By SHINICHI KOIZUMI/ Senior Staff Writer
Roughly 1,000 people filled the cultural center in Iga, Mie Prefecture, to hear an artist who has struggled in relative obscurity in Japan but is perhaps the most famous Japanese voice overseas.
Moving vigorously about the brightly light stage on May 25, anime song vocalist Ichiro Mizuki, 66, belted out the lyric ‘Ma- Zin- Ger- Zeeeed !’ from the theme song to the popular super robot manga series “Mazinger Z.”
Having reached a frenzied peak, the crowd shook as one and let out a battle cry of “Zeeeed !” in response.
With his trademark red scarf fluttering around his neck, Mizuki performed for two-and-a-half hours. Crying out Mizuki’s nickname, “aniki” (elder brother), the audience, which included one family comprising three generations, cheered enthusiastically.
In Japan, the anime music genre is referred to as “anison” (short for anime song). Mizuki has been singing anime theme songs since the 1970s, before the word even existed. He has recorded 1,200 to date, and his Wikipedia page has been translated into nearly 90 languages.
In places like France, China, Singapore, and even in countries where “z” is not pronounced “zed,” legions of fans sing along with Mizuki and enthusiastically scream out “Zeeeed !”
“When Japanese discover that some aspect of their culture has been accepted overseas without them initially noticing, they tend to get all excited and make an uproar,” Misuki said. “However, I only want to convey the beauty of anime songs and that is why I continue to sing them.”
STRUGGLING IN OBSCURITY
Under the tagline “Prince of the Ballads,” Mizuki debuted as a silky-voiced pop singer in 1968. However, popularity remained elusive. At a record company convention, fans lined up in front of the booths eagerly seeking the autographs of singers. But the space in front of Mizuki’s booth was conspicuously empty.
Finally, someone approached Mizuki’s booth only to say: “You have no personality. You are a nonstarter because you have no individuality.”
During that age, singers like Shinichi Mori and Mina Aoe were taking Japan by storm with their distinct, sultry, sigh-infused styles.
Around this time, Mizuki married a female vocalist signed to the same record company. He supported his new family by playing to drunken patrons at clubs in Tokyo’s Ginza entertainment district. He thought about taking an acting role in a TV show but gave up because his short stature did not meet the “170 cm” height requirement.
However, the program director approached Mizuki and asked: “We have a song that will be played on television. Why don’t you try singing it?”
The song was the opening theme for the anime series “Genshi Shonen Ryu” (Ryu, The Cave Boy), created by Shotaro Ishimori, and the director had been drawn to Mizuki’s relaxed, translucent voice. Only his name, not his face, would appear on television. Additionally, because it was a “cartoon song,” Mizuki’s recording would be regulated to the back corner of record stores and would not be ranked in hit charts. Nevertheless, Mizuki agreed.
“Other professional signers were embarrassed and did not want to sing it. However, the song would provide children with dreams. Taking advantage of the fact that I supposedly had ‘no personality,’ I decided to become an anime song hero,” Mizuki said.
Thinking about children sitting in front of television sets, Mizuki started recording. Song for “Mazinger Z,” “Babel II,” “Chojin Barom 1” and “Samurai Giants” followed.
At one point, he toured the country as the “singing ‘elder brother’ and MC” for the “Kamen (masked) Rider Show,” playing on department store rooftops and sometimes singing while standing on a packing crate for mikan oranges.
During Mizuki’s days of anonymity, his record company senior, Hisahiko Iida, continued to praise the singer.
Iida, now 72, later became an Avex Entertainment adviser responsible for producing hits with such popular entertainers as Pink Lady, Kyoko Koizumi and SMAP.
“A professional singer should be ready to tackle any genre of song,” Iida said. “It is due to his steady, patient, grass-roots efforts that Mizuki came to be called the ‘emperor of anime songs.’”
In the summer of 1999, Mizuki decided to perform an unprecedented 24-hour live concert of 1,000 songs at an outdoor theater on the banks of Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi Prefecture. With almost no sleep or rest, he sang and played the guitar continuously, his legs and fingers cramping.
“I was in daze,” he said.
Around 3 a.m., when he was singing the “Kamen Rider” melody, a grasshopper suddenly leapt up onto his music stand. It was if Kamen Rider himself had appeared to give encouragement, given that the character’s costume is themed after a grasshopper.
“It was a miracle,” Mizuki said. “The grasshopper gave me energy, and I was able to sing until the end.”
HIT PERFORMANCES OVERSEAS
The fact is, Mizuki’s singing voice began to spread beyond Japan’s borders quite some time ago.
According to the Harumi Ishibashi, the 61-year-old author of “Densetsu No Showa Tokusatu Hiro” (Legendary SFX Heroes from the Showa Era), the “Kamen Rider” series became popular throughout Southeast Asia in the 1970s thanks to the explosive success of Bruce Lee movies.
“Probably because their actions resembled kung fu moves and the SFX heroes in Japanese anime always won out in the end after a struggle, many people could relate to the stories,” Ishibashi said.
Also during the 1970s, the anime series “Mazinger Z” was broadcast in Spain, and its popularity spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The theme song was not dubbed over, and Mizuki’s name and voice became known.
Mizuki performed his first overseas concert in Hong Kong in 2001. In addition to industry writers, reporters from lay publications also flocked to his news conference. Mizuki said he was keenly aware that “anime songs are packed with themes such as love and courage that anyone can relate to regardless of country or race.”
Singer Mitsuko Horie, 57, who has performed abroad countless times, said: “Compared to Japan, it is tougher to negotiate things like the positioning of sound equipment with local staff overseas, and you tend to worry more. Aniki (Mizuki), however, is able to win over anyone and bring about agreement.”
Mizuki has performed in nine cities and seven countries to date, including France and China. He has also conducted an exclusive interview with British Broadcasting Corp. Through the Japanese Embassy, there has been talk of an invitation to perform in Kuwait.
Giving a public expression of appreciation, television producer Terry Ito, 64, said, “For the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, I would like overseas athletes to be greeted with anime songs sung by Aniki.”
Profile of Ichiro Mizuki:
1948: Born in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo
1964: As a high school student, won an audition at the jazz café Le Seine in Shinjuku which was known as the “Gateway to Success” at the time
1968: Debuted on the Columbia Music Entertainment label with his first single “Kimi ni Sasageru Boku no Uta.” Wanting to have good fortune similar to that of singer Kazuo Funaki, his senior in the business, he changed some of the kanji characters in Funaki’s name and took the stage name Ichiro Mizuki. (Mizuki’s real name is Toshio Hayakawa)
1971: Debuted as an amine song singer with the theme song “Genshi Shonen Ryu”
1997: Started performing anime songs for adult audiences
1999: Completed a 24-hour, 1,000-song live concert
2001: Performed overseas for the first time in Hong Kong
2007: Was the opening performer at the Japan Expo in Paris
By SHINICHI KOIZUMI/ Senior Staff Writer
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