2017 is coming to a close, and with it come all the traditional year end festivities. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that this may be one of the most exciting years to be watching Japanese entertainment and society as a whole.
What a rollercoaster. I mean, seriously, what a fucking rollercoaster. You would also be right to ask – why start a review of J-ent with politics of all things?
That’s because politics influences, interacts and sometimes masquerades itself as entertainment and vice-versa. As such, there’s no better way than to kick off a year-end look at Japan in 2017 without looking at their political scene.
For the first time in over two hundred years we will have a living emperor abdicate from the Chrysanthemum Throne. Not only was this unprecedented, it also highlighted the current crisis around the Throne, once again throwing what is really a post-Meiji-and-U.S.-occupation male primogeniture crisis back into the public conscience.
What will matter to the readers of this site, though, is the fact that this will be probably the very first Japanese era name change many of us will pay attention to, let alone remember. That means Hey! Say! Jump’s name will probably be a bit of a dinosaur come April of next year.
But it wasn’t just the ceremonial politics that were in play this year. The popularity of famously conservative nationalists such as Shinzo Abe or Yuriko Koike at the beginning of the year seemed unstoppable. It wasn’t too long ago that people were speaking of Yuriko as a future candidate for prime minster despite her sex, or Shinzo Abe as an unassailable LDP leader whose rule over both politics and society were absolute.
But through a series of fumbles involving everything from improper land sales to political mishaps, both suffered heavy blows to their popularity – now Abe’s approval rating, while recovered from its “death zone” lows to mid-40% norms, is entirely contingent on the lack of real opposition as opposed to anything he himself represents.
As if to mirror the rollercoaster that was political society, entertainment was also a mess. In fact, the chaos was so loud that Billboard Japan declared 2017 to be a year “without major hits“. This is not, however, for the lack of trying, or lack of quality.
First, there were the major withdrawals in the industry, opening the musical year with the exit of SMAP (the ensuing drama that followed is quite entertaining) and ending with Namie Amuro’s announced retirement and her final performance at NHK’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen. Both literally shook Japan, albeit in very different ways – SMAP’s exit was mired in controversy with lots of very public corporate in-fighting resulting in the literal termination of three of the members, whereas Namie Amuro’s announcement seemed to have come out of nowhere.
We then had the major idol group fights, including those who don’t identify as such but get grouped with them anyway. Johnny’s faces major incoming opposition not just from anime voice actors (especially with the introduction of projects like THE iDOLM@STER: SideM), but also from other agencies entering the “ikemen” business as well as the never-ceasing pressure both from Kpop and LDH bands. On the female idol side, TWICE proved resoundingly successful, culminating in their managing to circumvent (through both clever marketing and sheer popularity) the K-Pop ban on Kouhaku Uta Gassen and ranking third on Billboard Japan’s cumulative charts.
The Sakamichi series shows no indication of slowing down, scoring the highest photobook sales in Kodansha history as well as one of the most controversial song hits of the year. Little Glee Monster finally managed to break into Kouhaku, and the 48 Group – despite cries of “THEY’RE DYING” – managed to chug along, showing no indications of slowing. This does not even take into account the breakthrough successes of the idol anime franchises such as Wake Up! Girls, Love Live, and THE iDOLM@STER, all of which had new seasons this year, or the continued expansion of Akimoto Yasushi’s never ending quest to create all the idol groups (=LOVE, 22/7, Last Idol).
Given the strength of the competition, it is no surprise that the older players are starting to embrace some of the trends highlighted by market researchers like Billboard or Oricon, with rumors about that Johnny’s will start fully embracing the internet and the 48 Group going full steam ahead with various overseas projects, coming to a head with the announcement of the dreaded “Produce 48” K-Pop joint project.
As streaming only becomes more and more powerful in Japan with increased adoption of smartphones, we’ll see domestic Japanese musicians start to really contend with various Western artists such as Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran (both of whom ranked incredibly high on year end charts, mostly through their streaming rankings alone) as well as each other. Whereas at the beginning of this year J-rock seemed all but dead, we end the year with not one but 3 J-rock groups in the top 10, one of which had their break in 2017, and two strong debuts to Kouhaku Uta Gassen.
Between all this activity, it is little wonder that sites like 2ch and Girlschannel were abuzz with activity nearly everyday. One can only hope that 2018 is even a fraction as exciting as this year was.