With the graduation of Hiroshi Itsuki, there are concerns about the “cut-off of the big enka actors in Kohaku”. | FRIDAY DIGITAL

With the graduation of Hiroshi Itsuki, there are concerns about the “cut-off of the big enka actors in Kohaku”.

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Singer Hiroshi Itsuki talks about his joy with tears in his eyes after being awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in 2018. He may be crying inside now (Photo: Kyodo News)

“The 72nd NHK Kouhaku Uta Gassen was announced by NHK on the 19th.

The number of Enka and Utah song artists, which numbered 12 in 2018, continued to decrease to 11 in 2019, 9 last year, and now 8 this year. Just as a prelude, Hiroshi Itsuki (73) declared at his 50th anniversary performance on October 17, “I will end Kohaku after last year’s 50th. This sent shockwaves through the music industry and subsequently led to all kinds of speculation.

In an interview published in a general newspaper in early October, Itsuki, who tied Saburo Kitajima’s (85) record for the most appearances in Kohaku last year with 50, said, “I’ll stick to the record” and “I don’t understand words like withdrawal or graduation. Nevertheless, there are many people in the music industry who believe that the reason why he announced the “end” of Kohaku at the 50th anniversary performance was because NHK suggested in advance that he would not participate in the event, and that Goki made the first move….

One of them, a senior executive of an entertainment agency that has several famous enka singers, said, “If Mr. Itsuki, the top enka singer, can’t participate, our singers will have no choice but to give up,” and speculated, “I think the people in charge of the program (Kohaku) have a policy that they don’t want enka singers who haven’t had any hits this year. I’m not sure. He seemed to think that Goki was used as an example to convince other singers by showing that even the greatest of the greats would not be allowed to participate if they had not released a big hit song in the past few years.

This year’s contestants were Junru, Kiyoshi Hikawa, Hiroshi Miyama and Keisuke Yamauchi in the white group, and Sayuri Ishikawa, Fuyumi Sakamoto, Yoshimi Tendo and Kaori Mizumori in the red group. However, before the announcement, there were whispers that Miyama, who promised to perform kendama, and Kaori Mizumori, who was known for her flamboyant costumes, might not make the cut.

In such a situation, there were many voices of sympathy for Itsuki. A record company executive said, “Ms. Kitajima graduated in 2013 when she was 77 years old, but Ms. Itsuki will be graduating at the age of five years younger. He is so energetic that he plays golf very well,” he wondered.

A source close to the Kohaku staff said, “Mr. Itsuki’s ‘omission’ may have been partly to show off to the other enka singers, but it may also have been out of consideration for Mr. Kitajima.

Every year, NHK conducts a large-scale survey on “singers they would like to see in Kohaku” in order to help them select singers for the event. In past surveys, Kitajima has always been ranked at the top, almost always surpassing Itsuki. Needless to say, Kitajima is a great contributor to NHK.

NHK’s “consideration” for Kitajima can be seen in the fact that five years after Kitajima’s graduation, he returned to Kohaku in 2018 as a special guest performer with the Kitajima Brothers, the duo of his disciples Takeshi Kitayama (47) and Yutaka Oe (31). Last year, Kitajima even made a remote appearance in Kohaku and sent a message to the audience. In other words, the public wants Kitajima so much. NHK may have wanted to give Kitajima the utmost consideration for his contribution.

Another person in the music industry testified, “It is said that Mr. Itsuki was approached by NHK last year to graduate, but he refused. If this is true, it means that she was persuaded over the year to accept NHK’s wishes. As a result, the last Kohaku stage ended up in a halfway position, as the first half of the show. This is in stark contrast to Kitajima, who was given the last spot on the last stage and still managed to achieve a high viewer rating.

When I checked with NHK, they replied through their public relations department that they have no such policy on reducing the number of enka singers, and that they had not approached Itsuki to participate in the competition in order to respect Kitajima as much as possible.

The two have a deep friendship, with Kitajima serving as the master of ceremonies at Itsuki’s 55th anniversary party in 2019, and Itsuki himself has expressed his respect for Kitajima on many occasions in public. However, it is not difficult to imagine that deep down, Itsuki has always felt that he wanted to surpass Kitajima’s record one day.

Kitajima’s record will never be surpassed by Itsuki, but in any case, Itsuki’s disappearance from Kohaku will mean the loss of an opportunity to bring enka to a wider audience. Even if you’re not an enka fan, it seems like a sad thing…

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