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Ikemen - Japan's New Generation Idols

Written by Angel Tell a Friend

Many new terms pop up in common lingo every year in Japan, and those interested in Japanese pop culture are no doubt familiar with the term "Ikemen". The term came into popular usage around 2000 as an expression to describe attractive young men who are of course plentiful in the Japanese entertainment industry.

The Origin of Ikemen

Starting around 2000, television stations started reaching out to a wider audience range by casting new-generation male artists in the leading or supporting roles of the traditionally male-oriented Kamen Rider, tokusatsu, and ranger superhero shows. With their handsome appearances and sharp images, these young actors won over many female viewers and created an entirely new fanbase. Some notable stars who got their start on superhero shows include Odagiri Joe (Kamen Rider Kuuga), Tamayama Tetsuji (Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger), and Kaname Jun (Kamen Rider Agito). Their success inspired television stations and film production companies to pursue this market, spawning many theatrical plays, films, and television dramas starring young attractive men.

Stage Plays as Springboard to Fame

Of these wave of Ikemen productions, the most important would have to be The Prince of Tennis Musical, adapted from Konomi Takeshi's popular manga. First serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump in July 1999, The Prince of Tennis went on to publish 379 chapters spanning 42 volumes, ending its run in March 2008. After being adapted into an anime series in 2001, The Prince of Tennis traveled to stage in 2003 for The Prince of Tennis Musical. At the time, observers were skeptical about adapting such a popular manga into a live-action musical, and as predicted, ticket sales were only average. Although the production received fairly positive reviews and did attract a following, overall The Prince of Tennis Musical only enjoyed limited popularity in its inaugural run. But it was enough for the musical series to continue.

The turning point came in 2005. That summer, the storyline for the The Prince of Tennis Musical had progressed to the Regional Championships and the introduction of the Hyotei Academy team, which is very popular among manga readers. With Ueshima Yukio's stage direction and a carefully selected cast that greatly resembled the original characters, buzz and support for The Prince of Tennis Musical surged. An additional 19 shows were added in the winter for a total of 40 performances, over four times that of the first run's nine shows in 2003. As The Prince of Tennis Musical became increasingly popular and empty seats turned into full houses, the number of performances also greatly increased, but even then there weren't enough tickets to go around.

Amid the ticketing frenzy, The Prince of Tennis Musical launched the careers of quite a few popular new-generation stars. Because of this, people began to call The Prince of Tennis Musical a springboard to fame for new actors.

Oshitari Yushi - Saitoh Takumi

Born in Tokyo, Saitoh Takumi began modeling in his teens and made the jump to acting in 2001. Productions he participated in include the TV dramas You're Under Arrest (2002) and Higuchi Ichiyo Monogatari (2004), and the 2005 blockbuster Umizaru. In the same year, Saitoh Takumi beat out the competition to win the role of Oshitari Yushi in The Prince of Tennis Musical. His popularity greatly increased among female fans because of the role, allowing him to release a series of travelogue DVDs and photo albums. His most recent photo album, Nirai Kanai, even includes English poetry written by the actor.

Saitoh was also cast in many films and TV dramas, the most memorable of which would have to be the popular gay romance Boys Love co-starring Kotani Yoshikazu (also from The Prince of Tennis Musical), which started off a whole new trend for boys love films starring stage idols. Now active in film, television, and music, Saitoh has not forgotten his roots, as he returns to the stage in October 2008 to play Oshitari Yushi once more. This time, The Prince of Tennis Musical will go overseas for the first time with shows in Taiwan, Korea, and other regions, attracting a new legion of fans for the star-making musical. .

Tezuka Kunimitsu - Shirota You

Born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and Spanish mother, Shirota You is a member of the new-generation acting group D-BOYS. Raised in Spain as a child, he returned to Japan when he was thirteen. He first attracted attention with his role as Tuxedo Mask in the Sailor Moon musicals from 2003 to 2004. In late 2004, a golden opportunity arrived: he was selected to play the popular character of Tezuka Kunimitsu in The Prince of Tennis Musical. Though many fans were initially skeptical whether he could take on such a cool and serious role, his performance won over the audience, and he helped bring The Prince of Tennis Musical to a new high in the summer of 2005.

After honing his skills in stage productions, Shirota jumped to television, appearing in Seito Shokun!, Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, The Negotiator, Rookies, and other dramas. He left a particularly deep impression in The Negotiator playing a mentally ill criminal opposite leading actress Yonekura Ryoko. Proving his acting skills have been recognized, Shirota has been cast in the role of legendary samurai warrior Sanada Yukimura in the upcoming 2009 NHK taiga drama Tenchijin.

Atobe Keigo - Kato Kazuki

Hailing from Nagoya, Kato Kazuki entered the entertainment industry in 2003, but had few performing opportunities until 2005 when The Prince of Tennis Musical director's challenge turned into his big break. As mentioned earlier, Hyotei Academy characters were introduced to The Prince of Tennis Musical in the storybook summer of 2005. At the time, the casting of Hyotei captain Atobe Keigo, regularly voted the most popular character by The Prince of Tennis fandom, was particularly crucial to the director as he knew a miscast here could easily lead to fan backlash. After a careful selection process, Kato Kazuki was finally cast, and he did not disappoint the director or fans, successfully bringing alive the character of Atobe Keigo. In late 2005, Kato as well as Shirota Yu released solo albums under their characters names for The Prince of Tennis Musical's Best Actors album series.

Riding the popularity of The Prince of Tennis Musical, Kato made his official debut as a singer in April 2006 with the mini album Rough Diamond. His debut album made it to the 16th spot on the Oricon chart, a respectable achievement for a newcomer. His star continued to rise as he appeared in popular TV series like Kamen Rider Kabuto, Jigoko Shojo, and Hotaru no Hikari. In 2007, he signed with avex trax, and held his first large-scale solo concert at the Budokan. Due to high fan request, in October 2008 Kato returned to the The Prince of Tennis Musical stage to play Atobe Keigo.

Kamen Rider Kabuto - Mizushima Hiro

Kato Kazuki isn't the only star from Kamen Rider Kabuto. Born in Tokyo, Mizushima Hiro moved to Switzerland with his father, a famous soccer player, at a young age, returning to Japan for middle school. He made his acting debut in 2005 in the hit school drama Gokusen 2, and continued to appear in small roles in various TV series. In 2006, Mizushima was cast in the leading role of Tendo Soji in Kamen Rider Kabuto. The role launched him to instant fame, and attracted him a large female fan following. His eye-catching turn as Nanba Minami in the Ikemen drama Hanazakari no Kimitachi e further endeared him with audiences.

In 2008, Mizushima starred in the hit drama Zettai Kareshi, adapted from Watase Yu's popular manga. His character in the drama, while still active and lively like his previous characters, also had to face familial and romantic conflicts, allowing him to broaden his acting range. Though Mizushima has not appeared in that many works, he has left a deep impression with every performance.

Kamen Rider Hibiki - Nakamura Yuichi

Born in Yokohama, Nakamura Yuichi started out in 2003 as a Johnny's Jr. He left Johnny & Associates in 2004 to audition for D-BOYS, and emerged as the grand prize winner. Like Mizushima, Nakamura made his acting debut in 2005 in Gokusen 2. In the same year, he began to draw notice playing Kiriya Kyosuke on Kamen Rider Hibiki. Because of his handsome looks, Nakamura has received many acting opportunities, and even took on a cross-dressing role in the drama Princess Princess D, based on Tsuda Mikiyo's hit manga. Other dramas he participated in include Kazoku Zenzai and Delicious Gakuin.

In 2007, Nakamura returned to tokusatsu to play Yuto Sakurai in Kamen Rider Den-O, becoming the first actor to play major roles in two Kamen Rider series in the same year. Kamen Rider Den-O is also the first Kamen Rider series to release character singles, and, as a testament to his popularity, Nakamura's single Action-ZERO made it to #3 on the Oricon Daily Chart. Other than television series, Nakamura has also appeared in stage plays, films, and commercials.

Kamen Rider Den-O - Sato Takeru

Hailing from Saitama, Sato Takeru made his debut in the drama Princess Princess D alongside Nakamura Yuichi. His role Kouno Toru was originally the main character in the manga, but as Sato was still a newcomer at the time, the drama's focus was shifted to Mikoto Yukari, played by Kamakari Kenta (another The Prince of Tennis Musical star). Though not the main lead, Sato successfully established himself with audiences.

In 2007, inspired by the great popularity of Mizushima Hiro's Kamen Rider Kabuto, TV Asahi decided to continue to use a young newcomer for their new installment of Kamen Rider. Only 18 years old at the time, Sato was cast in the leading role of Nogami Ryotaro in Kamen Rider Den-O. In contrast to the usual superhero image, Nogami Ryotaro is a timid youth who isn't all that strong even after he transforms into Kamen Rider Den-O, and must rely on different Imagin aides to accomplish his missions. As Nogami's personality and powers change according to the Imagin, Sato displayed a wide acting range in the series, a factor that contributed to him and the series' great popularity. Indeed, Sato is often described as the Kamen Rider who is weakest in power, but strongest in popularity.


The last few years has seen the emergence of an amazingly high number of young male stars, and they can be seen and heard in every area of Japanese entertainment. There are many more up-and-coming stars not covered in this article, such as Aiba Hiroki, Kamakari Kenta, Nakagauchi Masataki, Baba Toru and Yagami Ren of PureBOYS, Kato Keisuke, Takeda Kouhei, and Furuhara Yasuhisa, who have found success in singing and acting. Stage musicals and superhero shows serve as fast-track springboards for these new-generation idols, but their acting journeys have been anything but easy. In the intense competition of Japan's entertainment industry, it takes more than just looks and luck to survive. Their true source of success is perseverance.

Translated by Sanwei

Published October 31, 2008

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