December 9: “Sukiyaki”, Kyu Sakamoto

Another song with a whistle break and the only Japanese-language song ever to top the Billboard pop chart, “Sukiyaki” always makes me happy. The title has nothing to do with the song; it’s just the name of a Japanese dish easily pronounceable in English. (It’s a delicious dish.) The title in Japanese is “Ue o muite aruko,” “I look up when I walk,” which is also the first line of the song. 1963, 50 years ago, it was number 13 for the year, down the list from songs like “Blue Velvet” and “Surfin’ USA” that we still listen to today.

This performance is from a Japanese in 1984, and I think you’ll agree, the background singers make it. There’s also a poignancy to the date — Kyu Sakamoto died in a plane crash the year after this performance, along with 519 other people in what is still the deadliest single-airplane crash ever.

Sakamoto-san has a smile planted on his face through this performance and through the original, gritty-industrial video for the song. Don’t think this means the lyrics are happy, though — the narrator is remembering being with the now-departed love through the seasons, walking around looking at the sky with tears in his eyes to avoid crying.