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Amuro Namie’s Artistic Trajectory: A Roadmap for Artists in a New Media Age

Uno Koremasa [Profile]

[2018.03.15]

For Japanese pop-music fans, the months have been flying by since the Japanese singing sensation Amuro Namie stunned the music world with her September 2017 announcement that she would retire for good just a year later. Beginning with a concert at the Nagoya Dome on February 17, Amuro has now embarked on what she has dubbed “Final Tour 2018,” including performances not only in cities across Japan but in Shenzen and Hong Kong in China and in Taipei in Taiwan as well. With the additional performances that have been added to the schedule since her initial announcement, Amuro’s farewell tour should draw record attendance, with as many as 750,000 fans in Japan and another 50,000 overseas expected to mob her concerts. the songstress’s last album, Finally, released in November 2017, broke the 2 million sales mark in just two months.

Amuro has long demonstrated an ability to both draw live audiences and maintain strong, steady recorded media sales unrivaled by any other female solo artists in Japan today. Yet she appears to be taking her mastery of the entertainment sphere to an even higher level as her official retirement draws closer by the day.

A Low Profile at the Height of Her Fame

To be sure, other than her rigorous concert schedule, Amuro’s public appearances since announcing her retirement have so far remained extremely limited. She has made a handful of promotional appearances on regional radio stations around Japan tied to the release of Finally and has cooperated in the production of a documentary series for the pay-to-view video distribution service Hulu. Other than that, she has only appeared on one interview program for Japan’s public broadcaster NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and taken part in the 2017 edition of NHK’s signature New Year’s Eve Kōhaku uta gassen, the Red and White Year-End Song Festival.

For Amuro, who for the last several decades shunned virtually all media exposure other than appearances in TV commercials and women’s fashion magazines, even these small efforts could be seen as quite considerable “fan service” for her avid followers. Yet since the start of the new year, she has for the most part returned again to the studied silence that could be called her normal modus operandi.

Indeed, even Amuro’s participation in Kōhaku was a last-minute affair—announced a bare 12 days before broadcast—and it took the form of a relay broadcast from a different studio rather than a personal appearance on the NHK stage. I am likely not the only Amuro fan who believes her Kōhaku performance was a last-minute addition and not a part of her original retirement plans. Just as the breakup of the legendary five-man singing group SMAP at the end of 2016 became a national sensation, the question of whether Amuro would appear on this single program was plastered for days across the headlines as a matter of the greatest national interest. The nation’s gaudy entertainment media―led by the ubiquitous sports and gossip tabloids―fanned the flames to the fullest.

In the end—unlike the “SMAP crisis” of the year before, which ended with that group’s refusal to make a farewell appearance on the year-end music show—Amuro stated that she would indeed take part in Kōhaku. Yet even then, the fact that she had initially repeatedly refused to take part continued to be a bigger story than her final decision to join in. All this came despite the fact that Amuro had not appeared on the public broadcaster’s New Year’s Eve songfest for the previous 14 years.

The Retirement that Never Happened

Here is the new playbook in Japan’s pop music scene, as written by this convention-shattering artist. First, even if you are not directly involved in writing the lyrics and the music, only release works that you have participated in directly from their original conception through to the final production. Second, tour, tour, and tour again, singing and dancing in front of live audiences. And lastly, ruthlessly slice as many other promotional activities out of your schedule as you can.

The above amount to a strategy for any creative artist looking to protect his or her mystique and personal product value. But more than this, they are the very specific action plan followed by Amuro herself. This is the distillation of all that she has learned since debuting at the young age of 14, becoming a sensation that swept across Japan like a whirlwind, and spending a solid decade in the heart of a Japanese mass media environment dominated by the national television networks.

Yet despite Amuro’s dedication to living her career on her own terms, there have still been some things she could not decide for herself. On an NHK program titled Amuro Namie: Kokuhaku (Amuro Namie: Confessions), broadcast on November 23, 2017, just two months after she had announced her retirement, the singer revealed that she had originally planned to retire five years earlier, in 2012.

That would have been the twentieth anniversary of her professional debut. Yet despite all her intentions, she told the interviewer, she found that she was in a position where retirement was simply not an option, no matter how much she wanted to do so herself. On the program Amuro spoke powerfully of how deeply despondent that realization left her.

The album that Amuro released that year said it all: Uncontrolled, whose very title came across like a plea not to be under the control of anyone or any organization.

In retrospect, we can see now how a whole series of seemingly unconnected developments―beginning in 2014, when it first surfaced that Amuro was taking steps to move to a new talent agency on January 1 of the next year—were in fact all moves by the artist herself to define her personal goal line by and for herself. Her twentieth anniversary live concert, scheduled to be held in her native Okinawa in September 2012, had had to be cancelled because of an approaching typhoon. Yet five years later, on September 16, 2017, she finally did succeeded in staging her twenty-fifth anniversary concert in Okinawa just as originally intended, following it up with a second concert the following day. It was only three days after this tour de force that she announced she was leaving the muxic business.

Artists Charting Their Own Course

Amuro’s 2015 decision to transfer from Rising Pro, her talent management agency of 23 years, to join rival agency Avex was in retrospect a key development unfolding in Japan’s entertainment industry.

From that year on we have seen a flurry of struggles over the independence of artists. Of course, this is hardly the first time in the history of Japanese popular music for disputes to arise between talent and managers. Yet what is remarkable about the current wave of disputes is that they involve both some of the very top talent in their respective genres and management agencies widely considered to be the leaders of the talent industry.

Among the artists joining in this movement have been Nōnen Rena, who catapulted to stardom through the NHK morning drama Ama-chan (Little Diver) and now goes by the stage name Non; the boys of SMAP, who led the Japanese entertainment industry for 25 years; and the ubiquitous model and talent Rola, who in 2017 took the title for the most appearances in TV commercials in a year, an honor she first took in 2014.

The trend has continued in 2018, with the announcement by famed musician and producer Komuro Tetsuya, the original architect of the “Amuro boom” of the late 1990s, that he, too, is going to retire (albeit due to a scandal rather than a personal choice). Popular singer and actress Koizumi Kyōko also announced earlier this year that she is breaking with the major talent management agency Burning Production, which has represented her for 36 years since her 1982 debut.

Of course, there are different background factors at play in these various situations. And many observers are content to write this all off as a natural outcome of the “end of the Heisei era.” I believe that these developments go beyond this sort of cliché, though: This is a vast sea change sweeping through Japan’s entertainment industry as a whole. Symbolic of this transformation are the way we see artists like Non or the former members of SMAP expanding their platforms to encompass online broadcasting and social media. Even Rola is currently exploring opportunities abroad, as seen in her recent appearance as the character Cobalt in the 2016 Hollywood movie Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.

Major Change Afoot in the Entertainment World?

For decades Japan’s entertainment world has been shaped by an infrastructure based on terrestrial television networks and stations, by the major talent agencies enjoying tight connections with those networks and stations, and by the terrestrial TV networks’ so-called waido-shō (wide show) variety programs, the scandal-hungry sports newspapers, and other media that have supplemented and supported the industry status quo. Now, however, the declining share and influence of terrestrial television in the total media mix has launched a groundswell on the part of both media content providers and consumers alike who seek a new buzz different from that of the old, musty “Japanese entertainment world.”

Amuro Namie, who transitioned away from performing on network television more than a decade ago, has nonetheless been able to maintain an anomalous sales power for her albums and concert videos during an era when Japan’s music industry overall is in steep decline. At the same time, attendance at her concerts only continues to grow. There are many self-declared Amuro fans among Japan’s other woman artists and TV talent today. This is likely rooted not only in their admiration for her seemingly ageless beauty and their respect for her ever-evolving modes of self-expression in her art, but also in their personal identification with her dauntless, uncompromising attitude toward her work.

On September 16, 2018, Amuro Namie will retire. Yet there can be little doubt that the accomplishments and legacy she leaves behind her will serve as an invaluable guidepost to the artists performing in the new era that lies ahead

(Originally published in Japanese on February 17, 2018. Banner photo: Amuro Namie surrounded by fans on her March 4, 2016 arrival in Taipei for a live concert. Photos © Top Photo/Aflo.)

  • [2018.03.15]

Film and music journalist. Born in Tokyo in 1970. Worked as an editor at Rocking On Japan, Cut, Musica, and other publications. Today he writes mainly for the film section of the online publication Real Sound. Major published works include 1998 no Utada Hikaru (Utada Hikaru in 1998) and Kururi no koto (About Quruli).

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