Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Jazz Opera for PRI / NPR "The World"

Here: Japanese Jazz Opera

So a colleague sent me a link to a video. It had been forwarded to him by another friend: you know how it goes.

The video is titled: “Japanese Jazz Opera”.

And here’s how it begins. Yep, that’s ‘Now’s The Time’, by Charlie Parker. Only in the video it’s sung by an old peasant couple, with Japanese lyrics.

The setting is a kind of studio version of an olden-days Japanese village. They seem to be actors 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?

I turned for help to Roland Kelts. He’s the author of Japanamerica – and splits his time between Tokyo and the US. It didn’t take Kelts long to recognize the actor playing the part of the old peasant woman — a middle-aged man in sunglasses.

KELTS: “In Japan, this guy Tamori, the comedian behind this video, this show, is everywhere, he’s ubiquitous.”

OK, progress: so we know it’s a skit starring one of Japan’s biggest celebrities.

KELTS: “If you can imagine someone… posters… beer… that you see on TV every night in Japan.”

And this 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.

KELTS: “It follows the narrative very closely, it hews quite close to the narrative, but everything is done tongue-in-cheek.”

The first part of the story goes like this. There’s a poor old couple. They can’t 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 T-V 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.

Kelts: “That generation grew up idolizing America pop culture. They read American novels, they listened to America jazz, they watched Am 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 this one, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby — fit into a broader sense of Japan’s place in the world.

Tamori’s TV show took full advantage.

Kelts: “That was a time when Japan’s economy was expanding… show that was perceived to be how far Japan had come… can poke fun…. at ourselves… best known fairytale in Japan.”

In Japan, but not here in the States. Here’s how it ends. The peach boy grows up. And, along with some animal friends, he travels across the ocean – um, to the Herbie Hancock tune, Maiden Voyage.

The peach boy arrives at the island of the ogres — they’ve been stealing from the 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 that for younger Japanese today, the only thing they’d understand would be the story.

Today their focus is domestic not international — in music and in other things.

Kelts: “It’s a symbol or a sign of how pessimistic younger Japanese feel. 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 did the video when I first watched 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… a feeling that something’s been lost: that carefree sense of being on top of the world.

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