Monthly Archives: December 2011

Farewell to Veteran Actors

Irigawa Yasunori, Iwai Hanshiro


Sad news over the Christmas weekend as the Japanese showbiz world lost several of its veteran actors. Irigawa Yasunori (photo left) died of rectal cancer at a Kanagawa Prefecture hospital. He was 72. Given just months to live when the cancer was discovered during surgery in August 2010, he held a press conference in March of this year to announce his refusal to undergo treatment that might have extended his life. He continued to work and had hoped to survive long enough to see the screening of his final movie “Bitter Coffee Life,” which is due for release next May. The movie tells the tale of a terminally ill cafe manager and his interactions with his customers. Three times married and divorced, Irigawa is survived by five children and five grandchildren.

The world of kabuki theater lost two of its established actors of the postwar era. Iwai Hanshiro (photo right) died of multiple organ failure at a Tokyo hospital in the early morning of December 25. He was 84. Just hours later kabuki actor Kataoka Roen VI died of a heart attack at a Shinjuku hospital. He was 85.

Real name Nishina Tadayoshi, Iwai was born the eldest son of a nihon buyo (traditional dance) family and made his stage debut in 1935. He went on to establish himself in a wide variety of famous kabuki roles. He also had an active career on the big screen, including an appearance in Kurosawa Akira’s “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (1945). He battled health problems since 1997 when he made his final stage appearance. He is survived by three daughters, all of whom are in show business. The most famous is Nishina Akiko (58), whose 1979 marriage to actor Matsukata Hiroki (69) was famously opposed by her father.

Part of a kabuki family that extends back to the mid-17th century, Kataoka made his stage debut in 1934 and took the name Roen in 1959. His father, actor Kataoka Nizaemon XII (1882-46), his mother, brother and two maids were murdered by a live-in pupil with an axe in 1946.


Merry Christmas from Japan Zone!

Nagoya Castle


We here at Japan Zone would like to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas! We are having a rare white Christmas here in Nagoya. The snow started falling in the afternoon and by this morning (it’s now St. Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day) there was a blanket of snow across the city. Japanese workers still have a few days till their New Year’s break, and as December 31 is a Saturday it’ll be a fairly short break for most people this year.

Japan has always been a country that makes the traditions of other countries somehow its own. You see Santas everywhere although Christmas is celebrated in an almost totally secular way. And while China is seen by many as Japan’s greatest rival, if not an enemy, the Japanese will soon be celebrating an essentially Chinese tradition as we enter the Year of the Dragon. Personally I’m looking forward to 2012 because I’ll be a “toshi otoko”, having been born in the animal sign of the coming year. And it means I’ve made it through one more 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac.


Dramatic Comeback for Matsushima

Kaseifu no Mita


Last night’s final episode of the NTV drama series “Kaseifu no Mita” proved that the right star can still pull in a huge audience. It got a phenomenal average audience rating of 40% in the Kanto region and was well over 30% across the country, according to the Video Research company. The rating peaked at 42.8% in and around Tokyo. It is the highest rating for a TV drama in more than a decade and the best since the TBS series “Beautiful Life,” which starred perennial heartthrob Kimura Takuya, scored 41.3% in March 2000. And it handily beat the 37.6% scored by “Good Luck,” another KimuTaku vehicle that aired on TBS in 2003.

The secret to the show’s success was the lead role of Mita, a housekeeper who is completely devoid of emotion, played by popular actress Matsushima Nanako (38, profile). She helps a devastated family rebuild after the husband’s affair leads his wife to suicide. While some TV viewers were mystified by the character’s expressionless performance, it clearly touched a nerve with the general public. It also continues to pay off for Matsushima, who has landed the lead in Fuji TV’s spring season offering, “Lucky Seven.” It’s her first primetime Monday 9pm drama lead role since Fuji’s “Yamato Nadeshiko” in 2000. Since then she lost much her popularity to actresses of her generation, such as Shinohara Ryoko (38), and maintained a somewhat diluted career as she married actor Sorimachi Takashi (38) and gave birth to two children. As her husband’s career hasn’t been too stellar of late – his most recent drama had a rating of only 9% – he is said to now be the “kaseifu” or housekeeper of the family.


The End of an Era

Mito Komon


One of Japanese TV’s longest running shows came to a close last night. Old school to the bitter end, the “Mito Komon” jidai-geki ran on the TBS network since August 1969. The last episode, an extended special that featured many past regulars, drew an audience rating of 13.9% in and around Tokyo and over 17% in Nagoya. Not stellar figures but respectable enough for a show that had long lost its appeal for the younger demographic.

The show told the fictional traveling tales of the historical daimyo (regional lord) Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701), with five actors playing the lead role over the years. The original and best remembered was Tohno Eijiro (1907-94), who played the role for 13 years. Satomi Kotaro (75) was the last, having played a different supporting role in the series some years next to Tohno. The show always built to a climax, when the unarmed main characters would be engaged in a swordfight with the villains. One of Mito Komon’s sidekicks would wield his master’s inro (a case bearing his family crest) and shout the famous catchphrase, “Kono mondokoro ga me ni hairanuka” (Can you not see this emblem?). Whereupon the goateed star’s true identity would be revealed and the villains would instantly surrender and beg forgiveness. See the short video clip below.


Matsumoto Reiji in Apparent Suicide

Matsumoto Reiji


Lyricist Matsumoto Reiji died yesterday in what police believe was a suicide, setting himself on fire outside his home in Tokyo. He was 68. His wife found him badly burned but still conscious on the street in front of his Setagaya home at around 4:40am. Police later found a discarded lighter and the canister of an oil heater near the scene. Matsumoto was rushed to hospital and declared dead shortly after 10am. No will or suicide note has been found but his family say that he seemed to be troubled recently and likely had health problems. A music industry colleague reported that Matsumoto had undergone gall bladder surgery in May.

A former chief purser for Japan Airlines, Matsumoto joined the Pony Canyon record label in his early 30s after a chance encounter with the company president. He started as a director and then became a lyricist, writing popular songs for a wide variety of artists that ranged from teen aidoru’s to such mega-stars as Ishihara Yujiro (1934-87) and Morishige Hisaya (1913-2009). He wrote the last song that Morishige recorded, “Izuko e.” His many enka hits included several for Ishino Mako (50), and ironic in view of the manner of his death, the title of Ishino’s final single before she retired in 1981 was the Matsumoto-penned “Burning Love.” He also wrote a song for the 100-year-old twins Kin-san and Gin-san, who were a media sensation in the early 1990s.


Koda’s Marriage Plans Back On Track

Koda Kumi, Back-On


J-pop queen Koda Kumi (29) took the showbiz world by surprise when she announced on her official website early this morning that she is about to get married. She and guitarist Kenji03 (27, band photo 2nd from left) of the band Back-On are planning to tie the knot before the end of the year. Koda said, “He is a wonderful person who completely accepts me as I am and creates an atmosphere where I can relax and be myself.”

The couple are with the same management agency and worked together professionally before they started dating this spring. And to get the standard J-media checklist out of the way, they are not yet living together and Koda is not pregnant. She was of course famously linked with SMAP leader Nakai Masahiro (39) back in 2007, a relationship that was never publicly acknowledged.

Kenji03 collaborated with Koda’s younger sister Misono (27), performing under the stage name Me, on a single back in February. He was a member of Kumi’s backing band for the Avex a-Nation concert in the summer, while she collaborated with Back-On vocalist Teeda on a single in August.


The Heavy Hand of the Law

Dante Carver


Once again a celebrity steps over the line, feels the full force of the law and gets wiped off the TV map. In this case the perp is Dante Carver (34) of Softbank commercial fame. NHK say they will delete his appearances in already recorded episodes of the kids show “be Ponki Kids,” while other companies that Dante pitches for are reviewing the seriousness of the situation. In a statement the BS Fuji network described the case as “extremely regrettable.” The American actor’s offense? Doing an illegal U-turn and getting caught with an expired international driver’s license.

According to the Meguro police station in Tokyo yesterday, Dante was nabbed doing the naughty U-turn on Route 246 in Shibuya on July 2. They filed papers with prosecutors at the end of November because they found that his license, issued at the beginning of the year in the U.S., was invalid since he had not used it for the minimum three months in that country. Dante’s management agency issued a suitably groveling apology, while a Softbank spokesperson said the company had not had enough time to study the situation.

Popular young pro golfer Ishikawa Ryo (20) got caught for exactly the same offense in June and, after undergoing police questioning, held a press conference to publicly apologize.


Former Musumes in the News

Kago Ai, Nakazawa Yuko


Good news and bad news for two former members of aidoru group Morning Musume. Though the group have been completely overshadowed these days by AKB48 and its offshoots, its members made enough of a name for themselves back in the day to still be able to generate headlines. First the bad news…

Kago Ai (photo left) is still only 23 but has been on a real roller coaster ride since her late teens. Now her management agency are preparing to sue her for more than ¥100 million, according to today’s issue of woman’s weekly “Josei Jishin.” Mainstream president Itoh Kazuyuki (60) says the company is planning to take out a civil lawsuit to seek damages caused when Kago suddenly canceled an appearance and walked out on the company when she still had over 18 months left to run on her contract. The contract is due to expire in March 2013 and Itoh says he hopes to have a chance to talk to Kago in court before the end of the year. Kago attempted suicide in September following the arrest of her 44-year-old boyfriend on charges of attempted extortion. Itoh tried to visit her in hospital and patch things up but was turned away, an effort he says he has continued until recently. “But no more, I’ve reached the end of my tether,” he told reporters yesterday.

Meanwhile better news for more senior MoMusu graduate Nakazawa Yuko (38, photo right), who revealed yesterday that she is getting married next spring after a whirlwind romance. One of the founding members of the group and its first leader, she is now a popular talento. She and her IT company president fiance are said to have started dating only in August of this year. Nakazawa is though likely to move to his hometown of Fukuoka and put her showbiz career on hold.


Related stories:
Kago Ai in Suicide Attempt (Sep. 12, 2011)


Duets to Feature on Kohaku

Matsuda Seiko, Kanda Sayaka


The announcement of the “Kohaku Uta Gassen” lineup was made yesterday. In a first for NHK’s annual New Year’s Eve live concert spectacular, this year’s show will feature a mother-daughter duet. Matsuda Seiko (49, photo left, profile) will appear for the first time in 10 years and teams up with her daughter, Kanda Sayaka (25, photo left). Now in its 62nd year, the show has previously featured only two parent-child duets – in 2005 Moriyama Ryoko (63) sang with her son Naotaro (35), and Hirahara Ayaka (27) was accompanied by her father Makoto (59) on saxophone.

Sayaka, whose father is actor Kanda Masaki (60), is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her showbiz debut and making her first Kohaku appearance. She declined to answer reporter’s question about whether she had told her father the news, but expressed her gratitude to her mother, saying “I couldn’t do this by myself. I’m so happy and she gives me great strength.” NHK chief producer Harada Hideki commented that the pair’s appearance is intended to emphasize the importance of family ties in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, and they will choose a song based on that. The pair have performed together many times, though Sayaka only held her first live concert this summer, with her mother as producer.

This year’s lineup includes 55 acts, an increase of 11 from last year. Among the “highlights” is the debut and collaboration of popular Korean girl group Kara and young Ashida Mana (7, photo right), who had a breakthrough year. She became the youngest ever lead in a drama series, Fuji TV’s “Marumo no Okite,” and with co-star Suzuki Fuku (7, photo right) had a major hit with the “Maru Maru Mori Mori” theme song.

In announcing the 55-act Kohaku lineup, NHK took the unprecedented step of pointing out that no candidates had been turned down due to connections with organized crime. This came in the aftermath of an increased crackdown on such affiliations, with the case of Shimada Shinsuke’s forced retirement in particular drawing a lot of publicity.