Tokyo — KAZUNARI Ninomiya's face is unblemished, almost fragile, a porcelain slate of innocence onto which director Clint Eastwood projects the emotional toll of war in "Letters From Iwo Jima." Ninomiya plays Saigo, an apolitical baker conscripted into the doomed defense of the island, fighting not for the generals or the emperor but only to survive and return to his wife and infant daughter. Through his eyes we see battle, its cynicism, fear, the hatreds and pity. An unknown actor to American audiences, his face was perfect for Eastwood's Everyman.
But in Japan, Ninomiya is a mega-star, a face you can't avoid. This wisp of a 23-year-old has been in the business since he was 14. Big screen and small. Theater. A singer and dancer in Arashi (Storm), one of Japan's most popular male idol bands (and the Japanese love their idol bands). Ninomiya does TV commercials. He does radio shows, and he's a regular presence in Japan's mass-selling fan magazines. Even his voice is in demand, heard as one of the leading characters in the feature-length anime "Tekkon Kinkreet." The kid likes to work.
"It's different from wanting to be a star -- I've always wanted to create something, I want to share the joy of creation with others," Ninomiya said between appearances last month for the Tokyo premiere of "Letters," which remains at the top of the Japanese box office weeks after release. The first screenings had left several young women in the audience in tears, though it was hard to tell whether they were crying over Saigo's story or from excitement when Ninomiya appeared on stage to take a bow with his costars after the credits.
Cute? Well, yes
CREATIVITY doesn't usually come high on the list of skills needed to succeed in Japanese pop culture, where cuteness is prized above all. Ninomiya is a product of the artist management company Johnny & Associates, founded in 1963 by California-born Johnny Kitagawa, which has produced the cutest of the cute in the boy idol industry.
With his stable of talent -- talento as it is known here -- Johnny's exerts extraordinary power over Japanese entertainment. Kitagawa's formulaically engineered idol bands, beginning with the Four Leaves in 1968 and continuing today with the omnipresent SMAP and a steady stream of other squeal-inducers like Arashi, don't just sing. Selected from thousands of auditioning teens, the idols are trained to dance, act and handle themselves on TV as part of Kitagawa's grooming for stardom. He uses established stars to leverage TV exposure for newcomers, a grip over the celebrity-thirsty networks that is commercially successful but also suggests that Johnny's is more factory than talent incubator.
Yet many here argue that Ninomiya is different from most of the cookie-cutter cuties of the idol world. He acted before he sang, debuting on stage rather than TV, in a production of "Stand by Me" at age 14. He had the River Phoenix role.
"Nino stood out early," says Julie Fujishima, a vice president at Johnny's. "He came to us to become a talento, but it was obvious he had a talent for acting." Fujishima says Ninomiya's breakthrough came in a TV drama called "Amagigoe" that aired on New Year's Day 1998. "He was very special, very good, and it got everyone's attention."
More TV dramas followed (TV tends to create bigger stars among Japanese fans than the movies do). And in 1999, Ninomiya became one of the five young stars selected by Johnny's to join Arashi, a J-pop troupe that made its singing and dancing debut on a cruise ship off Hawaii before it had a record out.
"I always liked singing," Ninomiya says. "When I was in the car with my family we'd always play music. I liked American bands, and I went to a Bon Jovi concert when they came to Tokyo Dome. Also Backstreet Boys. When I go to concerts by Japanese musicians, I tend to study them. But American musicians entertain me."
A string of Arashi hits predictably followed, though the relentlessly bland J-pop is not really about the music but about the look. It was Jun Matsumoto, with his ripped abs, who emerged as the band's biggest heartthrob, its Davy Jones, to use a Monkees analogy.
Arashi members have all cultivated different personalities for their fans, and Ninomiya is known as the "actor" in the group. He made his first movie in 2002, a supporting role in a drama called "Pikanchi, Life Is Hard, but Happy." He continued to find theater roles, playing the James Dean role of Jim Stark in a two-month run of "Rebel Without a Cause" in 2005.
And this month, he starts a TV series called "Dear Father," in which he plays an apprentice chef working for a tough Tokyo master. He laughs when asked if he can cook. "No," he says as he emerges from the set's kitchen during a break in the shooting, his hands wet from washing dishes. "But the work is fun."