Monthly Archives: January 2010

Avant Garde Queen is Dead

Asakawa Maki

Singer Asakawa Maki was found unconscious in a Nagoya hotel room on Sunday evening and declared dead on arrival at a local hospital, it was revealed yesterday. According to Aichi prefectural police, the cause of death was acute heart failure. She was 67. She had performed as scheduled the night before and was found in her room shortly before she was due on stage for the last of three nights.

With her black clothes, long straight hair and blank expression, Asakawa was considered the “queen” of the “angura” avant garde scene in Tokyo in the early 1970s. She was a unique artist who modeled her vocal stylings on Mahalia Jackson and Billy Holliday and collaborated with a wide variety of jazz, blues and rock musicians. One western critic described her “dark clad, nicotine stained and black sugarless coffee drenched female vocals against an avant-jazz backing.” She first appeared on the scene in 1968 when controversial producer Terayama Shuuji (1935-1983) put her in a one-woman stage show at the Sasoriza theater in Shinjuku. Under his tutelage she made her recording debut in 1970 and performed at cabarets and U.S. military camps in and around Tokyo. In recent years she performed mainly at the Pit Inn live house, close to her roots in Shinjuku. She never married and lived alone in Tokyo.

From Mimickry to Marriage

Haraguchi Akimasa, Fukushita Megumi

Comedian Haraguchi Akimasa (34) and pin-up girl Fukushita Megumi (25) are engaged. They both updated their blogs with the news yesterday after the story broke on Saturday. The couple have been dating for about a year and a half and are said to be planning to tie the knot in the spring in Yokohama, where they had their first date. Haraguchi is known as one of the country’s top “monomane” (comic impersonator), in particular top comedian Akashiya Sanma. He first hit it off with Fukushita when they both appeared on a “monomane battle” special on NTV five years ago.

Fukushita started out as a “gradol,” or gravure (pin-up) idol, in 2001, later expanding her repertoire to include acting on stage and TV. She made her singing debut in 2008 as a member of the J-pop group BeForU. But what brought her and Haraguchi together was her skill at mimicking J-pop stars such as Koda Kumi and Nakamori Akina.

• X Japan vocalist Toshi (44) announced yesterday that he has declared himself bankrupt and initiated a divorce from his wife of 13 years. He broke the news on his page on Mixi, the top Japanese social media network, saying that he hopes to make a “fresh start in life.” Confirming what has been widely rumored for years, he said that all his earnings over the last 12 years have gone to the self-development seminar business “Home of Heart,” often referred to in terms of a religious cult, led by Kurabuchi Toru (52, aka Masaya). Toshi and his wife Kaori (40), a former idol singer, married in 1997 but have been separated for ten years. During that time she has been living with Masaya in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture and she performs under the stage name Wanku.

Haraguchi Akimasa, Fukushita Megumi

Hori Pro is lining up its stars for a special commemorative movie. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in a first for the company, the top talent management agency is producing a movie featuring a cast entirely from its own ranks. Directed by Nakata Hideo and based on an award-winning mystery novel by Yonezawa Honobu, “Inshitemiru” is a “fight to the death” thriller with ten starring roles. Yesterday eight of the names were announced, four actors and four actresses (l-r): Kitaoji Kinya (60), Takeda Shinji (37), Fujiwara Tatsuya (27), and Abe Tsuyoshi (27); Katahira Nagisa (50), Hirayama Aya (26), Ayase Haruka (24), and Ishihara Satomi (23). The movie is due for release in the autumn.

Get Your Yamaguchi Momoe Fix Online

Yamaguchi Momoe

Thirty years after she shocked Japan with her retirement, the legendary Yamaguchi Momoe (50) is finally entering the world of digital downloads. It was announced yesterday that the 12 major digital distributors have reached an agreement to sell the 274 songs she released – 32 singles and 242 album tracks – together with videos of live performances. The files will be released over a period of four weeks from January 17, her 51st birthday. This year is also the 50th anniversary of Hori Pro, the top management agency that represented her. They reached an agreement with the likes of Dwango, NTT Communications and Sony Music to make the files available at prices from ¥105 for mobile phone ringtones to ¥525 for videos.

Even three decades after she retired to marry actor Miura Tomokazu (57 – they appeared together in 14 of her 17 movies), Yamaguchi’s legend is powerful enough to rake in the Yen. To date, six greatest hits albums have been released to commemorate anniversaries of her 1973 debut or 1980 retirement. Last month, a DVD box set featuring her many appearances on the “Best Ten” music show entered the Oricon charts at No.2. In her heyday, she was one of three pop starlets referred to as the “Hana no Naka 3 Trio.” Songs by the other two, Mori Mitsuko (51) and Sakurada Junko (51), are already available online, and Yamaguchi is believed to be the last of the Showa Era legends to go fully digital. Ironically, during her 7-year career, she never had a No.1 album and only four No.1 singles on the Oricon charts. But in 1978 she was popular enough to become the first – and still the only – teenager to be given the “tori” (headliner) position in NHK’s annual “Kohaku Uta Gassen” concert.

Yagira Yuya, Ellie Toyota Wed

Yagira Yuya, Ellie Toyota

Acclaimed young actor Yagira Yuya (19) and actress Ellie Toyota (21) are hitched. They filed their marriage registration forms yesterday, Toyota’s birthday, and will hold their wedding ceremony in Tokyo today. The couple, who are both with the same Stardust Promotions management agency, announced their engagement at the beginning of December. Toyota plans to continue her career, though she has a much lower profile than Yagira. In 2004 he became the youngest ever, and the first Japanese, winner of the Best Actor award at the Cannes International Film Festival. His role in the Koreeda Hirokazu movie “Daremo Shiranai” (Nobody Knows) launched a movie career that seemed destined for great heights. After a drug overdose in August 2008 that derailed his career it seemed that success may have come too early, but Yagira got things back on track and even found time to write his first novel. Last year, he starred in “The Shock Labyrinth,” the first feature-length 3D movie made in Japan. His most recent work is the movie “Subete wa Umi ni Naru,” which co-stars Sato Eriko and opens on January 23. Toyota, whose father is British, got her showbiz start in the idol group Snappeas. She made her big screen debut in the 2006 movie “Youkina Gang ga Chikyu wo Mawasu.”

• Actor Okumura Koen died last month, it was revealed yesterday. He was 79. Known for playing a corpse in the movie “O-Soshiki” (Funeral), a role for which he trained himself to hold his breath for several minutes, he ironically died of respiratory failure at a Tokyo hospital on December 24. He was an acclaimed supporting actor on the big screen, perhaps most notably in the movies of director Itami Juzo, in TV dramas and in the theater.

The Global Face of Japanese Beauty

Kuroki Meisa, Shaku Yumiko

Actress Kuroki Meisa (21, photo left) is to become the global face of French cosmetics giant L’Oréal Paris. It was announced yesterday that she recently signed a contract to appear in advertisements and TV commercials for the brand around the world, a job that has previously gone to such top Hollywood names as Penelope Cruz, Beyonce Knowles and Jane Fonda. The only other Japanese woman to have landed the gig was model Kawahara Ayako (38). Kuroki will first appear in commercials for the new Damage Care Proex line of products in the spring.

Vianney Derville, L’Oréal’s International General Manager, saw Kuroki in her international big screen debut, last year’s Japanese-Chinese movie “Subaru.” Describing the Okinawa-born actress he said, “Her appeal lies in her natural talent, her elegance and her beauty.” Kuroki had a breakthrough year in Japan in 2009 and is now headed for the world stage. “I hope to become someone who can support Japanese women and be on a par with the other women of the world. I’d like to show the world the beauty of Japanese women.”

• Management for Shaku Yumiko (31, photo right) acknowledged yesterday that she is on the verge of marriage to a handsome Tokyo vet. The popular actress and Sato Takanori (31), head of a veterinary clinic in the posh Tokyo suburb of Shiragane, have been dating since last autumn. Tommy’s Artist Company president Kobayashi Kenji, himself a former Johnny’s Jimuso idol, said “It’s true that (Shaku) is in a serious relationship. She is 31 so any decision about marriage is hers to make. But I think that’s where she’s headed.”

Even Cancer Can’t Stop Kampei’s Earth Marathon

Hazama Kampei has cancer

Hazama Kampei isn’t going to let a little thing like cancer stop him from running round the world. The Yoshimoto comedian recently made a hospital visit in Istanbul for a scheduled checkup as part of his Earth Marathon, an attempt to run and sail around the globe. After having sailed across the Pacific and Atlantic, and run across the North American and European continents, he was shocked when test results showed that he has prostate cancer. He revealed the illness for the first time on his blog yesterday.

The shocking news came almost a year after Hazama (60) was diagnosed with high levels of PSA, a protein produced by the cells of the prostate gland, following tests in Los Angeles. Doctors diagnosed it as a prostate infection and he was given antibiotics. Subsequent tests in cities across the U.S. and Europe indicated the problem was under control, though Hazama was still taking the medication. After the test in Istanbul revealed excessive levels of PSA, doctors recommended further tests. But Hazama insisted on continuing to Ankara and reaching the 10,000km mark in his global quest on New Year’s Eve, before returning to Istanbul. He underwent more tests and was given the bad news on January 4.

“For about a week I was really worried,” he said. “Could I finish the Earth Marathon? Could I beat this disease? Would I die? At times I couldn’t sleeping from worrying about it.” But after the test data was shared with doctors in the U.S. and Japan, it was decided that rather than undergo surgery he could be treated with hormone therapy that would keep the cancer in check and allow him to continue his quest. “I was incredibly happy,” he said, announcing that he would resume his journey from tomorrow. He hopes to arrive back in Osaka sometime between this autumn and the spring of 2011.

Kuroda Tamotsu Escapes Prosecution

Kuroda Tamotsu, Uehara Sakura

It looks like comedian Kuroda Tamotsu (39, photo left) has largely got off the hook following his recent arrest for assault. He was released by the Osaka District Court yesterday, and was totally serious several hours later at a press conference at the company headquarters of Yoshimoto Kogyo. Dressed somberly in a black suit and tie, Kuroda apologized to the victim of his drunken attack as well as his own fans. One half of the manzai duo Messenger, Kuroda said that he had also met and apologized to his comic partner while in custody. As by reporters about a return to work, he said, “It’s not my decision to make. First I have to repay those who I inconvenienced. But I hope to someday be able to make people laugh again.” Yoshimoto Creative Agency president Mizukami Haruki said that the comedian’s future plans were blank and that he would be disciplined.

Kuroda and a friend were arrested in late December after a night out on the town ended in violence. Kuroda had a beer and a highball at one bar, before heading to a “girly bar,” where he had another beer and seven more highballs. The trouble started when Kuroda was presented with what he thought was an outlandish bill for ¥255,000 (about $2,800). He threw an ashtray at the bar manager (24) and punched and kicked him several times. The manager was initially reported to have suffered broken bones, though it was later revealed that the injuries pre-dated the assault. Kuroda and the manager met last week and reached a settlement, allowing the indictment against the comedian to be dropped yesterday.

• On a lighter note, talento Uehara Sakura (32, photo right) made her comedy debut yesterday. She appeared in the first round of the R-1 Grand Prix, an annual contest for solo comedians. With material based on her divorce last November, she got enough laughs to get through to the next round, which will be held at the end of the month.

Nagano Tsubasa, Uchikawa Seiichi

Fuji TV announcer Nagano Tsubasa (28) sent a fax to the media this morning about her upcoming marriage plans. She and Uchikawa Seiichi (27), an infielder for the Yokohama Bay Stars and Japan national baseball teams, plan to hold their official engagement ceremony this month and tie the knot on March 24. They don’t currently have plans to hold a wedding ceremony or reception. Romance started for the couple when they met during last year’s World Baseball Classic, where Japan defended its title thanks in large part to Uchikawa’s solid batting.

X Japan Finally Realize American Dream

X Japan in Hollywood

Rock group X Japan have been shaking things up recently in downtown Los Angeles. The band were in Hollywood for a weeklong promotion video shoot, at a cost of over $5 million, for their upcoming launch into the U.S. market. The first ever performance on top of the Kodak Theater was announced in late December with an open invitation to American fans to attend, though they were asked to register in advance at the J-Rock Nation website.

The band performed several songs for the weekend shoot, including “Endless Rain,” “Rusty Nail,” last year’s comeback single “I.V.” and their latest release, “Jade.” The performance included lasers, flame towers and fireworks, all shot from multiple cameras and helicopters. Some 8,000 fans and passersby took in the show, which ran from late afternoon. After dark, pairs of glowsticks were given out, allowing fans to cross them in the familiar “We are X” style. Drummer and band leader Yoshiki was performing publicly for the first time since neck surgery and wore a brace throughout. Guitars once played by the late Hide were placed on stage, while his role in the band has been taken by Luna Sea guitarist Sugizo.

X Japan in Hollywood

X Japan have been wanting to perform in the U.S. for almost two decades. They held a press conference in New York in 1992 but a concert tour failed to materialize before they split in 1997. After last year’s reunion shows in Tokyo, they planned to perform at Madison Square Garden. But Yoshiki’s health problems forced them to put that plan on ice, too. Yesterday he said, “What Toshi and I did at junior high school festivals and local culture centers, we’re now doing in the heart of Hollywood. If you hold onto a dream, it will come true.”

X Japan in Hollywood

The band will continue filming for their promo videos until next month. The project is being produced by Yoshiki and directors include Dean Karr, who has worked with such artists as Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne and Velvet Revolver. An album is in the works and the band are said to be in negotiations to appear at the Lollapalooza rock festival in Chicago in August.

Oguri, Yamada – Who are They Fooling?

Oguri Shun, Yamada Yuu

Actor Oguri Shun (27) and actress-model Yamada Yuu (25) did their best to avoid looking like a couple yesterday, but they’re not fooling anyone. The pair returned to Narita Airport after a weeklong vacation in Hawaii but, just as when they left, they passed through arrivals and customs separately. As long as the media don’t get a shot of them together, they can plausibly deny any serious relationship. But the giveaway signs were not too hard to spot. Oguri came out of customs with a luggage cart carrying some distinctly feminine baggage, including a pink golf bag. Most of the time he talked on his mobile phone, a common ploy to avoid reporters’ questions, and seemed annoyed by all the media attention. Yamada, on the other hand, was all smiles for the cameras as she walked arm in arm with friend and fellow model Hasegawa Jun (23). Yamada was seen carrying two passports, and something sparkly on her ring finger. But like Oguri she refused to answer reporters questions and denied that the vacation was a “pre-marriage” trip.

• Yesterday was the Seijin no Hi national holiday, and 20-year-olds across the country celebrated their coming of age. Many of the ceremonies featured words of encouragement from celebrity guests, and of course a few young celebrities themselves celebrated their new adulthood. Among them were talento Minami Akina and enka singer Oe Yutaka.

• Oe is a protege of veteran enka singer Kitajima Saburo, who yesterday had another reason to celebrate when he became the oldest artist to have a Top 10 single and album on the Oricon charts. His latest release, “Fufu Issho,” entered the singles chart this week at No.10. Kitajima, at 73, easily beat the previous record, held by the late actor Ueki Hitoshi, who made the Top 10 in 1991 with “Suudara Densetsu” at the age of 64.

Rinka Ties the Knot

Rinka, Azuma Mieko

Model-talento Rinka got married at the weekend. In her usual offbeat style she announced the news on her blog yesterday, posting a photo of herself with the marriage registration form and even a dialog between herself and the “old guy at the information desk.” Rinka and her new hubby, described as a construction company employee in his early 30s, will hold a small reception at their Tokyo home this evening. The pair tied the knot after a relationship of eight years, though they split up once in 2007. When Rinka announced her engagement last October, it took many by surprise as she had long touted her image as one of the “make-inu” types, eligible female celebrities destined to remain forever single.

• Veteran actress Azuma Mieko died of heart failure at her Tokyo home on Friday night, it was revealed this morning. She was 85. She was one of the founders of the Gekidan Seinenza theater group in 1954 and remained one of its leading actresses for many years. She appeared in more than 90 movies, dozens of TV dramas, and was recognized with an award from the Ministry of Culture in 1997. She was also famous for her “free” marriage to the influential social psychologist Minami Hiroshi (1914-2001).