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Friday, January 02, 2009

Highlights from a New Year's Battle Royale

On New Year's Eve, you won't find me in Times Square with a glass of champagne. Nor will I be shivering on a rooftop to watch fireworks and drink wine. No, I spend my New Year's Eve with a belly full of Grandma's soba, fried fish fillets, chirashi sushi, and mochi, glued to the TV screen. From one o'clock in the afternoon to six at night, our local Asian programming station gives my family the gift of music, ridiculousness, reminiscence, and total hilarity--yes, it is time once again for the Kouhaku Utagassen (紅白歌合戦)! Now in its 59th year, Kouhaku is essentially a humongous, staged battle of the bands, only the bands compete on behalf of their gender as a whole. Women represent the red (紅, kou) and men represent the white (白, haku). All of the top-selling artists of the past year perform, and it is an honor to do so. The preparations take an entire year for costumes, scheduling, stage design, choreography, you name it. It's a massive, internationally broadcast singing-dancing-costumed battle of the sexes!

NHK's website has an appropriately festive website for its 59th annual Kouhaku. That's the official NHK (Nippon Housou Kyoku, or Japan Broadcast Station) website, with a full list of the artists and songs performed. Listen Japan even has a page chock-full of songs featured in recent Kouhaku competitions for your sampling pleasure!

Personally, I love seeing how Japanese music has (or hasn't) changed over the years. Compared to the Kouhaku five years ago, this year's songs incorporated influences from rap and hip-hop and had a far more international sound. With live broadcasts from Sao Paulo, Brazil's Japanese quarter and an awkward lip-synched performance by Enya beamed over from Ireland, Kouhaku is starting to embrace the outside influences in its pop music.

My parents, who lived in Japan in the 1970s and '80s, remember the pop music of that time and are big, big fans of Fuse Akira, Maekawa Kiyoshi, and Mori Shinichi. My grandmother, who believe she is the last "real" Japanese person on the planet because all of those young Japanese kids don't know what it is to be Japanese (I get this lecture a lot, despite the fact that I am her mixed-race grandchild) loves all of the traditional enka songs. She remembers taking the trolley to downtown Kobe as a teenager to the only record store that sold Western music. So really, what could be a tedious five-hour torture chamber of J-pop is a funny, memorable family affair. My mother has an incredible knack for singing along to songs she's never heard, helped by the naturally predictable melodies and transcribed lyrics on the TV screen.

Once upon a time, I was heavily into J-pop, and let me tell you it helped my Japanese-language vocabulary acquisition like no other. That was about seven years ago, so I've moved on, but once a year, I get to experience the glory and splendor of five hours of Kouhaku. Here are some of my favorite highlights:

-The adorably diaper-wearing techno-pop girl group PERFUME performing "Polyrhythm":

I love them! So manufactured, so upbeat and club-kid-esque, so well-coordinated! This is how J-pop should be.

-American-born enka singer Jero made his first appearance on this year's Kouhaku with a touching performance dedicated to his Japanese grandmother:

I have a special place in my heart for this guy, seeing as we are QAPA brethren. (QAPA is a term my brother and I invented when we were little to identify as, meaning "quarter Asian part American". Spread it around!) See his mother in the audience, weeping? Check out Jero's grandma's smiling face painted on his shirt! Way to go, buddy!

-My most favorite songs of all are the traditional enka performances. The singers are so impassioned and obviously moved by the lyrics, which have actual meaning compared to J-pop. Enka is mostly about longing, leaving your loved ones behind, the ocean, crying, mothers, and really just a lot of drinking. In the world of classic enka, sake is the purest expression of emotion possible for men. For women, it's all about the kimono:
This is the lovely Godai Natsuko performing "Kyoto Ninen-zaka" about an old district of the city. Doing an adorable dance to accompany her are twins Kana and Mana. I love Ms. Godai's peacock-themed kimono and matching oversize-pattern kimono! Did you know that the peacock features in the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha's previous incarnations? Like Aesop's fables, Jataka tales end with a moral and pause for reflection. The peacock is also associated with Kannon-sama, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Believe me, I took a class on this in Japan. Even the colors and patterns of Kana and Mana's kimonos evoke meaning and emotion. For now, we can just enjoy them aesthetically!

This dramatic performance featured infamous sixteen-year-old kabuki onna-gata Saotome Taichi (in the white kimono), with Fuji Ayako singing "Akai Ito," or "Red String." Here's a close-up of her ensemble, complete with obi tied in the front. Befitting the kabuki performance in the background, Ms. Fuji's kimono is evocative of Edo-period fashion.

Here is Sakamoto Fuyumi in a lovely East-Meets-West kimono, rainbow on the top and woodcut style foamy waves on the bottom.

Also big this year were decorative hairpins--coincidentally, our favorite accessories here at Periodic Style HQ! Traditionally, women in kimono will accessorize with kanzashi in similar themes to the patterns on their kimono. Wisteria, cherry blossoms, pine, plum blossoms, maple leaves, and all other manner of seasonal flora are popular hair adornments. Like all great wardrobe accoutrement, kanzashi began as functional hair-pins and quickly turned into a full-blown art form. Here's a few examples from this year's Kouhaku:

Nagashima Miki wove her dramatic white feather-laden hairpiece into a thick braid--Etsy seller Marissa Joanna Rojas has some lovely feathered hairpins to show off your combined Japanese-chic/flapper style!

Taiwanese-Japanese actress/singer Hitoto Yo always has large hair decor, this year it was a tulle number that matched well with her ethereal, bird-like dress. Does it overpower her short hair, though? What do you think?

Singer Aiko's flower has a zesty Spanish flair, tucked behind but under the ear. Simple, cute, and elegant! With a matching wristlet, it's a little prom-ish and adorable.

If you want to recreate these for yourself, grab some bobby pins, your computer mouse, and check out our friends here:
Hanatsukuri, Little Cookie, Atelier Kanawa, Mizusugi, Gochemoche, and Peachy Pan is Jeanne's favorite from Down Under!

Ultimately, this year's Kouhaku was won by the men's side. I disagreed, the ladies really pulled out all the stops, but you can't contest the men's side when they have a whole chorus line of samba-dancing transvestites on their side. Ah, well. I'll leave you with this lovely reminder of good times past, a celebration of one of Japan's most vibrant, food-crazed cities: OSAKA.

Wishing you all beautiful, fun, and joyous 2009!

Images from Sankei Shimbun, MSN.co.jp.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

There are two reasons I would ever grow out my hair long again.

One is Blair Waldorf. (I want her hair so bad.)

The other is kanzashi.

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