Tune sparks brisk sales for the food

Fad: Japanese are spending a lot of dough on the dumpling song.

April 06, 1999|By Sonni Efron | Sonni Efron,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- In this land of fashion and fast-moving trends, there's a wacky new hit in town: dumplings.

Yes, dumplings. A children's song featuring three animated dumplings has rocketed to the top of the pop charts, selling 3.3 million compact discs in just 12 days in March. It now looks likely that "The Three Dumpling Brothers" will become the best-selling single ever released in Japan, breaking the previous record of 4.5 million copies for a tune back in 1976.

The dumpling song, which is catchy and charming enough to have earned the affections of millions of adults as well, is now blaring from shops, elevators and street speakers all over the country. It is being sung not just in kindergartens but also in karaoke bars.

Newspapers have begun printing the times at which the dumplings will perform on TV. Those who haven't already had a mind-numbing dose can even tune in to a cable radio channel that plays nothing but the dumpling song -- 24 hours a day.

Sales of traditional Japanese dumplings have exploded. The sticky balls, which are made of kneaded rice and then slathered with soy sauce or sweet bean paste, had come to be seen as something of a fuddy-duddy food favored mainly by the elderly. But several store chains have seen a 20 percent surge in sales since the song appeared. At one famous downtown dumpling purveyor, the Takagiya, sales have increased a hundredfold in the past month, manager Masako Ishikawa said.

"My kids didn't like dumplings, but ever since the song came out they want to eat them," said Minako Tokoi, mother of an ardent 6-year-old fan.

"I really don't understand why it's become such a big boom," confessed Asato Izumi, a columnist and pop culture critic. He described the dumplings as "cute" and "goofy," and compared the fad to America's obsession with Cabbage Patch dolls.

"The Three Dumpling Brothers" was created for state-run NHK television's "Together With Mommy," Japan's answer to "Sesame Street."

With simple animation, it tells of the adventures of three dumpling siblings skewered together on a single stick.

In fact, Japanese dumplings are ordinarily sold four to a stick, but the number "three" sounds better to the ear than "four," which can also sound like "death" in Japanese. And because the word for dumpling, "dango," rhymes with "tango," the song is set to a thumping tango beat.

The dumpling brothers fight and make up, view cherry blossoms in spring and the moon in autumn, and turn dry and hard when they sleep in the cupboard overnight.

After the two-minute song segment was first shown in January, NHK began receiving up to 700 calls a day from viewers asking for replays, prompting the network to arrange for a CD release, said spokeswoman Akiko Toda.

When the CD was released by Pony Canyon Inc. on March 3, it instantly muscled its way to the top of the charts. Though the dumplings' creator, Masahiko Sato, was already famous for penning some of Japan's more memorable advertising jingles, the dumpling hit is as unusual here as it would be in the United States if an American songwriter for Barney were to knock Madonna off the U.S. pop charts.

The dumpling merchandising frenzy has only just begun. More than 250 companies have applied for the right to slap the dumpling brothers' picture on everything from T-shirts to cigarette lighters and cellular phone covers, an NHK spokesman said. Bandai -- the company that launched the Tamagotchi virtual pet, another incandescent Japanese fad -- has won the licensing rights for 30 products, the first of which will hit the stores by mid-May.

But Izumi, who says Japanese fads are becoming more powerful but more fleeting than ever, predicts that the public's appetite for dumplings will prove as perishable as the snacks themselves. After all, the Tamagotchi, whose electronic chirping filled the Tokyo subways in 1997, are already extinct.

As for the dumpling song, "I'm already sick of it," he said.

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