Leave it to the heavy

June 19, 2009

As a features writer in Tokyo, I get to meet and interview a number of celebrities, both local and international. Hollywood celebrities can have vicious, controlling managers; it’s in the best interest of their clients, so it makes sense. But once the celebrity has said something their producers don’t want said, too bad, it’s out, there’s nothing to be done about it.

But not in Japan. Japanese celebrities are closely controlled by their talent agencies. In fact, unlike their often outspoken Hollywood counterparts, every aspect of their image is strictly manipulated. They are pigeonholed into a certain image, and photos, articles…everything is monitored and molded so as not to change that image. Fat celebrities can be photographed eating, thin dramatic actors cannot. Dramatic actors can’t be photographed smiling, comedians can. And no matter what the role calls for, young idols cannot be shown as looking anything less than perfect. (He’s playing a boxer? A tiny smudge on the cheek and voila! A badly beaten boxer!)

Of course, not being a particularly litigious society, heavy-handed managers and talent agency representatives are not enough to actually stop photos and stories from getting out. That is where the Japanese media comes into play. If a newspaper doesn’t choose to censor itself–which it is bound to do–a little pressure from the talent agency will take care of the problem.

This week, I interviewed a widely recognized Japanese comedian. My intent through the interview was to get inside his mind, to figure out how he thinks and how calculating he is in creating his characters and jokes. He is potentially interesting, and I wanted my readers to see that side of him. But during a particular question about the gender-bending on which he built his career, he leaned over to the talent agency heavy sitting in the corner, waiting for the go-ahead to answer the question. The answer? Go ahead, answer. It’s not a problem.

Of course, the answer had its merits, though on the whole it was safe, vague and bland. Following the interview, however, I was told I could not run his answer. Nor could I run most of what he said, because it was not the image they wanted to portray of him to the public. Thank God Russell Crowe isn’t Japanese. Imagine his poor talent agency trying to keep control of him. “We know he punched you, but we don’t want you to write about it.”

And, like the good Japanese reporter I am, I said, “OK.”