It’s crazy how shorthand travels for cars that aren’t actually sold in this country. The Nissan Skyline is a case in point: most old school fans will know what a hakosuka is (hako, for box; suka, for the Japanese pronunciation of the first half of the Skyline name), and some may even know the Japan Skyline (1977-81, named for its “I Love Japan” advertising theme) and the Newman Skyline (1981-85, so named because Paul Newman raced a version in international competition).
Skyline fans will be jumping up and down at the omission of one important missing generation from the list above: the kenmeri generation. The “Japanization” of the name abbreviated the names Ken and Mary, a young couple in love who appeared in the car’s TV advertising. Tall, exotic Ken; curvy, adorable Mary; they toured rural Japan in their lovely Skyline 2000GTX, getting back to “Beautiful Nature,” Nissan’s pro-environmental slogan at the time. Ken and Mary took Japan by storm starting in late 1972.
Commercials don’t often sweep the nation anymore in these times of personalized media, so some context is in order. Remember the stink made about Isaiah Mustafa, the really cut black dude in the Old Spice ads about a year ago? Take that reaction and cube it. Or, go ask your parents about the dude in the Taster’s Choice ads from the early ‘90s; it was that level of mania, and beyond. Only lately, thanks to YouTube, can we find these vintage ads and gaze back at them for what they really were, rather than through four decades of rose-tinted nostalgic haze.
Almost forty years ago, Diane Krey-Wesley played Mary, a household name in Japan. Her face was iconic among a generation of car buyers and TV watchers, and even today, her character’s name is inextricably associated with the product. Today she’s a Northern California schoolteacher, but an increasing American appreciation for all generations of Nissan’s Skyline—plus the return of those videos, now available for anyone to see at any time—mean that fame may yet have a second act in store for her.
Initially, she was a military brat, going to school locally while her dad was a pilot with the US Air Force. “I was at Yokota Elementary School for four years, from Grade 1 to Grade 4. Yokota means “edge of the rice field” and was located near the now-decommissioned McLelland airbase. Later, after he was decommissioned and he got a job with Japan Air Lines as a pilot, my brother and I went to Johnson Air Station High School (Johnson is also decommissioned now).” In high school, Diane describes herself as “shy... at home I was outgoing and silly, but in public I was kind of shy. I kept to myself a lot, but then I felt like I was in another existence when I went to do the modeling.”
Ah, yes, the modeling. Something of an accident, that. “At school, I had a crush on a boy who worked for a modeling agency. I followed him to one of his gigs, for Honda minibikes.” She just went to watch, but was quickly recruited to assume an on-camera role, to look impressed as the boy du jour chugged by on his high-fashion moped. She quickly secured a contract with the Eddie Arab Modeling Agency, which specialized in placing non-Japanese kids into Japanese TV and print ads. Soon, Diane was in high demand, shilling for everything from clothing to makeup to electronics—all without a single interview. “Later, I heard that one of the reasons they liked me was that I never complained. Long hours? No problem. Eight straight hours with fake nails, arms up, holding a curler in my hair? Sure. Shave all the hair off half my face? OK. I used to get carsick from all of the cigarette smoke as we traveled to shoots, but I never complained!”
It was Nissan’s Skyline spots that brought her greatest fame. To American eyes, the Skyline is the essence of what a Japanese car could be, yet this generation of Skyline was, believe it or not, positioned to be in the image of an American car. Automatic transmission, a larger size than many Japanese cars of the day, styling cues like the round twin taillights (which sporty Chevy models had used for a decade) and a fastback roofline were among the cues. Ken and Mary were the characters the campaign would center around; play with the names Ken and Mary a little and you end up with Mary Ken, or “American.” This word play, turning American into Ken & Mary, is also very Japanese. “They love to do things like that; they’re very clever,” Diane says. “You know the Toyota Celica? In Japan it’s pronounced Chelica, meaning “cherry car.” There was also a Delica too, the daily car for mom and dad. The cherry car is what the sporty dudes drove.”
The Skyline spot was Diane’s first screen test. “It was all so formal. I sat on a chair and they took pictures of me. I’m not sure how much acting I did, but they chose me. I came back in a week, and we all sat at a table—me, my agent, the businessmen from the ad agency; we all drank tea and no one said anything. It was very subdued, and I felt like I had to be on my best behavior. I really felt like I didn’t know what was going on.” She did, however, sign a two-year deal to play Mary. Nissan hired a top director and film crew, the award-winning Ni Ten crew, and they went off to make magic.
The actor who played Ken was Japanese soap-star Jimmy Zinnai, whom Diane didn’t meet until her first day on set. “Jimmy was half-Japanese and half-Russian, and he was younger than me at the time, just 14 or 15 years old. He knew almost no English, and I didn’t know much Japanese; our first day of filming, we’re walking down a path, supposed to be having a conversation! We’re just babbling at each other.” As a hilarious bonus, neither actor was old enough to drive. Did either of you ever get to drive the cars at all? “No way.” What two kids are doing shilling for a car that neither of them were qualified or old enough to drive was something that went unanswered in the course of their time filming.
Filming for the first spot lasted just two days. It was a hesitant start, though. “I couldn’t work till after school, then I’d ride the train for an hour. They always sent a manager with me, to help translate. Well, my regular manager was a woman, but for whatever reason, she sent her boyfriend with me on that first shoot. It wasn’t until I got to the location that I learned that it would be an overnight shoot! Everyone got kind of panicky. I thought, now what? First I had to call home, and the manager convinced my parents I’d be safe. Then they got me my own hotel room, so that was fine.
“But in the middle of the night, some of the film crew climbed out of their bedroom windows and made a racket outside my window, waking me up, just to tease me. I panicked until I understood what was happening. Later, they bought me a towel and some toiletries to make up for it, so that I wouldn’t feel bad. It was very sweet, but it came out in kind of a strange way.”
There was no spoken dialogue; good thing, since the two leads didn’t speak a common language. The soundtrack song was “Love Like a Wind,” by the J-pop group Buzz; it was an easy-listening hit in Japan at the start of the ‘70s, and this, plus a voiceover, hid the stars’ cross-lingual babble. “The first few thousand times I heard that song,” Diane told us, “I thought it was the most beautiful song ever.”
To Western eyes, to 21st century eyes, it’s all very chaste; these two young lovers never even held hands, much less kissed. In those days, Diane says, the Japanese weren’t much for PDA (public displays of affection), either on the streets or on TV. “You never saw anyone making out, or even holding hands in public. But you did see same-sex buddy friends holding hands. That was considered OK; those were your friends.” And yet despite the restrained on-camera activity, other parts of Japan were more surprising. “We used to call public bathrooms the “bothroom”; the first time I went in, I thought, what are the men doing here? But no one cared.
“And they were real open-minded about things, like communal bath. In one hotel we stayed in, there was a bath house down the street, and we’d see people going by in their robes, called mukada, in their underwear. Not a big deal. At the spa in our hotel, you’d go to a faucet and wash off, then once you’re clean you get into the hot tub. It looked like a spa swimming pool, but men and women were together in the tub.” And so, out of respect for Diane’s delicate Western sensibilities, “we agreed when the girls and guys would go so we weren’t at the same time.” Because let’s face it, if you’re a 16 year-old girl hanging out naked with her camera-crew co-workers, who are also naked, it’s going to be tough to keep your mind on your work the next day.
Very quickly, Ken and Mary became a sensation across Japan. Between television and monthly update books distributed at Nissan dealers, which outlined their travails further, their irrefutable good looks and quirky charm captivated a nation; within a very short time, their fame transcended the car they were supposed to be showcasing. “Ken and I were always on the front and back of the books given out at the dealers’, and sometimes we were featured inside, too.” It was reported that even the Emperor knew who they were; a big deal indeed.
Diane also learned first-hand that all is not as it seems in commercial photography. “It’s absolutely true what they tell you about summer shots done in winter, and winter shots in summer. One month, I’m under a pink umbrella, freezing my butt off in a bathing suit while snow is coming down. Then I’m wearing ski clothes in the summer. But we went to Guam once for summer shots, and it actually was summer. We also went to Alaska once, and that was freezing cold there up on Mount McKinley for five or six days.”
Personal appearances also became more prominent as time went on, and as the legend of Ken and Mary grew. This included hours of autographs at the events. “I hated those, to be honest. They were so long, and so tedious, and we got paid almost nothing. Plus everyone in the crowd watched your every move. ‘Oh look, Mary is eating a snowcone.’ I had to learn a phrase for radio interviews, ‘Natsu wa, zuzushi... tokoro ni ikitai na’ which means, In the summer, I like to go some place cool.’”
That’s a pretty tough schedule for someone in high school, but the school cut her some slack, letting her take off the occasional Friday so that she could be sent to some faraway location for filming or shooting. And yet, for the most part, despite her star status, and despite her walking the streets and riding the trains among the Japanese populace, she rarely was mobbed in public. Oh, she had a (non-threatening) stalker, briefly, and a couple of times she’d go to a concert and accidentally draw attention away from the act on stage by getting mobbed by autograph seekers; if anything, she was more likely to be approached on the train to help a student with their English homework. Although others in her family’s extended circle were clearly enamored: “My brother worked at the airport and he’d carpool in; his coworkers would play rock-paper-scissors to see who would drop him off at home, just to get a chance to see me.”
And, in a way, she was Mary. “If someone calls me Mary, I answer to it. Even now, my family will call me Mary sometimes.”
Over time, despite the language barrier, and despite the apparently instant chemistry on screen, she and Jimmy became friends. “We got along really well; I always felt more like an older sister to him. We always had an interpreter nearby, though, so we were spoiled.” In her last year of school, Diane finally took a Japanese-language class, which caused a stir. “I learned to say a few things like ‘shut the door’ ... and I was always told my accent was really good. I’d been listening to Japanese speak for about a decade at that point. So, on one shoot toward the end of my time there, we’re all sitting on a bus, waiting, and we’re freezing. I asked Jimmy, in Japanese, to shut the door. The entire crew freaked out. So my manager took me for a walk, and even she was surprised. ‘You speak Japanese! Now they think you’ve been spying on them!’” Who knows what the film crew, safe in the comfort of their own language, had been saying about Diane over the years; no wonder they freaked out. “I had to assure her that I only started taking a class earlier in the year.”
The conclusion of Diane’s time as Mary was something of a perfect storm. Her two-year contract was expiring, although her renewal was practically guaranteed. Her family was moving back to the States. But it was her Ken, Jimmy Zinnai, who was the deciding factor in cutting short her career. “Jimmy was killed in a motorcycle accident. After his funeral, I couldn’t continue being Mary. If it wasn’t Jimmy, it wouldn’t be the same, and I didn’t want to do it.” Ken and Mary continued in Japan, but with Japanese actors in the role.
And Mary never surfaced again. Neither did Diane, really: her all-American looks were less of an advantage in America, and she never acted or modeled professionally again. For a decade, she was a waitress and had fun burning through the money she earned as Mary: a trip to Hawaii, a car (a Mercury Capri, since you asked), more travel. Today, Diane is a science teacher in a northern California high school. (And yes, she’s married, so don’t even think about it.)
She hasn’t been back to Japan since she left in 1975. “I had a couple of opportunities, but... I don’t want to have to pay! I was thinking I should do a reality show over there... you know how like Celebrity Big Brother, they get celebrities who are all fat and old, and they put ‘em in a house together... I could do that. Here’s Mary, acting crazy on a reality show!”
Sounds far-fetched? Maybe not. Where once the legend of Ken and Mary were hazy half-recollected remembrances of a TV spot decades and half a world away, today there is a Skyline TV-ad DVD available in Japan, which brings the reality of the Ken and Mary spots crashing home. Here’s Ken and Mary dragging some driftwood from the beach. Here’s Mary sitting at the sea, painting a mountain. Here she is in her #23 shirt (in Japanese, two is ni, and three is san... so #23 is Nissan, get it?). Here’s Mary gazing upon her sleeping love, fluttering her eyes either because she’s in love or because the reflector just off-camera is blinding her. For those who don’t want to spend $50 on a DVD that probably won’t play in their home unit anyway, you can find the ads on YouTube.
Ken and Mary aren’t just stories anymore. They’re alive and in love and enjoying Beautiful Nature, and they want to sell you a car. Their legend has been restored for all to enjoy. .
“If someone calls me Mary, I answer to it. Even now, my family will call me Mary sometimes.”