Akina Nakamori: The Vamp of Classic J-pop
Akina Nakamori is one of the most famous and recognizable women from the Golden Era of J-pop in the 1980s. Often pitted against "rival" Seiko Matsuda, Akina carved a niche for herself in the sea of "girls next door" by presenting an image of a mature, life-worn woman who wasn't afraid to sing candidly of adult matters while her contemporaries often laced their lyrics in subtext and metaphor. Her trademarked deep and sultry voice propelled her to stardom in the early 80s, and today many of her then-hits are extensively covered and acknowledged as some of the true hits of J-pop.
Today I listen to many female artists from this era, but it was Akina who introduced me to the Golden Era and got me hooked. I've yet to find another idol that I love as much as I do her. Her very human story as a girl struggling for success and then finally finding it only to have it taken away again is one that many can relate to, but it's probably never been portrayed the way Akina has lived it. She's a living example of an artist who didn't need to be a singer-songwriter to still evoke the true emotions behind the music she was given.
"Shoujo A", "Kita Wing", "1/2 no Shinwa"
Star Tanjyou and Debut
Akina Nakamori was born on July 13th, 1965 in Kiyose City, a district of Tokyo, Japan. Not much is known about her early home life aside from she came from a very big family - Akina is the second youngest of six children, all of whose names start with "Aki", which can either mean "autumn", or in Akina's case, "bright". At age four Akina began taking ballerina lessons and at age six wrote an essay about wanting to become a singer. Growing up she idolized 70's J-pop idol Momoe Yamaguchi and decided, in middle school, to make a go at becoming a star.
She made her first attempt in 1979 at age 13 when she enrolled into the national television event "Star Tanjyou!" (Trans: Birth of a Star), a show akin to today's "American Idol". Akina sang Hiromi Iwasaki's "Natsu ni Dakarete" but failed to impress the judges due to them feeling the song was too mature for her age. She returned the next year at age 14 with Seiko Matsuda's song "Hadashi no Kisetsu" but still did not pass. However, on her third attempt in 1981, Akina swept the judges' votes by singing her idol Momoe Yamaguchi's song "Yumesaki Annainin". She accumulated a record 392 points and easily won herself a contract with Warner-Pioneer.
Like her mature idol Momoe, Akina (who was asked to use the stage name "Asuna" but rejected it) wanted to take an equally mature route with her music and the song "Shoujo A" (Trans: Girl A) was written for her. However, due to the risque nature of the lyrics at the time (it's about a young motorcycle-girl who flirts shamelessly) her record label decided to debut with something safer to soften Akina's image with the Japanese public. Thus she debuted with her first single "Slow Motion" in May, 1982. The song didn't fare well and barely made it onto the Oricon charts. Akina's management scrambled to decide what to do to keep Akina from falling off the map before she even showed up, and releasing "Shoujo A" was the only solution. After its release as her second single, "Shoujo A" was almost banned due to its content. But it resonated with the public and charted high with nearly 400,000 copies sold. Meanwhile, this created great interest in Akina and "Slow Motion" charted again. Shortly after her first album "Prologue" dropped to happy new fans. Due to her new success the "big time" show "The Best Ten" invited her to perform.
Afterwards, Akina released her third single, "Second Love", which went straight to number one and has sold over a million copies to date. It's Akina's most successful single of her career. Before the end of 1982 she released her second album "Variation" which sold over 700,000 copies. All of this occurred less than a year after Akina's debut.
"Kinku", "Second Love", "Southern Wind"
Everything Akina touched in 1983 turned to gold. Two of her singles released, "1/2 no Shinwa" (Trans: 1/2 Myth) and "Kinku" (Trans: Prohibition Ward), reached #1 on the charts and sold over 500,000 copies each. Likewise, all three albums, "Fantasy", "New Akina Etranger", and her first best album, "Best Akina Memoir" hit number #1 as well. Akina was then invited for the first time to perform on the "big time" end of the year show "Kouhaku Uta Gassen".
1984 was also a solid year for Akina, full of #1s and high sales, although the first single of the year, "Kita Wing" (Trans: North Wing), a song written in commemoration of the opening of Narita International Airport's second wing, stagnated at #2 on the charts for six weeks. But the following singles and albums ("ANNIVERSARY" and "POSSIBILITY") of the year all hit #1. Akina continued to make frequent television appearances to promote her music At the end of the year she released her ninth single "Kazari Jyanai no yo Namida wa" (Trans: Tears Are No Decorations), which became one of her signature songs due to how difficult it is to sing because of the speed of the composition. (It reportedly took "weeks" for Akina to nail down and feel confident enough to sing live.) Although she was already enjoying great success, nobody had any idea just how high her star would reach beginning in 1985.
"Kazari Jyanai no yo Namida wa", "Meu Amor e", "DESIRE ~Jyounetsu~", "TATTOO"
Pinnacle of Success
Akina's first single of 1985 was "Meu Amor é", although it was originally titled "Akai Tori Nigeta" (Trans: The Red Bird Flew Away) until the writers felt the lyrics didn't fit the samba sound of the song. "Meu Amor é" became one of Akina's most classic songs and even snagged her the 27th Grand Prix at the Japan Record Awards, arguably the most prestigious award in J-pop. Some argued that Akina was too young (20) to receive the award, but in the end she did and became the youngest recipient yet. Due to its great success "Akai Tori Nigeta" was released in its original incarnation in May of that year. Her two other singles and albums also reached #1 and enjoyed great success in 1985. "BITTER AND SWEET" contained a new version of "Kazari Jyanai no yo Namida wa" and "D404ME" had a new remix of "Meu Amor é".
This also marked the year Akina acted for the first time, starring in the drama movie "Ai Tabidachi" opposite male idol Masahiko Kondo. A mutual romance blossomed between them and soon they were an official public item. This budding and mature romance may have sparked the creative drive in Akina to pursue even more sophisticated songwriting and presentation. In 1986 she released the mature single "DESIRE ~Jyounetsu~" (Trans: Passion). The promotion came with bobbed hair, a stylized kimono, and a simplistic but recognizable dance. This single became Akina's signature song and won her a second Grand Prix award, making Akina the second person ever to win it twice.
To celebrate her fourth anniversary, Akina released "BEST" which held her singles since her debut. It rocketed to #1 and sold an easy 750,000 copies. Free to make her own artistic decisions, Akina self-produced the album "Fushigi" (Trans: Mysterious). "Fushigi" had a dark singing style that was mixed into the background music, making most of the lyrics intelligible. Many fans assumed this was a manufacturing error and Akina had to explain it was the artistic integrity of the album. Even with the strange and unheard of mixing in "Fushigi", it still hit #1.
Akina closed out 1986 and her most memorable year with "CRIMSON", an album composed completely by other women.
"Jyuukai (1984)","TANGO NOIR", "Nanpasen"
By 1987 single sales were beginning to drop, and 500,000 copies was no longer a sure thing even for the top stars. However, Akina's first release of 1987, the single "TANGO NOIR", sold over 300,000 copies and secured the #2 position for the whole year. Promotion for the single included flamboyant costuming and tango steps. In June she released "BLONDE", a Japanese cover of an American song of a different name. This was followed by the all English album "Cross My Palm" which included an English version of "BLONDE" called "The Look That Kills". This album was technically released in America and was intended to be Akina's big international debut; however, due to very low promotion and questionable English pronunciation, the album tanked in the States. Akina bounced back in her home of Japan with the autumn ballad "Nanpasen" (Trans: Shipwreck). The song is believed to be a reflection of Akina's unstable relationship with Masahiko.
1988 was the last year of Akina at her top form. Her two albums of the year were "STOCK" and "Femme Fatale", which did well both in sales and chart wise. All three of her singles, with the exception of the third, "I MISSED "THE SHOCK" hit #1 on the charts. Most of her songs during this time became more depressing (than was even usual for Akina) and rumors abounded about Akina's relationship with Masahiko. Rumors only got worse in 1989 when she released the accusatory single "LIAR" and the following ballad album "CRUISE". During this time Akina's weight greatly decreased and she stopped appearing wearing Masahiko's ring on her finger.
The most popular rumor during this time was that Masahiko was cheating on Akina with her main rival, Seiko Matsuda. The media descended upon Akina, questioning her about her weight and her relationship. Finally, Masahiko broke up with her (whether for Seiko it is not sure). In July, 1989, Akina broke into his apartment and attempted suicide. She was found and taken to a hospital for recovery - and while she took time off to mentally and physically recover, her popularity never quite has.
A New Journey as the Utahime
In Japan, especially during the 80s, a suicide attempt could have meant the end of Akina's career, as taking one's own life is seen as the ultimate selfish act, and selfishness is not tolerated in Japanese social culture. When Akina held a press conference later in 1989 to announce her short hiatus before returning to her career, she was met with criticism even from her old die-hard fans. While recovering, Akina decided to return with what she would later call her "only happy song". "Dear Friend" marked Akina's return in July, 1990 and surprisingly became her 20th #1 single, selling over 500,000 copies. At the time many of Akina's critics were quieted, and her next two singles over the next year met good success as well.
However, Akina figured that most of her distress now came from her little control with her career. Thus when her contract with Warner-Pioneer was up, she decided to walk away and instead sign with MCA Victor. But because of copyright issues with her former label she had to wait until 1993 to release anything else. She passed the time by hosting a radio show.
Her first release with MCA Victor was the single "Everlasting Love" but it did poorly, selling just a little over 100,00 copies and only reaching #10. Akina ditched the single and instead focused on her first full album in over four years, "UNBALANCE+BALANCE". It featured the song "Aibu" (Trans: Caress), written by emerging super-producer Tetsuya Komuro. The song proved to be a hit and helped the album reach #4, although it was a far cry from her former success.
Her next release in 1994 became her first cover album and started a tradition now dear and true to Akina's career: "Utahime" (Trans: Song Princess) consisted of Akina's favorite songs from 1970 and classically arranged by famous composer Akira Senju. The album was critically acclaimed and showed a true adult direction to Akina's career.
Finishing the 20th Century
The rest of the 90s was a combination of Akina's continuing sales decline but a further example of her control over her career and image. Most of her studio albums did well but never recaptured Akina's power-sales from before. "la alteración", "SHAKER" and "SPOON" each showed different sides of Akina's music - ballads, dance, and even "ethereal" songs provided by artists like ORIGA. Her mini-album "Vamp" established a new nickname for her for those trying to find a word to describe her image. In 1998 she released the single "Kisei ~Never Forget~" (Trans: Homecoming) and ended her contract with MCA Victor. She was subsequently picked up by the label GAUSS Entertainment.
In 1999, the ten year anniversary of Akina's suicide attempt, she released the album "will" and met dismal 5,000 copies sales. A drama she had been starring in, "Border", was cancelled when Akina sustained an injury to her leg. More rumors abounded that Akina didn't want to work and her label was spinning an injury to garner interest in her. Whatever happened, it didn't help her sales, and GAUSS dropped her quickly.
New Directions With Universal
Akina signed a new contract with Universal Music Japan in 2002. Much like she rang in her contract with MCA Victor a decade before, Akina released her second Utahime album called "ZERO album - Utahime 2" in 2002. The album marked a comeback for her as it sold over 200,000 copies. She followed it with the latin flavored album "Resonancia" in May. "Resonancia" failed to resonate with fans and the public and sold a dismal 30,000 copies. Before its release Universal attempted to change Akina's image by branding her the "Japanese Jennifer Lopez" but it obviously didn't pan out.
Frustrated, Akina said that if her next release didn't sell well, she would retire from the entertainment industry. The release was "UTAHIME DOUBLE DECADE", a self cover best album. It sold moderately well at over 80,000 copies and a top ten chart ranking. Furthermore, she was invited back to Kouhaku and performed "Kazari Jyanai no yo Namida wa". Her performance was a big hit and Akina decided to continue her career as usual.
To continue her new ventures, Akina wrote the lyrics (a rarity for her) for her next single "Days" and gave further creative contribution to her next album "I hope so". She closed 2003 out with the third installation to her Utahime series, "Utahime 3 ~Shuumaku" (Trans: The End) which was intended to be the last of the series.
For 2004 Universal gave Akina a big present - her own sub-label, called "Utahime Records". With this label Akina was granted the ultimate control over her image, music, and even the ability to produce other artists. The first thing she did was release a couple of singles before the album "DESTINATION" in 2006. "'DESTINATION" faced some of her worst sales yet but was widely critically acclaimed.
From thereon Akina fully embraced her traditional roots and did whatever she felt like. Her first step was releasing a Utahime best album called "Utahime Best ~25th Anniversary~" as celebration for 25 years in the industry. She released another best album called "BALLADE BEST" and then did something that nobody ever expected: she released an enka album.
For some time Akina's staff had been suggesting she do an enka cover album, but she rebuffed them saying the singing style was too difficult for her to accomplish. They persisted and eventually Akina relented. She appealed to her fans over her website to vote for their favorite enka songs for her to cover, and the result was "Enka", which consisted of three songs chosen by Akina and the rest by the poll on her website. The album sold well and was so positively received that she won a Japan Records Award for "Enka Artist of the Year". The committee commended Akina for making enka appeal to the younger generation, which is usually cast as an "old people's" genre of music.
Today and Beyond
Most of 2008 and 2009 consisted of various cover album releases under the title "Folk Song". Almost all of these fell off the charts with minimum sales. By August, 2009, Akina released her most recent original album "DIVA" full of electronic tracks, a first for her. The album fared better than her "Folk Song" albums, and a recut single of the title track followed in September.
Akina tackled 2010 with full force. She released the song "Crazy Love" to promote a new pachinko game called "Utahime Densetsu 2" (Trans: Legend of the Song Princess 2) that is based around her and her career. The song was released only on Japanese cell phones. There were reportedly big plans for the end of 2010, but suddenly her official website pulled down her concert announcements and Akina cancelled her annual end-of-the-year show and all other promotions as well due to an unnamed illness. Later it was reported that Akina was suffering from a severe case of shingles that had covered her entire body. She made one comment during her illness, stating that the house arrest it put her under had lead her to enjoying new hobbies such as gardening.
Akina has been quiet since the announcement of her illness. 2012 marks her 30th anniversary in the entertainment industry and fans are waiting for any sort of announcement. It remains to be seen what Akina will now do.
All images in this hub are copyright Warner-Pioneer, MCA Victor, Universal Records/their respective photographers. They are used here for promotional purposes only.