When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch arrived at Narita International Airport in December 2012 as part of a Star Trek Into Darkness promotional tour that also included director J.J. Abrams and co-star Chris Pine, he was (now famously) greeted there by an estimated 500 fans. An overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, female gathering, they had waited patiently behind a barrier at the arrivals floor of Terminal 2 since as early as 7:30 am (some accounts give 4 am), and by the time of Cumberbatch’s 4:45 pm appearance fans filled not only the lobby itself but the mezzanine floor above, which looked out over the hall.
Cumberbatch was neither the first foreign star to be greeted in this way by Japanese fans, nor was this an entirely grassroots event; according to the Japanese website SHERLOCK(BBC) & Benedict Cumberbatch, the film’s distributor had circulated Cumberbatch’s arrival information in advance, hoping for such a turnout and, presumably, the word-of-mouth it would generate in the Japanese press. And generate it it did, to judge by not only the press turnout at the airport that day, but also by the considerable number of interviews with Cumberbatch that began appearing in Japanese periodicals ranging from the mainstream movie magazine Screen to Vogue Japan beginning in March 2013.
Cumberbatch’s popularity appears to have taken the Japanese mass media completely by surprise; as film and television reporter Sachie Ima writes in the June 2013 issue of Screen (featuring Cumberbatch on the cover):
In truth, at the time that Sherlock first arrived in Japan and lit the flame of [Cumberbatch’s] popularity, there were probably few industry insiders who thought “This is fantastic! Benedict is amazing!” and seriously expected a boom to result [from the show]. (p. 5)
Similarly, the editors of Hayakawa’s Mystery Magazine, which had produced a special issue on Sherlock in September of the previous year, observed in their April 2013 followup issue (“Sherlock‘s Rivals”) that
To be honest, when we released our special issue back in September 2012, we had no idea that Benedict Cumberbatch would become so popular. (frontispiece)
Thus, magazine editors and writers have been scrambling to account for his popularity amongst a certain segment of Japanese women (and, to a lesser – or, at least, less visible – extent, men), clearly unsure what to make of his “strange looks” and “unusual appeal” (DVD & Blu-ray Data, April 2013, p. 14), but determined to capitalize upon it nevertheless.
If there’s one explanation that has pulled out ahead of the rest, it’s that of Cumberbatch’s ‘Britishness’. In a special issue of the weekly entertainment magazine Pia (April 30, 2013 p. 125), Cumberbatch is described as having a “British charisma” to which the whole world responds. Taking this a step further, the highbrow idol magazine Cinema Cinema (June 3, 2013, p. 66-7) labels him an “English prince” and a “true English gentleman,” based on his Harrow education and his “smart… gentlemanly demeanor in interviews.” Similarly, in the mainstream Screen (May 2013, p. 26) he’s put at the head of a pack of “New British Actors (Sexy, Talented & Gentleman)” that includes Eddie Redmayne, Ben Whishaw, Robert Pattinson, Martin Freeman, and Tom Hiddleston (but lacks – conspicuously, for the Anglo-American fan – David Tennant and Matt Smith). Together, this group is said to represent the latest iteration of an “English tradition” of actors who are both “beautiful and talented.” This recourse to Cumberbatch’s Britishness is a well-worn path for magazines to tread, insofar as foreign stars in Japan (as, it should be said, elsewhere) have been said to embody certain nation-based traits since the earliest days of transnational movie culture. From the Hollywood glamour of stars of old to the French suaveness of Alain Delon, to the Chinese martial-arts physicality of Bruce Lee and the ‘soft’ South Korean masculinity of Bae Yong-joon, the nation is typically, if not exclusively, mobilized as difference, and it lends individual stars generalizable traits that are favorably contrasted with what’s characterized as an otherwise homogenous Japanese screen culture.
Far be it from me to argue that there is nothing ‘British’ about Cumberbatch’s appeal. My own family hails from Texas, and I am in no way, shape or form immune to the charms of a posh English accent. That said, I would like to suggest that while there is a Britishness at play in Cumberbatch’s appeal to Japanese audiences, it’s for an expanded definition of Britishness. It’s no exaggeration to say that Cumberbatch’s Japanese popularity to this point has been predicated largely on his performance as Sherlock Holmes, who is arguably the quintessential English character of the modern era and one which has enjoyed a long, rich and surprisingly diverse trajectory within Japan. From even before Momoka Kuwano’s 1914 translation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes has influenced Japanese writers (Edogawa Rampo’s recurring detective, Kogoro Akechi, was famously indebted to the Holmes character), and Sherlock Holmes stories and references have appeared in a wide variety of Japanese popular cultural texts, including manga and anime. Moreover, particularly with the widespread penetration of television in Japanese households that occurred in the 1960s, Sherlock Holmes film and television adaptations from the UK and the United States have been as much a staple of television in Japan as elsewhere.
Yet, it is Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s 21st Century retelling of the famous detective’s adventures that, I would argue, has particular resonance in present-day Japan. As Kristina Busse and Louisa Stein write, Sherlock displays a distinctively neoliberal aesthetic, “often showing London as a careful meeting of stately old city homes and the glass and chrome monuments of transnational post capitalist corporations…a virtual advertisement for the new post-industrial London” (p. 225). This textual ‘meeting’ of old and new echoes a range of ways that not just ‘Britishness’, but (post)modernity itself has been understood in Japan, where structures that are hundreds of years old are juxtaposed against glass and steel skyscrapers; in this sense, however aspirational it may be, the world of Sherlock is one that is instantly recognizable to Japanese viewers. Moreover, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is something of a walking advertisement for the British fashion industry, sporting not only Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat, but also an equally iconic Belstaff coat, Spencer Hart suits, Paul Smith gloves and scarf, and Derek Rose dressing gowns. In Japan, where European ‘brand goods’ are symbols of a global cosmopolitan imaginary, this confluence of British-inflected place and consumption in the person of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock makes him a potentially powerful site of material desire.
I emphasize “potential” here because such desires are often more subjective than not; in contrast, there is another way of thinking of Cumberbatch’s Britishness that is more industrial than his perceived ‘English’ desirability. Cumberbatch has been slowly building a resume within a British entertainment industry notable for its fluidity, particularly relative to Hollywood. Like other British actors both past and present, he has appeared on television, stage and radio, in mainstream feature films and small, independent projects, and he can lay claim to a diverse body of work that showcases his range and talent. In a material sense, this has resulted in a rich catalogue of work for the would-be fan to enjoy, even in Japan. Japanese subtitled DVDs of his films (Amazing Grace, Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Whistleblower, War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and television work (Marple: Murder is Easy, The Last Enemy, Sherlock) join recent and upcoming satellite broadcasts of Small Island (Women’s Channel LaLa TV, May 5) and Parade’s End (WOWOW Prime, May 22-24), the BBC radio show Cabin Pressure (available for download on iTunes Japan), and even full (unsubtitled) episodes of Fortysomething on YouTube (at least for as long as they remain online) to give Japanese fans access to the breadth of his work. Indeed, DVD Blu-ray Vision magazine (predictably) exhorts its readers, “Let’s follow Batch-san on DVD!” (April 2013, p. 16), making use of a term – “follow” (追っかけ) – that’s commonly used to refer to a specific Japanese fan practice of seeking out face-to-face contact with stars. Thus, such work – and it’s availability across a variety of media – contributes to an arguably paradoxical sense of transcultural intimacy with Cumberbatch with which other actors of more limited range, opportunity and/or output simply cannot compete. These media help to make Cumberbatch knowable, and through this knowledge fans are brought, however symbolically, into closer proximity with him.
Not only symbolic, but – critically – physical proximity to the star further contributes to his Japanese popular cultural capital, and at the same time it suggests an appeal that exceeds his Britishness. Cumberbatch is someone you might encounter not only in the intimacy of your own home on television or radio, but also within the close confines of a radio studio, theater or even – if you’re lucky – on the street. In Japan, this visibility is embodied in his good-natured interaction with fans at the airport – a level of fan service that, as DVD Blu-ray Vision points out (and which is echoed in the pages of Pia), is “greater than Johnny Depp’s” (p. 19). It goes on to give examples of his attention to fans both in Japan and at home:
[Cumberbatch] is outgoing in his interactions with fans. It was gratifying to see him enthusiastically provide fan service upon his arrival at Narita airport. He’s been known to wear a shirt given him by a fan the very next day. Despite what he might immediately have thought of the design, he’s said to have worn it with aplomb. [And] he gave a hug to the fan who uploaded a Happy Birthday video to YouTube. (p. 19)
Cumberbatch is, to date, eminently accessible in both his professional and, to a lesser extent, private lives. In Japan, where stars often rise and fall on the basis of their perceived approachability, such direct access to him sets him apart from many Japanese and Hollywood stars alike, whose interactions with the public are, in the main, far more carefully choreographed.
The comparison with Johnny Depp is equally telling. In online conversation, Cumberbatch’s given name has been appended with the honorific Japanese suffix ‘sama’ (i.e.: “Ben-sama”). While, historically, this term was reserved for lords and ladies, in the contemporary popular cultural context ‘sama’ is used to set certain exemplary sports and music figures apart from the crowd. It’s use among foreign actors is much less common and is limited to only a select handful of stars, notably Johnny-sama (Johnny Depp), Leo-sama (Leonardo DiCaprio), Leslie-sama (the late Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung), and Yon-sama (South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon). Indeed, DVD Blu-ray Vision (p. 18) describes Cumberbatch as the “first ‘social phenomenon’ star since Yon-sama” (ヨン様以来の社会現象スター), and the association with not only Bae and Depp, but other such ‘sama’ of the foreign acting world hints at affinities that transcend ‘national’ characteristics.
[Edit 30/9/14: the ‘sama’ suffix, in fact, became controversial amongst fans during Cumberbatch’s second Japan junket in July, 2013, when TV announcers referred to him as “Ben-sama,” and irate fans tweeted their insistence that he should be referred to as “Ben-san.” Although only a hypothesis at this point, this seems to indicate fans’ desire not to have both the object of their fandom, and possibly themselves as fans, perceived part of seemingly frenzied and much-maligned female fandom that centers on the ‘sama’ stars.]
First, like Cumberbatch, each of these actors has worked not only in feature films but also television (and, in the case of Cheung, the music industry as well), achieving their Japanese ‘break’ well after the first flush of their careers. Thus, like Cumberbatch, each has enjoyed substantial popularity both on the big and small screen, augmented, as in his case, by an approachability that, in the case of Yon-sama, achieved epic proportions (4,500 fans are said to have greeted him at Narita airport during his September 2011 visit). Second, and equally significantly, each embodies in his own way a particularly unthreatening (even baby-faced) masculinity – what Sun Jung has termed, in an exclusively East Asian context, ‘soft’ masculinity – and one that often overlays an almost deceptive onscreen talent. Viewers familiar with Cumberbatch primarily through his roles in films such as Atonement, War Horse and Sherlock might protest such a description, and certainly he is skilled at projecting a more conventionally masculine persona:
At the same time, within episodes of Sherlock (not to mention in shows such as Fortysomething and films ranging from Third Star to Hawking and even Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) Cumberbatch’s unique ‘softness’ – his vulnerability – is foregrounded to heighten moments of emotional tension or compromise:
And this softer persona not only extends across Cumberbatch’s film, television and radio roles, but also encompasses aspects of his public persona as well (see also 1:28 in the above video):
He is, simply put, both ‘soft’ and conventionally masculine, flitting between these personae with seeming ease, and this sets him apart from many of his English and American contemporaries who are also active in transnationally circulating media. In this sense, Cumberbatch’s onscreen and offscreen personae align rather neatly with those of other unusually popular foreign stars in Japan, whose relatability and accessibility are augmented by various iterations of ‘soft’ masculinity that have a proven resonance amongst Japanese female fans.
Cumberbatch’s Japanese popularity comes at a time when transcultural interactions between fans of a given star or text are at unprecedented levels. Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, in particular, have facilitated fans’ access to real-time information and updates concerning overseas stars’ activities, and in so doing they have enfolded Japanese fans within a global conversation in which they are active participants. In the case of Cumberbatch, still photographs that were part of his recent Japanese magazine blitz have been circulating on Tumblr for months, to the stated envy of non-Japanese fans; similarly, Sherlock-centered online Japanese fan art (primarily posted on personal and ‘circle’ websites, as well as archive sites such as the Japan-based Pixiv.net, and increasingly on deviantART and Tumblr) is also held in high esteem among fans for its generally consistent quality.
At the same time, Japanese fans are also increasingly part of what might be (awkwardly and very tentatively) termed real-time fandom. This is perhaps nowhere more striking than in an occurrence that took place during Cumberbatch’s recent appearance, with Star Trek costar Chris Pine, on The Graham Norton Show (May 3, 2013), in which Norton did a segment featuring fans who had traveled great distances to see one or another of their favorite stars. In this segment, “Cumberbitches” were introduced alongside “Pine-nuts,” representing countries from around the world; at one point, upon learning that a fan had traveled by long-distance bus from Germany specifically for the chance to see him in person, Cumberbatch left the stage and climbed the stairs into the audience to embrace her, following this up with hugs for fans from Hong Kong and Nebraska. Not to be outdone, Pine also went into the audience to give a fan from Japan a hug, and on his way back down to the stage he also gave another self-proclaimed Pine-nut from less-far-flung Kent a hug. Then, for good measure, he hugged another woman also hailing from Kent, and, at this, Cumberbatch pointed in mock alarm and exclaimed that Pine had “just kissed one of my bitches!”**
The last fan Pine embraced was none other than Cumberbuddy, a Cumberbatch fan of old with online presences on both Twitter and Tumblr. In that moment – in being recognized and ‘claimed’ by Cumberbatch – she was all of the ‘Cumbercollective’, and it became a singularly iconic moment amongst Cumberbatch fans not only in the UK, where the program aired over broadcast television late at night, but globally. Segments of the show, including this one, were made available on YouTube shortly after they aired, and within hours animated gifs of the moment – Pine embracing Cumberbuddy and Cumberbatch pointing in faux horror – peppered the dashboards of Tumblr users around the world. Cumberbuddy herself enjoyed a moment of fan celebrity (still ongoing as of this writing), which was especially noteworthy for its Japanese iteration: within two days of the broadcast, her tweet about the event had been retweeted roughly 230 times by Japanese tweeters, and she had gained about 150 new Japanese followers on Twitter (personal correspondence, 5/18/13).
What of all this cumulatively suggests is that discourses of nationality and difference that have been used for decades in the Japanese mass media to promote and market foreign stars have become increasingly limiting, as modes of media delivery (not only theatrical films, but particularly DVD and the Internet) and participation in fandom evolve within a dynamic technological landscape. Moreover, as I have suggested above, there is some evidence that, rather than being a series of discrete and unrelated star ‘booms’, the unique popularity of certain non-Japanese stars among a subset of Japanese fans derives from a specific, and broadly consistent, affective appeal that translates across nations and stars. And while it’s clear that the nation remains an important organizing principle in any consideration of transcultural – and transnational – star fandom, here I would suggest that we need to more fully interrogate how the nation might be understood differently as such an organizational concept – not simply in terms of vague ‘national’ characteristics, but as industries whose specific practices exert a material effect on the way its stars function both at home and abroad.
*This references the mid-1980s – 1990s popularity in Japan of such stars as Hugh Grant, James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Julian Sands, Ben Cross, Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, etc.
**Cumberbatch is notoriously averse to referring to his female fans as “Cumberbitches”; on Graham Norton, when asked to identify them, he made a show of shyly looking away and murmuring “the Cumbercollective.”
Busse, Kristina and Louisa Ellen Stein, “Conclusion: Transmedia Sherlock and Beyond,” in Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom, ed. Louisa Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse. London: McFarland & Company, 2012: 224-231.