I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube, Oricon charts are courtesy of and my research is translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

X Japan -- Forever Love

I have to admit that for a guy who had been into Japanese pop music for nearly a decade (sober-suited enka performers and cheerfully fluffy aidoru), to first see X Japan (at that time, still known as X) perform on TV in the late 80s brought a couple of instant impressions:

1. Holy Crow! It's the Japanese KISS!

2. There goes the neighbourhood!

To see Toshi, Yoshiki, the late hide and the gang wailing away as the pioneers of visual kei on the stage brought a thrill to hundreds of thousands of kids and most likely terror to their parents. I never got into the genre myself, but X Japan was one of my signposts signalling that Japanese music was starting to diversify...or at least, diversify more openly.

Let's move ahead several more years. This time, I was now firmly entrenched in my life living in Ichikawa, Chiba and working there and in Tokyo. There was a new Prime Minister in the saddle by the name of Junichiro Koizumi(小泉純一郎)....a politician who had recently been called a henjin変人...weirdo)by fellow parliamentarian Makiko Tanaka (herself a daughter of a former PM, Kakuei Tanaka). People soon found out Koizumi was cut from a slightly more different cloth than the other old fogeys in Nagatacho. One of the things that stuck out for me about the lion-maned PM was his taste in music. He was not only a huge Elvis fan but he also had an affinity for the music of X Japan. Usually, my impression of politicians' favourite music had been more akin to the older vintage of enka or Mood Kayo, so it was with some surprise and delight for probably most people to find out that Koizumi was more than happy to declare his love for these musical legends on both sides of the Pacific.

"Forever Love" was X Japan's 14th single released back in July 1996, and is a ballad that Koizumi loved so much that it was even used for a while as a campaign song for his party, the Liberal Democratic Party. And I have to confess that it, along with their earlier "Endless Rain", is my favourite song by the band. Written and composed by Yoshiki, what got me about the song was its epic operatic nature and how Toshi seemed to be plaintively screaming into the dark for some sympathy, any sort of shoulder to cry upon...something that most of us can relate to. I've never been to an X Japan concert but I can imagine that this would be the showstopper every time. Get the hankies out!

The song reached No. 1 on Oricon and became the 47th-ranked song for the year with re-issues happening over the years since its initial release. It was also performed at the Kohaku Utagassen for 1997. "Forever Love" was also performed at hide's funeral in 1998. I remember the days surrounding the guitarist's death with a huge number of fans amassing by his home and then the funeral itself which brought out over 50,000 of them to the Buddhist temple of Tsukiji Hongan-ji in Tokyo.

Courtesy of
from Flickr

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mayumi Itsuwa -- Atsui Sayonara (熱いさよなら)

My other entry tonight was on the playful side of cafes. However, I came across an old chestnut that I hadn't heard in years by beautiful chanteuse Mayumi Itsuwa(五輪真弓)that also envisions a cafe. Titled "Atsui Sayonara" (Passionate Goodbye), Itsuwa wrote and composed this bittersweet ballad as her 28th single from June 1984, and it's about a woman keeping on a good face while inevitably giving her farewells to a once-thriving romance.

When it comes to Itsuwa, I can always imagine her penning her songs at a Parisian cafe along the Seine while sipping that cafe au lait. As soon as I heard the first notes of "Atsui Sayonara", the song immediately hit me as an Itsuwa creation...the piano weaving a wonderful and introspective melody from decades past. First hearing this on a highlight episode of "Sounds of Japan", I could almost feel the chill of l'automne that Itsuwa could have felt while writing.

Petits Rabbit's -- Daydream Cafe/Chimame-tai -- Poppin' Jump (ぽっぴんジャンプ)

According to the good folks at Wikipedia, an earworm is "...a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer playing...The word earworm is a calque from the German Ohrwurm...first used in the 1980s".

I myself also like to envision the earworm as the Ceti Eel used to torture and subdue Commander Chekov and poor Captain Terrell in the original version of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" all the way back in 1982. One wonders whether a German Trekkie was inspired by that movie to come up with the name for a song that just...blast it all...won't leave your mind.

For this year, I've got a couple of those aural larvae hanging out in my brain, and they just happen to come from the same anime. My anime buddy unleashed "Gochuumon wa Usagi desu ka?"(ご注文はうさぎですか?...Is The Order A Rabbit?)on me earlier this year, complete with the opening and ending themes. As for the anime itself, it was adapted from a manga, and it's basically a pleasant half hour of watching 5 cute girls going through life while working at 3 different cafes in a small European-type town. Mind you, among those kids are a girl with a sister complex, a future NRA member and a moe version of Mr. Spock (yes, another "Star Trek" reference). Bringing in the foodie analogy, when I view "Space Cruiser Yamato" as some serious kaiseki ryori and "Space Dandy" as delectable junk food, "Gochuumon wa Usagi desu ka?" is basically a nice cup of coffee with a small slice of strawberry shortcake. And I do appreciate my cup of joe and shortcake.

"Daydream Cafe" is the opening theme, and just like the show itself, it is an adorable and breezy ditty featuring all of the 5 main seiyuu put together as the group Petits Rabbit's (as a former English teacher, that apostrophe in there annoys me to no end). Written by Aki Hata(畑亜貴)and composed by Kaoru Okubo(大久保薫), it is as sugary as a Xmas candy cane but without the added calories and can almost get me to skip on the street whenever I hear it...over and over again. I was surprised to find out that Petits Rabbit's Ayane Sakura(佐倉綾音), Inori Minase(水瀬いのり), Risa Taneda(種田梨沙), Satomi Sato(佐藤聡美)and Maaya Uchida(内田真礼)even pull off a nice little song-and-dance in the official music video as per the link above.

Ceti Eel II is the ending theme, "Poppin' Jump" by Chimame Tai( チマメ隊). Inori Minase is joined by Sora Tokui and Rie Murakawa(徳井青空・村川梨衣)who voice two of the minor characters, and the name chimame is an acronym of the three characters of Chino, Maya and Megu who are classmates. If anything, "Poppin' Jump" is even cuter than the opening theme and if taken in large doses, could induce uncontrollable hopping just like the titular animal in the show's title. As it is, though, it has just gotten me to sway my head. Still, it is what it's doing inside my head that's been the problem. I can blame the creators of the song, Uran(うらん)and Yuuki Kimura(木村有希)for making me feel like a 5-year-old at Xmas time.

"Gochuumon wa Usagi desu ka?" will most likely not enter the annals of significant anime in the 2010s but neither will it send me to bed racking my brain about what the meaning of life is or trying to purge existential horrors. And you know what? The songs there are probably what I would like to hear in my brain when I enter and exit a particularly welcoming small cafe...not a Starbucks or even a Timmies.

Tiramisu and coffee at Cova
in Shinjuku Times Square

Hiroshi Itsuki -- Yozora (夜空)

Pretty much satisfied with what he had to offer in the early 2010's, I became more willing to delve deeper into Hiroshi Itsuki's (五木ひろし) large repertoire of hits after being enamored by the electric guitar playing Enka singer in a navy blue pinstriped suit with no tie and rolled up shirt sleeves from his 2012 single 'Yoake no blues' (夜明けのブルース).

'Yozora' (Night sky) was one of the first to come along after that. Thinking it was one of those slow and I dare say boring ballads or another 'When you wish upon a star' kinda thing (well, it is called night sky), I mostly gave this song a pass. But with Ikuzo Yoshi (吉幾三) having a go at Itsuki's 21st single on an episode of 'Nippon no uta' about half a year ago, I had decided to give in and see why it was one of the massively popular Enka singer's hits.

Anticipating the gentle notes of string instruments to come on first after that trademark tinkling (I don't know how else to describe it) that sounds like a shooting star through the dark sky, I was taken aback when the trumpets took over instead to start off the relatively fast paced song. And unfortunately it was also when I realised that Mr Sake's husky voice isn't fit to sing such songs.

With its lyrics and music done by Yoko Yamaguchi (山口洋子) and Masaaki Hirao (平尾昌晃), also known as the same duo who spawned Itsuki's breakthrough hit 'Yokohama tasogare' (よこはま・たそがれ) two years before, I suppose there's no wonder 'Yozora' made it all the way up to 4th place on the Oricon charts in 1973 and allowed Itsuki to bag the grand prize at the 15th Japan Record Awards. But he only sang it once more than two decades later during his 29th appearance on the Kohaku in 1999.

So far it seems like 'Yozora' has gotten faster and more intense over the years. Sounding more placid in its earlier state, the current amped up renditions of it has Itsuki swaying around more and throwing out punches into the air with more vigor, especially at the angst-filled 'Akirame ta' part.

Wow, just wow.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Minako Tanaka -- Weekend Pain

Minako Tanaka (田中美奈子) was an edgy and sexy girl during the late 80s and early 90s. Her debut album, “Kimi no Hitomi ni Utsukushiku” (君の瞳に優しく), which was released in January 1990, featured some of her most memorable singles, but also had interesting hidden gems inside, just like “Weekend Pain”, for example.

Although Minako Tanaka started her career in a more Eurobeat vein with songs like “Namida no Taiyou” (涙の太陽), “Be My Baby” and “Tell me”, the overall sound used in her album was an interesting fusion of the Stock Aitken Waterman’s Eurobeat sound with touches of Janet Jackson’s New Jack Swing. “Weekend Pain”, for example, follows this formula, and it works.

It may be strange to somes that I brought up New Jack Swing to the table, but although really melted down (well, the genre itself is a melted result of fusing Hip-hop, R&B and Pop), Minako Tanaka’s debut album features an evident New Jack Swing in songs like “Weekend Pain”, “Shinku no Kyouhansha” (真紅の共犯者), “Fujitsu Paranoia” (不実パラノイア) and “Amai Sensou” (甘い戦争), for example.

Back to the song, I like the beginning with the synth twinkles (they really sound like “the party is about to start” to me), the background percussion and the steady electronic bass. Also, although the verses are kind empty in the arrangement department during the first half of the song, some interesting crashing synths are introduced in the second half's verses. As for Minako, it’s not a mystery that I really like her vocals. They’re sexy and, most of the times, she sings in a correct manner.

After the album release, her subsequent single, the Komuro-penned (小室 哲哉) “Yume Mite TRY” (夢見てTRY), was a return to a more SAW Eurobeat sound, but she soon would commit herself with the edgy New Jack Swing sound once more in “Dancing in the shower”, the lead single for her sophomore album, “Gimmick”.

The “Kimi no Hitomi ni Utsukushiku” album reached #15 on the Oricon charts. Lyrics for “Weekend Pain” were written by Natsumi Tadano (只野菜摘), while music was composed by Paul Chiten and Sue Sheridan. As for the arrangement, Tatsuya Nishiwaki (西脇辰弥) was the responsible.

To finish, here's my "Kimi no Hitomi ni Utsukushiku" album.

You Kikkawa -- URAHARA Temptation (URAHARAテンプテーション)

I’m a longtime You Kikkawa (吉川友) fan. In late 2011, she released a great single called “Konna Watashi de Yokattara (こんな私でよかったら), and when she performed it on Music Japan in early 2012, I watched it live on my television. I just adored the song, and really hoped she kept releasing nice songs. Well, Kikka didn’t release another interesting song during 2012 and 2013, unfortunately. In 2014, though, she redeemed herself with the club banger “URAHARA Temptation”.

“URAHARA Temptation”, which was released in June 2014, was a departure from what she’s been doing since her debut in Hello! Project. Unlike her cheerful aidoru stuff, this new song was dance-oriented and even sexy in its nature. I confess that Kikka is not very good at portraying a sexy girl in the video, but she tries, and that’s adorable per se.

About the song, it’s not very different from nowadays America’s mainstream electronic pop music. I didn’t think I’d be so hooked on this song, mostly because I have some restrains when J-Pop acts tries to emulate what’s trendy in America, but I’m listening to it non-stop since it was released three months ago. Even Kikka’s rap is fun.

I really think this new direction Kikka is following will be good for her (I’m waiting for a new album next year). Now, in late October, she’s releasing another single which follows the same formula inaugurated with “URAHARA Temptation”: a double a-side single with the first song being edgy and the second one portraying Kikka’s cute persona. But this new single is a talk for another day.

“URAHARA Temptation” reached #17 on the Oricon charts. Lyrics were written by NOBE, while music and arrangement were done by michimoto.

Tetsu and Tomo -- Horoyoi blues (ほろ酔いブルース)

This week's episode of Kayo Concert was pretty interesting, with the theme revolving around trains and all. We had the sibling duo Karyudo (狩人) - that's such a cool name - singing their debut single 'Azusa ni go' (あずさ2号). It was the first time I heard most of the song, and now I know why it was such a big hit. And then there was this young Enka singer by the name of Hiroshi Miyama (三山ひろし) singing the late Enka veteran Michiya Mihashi's (三橋美智也) 'Aishu no resha' (哀愁列車). His delivery of the angst-filled song was alright save for the fact that he kept smiling throughout!

Moving on, the performance that piqued my interest was by this other duo present, Tetsu and Tomo (テツ . トモ). I pretty much knew they weren't an Enka duo when they began to sway and dance in such a lighthearted manner as they sang their latest single that mentioned something Shinbashi train station (released on 15th October 2014). After a little research a while later, I learnt that these fellows are in fact a comedy duo who began their careers in 1998, comprising of Tetsuya Nakamoto and Tomoyuki Ishizawa (中本哲也 . 石澤智幸). Well, that explains their names, overall goofiness and enthusiasm. Hmm, so I guess they're something like Tunnels?

'Horoyoi blues' had its lyrics done by Natsumi Watanabe (渡辺なつみ) and was composed by renowned composer Keisuke Hama (浜圭介). Listening to the music, I could just see the 2 of them doing that little jig of theirs in tuxedos and canes. Actually, it sounded more like an Enka/Mood Kayo song that someone like Hiroshi Itsuki (五木ひろし) would sing!

There's this other thing that I had just discovered this morning while listening to 'Horoyoi blues' again: This song seems to sound a little like the sped up and funkier version of 'Hoshi wa nandemo shite iru' (星は何でも知っている), sung by another famed composer, Masaaki Hirao (平尾昌晃) in his younger days. It's either that or I was still groggy from waking up early again for school, or as I had said in an earlier article, I do not very very discerning ears.

In Red most of the time: Tetsu
In Blue most of the time: Tomo