Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Meet Japan's Zombie Idol

For Akari Aoki, a turning point in her decade-long quest for fame and respectability came on a recent elevator ride.
She was dressed in her trademark grisly “zombie” outfit — a get-up that makes her appear like an extra from “Night of the Living Dead” — when a mother came on the lift with her young daughter. Ms. Aoki tried to hide in the corner “because it’s just not right for children to see things like that.” But the mother approached her, excited, saying ‘I saw you on TV,’ and introduced her–frightened–daughter.
It was, for Ms. Aoki, affirmation that she had successfully climbed into that class of Japanese quasi-celebrities, sometimes branded as “aidoru,” or “idols.” They populate the endless hours of low-budget television shows of groups of people in the studio, talking about their lives or current events. Their TV appearances give them a measure of public recognition that allows them to sell books, or music, and earn them more TV appearances.
The 29-year-old Ms. Aoki seems, in many ways, to be a good representative of the idol class. She has devoted her whole adult life to trying to be famous, but, by her admission, has no special talent or training. The success she has found has come, as much as anything, from her decision to talk and write extensively about her failures. Curious to learn more about how — or why — somebody would become a Japanese idol, JRT caught up with Ms. Aoki one recent afternoon in a coffee shop in a Shibuya to hear her story.
Ms. Aoki’s quest for fame started right after high school. She signed up with a talent agency that encouraged her to publish a book in 2003 of photos of herself wearing an apron. More than half the books were returned by stores. The CDs she recorded of her singing failed to sell. So did a DVD showing her touring statues of Buddha. She spent three months in Taiwan hoping to get fame there.
“Being unsuccessful, I felt like an unnecessary piece of the world,” she says. “I felt like I could die anytime.”
And that’s how she came to her epiphany, of becoming a “zombie” character. She spent her days watching horror movies, and decided to make herself appear to be a kind of living dead.
“When I saw myself as a zombie in a mirror, I felt I was complete,” she says. “I call this zombie therapy,” which she describes as a Buddhist-like experience that frees her from guilty feelings.
She walked the streets of Tokyo in her zombie persona. She got bit parts in horror movies. Her big break came in December when she was invited to appear on a popular Sunday night show, “Ariyoshi Hanseikai,” hosted by a famous comedian on national broadcaster Nippon Television9404.TO +0.18%. On the show, celebrities apologize in a humorous way for something they’ve done in their careers.
“It was completely by accident when we found her on the Internet,” says Ken Miyahara, a director of the program. “Her career is interesting and she looks strange. But she acts smart and could make something big happen. One way of our casting is to feature somebody new who could be a star.”
In her 10-minute segment, Ms. Aoki apologized “for hanging on to the edge of show business even after becoming living dead.” She performed her zombie act, and recounted her long string of failures.
The appearance seems to have changed her life. She published her second book earlier this month, titled “My Diary of How I Failed to Become An Idol,”  a 250-page diary-style essay describing a life of setbacks and disappointments. The book reached No. 3 on Amazon Japan’s list of books by TV stars.
She now gets at least three zombie jobs a month — bit parts in TV shows, movies, photo shots, or special events — up from one every three months before her television breakthrough.
And on Feb. 11, a national holiday, 300 people crammed into a crowded room at an Akihabara bookstore to meet her and get autographed copies of her book. Most were men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but some women came, including one carrying an infant.
Yoshihisa Hattori said he took an overnight bus from his home in Shiga prefecture, near Kyoto, just to catch the event, and was planning to take another home that night. He said he went to Ms. Aoki’s book reading in Osaka a few weeks earlier, and owned three copies.
“It was more than seven years ago when I first learned about her,” Mr. Hattori told JRT.”I was reading somebody else’s blog and she was there, and she looked somehow funny so I checked out her blog as well…. She was creepy and it was shocking that someone who is trying to become famous by being cute is doing such a weird thing.”
Despite her newfound success, times are still hard for Ms. Aoki. Since most zombie-related gigs are low budget, the pay isn’t great. She said she lives on less than Y100,000 ($980)  a month, well below the Y167,000 average for single-person households in the Kanto region, according to a government survey. She keeps her spending down by using everyday goods, like flour, for her zombie make-up.
But she doesn’t care, Ms. Aoki said, because zombie acting is her life’s calling.
“I call it ghoul Japan, as opposed to cool Japan,” Ms. Aoki said. “What I want is to share the zombie therapy experience.”


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