TOKYO — TOKYO -- Fifteen minutes before midnight yesterday, one of the titanic battles of 1991 came to an end on television as the Reds triumphed over the Whites. Most of Japan was said to be watching.
In a nation of many rituals, the New Year in Japan is in a class by itself. It is a time for praying at shrines, sending out greeting cards, putting up decorations of pine branches, bamboo and straw in front of houses and pounding gobs of rice into a gooey edible paste called mochi.
But few rituals are more practiced than the "Red and White Song Contest" on NHK, Japan's publicly owned television station. After 42 years on the air, this annual New Year's Eve marathon song festival has become the most watched television program in Japan.
The Red and White contest is to Japan what the Guy Lombardo orchestra and Times Square are to the United States, an indispensable part of the festivities and a link with the past. This year, the show went on for 4 1/2 hours with 56 performers before a squealing and sometimes weeping live audience.
The show is a wild pastiche of Japanese taste: glittering women
singing traditional love songs, kimono-clad singers and performers of traditional Japanese instruments, a group singing Okinawan folk music, teen-age idols, comedians and an orchestra playing a movement from a Mozart symphony.
The mop-haired teen-age idol known as Kan sang his hit song, "Love Will Win," dressed in spangly blue tights and a white wig like Mozart's -- Japan has loved saluting the 200th anniversary of his death this year -- improbably surrounded by cherubic children and several people dressed as cuddly animals.
Another singer, Sachiko Kobayashi, wore a gown of feathers and sequins that opened up to make her look like a giant bird. As she sang, she rose from the stage flapping her arms and finished the song as she flew away suspended by a wire. The costume cost $800,000, the audience was told.
The concept of the show is that every performer or group, including some of the most famous in Japan, is part of a team, Red for the women and White for the men. At the end, the studio audience joins with selected viewers and a panel of judges to decide which team wins.
Producers of the show acknowledge that the team concept is somewhat artificial but popular in a country that loves fierce competition.
"For this program, we feel we always need a clear format to make it into a big event," said Akira Yoshigi, the executive producer.
"It should be very simple and easy to understand. That's what makes people watch year after year."
At one time, the Red and White contest racked up an audience share of between 70 percent and 80 percent. Lately the share has been a little more than 50 percent, which means it is probably watched by at least 70 million people.
From time to time, critics say the show is an anachronism, and occasionally an NHK executive is quoted in the press as saying it may be time to retire it.
Each time, such comments bring a flood of protests from loyal viewers who would not think of doing anything else on New Year's Eve.
To lure younger viewers, the show last year brought in Cyndi Lauper and Paul Simon, but Mr. Yoshigi said they actually did not go over too well among the mainstay middle-age audiences of Japan.
This year, Andy Williams was on hand to sing "Moon River," for the White team, of course.
Not to be outdone, the winning Reds had Sarah Brightman singing "Music of the Night" from "The Phantom of the Opera," by her former husband, Andrew Lloyd Webber.