‘Kohaku’: the best, or just best behaved?

by Philip Brasor

“Kohaku Utagassen,” NHK’s New Year’s Eve music extravaganza, which celebrates its 52nd anniversary on Monday night, has traditionally been seen as the year’s most significant event for Japanese singers, with selection to appear on the show truly “legitimizing” a performer’s career. As well, certainly in the past, it also allowed artists to afterward double or triple their appearance fees.

“Kohaku” is structured as a contest between two teams of singers — 25 females (the red team) and 25 males (the white team). A panel of celebrity judges — sumo wrestlers, politicians, novelists, etc. — evaluate each performance and in the end declare one team the winner.

However, the competition is actually meaningless, since the songs being “judged” have already been approved in the marketplace. The singers and groups who appear are chosen because they’ve either sold lots of records during the previous 12 months, or are living pop music legends (living fossils, some would say). The roster, however, represents a rather narrow range of musical taste: it’s either enka or J-pop. And almost all the J-pop artists can also be seen a few hours earlier on TBS’s “Nihon Record Taisho (Japan Record Awards),” which is only 10 years junior to “Kohaku.”

But singers do not appear on “Kohaku” to sell their songs. They are there to be anointed. Just look at what they’re wearing. Some of these entertainers spend more than 1 million yen on outfits they will wear for only three minutes.

Along with having a hit song, candidates must have been well-behaved during the previous year, which means no arrests, no divorces, no nude-photo collections. The two MCs, one male, one female, must be equally irreproachable and completely professional, and NHK is playing it super-safe this year by using two from its own stable of announcers. Several years ago, the network raised eyebrows within the industry when it invited popular young actress Takako Matsu to host the show, as she had no real experience as an MC. (One media critic commented that people were likely to tune in “just to see if she’ll make a mistake.”) Later, it was revealed that NHK made the “controversial” selection because it wanted someone who would appeal to young people.

In other words, NHK can’t be as choosy as it once was. Being turned down is definitely an embarrassment, and in the past decade or so, more younger acts have politely declined invitations to appear on “Kohaku,” usually because they have their own concerts to play that night.

In recent years, NHK has reportedly been concerned that viewer share might drop below 50 percent, because young people don’t have any special affection for the show. Many of them aren’t even at home. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t anything else to do on New Year’s Eve except watch “Kohaku” with the whole extended family sitting around the kotatsu. Now, though, there are alternatives, and not just on television. The audience numbers that NHK so desperately wants just may not be there anymore, or they may not be there in a readily measurable form. Some young people will tape the show so they can fast-forward past the enka.

It may seem strange that a public corporation would be obsessed with ratings, but “Kohaku Utagassen” is a Japanese institution, and NHK sees the loss of viewers as a loss of face. The broadcaster likes to think of itself as one of Japan’s cultural arbiters, and much of its cultural programming is excellent. But the network’s proud, somewhat fuddy-duddy attitude, and its allergy to even a whiff of controversy or spontaneity, renders its entertainment shows stiff and constricted.

As an example: NHK once ran a drama series about the childhood of Beat Takeshi, but it would never invite the comedian himself to appear as a comedian. He’s too crude and unpredictable. Geddit?