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Sunday, July 22, 2001

When we had heroes

They were voices in the silence, stars in the night they showed the way and they showed what was right

Special to the Japan Times Japan may have lost World War II, but in the years following defeat it built the most vibrant economy in Asia -- the often-told story of the phoenix rising from the ashes. The Japanese people also gained a new freedom, if not from hunger, then certainly from death in battle or fear of the secret police.

American Occupation authorities put limits on the democracy they brought with them, frowning on any hint of militarism or feudalism, but within those limits Japanese could write, draw and film much as they pleased -- a heady feeling indeed after decades of repression.

Despite the poverty and chaos around them, writers, artists, filmmakers and others in the burgeoning entertainment industry created a new popular culture that was vulgar but vital, crassly commercial but endlessly inventive. Its central figures often seemed to come out of nowhere, oversized talents who may have been influenced by American models, but who had ambitions beyond imitation and, more importantly, the talent to realize them. They created not only new images, but new genres. They became icons of a new age.

In those early postwar years, the starting points for Japan and America were of course quite different. While Americans were busy buying cars, televisions, houses in the suburbs and other symbols of the American Dream, in Japan people were living amid the rubble of bombed-out cities and looking for something to replace the moral certainties shattered by the war.

Hardly surprisingly, Japan's first postwar icon fast became a symbol of hope in those trying times. Her name was Hibari Misora and she was as close as Japan has ever come to Shirley Temple -- a preternaturally talented child who could sing boogie woogie with an American sense of rhythm and, scandalous to social conservatives, adult sensuality. Her biggest early hits, however, were Japanese pop tunes, such as "Kanashiki Takabue (Sad Whistle)," "Tokyo Kid" and "Ringo Oiwake ( Apple Blossom Song)," that cheered and inspired millions, just as Shirley Temple did in the darkest days of the Great Depression.

But while Shirley's career stalled after she became a teenager, Hibari's continued to soar. In the 1950s she turned out hit after hit, while becoming a top movie star, playing everything from a scrappy street urchin ("Tokyo Kid," 1950) to a company president's stage-struck daughter ("Ojosan Shacho," 1953). In the middle of the decade she also made a series of fondly remembered musicals with fellow teen singing sensations Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura -- though she outdistanced both, and nearly everyone else in Japanese show business, in earnings and popularity. After her days a teen idol ended, Hibari kept churning out hit records as the Queen of Enka -- a made-in-Japan genre whose lugubrious tempos and lyrics about loneliness and loss give it a family resemblance to weepy Country & Western laments.

Through all this, Hibari remained fiercely loyal to her family, including her mobbed-up younger brother, and got into career-damaging scrapes with NHK and other media organs as a result. Despite this she never lost her fans, who packed her live shows even as she boycotted NHK's "Red-and-White Song Contest" -- the New Year's show that is the equivalent of Britain's royal Honors List for the elite of this country's music business.

A dream embodied

Hibari's male counterpart was Yujiro Ishihara, who may not have started as young as she did, but quickly rose to movie stardom in the mid-1950s playing rebellious youths -- members of what came to be called the Sun Tribe (Taiyo-zoku). From a privileged background (wealthy father, Keio education) and blessed with boyish good looks and long legs that his millions of female admirers couldn't get enough of, Yujiro was a James Dean and Elvis Presley rolled into one enormously popular package. When not cranking out movies for the Nikkatsu studio, he was sailing, skiing, driving fancy foreign cars and otherwise enjoying the type of wealthy, Westernized lifestyle few of his peers could emulate -- or even imagine. Yujiro was the embodiment of the Japanese consumerist dream.

When the Sun Tribe set -- one in a long line of ephemeral youth zoku (tribes) -- Yujiro nimbly moved on to a career as an action star and enka crooner, while palling around with a clique of showbiz cronies, among whom he was the undisputed leader. He was called the Tough Guy (Tafu Gai) or Big Man (Bigu Man), just as Frank Sinatra was dubbed the Chairman of the Board by his Rat Pack buddies -- an indication of his status as a role model for the macho men building the boom economy of the '60s.

For maximum cultural impact, however, the ultimate icon spawned by that postwar phoenix was Osamu Tezuka -- the madly workaholic "God of Manga." Manga may translate as "comics," but beginning with his seminal 1947 series, "Shin Takarajima (Treasure Island)", Tezuka created a new approach to comic art that made manga distinctly different from its Western counterparts and gave birth to a hugely profitable, hugely influential industry.

Though influenced by Disney, as evidenced by the round, cutesy designs he used for many of his characters, Tezuka was a restless innovator. He not only brought a cinematic pace and dynamism to what had been a static form, but also incorporated grown-up themes and concerns into what had been mostly lightweight entertainment for children.

In addition to pleasing under-12s with the "Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy)" and "Jungle Taitei (The Jungle Emperor)" series, Tezuka tried his hand at everything from "Black Jack", a series about a troubled, outlaw doctor who was a deft hand with a scalpel, to "Hi no Tori (The Phoenix)," a 12-volume saga of karma and reincarnation that is considered the "War and Peace" of the manga genre.

Pioneer of animation

The immense popularity of Tezuka and his disciples encouraged publishers to increase the size, number and frequency of their manga publications, with some reaching phone-book proportions. By the end of the '50s, sales of manga magazines and paperback collections were soaring. Today they account for nearly one-third of all the nation's publications, and are read by everyone from toddlers to aging executives.

Tezuka was also the creator of Japan's first regular animated series for television, based on his "Tetsuwan Atom" manga. Debuting in 1963, it later became, under the title "Astro Boy," the first Japanese cartoon show syndicated for American television. As head of his own animation studio, Mushi Pro, Tezuka pioneered animation techniques such as "cel banks" of stock expressions and poses that made TV animation economically feasible. Where he led, thousand of animators have since followed.

Hibari Misora, Yujiro Ishihara and Tezuka Osamu all died in the latter half of the '80s, victims of their take-it-to-the-limit lifestyles, but their stock as cultural icons has, if anything, only risen since. Much of their enormous output remains on the shelves, while legions of fans still celebrate their death anniversaries, visit the museums built in their honor and generally keep the flame burning. Today's crop of pop-culture celebrities can only hope for such veneration.

What is the difference between, say, Ishihara and Takuya Kimura, a member of the pop group SMAP who has arguably made as many female hearts throb as Yujiro ever did? Original talent, for one thing; the times, for another. Yujiro struck his first audiences as not just another pop idol, but a blazing new paradigm.

At that time, entertainment options were few, information traveled slowly and old social and cultural traditions still had power, despite a century of Westernization. The sight of Yujiro whacking away on a set of drums like a wild gaijin jazzman electrified an audience that had heard a lot more taiko than Gene Krupa, and whose image of a male movie star was still more samurai swashbuckler than Marlon Brando. Even so, Yujiro had more going for him than good timing -- once again, we're back to the charisma thing.

SMAP apart, the culture has generated other icons since Yujiro's heyday. Baby Boomers had Yusaku Matsuda, who rose to fame playing a gun-hating, jeans-wearing hippie cop (on a TV series starring Yujiro as his boss). Later he created a wisecracking, cool-dude image on a popular early '80s private-eye show that is still a video-shop favorite. Dying of cancer in 1989 at the age of 40, soon after playing a cold-blooded yakuza killer in Ridley Scott's "Black Rain," Matsuda has since joined Japan's relatively short list of dead legends, mourned as much for his early demise as his considerable talent.

When the 1973 oil crisis put the brakes on the first big postwar boom and its attendant upheavals, a certain energy and optimism drained out of the culture. After that, baby boomers who had once manned the barricades against established authority instead settled down to climbing the corporate ladder and collecting Gucci bags.

A masculine ideal

Despite this a few icons are still with us. One is Ken Takakura, who at age 70 is still a bankable star. His latest film, "Hotaru," has been filling theaters this year. Playing a former tokkotai (suicide pilot) seeking closure at the end of the Showa Era, Takakura is less an actor in a role than the embodiment of a Japanese masculine ideal: quiet and modest, but always ready to do the right thing whatever the personal sacrifice. He is best known, however, for his 1960s roles as a stoic yakuza loner, who may live outside the law, but adheres strictly to the gangster code of jingi (chivalry), even if it means wading into a nest of rival gangsters with nothing but a sword. For the radical students battling the era's power structure, Takakura was a symbol of romantic defiance -- from their cheers in the packed theaters showing his films, his foes could have been LPD politicians or LBJ's Vietnam War advisers. These days, especially since the bubble economy burst in 1991, Japan, like Takakura himself, has lost some of the spring in its step. But now, in a new millennium, the zeitgeist is shifting again, with fundamental change of sclerotic institutions no longer merely a slogan but a pressing necessity. If the currently charismatic Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi has his way, change appears to be a distinct possibility.

Will Japan get its groove back? Will Ichiro bring home a batting championship? We can only hope that, despite fragmenting attention spans and proliferating media, new icons -- and a new phoenix -- will arise. Some people deserve more than 15 minutes.

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