I want to translate Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦 for those of you who can display Japanese characters) as "Red & White Song Fight", because gassen is also in yukigassen which means snowball fight, and that sounds awesome. That's pushing it a bit though, it means Red and White Song Contest, and it is a big musical TV blow out every new year on Japanese TV (this year was the 59th) where the biggest pop and enka acts perform as part of a girls (red) vs. boys (white) contest. The winner is decided by judges and viewers votes, and this year it looked like the boys romped to victory. Go team!
I love it in the same way I love the Eurovision Song Contest, it goes on for hours (52 different songs this year) and features some baffling costumes and pretty spectacular performances. One of the hosts this year was Nakai from SMAP who deserves some kind of end of year retrospective of his very own to cover his insane sartorial stylings. Seriously, that shit is coming up in a blog post soon.
There's a lot of enka, which I don't mind really. It's old fashioned Japanese ballads, like the Japanese version of country music or the blues, that is popular now mostly with old people although there are a few young guns of enka that I'll mention later. Anyway the vocal power and control that enka requires, and the tortured emotion that enka singers are barely able to contain, always impress me a lot. I can even understand some enka lyrics, and they're always set at winter, in a rainstorm or a blizzard, with someone drinking heavily and lamenting their dead mother/departed girl or boy/dead girl or boy/father who was swallowed by the sea. Kobayashi Sachiko is fun too, she always performs in some kind of prog-kimono fantasy:
Wowza! There were plenty of other great performances, it was a lot better than the last couple of Brits that I watched. I pretty much hate Mr Children, and the simpering face their singer pulls when he performs puts him up there in the top three punchable Japanese celebrities for me, but their in-the-round performance in a separate studio was really great here. I'm still left cold by the endless parade of guy-guy duos like Kobukuro and WeT and Pornograffiti, but there was lots of good up-beat pop to go around like Hamasaki Ayumi and Perfume, who... yeah I guess I do like them:
Mostly in a similar way to Girls Aloud, their dances are really simple and easy (but really tightly executed I suppose) and I'm not sure they're great singers, but they're working with some great songwriters and producers. Polyrhythm is really good. Jero made his debut on Kohaku too, and, not to namedrop, but I did see him sing live in Tanuki Kouji to about thirty people early this year. He's a bilingual American, a quarter Japanese, whose grandmother taught him some enka songs... and now he's an upcoming enka star in Japan:
That's a picture of his gran on his shirt and she was in the crowd, just bawling with tears, it was really sweet. The night before he won best newcomer at Japan's pop music awards and almost couldn't sing he was crying so much himself. The other young face of enka was crying a lot too (turn down the volume quick, this video is hella loud and hella trebley):
That's Hikawa Kiyoshi who had the final performance of the night, quite an honour. I couldn't place that song for a few minutes, then I realised it's in the opening credits of Jonathan Ross's Japanorama, so there you go.
Oh, but the night wasn't finished there:
Yuki strong-armed me into watching Johnny's Countdown 2008-2009 with her to see in the new year. Johnny's Entertainment is the legendary boy-band stable responsible for a ludicrous number of Japan's pop hits and christ only knows how many celebrity careers. Although I wasn't that stoked to watch it, it was pretty fun and very impressive actually. The sheer momentum and scale was blistering. It featured about 6 or 7 different boybands in Tokyo Dome along with video crossovers with Kinki Kids in Osaka, and it was flawlessly executed. Every performance was a ten minute super-medley with one of the groups taking lead and running around a network of stages and bridges that covered the whole, massive arena, with members of the other groups seeming to appear out of thin air to guest on a verse or a chorus, and it just didn't let up. Tokio (the Johnny's who play their own instruments!) who performed on Kohaku came straight to Tokyo Dome and performed the same song again in the same get-up before changing into suits and appearing again later in the show. Another group V6 had a comedy skit where they'd forgotten they were meant to appear and they'd gone to a noodle bar to see in the New Year so they had to rush to the stadium to play! Oh no! I've seen this kinda thing in the UK, but this was a crazy, pepped up, hideously gaudy version and it was pretty fun.
Finally there was another show running after that, Countdown TV, with even more stars who'd already performed and appeared on Kohaku earlier in the evening. And that was going out live too. If you're a hit pop performer, you're really earning your fabulous wealth come New Year in Japan.