Film | Wide Angle

NHK raises the dead for 'Kohaku' to mixed reviews

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

NHK’s annual “Kohaku Uta Gassen” music bonanza thrives on spectacle. The 2019 edition didn’t fail to deliver on this front, featuring endearing moments such as J-pop singer-songwriter Misia getting dozens of other artists to wave LGBTQ pride flags on national TV.

The biggest buzz, however, came from something a tad more unusual. Enka singer Hibari Misora graced the “Kohaku” stage for the first time in decades to perform a new song. Well, technically, it wasn’t Misora herself — she died in 1989. Rather, it was a life-like hologram performing this fresh tune thanks to Yamaha’s Vocaloid: AI, a piece of technology that can replicate voices.

This wasn’t the holographic singer’s first appearance, however, having debuted on an NHK special about this digital resurrection in September. It made enough of a stir then to earn a special slot on “Kohaku.”

Misora is hardly the first dead music legend to come back via hologram. Rock group X Japan delivered one of the first really noticeable uses of the technology in 2008 with an appearance by deceased guitarist Hide at Tokyo Dome. Holograms made a global splash in 2012 when rapper Tupac Shakur appeared at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. Companies have since attempted to create experiences centered on digital projections of former superstars, with Base Hologram running tours starring Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, and a Whitney Houston experience due this year.

Lasting legacy: Hibari Misora, pictured here in her hologram version, last appeared on 'Kohaku Uta Gassen' in 1972.
Lasting legacy: Hibari Misora, pictured here in her hologram version, last appeared on ‘Kohaku Uta Gassen’ in 1972.

Yet the holographic performance AI Hibari most resembles is that of Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, which aired live and caught people unfamiliar with this technology off guard. Many fans loved it as a tribute, while others felt creeped out or simply perplexed by what they were seeing.

That’s pretty much how Misora’s return to “Kohaku” went down, at least based on online reaction. Many fans were struck by how well her vocals were captured. Others, though, felt uneasy with how a holographic replica of Misora was singing a song she had no input in creating, while also giving messages to NHK’s audience that the actual Misora might not have been happy with.

Pop stars coming back to life via technology has always felt more like a gimmick than something to truly worry about — closer to cruise ship entertainment than something that will change the industry. Still, the Misora hologram does present one potential problem. Misora wasn’t invited to perform on 1973’s “Kohaku,” with many speculating it was because of a scandal involving her brother being involved in gang activity. This didn’t please the singer, who mostly brushed off NHK from then on. The 2019 performance made it seem like Misora and NHK were finally cool … which isn’t really accurate.

The worry is that these technological developments could change how people remember the actual artist based on what they say or do in the present, possibly confusing or even paving over who they were when they were alive. Hearing Misora’s voice delivered via Vocaloid is fine, but here’s hoping they don’t edit who she actually was.