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Essay

Old SMAP, new SMAP

By Patrick St. Michel

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The breakup of the J-pop group SMAP was one of last year's biggest shocks in the music industry. Over the course of the year, this topsy-turvy episode featured live apologies on TV, dramatic fan reactions and a lot of coverage from the Japanese media. At the end of the year, though, the long-lasting group called it quits, with three of the outfit's five members leaving their talent agency for good.

Recently, however, signs of life from that trio have popped up, exciting fans in Japan and across the world. In late September, a mysterious website appeared, promoting something new from Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori. Presented as a puzzle of sorts, astute fans realized that the title of the site — "Atarashii chizu" — could be played around with to create the phrase "New SMAP."

Although this tidbit grabbed headlines and dominated social media, the real intrigue came with a special 50-second-long video playing before the site loaded. The clip features people running and walking, all shot from the back, with Japanese text written on the screen. "Run away from what ties you up," goes one sentence, a clear shot at their former talent agency, Johnny & Associates.

This is a rare bit of shade from entertainers toward the people pulling the strings in the backrooms. Although a few artists have kicked back against record labels and talent agencies over the years in Japan — such as when the band RC Succession independently released an anti-nuclear energy album in 1988 after their label refused to do so — the majority of performers rarely rock the boat. Especially not top-level J-pop acts.

It's almost the opposite in the United States. Artists are applauded for bucking the system. Tom Petty, who recently passed away, was famous for fighting his label, going so far as to demand that they lower the price of his music for younger fans. Big acts such as Prince and Metallica charmed music consumers by antagonizing music companies. It's a tradition that carries on today.

The former SMAP members' shot at their former talent agency is an interesting development, because of how visible it was. The trio's video was one of the most popular on YouTube this fall, racking up millions of views and topping YouTube's list of trending videos.

It's a surprising move, and it will be interesting to see if it inspires other artists to be more confrontational. Still, it's possible this new SMAP ends up being just as conservative as the old SMAP, except with a new marketing plan. The conclusion will reveal itself in time, but for now this new project is already stirring things up in Japan.

新旧SMAP

昨年のJポップシーンに最も大きな衝撃を与えた出来事といえば、人気グループSMAPの解散だろう。ジャニーズ事務所を辞めた元メンバーの新しい活動に注目が集まっている。

The Japan Times ST: November 3, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2017年12月1日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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