The Kyu Sakamoto Housecleaning Soundtrack

A word of caution: to folks under about 60 years of age, this post will likely mean little or nothing, full of references to people you’ve never heard of, citing examples of technology long consigned to the annals of history, and dredging up songs that were already “oldies” long before you were born. Read on at the risk of terminal boredom.

The soundtrack for my Saturday morning housecleaning comes from the late Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, whose number one hit from 1963, “Sukiyaki”, remains the only Japanese-language record ever to crack the US Top Forty charts. The hauntingly beautiful song, originally titled “Ue o Muite Aruko” was a hit in Japan a couple of years earlier, where the single record was released on red vinyl, a departure from the black stock typically used for phonograph records back in the day. It topped the charts there for a whopping three months, and even today, it is a staple in karaoke houses throughout Japan.

Here is an early black and white video of Kyu Sakamoto performing “Sukiyaki”:

Somewhere along the way, I acquired a copy of Kyu Sakamoto’s double-CD greatest hits album, and popped the first volume into the CD drive of my computer this morning. I cannot play it loudly here in Japan, as I would likely do in Canada, because I don’t want to gain the reputation of being the rude foreign guest, so my small Bose monitors are cranked less than halfway up, just enough to rise above the noise generated by my clunking around the kitchen, washing dishes and the like.

Naturally, “Sukiyaki”, his biggest hit ever, leads off the album. The song has nothing to do with the Japanese hot-pot dish of the same name, by the way; the word doesn’t even show up in the lyrics. The song is actually about a man mourning his lost love, walking along whistling, his head held high so that his tears don’t fall. The name “Sukiyaki” was added before its release in the West, on the theory (probably correct) that its original name wouldn’t be easily remembered (or pronounced) by Western listeners. According to Wikipedia, a Newsweek journalist at the time noted that the re-titling of the song was akin to issuing “Moon River” in Japan under the title “Beef Stew”.

The surprises of the CD come when Sakamoto does cover versions of such 60s American classics as Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl”, Del Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry”, and Jimmy Jones’ “Timing”, with verses in Japanese and choruses in English, sorta:

Calendar Girl:

Hats Off to Larry:
Timing:   (this one features the original Jimmy Jones recording in an unearthly mashup with Kyu Sakamoto’s cover)

Kyu Sakamoto was killed in the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, the crash of JAL Flight 123 in 1985, on a short hop from Tokyo to Osaka. More than 500 lives were lost when the airliner crashed into the side of Mt. Takamagahara; there were only four survivors.

In 1993, a pair of Japanese astronomers discovered a new asteroid, and named it “6980 Kyusakamoto”, marking what must be the first time that a dead star has been memorialized as a chunk of dead star. The Japanese numbers six, nine and eight (roku, kyu and hachi) that form part of the name “6980 Kyusakamoto” refer to the trio of which Sakamoto was a member: ROKUsuke Ei (songwriter), KYU Sakamoto (singer), and HACHIdai Nakamura (pianist).

A final note: if you are under 60-ish, and you have suffered through the text thus far, I would like to offer you a more up-to-date version of “Sukiyaki”, a YouTube video of Kina Grannis, doing a perfectly lovely acoustic rendition at Bumbershoot Music Festival in Seattle, over Labor Day weekend, 2012:

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