Just before I logged in today, I got some rather shocking news from my mother. Apparently, our shopping mall (one of the oldest in Canada) plays kayo kyoku!...and yes, I am still living in Toronto. She rather nonchalantly remarked that she has heard Yuzo Kayama's（加山雄三）"Kimi to Itsumademo"（君といつまでも）and Kyu Sakamoto's（坂本九）classic "Sukiyaki" song over the speakers from time to time, albeit as cover versions. But still, this is quite a revelation. If the manager ever decides to play anything by Yellow Magic Orchestra, I will be so there!
Last night, after getting back from my friend's house with her great Jamaican buffet, I sat down and caught a little bit of that NHK morning serial drama that's currently playing on TV Japan, "Hiyokko"（ひよっこ）starring Kasumi Arimura（有村架純）. The episode took place at the end of the year 1965, so that meant the Kohaku Utagassen would be on the telly which in turn meant the main characters huddled around the kotatsu singing to the performers while noshing on mikan. There were a couple of excerpts of the 1965 Kohaku showing...with one featuring someone singing a song called "Gondola no Uta". I had never heard of this particular chestnut so I decided to investigate.
Happily again, "Gondola no Uta" has quite a bit of history behind it. Originally released in 1915, the song was written by Isamu Yoshii（吉井勇）and composed by Shinpei Nakayama（中山晋平）. Nakayama came up with the melody one day while coming home on a train as he was mourning the recent passing of his mother. According to the J-Wiki article for the song, he mentioned that "the melody came up naturally as I was swaying along with the train". The source for the information from the last two sentences is from pages 140 and 141 from a novel by Noboru Wada（和田登）, "Inochi Mijikashi Koi se yo Shojo-tachi: Shosetsu Nakayama Shinpei"（いのち短し恋せよ少女-小説中山晋平....Life Is Brief, Fall In Love, Maidens - A Shinpei Nakayama Novel）that was published in October 2005.
The first artist to sing "Gondola no Uta" (The Gondola Song) was Sumako Matsui（松井須磨子）, an actress who had an even bigger hit a couple of years earlier in 1913 with "Katyusha no Uta"（カチューシャの唄...The Katyusha Song）, also composed by Nakayama (that particular song has been seen as being the first ryūkōka). The video above has Matsui's rendition of "Gondola no Uta", and it begins with a minute-long monologue by Matsui although due to the age of the recording and her high-pitched voice, I cannot decipher what she's saying. The song begins a little after 1:20.
Found out through J-Wiki as well that the 1965 Kohaku Utagassen featured actor/singer Hisaya Morishige（森繁久彌）performing "Gondola no Uta". Looking at Yoshii's lyrics, there is a lament in there but also encouragement for folks to grab happiness as much and as soon as they can since life will catch up to them before they know it.
Chieko Baisho（倍賞千恵子）has given her own straight-ahead cheerful cover of the song.
I have to say that Yoshio Tabata's（田端義夫）rendition, though, is one of the most heartfelt.
Even Okinawan song-and-dance duo HALCALI provided a cover of "Gondola no Uta" in 2012, almost a century after its original release.
But the one rendition of the song that will probably have viewers and listeners sniffling away like crazy is through a scene that has become one of the most iconic within Akira Kurosawa's（黒澤明）oeuvre of films (and perhaps film in general). "Gondola no Uta" was performed by actor Takashi Shimura（志村喬）in the film "Ikiru"（生きる...To Live）as his terminally ill protagonist Kanji Watanabe slowly swings away in the playground on a winter night. Frankly, I'm still afraid to watch "Ikiru" since from what I've read of the plot, it just comes across as being very depressing even after Watanabe's ultimate passing. I guess I'm simply not ready yet.
There are plenty of other covers of "Gondola no Uta" on YouTube. You can just cut and paste the kanji for the title and take a look. I can't help but wonder though whether either songwriters Nakayama or Yoshii had somehow read the legend about the river Styx and the ferryman Charon before this song was created.