Mariah and Namie on Utaban

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I love Utaban, the Japanese music variety show notorious for its abusive treatment of its guests. Often it’s just a lot of teasing and essentially harmless. Sometimes it gets downright vicious. Sometimes it gets surreal. (They once hired a black male version of Morning Musume to perform the group’s songs. Actually, this show finds a lot of use for big black men in hardhats.)

When Mariah Carey appeared on the April 14 episode, that was definitely surreal. It showed strong differences between American and Japanese culture, reminiscent of the Matthew’s Best Hits sequence in Lost in Translation: wacky Japanese show, tolerant and bemused American bigshot, lots of misunderstood cues and unclear expectations.

Japan has a soft spot for American superstars. It’s a good place to go if you’re wanting to be treated grandly and sell your latest product without getting grilled mercilessly by the media. (They’ll save their viciousness for the domestic celebrities like Nacche and Yaguchi.) What the hell, Michael Jackson could probably arrive in Japan today and they’d only ask him about what he was thinking when he recorded Thriller.

Mariah Carey was probably looking for such velvet glove treatment as she shills her new album. After all, she’s had to deal with Glitter and her nervous breakdown and Glitter and declining record sales and Glitter and the divorce with Tommy Mottola (okay, that was a long time ago) and… um… Glitter


This is one of the hosts of Utaban, Ishibashi Takaaki. If he looks vaguely familiar, it’s cause he played the Japanese baseball player in Major League 2 who mocked Dennis Haysbert’s character. Takaaki’s half of the comedy duo Tunnels, which has its own TV show as well.

He’s the muscle of Utaban, doing very physical humor and gesturing grandly when he gets worked up. He also has a huge fondness for pretty young pop idols, especially Hello! Project’s Goto Maki (who he once pretended to marry on her sixteenth birthday) and Fujimoto Miki (a lie detector test exposed this). The most memorable thing I’d seen him do was kick the female singer of some horrible visual kei band, his foot right in her stomach, knocking her down. And she wasn’t mad about it – if anything, she was laughing and scrambling to get off stage.

This is the other host of Utaban, Nakai Masahiro. He’s leader of one of the biggest music groups in Japanese music for the past decade, the Johnny’s Jimusho boy band SMAP. SMAP have their own variety show – one which features lots of cooking – called SMAP X SMAP.

He’s Flavor Flav to Ishibashi’s Chuck D, good cop to bad cop, chiming in on Ishibashi’s jokes and playing the occasional voice of reason. His connection with SMAP must also count for something, as well.

When the segment begins, one of the Utaban set crew and Hello Kitty go to fetch Carey-sama. According to my wife, Carey asked for Hello Kitty to be there. I don’t even want to dwell on that, if I can help it.

A woman is brought out of a dressing room. We don’t see her face as she approaches the stage. Note the poor shlub hiding behind the door, part of an ongoing gag in this segment, where Nakai keeps blowing up at one of the Utaban crew. I’m not sure what that’s about.

The person approaching the stage turns out to be Amuro Namie and not Mariah Carey. She’s as confused as Ishabashi and Nakai about being called to the stage at this point.

Namie’s so adorable, isn’t she? She’s a good sport but very nervous about meeting Mariah Carey.

Let’s just dwell on Namie some more. It would’ve been much more enjoyable to have the whole second half of the show devoted to her and forget the American singer in the dressing room. That said, I probably wouldn’t have done this blog entry because it would’ve just been another wacky episode of Utaban instead of a case study on pop-cult East-West relations.

Speaking of which…

The set worker and Kitty go back to the dressing room area. Again, a person is escorted from the back to the stage. This time, the figure clearly indicates it’s not a Japanese pop idol – and the shot moves up to show Mariah being led by the hand by Kitty.

The Japanese media, by the way, are absolutely shameless about going for “service” shots (breasts, butt, anything below the neck that can be groped). So this isn’t exactly unusual, if not exactly classy.

The hosts and Namie have questions for Mariah, but there’s a lot of the typical Utaban goofing around – and Namie and Nakai are nervous about talking to her, even through an interpreter. All the nervous laughter and odd activity only serves to confuse Mariah. Nakai explains that he’s a singer as well, then flubs do-re-mi to prove it. Mariah shows off her lifestyle somewhat, with photos of the private jet she flew in on and the bling-bling which includes the MIMI pendant around her neck. Everyone oohs and ahhs over this. They joke about using the plane to go somewhere and Mariah offers to take everyone to Guam, especially Hello Kitty.

Mariah acts like spoiled royalty to these people; for several questions, her reply was a disgustingly coy, “It’s a secret,” and everyone left it at that. This is Mariah Carey, after all, who’s sold more than 500 million records (as they point out at the beginning of the segment) and who’s staying in a positively palatial hotel suite while in Japan (and we get shots of that, as well). What the hell, the bulging cleaveage alone speaks for itself.

Her attitude is oddly… stereotypically… brashly… American. I mean that in the international, “ugly American” sense of the word. I think it’s just Mariah being Mariah – I’ve never been a fan of hers, I must admit – but she is a notorious diva in every sense of the word. She is so out of place and so unable to fit into the rhythm of the show. If anything, the show works to try to fit into her rhythms, which is typical of the American overseas.

So suddenly, Mariah leaves the set with Hello Kitty. Everyone’s confused and thinks she’s upset and may not come back. (So my wife tells me.)

The segment breaks for a taped performance of Namie’s newest single, “Want Me, Want Me,” a fast number with an Arabic hip-hop feel to it. Japanese shows often include the lyrics of the song if you want to sing along, which is something I wish they’d do for American shows. Here’s a particularly ripe line, though far from the most sexually explicit one. Let’s see, there’s lines about “I want to taste it” and “like a virgin” and “whatever you want, I can do it”…

Usually, I’d dismiss such lyrics as silly and pointless, and I’m not even sure if Namie knows what she’s saying. That said, it is Namie and, oochie poppin’ coochie aside, it’s a great song and Namie is ridiculously sexy.

If Mariah is using Japanese culture to her advantage, certainly Amuro is one of the Japanese R&B artists who use American culture to advantage in her songs. She’s always had a penchant for odd American phrases in her songs – “Body Feels Exit” immediately comes to mind – and the image she projects is urban street, confident and cool.

Mariah returns. She had to use the bathroom and brought back gifts for everyone: copies of her new CD and some related publicity stuff. She jokes with Nakai that they did a duet on the album, which he goes along with.

Here’s a study in contrasts: look at the posture and attitude of Amuro versus that of Carey. Amuro apparently seems hopelessly intimidated and outclassed by the presence of Carey. She’s very quiet throughout the segment, more deferential, but comfortable around the Utaban hosts. That said, in general, she’s soft-spoken and polite whenever I see her on variety shows – it’s only onstage that she becomes a stone-cold urban sex siren.

The most surreal moment of the segment: Mariah Carey gets liquored up on national television. She asks for sake and Kitty serves it to her, but Carey insists that everyone else join her in the drink.

An American diva is served saki by a Japanese children’s icon while one of the leading singers of boy band Jpop. Is globalized culture great or what?

Anyway, they cut to a taped performance of Mariah singing her new single. I’m not going to bother with a screen cap of that. The show ends, credits roll, Ishabashi says they’ll all meet at Narita to fly to Guam the next day.

I wonder what’s next. Personally, I’d like to see Fiddy meet Matsuken. They can samba together or something.