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Sunday, April 30, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Harking back to the past in order to secure the immediate future


Thanks to continuing malfeasance on the part of some of its employees, NHK remains in the dog house, so it's tempting to view recent programming decisions with an eye for how they might boost the public broadcaster's standing among subscribers. For example, why has NHK revived not one, not two, but four American TV series from the 1950s and '60s all at the same time?

As entertainment, "I Love Lucy," "The Fugitive," "Rawhide," and "Combat" are as relevant to under-40s as Restoration comedy. But in terms of nostalgia for over-50s they're a mother lode.

The people who watched these shows as children and teenagers, commonly referred to as dankai no sedai, which literally means "mass generation," are considered the first generation of Japanese to embrace consumption as a lifestyle. They helped lift the country out of its postwar poverty by embracing the American way-of-life. These TV shows remind them how different they were from their parents.

Though Westerners would probably refer to them as baby boomers, the dankai no sedai is a much smaller group. The baby boom in America lasted from 1946 until the early '60s, but the DS boomers were born between 1947 and 1949, after which the government actively discouraged large families because the high birthrate was limiting the country's ability to recover from the war.

The cultural power wielded by the DS boomers was in direct proportion to their numbers, and whatever changes in popular taste occurred in Japan during the '60s was their doing. The baby boomers had a similar effect in the West, and in many respects the DS tsunami was a delayed reaction to the youth earthquakes taking place in America and Europe. The TV programs that NHK is reviving offered them a direct window on to American culture, and later Western pop and folk music would dramatically build on that sensibility.

In fact, music seems to be the most powerful component of the DS boomers' self-image. A recent Yomiuri Shimbun feature about the "Folk Resurgence" cited a survey conducted by advertising agency Hakuhodo in which the three most common responses to the question "Which term best represents dankai no sedai?" were "group sounds" (mid-60s Japanese rock groups), "folk music," and "The Beatles."

The article was mainly about "folk taverns," a relatively new and growing phenomenon of drinking establishments where DS salarymen stop off after work to play folk music from their youth. Veteran pop composer Koichi Hattori is impressed by what he hears. These are not just amateurs going one step beyond karaoke. They can really sing and really play.

According to Hattori, the musicians of the folk boom were the first in Japan to fully master Western music techniques, in particular the idea of harmony. Traditional Japanese pop was based on single lines of notes, but the folk singers of the '60s and '70s could play sophisticated counterpoint on their acoustic guitars and sing along in harmony.

Setsuro Sakamoto, Hakuhodo's 54-year-old manager in charge of Mature Business Promotion, told Yomiuri that the DS boomers thought of folk music as a liberating force, something that represented a complete break with their parents' way of thinking. Eventually, they all had to get jobs and raise families, but they never forgot that feeling and now, with retirement looming, they are preparing to take up where they left off as youngsters.

Sakamoto's job is to advise businesses on ways to take advantage of this coming wave of retirees, which is estimated to be anywhere from 7 to 10 million in size. However, there are many variables and false assumptions. Unlike their fathers, who felt at a loss when they left their companies, DS workers are looking forward to freedom, but they may not be able to afford it. According to a recent Shukan Bunshun article, many DS boomers have come to the realization that they are "unexpectedly poor."

With such an uncertain future, the pull of the past becomes even more irresistible. "Oyaji band" competitions of pop-rock groups made up of middle-aged men playing '60s music are becoming more common. Last week, about 100 such bands signed up for the two-week "60s Tokyo Graffitti" event sponsored by Tokyu in Shibuya.

Shibuya, of course, is considered Japan's youth mecca, and it's important to remember that, like their American counterparts, the DS boomers won't admit to growing old. They even frown on the English word "nostalgia" because of its association with the Japanese term natsumero, which means "nostalgic melodies" and describes the kind of Japanese pop songs that people over 70 prefer.

In that regard, the undisputed DS hero is Takuro Yoshida, the '70s folk singer who best represents his generation's dream of individualism. Like Bob Dylan, with whom he is often compared, Takuro had no use for lyrics that expressed romantic generalities. He sung honestly about his own feelings. Having just turned 60 and undergone treatment for cancer several years ago, he hardly represents burning youth any more, but perspective is everything.

Interviewed on a recent installment of NHK's "Closeup Gendai" about the DS resurgence, Takuro seemed bemused with his status as a figure of emulation. While he was doing exactly what he wanted to do for the last forty years, members of his generation were working hard at jobs that many of them didn't like.

Perhaps as a means of giving something back, Takuro will play an outdoor concert this September in a field in Shizuoka to recreate a famous concert he gave at the same location in 1975. Fifty thousand people are expected to attend at 15,000 yen a pop. The price includes a seat cushion.



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