TOPART & CULTUREEntertainmentTW Pop Culture Update: Naomi Watanabe Has Had Quite a Month

TW Pop Culture Update: Naomi Watanabe Has Had Quite a Month

Celebrities are steering clear of the Olympic torch relay, Power Rangers try out new things, and Naomi Watanabe is moving out of Japan

By Cezary Jan Strusiewicz

Naomi Watanabe has had a tremendous career. Starting out as a comedian, she rose to fame with her impersonations of Beyonce before moving to acting, modeling, and owning her own fashion line. Today, she’s one of the biggest celebrities in all of Japan, and soon perhaps the world. Watanabe announced recently that starting from April, she’ll be moving to the United States and focusing her career on the American market. But what was supposed to be a time of celebrating the next chapter in her life turned sour when the media reported that the creative director of the Tokyo Olympics proposed last March that Watanabe appear during the opening ceremony dressed as a pig.

The “Olympig” Scandal

Japanese performers moving their operations abroad is usually big news, as seen when Shiori Fujiwara (aka Chiemi Buruzon) announced her intent to move to Italy. Sadly, news about Watanabe’s move and how she already signed up with not one but two US talent agencies were overshadowed by Hiroshi Sasaki’s comments. Sasaki is actually an Olympic event veteran, having directed the flag-handover ceremony at the 2016 Rio Olympics when Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe dressed up as Super Mario. That was good. His idea for Watanabe to appear during the opening of the Tokyo Olympics dressed like a pig? Not so good. His follow-up idea to call this new mascot the “Olympig”? Really not good.

Naomi Watanabe has spent a big part of her career trying to normalize plus-sized women in entertainment and fashion so Sasaki’s words probably didn’t get to her. But she did express frustration with how the media is almost trying to be offended on her behalf. They may mean well but, in the end, their underlying message is that Watanabe is secretly conscious about her size and needs to be protected from comments about her weight. And that just doesn’t seem like the person who won the hearts of so many Japanese people with her confidence and outgoing personality.

Fewer and Fewer People Want to be Associated with the Olympics

Soon after Sasaki’s comments became public, the creative director resigned from his post, but that didn’t mean the end of the Olympics’ woes. Their current problem is that seemingly no one wants to take part in the Olympic torch relay.

The relay will last 121 days and pass through every Japanese prefecture. Part of its journey was supposed to be handled by the Paralympic swimmer Rina Akiyama who suddenly pulled out of the event citing worries of drawing a crowd and spreading COVID. The pop-rock band Tokio and actor Masataka Kubota (April Fools, 13 Assassins) also withdrew from the relay, blaming it on a scheduling conflict. The same reason for quitting was also given by singer Hiroshi Itsuki, actress Takako Tokiwa (Cut, 20th Century Boys), and actor Takumi Saitoh (Shin Godzilla, Fukushima 50). The Olympics and the relay have been postponed more than once, so the scheduling excuses might be real. Or it might all be their subtle way of saying that holding the Olympics right now is not the best idea. 

New Super Sentai Series Zenkaiger Tries Out New Things

You can tell that spring has arrived in Japan because the cherry trees are in bloom and we have a new Super Sentai series on TV. The story about a group of colorful superheroes fighting evil in their giant robots (which was recut and released in the West as Power Rangers) has been on air since 1975, but for its 45th iteration, the franchise tried out some new things.

To celebrate 45 years of Super Sentai, Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger went totally nostalgic. On the new show, every character has some kind of connection to a past show. The design of the White Ranger, for example, is modeled heavily on the very first Sentai series Himitsu Sentai Gorenger, while his companions are based on characters and settings from other parts of the franchise, from Magiranger to Zyuranger. However, that’s not the new part. Previous shows like Gokaiger also had the same idea of using the powers of past Super Sentai teams with completely new characters.

Where Zenkaiger differs is in having only one human main character. Besides the White Ranger, everyone on his team is a mechanoid. Robots were Rangers before like on Kyuranger but this is the first time that we’ve seen a Super Sentai team that’s 80% robotic. It will definitely help sell more toys but you have to feel sorry a little bit for the actors behind the robots. They’re on one of the most popular TV shows in Japan right now but most of the audience doesn’t know their real faces. Kind of a monkey’s paw kind of deal.


Featured image by Rose Vittayaset

Read more about what’s happening in the world of Japanese pop culture:

TW Pop Culture Update: The Shrinking World of Japanese Entertainment

TW Pop Culture Update: Japanese Celebrities Get “Busy”