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Suntory Hall, the song about friendship

Do you remember Lost in Translation? The poetic, funny and atmospheric movie in which Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson were trying to make sense of Japan and themselves? If you have been to Japan you would know how amazingly different Japan feels. The language, the people, the food... And that is now. Imagine what it used to be 50 years ago! And now imagine what it used to be 500 years ago when in 1543 when a storm blew a Portuguese ship off its course and the surviving sailors found themselves in south-west Japan. The Japanese did not like the Europeans much. They called them "the southern barbarians", but soon discovered that barbarians or not, the Portuguese had good things to offer namely guns and wine. Funnily these goods would continue to change and shape the course of the country in the centuries to come.

It is somewhat of a miracle that Japan never became a colony. It was the only Asian country to keep the West out. How? For many years, the Japanese only allowed one port opened for trade and that trade was exclusively with the Dutch and the Chinese who were allowed trading depots. The rigid hierarchical feudal society kept Japan traditional and detached from European influences for many centuries. The only thing they did not mind embracing was the wine which the Portuguese Jesuits were bringing to the local authorities as gifts in exchage for religious liberties.

However one sunny day in 1853, Commodore Perry from the United States Navy anchored his ship in Tokyo Bay and made it clear that he was making an offer that Japan could not refuse. In a real Godfather moment in history, the Japanese understood that they did not have the guns and the ships to match those of the West. They had to either change or comply. One of their most progressive lords Shimazu Nariakira, the first man to own a camera in Japan, said: "If we take the initiative, we can dominate. If we don't, we will be dominated". They certainly took the initiative and it is probably needless to ask you where does your camera come from.

Shimazu Nariakira

The earliest surviving photograph in Japan

Gradually Japan moved towards representative democracy and the power of the local lords diminished. The industrialisation made possible for new influential players to enter the stage. Players who would be striving for leadership and power. However, leaders in Japan were prohibited from speaking publicly. (As far as I am concerned, this Japanese tradition should be introduced and implemented in the West as soon as possible!)

Therefore in order to take their messages across, they had to hire singers who would be distributing books with songs with some messages and manifestos in between. The progressive Japanese businessmen would be introducing some European tunes in support to their businesses and their ideas of expansion. Interestingly, the song which made its way and became largely popular was the Scottish Auld Lang Syne. Auld Lang Syne is a song about the good old times. A song in which friends buy each other a drink and embrace their friendship, recalling the good old times. In essence it is a heartfelt reference to the past. Robert Burns managed to hit the nostalgia note even in very distant Japan which he never saw.

It is very possible that the beautiful Scottish song might have had a profound effect on the young Shinjiiro Torii who worked in a liquor store in Osaka. He resolved to become the first person to produce Japanese whisky based on the Scottish whisky he tasted in the store. He eventually established his own shop and Torii wine became very successful. This secured the funding and the building of the first Japanese distillery. Shinjiiro was striving for perfection and in order to achieve it he brought to Japan several experts from Scotland who helped the enterprise. The Suntory whiskey came alive.

The Second World War shot up the company into space as the very thirsty American and Japanese soldiers were demanding vast quantities of the golden spirit. The post war times required smart advertising in order to keep the money pouring in. Suntory chose to capture the imagination of the consumers by letting them imagine a life of travel and luxury. They started hiring high profiled movie stars to feature in their advertisements. One of the first ones was the Scottish James Bond Sean Connery:

Akira Kurosawa, the famous director of The Seven Samurai, had agreed to direct and feature in a few others. At the time Kurosawa is shooting his new film Kagemusha and is struggling greatly with financing. Francis Ford Coppola, his old American friend, who had just finished Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, finds out about it and, in one of those profound moments of artistic camaraderie, decides to help. He phones George Lucas and convinces him to become co-producers of Kurosawa's film. Both of them then approach 20th Century Fox for backing and… Success! So the newly emerged executive producer Francis Ford Coppola ends up featuring in the Suntory advert. For the Auld Lang Syne.

And that is why Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for Lost in Translation. Bill Murray's character is inspired by the story of her father's involvement with the famous whisky.

But enough about films. This is about concert halls after all.

Shinjiiro Torii was a profound man. His mission from the very early days of success of his company was to give back to his society and to educate as many people as possible.

In 1986 Suntory Hall opened in Tokyo in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the whisky production. Keeping the tradition of involving the best world experts to create perfection Suntory invites the most respected conductor of the time Herbert von Karajan to help with the design and the acoustic of the future hall. Although Maestro Karajan recommends the vineyard shape, in tune with the product of the company, but also the shape of the famous concert hall in Berlin, the Japanese architects think twice as they are aware that there are some compromises associated with that structure. At the end, Suntory hall incorporates the designs of the Berliner Philharmonie and Musikverein in Vienna therefore succeeding to have no acoustically inferior seats. It is considered the best sounding concert hall in the world. The architects behind it are Shoichi San, Yasui Architects and Minor Nagata who was responsible for the acoustics.

The name Suntory is a combination of the English word Sun which appeared as a red circle on the labels of the wine which Torii initially produced and made him famous and the Japanese word for three. Shinjiiro had three sons and that was his legacy to them. A legacy of a super successful business which in turn gave back to its society by giving it the most beautiful gift of music. The music which featurs in life, in films, in awards and in politics. The music that will know no boundaries and will not require guns to protect the Japanese identity.

So Ladies and Gents, those of you who are close by, for relaxing times, go to Suntory hall to experience some exceptional music.

Then we can all go to Hawaii!

1961 "Let's drink Torii and go to Hawaii" campaign advertisement


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