When yet another busty young high school girl is being touted
as the next big gravia aidoru (pin-up girl) and appearing on every TV show,
commercial and magazine cover, it's easy to sneer and be cynical.
But when it's a pair of thirty-something sisters who make a breakthrough
and suddenly thousands of people are paying big money for "life
consulting" seminars, dinner shows and health products as well
as the usual videos, photo books, calendars and even dolls, you know there's
something more going on.
When that school girl's bio says she likes Hamasaki Ayumi, karaoke
and shopping with her mother, you assume it's true. Normal, typical,
bland...probably true. But when the PR says things like "former
Miss Japan", "honorary Bond Girls", "appeared at Cannes Festival",
"spend several months a year in Monaco and other exotic locales"
and so on...Well, let's just say the Kano Shimai (sisters) are
not bland. They're not exactly what I'd call normal, either.
It was 1997 when the sisters made their first impression on the
media. The official story goes that they were living the high-life
but in a low-key way, paying the occasional bill with a modelling
job here and there, but not particularly interested in pursuing
fame. A feature in a popular women's magazine on their glamorous
lifestyle led to letters from readers and a gradually spiralling
media interest. The TV wideshows, morning and afternoon programs
that feed on celebrity gossip, and weekly magazines loved their
flamboyance and overt sexuality. In a country where "sexy" means
the stage-managed pouting and titillation of teen idols, here
were a couple of mature women whose sexiness was combined with
self-assurance, independence and dollops of money.
A carefully maintained veil of mystery has surrounded the duo
from the beginning. While a frequent claim that they aren't actually
related is backed by another claim that there used to be three
sisters, the official line is that they're half-sisters, having
the same father. They are believed to be 43 and 38 years old (as of 2006),
but typically they purr and politely refuse to divulge their ages
when asked. Also, I've seen clips on TV from a soft-porn movie
featuring Mika - the younger sister - looking a lot smaller in
certain key areas, and both are rumored to have had a good reputation
as high-class... well, let's just say "escorts".
A rare glimpse of Kano Harue
Even the occasional investigation into the ambiguity of the sisters'
past just led to more media interest and exposure, adding to their
commercial "value". Unlike almost all TV personalities, they manage
themselves - elder sister Kyoko the PR, Mika the day-to-day -
and you have to hand it to them, they seem to have done a pretty
good job of it. There have been several successful photo books,
with titles like Super Beauty, A Taste of Honey and Kano
Kyoko's Heavenly Beauty. TV commercials for cosmetic maker DHC
featuring the sisters riding in a limo and wearing dreses that
promised to reveal more than just the secret to a beautiful figure.
Mika even released a music CD (which seemed to bomb) of soft R&B.
A few years ago, in an effort to make their mark outside Japan, they
joined up with the IMG agency, which also manages tennis's
Williams sisters. It seemed they may have had their eyes on Hollywood.
But presumably they found out that part of the world is already saturated
with manufactured celebrities.
Summer 2008 saw them manufacture a new image for themselves in a whole
new way - anime. The pair went to the Otakon convention in Baltimore to
launch a DVD of their alter-egos, the Abunai Sisters. With characters by
leading designer Matsushita Susumu and backing from Pony Canyon and Fuji
TV among others, the collection of ten short crime-busting episodes had plenty of marketing muscle. But it was
sold by pre-order and using the "group buying" system, whereby the price
depends on the number of orders. A sure-fire way to protect a risky
investment and encourage otakus to spread the word.
There have recently been glimpses of a third "sister", Harue. The sisters
originally started out as a threesome but one was quickly forgotten. Harue
for a time was slowly moving into the limelight, but then in 2007 she was accused
by Kyoko of running off with millions of yen worth of her jewelery and clothing.
Many of their fans are female and seem to be attracted by their
refusal to conform to Japanese ideas of womanhood. Japanese women
want what the sisters have - the looks, the glamor, the money
and the independence. While they may never have those things,
they'll pay through the nose to live the dream even for a couple
Neither sister is married, which suits their custom of being seen
with handsome or famous, usually western, men. Kyoko is the more
romantically active and talkative. Both say they are not interested
in the typical Japanese idea of marriage but would get hitched
if the right prince came along (in a white stretch limo).
Personally I think they used to look good in well-taken studio photos
and are well suited to the glamorous but ultimately shallow world
in which they live. But the effects of plastic surgery have really
taken their toll and, with the career path they've chosen, that means a
lot. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that after the Hanshin
earthquake in 1995, Mika donated a million yen of her own money
to the relief fund. Despite the image they've carefully cultivated,
no doubt they do have a more human side, but then that doesn't sell
breast enlargement cream.