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Talk about the passion . . .

by Steve McClure

Can Kiyoshi Hikawa save enka?

Enka — usually, but imperfectly, translated as “Japanese ballads” — has fallen to an all-time low in terms of popularity, accounting for less than 10 percent of music sales in Japan.

One of the problems with enka is its hopelessly square image. Each week, music trade paper Oricon has several ads for the latest enka releases, and they feature either stuffy-looking, kimono-clad obasan or geezers with bad suits and punch perms who look like rejects from a Tora-san movie.

As for the music, well, formulaic doesn’t begin to describe the cliched structure of contemporary enka songs, in contrast to the high standard of songwriting that characterized enka in its heyday some 30 or 40 years ago. These days, most enka artists sing in a paint-by-numbers style, with zero feeling showing through the rigid facade. (Classic belter Sayuri Ishikawa is one exception.)

With his youthful (he’s 25) good looks, charisma and passionate singing style, Hikawa is enka’s brightest hope in many a long year. His latest single, “Hoshizora no Akiko (Akiko in the Starry Sky),” recently peaked at No. 3 on the Oricon singles chart.

The song features a gloriously cheesy arrangement that’s over-the-top even by enka standards, including great washes of strings, spaghetti Western-style trumpet, gimmicky percussion effects and a belching horn section.

What saves “Hoshizora no Akiko” from degenerating into outright parody is Hikawa’s brilliant singing. Like the great enka singers of the past, he squeezes every last bit of emotion from each syllable. What sets Hikawa apart from other enka singers is the assurance and power of his vocal style — you can hear his passion as he sings lines like “Ano hi . . . ano toki . . . ano yume o . . . Mo ichido . . . Akiko (That day . . . that time . . . that dream . . . One more time . . . Akiko).”

Hikawa decided on the distinctly unfashionable career choice of enka singer when, as a member of his high school entertainment club, he sang at an old people’s home and brought tears to the eyes of the residents there. A touching story that strikes just the right sentimental note.

After graduating from high school, Hikawa went to Tokyo and served as an apprentice to enka composer Hideo Mizumori for three years. He made his debut as a recording artist in February 2000 with his single “Hakone Hachirino Hanjiro,” and that year Hikawa took part in NHK’s annual, yearend song contest. He had arrived.

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of Hikawa’s popularity is due to the novelty factor of his youth; most male enka singers look like they’ve been driving trucks up and down the Tomei Highway for 20 years while living on a diet of ramen, shochu and shabu (speed).

Hikawa, on the other hand, looks like he’s just qualified for his scooter license. Then there’s his weirdly tacky taste in clothes: I mean, a pink-and-brown striped suit? The cover of “Hoshizora no Akiko” features him wearing a bizarre high-collared blue tunic with a silver stripe and a large silver star stuck onto the collar — he looks like he’s about to zap Mothra with his ray gun.

Reviving enka is all very well, but ultimately the genre can be a stylistic straitjacket — my advice (entirely unsolicited) is for Hikawa to start getting into pop. And speaking of straitjackets, that would also give him an excuse to dump those tacky threads.

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Producer Tsunku — the Svengali behind Morning Musume — is preparing a major reshuffle of the ultra-popular female idol group and its various subunits (Mini Moni, Coconuts Musume, Country Musume, Tanpopo, Puchimoni et al.). The plan is to have 15 elementary school girls join Tsunku’s Hello! Project stable of artists, from which he will select new members of MM and its spinoff groups by next spring.

Meanwhile, MM “leader” Maki Goto will “graduate” from the group on Sept. 23 — her 17th birthday — to pursue her solo career full-time. Goto’s fourth single, “Yaru Ki — It’s Easy,” has just been released, and I have to say that it’s a rather weak effort, with a boring arrangement and a lackluster vocal performance. I think she’ll have to do better than this if she wants to make it as a solo artist.