Chris’ colum is back, sorry about the hiatus:
On June 9th the Japan Society will be hosting a concert and talk by one of Japan’s most recent singing sensations, Jero. What made the smooth-singing Jero such a success with Japanese audiences was that, well, he’s not Japanese. 30-year-old Jero, was born Jerome Charles White Jr. and heralds from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was here that he initially studied at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, graduating in 2003 with a degree in information sciences. That same year Jero headed to Japan to study the music beloved by his Yokohama-born grandmother: enka. If you’ve spent time in Japan, especially in smokey little nomi-ya or izakaya, then you’ve heard enka. This musical genre is full of heart-wrenching stories of love gone wrong, loneliness and longing. More than a few Westerners have described it as Japan’s own country music. One thing for sure is that many Japanese view it as an innately Japanese art form; but when Jero burst on the scene with his 2008 debut single Umiyuki his note perfect rendition of enka made even enka purists sit up and take notice. Since then Jero has released six albums of enka classics, won the Best New Artist Award at the 2008 Japan Record Awards and he also appeared on the holy of holies of the Japanese music scene, the annual New Year’s 59th Kōhaku Uta Gassen. An amazing feat, but you may be wondering why Jero should earn a spot in the monthly Cinema Konzai column. Well, besides his successes in music, Jero, like so many Japanese entertainers, has made inroads into film, most notably in 2009’s Donju (Dumbeast), directed by Hideaki Hosono (a.k.a. Mr. Hide). Jero starred as Akira, a young man who works in one of the strangest bars you’ll ever walk in to; and its his appearance in the film that prompts us to look at a selection of singers who’ve made the transition from recording studio to motion picture sound stage.
It’s probably written as a by-law somewhere that you can’t discuss enka without mentioning Misora Hibari. There wouldn’t be enka as we know it in Japan today without the unprecedented contribution of this feisty vocal powerhouse. The daughter of a fishmonger, Hibari got her start belting out enka classics in Yokohama bars when she was still just a child . At only 12-years-old she recorded the hit single Kappa Boogie-Woogie which would go on to sell nearly a half million copies. Hibari’s voice and songs would form the backdrop for an entire generation recovering from the horrors of WW2; yet Japan doesn’t just love its stars to do one thing. Fans are happy to see singers act and actors sing, so Hibari was soon enlisted by Shochiku Studios to star in a series of musical comedies and melodramas. Hibari wouldn’t stay a Shochiku contract player though. Eventually Hibari would branch off and star in every kind of film imaginable: jidai-geki films for Toei like Tadashi Sawashima’s Samurai Vagabond, zany costume comedies like Tatsuo Ohsone’s Shichi henge tanuki-goten for Shochiku, and she would even join forces with fellow singing stars Eri Chiemi and Izumi Yukimura for a number of road movies for Toho. By the time Hibari passed away in June of 1989 she had not only sold a mind-boggling 68 million records, but she’d also appeared in nearly 60 films along with such Japanese cinema royalty as Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Denjiro Okochi and Kenichi Enomoto. So enduring were Hibari’s songs and screen presence that she would make a posthumous appearance through the magic of special effects in Seijun Suzuki’s surreal 2005 musical Princess Raccoon.
The world of enka hasn’t been the only musical genre to seed cinemas with acting talent. An equally fertile breeding ground for entertainers was the world of the the idol singers. Long before today’s reality show craze the airwaves (radio and TV) of 1980’s Japan was peopled by pretty, perky teen girls who became the vehicles for a jukebox worth of disposable pop tunes. Sometimes these pop starlets would come in groups like the weeping schoolgirls of Onyanko Club, sometimes in duos like the decked out disco divas of Pink Lady, but more often than not idol singers were a rotating cast of fashionable and fresh-faced girls like Momoe Yamaguchi, Seiko Matsuda and Hiroko Yakushimaru. Many idol singers would play double duty and appear on TV and in film, but one woman has gone from idol singer to international acting idol. That would be award-winning actress Kyoko Koizumi. Koizumi got her start on Japan’s 1980’s American Idol equivalent, Nippon Television’s A Star is Born! Her appearances on the show prompted Victor Entertainment to sign her immediately, and in just a couple years Koizumi was releasing albums with such romantic titles as My Fantasy and Breezing. At the same time she was prompted to star in a number of TV dramas, but it was her appearance in Yoichi Sai’s 1983 film Mosquito on the Tenth Floor that revealed a true acting talent. Her role in the film, as the daughter of a downtrodden policeman, would lead to more and more big screen work. Koizumi would continue to perform as a pop singer, but it was her role as prostitute opposite Tadanobu Asano in Shinji Somai’s 2000 film Kaza-hana that would win her a Best Actress nod at that year’s Japanese Academy Awards. Since then Koizumi has become an international art house sensation due to her raw emotional depictions of quietly desperate housewives in Toshiaki Toyoda’s Hanging Garden and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata.
Acting talent hasn’t just risen from enka and idol chart toppers. One of Japan’s most recognizable cult and character actors got his start in the confrontational and controversial world of punk rock. Tomorowo Taguchi, best known as the titular Iron Man of Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 cult classic Tetsuo the Iron Man, was a fixture in Tokyo’s underground art scene long before he appeared on screen. Taguchi wore many artistic hats in his early years. He worked as an illustrator for underground magazines and performing, along with Shinya Tsukamoto himself, in Tsukamoto’s street theatre troupe, Kaijyu Productions. It was through fronting the now defunct punk band Bachikaburi, though, that Taguchi made the strongest impression in the 1980’s. Like it did in the UK and United States, the punk revolution in Japan took disaffected youth and transformed them into hard-driving musical outfits with legions of loyal fans; but next to such explosive lead singers as Johnny Rotten and Henry Rolllins Japanese punk acts seemed a little tame, a little by-the-numbers when it came to anarchy and rebellion. Not so for Tomorowo Taguchi. He would fuse his theatrical background with his live performance, contorting and twitching, screaching and growling the lyrics to Bachikaburi’s songs, including a blistering re-working of the beloved Japanese folk song Sakura. Spitting was a regular event on stage, vomitting an occasional occurence. It was this fearsome exploration of the artistic and musical edge that Taguchi has brought to his acting, and he’s become a regular not just in the films of his friend Tsukamoto, but in those of Takashi Miike, the late Shohei Imamura and cinematic revolutionary Masao Adachi.
Enka, idol singers and punk — this tour of multi-talented stars who straddle the worlds of Japanese music and film could go on forever, and we may revisit it in the future here at Cinema Konzai. Until then, make sure to visit the Japan Society on Saturday, June 9th to catch enka superstar Jero in person.
Chris is a film blogger, programmer and writer. He is the editor and chief ofThe J-Film Pow-Wow, as well as the Co-Programmer and Co-Director of The Shinsedai Cinema Festival, an annual showcase of independent Japanese film In Toronto, Canada. He is also the editor of World Film Locations: Tokyo, published in 2011 by Intellect Books.