BTS Makes It Big: Asian success in American show business

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Asian artists and performers enjoy greater notoriety in the entertainment world in the United States. Hit wonders like Korean Psy (“Gangnam Style”) and Japanese Pikotarō (“PPAP”) are giving way to groups like K-pop megastars BTS. A look at what it takes for Asian artists to rise to the top of the world’s biggest entertainment market.

From K-pop stars to global phenomenon

In June 2022, South Korean musical group BTS announced that its members would be focusing on their solo projects for the foreseeable future. For fans of the K-pop megastars, this was crushing news, amounting to an effective suspension of the group’s activities.

BTS has become one of the biggest Asian-born groups of all time in the United States entertainment world in recent years. Several of the group’s songs and collaborations have reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, with their megahit “Dynamite” debuting at No. 1 in August 2020, the first time an Asian group has held the top spot since Japanese. “Sukiyaki” by vocalist Sakamoto Kyū in 1963. The group has also racked up a steady stream of industry accolades, including the 2021 Artist of the Year award at the American Music Awards. In late May 2022, the seven members of the group visited US President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss hate crimes and discrimination against Asians in the United States.

Indeed, this group went beyond just being popular musical artists. As their fame and influence grew, they used them as representatives of Asia to solve various societal problems. In the wake of their visit to the White House, many expected BTS to step into this role even more fully. This made the sudden announcement that the group’s activities would be put on hiatus, which has an impact on the entire global entertainment industry, not just the military, as their loyal fans call themselves- same.

Rising stars from across Asia

The American entertainment scene, especially Hollywood, has seen tremendous activity from Asian celebrities in recent years. Japanese actors like Watanabe Ken, Sanada Hiroyuki and Kikuchi Rinko have made their mark in major American film productions. Watanabe and Kikuchi were honored again this year for their roles in Deputy Tokyoa drama co-produced by Japanese entertainment channel Wowow and American streaming platform HBO Max.

Since the beginning of this century, Asian faces have been decorating both the big and the small screen with more frequency. Stars like Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh and Masi Oka have landed major roles amid a growing US population of Asian immigrants and second-generation citizens. Watanabe Ken made his first big hit in Hollywood with his 2003 appearance in The last Samourai; he extended that fame with additional key roles in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and the American production of Godzilla (2014), as well as a musical release in The king and me (2018). His performance chops have made him a top choice for Hollywood directors when they need a Japanese actor.

Difficult to reach the top

It’s clear from BTS’s stardom and Watanabe’s constant work in Hollywood that the door to American show business, once considered closed to Asian faces, is gradually opening. However, not all of the goals of Asian artists have been achieved. BTS, for example, has garnered multiple Grammy nominations, but the group has yet to win a golden gramophone. And while the group’s fame has undoubtedly raised the profile of K-pop on the global music scene, Korean groups other than BTS have yet to gain popularity among American listeners.

Watanabe, too, is yet to win a major award, although he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The last Samourai and a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for The king and me.

In short, it seems that Asian performers have yet to reach the “peak of the peak” in terms of having their art recognized at the highest levels.

Are the obstacles in their way really high? I spoke with Miyake Yuriko, a Japanese theater actor based in New York about it. Miyake, who has experience in off-Broadway theater, said, “It’s really wonderful to see an Asian group like BTS become so popular, to hear their songs playing all the time on mainstream channels here in America.”

Asian performers enjoy certain advantages, she acknowledges, speaking of her audition experience. “There are times when a director says ‘we really need an Asian for this role’, and I’ve been in situations where that has given me a real advantage against actors of different ethnic backgrounds. , who must have been jealous of that!” At the same time, however, she notes, “You’re also told blunt things like ‘we already have enough Asians for this room’ – which often means they only have one – and they opt for someone from another background instead.”

Is talent enough?

Actors, says Miyake, like to tell themselves that race doesn’t matter as long as they have the talent to take on a role. But the reality of the casting call is often different. This has been clearly explained to him on more than one occasion. “At an audition a few years ago, we were all split into groups to make it easier for the judges to see what we could do. But all of us Asians were put in one group. was our turn to take the stage and show off our dance moves, the judges were very clearly uninterested in what we had to offer.

Miyake Yuriko, right, rehearsing for an off-Broadway performance. (Courtesy of Miyake Yuriko)

Ken Kensei, a Japanese-born actor active in Hollywood who worked alongside Takakura Ken in black rain (1989) and Watanabe Ken in Letters from Iwo Jimahas this to say about the experience of auditioning Asian actors.

“Honestly, the only time we can get a foot in the door is when they want an Asian face in the role from the start. In Letters, we had a lot of Japanese actors getting roles, but that was a very rare case. Nowadays, of course, diversity is presented as an important concept, and people talk about the need for balanced ethnic representation in films and music, but unless there is a particular reason why we are needed for something, little effort is made to bring the Asians on board.

Generally speaking, it seems that the barriers remain high for Asian performers. But, as Kensei also says, “when directors need Asian actors for their roles, it’s a golden opportunity for us.” Hollywood is not without hope for emerging actors of Asian ethnicity.

make it big in america

Miyake, for his part, defines a condition that Japanese and Asian artists must meet to succeed in American show business: “You must communicate fluently in English. It’s also important that people in the industry care about who you are and what you have to offer,” adding that with the emergence of huge stars like BTS, “it is indeed becoming easier for Asian artists to carve out spots. for themselves.”

Why have Korean stars made such remarkable progress? According to Miyake, “A big difference with Japan is the way South Korea supports its artists. Entire industries spend long years training performers at the peak of their abilities; there is no pretending These artists hone their craft from an early age, they dedicate their lives to elevating their art, and when the time comes, they are ready to move from Asia to the entire world stage.

What is the situation in Japan? “There’s a much stronger emphasis on ‘idol culture,'” Miyake notes. “Young and pretty idols can succeed in Japan, but they will never succeed in a market like the United States, which focuses on real talent. That said, Japan is home to artists who can perform on par with no anyone in the world. If we want more Japanese artists to make their way into the world era, having them work with globally proven art forms like manga and anime could be a way forward. .

Ken Kensei, meanwhile, has this advice. “If Japanese performers are to maximize their chances, they must have skill, impact and fluency in English. Take dancer Ebina Ken’ichi, for example. He had skill and impact in his side. When he won the eighth season of America’s Got Talent with his “dropping head” performance, the skills he displayed were ones that other Japanese dancers might also have in their repertoires. But they had never been seen on American television before, and the impact it had was off the charts. The dance doesn’t require speaking English, so it’s another avenue for Japanese people to prove themselves in the United States.

Ken Kensei, second from left, in a scene from Letters from Iwo Jima.  Watanabe Ken is on the right.  (Courtesy of Ken Kensei)
Ken Kensei, second from left, in a scene from Letters from Iwo Jima. Watanabe Ken is on the right. (Courtesy of Ken Kensei)

In 2013, the day after Ebina’s victory America’s Got Talent championship, I interviewed him in New York. He was a famous man at this point, thanks to his appearance on the nationally popular program, and a steady stream of fans approached him outside the venue, asking for autographs and taking photos with him. him. It surprised me. When I asked him what it takes to get to the top in America, that’s what he had to say.

“In this industry, you only have two options: be the best at something or be the only one doing it. If you have some originality – a skill all your own – then you have a way of really putting on a show for people. You will have no competition.

Show business in the United States may still be a difficult mountain to climb, but Asian artists are proving they can reach the top. Even Japanese artists can rely on exceptional artistic skills, fluency in English, or even visual impact to navigate this tough world of entertainment.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner Photo: Members of BTS pose with President Joe Biden at the White House on May 31, 2022. © Adam Schultz/White House/Planet Pix; via ZUMA Press Wire/Kyōdō Images. )

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