Pleasant surprises in end-of-year Music Festival from Japanese TV
The "2011 FNS Kayosai" (Music Festival) is a four-hour special that ran on the Fuji Network, a commercial TV network in Japan, on December 7, 2011. It showcases some 75 music acts from a wide spectrum of Japanese popular music. It was broadcast live from an elaborate ballroom with the various acts comprising the audience as the performers sang on two alternating stages on opposite sides of the room. As one act left the audience to prepare for their performance, the act that just finished would return to sit in those seats in invisible cycles of rotation (i.e. we never see them leaving or taking their seats). A live orchestra performed for many numbers, while some acts used their own instruments or pre-recorded tracks. Most songs were performed live, although some of the pop groups with large rosters lip-sync'd their songs. If you have an interest in one or more style of Japanese popular music, there's sure to be something here to please you. The only brand of such music that seemed to be omitted was J-rock. I began this concert as a fan of a handful of the female J-pop groups performing in the program—Morning Musume, Dream Morning Musume, Speed and AKB48--but I ended it with a deep appreciation of so many other performers and a list of singers whose CDs I'm now eager to seek out and acquire.
There were cultural currents from outside Japan at play in the concert. At least three Korean pop acts were featured: BoA, Girls Generation (aka SNSD, aka Shoujo Jidai), and KARA, all singing in Japanese. A piano soloist broke into a hyperactive rendition of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at one point. Many of the songs heard in the show had English lyrics in them and some were credited to western songwriters. One of the big thrills for me late in the program was the appearance of Ben E. King, a veteran American rhythm-and-blues singer, performing a hit of his from 50 years ago, "Stand by Me," with the help of two Japanese singers who accompanied him, quite well, in English.
I was impressed with many of the dance numbers, including several by the various boy bands featured. One number combined the popular group EXILE with the Sandaime J Soul Brothers and a non-singing dance troupe called the E-Girls, for a total of two singers and 29 dancers (by my count). It was quite an exciting piece of choreographed spectacle. AKB48's main girls did a very good dance number called "Kaze wa Fuiteiru." The Korean group, Girls Generation, did a catchy song-and-dance piece called "Mr. Taxi."
Some of the older singers were performers I had seen in films. I first saw Hiroko Yakushimaru in a 1981 comedy called SAILOR SUIT AND MACHINE GUN, where she played a schoolgirl who inherits the leadership of a waning Yakuza gang. Accompanied by a younger pop singer named Ken Hirai, she performs a beautiful song here called "Woman 'W no Higeki' Yori," which she originally sang as the theme song of one of her films in 1984. Akira Kobayashi is a male singer-actor who performs more than one song here. He is 74 years old and began acting in the 1950s. I've seen some of his movies. The American equivalent might be Robert Duvall moonlighting as a pop singer.
Many of the older pop singers are paired with younger performers in duets or trios, such as the Yakushimaru-Hirai pairing. One remarkable duet early in the show features Hiromi Iwasaki and Ayaka Hirahara singing "Madonna-tachi no Lullaby," which Ms. Iwasaki first recorded in 1982, before Ms Hirahara was even born. Shinji Tanimura, an older guitar-playing singer-songwriter with a country style, performs several numbers with younger male singers. While not exactly younger/older groupings, I especially enjoyed two female trios, one consisting of BoA, Mai Kuraki and Kana Nishino, who sang three songs together, and one consisting of Nanase Aikawa, Miwa, and Shoko Nakagawa, who sang two.
Some of the performers are quite new to music. Anne Watanabe, a model and actress (and daughter of actor Ken Watanabe), only made her singing debut in November of this year, but does a very credible job with "Donna Toki Mo," accompanied by two older male musicians. The Fairies, singing "Hero" (with lots of English lyrics), is a group of seven newly-recruited junior high school girls in color-coded suits who make quite a lively team.
There are a number of instrumental performers who accompanied singers for specific numbers or did solos on their own. The pianist who did "Rhapsody in Blue" was Shinya Kiyodzuka. Tarou Hakase does a rousing and energetic violin solo. Two beautiful and talented female violinists, Emiri Miyamoto and Yuki Hanai, are also among the featured performers.
The whole thing is very well shot, designed and staged, with lots of swooping cameras and very nice lighting and background effects. (The stained glass backdrop for the Yakushimaru-Hirai duet was breathtaking.) My chief complaint involves a couple of girl group dance numbers (the first KARA song and the first AKB48/SKE48 combined number) in which the camera stays on a high angle long shot throughout and never cuts to any closeups or medium shots. Also, in the two-song set in which the reunion group Dream Morning Musume is backed up by Morning Musume, the latter group gets short shrift and can barely be seen, despite having eight new members on hand. Also, the IMDb cast roster for this program lists all seven members of MM's sister group, Berryz Kobo, yet I didn't spot a single one of them in any of the numbers or audience shots.
Still, as a fan of J-pop for the last six years, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my horizons and get exposure to dozens of acts and performers who were new to me. I'll now watch out for future end-of-year music programs from Japan.
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