I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Masafumi Akikawa -- Sen no Kaze ni Natte (千の風になって)

Realizing that every year has its share of celebrities leaving this mortal coil, I've just been finding that 2016 has been especially poignant in that category. A few days ago, actor/comedian Gene Wilder passed away from complications from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 83. According to his bio on Wikipedia, he had already been diagnosed some 3 years prior but kept the news secret " as not to sadden his younger fans."

I tweeted that I knew his roles in the 1970s as Dr. Frankenstein in "Young Frankenstein" and The Waco Kid in "Blazing Saddles" plus his role as accountant George Caldwell in the comedy-thriller "Silver Streak" (which was partially filmed in Toronto). However, Wilder, to me, will always be the first Willy Wonka in "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory". There was a certain amount of zaniness in his roles but seeing the actor for the first time in that movie, my first and eternal impression of him was as the sly and deceptively wise maestro with that subtle sense of humour. In that purple outfit, he would have made a pretty good Doctor Who, and I will always remember him singing the true theme for the movie "Pure Imagination".

Wilder's decision not to inform the public about his diagnosis was the final trigger for me to put up a song that has gone in the Japanese music history books as one of the most interesting entries to become the No. 1 song of the year in Oricon. For the annual Top 10 charts in 2006 and 2008, the top spots were occupied by the fresh-faced boy bands, KAT-TUN and Arashi respectively with their high-energy hits. But in between those two years in 2007, there was an anomaly of sorts when this unlikely throat-lumping classical ballad based on a 1932 poem created by an American became the top tune for that year.

That would be "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" (Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep) performed by tenor Masafumi Akikawa(秋川雅史). I don't remember the circumstances which launched this song into history. What I do remember is how for several months "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" became this earworm with my impression being that folks stopped whatever they were doing to listen intently. Heck, even the comedians (and I) got into this thing to imitate Akikawa's dulcet tones and sing "Watashi no..." during the year of its fame.

Akikawa was born in 1967 in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku where he started to learn the piano and violin at the age of 4. Years later, he studied at the Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo following which he trained for 4 years in Parma, Italy. In 1998, he earned the top spot in a canzone competition and then won Best Vocal Performance at the Japan Classical Music Competition before officially debuting as a tenor singer in 2001.

His most famous song which was his debut single was released in May 2006. Supposedly it had a humble climb to the top but all that changed when Akikawa was invited to perform on the Kohaku Utagassen that year. As of December 27 2006, "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" was at the No. 31 position on the Oricon weeklies. But with Takuya Kimura(木村拓哉)of SMAP reciting the translated version of the original poem and then the tenor wowing the audience, it took almost another month but it finally hit No. 1. It then proceeded to become the best-selling single for the first half of 2007 before taking the full crown for the whole year, selling more than a million copies.

I think one key to its amazing success is because of that original poem. For some reason, the original lyricist was listed as "fushou"(不詳)or "unknown" on the TV screen although according to Wikipedia, the authorship was finally confirmed in 1998 by newspaper columnist Abigail Van Buren (aka Dear Abby) with the accolades being given to American housewife and florist Mary Elizabeth Frye who had written "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" in 1932. The Japanese lyrics and music were provided by songwriter and photographer Man Arai(新井満).

The poem's protagonist who has already gone to the spirit world encourages his still-mortal loved ones to not cry at his grave but accept that he has taken on new forms in the surrounding nature. Therefore, he isn't really dead at all. For many of the Japanese who just love a good cry when a character in a movie or TV drama dies beautifully, "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" was just the tonic. Akikawa's vocals, those words and the solemn but hopeful arrangement did the trick.

The popularity of "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" continued on into 2008 as it finished the year as the 65th-ranked single. And Akikawa appeared on the 2007 and 2008 Kohaku Utagassen to perform his magnum opus. Just recently, he showed up on an episode of NHK's "Uta Kon"(うたコン)to sing the song which I hadn't heard in some years actually. But even in the latter part of his initial fame about a decade ago, he had started to perform that bit where he would hold one of his last notes for several seconds, and he did that again on the "Uta Kon" show.  Good ol' showmanship.

Anyways, I hope Wilder is now enjoying the company of his wife again, the late comedienne Gilda Radner.

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