pop, and is oozes R&B soul hip-pop. Gladly, every track on her album is just as good as her break out hit single.

In Japan all major electronic companies have a Pop-Icon (more often than not a soft skinned beauty) who acts as the company’s spokes-singer-person. Not only does the idol become an advertisement icon (an advertising whore of sorts), but the idol’s song blares throughout the commercial (as they whore out a bit of themselves at the same time). This is all part of the advertising tease which tempts us to buy into whatever they are selling.

Ayumi Hamazaki, Japan’s number one Pop-icon and diva—quite literally the “Madonna of Japan”—is the official spokes-idol for Panasonic. Yu Yamada, the fashion model turned pop-star, is the official Canon Camera/printer spokesperson. The voice of Pepsi Japan is none other than the scarcely clad Koda Kumi (the list of women turned advertising agents goes on and on). Which begs the question, are these women selling the products, their songs, or their legs? They drip with sweat and sex appeal, and their talent is just a side dish in a much larger packaged deal (if you allow me to mix metaphors).

Granted, it’s all part of the overarching marketing technique, consumers buy what excites them. Most notably, what in Japan is popular for a few is surely going to be popular for the whole shebang. And these spokeswomen have one purpose and one purpose only: to tantalize and excite us. After all, it is what they do best, and working hard in order to sell their image is just part of the price they pay in order to maintain their commercial marketability and success.

Even so, you won’t hear me complaining –I enjoy their sex appeal as much as the next guy; and since these Idol-Icons are also the dolled up mannequins of the fashion world as well, women hang upon their every clothing decision and emulate it to high heaven. The various Idol-icons are plastered over every fashion magazine cover, and the only thing you can be sure of is, there’s no escaping their pouty glossed up lips and sultry gazes.

Ayumi Hamazaki is somewhat of a fascination for me. Not in the fan-boy obsessed with her sense, but in the “I’m absolutely terrified of her” sense. Even though I enjoy (immensely) her hard edged rock/punk/techno/pop sound, a sound fused with harsh base chords, apocalyptic sounding guitar riffs, and mechanical sounds all put to a techno beat, I find her televised persona is so sharp edged that her personality seems dangerously near intolerable to me. I don’t mean this as an insult, because I love her music and think she is very beautiful and talented woman. Yet if you’ve ever watched her ‘making of’ featurettes on her music DVDs, I think you will find a cunning corporate business woman who doesn’t take no for an answer lurking under all those frilly dresses.

Just like America’s own Pop-Queen Madonna, her Japanese counterpart Ayu (as her fans lovingly call her) has transcended the genre and helped redefine the Japanese music industry as we know it. She is mostly self-made, and as the story goes, Ayu angry at her manager over recording trivialities, supposedly, bought the record label outright from under him and fired his ass. That’s a stunt only a true diva could perform, and if you’ve ever seen Ayu stop a whole production shoot of a music video for the day because she’s fed up with everyone’s incompetence, you’ll get the idea of the status she has set for herself.

Ayumi Hamazaki quite literally is the queen of her own little world –and for this reason, I don’t see myself ever being in the same room with her. Not so much because of my healthy Ayu-phobia as much as my pathological desire to smack her upside the head. Again, I don’t have anything against her, per say, however, I just can’t stand the whole diva act. Yet like her American alter ego, Madonna, Ayu seems to be able to pull it off well enough. While she’s annoying one moment the next she’s so delightful that you can’t help but be taken with her—an enduring trait for sure. While I’m sure that in real life her personality is quite different from her made up corporate sponsored persona, truthfully I’d be too afraid to find out. Even so, I still find myself oddly drawn to her piquant personality.

Lately there seems to be an endless supply of Ayu doppelgangers who not only capitalize on recreating Ayu’s aesthetic Pop-Diva look but also shamelessly lift her sound. Koda Kumi is the most blatant offender, emblazoning herself with the “Ayu essence” but even as she seeks to be Ayu’s shadow this infringement hasn’t slowed Ayumi Hamazaki’s record sales down any. In fact, the competition of the two has spurred on a friendly rivalry, and both of their last studio albums (Ayu’s Guilty and Koda Kumi’s Kingdom respectably) came out within a week of each other, thus spurring on massive record sales for both. While I think Koda Kumi’s recent appeal is due to her emulation of classic Hamazaki, I’m glad Ayu is venturing off into darker territory. Koda Kumi will certainly stay in the realm of bubbly pop ballads and Ayu will continue to delve into the fringe where grunge, pop, and rock all come together.

Currently Ayumi Hamazaki has the chart topping single in Japan called “Mirrorcle World” but she’s in fierce competition with another Japanese oddity –dumb boys. I don’t mean this in a slanderous affront to boy bands, but rather, quite literally unintelligent young men (in their early twenties) who have taken the Japanese talent industry by storm.

There is currently a trend on Japanese variety television to host a slew of under-educated (because nobody in Japan is uneducated) barely literate, yet good looking, young people. These people, both men and women, have become an overnight sensation getting a huge break, namely breaking into the buiz at all, by showing off their rather lack luster reasoning faculties.

Their list of non-skills includes everything from reading to comprehension to answering simple trivia questions. Not only this, but they are quite absurd in some of the answers they do give, which causes me to question how dumb they actually are and how much of it is an act. Regardless of them hamming it up on talk shows, they do lack the basic kanji skills required to read normally, some even struggle with katakana, while others mutter the wrong phonetic syllables in attempting to read English sentences. During the game shows the various celebrity contestants must attempt to guess the meaning of what the idiots are getting at. If anyone can decipher the nonsensical from the stuttering baffled dunces, then the person who buzzes in with the correct answer gets points for their respective team.

Other shows showcase these buffoons and buffonettes as they take them on outings to various restaurants and historical locations, and Japanese audiences delight in the constant comedic commentary which can only be described as brain numbingly illiterate. Plato wasn’t wrong when he surmised that we would one day digress into a mob of brainless apes who gape at our own shadows flickering on the wall. With the advent of Plasma screen televisions (an obvious paradox when one considers the raw required brain power to invent such a technology), sadly, many of us have become just that –brainless and staring endlessly at the flickering version of ourselves we see on the wall. There is no better case of this syndrome than in Japan with regards to Japanese variety TV.

Again, unique to Japan is the multi-variety of the various idols and television talents. The very word “talent” implies that a person be good at something, and as is the tradition in Japan, each quasi-celebrity is exactly that –multi-variety-talented person. Multitalented would seem an oxymoron if you consider the vastly untalented examples which pop up in the mediocre medium of Japanese television. These jack-of-all-trades or talents (if we can call them that) are created and regulated by their major contracting organizations. Their images are often a part of an enormous multi-million dollar “illusion” of talent. If your comedian can sing, then they stamp out a single and walla (presto!) you have a comedian/singer. If they can act, even better, put them on a hit drama with some other contemporary talents and immediately you have comedian//actor/singers. The model works in reverse too and you can find any number of singers turned actor/actress who sits around talking about their talentedness over a dinner showcased on one of your numerous variety shows.

What then, in the world, does this phenomena of trend setting TV talents have to do with poor Ayumi Hamazaki’s maintaining the number one music single in the country? Well, recently the top three jesters of the mundane-intelligencia-doom-brigade (to coin a term for brainless idols) have banned together to form the band “Shuchishin” and cut a hit single (a Network decision I’m sure). The song, “Don-Mai” –which is a Japanese abbreviation for “Don’t Mind” which in turn is a misusage of the English phrase “Never mind”—have produced an up-beat melody with comical lyrics which has risen the pop-charts in concession with their continuing rise in popular culture fame.

Trend setters would be too honorable of a term to use here, but at the risk of implying that the majority of Japanese society consists of dupes who willfully cave into whatever new wave trend is being shamelessly advertised by the mega corporations seeking profit, I shall only say that at the risk of sounding negative, there is a lot of superficiality going on in the Japanese entertainment industry.

As an outsider it is obvious that the majority of this “trend setting,” from the set up to the eventual (hopefully) consumerist satisfaction, is completely manufactured and manipulated. I’m constantly surprised at how many Japanese people think that these fads are just the sign of the times. They’re not. They are 100% fabrication. More than we’ll ever know.

As such, real singers such as Ayu, who’s now enjoying her 10th anniversary as a Pop-icon and also proudly promoting her record breaking 10 years of *consecutive number one singles,[i] she must insistently contend with these constant upstart talents who seek to dethrone the Pop Queen of her miraculous record for consecutive top singles. But that’s showbiz baby.

Yet Ayu is as cunning as ever, and just like her precursor, the ever controversial Madonna, Ayu isn’t afraid to use everything in her command to combat would be talents; including showing a little extra skin. Her new CD single “Mirrorcle World” album cover is a very nicely photo-shopped image of Ayu cradling her cleavage and looking meekly seductive. Giant butterflies of an opaque plastic nature adorn her flowing strands of platinum bleached hair. Her golden locks, oversized Bambi eyes, and abnormally white skin give her an unsettling artificial look, like that of a toy doll. She is a pristine ornament to be idolized, even consumed, as we are teased relentlessly with her overtly sexual prowess. As an artist she sings her seductive rhythms hoping to entice us like an ancient Greek Siren, but more than this, she hopes to entice us to take out our wallets and ensnare our dollars.

Meanwhile, the new boys in town may be your regular variety of handsome but dumb prince charming(s), but Ayu is still the Queen, and in her genre she reigns supreme. Unable to break free of her spell, like zombie consumers we are bewitched by Ayu’s melodic singing. So profound are her little accomplishments that we can’t help but shout out a, “Hail to the queen,” even as her tower is stormed by a marauding lot of nincompoops.

It is as if the Three Stooges, in their bumbling antics, have miraculously amassed a hit single which could dethrone Elvis or even the Beetles. The concept is completely ridiculous, but it is a common practice in Japan –a country where the industry standard is to pump out superficial talents so lackluster that before we even get a chance to become bored with their lack of ability our attention has ingeniously been redirected to the next talentless talents. Without a doubt it’s a dishonest enterprise which seeks to swindle the consumer for every dime they’re worth, but then again, this is the Japanese entertainment industry at its best. Enjoy!

According to Wikipedia:

[i] In addition, the release of Hamasaki's 2008 single, "Mirrorcle World," made Hamasaki the only Japanese female artist to have a number-one single every year for ten consecutive years.[7] She is also the first Japanese artist to have her first original eight studio albums top the Oricon charts,[8] as well as the Japanese female artist with the most number-one singles, most Top 10 singles, highest singles sales, and most million-seller singles (this record for most million-seller singles is shared with band Pink Lady and fellow J-pop singers Namie Amuro and Hikaru Utada.)[9]

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Sisterhood of My Sassy Girl(s)

My Korean sisters!

These two beautiful ladies are Chin-Mi (left) and Jung-Min (right). I lived with both of these wonderful ladies for a full year in Japan, and we had lots of great times together.

(Yes, for those with keen eyes will notice I've put back on some weight since my wedding. For various reasons, of course, but primarily because with all the students on Spring Break I've been sitting on my butt at school all day.)

Recently, Mr. Terada the head of the Kumamoto Gakuen University 熊本学園大学 International dormitory 国際交流寮, the building adviser/manager who took care of us while we studied abroad, retired. We all showed up to his farewell party 送別会 and had a small reunion.

The wonderful surprise was that none of us knew the other alumni students were coming--the majority of us being from my tenure (circa 2003). It was a very big surprise, not only for Mr. Terada, but for us all. I was so elated to see them again, especially my Korean sisters and so I promptly ran right up and hugged them both!

While Chin-Mi is your standard prim and proper conservative Korean girl raised on wholesome Christian values, Jung-Min is your more flirtatious variety of Korean girl. I remember nights when I'd wake up in a fright having that strange sensation that 'someone was watching' me. Of course, Jung-Min was. She'd often sneak into my dorm room in the middle of the night, after getting a bit tipsy drinking beers and chatting with the other Koreans over some kimchi, and she'd sit on my bed and watch me sleep. As it turns out, she was a bit lonely and wanted company--if not some companionship. Such is the situation for minorities abroad, you often find yourselves bonding over the shared experiences of your particular situation.

Min and I would lie next to each other and talk. We'd console each other and each other's company was surprisingly relaxing. Sometimes she'd fall asleep on my shoulder in bed next to me and I'd gently pick her up, carry her to her room, and ever so careful not to wake her I'd tuck her in. Nothing ever happened between us, but our relationship was always very intimate.

Her personality is very upbeat and sassy--which I like in girls. If you have ever seen the amazing Korean film
"Yeopgijeogin geunyeo" 엽기적인 그녀 (My Sassy Girl- my all time favorite romantic comedy) then I think you'll recognize the actress Ji-hyun Jun's trademark sassiness, teasing, and strong independent personality; a trait which many Korean girls like to emulate.

Unlike Japanese girls, I find many Korean women are not shy about their flirting habits. They enjoy the flirtatious tease as much as the boys who are on the receiving end of it. Although, because Korean culture is extremely conservative they are less likely to engage in "intimate" physical relations.

The comparison is a very interesting one, because even though Japanese women do not engage (at all) in flirting and deny themselves any right to engage in the social aspect of the 'sexual tease' --a natural biological attraction between sexes which plays a larger part in our instinctual mating habits which in turn directly affects our romantic feelings-- Japanese women on the outside seem to be 'overtly conservative' by refraining to openly flirt. However, they are much more liberal when it comes to sex. I've noticed that Japanese women, although highly guarded in public, are much more willing to engage in mating rituals when contained to the private sphere.

Whereas, my personal experience has been, Korean girls will always continue to push the boundary of what they can get away with in flirting--only to suddenly back off when it gets to the limit where engaging in romance becomes intimately dangerous, so to speak. Calling them teases wouldn't be fair, and frankly it's a little demeaning, because they aren't trying to get away with tormenting anyone. For them it's not about going from first or second base, or even all the way, if you'll pardon the metaphor. It's just that in their culture that is all they're allowed to get away with before it becomes culturally unacceptable (to them). Personally, I find it fun and stimulating to be friendly in the manner. There's something playfully innocent about it.

My real Japanese sister!

Here's my new little sister! Yayoi (on the right) is my sister-in-law to be exact. I've always wanted a little sister. Isn't she cute? She and her boyfriend, Masahiro, and the fam, all went to Dono-Dono of the Pissolino co., which is a fine Japanese styled Italian restaurant with an all you can eat pizza and pasta buffet.

You may wonder about the unflattering picture of them eating, but don't worry, Yayoi and I love teasing each other. We have a fun playful banter going... and it's what makes having a little sister so much fun! All considered, it's the least I could do for my new little sister. After all, I love her very much, and even though she makes fun of the way I hold my spoon when I eat, or the way I play tennis, or how many McDonald's French-fries I can shove into my face, she loves to tease me, and I figured it was the least I could do to repay her. I love ya' sis!