The Infinite Jukebox: Kyu Sakamoto’s ‘Sukiyaki’

I think I’m safe in saying that Sukiyaki is the only Japanese-language song to ever hit the UK Top 10, as sung in a clear, indeed pellucid voice by Kyu Sakamoto. It was his first home hit as a solo artist and an international hit, including an American no. 1 and a UK no. 6.
The song’s actual title is ‘Ue o Muite Aruko’, which a sharp ear, forewarned, can make out is the opening line of the song. In English-speaking markets it was retitled ‘Sukiyaki’, which is a Japanese cooked beef dish and has remarkably little to do directly with love. The alternate title was out of concern that an English speaking audience would be unable to pronounce, or even remember the original title, which is unmistakably racist but, sadly, probably correct.
The title actually stands for ‘I look up when I walk’. It was apparently written to reflect emotions felt by a young man returning from a protest against the ongoing American military occupation of Japan, but was purposed symbolically as the thoughts and feelings that accompanied the end of a love affair.
I look up when I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I am all alone
That’s not exactly the impression I get from Sakamoto’s singing, in fact the very opposite. He sings with great feeling, and the westernised melody is brilliantly smooth and sweeping, but if I had to pick a word for the emotion I hear in those strange syllables, it would be exultant. Sakamoto sings like a man with his heart full, and full of the glory of love, of fulfilment rather than denial.
Does this matter? A song in an unfamiliar language is a collection of sounds, exactly as an instrumental is (though this version is vastly superior to the instrumental version first released and a hit in Britain, by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen). Sakamoto’s voice is no different from an instrument, a trumpet or a piano. I can enjoy ‘Sukiyaki’ for its sound.
But that begs the question of whether a song can be a successful interpretation if it conveys to a foreign-language listener the exact opposite emotion intended by the song. That’s analogous to Chris Andrews’ very successful recording of ‘Yesterday Man’ in which he makes being dumped by the girl he loves sound like the most glorious experience of his life. Am I listening to Kyu Sakamoto’s voice with topsy-turvy ears or is he doing the same thing?
Being a bit more forensic, Sakamoto’s performance on the middle eight of the song, where the lyrics translate as Remembering those autumn days/But I am all alone tonight/Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars/Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon betrays more of a downbeat tone, a yearning for something out of reach that is more appropriate, but it’s only a few seconds before he is once more singing the chorus with smooth enthusiasm.
Does this really matter? After all I like the song as a sound. The recording is smooth and flowing, and the song has a sense of yearning intrinsic to it irrespective of whether it is telling a happy tale or a sad one.
But I keep coming back to the basic question of, is it me, or is it Kyu Sakamoto? Am I misreading the emotional component of his singing so dramatically, or is he investing a song in his own language with a wholly inappropriate energy? Without learning how to speak – and understand – Japanese, I doubt I’ll ever know. As it is, I can’t even analyse the syllables to enable me to raise my voice along with Sakamoto.
The singer had a very minor American hit with the follow up to ‘Sukiyaki’, but no other international success. He died in 1985, aged 43, a victim of the deadliest single-aircraft accident to date. Other musicians and singers have died in plane crashes but this stands out as being a mass commercial flight. I don’t know why but I find his fate profoundly sad.

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