I know that 99% of my readers are K-pop fans and likely have little interest in the goings on of Johnny’s & Associates, but I’m a big fan of the agency and there’s so much to write about them – particularly in 2022. My thoughts on Johnny’s are a little muddled this year, so rather than divide between good points and bad points like I usually do I’m just going to work my way through their roster in no particular order.
Ask any longtime Johnny’s fan and you’re likely to get one of two responses regarding their push into international markets. Many fans are eager to get the artists’ music on streaming services and be more directly included in the agency’s initiatives. Others are hesitant about the agency becoming too focused on mainstream global sounds at the expense of the “special sauce” that has forged their incredible legacy in Japan. As a K-pop fan, I definitely sympathize with the second opinion. It’s so much better to create something unique and wait for fans to come to you rather than seek out fans by crafting watered-down music that attempts to hit as many markets and tastes as possible.
This push and pull was put to the test with the long-awaited debut of Travis Japan last month. The agency shipped them off to America to train and compete in dance competitions (and, weirdly… America’s Got Talent). It culminated in a digital debut with a song that was clearly targeting the BTS Dynamite/Butter demo. To me, this debut felt underwhelming compared to the spectacle of past Johnny’s debuts. It’ll be interesting to see where the group goes next year. My preference is that their “international” schtick sees them performing in more venues outside of Japan while reverting to a more classic Johnny’s single/album rollout that better utilizes their skills.
Johnny’s continued their slow approach to streaming this year, with some KAT-TUN songs available on digital platforms alongside other veteran artists like V6-offshoot 20th Century and Yuma Nakayama. I think it’s smart to test this approach on established groups who retain large fanbases even if their commercial peak has likely passed. It would be even smarter to bring these artists’ back catalogs onto streaming platforms. I doubt older Johnny’s CDs are selling in big numbers anymore and this would be a good way to cultivate new fans once they hear how many gems are hidden in these vast discographies.
In fact, here’s my thought on the streaming vs. physical controversy: Sell physical CDs as usual and follow them up with a delayed release on streaming platforms — maybe a week or two after the albums have been on shelves. That way, Johnny’s gets the massive sales numbers (and number ones) from hardcore fans eager to hear the material right away. But, they also reap the benefits of casual listeners jumping on after the initial release. Leverage the strengths of both mediums. Lean into the collectible aspect of physical media with more robust photobooks and video content, then throw some bonus tracks onto the streaming release.
You’re welcome, Johnny’s. I just solved that problem for you. Oh, and let’s get more full music videos on YouTube while we’re at it! 2022 was a great step forward in that regard, but there are still so many classic music videos to be unveiled in full.
The biggest Johnny’s news to come out in 2022 occurred just a few weeks ago, when it was announced that three out of five King & Prince members would be leaving the group and agency next year. This sent shockwaves through the fandom. The news seemed to come out of nowhere, right as the group were hitting their peak. It’s a big blow to the agency and I’m still not sure how it’s going to play out. Will there be farewell singles/albums/tours before the group is reduced to a duo? How will that duo sound? Will they carry on the same level of success? It’s going to be crazy to watch.
The other half of this big news involved the departure of Hideaki Takizawa, once a Johnny’s artist himself and recently the head of the agency’s Junior department. He’s credited with much of Johnny’s recent modernization, and his choice to leave spurred uncertainty among fans. I can’t remember a year where the future of Johnny’s felt so nebulous.
Moving onto the artists and music, I felt that 2022 was a decent – if not spectacular – year. Newer groups Snow Man, Naniwa Danshi, SixTONES and King & Prince continued to sell very well. Musically, Snow Man had a solid year without any huge highs or lows. They’re pretty much bulletproof at this point, though they need a huge public hit to really cement their status as Japan’s biggest idol group. Naniwa Danshi continued to do their sugary, ornate pop thing very well. I find SixTONES’ music to be more hit-and-miss than the other groups, but they released a lot of material this year. King & Prince also blitzed the year with a ton of diverse music. Seriously, none of their singles sounded remotely alike, but they pulled off every genre they tackled.
I found Sexy Zone’s music to be of the highest quality in 2022. Their album The Highlight is incredible start to finish and boasts my favorite Johnny’s songs of the year. Meanwhile, my personal faves Kis-My-Ft2 continue to languish in ballad territory. I’m gonna need the agency to give them a much bigger musical push (and a full album!) in 2023. They’re too good to be wasted on OST ballads alone.
Hey! Say! JUMP has really expanded their musical reach in the past few years, giving their discography a sort of ‘anything goes’ quality that can be fun or head-scratchingly weird depending on the track. I thought their 2022 output was fine, but rarely among the best in their catalog. Older groups News and KAT-TUN each had a couple highlights – the former with June’s double a-side single and the latter with their recent digital-only trio of songs. These groups should really be getting their back catalogs on streaming to help introduce them to a younger audience.
Johnny’s West was a bright spot for me this year. They’ve been on a roll lately, and it feels like they’ve really established their own sound. Fellow Kansai group Kanjani8 released music here and there. I can’t say I follow them too closely, but they definitely have a loyal fan base (and could also benefit from a push on streaming). Veteran act KinKi Kids celebrated their 25th anniversary, which felt oddly muted without many releases and no greatest-hits package in sight. They did start uploading older videos to YouTube, but I wish these had been remastered. A.B.C-Z chugged along as well, though they’ve been relegated to a niche act for some time and I don’t see that changing.
The Johnny’s Junior program continues to be an exciting facet of the agency. For newer fans, these yet-to-debut acts are the easiest inroad to Johnny’s thanks to their YouTube channels, which are often subbed by fans. My favorite is the endearing, ragtag rock-meets-dance group 7 Men Samurai. Seriously, their variety skills are top tier. I recommend watching their channel from the start.
Concerts returned this year, and that’s an area Johnny’s has always excelled at. Seriously, you haven’t witnessed a true concert spectacle until you’ve seen the over-the-top bombast their acts are capable of. My Johnny’s fandom didn’t unleash to its full potential until I started watching their concert videos. Kudos to the agency for kicking off the year with their stuffed-to-the-brims New Year’s concert, which took advantage of all their acts in one place.
Finally, it was a great year for the agency’s idols turned actors. So many of their idols took on leading roles in dramas (which is often the case for Johnny’s talent) and a few of these turned out to be bonafide hits. Silent (co-starring Snow Man’s Meguro Ren) is among the finest dramas I’ve seen and is shaping up to be a well-deserved phenomenon among viewers. It’s always so exciting when a great idol turns out to be a fantastic actor as well.
2022 Grade: B-
What I’d like to see in 2023:
- Older discographies and full music videos available on streaming
- A big public hit for Snow Man
- A full Kis-My-Ft2 album
- Success for the new iteration of King & Prince
- Another debut. HiHi Jets, maybe?
Previous years: 2021