Posts Tagged ‘Kohaku Uta Gassen’

So, Kôhaku. Here we go. As I said in my previous post, I enjoy watching Kôhaku every year, participating in something that roughly 35-40% of Japan does (albeit at a different time), watching some of my favorite artists, and discovering new favorites.

Here’s my (hopefully somewhat brief) rundown of performances and other bits that caught my eye. Here’s hoping I can find clips of them on YouTube…

I guess we can start by saying how envious I am of Arashi’s fantastic wafuku outfits. Granted, I’ve worn all-white gi & hakama before, and it feels strange, feels like really too much; the sparkly silver would be even more over the top. This is something you can only wear onstage, as a costume. And, certainly, I could never look as good in it as they do. But, even so, even if it is costumey, and something you could never feel normal wearing in public, don’t they look great!?

Actually, a lot of the acts had fantastic costumes, starting with EXILE. Having a huge group of children as backup dancers was really cute; and those kids were quite good, too!

Actually, Hamasaki Ayumi opened the show, but I’m going to skip right over her. The third performance was by AKB48, and the only thing I want to say about that is (a) I hadn’t realized that they actually perform at their own theatre every day, an act you can just go to Akiba and see; Also, (b) if there are 48 of them, how come I feel like I’m always seeing the same faces, and the same people speaking, including girls who are not the “leaders” of the group?

In any case, moving on, AAA also had some great outfits. … I love how they always have this row of special VIP actors in the audience, and, sure, they’re big name top name people, but they’re also all from NHK TV shows. This is a national program, intended for a fully national audience, featuring musical acts across the board, no matter what TV networks they may be more closely associated with (e.g. SMAPxSMAP is on Fuji TV), but I guess NHK just can’t help themselves.

“100% 勇気” (Hyaku paasento yuuki, 100% Courage) by NYC is an amazingly catchy tune. But what’s up with these kids? Are they from a kids’ TV show or something? There’s just something really bizarre about their red-yellow-blue basic color scheme and the overall aesthetic of their performance (backup dancers, backdrop, etc.). Which isn’t to say I don’t like it. Just that it struck me as weird. Speaking of things that were weird, one of the performances involved girls wearing giant heads (like DisneyWorld characters) with giant-eyed anime faces. It looks just fine in animation – we’re all used to it – but in live action, it just looks creepy. Seriously creepy.

The enka performances were great fun, as always. Slow, passionate, filled with nostalgia. I liked the use of the AKB girls as background dancers. If that’s what it takes to get the younger crowd to watch the enka sequences…

Maybe the first song of the night that was a new “discovery” for me, an “earworm” song that keeps coming back to my mind, was “Ato hitotsu,” by Funky Monkey Babys. This isn’t the Kôhaku performance, but it might as well be:

I’ve already posted separately about HY and “Toki wo koe.” I really liked the way they performed it at Kôhaku, the bright colors of the eisa drummers standing out against a mostly white scene, with the lyrics handwritten on the screen, a very personal and children’s storybook sort of aesthetic.


The second half opened as it always does, with everyone all singing together a very touching, melodramatic, and hopeful anthem sort of song. I can’t find video online of the actual performance, each singer taking turns singing one line after another, but here’s the song, so you can get a sense of what we’re talking about. Moving on.

Aiko performing her song “mukai awase”, her schoolgirl uniform and sakura-filled stage setting providing a wonderful feeling of the fun and innocence of youth. God, that sounds terribly dry, and the way an old person would say it. What should I say?

Oh. And then there was Perfume. I can’t get enough of their wacky robot dances and absurdly catchy tunes. (The leader does kind of strike me as obnoxiously spotlight-hoarding. Why do they have “leaders” anyway? I feel bad for the other two girls, who never get to talk, with the one always talking for the whole group.) Ne, ne, ne, ne, where should we go today?

Couldn’t find a video online of the Kôhaku performance. Watch the official PV, and imagine them wearing these wonderfully absurd pink and purple outfits.

Koda Kumi nearly had some kind of wardrobe malfunction.. haha. This beautiful pink rose dress was supposed to get pulled off of her as she switched into a more down and dirty pop sort of song (actually, the song, “Lollipop” is quite catchy). I think when they planned the quick-change, they didn’t plan for the mike in her hand. So she got pulled pretty violently to the left for just a moment. But, she recovered quite gracefully.

Sadly, I can’t find any video of Wada Akiko’s performance. Wada is, well, I want to say “a very unique performer,” but of course that’s not really true. She’s of a certain kind that’s quite different from everyone else at Kôhaku. She’s got a deep sultry voice (though you can hear she didn’t years ago – look her up on YouTube), and a very particular kind of energy that comes with that. Among other things, she sang a song called “Furui Nikki” at this year’s Kôhaku, and, well, I just loved the way it sounded. I’m sure there are big name American singers I can compare her to, to give you a sense. If it comes to me, I’ll let you know. This is a different song, from Kôhaku two years ago, but it should give you a good sense of her style and voice.

Another “discovery” of the night: 『トイレの神様』, yes, that’s right, “God of the Toilet,” by Uemura Kana. Wearing a long, light flannel coat and carrying an acoustic guitar, Kana had a wonderfully plain, simple, and most of all, honest, feel about her whole stage presence. The song is simple, pretty, and catchy. Plus, it’s hilariously bizarre and absurd. Yes, it’s a touching story about childhood and growing up with Gramma. But it’s also about the idea that there is a beautiful goddess in the toilet, and that if you keep the toilet clean, you’ll grow up to be a beautiful woman yourself. Doesn’t get better than that.

Then, Arashi finally took the stage, in blinding gold coats, and way too much energy, running out into the crowd, and working everyone up. Their song “Monster” is hilariously stereotypical boy band. Reminds me of exactly the kind of stuff *Nsync and Backstreet Boys were doing a decade ago. It’s still got its appeal; I won’t argue that. But it’s just amusing in its campiness.

Getting now towards the end (thanks for bearing with me). One of my favorite performances of the whole night – Kuwata Keisuke, coming back after being diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year. A singer I was not familiar with, but who has an amazing stage presence, funny faces and vocal gymnastics, and pulling off an amazing country singer / cowboy sort of impression, in haori and hakama. … Followed by a total change of backdrop, lighting, and atmosphere, for a wacky, upbeat song called “本当に怖い愛とロマンス” (Truly Scary, Love and Romance), featuring bunny-girl backup dancers. (No embedding; click the link above.)

Pulling up the rear for the enka performances, a masterful delivery of Amagi Goe by the queen of Enka, Ishikawa Sayuri, with a Noh actor in the background, just to ramp up the creepy atmosphere… ;)

And then, after some Arabian-themed nonsense from Hikawa Kiyoshi, the final Red Team performance of the night, 「生きてゆくのです」, featuring the line 『愛しているもっと言って』 (Aishiteiru motto yutte, “Say ‘I Love You’ More”) by Dreams Come True, who brought truly wonderful (how many times have I used that word now?) energy. Was the lead singer drunk, or is that just her style? Either way, it was a great fun way to end the night.

Sadly, I can’t find video online of their Kôhaku performance. NHK seems pretty proactive about keeping these things off the net. But, since I’ve found the song quite catchy and fun, here’s the official music video for it:

(Yeah, I think she was drunk. All the better. As long as we’re all having fun.)

Well, thanks for sticking with it until the end. I guess that was kind of a mess back there. And quite long. I hope you’ve found a few new bands, or new songs, that you like.

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Kôhaku Uta Gassen, or “Red-White Song Battle,” is what Japan does for New Year’s Eve. Tens of the biggest acts in Jpop and enka get together, in two teams, and perform for about four hours in a spectacle that, while it may sound kind of corny and silly on the surface, is easily as grand and expensively put-together as, for example, the musical performances at the Oscars.

I still owe you guys (owe myself?) a rundown of my thoughts on this latest Kôhaku.. Hopefully I’ll get around to it before the end of January. Most of my friends – including Japanese friends – think it silly, corny, or absurd that I should want to watch such a thing (imagine someone getting genuinely excited about watching Dick Clark / Ryan Seacrest’s New Year’s Eve show). But, in addition to being purely entertaining, Kôhaku is a great opportunity to learn about what songs are (were) hot in Japan in the past year – to discover new favorites – and also to see your favorite bands/singers perform.

I made many discoveries this time around; one of which was that the band HY is Okinawan (named after, apparently, their hometown of Higashi Yakena). The song they performed on Kôhaku, “Toki wo koe” (時をこえ) or “Extending/Moving Across Time,” has been stuck in my head ever since, and so I feel I want to share it with you.

Overall, I feel it has a very standard pop-rock-alternative sort of sound, something perhaps particularly Japanese, but on the surface not particularly Okinawan. Yet, underneath that, there is very much that feel, that flavor, that atmosphere of the Okinawan sound. The distinctive sound of the sanshin is there, not blatantly and obviously, but just subtly contributing to the Okinawan feel of the song. I never cease to be amazed at how distinctive such a thing can be – how much an instrument can sound so very different and distinctive as to mark a piece of music as definitively Okinawan, simply through something in the quality of the strings and the body of the instrument, and the way it is played. … The melody, while again seeming very much standard on the surface, seems to contain elements of Okinawan music, elements that remind you subtly, sub-consciously, of Okinawan folk music even as the sound more generally just seems modern and either Japanese or aculturally global. And, finally, there are the lyrics, and the sad but hopeful nostalgic tone of the song overall, which reminds me very much of the story behind this video, which I have linked before (it’s clips from the movie “Nabbie no koi,” which does not originally have anything to do with the song ‘Okinawa ni furu yuki’ to which it is set here); I think these same visuals would go really well with HY’s “Toki wo koe.” Then, of course, there are the eisa drums and chanting, and uniquely Okinawan phrases in the lyrics, but those don’t come in until later.

Sure, there are plenty of nostalgic songs from every culture – Japan not least among them – which speak of memories of grandparents and honoring their hard lives and sacrifices. But somehow I feel something special, something unique, in the way Okinawans remember and honor their grandparents; I guess it connects in to the devastation of Okinawa in the war, and the combination of terrible sadness and brilliant hope and optimism coming out of that.

Sorry for the overly lengthy introduction and rambling on…

Getting down to it, here is the song itself, “Toki wo koe” by HY, with my translation of the lyrics.

昔の話を聞いたのさ 自由な恋すら許されず
おばぁーは泣く泣く嫁いだよ あの人に別れも告げぬまま

昔の話を聞いたのさ 火の粉が雨のように降る
おばぁーはとにかく走ったよ あの人の命を気にかけて

曲がる腰 細い足 おばぁーの生きてきた証
その笑顔 その言葉 変わらぬものもある…

胸に刻みなさい あなたのその鼓動
昔、昔に繋がる この命 大切に生きなさい

昔の話を聞いたのさ 十四の頃から働いて
家族と別れて一人きり 涙は流せぬ生きる為

その時代を物語る おじぃーの話を聞いたのさ
しわくちゃな顔さえも 誇らしかったんだ

そっと頬伝う 温かい涙を見て思ったよ
誰かに伝えなきゃ 僕らが伝えなきゃ

「家族の事を1番に」 昔の人は言いました
“命どぅ宝”の言葉こそ 忘れちゃいけないもの

今日もまたひとつ 過ぎ去られる記憶
だから僕達は この歌にのせてさ 届けなきゃあなたへ

昔の話を聞いたのさ 笑うおばぁーのその横で
輝くおじぃーのその涙 かけがえのないもの見つけたよ

I heard the stories of long ago // Even loving freely was not allowed
Grandma married crying, crying // Having not told her beloved* of their parting

I heard the stories of long ago // Sparks fell like rain
Even so Grandma ran // Worried about the life of her beloved

Her bent back, her thin legs // The evidence that Grandma had lived [to the fullest] up to this point
That smile, those words // There were also things that never changed

Engrave it upon your heart // Your heartbeat [thinking of this]
This life, connected to long, long ago // Live with importance**

I heard the stories of long ago // She worked from the age of 14
Separated from family, living alone // In order to live without tears flowing

Telling of that time // I heard Grandpa’s stories
Even his wrinkled face // was filled with pride

His cheeks softly tell // Seeing warm tears, I thought
Someone has to tell it // We need to tell it

Family first // People of the past said
The phrase “Life is a Treasure” especially // is something that cannot be forgotten

Today one more // forgotten memory
Therefore we // placed into this song // that which must be conveyed, to you

I heard the stories of long ago // Next to Grandma who was laughing
The glistening tears of Grandpa // I discovered something for which there is no substitute

*Ano hito literally just means “that person,” but most often implies the idea of “his/her beloved”.
**Taisetsu ni, literally means something like “take it as important,” “treat it like it is important.” It’s one of my favorite phrases in Japanese that I wish we had something direct and easy for in English.

(I tried to put the lyrics & translation next to one another in columns, but it got too skinny and just didn’t look right. I hope this arrangement is to people’s liking…)

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