In Kimono

Momoe stars in television drama "Kao De Waratte," 1973

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The Story of Momoe Yamaguchi

Last Song For You

Some stars rise to greater heights of fan adulation after leaving the stage for good; we miss them more than we thought we would. In addition to the dead legends- James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley- there are the singers who took early retirement, the groups that split up while still in their musical prime. If the Beatles had stayed together instead of disbanding in 1970, would the whole world have awaited their latest album with bated breath or with yawns that this collection of rock fossils was still making music together?

In Japan, the still-living star whose absence has been most lamented by her fans is Momoe Yamaguchi. Even though she hasn't sung in concert, cut a record, or made a movie since 1980, this former queen of Japanese pop music has been a mainstay of the weekly gossip magazines for the past decade and a half. In the early years after her retirement at the age of twenty, few details of her daily existence as wife of actor Tomokazu Miura were too mundane for the mags' Momoe watchers to miss. Her son's postpartum homecoming, nursery school graduation ceremony, and first day at elementary school rated cover headlines- simply because Mom happened to be in the picture.

In recent years, the media harassment has eased, but rumors that Momoe might appear in the 1994 Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red-and-White Song Contest) stirred up a fresh storm of tabloid speculation. There was no truth to the rumors; Momoe had no intention of breaking her silence, but they demonstrated the still-intense public interest in this woman, who has now been a suburban housewife twice as long as she was a teenage "idol" singer.

Momoe became a legend not so much for her talent, though she displayed a three-octave range, as for her public persona, the perfect arc of her career, and her manner of leaving it.

Momoe and her younger sister were raised in a tiny apartment by their chronically ill mother in the seaport of Yokosuka, the site of a big U.S. Navy base. Her family was so poor that Momoe had to deliver newspapers to pay for a study desk. Then, in the summer of 1972, CBS/ Sony record producer Masatoshi Sakai spotted her photo on the desk of the director of Star Tanjo! (Birth of a Star!), a talent-scout show on the NTV network. As Sakai later reminisced, the photo showed a 13-year-old girl wearing a white blouse and a miniskirt. Her legs, he thought, "were thick and misshapen," but there was also a "refreshing purity and firmly rooted boldness" that struck him as unusual- and potentially profitable. Against opposition at CBS/ Sony- many of his fellow talent spotters thought her "gloomy-looking" and "dull"- he persuaded the company to sign her and began grooming her for stardom.

In 1972 Momoe made her debut on Star Tanjo! which not only discovered beginners but launched a lucky few on their way to stardom with repeated TV appearances. NTV had developed Star Tanjo! as a counter to Watanabe Productions, a talent agency whose large stable of groomed-for-TV pop stars enabled it to dominate the airwaves. Watanabe wielded its formidable power like a bludgeon; in 1973 it started its own talent show on rival network NET and announced that its singers would no longer appear on a music show that NTV was broadcasting in the same time slot. When NTV complained, Watanabe bluntly told the net to change the show's scheduling.

From that moment on, it was an all-out war between Watanabe and NTV. Working together with a rising talent agency, Hori Production, NTV was determined to create its own stars. Momoe thus became more than just another kid singer, but a vital counter in a bitterly contested power struggle. She had to succeed.

Since its start in 1971 Star Tanjo! had already nurtured one star- the 13-year-old Masako Mori- and in 1972 was looking for others. The auditions, held on Sunday from ten in the morning until six in the evening, processed as many as 120 young hopefuls an hour- thirty seconds for each. Momoe passed, and together with Mori and fellow newcomer Junko Sakurada, soon became known as the Hana No Chusan Trio (The Three Flowers Trio).

Of the three flowers, however, Momoe seemed the least likely to bloom. She didn't have Mori's big, melodious voice or Sakurada's bouncy, vibrant personality. Her 1973 debut single, "Toshigoro" (Adolescence) sold seventy thousand copies- not bad for a beginner, but hardly indicative of a superstar future. Also, her fellow trio members were scoring much bigger numbers for their single releases.

But Momoe's second record, "Aoi Kajitsu" (Green Fruit), rocketed up the charts, as did her third, "Hito Natsu No Taiken" (One Summer's Experience), and her fourth, "Chippoke No Kansho" (A Little Sentimental). One reason was that for a 13-year-old kid, Momoe was singing some pretty hot lyrics. In "Aoi Kajitsu" she told an unnamed lover that "If you want me, I'll let you do anything to me" and in "Hito Natsu No Taiken" announced to that same certain someone that she would "give you a girl's most important thing."

Some called these lyrics exploitation, but they sold records for the young singer, who had showed up for her first recording session in her sailor-suit school uniform. In the latter half of her career Momoe rarely performed her earlier songs- she wrote in her bestselling 1980 autobiography, Aoi Toki (Green Time), that "in my heart I completely rejected them."

Though not conventionally cute or sexy, Momoe had a quietly sultry presence that seemed to belie her years. With her sloe eyes, dusky complexion, direct gaze, and low, husky voice, she came across as a touch exotic, although she never ventured farther from Japan than the Yokosuka bar district catering to U.S. sailors. Without really trying, she was soon melting hearts of teenage boys from Hokkaido to Kyushu.

But what really launched Momoe to stardom and signaled the second stage of her career were the songs written for her by husband-wife team of lyricist Yoko Agi and composer Ryudo Usaki. These so-called "punk" (tsuppari) songs, including "Yokosuka Story" and "Playback Part 2," proclaimed that Momoe was no longer a girl who could be used by men, but a woman ready to stand on her own two feet and take charge of her own life. Initially Momoe's agency and record company had opposed using this pair, saying that their music didn't fit her image, but she had insisted- and changed her image instead.

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