Arts, Culture & Media

'Japanese Jazz Opera' spectacularly odd

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Story by Alex Gallafent, PRI's "The World"

The standard view of Japanese popular culture, at least here in the United States, is that it's wacky, chaotic and impossible to fathom. That's the first reaction you might get from a video currently doing the rounds online. It features actors dressed up as traditional Japanese peasants performing some sort of story to the accompaniment of American jazz standards, which they sing to, with Japanese lyrics.

The video is titled, "Japanese Jazz Opera," and begins with "Now's The Time," by Charlie Parker. An old peasant couple sings along with the standard, in Japanese.

The setting is a kind of studio version of an olden-days Japanese village. The people are actors who seem to be in some kind of elaborate comedy skit; but before you have a chance to consider what might be going on, they move on to Miles Davis.

Superficially the video, which runs to about ten minutes, is just spectacularly odd. But still, what IS it?

Roland Kelts is the author of "Japan America." He splits his time between Tokyo and the US, and it didn't take him long to recognize the actor playing the part of the old peasant woman -- a middle-aged man in sunglasses.

"In Japan, this guy Tamori, the comedian behind this video ... he's ubiquitous," said Kelts.

So it's a skit starring one of Japan’s biggest celebrities.

And the video clip, Kelts says, comes from Tamori's nightly variety show, an edition from March 1986. It was called 'What a Great Night.' Kelts recognizes the subject of the skit too. Turns out it's a take on "Momotaro," or "The Peach Boy" -- one of the all-time classic Japanese fairy tales.

"[The skit] hews quite close to the narrative, but everything is done tongue-in-cheek," explains Kelts.

The first part of the story goes like this: There's a poor old couple who are unable to have kids. One day, a giant peach floats down the river to their village. The old couple take the peach home and try to eat it. But when they cut it open, they find a boy inside.

In Tamori’s version, this is where they sing Thelonius Monk's "Misterioso." 

So now we've got a Japanese TV variety show from the 1980s doing a tongue-in-cheek version of a classic fairy tale. But why the jazz?

It starts to make a bit more sense, says Roland Kelts, when you know that Tamori -- the comedian -- was born in August 1945. That makes him the archetypal post-war boomer.

"That generation grew up idolizing America pop culture," said Kelts. "They read American novels, they listened to America jazz, they watched American TV. So knowing those specific numbers and who created them, who composed them would be a point of pride."

And Kelts thinks that back in the 80s, that self-aware sophistication -- knowing relatively obscure jazz tunes like Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" -- fit into a broader sense of Japan’s place in the world.  Tamori’s TV show took full advantage.

It was a time when Japan's economy was expanding, says Kelts, and the show was perceived as symbolizing how far Japan had come.

Here's how the story ends: The Peach Boy grows up. And, along with some animal friends, he travels across the ocean -- to the Herbie Hancock tune, "Maiden Voyage."

The Peach Boy arrives at the island of the ogres, who have been stealing from villagers. In Tamori’s skit, the chief ogre is painted red from head to toe, wears glasses and sings the bebop tune, "Donna Lee."

In the end, the Peach Boy defeats the ogres and returns home with a load of treasure. In Japan it's about as well-known a story as you can get.

But Roland Kelts says for younger Japanese today, the only thing they'd understand would be the story. Today their focus is domestic not international, and that goes for music and other things.

"It's a symbol or a sign of how pessimistic younger Japanese feel," said Kelts. "Tamori's generation, they were looking to a Japan that continued to grow, and the growth seemed endless. Your real estate holding would grow in value, forever. Some people said back then we'd all work for a Japanese company. It seems absurd now."

So does the video when you first watch it, but it turns out to be much more than anonymous Japanese TV comedians singing jazz tunes in peasant costumes. It's really a historical document of a Japanese attitude, one that's slipping away.

And maybe the United States can relate to that feeling of something being lost: That carefree sense of being on top of the world.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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