Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's The Japanese Electric Slide!

Watching the popular singing show, Nodojiman, every Sunday on NHK always trips me out. Featuring amateur crooners attired in homemade costumes and singing songs ranging from traditional Japanese standards to convoluted, Western-influenced, but clearly Asian-style R&B-cum-pop, the show makes for a highly entertaining morning.

Twenty singers (or singing groups) compete with each other to become "champion" (the word is spoken in English and not Japanese by the announcer), but it's never quite clear what the prize is. But then again, in Japanese culture, it's enough just to win whether or not a statue or award is ever presented. Ichiban!

One at a time, the singer announces his or her number in the line-up before belting out a tune for a few minutes. Before s/he is finished, the judges ring some chimes either once, twice or many, many times. One chime means you were really horrible and you should probably go home and commit seppuku now that you've shamed the entire nation. Two chimes are for those who performed well, but weren't exactly the next Japanese idol. And, of course, multiple chimes means you're in like Flint.

At the end of the show, all the contestants who received many, many chimes stand together in front of the others to be judged on who was the best of all. A special mention and plaque is granted to a particular act that put on a really original show even if their singing stank. Often, there's a mother-daughter or a father-son duo, or even a bunch-of-guys-who-work-together act.

The audience, which includes the other contestants sitting in chairs onstage, is highly involved in supporting each other. Everyone enthusiastically claps along to the singing; albeit a clapping that seems off-beat to my Afrikan sense of rhythm. Lots of family members show up to support their relatives, too, bringing along elaborate banners displaying messages while they yell out their encouragement.

After the singer has been chimed once, twice or thrice and more, the MC asks him or her for their name and some personal info. I hear the words okasan (mother) and otosan (father) often in the conversations so I'm sure the singers are being asked about their families.

One thing about the Japanese, they're so respectful toward their elders. Even though some of the participants are horribly off-key, anyone over 80 usually becomes a finalist as if the judges are saying, "We honor you for making it to 80 and still having the nerve to act a fool on stage."

Besides pure-blooded Japanese competitors, there have been several singers who were Caucasian or of black Afrikan descent. I once saw a brotha who blew everyone else away with his amazing pipes (he sang in Japanese, of course). But I knew his style of soulful singing wouldn't be considered traditionally Japanese and would be held against him. Japanese singing is different. I can't really explain it, but the expressions and inflections that are valued are uniquely Japanese. The brotha was just too brotha-ish for those Japanese judges, even though they acknowledged his talent by making him a finalist.

In the months that I've viewed Nodojiman, I've seen everything from a woman turning continuous cartwheels in the background as her partner sang a touching ballad to a woman wearing a firefighter's yellow rubber outfit as she warbled a tune. It seems that the winner is often a skinny, young girl with a huge, powerful voice and disheveled hair that cries out for a stylist.

I'm telling you, this show is riveting. I understand that it began as a radio program in 1945, and that the producers now travel all over Japan to select contestants from different prefectures so that everyone in the country has a chance to participate. Nodojiman has also spawned several singers that went on to become huge stars in Japan.

Today, as one of the guest star singers (a pro who appears on the show regularly) led everyone onstage in a dance to the song he was singing, I was struck by a sense of familiarity. As I watched intently trying to decipher the lyrics of the song, I realized that the dancing folks appeared to be doing the electric slide! Perhaps, you've attended an o-bon festival and have seen the line dances I'm referring to. Think about it. See, what I mean? I'm telling you, it's the electric slide!

More and more, I'm seeing the similarities between Japanese and Afrikan cultures. Watermelon Sushi, ya'll.

Your Hip Hapa,

No comments: