Anyone thinking Japanese visual kei to be a strictly ‘90/2000s phenomenon needs to take just one look at Kenji Sawada to be proven otherwise. Flamboyant and effeminate, Sawada was the first person to bring the long-running Japanese tradition of straight entertainers with a gay attitude to rock music. His formidable artistic talent and irresistible stage presence earned him the nickname of "the Japanese David Bowie" and a Rolling Stone cover shot, making him the only Japanese artist other than Yoko Ono to grace the magazine's front page. His music career spanned over four decades, and although he never became as big as he was during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he maintained a devoted fan base, and had a successful run as a film actor, to boot.
Born in Tsunoi, Tottori Prefecture in 1948, Sawada grew up in a relatives' house in a rural area around Kyoto. In 1965, he dropped out of high school to join the band that was eventually named the Tigers and, between 1967-1971, proceeded to headline the "group sound" explosion -- Japan's first serious rock movement. The band scored numerous million-sellers, and Sawada became a teen idol thanks to his stunning looks. The Tigers even tried to break through to the international scene, commissioning a couple of songs to the Bee Gees, but it didn't work out, despite Sawada's good English pronunciation. It still brought him that Rolling Stone shot in 1969. That year, he also debuted solo by releasing the album Julie, named after his own alias, which came from his favorite actress, Julie Andrews.
In 1971, the Tigers split after a Budokan show, and Sawada went to form PYG, arguably Japan's first supergroup, made up of members of the Spiders and the Tempters, and including Kenichi Hagiwara, Sawada's supposed "rival." The project was short-lived, and in 1972 Sawada started a proper solo career, although by that time he already had two full-lengths out. From this time on, he became increasingly style-conscious, wearing make-up and establishing a reputation as a fashion innovator. His total domestic output over the 40 years since his solo recording debut amounts to 46 studio albums; he also performed live a lot, even developing a number of "signature moves," including singing with a parachute on his back and spurting whiskey at the audience during certain songs. Sawada continued to challenge himself artistically, and most prominently by starting an acting career: over the course of the ‘70s, he had roles in several yakuza movies and TV series. In 1975, he released Kenji in England, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, scored a hit on the French charts with Mon Amour Je Viens Du Bout Du Monde, and recorded Toki No Sugiyuku Mama Ni, his biggest-selling single, boosted by the tie-in with the TV drama Akuma no Youna Aitsu, in which he was the lead. The same year, he married Emi Ito of pop duo the Peanuts. Sawada had to retire for a while in 1976, because he hit a person mocking him on a train, but he soon returned, entering what were arguably his golden years. Two more stabs at the Western market went nowhere, but in Japan, he was churning out million-sellers, scooping u[ record industry awards, and starring in high-profile movies such as Samurai Reincarnation (1981). He continued to live up to his extravagant reputation, appearing naked in a promo poster and sharing a kiss with a male actor in Makai Tensho (1981). Even the 1980 hospitalization caused by fatigue couldn't stop him.
In 1981, Sawada took part in a Tigers reunion, which lasted until 1983, returning to solo activities afterwards. In 1985, he switched from Polydor to Toshiba-EMI, which had little impact on his recording schedule, although it caused him to change his backing band. That year, he also released an autobiography and played in his best-known feature, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader's biopic of the famous and extravagant Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. However, in the late ‘80s, Sawada began to slow down, and Kenji-mania receded a bit. He divorced in 1987 and soon remarried, this time to the actress Yuko Tanaka, whom he met when working on one of his films. His working schedule also became more or less settled, with him concentrating on recording and performing (he only starred in three films in the ‘90s). Sawada gradually took more control over his own output, self-producing his records since 1995 and going indie in 2002, when he founded his own Julie label. He also resumed his acting career in the 2000s, starring, most notably, in the movie Happiness of the Katakuris by the cult director Takashi Miike in 2001. In 2007, he declined an invitation to the famous Kouhaku Uta Gassen New Year TV show (his 18th one) because his lyricist Yu Aku died that year, but he continued to perform in the following years, celebrating his 60th anniversary with shows at Tokyo and Osaka Domes which attracted over 50,000 fans. In 2010, Sawada teamed up with the Wild Ones, another famous band of the ‘60s "group sound" movement, for a joint project entitled simply Julie with the Wild Ones. It released an eponymous CD the same year. ~ Alexey Eremenko