I went to see Umekichi and was happy to discover that, for once, I was the youngest guy in the audience. I was also the only foreigner—though I did see several older ladies with purple hair.
The venue was the Sakura Hall in Hokutopia, a community center in Oji. Meaning 'prince', Oji is in Kita or 'north' ward, and even though it's in Tokyo, it feels different from the Shibuya-Ebisu-Shimokitazawa triangle where I usually hang out, less cosmopolitan and fashionable, more earthy and pure Japanese. Sakura Hall is one of those sparkling auditoriums that every municipality in Japan seems to have erected with taxpayer money, and its stage curtain features a huge portrait of a samurai-era cherry viewing scene in a hill.
Umekichi, the old-songs singer and shamisen player who I wrote about in a previous post, began the concert in a dazzling yellow-gold kimono, and during the intermission changed into an equally eye-catching blue kimono with primary-colored floral designs. She refers to them as Kimono A and B, her two stage outfits, but she must have a decent kimono collection because she spends 365 days of the year wrapped in the Japanese robe. Umekichi also does her hair herself every morning because having a hairdresser sculpt it the traditional Japanese way is too expensive, and at first it took her an hour to get it right but now she can speed through it in 20 minutes.
I know all this because Umekichi devoted a good amount of time between songs to talking—about her songs and music, her clothes, why she got into classical Japanese music—probably a reflection of the fact that she usually works with rakugo-ka, spoken word entertainers. I learned a lot from her between-song talk—for example, that her style of hair, which I think was called yuiwata, is one that identified a girl as unmarried in the Edo ea.
In one long monologue before singing “Akai Kutsu”—“Red Shoes”, that sad song that every Japanese knows—Umekichi talked about how the song was based on a true story about a girl who was born to a poor family who couldn't afford to bring her up, so an American missionary family adopted her. The girl's mother, who became a settler in snowy Hokkaido, dreams about how her daughter with red shoes must have become blue-eyed by now living in America. Except, Umekichi said, the tragic truth was that the girl never went to the U.S. in the end, because she was ill with tuberculosis and her American guardians didn't think she could survive the journey; the girl ends up dying in an orphanage in Tokyo. Umekichi says, traveling to America was hard back then, and even now it's a long trip. She then talks about how she went on tour in the U.S. last year, and she wore a kimono on the plane, but then when she landed in the U.S. and was in the immigration line the authorities took her to a separate room, maybe worried, she said, that her kimono was hiding a bomb, and that she was a 'kimono suicide bomber'. She was asked to take off her obi and show what she was wearing inside, which maybe made things worse because the kimono has so many, hard-to-explain parts. In the end they let her go, and she did her shows. Umekichi says that nowadays there are many Japanese who are successful in the U.S., including baseball players like Nomo, Ichiro, and Matsuzaka. Why, Matsuzaka went to America and now even wears 'red socks'—rim shot—she says, before finally starting “Red Shoes”.
(Neither here nor there, but the Japanese wikipedia entry on “Akai Kutsu” says the whole story about the girl and her adoption and death is a fabrication, and none of it actually happened. Hmm.)
Her show was a good mix of musical styles, with some quiet tunes that she played solo strumming on her shamisen, others more jazzy with a back-up band of a bassist, flutist/saxophonist and a taiko drummer, and in some of the routines she danced together with four girls who wore a short robe over what looked like cycling shorts. I especially liked a song called “Dodoitsu”, which, in another thing I learned that night, is the name of a form of poetry similar to haiku or tanka that has a 7-7-7-5 syllable structure. She sang with understated passion this sexy tune, which talks about how the sky read her mind and figured out her wishes, and rained down “yarazu no ame”: I looked that up later, and it's a common rakugo phrase meaning well-timed rain that allows a house guest to stay longer rather than leave in the rain—in this case the 'house guest' no doubt being a lover.