TV, movie producers sucking up to talent agencies

By Don Brown

Unless you’re a suit-wearing mutant with a handycam for a head and an uncontrollable desire to breakdance in cinemas, the anti-piracy advert that plays before films in Japanese movie theaters probably doesn’t strike a chord. Presumably, there are still a few stubbornly traditionalist bootleggers out there who would attempt to sell you a blurry spasm-cam mpeg of Avatar shot on their PHS. But in an age where it’s possible to download high-definition rips of Adam Sandler’s entire oeuvre in a few minutes, and prominent DVD rental chains sell stacks of blank discs next to the counter with a figurative nudge and a wink, it feels a bit redundant to say “No More Eiga Dorobo” to a captive audience who’ve just taken an 1,800 yen gamble on your latest celluloid conglomeration.

Forcing all filmgoers to sit through warnings about illegal activity in which only a sub-atomic portion of the population indulges has far more to do with satisfying the Japan and International Motion Picture Copyright Association than the public. And in much the same way, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when domestic producers of multiplex fodder continue to push high-concept star vehicles designed first and foremost to fulfill the needs of the business interests involved—while seeming to ignore audience demand.

One recent example is last year’s "Kochikame," a TV series starring the gratingly cartoonish SMAP pitchman Katori Shingo, of the powerful Johnny’s Jimusho pretty-boy factory. TBS had intended to establish the show, which is based on a popular kids’ manga, as an ongoing fixture. But despite incessant promotion and a prime family-friendly slot at 8 p.m. on Saturdays, viewers were quick to sniff out the desperation. The show’s flimsy conception and over-reliance on celebrity cameos saw it end its uncelebrated run with a dismal average viewership rating of 9.3%.

So the recent announcement that this notorious failure would be receiving the big-screen treatment was greeted with a resounding “Heee?!” by entertainment insiders. One headline in entertainment tabloid Cyzo summed it up nicely: “Does TBS intend to take a lover’s leap with Johnny’s?”

The same thing happened back in 2007 with another Johnny’s idol, Koichi Domoto, and a Friday night series called "Sushi Ouji." In this case, a theatrical sequel was actually shot before the TV show that was to precede it, so when the drama suffered from poor ratings, the parties involved had little choice but to shunt the film into cinemas, where it opened in 6th place and slipped shamefacedly out of the top 10 the following week. It’s also possible that the film’s sponsors pushed advance tickets on to as many of their staff as possible to drive up the opening weekend total—a practice which is apparently not uncommon.

One might wonder why any business would persevere with such a loss-making proposition, let alone be reckless enough to repeat it. But the truth is that control-freak talent agencies reign supreme in the name-recognition-driven world of TV programming. They aren’t shy about throwing their weight around to protect their money earners’ delicate showbiz careers. If by chance one station decides to make a stand, the agency can always take its little pride and joy off to a competitor. The same applies for the entertainers themselves: for all but a few of the most famous names, disagreeing with an agency’s directives is usually a one-way ticket to obscurity.

With the decline of Japan’s major studios, television companies have stepped in to fill the vacuum. The result is the introduction not only of the low production values, pedestrian direction and tonal inconsistency characteristic of homegrown television dramas, but also the obsequious deference to talent agencies. How else can you explain the casting of Katori as Zatoichi? Or Eiji Wentz as Gegege no Kitaro? Or Koike Teppei as a homeless junior high student? You could argue that each actor brought certain qualities to his role and delivered certain audiences to the films, but you’d be going out on a limb if you said that they were logical choices.

Showbiz politics should be treated the same way as special effects: if they’re too blatant, it becomes hard for audiences to take a film seriously. Take the TBS production, "Rookies: Sotsugyo." True, it was an utterly worthless TV adaptation that epitomized the worst aspects of mainstream Japanese cinema. But its monomaniacal dedication to delivering exactly what the fan base wanted made it the top grossing film of 2009, and even propped up the network’s ailing finances. Sucking up to talent agencies might be a necessary evil for commercial filmmakers, but pandering to audiences is far more lucrative.

Don Brown is a subtitler and translator who writes about Japanese film at

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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Japanese Talent agencies = Yakuza

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I haven't watched TV in japan for um...8 years. Why would I when I can watch anything on earth live streamed on the net. Having said that, Kozure Okami (Lone Wolf and Cub)from the 70's is one of the best TV shows ever made and I highly recommend anyone who is interested in Japan to watch it.

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This makes me feel I made the right decision in getting rid of my TV. I hope the person who bought by TV realizes what Japanese TV is like. The only advantage my TV had was that it wasn't widescreen, so when set at the correct aspect ratio, the window on the corner with the annoying tarento's face doesn't fit into the screen.

I do miss some TV programmes (documentaries in particular) but it's just not worth having the TV. I watch stuff on the computer and I can also buy a TV adapter for it. I also get access to TV on the weekends at friends' homes if I'm desperate, or on my mobile's oneseg.

My number DAIKON YAKUSHA - probably Katori Shingo. His ever-evolving hairstyle is also annoying. I'm sure Japanese TV wasn't always like this. I enjoyed Saiyuki (with Sakai, Nishida et al) when I was a child, but the recent remake with Katori was plain embarrassing.

Summarizing, Japanese TV in general is plain unoriginal, immature, predictable, boring and lacking in substance and anything of importance to society. They say watching TV is a good way to improve one's Japanese, but, boy, have I tried. I've had more fun watching Korean dramas, and their plots can be quite lame.

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I hate SMAP so much I almost threw my iPhone 4 into the ocean after seeing their faces on the latest soft bank poster.

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Japanese TV is so boring with so many stupid shows. if Japan wants people to watch TV, they should start airing interesting TV shows that is worthwhile watching rather than trying to bring in new talent.

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I watched a drama this week with the actor Funakoshi Eichiro in it, and well he has got to be Japans number 1 DAIKON YAKUSHA. Im curious to know who your number one DAIKON YAKUSHA is? Anyway, this is just the way Japan rolls! The Japanese themselves like all these empty-headed-pretty-boys-with-no-talent-and-plucked-eyebrows. Frustrating and funny for foreigners, but when in Rome! But in saying this I like Kusanagi Tsuyoshi.... he has some potential.

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But the truth is that control-freak talent agencies reign supreme in the name-recognition-driven world of TV programming

I'd this is endemic in most large Japanese corporations. Most managers are only worried about exerting their influence on their underlings. Few are concerned with profit, or doing whatever you'd think a company would be doing.

Which is one main reason Japan Inc. is swirling down the toilet.

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what a wordy piece of crap article, by a frustrated screen writer

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went to the local multiplex today and out of 14 screens 13 of them were Japanese movies. Sadly by which I mean either bayblade/pokemon toy franchises or hanamizuki/umizaru/riding bicycle together under blue skies then crying and shouting in the rain type fodder. The only western movie was the A-team...just as crap. Don't blame downloads, blame producers. Thank You Criterion, you saved my evening.

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Thats why I never wasted my time watching TV in Japan. I got very annoyed having the same actors on every program. Also, why is it that on every program that has food in it, its always "ooooishiiiiii" or "uuuumaiiiiii" do they never run into any food that tastes like a$$??? Also I found it annoying when you watch something and then you cut to the "talento" and see their reaction or have them say a few words of what they just saw. But, on a good note, they do a great job on the cartoons, so i did watch those :P

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Yes, the Johnnys takeover of TV and movies is terrible.

And ridiculous. Is it really necessary to see one or more members of Arashi on the program or in the commercial every time you turn to one of the big TV networks. And plastered all over the trains on the ads.

I've always thought that the over-the-top media coverage of the "drunk and naked in the park" incident was a way for the networks to stick the knife in on Johnny's through their news departments (under the guise of it being a widely reported news story) because they were sick of having to suck up to them in the entertainment programming departments. Ran the idea by an acquaintance who works for a major TV network and they agreed.

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The agencies make money, but the talent often gets very little. In particular if they are new.

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"the gratingly cartoonish SMAP pitchman Katori Shingo",...that description sums it up best. they are all gratingly cartoonish, in my opinion.

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This was actually not a bad article. The author actually seems to know a bit about what he is talking about. And his writing style isn't too grating or obnoxious either. I could actually read it without rolling my eyes in frustration.

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Yes, the Johnnys takeover of TV and movies is terrible. Nothing stupider than seeing a pretty boy pop singer playing a cop or a doctor or a lawyer etc.

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