The 2014 edition of NHK’s venerated song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” broadcast on Dec. 31, was remarkable for several reasons, though the performance that generated the most remarks was the one by the equally venerated pop-rock group Southern All Stars, their first on the show in 31 years.
Getting the band to agree to perform was a coup for the public broadcaster because the All Stars have traditionally spent New Year’s Eve playing for fans in their home base of Yokohama, as they were this time, so NHK arranged for a live feed from the concert venue.
When SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai introduced the group, front man Keisuke Kuwata showed up on screen sporting a chobi-hige, which the Asahi Shimbun translated incorrectly as a “small beard.” It’s really a small mustache, the kind, as Asahi went on to say, that Charlie Chaplin wore in the movie “The Great Dictator,” a roundabout way of explaining that it’s a style made notorious by a certain 20th-century German chancellor.
After the usual pleasantries, the band played their 2013 single, “Peace and Hi-lite,” which the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun described as the “theme song of the Asahi Shimbun,” implying that it has a left-wing slant and thus clashed with the other token middle-aged rocker appearing on “Kohaku,” Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, whom Bunshun labeled “the guru of the right.”
The media’s indirect way of describing the Southern All Stars moment softened the impact of the group’s perceived dig at authority, though whose authority they were digging at wasn’t stated. The mustache and the purport of the song, which Kuwata has described as being about Japan’s contentious relations with its neighbors, could have been aimed at the current administration, a supposition reinforced by a similarly irreverent moment that occurred at another recent All Stars concert when Kuwata clearly criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who happened to be in the audience. In any event, Kuwata apologized on Thursday, saying somewhat disingenuously that he intended nothing political and the mustache was simply for entertainment purposes, which may be true. The name of the band’s December tour was adapted from a popular 1970s variety show featuring comedian Cha Kato, whose trademark is a chobi-hige.
Before the apology there was also talk that the facial hair and song selection were comments on NHK’s perceived status as the mouthpiece of the government, though NHK must have known they would play “Peace and Hi-lite” since the lyrics were superimposed on the screen. Nevertheless, it was not included in the version of “Kohaku” that was available on-demand.
If the media’s interpretation of Kuwata’s gesture made the program unusual, it also characterized the impertinence with which “Kohaku” has come to be viewed by the public. Social media has made it possible to comment on any event in real time and “Kohaku” is a perfect target, with its mix of professionalism and kitsch generated at a dizzyingly fast pace, not to mention the parade of garish sycophancy and self-congratulation, and the fact that many people are stuck at home on New Year’s Eve. In the past, any critiques were discussed only in the nation’s living rooms, but now everyone with a smartphone can send unmediated instant reviews out into the world, and there’s nothing NHK can do about it.
Perhaps it’s this greater incidence of online snark that encouraged more derisive mainstream coverage of “Kohaku.” Bunshun was especially cutting, saying that the show is produced “by NHK for NHK,” describing the festivities as one long promotional video for the network, incorporating numerous plugs for its popular morning drama series, as well as for 8K TV technology, which the company is helping to develop.
Even the choice of artists was geared toward maintaining the show’s fading reputation as the country’s indispensable arbiter of pop taste, something it hasn’t been for at least two decades. Whether he jumped or was pushed, 78-year-old Saburo Kitajima‘s absence from this year’s show — the first time he hasn’t sung on it since the stone age — gave NHK the opportunity to replace much of its enka contingent with acts that appeal to viewers who grew up in the 1980s, and thus constitute the next wave of old fogeys who will have nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve. Eternal idol Seiko Matsuda was honored with the coveted final slot of the night, which she quickly put her stamp on by singing out of tune.
Southern All Stars and Nagabuchi were part of this scheme, too, as was Akina Nakamori, whose appearance on the show was as topical as Kuwata’s. No one in the media believed the conceit that Nakamori, Matsuda’s main pop rival back in the day, happened to be in a New York City recording studio making an album when she sang a new Eurobeat song in a voice Bunshun called a self-parody of her smoldering style. In its overview of the reaction to “Kohaku,” Tokyo Shimbun said that Nakamori received more attention than SAS did because she hasn’t sung “live” on TV in years. Bunshun claimed that scores of fans called NHK complaining she was lip-syncing.
An NHK representative told another weekly, Shincho, that Nakamori really was singing live but that her “health condition” was such that they carried out countermeasures to make sure she could perform at her best. This explanation sounds even more suspicious when you consider that NHK subsequently broadcast a fawning documentary about Nakamori’s “diva resurrection” that shone a light on her infamously delicate emotional situation without actually addressing it.
The general tone of the coverage was summed up by Bunshun’s assertion that NHK can afford to do what it wants because of the public’s mandatory financial support, even though the public — despite management lip service to the contrary — has no direct say in the network’s decisions. At present, viewer interaction is limited to voting for which team you prefer. NHK could incorporate real-time on-screen Twitter comments, as it does with its debate shows, but to make such comments meaningful, each performance should be footnoted with its actual cost to NHK in yen. That way, people can judge for themselves if they’re getting their money’s worth.