Thursday, April 8, 2010

That Famous Japanese Love Song, “Sliced, Broiled Beef”

In this post, I will discuss “Sukiyaki” — that is, capitalized and in quotes, rather than lower-case and punctuation-free. The distinction will soon be important. I hadn’t thought of the song in a long time, but I recently saw a blog post that extolled its virtues and was reminded that I always wanted to know how such a famous song came to share its name with a common Japanese dish.

First, the song itself. Even if you think you’ve never heard it, you have. It’s one of those songs — like “Green Onions” or “Walk, Don’t Run” — that comes from the 60s and has probably been heard by most people who own a radio and a TV set. Maybe it’s in a commercial, maybe it’s incidental background music in a movie, maybe it’s s piped into the doctor’s office, or maybe it’s being sampled or covered or otherwise somehow incorporated into another song, but “Sukiyaki” gets played often enough that it would be tough to have had some awareness of popular culture without having heard “Sukiyaki” in some form.

In 1961, it was sung in Japanese, by Kyu Sakamoto, though it achieved popularity there under its original title “Ue o muite arukō” — or in English, “I Shall Walk Looking Up.” The song tells the story of a heartbroken man who looks up as he walks so that his tears will not fall — a touching idea that’s kind of lost to people who don’t speak Japanese.

Here’s the original:

And here are the lyrics translated into English (at least according to this site):
I look up when I walk so the tears won't fall
Remembering those happy spring days
But tonight I'm all alone

I look up when I walk, counting the stars with tearful eyes
Remembering those happy summer days
But tonight I'm all alone

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies above the sky

I look up when I walk so the tears won't fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I'm all alone

Remembering those happy autumn days
But tonight I'm all alone

Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up when I walk so the tears won't fall
Though my heart is filled with sorrow
For tonight I'm all alone
In its Japanese form, the song was already a hit. But when British group Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen released a cover, it was retitled it “Sukiyaki.” As Wikipedia notes, the band members were concerned that English-speaking audiences would find the original title too difficult to remember and pronounce. The name of the Japanese beef dish, on the other hand, was “short, catchy, recognizably Japanese, and more familiar to most English speakers,” according to Wikipedia. Newsweek’s take: The title made about as much sense as “issuing ‘Moon River’ in Japan under the title ‘Beef Stew.’”

Kenny Ball’s jazzy, instrumental take on the song:

Shortly thereafter, Kyu Sakatmoto’s Japanese-language version was released both in the U.S. and Britain, but the song unfortunately retained the name “Sukiyaki.” It stuck from then on. In 1981, the pop group A Taste of Honey popularized English lyrics for the song, though they were a reinterpretation rather than a literal translation.

See, here, A Taste of Honey performing their version on Solid Gold:

Finally, Tejano singer Selena released yet another version of the song in Spanish — with lyrics translated directly from Taste of Honey’s.

So there you go: American, British, Japanese and Mexican singers all singing about sliced beef in soy sauce, whether they knew it or not. Though it might seem silly, I think the illogically chosen English title for the song adds to its charm, even thought it might have done just as well had it been named “Chicken Teriyaki” or “Instant Ramen.” In any language, the song is catchy as hell. Just try and get it out of your head. But most of all, it makes me happy when some element of Japanese culture can make an impact on the U.S. without featuring Godzilla, transforming battle robots or pantyclad schoolgirls wielding samurai swords.

Other non-Godzilla, non-robotic, non-schoolgirl bits of Japanese culture:

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