"Good. Beautiful." the photographer throws a thumbs-up from atop a ladder, and Ayumi Hamasaki swings her legs off her perch on a raised horizontal mirror. An assistant hurries over with a pair of furry mules. Hamasaki slides into them and shuffles quickly to the computer monitor. The 20 photo assistants, stylists, makeup artists and record-label entourage at the shoot now gathering behind her look on in silence while Hamasaki leans forward, concentrating on the digital images of herself flickering on the screen. Dressed in a futuristic black kimono over scuffed jeans, her face painted like a cross between a geisha and Gene Simmons, she projects an almost apocalyptic image that is both of this world and completely out of it half-human, half-manga, totally pop star.
Her energy is certainly otherworldly. This shoot is for the CD sleeves accompanying the techno and acoustic remix versions of her latest album I Am..., which is throbbing in the background. Typically for her, she's selected an entirely new image "fake Japanese," or traditional getups refracted through a foreigner's stereotyping lens. Hamasaki arrived at the Tokyo studio more than nine hours ago to shoot the two album covers, after staying up all night with her staff awaiting delivery of special makeup equipment she'd ordered online from Los Angeles. Though she spent hours testing the airbrush device on her managers' faces, then some hours more in extravagant costumes and uncomfortable poses, Hamasaki is wide-eyed and wired while her staff rubs their eyes.
Finally, Hamasaki speaks. "I think ... 72, not 73," she declares in a voice scratchy from the long hours, pointing a spectacularly manicured finger at the numbered frame on the screen. The staff applauds in relief. It's past midnight on Valentine's Day when Hamasaki doles out little wrapped gifts before she retreats in a hail of cheerful thank-yous and goodbyes. Everyone slumps over. The boss is gone.
At 23, Ayumi Hamasaki, Ayu to fans, is the most powerful figure in Japanese pop music. She's sold more records than any other musical act for two years running in the world's second-largest music market. Her frequent makeovers determine the course of fashion. Her huge black eyes peer out from billboards in every corner of the country. Fans memorize her lyrics, transform into Ayu clones and swear she's changed their lives. Marketers clamor for her endorsements, borrowing her name and image to peddle everything from cell phones to doughnuts. Her announcement last fall of a courtship with Tomoya Nagase, the actor and lead singer for Tokio, led the news for days.
Like her megastar predecessors Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori and Namie Amuro, Hamasaki's fame was spun out of the air by clever marketing. But Hamasaki is the rare J-pop queen who has seized her own power, wielding it to control her career right down to the fonts on her tour posters and the makeup on her oft-photographed face. For fans, the story of her by-the-bootstraps climb to pop royalty makes her even more worthy of idolatry. But for her record label, Avex, Hamasaki represents both its most valuable asset and the grave danger of having all its eggs in one star's basket a danger so potentially costly that its top executives refused to be interviewed for this article, in part for fear of further stapling the label's name to hers. As for Japan's struggling, $3-billion recording industry, Hamasaki embodies both its best hopes and its greatest limitations as she attempts the tricky leap to overseas markets. While some J-pop acts have actively sought fans across Asia, superstars like Hamasaki haven't had to until now. With the Japanese market slackening due to the recession, the industry and its stars can no longer afford to stay home.