‘Kohaku’ gig cements Arashi’s star status

by Edan Corkill

Wildly popular boy-band Arashi were in the eye of the storm at rehearsals for NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Red and White Song Battle”), the long-running “competition” that this year pits 22 popular male bands and singers against their female counterparts and will be broadcast live on New Year’s Eve from NHK Hall in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

While hardly strangers to the spotlight, the five members of Arashi looked genuinely startled by the flurry of attention they received as they fronted the press after their Wednesday afternoon rehearsal. “Wow. The number of camera flashes makes you realize just how focused everyone is on ‘Kohaku,’ ” said a still-blinking Jun Matsumoto, immediately after the press photo session.

This year, Arashi assume the role of cohosts of “Kohaku,” which is one of the biggest media events in Japan and routinely tops the country’s annual TV ratings rankings. Significantly, the man that the Arashi boys replace as “Kohaku” cohost is Masahiro Nakai, the 38-year-old leader of aging J-pop stars SMAP.

Arashi, who are mostly in their 20s, were the biggest selling performers in Japan this year, and their “Kohaku” appointment seems to confirm that they have now usurped their senpai (seniors) at Johnny & Associates as the nation’s undisputed kings of pop.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Arashi’s leader Satoshi Ohno. “Last year was our first time to appear at ‘Kohaku,’ and now we are cohosting the show.”

Arashi, who will perform a medley of their 2010 hits, will be supported as cohosts by 25-year-old classical pianist-turned-actress Nao Matsushita.

On Tuesday, NHK announced that Keisuke Kuwata, from rock legends Southern All Stars, would make a special guest appearance at this year’s “Kohaku.” Kuwata made headlines in July when it was announced he had been diagnosed with early-stage esophageal cancer. “He’s had treatment and has been able to return quicker than we all expected,” explained “Kohaku” chief producer Keisuke Inoue on Wednesday. Inoue wouldn’t reveal whether Kuwata would appear at NHK Hall in person, or via a live video link-up.

Also attracting attention at rehearsals was pop juggernaut AKB48, who will be joined on stage by SKE48 and NMB48, spinoffs from Nagoya and Osaka respectively. “There were over 100 people on stage,” AKB48 member Minami Takahashi said of their rehearsal. “They had to use a megaphone to talk to us all!”

Other than that, it was business as usual for the dozens of “Kohaku” regulars who took to the stage on Wednesday. Pop diva Kumi Koda tantalized reporters, announcing that when she performs her two-song medley on Friday night her costume will be “sexy — as sexy as NHK can handle!”

The ever-lively Ayaka Nishiwaki, from electropop outfit Perfume, explained how Arashi’s Matsumoto had appeared in a dream she’d had the night before. “In the dream he was signing up for a mobile phone at an electronics shop in my hometown of Hiroshima, and then I came in today and met him in person,” she exclaimed, before quickly parrying suggestions that perhaps she harbored deeper feelings than she was letting on for the man generally considered the most handsome of the Arashi five.

As always, the 55-year-old pop singer Hiromi Go was looking half his age. A veteran of 23 “Kohaku” shows, Go explained that the event is very different to a normal concert. “Here you have about four minutes on stage in total, so from the very outset you have to be hitting your peak,” he said, adding that for him, knowing that the show is being broadcast live helps him focus his thoughts.

“Kohaku” will feature many other big-name pop artists — including Ayumi Hamasaki, Exile, Dreams Come True and SMAP (who will perform last) — and, as always, many well-known performers of enka (old-style Japanese ballads), such as Sayuri Ishikawa and Saburo Kitajima.

“Kohaku Uta Gassen” airs from 7:30 p.m. till 11:45 p.m. on Dec. 31 on NHK-G. There is a five-minute news break from 9:25 p.m.