Abundant surprises in New Year's Eve music special from Japan
"Kohaku Uta Gassen" is an annual end-of-year music festival that runs on NHK in Japan on New Year's Eve, closing with the countdown and celebration of the New Year. The 62nd edition ran on December 31, 2011. It was four-and-a-half hours long and ran without commercials. The musical acts were a mix of styles, including J-pop, J-rock, boy bands, and enka. Singers ranged in age from performers in their 70s to little kids. I was drawn to this because it included some of my favorite current J-pop acts, including Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi, and the girl group AKB48, who did a special medley that culminated in 210 girls gathered onstage. The main singers from AKB also did back-up duties for a number of other acts.
There were a lot of older women singers in kimonos doing "enka" songs, a form of traditional soulful song that remains popular among older audiences in Japan. There were lots of older male singers also, mostly in suits and ties, singing what I assume is the male equivalent of enka. Other male singers, not as old as the enka singers, but not as young as the boy bands, came out in jeans and played the guitar and sang. Boy bands represented included Arashi, EXILE, NYC, TOKIO, and SMAP, among others. The one J-rock act I noted was L'Arc~en~Ciel.
The youngest performers were the girl-boy duo, Mana Ashida and Fuku Suzuki, who look like they're no older than five, and who led a Disney-themed montage that became an elaborate production number involving numerous dancers in Disney costumes (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale) and the songs, "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "It's a Small World."
There was a strong current of feeling in the show aimed at cheering up Japan after the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster that left devastation in its wake and thousands dead. Some of the numbers even featured backdrops of photo montages and video footage of relief efforts.
A number of acts in this show previously appeared in another end-of-year music festival, "2011 FNS Kayosai" (Fuji Network System Music Festival), which ran on Fuji TV (with commercials) in a four-and-a-half hour time slot on December 7, 2011 and which I've also reviewed on IMDb. These acts include AKB48, Ayaka Hirahara, Kana Nishino, Ken Hirai, the boy bands EXILE, SMAP, and Arashi, and the Korean girl groups, KARA and Girls Generation (aka Shoujo Jidai, aka SNSD). FNS had an entirely different tone, being more attuned to keeping the music playing and the acts flowing in rapid succession from one of the two stages to the next. There were 81 songs at FNS to Kohaku's 54. While Kohaku had only one stage, however, it was much bigger, allowing for larger-scale production numbers, with elaborate set design and lighting effects and larger numbers of back-up dancers and singers. Some of these numbers were quite impressive. This also meant more time was needed for stage prep between numbers, so we got more MC segments featuring the hosts (Mako Inoue and boy band Arashi) and more remote segments from other locations. As a result, there were more talk segments, which made this show a little tougher to get through than FNS since it was all in Japanese with no subtitles. FNS also had no subtitles, but there were far fewer segments like that.
One of the remote segments here featured one of my favorite old-school J-pop singers, Seiko Matsuda, who performed live from another venue with her daughter, Sayaka Kanda. They sang "Ue wo Muite Arukou,"which was called "Sukiyaki" when it was a hit in the U.S., as sung by Kyu Sakamoto back in 1963. Ms. Matsuda, who will soon turn 50, looked absolutely beautiful.
One segment featured a special message for Japan by Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, who spoke in Mandarin (with Japanese subtitles). Another foreign performer to appear was American pop star Lady Gaga, who did a two-song production number taped in New York, consisting of "You and I," which contains Japan-themed lyrics, e.g. "You taste like sake when I kiss you" and "There's somethin' about my cool Japanese guy " followed by a dance number (with nine back-up dancers) called "Born This Way." There was a brief tribute to the late Hibari Misora (1937-1989), the reigning Japanese recording star of the postwar era. I've reviewed two of Misora's movies on IMDb: FUTARI NO HITOMI (1952) and JANKEN MUSUME (1955).
Despite being a fan of J-pop for the last six-and-a-half years, I found this show and FNS something of a new experience for me. It was the first time I'd watched any of the end-of-year music specials and they represented my first exposure to all sorts of singers and music styles I hadn't heard before. I'll admit I favored FNS more for the sheer amount of music offered and the emphasis on musical styles that appeal to me. Also, FNS had several current and former members of Morning Musume, my favorite J-pop group, in its lineup. Neither they nor any of their sister groups from Hello! Project appeared at Kohaku.
But Kohaku did offer pleasures of its own. AKB48 was definitely the highlight for me, because they're such delightful performers and they popped up in so many different numbers. However, the real revelation of Kohaku was the sheer number of enka singers on hand. They all looked so dazzling in their flowered kimonos against breathtaking backdrops. And they sang so beautifully. I would enjoy a whole concert just with them. My favorite would have to be the gorgeous Ayako Fuji, who sang a lively "matsuri" (festival) song, accompanied by dozens of colorfully dressed back-up dancers.
Until next year...
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