Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy 30th Birthday, Ninomiya! 二宮和也、お誕生日おめでとう!!!

Tomorrow (today in Japan), my favorite idol is turning 30 years old and I’d like to wish him a big Happy Birthday from America! 三十歳になった二宮和也、お誕生日おめでとう!

Ninomiya (R) with my fave butch lady comedian Haruna-kun

But even those of you who don’t follow Japanese entertainment will probably remember Ninomiya Kazunari as the young soldier in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima.

After this film, he could have easily chased bit roles in Hollywood for cash - the Watanabe Ken and Asano Tadanobu route - but, if anything, Ninomiya has always seemed somewhat embarrassed by his Hollywood connection and seems to prefer talking about farts on late night variety shows to red carpet premieres. He’s lazy, weird looking, notoriously unhealthy, ridiculously short, known industry-wide for being a cheapskate, obsessed with video games and bikini models, and one-fifth of Japan’s current top idol group Arashi (嵐). Ninomiya has always fascinated me because of this inner contradiction, the idol embarrassed by his own existence. He’s the master of deflecting questions to his band members in interviews and whenever he does act idol-y, it always has more than a shade of deliberate exaggeration to it, as if he can’t quite figure out why it is we like this stuff so much but he’ll give it to us if that’s what we want.

From what little I’ve gleaned over the years - one can never be sure if Ninomiya is bullshitting you or not - he grew up in a female-dominated, blue collar household in a blue collar area of Tokyo. One of his lady relatives sent in his application to the talent agency when he was 12 and his mother bribed him to stay in, until he was 18 at least. The agency kept him out of trouble and was a good part-time job. Money seems to always have been a concern. Famously, he was thinking of quitting the performance aspect of show business and maybe coming to America to study film directing when the talent agency decided to debut a new group and wanted him in it. For better or worse, he went along with it and 14 years later he’s still hanging in there - a natural behind-the-scenes man performing in front of a camera.

More than the glitz and glamour, Ninomiya seems drawn to the mechanics of entertainment. He’s an accomplished amateur magician and writes songs for Arashi. And instead of palling around with a posse of young studs (like Leonardo DiCaprio or Ranbir Kapoor), Ninomiya is more often found drinking with middle-aged comedians and show business veterans. At the same time, he has a reputation similar to Russell Brand’s here in the West - pussy available from every girl, in every situation.

Ninomiya can be heart-breakingly gentle, showing kindness and patience to the old couples the group visited in their mid-2000’s reality show Mago Mago Arashi (まごまご嵐, “Confused” Arashi but can also be read as a pun on “Grandchildren” Arashi) meanwhile he was also engaged in trolling the group’s fangirls by taking the usual idol group homoerotic fanservice subtext into actual text. Ninomiya understands the idol-fan relationship better than anybody else and he’s not afraid to play with it, twisting fangirls around his fingers, leading them down imaginary pathways of his own creation and then just when we get fed up with his manipulations, he knocks it all down with a genuine, heartfelt moment of love and appreciation for his bandmates.

As Arashi have become more successful and better known, Ninomiya has become increasingly uncomfortable in the spotlight. The wholesome character expected from Japan’s National Idols is not an easy fit with the late-night, hard-drinking, bikini model loving Ninomiya. On top of this, he has been assigned a baby-faced image, helped along with a lot of photoshop and foundation in his magazine photo spreads. Even at 30, Ninomiya just can’t kill his reputation as the bratty teenaged rebel, still getting those roles - as he did last year in a weepy television movie, as a bleach blond teenage rebel who gets paralyzed through his own stupidity and has to learn to be a good person.

I don’t know what the future holds for Ninomiya. Will he lose favor with the nation’s women as he becomes less cute and more wrinkly? Will he find a place on late night television talking about farts and drinking and bikini models? Will he have a big pussy-hound related scandal? Whatever may come, I’ll be rooting for him all the way. Happy birthday, Ninomiya, you big weirdo! Beer is on me if when I get to Japan!

(And PS if you're curious about Japanese idol groups, I have A LOT more to say on the subject. I'll be happy to post a primer if enough people are interested. I've said before that the two entertainment industries that understand me better than anybody else are Japan and Tamil Nadu. In the meantime, you can check out Arashi doing one of their recent singles here. Ninomiya is the one with pokey elbows on the far right for most of the performance.)

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