Photo/IllutrationNon during a visit to Morioka in June (Yudai Ogata)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Now going by the stage name “Non,” Rena Nonen, a critically acclaimed actress best known as the heroine in the 2013 blockbuster NHK TV drama “Amachan,” has all but disappeared from TV screens in recent years.

The change occurred around 2015 when her desire to distance herself from the talent agency that she belonged to while climbing the ladder to success was widely covered by the media.

The young actress decided to change her stage name and hired a new agent in 2016.

What actually happened to her? What does her disappearance from the spotlight reveal about the scandal-ridden entertainment industry in this country, known as “Geinokai”?

Atsushi Fukuda, president of consulting firm Speedy Inc., which Non has a contract with, spoke with The Asahi Shimbun about the intense pressure she faced and warned of the dark side of the entertainment world.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

'MORE THAN ENOUGH SUCCESS’

Question: Non was an immensely popular presence on TV screens, but we never see her anymore these days. Has she somehow been deprived of the chance to work in television and is she undergoing hard times?

Fukuda: That is a gross misunderstanding of the situation. Non has signed endorsement deals with 20 companies, including Marukome Co. and Hong Kong-based Mentolatum (Asia-Pacific) Ltd. She does not strictly belong to a talent agency and only pays an agent’s commission to me.

Therefore, as far as I know, she is one of the highest paid actors or actresses in Japan.

Q: I'm surprised to hear that, as I saw an Internet post that said something along the lines that Non apparently makes a modest living and drives a minivehicle to play rehearsals.

A: (Laughs). Non doesn’t even have a driver’s license. She has someone to drop her off and pick up her up for work. She has received a lot of job offers. That’s why she always says she needs to take some days off on a fairly regular basis.

Q: Recently, the Fair Trade Commission informed Johnny & Associates Inc. that it might be violating the Anti-Monopoly Law by exerting pressure on TV stations to shut out former SMAP members who left the talent agency. You, at the same time, wrote in a blog post that a similar thing had happened to Non. Was your timing coincidental?

A: Before answering this question, I have one thing I want to tell you. It is that I don’t want you to think about the issue of talent agencies (using power and influence behind the scenes) as a conflicting situation in which people in a weak position are speaking about the distress of being bullied. I don’t want you to describe the issue, like, “The president of the talent agency that currently manages Non, an actress who has been dropped from the entertainment industry, makes an appeal that ... .”

Q: Are you saying then that you are not in a weak position?

A: Non has achieved more than enough economic success. It’s just that she does not appear in TV programs anymore; no more and no less. Besides, our company is not a talent agency. We are a consulting business and our job primarily is to develop a branding strategy for companies.

Non is the only talent our company manages. That means, we are in a position in which we can speak freely against the entertainment industry.

TURNING POINT FOR GEINOKAI

Q: Then why did you write the blog post?

A: Because I feel the winds of change. Now that the public has turned its watchful eye toward the way the entertainment industry conducts businesses, the anachronistic state of things in the industry might start to improve.

I started working at a commercial production company after graduating from university. When I was in my 30s, I joined a Hollywood film company and developed a business that resulted in the launch of a TV station as well as Animax Broadcast Japan and AXN Japan Inc. As someone who had been in the forefront of the entertainment industry for years, I thought the time has come and I should speak about the obsolete structure of Japanese geinokai and the TV business, of which I have much experience, being Non's agent.

Q: What precisely happened with regard to Non?

A: She signed a management contract with a company that I established in 2016. Since then, she hasn’t appeared in a TV program at all. Not even once has she been able to play a role in a drama in commercial broadcasting, let alone take part in a celebrity-appearance program to express interesting thoughts or promote something. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Q: What about job offers?

A: Over the past three years, about 30 booking requests came in from TV stations asking Non to appear in dramas or information programs. But when we went over a proposal and were ready to accept an offer and sign a contract, the phone rang. And the TV station said, “Please pretend the whole thing never happened.” Every time.

Q: Are you saying it happens because of pressure?

A: It appears that the TV station in question received a phone call that said, “If Non appears, we will withdraw our talents (from the program).” On one occasion, Non was expected to appear in a drama and she had even finished the wardrobe fitting session. Then, right before the contract signing, the whole thing became a dead issue. “Forget about this deal,” we were told. In another instance, Non participated in a concert and recited a poem. But her presence was deleted, as another actor was featured when the event was reported on TV. Ugly incidents that make no sense at all have happened to her, one after another.

‘I HAVE EVIDENCE’

Q: With all due respect, do you have any evidence?

A: Yes, I do. I can’t show it to you, but here I have e-mails and proposals that were sent from TV stations and other entities. Here is an e-mail, for example. It was sent by the organizer of an event in which Non was expected to make an appearance. The organizer wrote, “We have received an objection to Non’s appearance.” It was the day before the event. We had signed a contract. Yet, we were told not to come. At least, the payment was made, but ....

Q: Do you think those who make a job offer including TV stations are partly responsible for not standing resolutely against such inappropriate pressure?

A: Young people who work at TV stations always bring in wonderful proposals to us. But they vanish because of some pressure. The problem is that a shining talent is unable to pursue their God-given right to work. When an individual, whether it being a he or a she speaks up, they vanish from the center stage before we know it. That’s how things are in today’s entertainment industry, and that is the problem.

Q: Can you elaborate on that?

A: Some talent agencies abuse their superior positions and tell talents who want to appear on TV things like, “I (the agency) have the power to get you on TV” or “You can be replaced by anyone, and I can make sure you don’t find work in the industry if you don’t listen to me.” To get to the root of the problem, such agencies themselves need to change. If a talent moves to a different agency, (the abusive agencies) will say, “We raised you and you owe your current success to us.” The former agency will then continue to apply pressure in various ways, not dissimilar to the “zegen” world of the Edo Period (in which women were sold into and trafficked in prostitution).

MYTH OF 'INVESTMENT'

Q: Contract problems between Non and her former talent agency became a popular topic of conversation.

A: Once a contract is signed, talents don’t have the freedom to move from one agency to another. That is the biggest problem in the Japanese entertainment industry. Is there any talent who has left an agency walking tall? Once a talent leaves a major agency, he or she naturally becomes “blackballed.” Starting over again, such a talent usually takes roles in stage plays once people have forgotten who they are, then finds work outside of Tokyo. In the fully grown, respected industry that covers entertainment and advertisement, only the entertainment side has such a problem.

Q: But major talent agencies invest substantial resources into making stars. Don’t you think that talents are bound to them to a certain extent?

A: Let me ask you a question, then. How much do you think is needed as an investment to cultivate a talent? Adding up lessons fees for instructors, rent, salary, it can be about 7 million yen ($65,700) to 8 million yen per year. Agencies don’t wait around for years to let a talent blossom. At the same time, if the talent can ink a deal for one commercial, the guarantee is about 30 million yen. Let’s say an advertisement agency takes 15 percent from the deal and the talent agency takes half. With just one commercial, the agency can recover its investment costs. Still, these agencies say, “How ungrateful you are, forgetting our kindness!” and blackball the talents who have made hit works over the years and contributed to the agency.

Q: Your company has signed an agent contract with a firm that Non herself runs. What made you decide not to have her belong to your company?

A: Because I want the contract to be transparent, like in Hollywood. Under such a contract, Non is able to see the contract fee and her share of each work. She can also fire me if I don’t perform well. For a long time, old-style agencies have had a one-sided power relationship with their talents, and they would say things like, “You are my employee and I will fire you if you don’t listen to me.” Talents have little understanding of contract fees and can’t speak up owing to such a hierarchical structure. It’s like a “slave contract.” Personally, I think it is as awful as child labor in India and some African countries.

FIELD WIDER THAN EVER

Q: You accepted our request for an interview and can speak freely. Do you think this is a testament to a widening of the field and increased opportunities outside the traditionally closed community of Japanese entertainment and TV industries?

A: It would be difficult if the opportunities were limited to television. But the Japanese entertainment industry today doesn’t only exist in Tokyo’s Minato Ward where major networks and talent agencies are concentrated. The power of social media is tremendous and Non has broadened her appeal outside Japan and become well recognized in countries like China. There are powerful platforms other than television, so she can work actively in various fields. In fact, Line (instant messaging app) was one of the first companies to reach out to Non, right after she returned to work. She also appeared in an original drama that aired on Amazon Prime Video last year.

Q: What do you seek for the Japanese entertainment industry now?

A: We need to take measures to prevent other talents from being blackballed by the TV industry, like Non has. I hope some outdated agencies can become reformed. I also want the entertainment industry to grant talents the freedom to change agencies. I believe the Fair Trade Commission will support such a move because it will lead to labor management for talents.

Q: The working environment for TV station staff has become more flexible, don’t you think?

A: I’d like to encourage those working at TV stations and those in charge of project planning to make an offer to the three former SMAP members before some other entity does. It’s a big opportunity. I hope senior staff members at the stations will take fresh ideas from younger staff seriously, without prejudging them. I also hope Non and the former SMAP members become a “hook” and that the entire structure of the entertainment industry will be improved.

(This article was written by Takahiro Kawamura and Ayaka Nishimura.)