Japan is so much more than simply a handful of groups characterized by crystal-clear definitions and cut-and-dried allegiances: male, female; 'enka', rock; wheat tea, Coca-Cola; 'kimono', blue jeans.
Just what exactly is Kohaku and why do so many Japanese tune in to it? The shortest answer is that Kohaku is abbreviated for Kohaku Utagassen, but that doesn't tell you much of anything, does it? Another short (as in testy) answer is that Kohaku is something that any of you readers with an ounce of column loyalty or a pound of institutional memory will recall I've mentioned once or twice before. Of course that doesn't help the larger number of you out. So, though brief, a more illuminating answer is that Kohaku is a microcosm of Japanese culture that's all neatly bundled up in one fast-paced four-hour package. Of course, that is equally useless an answer for nearly all of you, although that answer may take on greater depth and meaning as we go along. So, the real answer is . . . well, I hope you're patient because that will take a page or few.
Kohaku translates as "red/white", uta means "song" and gassen means "fight", but that cannot begin to explain it. The colors, of course, mirror those of the national flag, which is likely not a coincidence. So, too, do they represent (at least every year on December 31st) a particular gender. Specifically, in this ReDot world, red signifies "women" and white means "men". The semiologists among you might wish to take this a step deeper, to levels structurally sublime even socially profound arguing that under this code, women are passion, men are pure. But, knowing all we do about women (and especially men), that is likely a rather tall stretch. It could also be that, taking a cue from the Japanese flag, red serves as the core, white the periphery. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the actual design of this gendered world could hardly allege that women are the main dish and men the icing on the cake. Foodwise, a more promising interpretation would be that women are securely ensconced within, with men wrapped around, if not completely surrounding, protecting, obscuring, insulating and/or otherwise overshadowing the inner substance from contact with the outer world. It's something a bit like an onigiri, with that delectable (red) pickled plum buried deep from external view within the sticky (white) grains of rice.
But we transgress. Metaphor arrested, social theory suspended, let's resume thus: Kohaku is a gala entertainment; an extravaganza of joke and pomp and spectacle and fluff. It is, an instant history lesson, a cultural reproducer, a societal socializer. Kohaku is Japan incarnate because, more than any other single event, it tells Japanese who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, what they are capable of. Kohaku does all of this aside from the cheesy intros and corny tags by the show's (male versus female) hosts through an orgy of song.
Kohaku's format is simple: guys against gals for all the marbles. Male and female performers are divided into teams that compete against one another (hence the name "gassenM") for the subjective favor of judges and audience. Girls, then boys, then girls, then boys and so on and so forth in a non-stop cacophony of orchestrated noise in every imaginable musical style: folk, rock, country, bubblegum, rap, hip-hop or the Japanese versions of same. The song title flashes on the screen, then after some seconds follows the name of the group. For those singing along at home, the lyrics roll across the bottom of the screen, a la karaoke.
To maintain the widest possible audience, the sequence of styles is unpredictable: a male folk duo may give way to a female enka solo, followed by a male R&B combo, then followed by a female jazzy-popster. That very same jazzy-popster may be backed by an all-male unit, but her contribution will get tallied on the red side of the ledger. So, too, are the performers juggled and blended by age, nationality and life history. The first performer this year was BoA [ Note: Please end link here, the popular songstress from South Korea (who, in her native land is known as Yun Sona). Later in the show a popular Chinese act appeared: an orchestra of lithe, long-haired, traditionally- (but tightly-) clad women all playing indigenous (Chinese) instruments. Just for kicks, on the men's side, Hirai Ken pulled a Natalie Cole: performing the standard "Sakura" as a duet with the cinematic projection of the popular, deceased, Sakamoto Kyu. There were few dry eyes in the house during that tune.
The judges are seated front and center as a gang of seven; celebrities from the domain of theater, film, literature or music, or recent heroes from the realm of sports. One such judge this go-round was everyone's domestic hero of the year, Hoshino Sen-ichi, a man whose exploits as manager of the Hanshin Tigers we discussed on at least one occasion in this space.
Not all of these goings on transpire in the auditorium. Through the graces of modern technology, remote set pieces are livecast from provinces as far-flung as Kyoto and Kyushu; others from as far afield as South Korea (where, surprise, they like J-pop) and even the North Pole. This is where the social reproduction can come in. For instance, the Arctic moment presented a sunny spot where ice shelf met frigid ocean. A group of 30-some Japanese stationed to observe the wildlife and monitor the environment as part of a nationally-funded research project stood in front of cameras and audio dishes, decked out in T-shirts and cutoffs. There, in the sparkling sunshine, they held placards bearing personal messages to the folks back home. Questions from the Kohaku hosts which emulated the shape of microwaves bent imperfectly through the stratosphere echoed shrilly off, around, through and among the ice floes. Following the two second delay, one man with a beard spoke about his baby born a year before who he had yet to see, but would soon return (he promised) to bathe and care for. Another man spoke of a father who had fallen ill, but who he would soon return to help nurse back to health. To rousing applause from the audience in the Kohaku grand hall, these 30 displaced Japanese listen to an Okinawan ballad about the longed-for return home. Another touching segment, another box of Kleenex consumed.
Kohaku is replete with breaks between songs; spiced with schtick from comedians and the MCs. This scripted repartee is not scatological like late night TV since this is, after all, the public television network ("Your hard-earned tax monies at work, Taro Q. Public") but it is not quite The Bible Network, either. Certainly, the acts provide enough pizzazz to keep viewer's cerebella a-twitter. One of this past year's biggest phenomena was the work of the comedic duo, Tetsu and Tomo, two 30-something guys dressed in middle school sports wear, one toting a guitar, the other doing stand-up. Their hook-phrase: "Nande darou?" ("Why do you think that is?" Or simply, "Why is that?") comes in song form, offered as the punch line after Tetsu offers basic observations about the ironies of everyday Japanese life. Whenever Tetsu finishes one of these 30-second observations, Tomo begins strumming his guitar (A, D, E, A), launching Tetsu, in turn, into a feverish set of gyrations replete with knee kicks, butt wiggles, and hand slithers. By now this has become the group's signature gesture; so popular is it that they can no longer enter a studio, school auditorium or photo opportunity without doing the funky dance. The movements look something like a drunk attempting the Macareña aboard the Millennium Falcon as it jumps into hyperspace. While Tetsu wiggles and Tomo thrashes his guitar, both comedians chortle: "Why is that? / Why is that? / Why is . . . Why do you think that is?"
For anyone who'd been, like, cruising craters in the Mars Rover for the past year, viewing Kohaku is like receiving a cup of Folgier's freeze dried ReDotPop. Just add water. One could be, oh, up in the Arctic circle and learn basically everything that had happened culturally in Japan (which aside from the periodic political scandal and a senseless, gruesome killing or three is about all that ever does happen) in the last 12 months.
Kohaku is also good for those who may not be up on their longer term Japanese history. Selective though it may be, the program does its share to remind the good viewers in ReDotland just what has been signal over the past decades. That was certainly so this go-round; where the frame was 50 years of Japanese television. Thus, the audience was treated to an opening montage of clips featuring a royal marriage, a satellite launch, the assassination of a US president, footage of past Kohakus, and also the recent trans-pacific exodus of domestic baseball stars: Hideo Nomo, to start, but Ichiro, above all.
Keeping with the baseball theme, this year's unquestioned international hero, Hideki Matsui (of New York Yankee fame) materialized right after the history lesson. A curious juxtaposition since Matsui, who graduated from high school majoring in home runs and 8-hour training days, is notorious for having virtually nil linguistic, cultural, or social skills. (A warm tribute to him on another holiday television program caught him taking a turn reading books to grade schoolers and stumbling not once, not twice, but thrice over Chinese characters all of which he incorrectly interpreted for the doey-eyed youngsters). Nonetheless, Matsui is roundly regarded as a cultural treasure in the making. Helping to further secure this vector, his appearance at Kohoku consisted of "Godzilla" taking a few practice swings for the camera thereby officially christening the festivities then settling alongside Mom and Pop under the kotatsu, so that the three might enjoy the coming songfest together. (Hideki's father, incidentally, became a minor celeb in his own right this year, enjoying a modest success among the 50- to 70 year-old set with his renditions of soppy, sake-swilling enka ballads).
Speaking of enka, general consensus is that there is all too much of it. Well, at least that seems to be the opinion among younger viewers. And perhaps even a larger audience. Because, as Kohaku insistently tossed wailing balladeer after warbling balladress, the audience apparently began tuning out in droves. And despite the first appearance in 13 years of rocker Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi (age 47) he, of the tight blue jeans and white Rebel Without A Cause muscle T and Fender Tele slung manly across his back and jump kicks mid-song and sweat streaming off his face as he passionately clutched tis mic (making like Japan's own Jersey Boss) viewer ratings plummeted to 35.5%. Some of this might have been due to the competition on rival stations. The much ballyhooed Akebono/Bob Sapp match-up mentioned in my last column seemed to siphon off a large number of viewers. But as it happened that lasted all of 17 minutes: the 15 it took to run through expert analysis and fighter introductions, and the two it took for Sapp to dispatch the ungainly former rakishi. After Sapp snapped Akebono's head back a couple of times, the enormous former Hawaiian promptly found the canvas with his face. And rabid fight fans found that there wasn't much left to do but watch the replay 22 times, then flip back to more enka. The K-1 bout's 43% rating dissolved as fast as Akebono's will to exchange body blows.
What always brings viewers back, though, is the spectacle. Aside from the tense climax where it is determined whether red or white has managed to prevail Kohaku's biggest moment nearly every year is the segment in which Sachiko Kobayashi and Kenichi Mikawa try to outdo one another with their outlandish (well, okay garish) costumes. (They are the two depicted in the picture above). Kobayashi, whose ensemble this year featured 13-meter (40-foot) wings, quipped: "It takes a year's salary to make, six months to plan for and three minutes to watch!" And then, of course, the wings never managed to unfurl. Despite the fizzle, what made this particular clash interesting was the clever gender-bending that Mikawa and Kobayashi lent their presence to. Mikawa, of course, is famous as both Yukio Mishima's former lover and as a cabaret singer; so, too, is he renowned for the feminine outfits that he sports: gowns, skirts, supple slacks. Kobayashi, also a cabaret singer, is fond of Takarazuka and kabuki styles of theater notorious for deception in gender representation. For those of you who don't know, Takarazuka, as an all-female troupe, and enlists women to portray its male roles. Kabuki as an all-male venture, and requires men to play women in its shows. Thus was it that in their Kohaku battle this year, Mikawa began singing in a red costume (symbolic of the female team), while Kobayashi began singing in white attire (emblematic of men). By the end of their songs, however, their respective outfits had been transformed via lighting into the color of the team they actually represented (white for Mikawa, red for Kobayashi). Any viewer less than literate in the undercurrents of ReDotPop would be excused for scratching their heads.
Kohaku is more than a spectacle; it is an endurance contest, as well. Not only for the teams, but the audience. And as one can infer from above, not all viewers are serial, constant, and entirely faithful. Sure, Kohaku ended with a 57% share. But this came only two hours after registering a 35. The larger figure, certainly, due to those who needed to be in on the punch line: hear the final act and catch the final result. And what a concluding curtain! Traditionally, the act conferred with the honor of closing the show gains more than a guaranteed maximum audience; he she or they also garner bragging rights. For, the act capping the show is the one deemed by the show's producers as the entertainment industry's Godzilla of the year. For those regular followers of this column, it won't surprise you to learn that the final slot this go-round was nailed down by SMAP, crooning their monster hit: "sekai ni hitosu dake no hana" ("In the world there is only one flower (like you)" ]. The lead-in to the song sounded as if it had been lifted straight from SMAP's marketing campaign. It began with the host gushing about a "sensational Japan", a "Japan that is number one . . ." and ending with his intoning: "Throughout the world, Japan has achieved " and here, standing before us, is no greater evidence of this fact than this group singing this song . . . The poor ladies never had a chance.
An early tip-off was how the audience rose almost as one to mime the SMAPsters' hand gestures during the chorus. Final confirmation came moments later with the tabulation of votes. First came the cell phone tallies culled over the course of the four hours; 52,000 white, 17,000 red. Then the seven judges: a unanimous decision in favor of white. Finally, the audience. Sending colored balls down ramps into awaiting buckets, the paying witnesses spoke. After all the red and whites were collected, the buckets were weighed, tipping the scales heavily in favor of the men. Then, in a scene reminiscent of every grade school field day ever convened on these shores, the red and white balls were plucked from the buckets and tossed simultaneously in the air one by one as the audience chanted the tally aloud. In most years these stocks can come down to the final toss; this year after the red bucket ran dry, white balls were still cutting a graceful arc across the stage.
This particular year was the 54th installment of Kohaku, and 27 times the women had bested the men. Do the math: with the men nabbing a "W", the series became knotted. Given this angle, one would expect some rather high audience figures. But, in fact, this year's ratings were rather modest. For the fourth year in a row, the song slugfest only managed to garner a mid-50s rating. Once upon a time there were audience marks cresting off the view-o-meter. Seventy, eighty percent. "What's going on?" Kohaku executives worry; "More evidence that Japan is changing?" social analysts wonder. Well, you and I, we've strolled down that lane many times in this column. The simple take is "Japan is not only changing . . . it has changed." Demographics, lifestyle options, globalization, economics. Yes Virginia, this ain't the 1950s no more.
If anything, Kohaku is the simplest of litmus tests. Whereas Japan might once have easily (though facilely and incorrectly) been dismissed as a single-class, homogenous society, in fact, Kohaku's inability to hold a contemporary audience's attention may reflect the fact that it no longer can locate a common denominator. This inability, in turn, likely reflects the fact that there may not be one. There are too many Japans to attract and maintain any one group for an entire four hours.
Which is why when we utter "Kohaku is Japanese society in a microcosm", that is actually quite a profound thing to say. So, too, is it awe-inspiring and life-affirming. Because what Japan is now is so much more than simply a handful of groups characterized by crystal-clear definitions and cut-and-dried allegiances: male, female; enka, rock; wheat tea, Coca-Cola; kimono, blue jeans. It is now foreign baseball and South Korean pop singers, and male chanson singers in drag. (Possibly it had always been those things . . . just not out of the closet and hanging out on main street as self-satisfied and unabashed as could be). About the only thing that participants and viewers, alike, seem to share in common nowadays is Auld Lang Syne . . . the closing rendition of which the red and white teams belted out, standing shoulder to shoulder, in unison, in Japanese.
After that, there might be very little that any two Japanese actually share in common. Oh, save for one other thing. Something shared perhaps with all popular culture just about anywhere else around the globe: what Alejo Carpentier labeled "the marvelous in the real." It is a riff most often associated with the work of García Márquez, although it extends far deeper (and earlier) to numerous South American and Caribbean writers of the 1960s. Stories in which the fantastic is found dwelling in the realm of the mundane, in the spaces of the everyday. This predilection is especially true in television cultures today and even more so in advanced televisual cultures such as Japan's. There, television is geared almost entirely to engineer the marvelous, the exquisite, the spectacular, the fantastic; every day, as part of the everyday. And this is not only the Kohakus we are talking about; annual events that are like The Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Grammies, Emmys and the NCAA hoop tourney all rolled into one. No, the fantastic may surface in the daily news show; the marvelous in the nightly quiz show; the spectacle in the morning wide show.
Japanese TV is a world of enchantment within the routine. It is a space that transforms the day-to-day today into magical moments, full of larger-than-life figures possessive of special powers. It does this by weaving threads of wonder into the fabric of the actual. The televisual world, of course, is not real. But its presentation to those who consume it is enough or nearly enough to make it so; through television's inexorable activity, whereby a fixed cast of characters, personalities and "talento" is fed to and filtered in endless cycles through viewers' streams of consciousness. These magical figures appear on different shows night after night; a veritable carousel of non-stop performance. Their positioning on the ponies may change, the color and height and trajectories of their mounts may vary, but the stars, themselves, never do. One night it may be a quiz show, the next night a drama; a third night may be a food show or perhaps a one-on-one interview. The ultimate result, though, is a fostered sense of intimacy. We viewers are pulled along, subject to the centripetal tug. Or else, at some point, the stars simply step off their televisual merry-go-round and, in accord with the whimsical power of the centrifugal catapult, fall flush and full into our world just as if they are sitting across the hot carpet from us. We know precisely everything there is to know about these folks: what they think, like to eat, how they speak, where they travel, their personal histories, and more.
We know this before and after Kohaku. We know it during and because of Kohaku. We know this because of moments in Kohaku such as the one in which team captains select rival members to perform a few measures of a song in a different style for instance, demanding that an enka singer mimic a rap style, or a rocker conduct a waltz. And we carry these human moments of embarrassment and failure or surprise and triumph with us until the next magical moment born within the next everyday. Thanks to the televisual event whether spectacular or mundane the magical, the fantastic, the superheroes once seemingly beyond common grasp have had their personal papers doctored, their passports restamped by the medium. Because of the medium, they have gained admittance to our world; they are now as much a part of our family as the mother who carries home those plastic baggies brimming with vegetables from the corner grocer each afternoon.
Viewing Japanese television whether it is Kohaku or the next Sekai Fushigi Hakken (Discovering the Wonders of the World) is an act much more intimate and much less grand than we might at first suspect. Rather than externally unapproachable spectacle, these communications reflect the conversion of sacred space into personal place. When their images are conveyed into our private worlds, it is akin to when we enter the vestibule at the end of the day and slide our feet into the pair of cozy slippers that have been patiently awaiting our return. At the risk of mixing metaphors, consuming the Japan's televisual events is not unlike our becoming transformed into an ingredient in the edible icon, the onigiri, mentioned earlier. To embrace the ReDotPop world is to cover the vital core (which is to say, ourselves) with a protective coating. It may all be calories and fluff; but the emissions of the ReDotPop factories also anchor and stabilize us; they surround, insulate, and protect. Their output places us in a context, provides definition, makes us part of the wondrous, wild, winsome whole. This is something that, from the outside, might be perceived as "WhiteDotPop".