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.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

SMAP/Chikuzen Sato -- Lionheart (らいおんハート)

For lunch today, I got to meet a couple of my foodie buddies downtown for lunch. We wanted to try the latest example of Japanese cuisine to grace this side of Lake Ontario, gyudon(牛丼), through the restaurant GyuGyuYa. My anime buddy had been raving about this place for months and we finally got the chance to hit the place. And although it was considerably more expensive than the famous example at Yoshinoya back in Japan, I was quite happy with my beef bowl. The thin slices of fatty beef were of the right consistency, the sauce was flavourful without being overpowering, the onions were tender and the beni-shoga added that nice sharp accent.

It's always nice to get together with good friends over good food at this time of year. The weather gets colder (today's high was all of -4 degrees C) which further incentivizes the bunch of us to gather and enjoy lunch or dinner in a warm environment. People seem to get mellower as the winter approaches. And so I introduce my article for today, SMAP's 32nd single from August 2000, "Lionheart". Keeping with my food theme, this ballad was not only just as mellow as some non-shopping wintry Torontonians armed with a cafe latte, but it was also used as a theme for a Japanese comedy-drama with a food theme.

"Food Fight" was an NTV show from 2000 that featured SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi(草彅 剛)as Mitsuru Ihara (for those who know their Japanese, a rather cute little pun considering the point of the show), a legendary food fighter with a black hole for a stomach that enters eating competitions.

I heard "Lionheart" a fair bit over the months following its release, and it was pretty interesting to have it as the theme song for "Food Fight" since it sounds like the perfect song to listen to after a very absorbing dinner. You might say it's music to digest to. As for me, it would be the ideal theme to describe my 2nd paragraph.

Written by the screenwriter Shinji Nojima野島伸司...although he wasn't responsible for "Food Fight"), and composed by Minoru Komorita(コモリタミノル), the lyrics have nothing to do with food at all and everything to do with a man with that proverbial heart of a lion vowing to protect his lady love. Takuya Kimura(木村拓哉)had the lion's share of balladeering here, and apparently since he got married to former aidoru Shizuka Kudo(工藤静香)right after this song's release, people have gotten it into their heads that that this was KimuTaku's musical proposal to Shizuka-chan. It has become one of those wedding-friendly ballads in any event.

The above link will take you to the original music video for "Lionheart". Not surprisingly, it did hit No. 1 on Oricon and was SMAP's 2nd million-seller following its 1998 big hit "Yozora no Mukou"(夜空ノムコウ). Takuya and the boys also made it onto the Kohaku for the 10th time to perform the ballad that year and it became the 6th-ranked song for 2000.

A number of artists have covered the song but I personally like a version by Chikuzen Sato(佐藤竹善)from Sing Like Talking which is a bit more soulful. It was a track from his 2004 release, "Cornerstones 3".

And maybe that is what a bowl of gyudon is all about. It's a Japanese form of soul food.

Megumi Hayashibara -- November Rain

Today’s my dad’s birthday and that’s actually the only thing about November that I really care about (my dad doesn’t like Megumi’s songs, so that post is not really paying homage to him). Besides a couple of holidays here and there, nothing really exciting happens in this month. Also, as I always passes through November thinking about December, I consider it more like a transition month than anything.

Well, but if I had to choose a song that always comes to my mind when I think about November, that would be Megumi’s “November Rain”, a character song from the famous Ranma ½ ( らんま½) anime.

In Ranma ½, Megumi Hayashibara (林原めぐみ) got her first important role in an anime series, the part of female Ranma. Although I’m not going to describe the story here, it’s important to know that Ranma (早乙女乱馬) was a guy who, thanks to a Chinese curse, got transformed into a girl everytime cold water was thrown into him (hot water transformed him back into a guy). That said, “November Rain” starts with Akane (天道 あかね), the girl in love with Ranma, slapping him in the face just when the rain is about to start. Then, with the cold water (the rain), he turned into female Ranma, and that’s why Megumi actually sang the song.

Released in January 1991 as a single (literally a couple of months before her major label debut with the lovely “Nijiiro no Sneaker” [虹色のSneaker]), “November Rain” was Megumi’s third overall single. About the song itself, it’s quite nice to see how hard she tried to sing this sad love ballad with her yet untrained vocals. Although I agree that it isn’t a treat for everyone, I quite like the result, and the melancholic piano-driven arrangement helps as well. Unfortunately, though, “November Rain” was never included in any of Megumi’s albums. As a fan, I’d love to see a compilation with all of her rarities, but it will probably never happen.

“November Rain” reached #64 on the Oricon charts. Lyrics were written by Yoshiko Miura (三浦徳子) and Ranba-teki uta gekidan bungei-bu (乱馬的歌劇団文芸部), while music was composed by Tsugutoshi Gotou (後藤次利). As for the arrangement, Kenji Kawai (川井憲次) was the responsible.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Taeko Ohnuki -- Vegetable (ベジタブル)

I already have a BEST compilation of Taeko Ohnuki(大貫妙子)titled "History 1978-1984" that I purchased years ago and I think the album contains the most interesting songs that the singer-songwriter had created with the help of her good buddy, Ryuichi Sakamoto(坂本龍一). However, that particular BEST album didn't cover the Ohnuki/Sakamoto years in their entirety.

So, one of my purchases in Japan last month was a subsequent BEST compilation titled "Library" which covers her biggest hits ranging from 1973 to 2003...namely her fare from her Sugar Babe days to way beyond those prime years with The Professor.

Within Disc 1, I came across this track which had been released as Ohnuki's 13th single as a solo singer, "Vegetable" from February 1985. It was also a track on her 9th album, "copine" which came out later that year and once again included Sakamoto as arranger. Now in the liner notes in "Library", Ohnuki remarked that as a little girl, she used to listen to a lot of the ol' kayo kyoku and a good lot of the ones she liked happened to be covers of Italian canzone sung by folks such as The Peanuts and Mie Nakao. Well, she infused some of that flavour into "Vegetable". It isn't so much a whimsical ode to a salad, though, as it is to the joys of a spring day. 

Her old bandmate from Sugar Babe, Tatsuro Yamashita(山下達郎), did his own version of a canzone, "Wasurenaide"(忘れないで)for an anime, but it looks like Ohnuki beat him to the punch by several years. And her tribute to Italian music has that interesting technopoppy touch especially when the "pa-pa" synth comes in during the chorus.

According to the information at YouTube, this particular video came from a practice run of "Vegetable" before a concert. Unfortunately, the sound seems a bit wilted (ha ha).

In those same liner notes, Ohnuki mentioned that "Vegetable" also contained a hint from one of her favourite bands, Italy's Matia Bazar circa 1983. I couldn't find anything from that particular year by them but I came across their biggest hit, "Ti Sento" (I Hear You) from 1986. And I really like it! Moreover, I think it would have been a fine addition to Ohnuki's 1980 album, "Romantique" when she fully embraced the technopop sound and changed her musical direction. But by that song's actual release date, Ohnuki probably had already started moving onto yet another course.

Michiya Mihashi -- Hoshikuzu no machi (星屑の町)

To be honest, I find this song a little odd... but in a good way. With the soft trumpets and Broadway feel to 'Hoshikuzu no machi' (Town of stardust), Michiya Mihashi's (三橋美智也) Enka voice seems out of place as I would usually think that someone else with a lower vocal delivery would be singing this type of song. But it actually worked out quite well, especially since he's able to bring out that certain element of loneliness in it.

Another thing that I find rather amusing is that 'Hoshikuzu no machi' presents me with two images in my head that have quite the difference. One being having a lighter, happier mood to it, the other more forlorn... which is strange since that no song has ever done that until now.

First image is of ol'Michi lightheartedly prancing around in that tux of his and swinging from lamp post to lamp post as he belts out the song on an empty street at night... kinda like what Gene Kelly did in the 'Singin' in the rain', but you know, minus the rain. On the other hand, the other image I got was of him - still in the tuxedo - roaming the lamp-lit streets and staring at the pavement with hands in his pockets. An occasional glance up to the dark skies above to check out the stars with his head hung low most of the time as he reminisces a love one or something on that line. But either interpretation, I enjoy the song's atmosphere and it's goes great with the Christmas decor out in town at this time of the year, with the lights looking like star dust on the trees and buildings!

Anyway, written by Juzaburo Tojo and composed by Yoshiaki Abe (東条寿三郎 . 安部芳明), 'Hoshikuzu no machi' was released in May 1962 and it was pretty well recieved. Being 1 of Michi's 18 'million sellers', it reached number one on the music ranking show 'Zenkoku Kayo Best 10' (全国歌謡ベストテン) and allowed him to receive the 'Singing Award' at the 4th Japan Record Awards. Plus, he got to sing the song once on the Kohaku. All that in the same year. Wow.

Hachiro Kasuga/Sayuri Ishikawa -- Otomi san (お富さん)

A couple of months back I had done articles on songs by each of the 3 reputable Enka singers from the 50's, collectively known as the 'San'nin no kai' (三人の会)... predecessors of the Gosanke, if you will. Actually, I prefer these ancient oldies to the real Gosanke with the reason being that they all look really grand and impressive during their senior years (didn't last long though). Well, there is also the part that they're more Enka than Kayokyoku which I kinda like.

So, a quick recap of the fellows: The fearsome-looking Hideo Murata (村田英雄), the stoic Michiya Mihashi (三橋美智也), and finally the amiable Hachiro Kasuga (春日八郎) who also happens to be my favourite out of the trio with his strange nasally voice. I had began the last '50's Gosanke posts' with Murata's 'Osho' (王将), so now I shall start of part II of this little series with Kasuga's biggest hit and one of my most played Enka songs, 'Otomi san' (Miss Otomi).

Released in 1954 with its jaunty, upbeat tune by the late composer Masanobu Tokuchi (渡久地政信), you'd think 'Otomi san' would probably be a song where everything is peachy and the protagonist is skipping through the streets without a single care in the world. Well, in reality, it's not as pretty as it seems. Apparently 'Otomi san' is based on the Kabuki play by the name of  'Yowa nasake uki nano kogushi' (与話情浮名横櫛) wherein this fellow tries to get a rich merchant's concubine to fork over the cash... but unbeknownst to him the concubine was his ex. Ouch. Lyrics are by Tadashi Yamazaki (山崎正), and some of them are even from the play's script or something like that. The line below shows 2 examples of it... minus the 'ni' part, and it's also the song's first line.

Iki na kurobe mikoshi na matsu ni        粋な黒塀  見越の松に

I got this translation from this website or blog with some articles on Japanese music (culture) over the years... pretty informative too. You can check it out here.

Anyway, exactly how many copies of 'Otomi san' is not known but it's not a long shot to say that it crossed the million mark. There is even a disco version of it from 1977 by EBONEE WEBB that is aptly named 'Disco Otomi san'. That sold over 200 000 copies in just 2 weeks! Kasuga sang his hit twice on the Kohaku, during his first appearance in 1954 as well as his 21st and last appearance in 1989.

Just some extra trivia here... 'Otomi san' was actually meant to be sung by the then famed Kayokyoku singer Haruo Oka (岡晴夫), but due to his shift from King Record to Colombia Record, the producers were desperate to find a suitable replacement. Then came the fresh-faced Kasuga (30 at that time) who was probably enjoying his time in the limelight after his debut hit 'Akai lamp no shuresha' (赤いランプの終列車) and the rest was history.

There have been many later renditions of the song by other Enka singers, and my favourite cover has got to be by the demure Sayuri Ishikawa (石川さゆり) who tackles 'Otomi san' with great ease... haha, that sentence sounds funny! The more I read it the funnier it gets. But seriously, her smooth vocal delivery plus the music that's a tad slower in pace and slightly jazzy kick to it just makes for a good relaxing tune. Ishikawa's version was released in 2007 along with countless other covers of songs from the 50's and 60's in the album called '20 Seiki no meikyoku tachi' (二十世紀の名曲たち). It's got 10 parts with more than a hundred songs!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rajie -- Watashi wa Suteki (わたしはすてき)

As nikala wrote in her article about Rajie's 4th album, "Mahiru no Hodou"(真昼の舗道), there isn't a whole lot of information on this singer although my fellow collaborator put a goodly amount of it in the first paragraph. She also mentioned about her 3rd album "Quatre" (1979) which was an example of techno kayo.

Well, just by chance, I came across one of the tracks from that album, "Watashi wa Suteki" (I'm Wonderful) last night. It's a pretty quirky track created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Akiko Yano(坂本龍一・矢野顕子)that combines some light technopop with some Bee Gees, and the fact that Rajie is singing in an even higher register (along with the Sakamoto connection) had me thinking of Taeko Ohnuki(大貫妙子). Yano's lyrics have the protagonist swooning about how splendid the morning is and how wonderful it is to be her....sounds somewhat Kardashian. But I gather that at the time when this was released, the rising wealth of the country getting reflected in the big city was sparking some big-time urban narcissism via the restaurants and discos.

One more tidbit of trivia from Rajie's J-Wiki article....this time, on the derivation of her stage name. Apparently, the then-Atsuko Souma(相馬淳子)got it from a character from the 1966 film, "Maya".

Source: YouTube

Ken Takakura -- Abashiri Bangaichi (網走番外地)


On biweekly Monday nights, my anime buddy gives me a call and we spend about an hour catching up on stuff which naturally includes the latest anime episodes downloaded into his computer. That was also the case last night but as I was heading toward the telephone to answer the call, I caught sight of the NHK News on the telly. And it reported that veteran actor Ken Takakura(高倉健)passed away from lymphoma at the age of 83 on November 10th.

He lived a good long life but it's hard to imagine someone of the stature of Takakura leaving this mortal coil. NHK's "News Watch 9" delivered a lengthy tribute to him earlier this morning, and in one of the interview segments, the actor himself admitted that a lot of his roles were of the underworld gangster type. However, my image of the man was quite a bit more heroic than anti-heroic. With his craggy face and stoic bearing, he reminded me of Gary Cooper from the Golden Age of Hollywood....especially when it came to Coop's seminal oater, "High Noon". Takakura also seemed to have that attitude of "Look, I don't want to hurt you but if you push me, I will do what I have to do."

Speaking of oaters, one of the movies that was featured during the tribute to Takakura was his 1965 "Abashiri Bangaichi" (A Man From Abashiri Prison), the first in a series of films. It starred the actor as an ideal prisoner in a penitentiary up in Hokkaido just a few months away from getting out when he's forced into an escape by some of the other hardened residents. I mention "oaters" here since the theme song with the same title has an arrangement which reminds me of music that I would hear from a number of the old Hollywood westerns. Written by Takao Kanbe(タカオ・カンベ)and composed by Eiichi Yamada(山田栄一), Takakura himself sung this ballad about getting out of the titular prison as a humbled human being. From the feeling of the song, there doesn't seem to be anything celebratory; he just sounds grateful to get out while he's still alive.

Takakura released a number of songs over his career ranging from 1958 to 1996.

I got to see Takakura in a couple of his Hollywood outings, "Black Rain" and "Mr. Baseball", but there was also one other more notable flick that I was able to catch years and years ago, "Shiawase no Kiiroi Hankachi"(幸福の黄色いハンカチ...The Yellow Handkerchief)from 1977. Once again, Takakura played a taciturn fellow out of Abashiri Prison (this time, legally) who ended up going on a road trip of sorts with actors Tetsuya Takeda(武田鉄矢)and Kaori Momoi(桃井かおり). Director Yoji Yamada(山田洋次)from the "Tora-san" series helmed this award-winning film and he brought over a few other elements from that franchise...namely Chieko Baisho(倍賞千恵子)as the love interest and even a cameo by Kiyoshi (Torajiro) Atsumi(渥美清)himself. But to be honest, I really only remember Takakura from the movie, and that's saying something about his charisma, considering that neither Momoi nor Takeda were shrinking violets either.

Ken Takakura was born in Fukuoka as Goichi Oda(小田 剛一)in 1931 and made his debut in movies in 1956. He had been married to the late Chiemi Eri(江利チエミ)from 1959 to 1971.