SMAPers drive the Japanese box office

By Mark Schilling

Want to have a hit in the Japanese market? Cast a member of SMAP -- a pop group that has been on top of Japan's entertainment world for more than decade. Launched in 1988 by Johnny & Associates -- a talent agency responsible for some of the country biggest male pop acts since the 1960s -- SMAP is far more than sum of its five members' Top 40 hits. In fact, the group's records have been mostly mediocre -- as even the boys themselves have acknowledged.

Instead Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Shingo Katori, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Goro Inagaki have become some of the most recognizable faces on Japanese television, appearing collectively on their own prime time shows, and as individuals on commercials, sports programs and series dramas. Not to mention the radio shows, print ads, books, personal appearances -- the list goes on.

With a few exceptions, however, the lads long avoided the big screen. Then in 1999 Kimura -- the best looker in the group and a heartthrob to millions of Japanese women -- agreed to appear in Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, a film he hoped would add to his international cachet.

While this project was gestating, Kusanagi, a delicate-featured, but refreshingly unpretentious type, starred in Resurrection, Akihito Shiota's drama about the dead returning to their loved ones for a last, heart-wrenching visit. Expected run for three weeks, Resurrection became the surprise hit of early 2003, grossing Y3.07 billion ($29 million).

Now SMAPers are so busy in front of the cameras that the Tokyo International Film Festival devoted a special day to their films this year. One, University of Laughs starring Inagaki as a censor-harassed playwright in wartime Japan, opened on October 30 with a better screen average than Tom Cruise's Collateral. Meanwhile, Kimura's 2046 is doing decent business, thank you, while his latest, the Hayao Miyazaki animation Howl's Moving Castle, in which he voices the lead role of a mysterious wizard, is expected to blow away the Hollywood competition when it is released on November 20. Japan is already too small for the boys from SMAP -- the world is next.