Japanese contest draws on tradition

New Year's Eve song competish garners huge auds for NHK

It’s a televised singing contest with no commercial sponsors, whose big prize is an old beribboned flag hauled out of a showcase each year and handed to the winner. And hardly anyone, including the contestants themselves, really cares who wins.

But the “Red-and-White Song Contest” (abbreviated to “Kohaku” in Japanese), whose 61st edition aired live on pubcaster NHK on Dec. 31, is not only a New Year’s Eve tradition, but a perennial ratings champ. The first half of the most recent show, which aired from 7:30-9:25 p.m., garnered a 35.7 rating for the Tokyo metro area, the second half (9:30-11:45 p.m.) scored a 41.7. These were nearly triple the numbers for the nearest competition, a comedy special on the NTV network.

The appeal of the show lies less in the contest between a “white team” of male singers and a “red team” of females — with the winner determined by the votes of viewers, a live audience and celeb judges — than in its policy of trying to please every pop music demo, from preteens to seniors. The 44 acts for the most recent show included everyone from AKB48, a 40-plus-member girl group that dominated the pop charts last year, to Saburo Kitajima, a 74-year-old singer of enka — soulful Japanese-style ballads with a big over-60 fan base — who logged his 47th “Kohaku” appearance.

This policy of appealing to the masses, including those who seldom if ever pay for music in the form of CDs, downloads or concert tickets, has tended to weight the show toward veterans long absent from the hit charts, and away from hot acts with relatively narrow fan bases. That’s why, says “Kohaku” producer Keisuke Inoue, none of the Korean girl groups that successfully invaded the Japanese market in 2010 — the latest of the so-called hanryu (“Korean wave”) of pop phenomena — were selected for the show. “Their followings are not as broad as that as of Susan Boyle,” Inoue explained. (Boyle was Kohaku’s only foreign invitee in 2009; there were none in 2010.)

During “Kohaku” the big drama came not from R&B vet Akiko Wada, but from rehearsal no-show Keisuke Kuwata, a veteran rocker making his first “Kohaku” appearance since 1983. Since announcing his battle with esophageal cancer in July, the 54-year-old Kuwata had been out of the public eye, so his “Kohaku” comeback was big news. Decked out in a traditional men’s kimono and broadcasting live from a Tokyo recording studio, Kuwata belted out two up-tempo numbers in his usual uninhibited style, while nuzzling two smiling female models. In other words, cancer, schmancer.

Kuwata was later upstaged by pop diva Ayumi Hamasaki, who sang “Virgin Road” (a Japanese-English term meaning “wedding aisle”) in a white wedding dress. On New Year’s Day, she flew to the U.S. with Austrian thesp Manuel Schwarz and, the day of her arrival, married him in a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

Happy New Year, indeed.