I've often read or heard that the genre of enka has been compared to blues music in America. Well, I think I've just come across the ultimate illustration of that comparison. After finishing another day of translation work, I decided to do a little bit of roaming for music and information online. Getting to J-Wiki, I checked out what some of the top songs for 1975 were, and at the very top of the list was this song titled "Showa Kare Susuki".
Reading the article for the song before hearing the song, I saw that it was an enka tune. The title was not familiar to me, but then again since I'm more of a casual rather than ardent fan of the genre, I wasn't particularly surprised. And though it is difficult to believe these days, enka tunes did break the yearly Top 10 on Oricon quite a bit more often in the older days. Still I was interested in what made "Showa Kare Susuki" tick so that it would end up as the No. 1 song of the year.
As I pointed out in the introduction, I think I came across a truly blues enka tune. "Showa Kare Susuki" means Dried Out Pampas Grass of the Showa Era, and the title refers to the protagonist couple. The Hiroshi Mutsu（むつひろし）-composed ballad begins with this notably fragile-sounding koto...perhaps even exhausted might not be too far-fetched an adjective. That was a big signal as to what Takao Yamada's（山田孝雄）lyrics plaintively sung by Sakura to Ichiro（さくらと一郎）would indicate.
Sakura and Ichiro forlornly croon about how their efforts against the cruel world have come to naught, so now they talk about ending it all with the saving grace being that at least they can end it all together. How cheerful! I gather that "Showa Kare Susuki" has never been on the playlist at a wedding reception. When it comes to the older kayo, I've often garnered the impression that there have been sad lyrics behind the cheerful facade of music. But even this song does away with the melodic mask, although there is a certain exquisite beauty to the languid music by Mutsu as if it were describing a warrior on his last legs of life still dying happily because he/she could do so in a lover's arms after crawling home.
"Showa Kare Susuki" was actually released in July 1974, but it didn't do much action in the short term. However, it was used as a featured song in the popular TBS comedy series "Jikan desu yo"（時間ですよ...It's Time）later that year, and that provided the engine to get it up the charts. It finally hit No. 1 on April 28 1975 and stayed up there until May 12. The ballad became a million-seller (1.5 million records according to J-Wiki) and finally ended up as No. 1 for the yearly charts of 1975.
Interestingly enough, the perennial Mood Kayo duo of Frank Nagai and Kazuko Matsuo（フランク永井・松尾和子）did a cover version of "Showa Kare Susuki" (but I don't know when) which sounds exactly how I would have assumed Nagai and Matsuo would do it. The Mood Kayo arrangement makes it awfully difficult to believe that the doomed man and woman are off to oblivion...more likely off to the next nomiya.
The original duo of Sakura to Ichiro is Ichiro Tokugawa（徳川一郎）and Sakura Kanno（河野 さくら）, a stage name for Kazuko Kanno（菅野和子）. The two were actually individual singers until they got together in 1974. In 1978, the duo was broken up when Sakura decided to go solo once more, but a second Sakura was recruited in the form of Sakura Yamaoka（山岡 さくら）later on and the pair is apparently still going.
As a postscript, Sakura to Ichiro presented a new song in 2006 titled "Heisei Kare Susuki" (平成枯れすすき...Dried Out Grass of the Heisei Era). Keep the sad times rollin'!