The money in Japanese TV

by Monty DiPietro

My gleaming spy plane had been shot down by a bunch of greasy terrorists.

"What is your name?" asked the leader as he interrogated me in a bare white room. I mumbled the response, growling at the little bastard with the video camera.

"Turn around!" barked the leader.

You losers may have me by the balls now, I sneered to myself as I turned my back slowly, but I’ll get you... Just wait and see.

"Congratulations!" came the call from my agent two days later, "the director thought you were the most menacing person at the audition, and you got the job!"

The JTV [Japanese Television] commercial I got was my first after 10 auditions. This time, I had gone in with a full Stanislavski emotional preparation on "menace." If I was going to fail again, I reasoned, at least I would have some fun.

All those Sandy Weiss Method Acting classes are paying off, I smiled as I thanked my agent and hung up the phone - Hello, JTV megabucks!

The shoot was set for the following week, way out in Kanagawa. There were no lines to learn, I simply had to look really scary and fire a Tommy-gun at popular young singing group SMAP, who would execute a Bondesque helicopter escape, then tame their locks with "Nudey," a hair gel. The "I am Nudey" campaign ran for 6 months, during which time I could not endorse any other hair-care products. Ok.

The shoot was a breeze, 30 minutes in costume and make-up, and 20 minutes on the set for three takes. I was on camera for less than one-half second. A coulpa of tsukaresama deshitas later I pranced out the door, a whopping 240,000 yen richer. Hey, I thought, This is gravy! I’ll just get better and better and richer and richer!

In my halcyon optimism, I was unaware of the JTV-RIP [Remuneration Inversion Phenomenon].

The JTV-RIP ensures that people with clever ideas will rarely get jobs in program development and that those with no discernable talent will become well-paid "Tarento."

Michael Naishtut is a Tokyo-based actor and narrator. A veteran of over 100 appearances on JTV dramas, commercials and miscellaneous programming over the last five years, he shakes his head and laughs when asked about JTV. "It’s very stupid, especially the variety shows. Last week a bunch of Tarento were locked in a contest to see whose rice cooker electrical cord disappeared quickest when the ‘retract’ button was pushed. Is this supposed to be funny?"

The Tarento are laughing all the way to the bank, earning millions of yen for product endorsements and personal appearances, once they have paid their dues.

One industry source sketched the up-close and personal initiation ritual mega-manager Johnny Kitagawa treats his new male talent to, and assured me that the SMAP darlings couldn’t dance quite right for a few days after they joined Uncle Johnny’s stable.

Although SMAP may be the most talented boys Kitagawa has ever come across, they are nothing compared to Namie Amuro, whose "How to be a Girl" stayed atop the J-Pop charts through this Spring and Summer. In the rockin’ video, the brown-haired little Okinawan flexes through a New York City subway car, hounded by a pesky paparazzi.

Me.

The Amuro video would be my big break, I thought - a more leisurely 1.5 seconds of on-camera time allowed me to stretch out and emote, do my stuff, show ‘em some real character acting.

Alas, aside from the thrill of hanging with Amuro in a hot, fake subway car, and sneaking a peek down her slinky black camisole, the experience was a tad disappointing. I felt I had connected with the character of the driven cameraman, become him. Also, in my cameo as the glue-sniffer hanging from the subway strap [a character I gave birth to, developed and infused into my very soul while cooling off on a donut break], the director zoomed in and froze on my face for a long 0.2 seconds.

But the offers did not pour in, my phone sat silently as the video played for months on televisions all over Japan. Although I got paid a respectable 40,000 yen for my performance alongside the country’s hottest singer, I realized that compared to the SMAP TVCM, I had given more and gotten less.

It was as I was developing the "Gravy Quotient" a formula to measure the relationship between work and pay, that I first stumbled onto the JTV-RIP theory.

Gravy Quotient = (Pay {thousands of yen} / Filming Time {hours} x Time on Camera {seconds} x Degree of Difficulty {1-10})

Example: An extra job for the "Milk Board." Drive out to a disused stadium, dress like a preppy athlete, hold a sign championing milk, march by a camera with 50 others

Gravy Quotient: 20/5x1x3=1.3

Key: Gravy Quotient Equivalent Western TV Job

Less than 1: Cable TV, Sunday 5AM community access show host.

2-50: Small-town weatherman’s assistant

51-200: Supporting role on Sinefeld

More than 200: Silver Screen Superstar

So, for my SMAP commercial: 240/1x0.3x1.9= Large Gravy Quotient of 421.05

And for the Amuro Music Video: 40/8.5x1.5x2.7= Measly Gravy Quotient of 1.16

After only two jobs the results were inconclusive, but a trend seemed to be developing. Could it be that the more time I spent in filming and on camera, and the more difficult the work, the less I would be paid?

A week later, my phone rang. It was a production manager for Beat Takeshi’s "Dare Demo Picasso," an art show that airs at 9PM on Friday nights. Would I be Beat’s guest, he asked politely, and discuss Japanese contemporary art for a segment on Junichiro Take, the young artist to whom I had awarded the Tokyo Journal 1996 Innovative Award. Of course they would pay me...Please?

The perfect opportunity to test the JTV-RIP theory! A prime time show with the ne plus ultra of JTV, Beat Takeshi.

The Tarento’s Tarento, Beatsy regularly appears on eight shows a week. Nobody smacks Big Beat over the head with an inflatable plastic hammer and gets away with it! The Beat could bend Johnny Kitagawa over! Big Beater, drunk as a skunk, smashed himself silly on a scooter and nobody even dared suggest that this made him a bad role-model on JTV - he was patched up and twitchin’ and droolin’ in front of millions of hungry JTV fans in no time. The only reason JTV has not yet expanded to 300 channels is that scientists are still cloning Beats so that every station will have one.

Because Beat is smart as a whip! The man is an expert on every topic than can be conceived of by humans, and even several that cannot. And while my brain is the size of a ping-pong ball compared to the estimated Earthball-sized brain Beato packs, I am one of the only foreign professional art writers in Tokyo, so they needed me for the show.

I walked onto the set a little nervously and began fielding queries from the Beatsker. "How does the evaluation criteria of Western art critics differ from that of their Japanese contemporaries?" etc. The degree of difficulty was relatively high and I racked up a record amount of on-camera time during the 12 minute segment.

After the taping, I did a little mental arithmetic and figured that for my theory to be valid, the Gravy Quotient for this job would have to sink below one, to the Western pay level of "Cable TV, Sunday 5AM community access show host." It had been that tough.

One of the show’s producers thanked me and walked me outside. "Please, DiPietro-sensei, your bank account number so we can deposit your pay."

"Thank-you," I said, shivering with anticipation, "And what might the amount be?"

I hit bedrock with a Gravy Quotient of only 0.01, about four ten-thousanths of the no-brain SMAP TVCM level, conclusively proving the JTV-Remuneration Inversion Phenomenon theory, published here for the first time on the web.

Of course the calculations, 20/4.5x100x7.1= 0.01 are predicated on the 20,000 yen actually appearing in my bank account - I’m still waiting.

If there are any agents reading this, I’m available as a singing cheese...


Montreal-born Monty DiPietro, 38, is an artist, performer, and writer living in Kabukicho, Tokyo.

go to AssemblyLanguage