Over the Christmas and New Year, I took the time to look at some of the end-of-year music specials from Japan. I finally got to see one of the first things I ever read about Japanese pop culture, the Kouhaken Utagassen. This show has been going for decades, and while it’s a long way down from the glory days of 70%+ ratings, it’s still a big deal and the production values and staging were gloriously over-the-top throughout.
There’s a mix of the old and the new, so I didn’t know about half the acts, and it ranged from earnest Enka ballads to pop songs that were so sickly sweet I wanted to brush my teeth after I’d heard them. It’s also a way to catch up on all of the big names from the past year that I missed. I finally got to hear “Toire no Kamisama” by Uemura Kana. I wouldn’t be surprised if this song fills the same role in Japan that Don McLean’s “American Pie” does in the west: a nostalgic, folky epic which everybody can sing along to when drunk enough.
Also, this was the first time I’ve given AKB48 any real attention, and I discovered that one of them was the manager in the drama Reinoryokusha Odagiri Kyoko no Uso, which I didn’t know. I found that watching AKB48 was a bit like standing too close to a combine harvester: There’s a lot of movement and noise and you daren’t look away. You can’t deny they all put in a lot of effort, and there’s a few good choruses in there, but it’s not really my thing.
I didn’t watch it all, I admit. Five hours is a lot, no matter how you split it up, and some of the songs left me cold so I skipped from act to act. The bit where SMAP wobbled through their slightly off-key dad-pop was, apparently, the ratings high point of the evening, but for me the best part was Kuwata Keisuke's first song which was just him under a spotlight with a guitar. This kind of low-key performance couldn't last, though, and soon he started dancing around with some pretty ladies, but for a while he was the closest thing that this show got to being cool.