9 celebrities in surreal Japanese commercials
Outside of Hollywood, Japanese ads let Britney flog candy on a CGI jet, Keanu Reeves meet a sexy cat and Justin Bieber get in a fight with Godzilla.
“Regina George is flawless. She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus. I hear her hair's insured for $10k. I hear she does car commercials… in Japan." Our introduction to the teen antagonist of Mean Girls got it right when emphasising the impressiveness of bagging a Japanese advert. What it didn’t get into, however, is just how wild some of these adverts are. The Friends episode in which Joey bagged a Japanese lipstick commercial wasn’t far off the mark, nor was Bill Murray’s Suntory whisky ad in Lost In Translation.
The 80s, for example, saw Sylvester Stallone happily gifting a family a box full of ham, while the 90s had a semi-naked Hulk Hogan selling aircon units by serenading a baby in the clouds. But what about our faves? What left-field (but commercially savvy) moves have some of the all-time greatest popstars, heartthrob actors and supermodels made in a pre-social media world?
Many probably thought no one outside Japan would ever see them, right? Wrong. Stay with us and watch Leonardo DiCaprio fight with the Japanese mafia, Mariah Carey engage in a coffee-fuelled Street Fighter battle and Brad Pitt collaborate for the first and only time with director Wes Anderson.
Britney Spears for Suki candy
The year was 1999, …Baby One More Time had just hit the charts and Britney was the biggest popstar on the planet. Who loves popstars? Kids. And what do kids also love? Candy. UHA Mikakuto casting Britney as the face of their new gummy candy just made sense. In the ad, Britney and her team travel on a CGI private jet, dashing between arena concerts and lucrative brand jobs no doubt. If the internet is to be believed, her Japanese one-liner translates to something along the lines of: “konjak gummies make my stomach better”. Yum.
Cindy Crawford for Pocari Sweat
In 1986, two years after dropping out of her chemical engineering course and moving to NY to give modelling a go, Cindy Crawford graced the cover of Vogue. That same year, unbeknownst to many, she also starred in a particularly wild Japanese sports drink ad. The video has Cindy donning Gladiator-esque armour and raising a sword to the face of a laser-eyed black panther. The visual was designed by famed French cartoonist Moebius, who was also responsible for this Labyrinth-like follow up in which Cindy rides on the back of a giant bird over barren landscapes covered in prehistoric animals. All we need now is a surreal recreation with Kaia Gerber.
Keanu Reeves for Suntory whisky
Long before The Matrix came out, Keanu had already been depicted sitting alone in a dark apartment fixated on his computer. It was 1992 and he was hot stuff thanks to Dracula, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho. Recruited to sell Japanese whisky, the storyline of Keanu’s Suntory ad is pretty simple: a cat breaks into his apartment, stalks its way over to his bed and proceeds to transform into a beautiful woman. Plot twist: Keanu freaks out, does a backward roll and retreats to drink more whisky, which — considering the apparent hallucinations — might not be the best idea. For David Lynch-like apparitions, make it Suntory.
Mariah Carey for Nescafe
In the year 2000, presumably riding high on caffeine, Mimi channeled her inner Street Fighter and knocked out her opponent with an almighty Hadouken. Things rapidly switch up and we find her scoring goals in a tiny pink football kit. But not for long. Next, she’s a race-car pro and downing a tiny can of coffee in celebration of her big win. The reason for all of this squeal-inducing energy? Some kind of collaboration between Nescafe and Playstation that someone decided Mariah Carey would be perfect for. Strange choice, but aren't you glad it happened?
Leonardo DiCaprio for Orico Card
Leo is well known for his late 90s roles in Romeo + Juliet, Titanic and The Beach; but there remains a massively overlooked cinematic effort of his from that era. A veritable action movie set over a series of commercials, Leo’s work for Japanese credit card company Orico saw him dramatically save the day and then pay (literally, with his shiny gold Orico card) for the mess he made along the way. He fights the Japanese mafia, stops a thief in his tracks and saves a lift full of people before they plummet to their deaths. "Orico card ok?" he says at the close of each scene, with a wink to camera, as the cinematographer melts.
Nicolas Cage for Sankyo pachinko
If there’s one seminal role Nicolas Cage ought to be remembered for, it’s his promotion of pachinko — a noisy and hypnotic arcade game full of tiny silver balls. Pachinko is a Big Deal in Japan, and for Sankyo, one of three major companies in the business, Nic starred in a number of seriously out-there ads in 2006. In one, he sits at a grand piano noodling about just how much he loves pachinko. In another, a reporter’s earring reminds him of a pachinko ball and he trips the fuck out. Then there’s our favourite: Nic as an eccentric southern cowboy befriending a horde of aliens.
Madonna for Jun Legend sake
Wearing okobo geisha shoes, Madonna enters the lair of the golden dragon to the sound of music she wrote and recorded especially for this commercial. Approaching the beast, Madge draws her sword and cuts away a magical golden orb from it’s mouth, which then transforms into a glass of Jun Legend sake on ice. “I’m pure. Jun Legend,” Madonna says, turning to the camera. Alcohol adverts hit different in mid-90s Japan.
Brad Pitt x Wes Anderson for SoftBank
Inspired by the Jacques Tati 1953 comedy Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Wes Anderson shot Brad Pitt in this charming 2008 commercial for Japan’s third biggest cell phone carrier. Brad has appeared in a number of SoftBank ads over the years, but this marks the first and only time he has collaborated with Wes. In it, Brad plays a hapless tourist for whom things keep going wrong, ending with a doggy phone charm (SoftBank’s mascot) telling him, “oi Brad! Get to work!”. Oh and the topless woman who Brad photographs? That's Camille Cottin of Call My Agent!, French Fleabag and Adam Driver’s House of Gucci girlfriend fame.
Justin Bieber for SoftBank
SoftBank are very good at adverts. If it isn't Brad Pitt directed by Wes Anderson, it's Justin Bieber dancing with robots, boxing with Godzilla or beating a taiko drum like his life depends on it. In various adverts, Justin embraces elements of Japanese culture like ping pong tournaments, Dance Dance Revolution, pulling purikura faces and entering a tatami room to defeat a team of samurai. Phew. Somebody sign us up to buy whatever it is they’re selling this time.