The Problematic Heritage of Kaguya-sama’s OP

 

Without question, my favorite anime song from this season is “Love Dramatic”, the opening to Kaguya-sama: Love Is War. It was a pleasant surprise to hear an old crooner kick off the show as opposed to the typical anime pop we’ve come to expect for a romantic comedy OP. It’s fun and a bit kitschy and it sets the perfect mood for the series. I’m really into it.

The primary vocalist is a veteran singer named Masayuki Suzuki, known as “Japan’s King of Love Songs.” Between that great title and his eccentric look, I became curious to learn more about this interesting character. I did what anyone else would do and went off an a seemingly innocent Google tangent. I kind of wish I didn’t.

Mr. Suzuki’s Wikipedia page will tell you that he became famous as the leader of 1980s doo-wop inspired group Rats & Star. That sounds pretty cool until you click on Rats & Star and see the following description:

“Rats & Star, formerly called Chanels, was a Japanese male blackface pop group that specialized in doo-wop influenced music.”

Uhh… what??? I would put “blackface” on a short list of topics I’d never expect to cover in my anime writing career, and yet here we are. It’s not a topic I’m comfortable discussing, and I will link some articles by authors who are more qualified to provide cultural context specific to Japan. That said, I haven’t seen anyone mention this connection and it bothers me as I see nothing but praise for Mr. Suzuki’s current hit song. So I want to use what small voice I have to bring attention to the situation.

Suzuki with Rats and Star

First, let me note that the group Rats & Star essentially disbanded in 1986, well over 30 years ago. Masayuki Suzuki has performed solo since then, without the use of blackface. A lot has changed in 30 years and if that was the end of the story, I might chalk it up to ignorance from a different era and leave it at that. Sadly, that’s not the case. In 2006 he appeared in blackface again as a member of the group Gosperats, and found himself in the middle of a blackface controversy as recently as 2015.

Anime fans may recall that incident in which popular idol group Momoiro Clover Z faced considerable backlash from photos of the group in blackface. This came about as they were paying homage to the much older group they were scheduled to perform with. You probably guessed it: that group was Rats & Star. Front and center in one of the photos was Masayuki Suzuki, happily wearing the face paint and white gloves in 2015.

The performance was cancelled, presumably because of the negative response to the photos. In my research I have not found any apology or statement to confirm this, not from the TV station scheduled to air the performance or either of the groups. Both Momoiro Clover Z and Masayuki Suzuki continued on with their careers as if nothing had happened. And maybe that’s the problem.

Members of Rats and Star, including Suzuki, with Momoiro Clover Z

Before going any further, I want to address some of the common counterpoints that came up when this incident happened. I am aware that the understanding and perception of blackface in other countries may vary a bit from here in the USA. We are particularly sensitive to it because it ties directly to minstrel shows and other aspects of our deeply racist past. Some have also pointed out that the history of blackface in Japan is coming from a place of admiration. Any harm is unintentional, and stems from ignorance rather than bad intent.

I don’t buy that. The world has become a small enough place that ignorance can’t be an acceptable excuse. The backlash to the 2015 incident alone proves there is a high enough level of awareness on this topic. I’m not saying Momoiro Clover Z, Rats & Star, or Masayuki Suzuki intended to mock black people or meant any harm, I’m just saying they should have known better. Again, I will leave the nuances of this topic to better qualified writers, but it speaks to Japan’s ongoing problem with pretending to live in a racial bubble. That’s another topic for another time, so let’s wrap this up.

The big question at the end of all this is how should we feel when we hear that musically great Kaguya-sama OP? I haven’t seen any contrition or acknowledgement from Masayuki Suzuki on his use of blackface, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if he wore it again for a 2020 Rats & Star reunion or something. So personally, I have a hard time enjoying “Love Dramatic” knowing what I know now. At best I can acknowledge it’s a great song but I have to put this asterisk on it. I’m willing to draw the line on enjoying the show as a whole and will still support that, it’s just really disappointing I can’t include the OP as well.

Links:
“Blackface Continues in Japan. In 2015.” – Brian Ashcraft, Kotaku East

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