Japanese Pop Icon Seiko Matsuda’s Recipe For Success


It was a sweltering July afternoon in Singapore, with the mercury surging past 32°C. Sweat glistened on the brows and faces of Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo and his technical crew at a Chinatown tea merchant’s shop as they prepared to shoot a scene for his latest film Ramen Teh, a Singapore-Japanese-French co-production about food, family and forgiveness.

The heat and humidity bothered Seiko Matsuda not one bit. Although a recent back injury was giving her some grief, the Japanese pop icon – who plays a single mother and food blogger in the movie – looked cool as a cucumber, smiling and patiently waiting for the cameras to roll.

“I actually love the weather here in Singapore,” said the 55-year-old in English after her scene was shot. “I’m a singer and the humidity is very good for my voice.”

One of Japan’s biggest pop stars, she held the record for the most No. 1 singles (25) by a female singer in her country for 18 years from 1988 to 2006. She has sold more than 30 million records and was named in 2011 by Music Station, a Japanese music television programme, as the second all-time best-selling idol in Japan, behind pop group Smap.

Also a songwriter and actress, her popularity extended beyond Japan. At its height in the 1980s and early 1990s, she set fashion and make-up trends for young women all over Asia. Young men, including Ramen Teh co-star Mark Lee, idolised her. The Singaporean comedian, 49, went into a frenzy when he realised she was cast in the movie and told all and sundry on the film set: “I used to have her poster in my bedroom.”

Matsuda is still massively popular in Japan, where she regularly releases new albums and stages sold-out concerts. Last year, she released Seiko Jazz, which not only topped the jazz charts in Japan, but was also released in the United States by prestigious jazz label Verve Records.

Although inundated with acting offers, she is picky about the projects she takes on. But she leapt at the chance to be in Ramen Teh after Yutaka Tachibana, the film’s Japanese producer, passed her the script.

She plays Miki, a Japanese divorcee working as a food writer in Singapore. The character develops a strong bond with young ramen chef Masato (Takumi Saitoh) when he comes to the little red dot to track down his maternal uncle.

“It was a wonderful script about a young man’s journey and how he has to make sense of the past before he can move on with his future. It is about love, food, humanity and forgiveness – there are so many layers,” said Matsuda in her husky voice.

The complexity of the character is also a big draw, she added. “Life is not easy for her. She’s also a single mother trying to raise a young son, but she is still helping others. There’s a line she says in the movie, about how everyone is lonely, which I love.”

Asked if she was lonely despite her success, she smiled gently. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, we are all lonely trying to deal with life and people. There’s loneliness when I’m trying to do something, memorising a song or learning a dance. There may be people around me, but I’m alone, I have to do it on my own,” she said.

The Good And The Bad

Born Kamachi Noriko in a small town in Fukuoka, she has done it on her own since beating 4,500 contestants to win the Miss 17 Love Idol Contest in 1978 when she was 16.

“I liked singing, but I never expected to be a singer. I took part in the competition because the prize was a trip to Disneyland in Los Angeles. I loved Mickey Mouse and wanted to see him – that was the reason I took part,” said the younger of two children of a civil servant and a housewife.

It took two years before her father said she could go into show business, but by then, she had tried to find out all she could about the industry by talking to folks in talent agencies and recording companies.

“When you’re young, there is no fear. The 1980s were such fantastic times for the entertainment industry. I was very focused. I worked, sang and studied; I just wanted to do it well,” said Matsuda, who also writes her own songs and lyrics.

With fame came attention and hordes of paparazzi. “It was difficult, but it was my life and I had to learn to embrace it. The bad comes with the good, the positive with the negative,” says the singer, who went through two divorces and is now married to a university professor.

Her daughter Sayaka Kanda, from her first marriage to actor Masaki Kanda in 1985, is also an actress and singer.

Focus and discipline aside, she owes her success and enduring appeal to her ability to constantly re-invent herself. Two years ago, she caused a stir by fronting a campaign for the Japanese arm of lingerie-maker Triumph.

“It excites me when I do new things, it makes me feel alive,” said Matsuda, who also tried to break into the American market. Although not as successful, she did score a hit in 1990 with The Right Combination, a duet with Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids On The Block.

There were also cameos and guest appearances in movies and TV series such as Armageddon (1998) and Bones (in the 2010 episode, The Bones On The Blue Line). “It’s good to fail sometimes. You learn from it and, the next time, you try and do it better. But it’s fantastic to meet new people, work in new places and learn,” said the actress.

Matsuda – fondly known as The Eternal Icon in Japan – has no plans to slow down. “I don’t want to waste any time or any day because I don’t know how long I can sing or act. I want to do what I believe in and enjoy every moment.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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