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Idol Decline


At American state fairs, they have those “Put Your Picture on a Magazine” booths and 350 lb. fathers-of-three walk away with a personalized “Dwayne Wins the Superbowl” cover of Time (or more likely, Timely). I was pretty sure this hilarious convention didn’t exist in Japan, but look here: Some very mediocre-looking girl made herself a fake Pinky cover in a mall somewhere, and the editors of the real Pinky accidentally used it for the front of their December 2006 issue.

Wait, wait, my bad, that’s just Koda Kumi… She’s a popular idol singer in Japan. I forget the reason why.


Now I hate to be judging celebrities on personal appearance and natural attractiveness, but we are working within an industry that strips all artists of any original personality traits and rights to creative exploration in order to market them as commodities. And we consumers have been asked to not look too critically at voice talent or songwriting skills and just take the record companies at their word regarding the artists’ overall cultural value. So there is no way we can avoid judging these commodities on physical appearance if that is the one remaining criteria up for debate.

I and many others are going to naturally question how this particular sub-par star got to where she is, seeing that there are thousands of decent-looking, no-talent girls in the industry to choose from, all of whom would be happy to sing unmemorable Eurobeat songs for the dwindling CD-buying public. The Machine, however, has decided in eerie Lynchian fashion that “This is the girl,” and we will have to sit through a storm of magazine covers and TV specials until “they” find someone else or she foolishly breaks up with her production office CEO beau. [Ed.: This last idea is based on normal industry patterns, not Koda’s actual story. She instead got into a pretend relationship with SMAP member Nakai.]

On a slightly related note, I saw prepackaged idol Matsuura Aya on “Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ” last night where she halted the conversation and told some new Yoshimoto female manzai group to their faces, “You guys just aren’t that funny” which was incredibly tactless but kind of right on. Idols are not supposed to be so honest nor critical nor wise-asses. What is going on in this country?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 24, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

42 Responses

  1. rachael Says:

    i never understood the koda kumi phenomenon (if it can be called that) either. i mean, if not a face, but she has no tits or arse to shake either. and her voice sounds like too many smokes, but not in a particularly sexy way. who knows?

  2. marxy Says:

    she has no tits or arse to shake either.

    Whaa? I thought the former was her big selling point.

    I think the whole phenomemon is that there is a large market of girls who are not cute, realize they are not cute thanks to the media, and want idols to show them that they can be stars themselves. The problem is that the rest of society has to endure this.

  3. Duffy Says:

    I’ll admit it: I think Koda’s kind of hot in a — what’s the word? — slutty kind of way.

    And apparently she is very health-conscious and does not smoke. Which makes her even hotter. Why oh why do so many Japanese women smoke?

  4. Robin Says:

    Yeah, I presumed Koda Kumi’s chest was her big selling point. Any time I’ve seen her dance about on tv the producers inevitably zoom in for the big-baps shot as often as possible.

  5. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Ladies, please…

    You’ve got the weirdest anti-boner for this girl. Come on, she’s not that bad.

    (Sorry for two comments about boobs in one day)

  6. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    “endure”? How about turn off the TV and dont buy the magazines?

    Also “artist” != “entertainer” != “performer”. Lets not give these people any more credit than they deserve. The way I see it, being tarento is like being a waitress or any other service industry job. Not sure which pays better though.

  7. Robin Says:


    I think the fact that she’s just “not that bad” is the idea. I mean, she could be any girl tramping out of 109 decked in black stockings and glittery heels. Maybe that’s why she’s so popular…

    Also, that’s my first encouter with the word “bazoobers”, thanks!

  8. check Says:

    “What is going on in this country?”

    Nothing new?

  9. alin Says:

    is this the parallax view to the momus entry about the beauty factor in spain ?

  10. Jrim Says:

    For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t yet read Boye Lafayette De Mente’s Sex and the Japanese (which I’m assuming, if you’ve got any sense, is all of you), the old codger has some amusing things to say about the much-vaunted attractiveness of Japanese women:

    “There are, of course, extraordinarily beautiful Japanese women but they are not in fact common. Young Japanese women who are attractive would more often be properly described as cute rather than as beautiful.

    The Japanese, like Americans, appear to have been mongrelized from a variety of races and to have produced a very high percentage of people who simply are not attractive. Fortunately for both, however, ugly parents do sometimes have beautiful children (it seems that nature favors the beautiful and strives to achieve it no matter what the obstacles). But the point here is that it is not the beauty of Japanese girls that attracts foreign males.”

  11. check Says:

    Perhaps it is the psychological appeal of an acquiescent “third-world wife”, eager to function as a portable pleasure palace?

    Or perhaps…just perhaps…

    Japan has the same ratio of beauty and ugly, just like everywhere else?

  12. Momus Says:

    My beautiful assistant tells me that Koda Kumi has declared that she wants to be seen as “ero-kawaii”, erotic and cute.

  13. Momus Says:

    (And by “my beautiful assistant” I mean, of course, Hisae. But Marxy told us the same thing back in August, stressing how the ero-kawaii look is designed, despite its sexiness, to appeal to women rather than men. So it’s a bit odd that now Marxy, a man, is telling us he doesn’t like it.)

  14. Abiola Lapite Says:

    The Japanese, like Americans, appear to have been mongrelized from a variety of races and to have produced a very high percentage of people who simply are not attractive.

    <pedant>Er, no, human “mongrels” [sic] are in fact generally more attractive (and genetically healthier) than the median members of “pure” populations. (I really can’t stand it when people parrot 1930s derogatory pseudoscience about “mongrels”, even in jest. Humans aren’t dogs, and even so the average mongrel has a better innate constitution than the sickly inbred creatures loved by the American Kennel Club.)</pedant>

  15. marxy Says:

    Japan has the same ratio of beauty and ugly, just like everywhere else

    Yes, and I think a part of the world’s obsession with Japanese girls has less to do with inherent ideas of beauty and more to do with the fact that over the last 15 years, Japanese women have all reached the maximums limits of how hard you can try to improve your appearance through technical programs based on wardrobe and makeup. Absolutely no one works harder at presentation than Japanese women – at least the ones living in urban areas – and if they are rewarded by this effort, then there may be something just about that. (We like stories of those lacking natural talent perservering to overcome adversity – like the young Michael Jordan getting cut from his HS basketball team and then practicing every day…) Men, however, who at the end of the day most strongly value “natural beauty” should realize that Japan is no different than elsewhere.

    I will say though, I can understand Westerners not being impressed by Japanese women in the 80s – before they went all ultraglam and hi-tech and diversified into more variety of styles. The Zuiikin look was not exactly a “subculture” – everyone had those bangs, no?

    So it’s a bit odd that now Marxy, a man, is telling us he doesn’t like it.

    Yes, this is a good point. And if you pick up a copy of Zipper, the same thing goes: most men are not going to find punked-out, bleached-blond chubby, 5’1″ girls with no eyebrows attractive. The problem is, Koda Kumi still operates in the mass idol mold, and while she may be the mascot for the ero-kawaii trashy-unhot female subculture, she is EVERYWHERE in Japan: in ads nominally targeting someone like me. Once the Machine (Avex + Dentsu in this case) determines who they want to push, she is pushed out through all possible media. Normally, that means you need someone who is appealing to both men and women. But Avex clearly had a labor shortage problem and instead of relinquishing the ability to crown the next pop princess, they had to go with someone with limited appeal and pretend like she is for everyone. Thus my complaint.

  16. Rory P. Cakechest Says:


  17. marxy Says:

    double grody.

  18. alin Says:

    what is “the world’s obsession with Japanese girls” ? – we are the world ?

    Japanese women have all reached the maximums limits

    so there’s only one way from here… TD syndrome

    i read your last comment as quite bizzare since ultimately what you’re complaining about is a form of ‘diversification’. There’s also a relly important factor here, a kind of ‘minimal gap’ here that both producers and consumers ‘get’ – about not pinning down that (fascist) ‘image’ etc with quite wide implications, that you seem to be eternally oblivious to.

  19. alin Says:

    funny i just caught a glimpse of your original entry and noticed you say Lynchean and i say ‘minimal gap’ a term often used by Zizek who also happens to be a big Lynch fan/ commentator.

    Now my point is if you don’t start taking seriously these ‘minimal gaps’ and consider what’s actually being exchanged and traded through them rather then making them a second layer of your dismissal and critique I seriously doubt you’d be able to escape the 19th century framework.

  20. lauren Says:

    I’m late to this, but I feel like now might be a good time to mention SMAP and specifially Nakai. Now, I know there are some important differences here, such as his being a guy and SMAP’s aim to entertain through outlets other than just their singing, but still, there are two things about him that just kill me: he is and has always been really unattractive, and he is an infamously terrible singer.

    What the hell? Since when does the leader of a boy band get to be neither attractive nor possess even the most basic singing skills? And then that boy band remains popular for years and years. I guess it can all be chalked up to personality, but still, there had to be a time when he wasn’t a cultural touchstone and had to market himself as part of SMAP, the new Johnny’s musical boy-flesh troupe.

    Maybe Kimutaku has enough hots for the entire group? I guess a solo idol has a lot more pressure to be well-rounded than individual group members. And it is harder to be a girl.

    But still!

  21. P P Says:

    Speaking of the “the world’s obsession with Japanese girls”, has there and is there a certain kind of status achieved for Japanese women to date foreign (White) men?

  22. marxy Says:

    Low status.

  23. marxy Says:

    has there and is there a certain kind of status achieved for Japanese women to date foreign (White) men?

    My initial response was “low status,” but I think it’s more complicated. Certainly, Japanese society does not see a Japanese woman marrying a White man as above marrying a well-to-do Japanese man. I think it’s case-by-case at this point – with “international marriage” being generally tolerated as long as the spouse seems respectible.

    The simple answer to your question though is: no, I do not think that Japanese women primarily date/marry Western (white) men for the status. The foreign community in Japan is not particular high status (as much as they would like to imagine otherwise), so I am not sure why they would be able to endow status to natives. White skin privilege is on the outs.

  24. alin Says:

    Marxy, would you agree that in addition to your conclusion above there’s another layer of micro-politics where things are both more interesting, diverse and real ? (you seem to do only to immediately dissmiss it). Fair enough, the way i see it one way leads to abstract man against state old-school impotent paranoia the other to dynamic political praxis (which i’m sure you practice in your private life so why the need to withdraw on the mountain top – it beats me, fair enough, obvioulsy reassuring for some alienating to someone like me)

  25. Laotree Says:

    Marxy, I don’t really understand your problem with Koda Kumi. She might not fit your concept of beautiful, (or a skillful singer) but I think yr portrayal of her success as an earmark of a culture in decline is a little off the mark. Hamasaki Ayumi has been an omnipresence for like a decade on the basis of a nasal yelp and a face that was constructed by an aesthetically challenged plastic surgeon. She’s well on her way to Matsuda Seiko territory, if not Neverland Ranch. Koda Kumi may have had a little eyework but there’s nothing particularly 不自然 about her face. I think I recall seeing some show where she explained tearfully about how producers told her she wasn’t cute enough to be an idol when she first started out. It seems like that’s part of her manufactured appeal, that she reached the pinnacle against all odds. I guess I just don’t see why you feel the need to bust on this girl at every opportunity when there have always been idols who were mediocre. I mean, isn’t your whole premise the mediocrity of post-90’s Japanese pop culture? Is there something else about Koda that draws your ire? Maybe a Kanto-centric prejudice?

  26. Duffy Says:

    Alin, you mad, octilingual genius, I dig your phraseology, dizzy as it makes me.

  27. marxy Says:

    Re: Laotree

    Yeah, that’s a pretty good criticism, although I find Ayu less offensive to look at.

    To make things weirder, Koda Kumi’s little sister Misono has a show on MTV about her being too fat and trying to lose weight. I should probably do a post on it, but it is weird… (And no she is not fat as much as “big boned” – what they used to call endomorphs)

  28. Laotree Says:

    Is this a question of your personal aesthetics? Are you offended by the appearance of the average Japanese girl who’s “not cute” whenever you go out in public? Or is it just that you expect a certain level of quality from people in the public sphere?
    I’d have to disagree with you about Ayu being less offensive to look at, but that’s a personal aversion similar, probably to yours with KK. I dunno, I enjoy this blog and the resulting discussions, but every time talk turns to KK I can’t see what the fuss is about, either for the hype or the backlash.
    Funny though, on the show I referenced earlier, Kumi was talking to a group of young women about cosmetic tips, and started dropping theoretical physics on them, referencing (though not by name, if I remember correctly) Dr. Emoto Masaru’s experiments with talking nasty or nice to water and observing the resulting ice crystal patterns. It was one of the few times I’ve heard a pop idol in this country say anything remotely interesting…
    On another note, you mentioned the Lynchean “she’s the girl” aspect to your disbelief of her success; would it be so strange if she did indeed have an underworld heavy pulling strings for her like the Camilla character in Mulholland Dr.?

  29. alin Says:

    The Machine, however, …

    One more thing : take the latest studio voice. it’s a ‘book’ special and features 248 books crosen by 118 people, it’s in the typical SV didactic format, and you can easily say that it has that top-down thing you so dislike. However even before looking at actual content , by the sheer number, breadth and relative randomness of the contributors it becomes clear that the format is not a one way top to bottom approach , also that no reader is going to rush out and buy and read all the books recomended by the 118 gurus (ie. the Machine), rather they hook in at the point of shared interest , maybe become ‘converted’ by some new stuff, skipping other stuff. Now you could say that SV is different which would be truly obscene since it is you who’s saying it is not different.

  30. alin Says:

    duffy: it’s (anemic) deleuzian ‘minor writing’.

  31. marxy Says:

    would it be so strange if she did indeed have an underworld heavy pulling strings for her like the Camilla character in Mulholland Dr.?

    No, that’s maybe my whole point: that the Avex people (and aligned underworld production bosses) could sell anybody with those resources and levels of control. Koda Kumi never sold any records, was a total nobody until they decided to make her the “it girl” post-Ayu. I am not sure what the internal political situation was at Avex that chose her over Otsuka Ai, for example, but these things are more reflection of monopoly industrial decisions than some kind of “free market,” here’s what people want. Obviously, they found who they were targeting after pushing her, but her level of sales is low in the long-run, only slightly amazing in the depressed market. (Interestingly, they get her on the cover of every teen girl magazine, whether punk like Zipper or gyaru like Pinky)

    My grievance is, okay, J-pop machine, you get to pick one person and your bestowing full legitimacy on that person will make them the “star” of the moment. So why her of all people? If this is an enlightened dictatorship of culture, aren’t they responsible for choosing the best for us?

  32. alin Says:

    i’m aware you’re not talking to me but since i’m here i might as well stay till the end.

    so you (in desperation) lower the stakes. weird. pull the plug to your own recources then consider your own taste “the best for us”. (us i read as being all japanese consumers of j-pop + a small bunch on non-japanese j-pop consumers. are you one of the above anyway ?) . whether you position yourself inside or outside isn’t it clear who emerges as the dictator ?

  33. check Says:


    I’ve always (felt)) ? your POSTS are + totally un


    ((FYI :))

  34. Andy Says:

    Isn’t her adaptability the only reason she’s been chosen in her role? I mean, you couldn’t put one of the cancam girls on the front cover of a punk(ish) magazine and get away with it, but with the right hair and make up you could probably put Koda Kumi on the front cover of cancam. She has a particular kind of look that’s individual but adaptable enough to get the maximum possible market saturation.

    …I’ve always thought she was quite hot actually. Certainly no Yamada Yu but definitely a step above Ayu. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

  35. alin Says:

    check check check mate

  36. marxy Says:

    Check mate means you lose, so check check check mate means I really lose I guess. I am just glad somebody is keeping score of my defeats!

    I mean, you couldn’t put one of the cancam girls on the front cover of a punk(ish) magazine and get away with it

    They wouldn’t stoop that low. Doesn’t work the other way, though. Koda is never going to be on the cover of Classy or Oggi. She has been on the cover of ViVi because it’s essentially a ero-kawaii magazine. She will never ever be on the cover of Can Cam (mostly because only the senzoku model are allowed to be), but she is not aspirational enough for 20 year old OLs who want to meet boys.

    …I’ve always thought she was quite hot actually.

    I don’t think this is about my crazy idiosyncratic tastes. Japanese people understand her as a “busu idol.” Ask around.

  37. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    If this is an enlightened dictatorship of culture, aren’t they responsible for choosing the best for us?

    OK that is indeed the core question, the heart of the matter (or the heart of darkness) from the neomarxisme school. From the marxy perspective, “they” have a duty to provide quality in their disposable products, much in the consumers expect AM/PM bentos to taste better than 7&i Holdings bentos. You seem to be angry that “they” have broken the social contract by serving you チョコキッムバナナチクレープwhen you wanted just a straight 鮭弁当.

    Your Humbe Janitor is only vaguely familiar with the product labeled Koda Kumi. I saw a music video or two based on a friends reccomendation. To me it was not as bad as Ayumi Hamazaki, but overall nothing special (not erotic or kawaii which shows how far outside the target market I am). I’d guess that if there is a branding push for Koda product it might simply be either one of those branding strategies which some customers simply cant understand or a genuine screwup with no alternative but to continue with the sales plan.

    Essentially I dont buy the benevolant dictator model as being broadly functional in any market. It may work well for limited demographic purchasers, but it is unreasonable to accept the idea that there can be one lead product to satisfy all consumers.

  38. Mulboyne Says:

    I’ve not heard the phrase “busu idoru” before but I have heard “busu kawaii” used to describe Kumi Koda. Both phrases might be recent coinage but Silva was an earlier example of a singer whose appeal came from her “sassy attitude” (sic) rather than her looks and that may have influenced Avex when they were looking for their next big thing.

    You mention Seiko Matsuda. One thing that Kumi Koda has in common with her is a big gay following. For all the gossip about Ayumi Hamasaki frequenting 2-chome, she doesn’t have that. There’s no clear sign that the gay scene can create stars in Japan in the same way as Kylie Minogue found success in the UK but it would seem to make some sense for Avex to test the market.

  39. marxy Says:

    One thing that Kumi Koda has in common with her is a big gay following.

    Seiko Matsuda’s gay following is a relatively recent thing, no? She was a epoch-making mass idol in the 80s, and her gay following probably is all that’s left of her once-huge fan base.

    Silva was an earlier example of a singer whose appeal came from her “sassy attitude”

    Silva – powerhouse idol, right? I can’t remember not seeing her on a magazine…

  40. Slim Says:

    I haven’t seen here in person but I don’t see anything terribly ugly about Koda Kumi.

    Surely she is more sexually attractive than the bubble gum idols of the past (who may have been “cute” but cute doesn’t work after dark).

  41. marxy Says:

    In most of the “good” Koda Kumi pictures you can’t see only see her face in profile.

  42. ndkent Says:

    Well you do need some successful idols with a more attainable look to balance things out and sell more tie-in goods.

    As for Ayaya, maybe they aren’t quite finished with her programming yet.