The name Hibari Misora（美空ひばり） had been mentioned within my home for years and years before I finally figured out who this person really was. Once I started getting interested in kayo kyoku in the early 1980s and the Kohaku Utagassen became a regular viewing event in Toronto, Misora's legend seeped into my head. My mother told me a few times that the Queen of Kayo Kyoku was held in such awe that on the Kohaku specials she appeared on, even the most popular and most seasoned singers were supposedly terrified of even approaching her backstage. And though Misora stood very tall on the stage and TV, she was all of 147 cm (less than 5 ft) tall. That is presence.
One of Misora's most famous songs came from 1952. "Ringo Oiwake" (Forked Road in the Apple Orchard) stands out for me for Masao Yoneyama's（米山正夫） melody and Misora's vocals. Yoneyama's music evokes the image of that wooden horse-drawn cart clunking down the dirt road amongst the apple trees, and then there is the way Misora draws out the phrasing of "Ringooooooooooo". I'm not sure if the singer and the people around her had intended it, but that elongated expression reminds me of the old-fashioned declarations from sweet potato wagons that I still heard even within the streets of my old bedroom town of Ichikawa. And then there was her voicing of one single vowel, "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh" which seems to musically paint the image of a single petal from an apple blossom just flying its random path through the air after being torn off by the wind.
But then there is the spoken part in the middle of the song in which Misora talks in the voice of that girl she was when she had first sung "Ringo Oiwake". She speaks about how she loves the blooming of the flowers before saying that the eventual shedding of their petals brings sad memories of her dead mother in Tokyo, perhaps due to the events of World War II. For people who were growing up or who were already grown up in the 1950s, that spoken part must have brought a lot of tears to the surface. In total, the lyrics, music and Misora's slow and controlled delivery work together to illustrate a canvas of simple beauty and peace in the countryside, perhaps in contrast to the organized chaos and pollution of the re-industrializing cities. They could also illustrate the impermanence of life and how that girl has to smile through the tears and just keep going on steadily if not all that quickly.
"Ringo Oiwake" was first released in May 1952 when Misora was just 15 years old. It broke a record for the most successful single in the postwar era at the time, selling 700,000 records. Ultimately, it sold 1.3 million records and is ranked No. 5 within the singer's most successful releases.
At the beginning of the article, I mentioned how much awe Misora attracted. Well, in that video just above, I noticed how the audience kept very silent although the familiar introduction to "Ringo Oiwake" came on as she came down the steps. Only when she finally reached the stage did the people start applauding. In 1979, Misora appeared on the Kohaku Utagassen for her 18th and final time as a special guest. She had been an annual presence on the NHK New Year's Eve special but in the early 1970s, the national network didn't invite her with the reason being her brother's gang-related dealings (although NHK never announced the connection publicly). She was very unhappy with the slight and refused to appear on the show for several years until that 1979 edition. It was the first and last time for her to perform "Ringo Oiwake" on the Kohaku. I could only imagine what the atmosphere was like in NHK Hall.