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By Dan Grunebaum

Mari Natsuki

A veteran chanteuse reconnects with a new audience

“Doesn’t it look like I’m enjoying myself?”
courtesy of Readymade

“More than an impression of singing in a studio, I feel like I’m a heroine in a short movie Konishi is directing,” says storied actress/singer Mari Natsuki about her relationship with producer Yasuharu Konishi.
It’s an appropriate analogy. Rather than a contemporary pop idol, Natsuki recalls vintage black-and-white screen sirens like Marlene Dietrich, who she cites as an influence. And her recent comeback in middle age as a singer, propelled by Konishi of Pizzicato Five fame, is about as unlikely as any Hollywood story.

Natsuki (born Junko Nakajima) began her career in the early ’70s with the frothy 1973 hit “Silk Stockings.” A follow up, “Barefoot Goddess,” established her as one of the popular idoru of the era, with King Records issuing no less than four albums within two years. She also became known for covers of Western pop tunes like “Spinning Wheel” and “Love Me Tender” on 1974’s Mari Natsuki Sings Big Hits.

But after developing anemia from overwork, Natsuki mostly retired from singing to concentrate on acting. As an actress, she’s had a respectable career, appearing in a number of the folksy, blue-collar Tora-san movies, and more recently as a voice actor in anime blockbusters like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Natsuki hadn’t jettisoned her singing career entirely, though. She continued to release little-heard albums sporadically through the ’80s, gradually making a fan of Konishi. At the time, the producer was fashioning a new swinging, retro-lounge esthetic through his project Pizzicato Five, a band that would become a lynchpin of the Shibuya kei sound.
Nine years had already passed since Natsuki’s last album, 1986’s Woman’s Club, when she got together with Konishi for a series of EPs in the mid-’90s. The collaboration proved fruitful, recasting the singer as the voice of experience that she now was.

Natsuki credits Konishi with “teaching me how to sing again,” and the mutually inspiring relationship is evident on their new collaboration, Senso wa Owatta (The War Is Over), released on the producer’s Readymade label. Setting Natsuki’s smoky voice against the background of a simple, wartime-feel jazz combo, the pair weave slinky, noir tales of romance gone bad. The songs are filled with images of black socks, black cats and plenty of booze.

When Natsuki performed selections from the album at Liquid Room recently, she seemed like an icon from another era. Dressed all in black and topped off with a beret, the singer, looking as fit as a person half her age, had the crowd, most of which probably was half her age, in the palm of her hand.

Simultaneously tough cookie and vulnerable, wronged woman, Natsuki simply oozes experience. It’s a welcome antidote to all the disposable faux-naive Morning Musume-type fodder clogging Japan’s media, and places her in a small circle of mature female jazz singers like Chie Ayado.

Asked why she thinks she appeals to a younger crowd, Natsuki answers rhetorically: “Doesn’t it look like I’m enjoying myself?” For some singers, it’s that simple.

Senso wa Owatta is available on Readymade International.

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