Japan from the inside out

Winter beauty

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 4, 2011

THIS POST was timed to go up at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night in Japan. For 22 years, from 1978 to 2000, that was the starting time for the broadcast of the 30-minute musical program, Enka no Hanamichi. Enka is a style of music popular in Northeast Asia, and in Japanese the word is usually written with the two characters that mean “to perform” and “to sing”. An excellent description is found at Barbara’s Enka Site:

A friend of mine once remarked that these were “Japanese torch singers” and that’s a fairly good description. Enka songs are 1 to 6 minutes long, and are performed standing, usually wearing formal attire. For men this can be either Japanese or Western attire, for women it is generally a kimono. (Korean and Chinese women seem to usually sing Enka in glittering gowns.) The song lyrics are tragic yet philosophical, and sometimes even amusing. Drinking songs are common, usually to help “drown my sorrows”. Songs of love, separation, death and suicide abound. The subject matter of the typical lyrics involves tragic love and sweet resignation to the comfort of cherished memories of better times. Arrangements use a unique mixture of Western and Japanese instruments, from the koto to the electric guitar. Violins are common, but surprisingly, pianos are not.

We Western music lovers might imagine it this way… Team up a songwriter who writes old-fashioned Gypsy music with a romantic lyricist of an American blues or country music background. Then translate the lyrics into poetic but old-fashioned Japanese and arrange the music for a band made of half Japanese musicians and half European classical musicians, plus a harmonica and electric guitar. Then find a Japanese woman to sing the song in full kimono, but choreograph her performance as if it were an operatic aria. That would give you something close to Enka music…

Enka no Hanamichi was an elegantly done program — the production quality was so good, the singers would use their filmed appearances as promotional videos. Japanese television makes extensive use of the stereo sound function to present movies and television programs in their original language versions, as well as the dubbed Japanese version. This program used the same function to offer just the background music, which allowed the viewers at home to use it for karaoke. (Song lyrics are commonly printed on the screen for all types of music programs here.) The elegance, exquisite sadness, and sheer amount of talent involved meant the program was a fine way to spend a half hour on a chilly autumn or winter evening, after a bath and with a glass of shochu mixed with hot water.

I was reminded of the program after reading short article from a Wakayama newspaper announcing the selection of enka singer Sakamoto Fuyumi, a native of Kamitonda-cho, to receive a local award for her contribution to culture. (The characters used to write Fuyumi are “winter” and “beauty”. It’s also her real name; names of that sort for women are not uncommon in Japan.)

Her big break came when she appeared on an NHK program for amateurs. Songwriter Inomata Kosho, one of the judges, was so impressed with her performance he took her in as a pupil. (In fact, she became his live-in housekeeper.) Her first hit came at the age of 20 in 1987 and sold more than 800,000 copies. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun article too old to be on line, that was a record at the time for first releases, though I suspect they’re referring specifically to this genre. Since then, she’s released more than 30 albums and appeared on NHK’s famed New Year’s Eve Music Program, Kohaku Uta Gassen, more than 20 times.

Part of her appeal is her combination of sweet femininity with a certain gutsiness and unfeigned naturalness. Another part is that she really is a winter beauty: She won an award in 2006 for looking good in a kimono.

Ms. Sakamoto has maintained close ties to Wakayama, and when informed of the award, said:

I will continue to devote myself to the path of song with the hope that I can please everyone in Wakayama. Thank you very much for this honor.

You can hear and see all that for yourself in this YouTube video, which is another fine way to spend a chilly Sunday evening. Note how the instrumentation is a combination of Western classicism, rock and roll, and traditional Japanese music, as Barbara the Enka Lady explained.

And for yet another example of Japanese ecumenicism, as well as Sakamoto flexibility, here she is with Hosono Haruomi of Yellow Magic Orchestra in a group called H.I.S. performing Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze with Japanese lyrics.

Stick around to the end and you’ll see her in a brief interview. She looks good in jeans, too.

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One Response to “Winter beauty”

  1. toadold said

    Used to be in the US there were salon singers. Fran, Dino, Mel Torme, Julie London, Jane Madison, Toni Arden and a lot of others. Rock & Roll and Country/Western seemed to push them out of popularity. There was one girl who sang the definition of “love” from the dictionary and turned it into a tragic and touching song. An example:

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