Tokyo wants sideburns, and new Elvis needs job

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 06, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

JAPAN — TOKYO -- Being the king of The King's impersonators is no guarantee of a princely life in Japan.

In fact, the life is so lean it may drive Yasumasa Mori to get a job to help his wife support him.

At age 31, Mr. Mori won his title as the world-champion Elvis Presley impersonator fair and square last August -- in Memphis, Tenn., on the 15th anniversary of the king of rock 'n' roll's death. He was up against 200 U.S. and foreign Elvis look-alikes, sound-alikes and assorted other hopefuls. He is the first non-American to win.

He competed with no sideburns, no potbelly and no shades. But his gold-chain-laden white jumpsuit, karate-chopping moves and devotion to Elvis' music got the night's only two screaming, standing ovations from the more than 1,500 fans watching the competition -- and the nod from the judges of the sixth annual contest.

In Japan, the reaction has been more subdued. Asked if the victory in Memphis has helped him here, he replies matter-of-factly, "Nope, not at all."

Part of Mr. Mori's problem is that Elvis just isn't taken as seriously here as in Memphis. That makes him an exception to Japan's enduring mania for American nostalgia, which embraces dead white males as diverse as Glenn Miller, James Dean and John F. Kennedy.

"In spite of his accomplishments in setting a standard and framework for rock 'n' roll, Elvis is grossly underestimated in this country," Mr. Mori says.

"I had a contract for up to 10 performances a month, but these days it's down to two," he said. "When I first came back, there were a few newspaper and TV interviews and some talk-show appearances, but most of the Japanese comments have been that I don't look like Elvis and they can't see how I won. Japanese TV, especially, just wants a face like Elvis' -- they don't care how I perform."

He performs mainly at a chain of clubs called Lollipops, specializing in 1950s music. Like most Japanese nightspots, Lollipops is having trouble filling tables these days.

The country's economic difficulties have severely curtailed expense-account spending, and couples are going out less.

His Canadian-born wife, Cary, whom he met after a performance two years ago, provides most of their support with modeling assignments. Western-looking models are always in demand here.

"It may be time to look for some kind of job just to make a living," he says, "but it will have to be something that leaves me free to pursue entertaining. I have been completely devoted to Elvis and his music, from the bottom of my heart, since I was a teen-ager."

Mr. Mori was first moved by Elvis when he saw tapes of the singer on television when he was 13 years old.

"He was shockingly neat," Mr. Mori said, in English his wife has helped him polish. "No singer that I knew could match him for choreography as well as vocalism. I knew right away I had found the basis of my career as a musician."

The next high point in Mr. Mori's career will be in August in Memphis again. It will end his reign as world champion.

The contest's rules disqualify last year's champion from competing in this year's tournament but guarantee him three performances of more than an hour each during the next year's meet.

"That has been a dream for me for more than a decade, to have my own stage for my own concert of Elvis' music," he said.

"To sustain a concert for more than an hour, I'll have to be something more than an Elvis impersonator," he said. "I will use elements of traditional Japanese entertainment, such as No and Kabuki, to add flavor."

The karate chops that helped him win last August were not merely a Japanese touch, he said. "I took up karate when I learned that Elvis had studied karate and used it to develop his choreographic style."

He rolled up a sleeve to display bruises near his right elbow: "I just came from a karate lesson." His muscled frame is as hard as his idol's was soft in the final Elvis years.

In Memphis last year, he was one import from Japan that did not excite talk about trade tensions.

"The crowds screamed and encouraged me, and when I won they said I proved that Elvis represented not only America but the whole world," he says.

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