TOKYO -- From concerts to variety shows to commercials, the pop group SMAP commands such a presence in Japan that the prospect of its breakup leaves the entertainment and advertising industries asking, "What now?"
"In terms of recognition and favorables, they're off the charts," said an executive at a major ad agency who has worked with the group, describing the impact of a breakup as "unfathomable."
Johnny & Associates, the talent agency to which SMAP belongs, has confirmed rumors that four of the five members are in talks on leaving the firm.
Masahiro Nakai, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori are looking to part ways with Johnny & Associates along with their longtime manager, who is already on her way out, according to people familiar with the matter. The fifth member, Takuya Kimura, wants to stay, these sources said.
The group formed in 1988 and released its debut album three years later. It has become a national phenomenon, redefining the boundaries of musical acts and making three generations of fans.
SMAP members are now involved in 18 TV commercials, according to Johnny & Associates' website. They appear as a group in spots for Seven & i Holdings, parent of convenience store chain Seven-Eleven Japan, and Universal Studios Japan operator USJ. Katori, the youngest member at 38, currently appears solo in the most commercials of any member -- five -- followed by the 42-year-old Kimura at four.
Seven & i said it has neither received any official contact about the matter nor decided on a course of action. Bandai Namco Entertainment, a Bandai Namco Holdings unit that employs Nakai in a video game commercial, declined to comment.
Advertisers generally sign TV commercial contracts with celebrities for a specific period. If commercials featuring SMAP cannot air because the group breaks up, breach-of-contract penalties may result.
"I think that to satisfy sponsors, the group won't break up while they're under contract," an ad-industry insider said.
SMAP has an immense presence in TV and radio beyond advertising. "SMAPxSMAP," a weekly variety show starring the entire group, celebrates its 20th year on Fuji Television in April. It became a mainstay for the network, boasting ratings of more than 30% for a time. The show will continue to air as scheduled, according to Fuji TV, a unit of Fuji Media Holdings.
Members are often on the air individually -- Nakai and Inagaki have radio shows, for example. Even if the group dissolves, they could simply re-contract with broadcasters under their new management, entertainment-industry watchers said. But SMAP performs musically as a unit, so that aspect of their career and its impact on entertainment would certainly change.
SMAP has churned out hit song after hit song. The group's 55th single, released last September, become its 22nd in a row to go straight to No. 1, according to Japanese music industry chart provider Oricon. Past million-sellers include "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana," which sold roughly 2.6 million copies after its release in 2003. But the members' prospects as solo artists are dim. The loss of such a powerful driver of CD sales will deal a blow to the music industry in Japan, where the format has held out better than in other markets.
Perhaps the biggest loss will be that felt by fans.
"Don't break up," pleaded a 30-something woman visiting the SMAP Shop pop-up store in the akasaka Sacas commercial complex here Wednesday, calling herself a fan of Kimura, also known as Kimutaku.
"It would be a shame," a woman in her 40s lamented, saying the group offers a "sense of security." Many entertainment and advertising executives surely feel the same way.