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Big in Taiwan: Island singer Atari makes his own Taipei exchange

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Ever since his major debut in 2006, singer Kousuke Atari — known for his masterful fusion of shima-uta (folk songs native to Amami Oshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture) with J-pop — has done remarkably well outside Japan, particularly in mainland China and Taiwan.

After a successful concert in Shanghai in 2006, he released an album in Taiwan that November. A compilation of Atari’s singles plus a cover of a song by Taiwanese singer/actor Wang Lee-hom, “Chu Dong Xin Xian” hit the No. 4 spot on Taiwan’s G-Music Billboard Chart, as well as ranking No. 1 on the Yahoo! Music Taiwan Chart. Its title refers to “touching one’s heartstrings.”

It is through such a unique twist of events that the Amami native was offered an acting role in the Taiwanese movie “Taipei Exchanges,” to be released in Japan this weekend. In the 82-minute film starring popular Taiwanese actresses Kwai Lun-mei and Lin Zai-zai, Atari makes a short but memorable appearance as a Japanese tourist visiting a Taipei cafe.

The movie, directed by Hsiao Ya-chuan and executive-produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien (director of “A City of Sadness”), follows two sisters opening an arty cafe in downtown Taipei. Struggling to attract customers with coffee and cakes, the sisters hit upon the idea of letting customers drop unnecessary items off at the cafe, and letting them take home whatever they feel is worth exchanging them for. The volume and diversity of goods brought to the premises gradually grow — to eventually include stories, memories and feelings.

This is Atarai’s second role on the big screen, following his appearance in another Taiwanese production, a 2008 rom-com titled “Cape No. 7.” Directed by Wei Te-sheng, that movie cast Atari in dual roles — as a Japanese teacher in flashback scenes and as himself in the present. Despite its low budget, the film became a huge hit, turning into one of the most popular movies ever made in Taiwan — and raising the Japanese singer’s profile there.

“I’d had no previous experience in acting, and had never imagined appearing in a movie,” Atari tells The Japan Times. “But I decided to do it because the role involved me singing.”

And so it goes for “Taipei Exchanges,” where Atari successfully evokes memories of childhood with his falsetto voice, so soft that it sounds almost like a musical instrument.

“I wanted to convey the message that music knows no borders,” says Atari. “Even though I sing in Japanese, I feel that the sense of nostalgia, which I really want to convey through my activities as a singer, can be shared by people overseas.”

Atari’s theme of nostalgia fits in nicely with the movie. In the film, Atari’s character finds an old Japanese music book — apparently in circulation during Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan from 1895 till 1945 — that has been dropped off by a customer, and asks to take it home. In exchange, he offers to sing a song. This signals a turning point in the movie where something as intangible as a human voice is traded for goods.

Then he goes on to show his stuff, singing “Furusato” (meaning “hometown”), a century-old Japanese children’s song. Everyone in the cafe stops whatever they are doing and soaks up Atari’s a cappella performance. Atari says he was able to choose himself which song to sing in the movie.

“I was just asked (by the director) to pick a song that reminded people of Japan,” Atari says. “And I thought this song would convey Japan best.”

Atari, who taught himself shima-uta skills in his high school days after becoming enchanted by pioneering shima-uta singer turned J-pop star Chitose Hajime, says he wants to continue on his mission of bringing people from different cultures together through his music.

“I’ve listened to and done covers of Chinese folk songs and Taiwanese native music,” he says. “They have similarities to shima-uta, like how they put vibrato in their songs. I’ve also learned that the shamisen (the traditional three-stringed instrument often played by shima-uta singers) originally came from mainland China — and then made its way north, developing into the Tsugaru shamisen (the variation used in Aomori Prefecture). So I think we are somehow connected.

“I want to continue binding people together — beyond national boundaries and spoken languages — with the language of music.”

“Taipei Exchanges,” subtitled in Japanese, will start showing at Cinem@rt Roppongi on Saturday. The distributor United People also intends to screen the film at cafes across Japan. For more information, visit www.taipeicafe.net.