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The Stars Realign in Japan

Times Staff Writer

Brad Pitt did it.

George Clooney and Meg Ryan did it.

Bill Murray pretended to do it. And back when he was just a celluloid action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger was very, very good at doing it.

But none of them does it much these days.

A Hollywood in-house secret, Japanese TV commercials were once talked about with a wink and a shake of the head. Piles of cash were paid to stars willing to peddle anything from whiskey to cigarettes, cars to coffee, instant noodles to cafe latte -- as long as nobody told the fans back home. Hey, did you know Dennis Hopper did one for bath products? How much do you figure Leonardo DiCaprio got for that SUV spot? A million? Three?

Sadly, the days of seeing, say, Harrison Ford guzzling Kirin beer may be over. American stars have not vanished from the Japanese advertising landscape, but their numbers have dropped dramatically since the heyday of the 1990s, when even Mickey Rourke was considered bankable here.

“There are much thinner pickings these days,” said Al Soiseth, whose Japander.com website (as in Western stars “pandering” to Japanese audiences) offers a video compendium of Japanese commercials featuring Western actors. Soiseth says there is a dearth of new ads to add to the archive, which bursts with clips of Hollywood’s 1990s “A list.”

Advertising industry analysts offer various explanations for the decline. With the irrational exuberance of Japan’s bubble economy a distant memory, ad budgets have shrunk to at best half their former size. Hollywood stars still expecting to pull in $3 million for an afternoon’s work trying not to garble a simple Japanese phrase are finding few takers.

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Japanese advertisers began using Western actors in a big way in the 1960s, when Hollywood represented the cachet of American culture. But some marketing analysts point out that the Internet and globalization have made American pop culture far more accessible to Japanese consumers and, by extension, less exotic.

“The mystique has faded,” said Akihiko Sasamoto, who heads the Asian casting division of Hakuhodo, one of Japan’s biggest advertising and marketing agencies. “You no longer have this distinction between foreign artists and Japanese artists. So we don’t need to spend a big amount of money on a Hollywood star.”

Japanese agencies are increasingly turning to more affordable home-grown talent, especially fashion models, who have been found to trigger higher recognition for the brands they push at much lower cost. Sports celebrities, whether homegrown, such as baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki or foreigners such as French soccer star Zinedine Zidane, also have taken a big chunk of the endorsement business.

Other Japanese companies have opted to use animated figures or even real animals. Research in the Tokyo area shows that Que-chan, a Chihuahua whose owner is forever taking out loans (at 28%) to buy presents for the beloved dog, has had more impact this year than most two-legged stars. Que-chan’s series of humorous ads, including one in which he snowboards down a mountain, have been credited with softening the loan industry’s image. Meanwhile the actual dog has become enough of a celebrity to publish a book of vanity photos and release a CD.

Whatever the reason, Hollywood may be facing more than just a short-term dip in its commercial fortunes. Many in the world of Japanese advertising argue that the decreasing use of American stars marks a cultural watershed, in which Japanese audiences increasingly embrace stars and celebrities from Asia instead of the West.

“The Hollywood brand isn’t the best anymore, and Hollywood actors aren’t effective enough anymore,” said Yukio Mori, president of Systrat Corp., a marketing and promotion consultancy in Tokyo. “Consumers are in favor of singers or artists who are familiar, rather than foreign movie stars.”

The catalyst for the change, almost everyone agrees, has been Japan’s raging love affair with Korean culture that took everyone here by surprise two years ago.

The phenomenon was spearheaded by a drama series called “Winter Sonata,” a tragic love story featuring Bae Yong Joon, a South Korean actor affectionately referred to as Yon-sama in Japan. With his baby face and great teeth, Yon-sama, 33, flutters the hearts of Japanese women in their 30s and older, who tell market researchers he rekindles the romantic urges they felt in their youth.

It’s a demographic that makes marketers swoon, too. Yon-sama is now the biggest foreign star in Japan. Bigger than Brad. Bigger than Leo. Dozens of Japanese companies are desperate to attach their brand to Yon-sama, or at least to find the next great Korean star.

“Five years ago, two years ago even, I could never have imagined this happening,” said Tomoko Kamiguchi of Dentsu Casting & Entertainment, which negotiates with talent agencies to get stars for its clients’ ads.

It is a remarkable development in a country where Koreans have long faced discrimination. Koreans born and raised here have felt compelled to adopt Japanese names to fight their way up the entertainment, sports or corporate ladders.

“After ‘Sonata,’ ” Kamiguchi said, “my clients are all looking for synergy with this Korean drama. The Japanese market has changed. We have accepted Asian talent. After ‘Sonata,’ we no longer have an allergy to Asia.”

The new face of Japan Post, the massive state-owned company that is also the country’s largest bank, is sumo champion Asashoryu, a Mongolian.

And Asiance, a shampoo brand built on defining beauty with a pan-Asian look, has seen its market share grow after an ad campaign featuring China’s Zhang Ziyi, who starred in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Asiance’s rival Lux is known in Japan for using a string of Western actresses, including Jennifer Connolly and Charlize Theron.

“In the 1990s, it was still impossible to use Chinese or Korean stars,” said Tatsuo Sekine, chairman of CM Data Bank/CM Research Center, which measures the impact of ads in the greater Tokyo region (a market the size of California). “Now we are in the beginning of an Oriental boom.”

That’s not to say the demand for Hollywood actors has completely dried up in Japan. Richard Gere is still popular, pushing everything from condominiums on Tokyo Bay to Dandy House, an exclusive men’s spa center.

But with Hollywood’s heyday over, its priceless moments are now consigned to the fringes of the Internet. Out there in the digital equivalent of the remainder bin are clips such as: two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster extolling the virtues of an employment agency; Madonna, dressed like a ninja, pushing a brand of liquor called “Pure.” (“I’m pure,” she coos.)

These days, the best-known American entertainer in Japan is probably Bob Sapp, a 6-foot-7, 342-pound former extreme fighter and kick boxer who opted for pro wrestling here and has built himself a nice spinoff career in commercials.

The Japanese like strongmen.

Fifteen years ago, there was no bigger star in Japanese commercials than Schwarzenegger.

Anyone in Japan who watched TV at the beginning of the 1990s will almost certainly remember his spot for Nissin Cup Noodles in which he brandished two huge kettles in various body-building poses, then slurped noodles with Japanese-style noise and enthusiasm. He didn’t utter a word.

The ad became a classic.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger became so famous in Japan for that ad,” Kamiguchi said. “Nobody in Japan could have done that.” Schwarzenegger went on to have a lucrative career in Japanese commercials. Most memorably, he did a series of ads for Alinamin, an energy drink purporting to boost stamina and potency. (Steven Seagal, who lived in Japan for several years to study martial arts, did a spot for a rival beverage.)

But the ads are memorable only in Japan. Moonlighting on Japanese TV commercials is one of those subjects Hollywood stars prefer to not talk about in front of their fans. Too much risk in exposing themselves to charges that, despite those appearances on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” they were only too happy to sell their celebrity for a quick buck.

The practice was mocked in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” in which Bill Murray’s Bob Harris, a Hollywood actor on the back nine of his career, comes to Japan to make a whiskey ad.

Not everyone in Hollywood sees the humor. Lawyers for DiCaprio, Liv Tyler and Meg Ryan have sent letters to Soiseth demanding he take their commercials off Japander.com.

Soiseth, who says he runs his site for love and amusement -- “I love the way they are always talking about my art, my art” -- acquiesced and removed those actors’ video clips. “It would be an interesting lawsuit and I’d love to see it filed,” he said. “But not on my wallet.”

Yet the notion of actors being spokes-models would hardly seem offensive to audiences in these days of Paris Hilton. Jerry Seinfeld, the prince of irony, plumps for American Express, as do Robert De Niro and Kate Winslet, with no apparent backlash. Actors are clambering over one another to appear in fashion ads, now considered a symbol of cool; Sarah Jessica Parker apparently wasn’t worried about her fan base when she decided to pose for the Gap.

Modern audiences don’t just expect celebrities to cash in. They see it, arguably, as the purpose of celebrity (see Paris Hilton, above).

So perhaps it is the sheer goofiness of so many of the ads that Hollywood stars are anxious to hide. Consider:

Charlie Sheen selling women’s shoes, or getting a haircut from a Japanese barber in a spot for Tokyo Gas.

Richard Gere singing “No Woman No Cry” for a Japan Airlines ad promoting flights to the Caribbean.

Michael J. Fox being chased off the grounds of a mansion by a heavy-set maid carrying a broom after he uses hedge clippers to turn a bush into a teddy bear. (The ad was for canned tea.)

But perhaps no one got into the spirit of things as well as Nicolas Cage.

Four years ago, a Japanese company that makes the machines for the wildly popular gambling game pachinko was looking for a way to add a little glamour to the industry’s less-than-savory image.

Who better to make you feel better about your addiction to pachinko -- a cross between pinball and slots -- than the star of “Leaving Las Vegas”?

SCENE: A packed news conference in Japan.

ZOOM IN: Cage taking a seat behind a table filled with microphones.

FEMALE JAPANESE REPORTER: “What do you think of Japan?”

CAGE (hands waving): “I like all Japan. I like sushi. I like Mt. Fuji.”

CLOSE-UP: On the reporter’s pearl earring, which (mysteriously) comes free. It falls to the floor and rolls (like a little pinball) toward Cage. We see him transfixed, with his trademark bug-eyed stare. With his shoe, he flicks the earring into the air and snatches it with his hand.

CAGE (screaming maniacally): “I love pachinko!”

Let’s see Yon-sama do that.

*

Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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