As Seen on TV: 5 Favorite Drama Tie-Up J-pop Songs of 2021 (So Far)
Discussing five tie-up singles and how they fit into some of my favorite TV series of 2021 so far
This feature is part of This Side of Japan issue #34. You can return to the main newsletter here.
Drama music isn’t a musical genre onto itself. Admittedly, though, many tie-up singles for TV drama shows follow a uniform enough sound and style to possibly organize them into a collective genre. Songs tend to prioritize the sentimental over the fashionable, incorporating arrangements and pop structure designed to trigger a certain feeling. For examples of this “drama music,” I often point to acts like Back Number, Superfly and Leo Ieiri who regularly put out music tailor-made to be synced with a climactic moment of a TV episode—if they haven’t already been commissioned to write a song for that exact purpose as they’ve previously done for several releases.
Writing drama music can seem creatively stifling, but it’s a game a major-label act has to play for the drama-music industry takes up such a large space in J-pop. It can launch artists as much as it can box them in; it can feel like a great feat when a theme-song regular manages to write music that steps away from the established style—take Milet and her latest single “Checkmate.” For all the fuss, the stakes are perhaps lower to contribute a song to a TV series than its possible reward. Get lucky, and you can align your song and name to a hit show dominating the conversation.
The opposite is true in that a network producer buys the star power of the artist to hopefully get more eyes on an upcoming TV series. I’m a prime example of this. I’ve started watching at least a dozen shows over the past five years from my favorite artists doing the tie-up songs: I would not have discovered the TV adaptation of Akiko Higashimura’s manga Tokyo Tarareba Girls (very fun series!) without Perfume releasing “Tokyo Girl” for the show. Even this year, I’ve become curious to check out Omameda Towako To Sannin No Moto-Otto because the STUTS and Takako Matsu song for the show is just amazing.
While a TV series and a tie-up single can be symbiotic in their respective commercial successes, a great pairing of show and song can also benefit each of their creative merits. Just like how a memorable needle drop can elevate a TV episode, a rich story can add depth and dimension to its associated track. The more a TV show gets you invested in its world, its elements begin to get reflected on the narratives and protagonists of the tie-up single. A sign of a great drama series to me is when your time with a show improves the listening experience of the attached song. Who knows how much I would’ve liked Miwa’s “Reboot” had I came across it as a standalone release, and now as a figurative exclamation point at the end of every episode of Nagi No Oitoma—an absolute personal favorite, its highs I’m still chasing in other shows.
The year has already given some great show/song pairs, and I’ve put together a short list counting down five of my favorites. I’ve enjoyed listening to each of these songs after I got done watching the respective tie-in shows just to revisit the feeling. This list doesn’t rank the songs or the shows on their own, or else the order would’ve been very different. I instead took into account how the combination of the two works to each of their benefit. Honestly, this is a roundabout way for me to highlight my favorite Japanese drama shows of the year in a newsletter about music. I hope you find something nice to watch as well as some nice music to listen to.
“Pale Blue” by Kenshi Yonezu [Sony]
“Pale Blue” is far from being Kenshi Yonezu’s first single for a TV series: “Lemon” was made for the mystery drama Unnatural, and last year’s “Kanden” played at the end of the cop show MIU404. But despite his biggest hits in the past five years being a media tie-in, Kenshi Yonezu still leaves an impression to me as an artist who’s an exception to traditional industry practices like handing in theme songs for a drama series. His aura elevates the most straight-laced songs, and it does no different in “Pale Blue.”
“Pale Blue” supports the more typical drama show covered in this list. The episodes of Rikokatsu unfolds pretty straightforward as far as rom-coms go with it following a familiar “fight and make up” arc. The conclusion of every episode get cued with Yonezu singing the opening line “zutto… koi wo shiteita” (I always loved you), and it gets you moving especially during the early episodes when there’s still hope for Saki (Keiko Kitagawa) and Koichi (Eita Nagayama) to reverse their decision to divorce. The end of the second episode finds the couple embracing in the rain, with Koichi saying “but I’m still your husband” to a crying Saki1, as Yonezu repeats in his wallowing voice the first elliptical phrase (“always”) for dramatic effect.
When it comes to the type of shows I like to watch, I mostly choose romantic comedies precisely for cute, sappy moments like this. TV is my small pick-me-up as I tune into a new episode after a long day, and love stories hit the spot for me more than mysteries or cop shows. That said, the list surprisingly includes only one more rom-com; the rest is hard to categorize into a simple genre.
“Till I Know What Love Is (I’m Never Gonna Die)” by Aimyon [Warner Music Japan]
If the goal of this list was to strictly rank my favorite drama shows this year so far, this Aimyon single for Konto Ga Hajimaru, or curiously ConPaji for short, would have been number one. ConPaji sits at the top spot for me partly because the story hits almost too close to home: three 28-year-old friends decide to disband their comedy group after spending a decade trying to hit it big but instead going basically nowhere in life. I’m the same age as the guys, and so I tend to layer their dilemma with my own almost-decade-long relationship with writing2. We’ve both invested so much time to our craft, but now faced with the last year of our twenties, it’s hard to justify putting in more just for the sake of fun, if not for ourselves then for others.
If anyone can turn this complex frustration into a tender guitar-pop song, it’s Aimyon. Don’t let the big, sweeping melodies in the chorus fool you: “Till I Know What Love Is (I’m Never Gonna Die)” finds her struggling with heavy thoughts, searching for meaning in meaninglessness. The singer-songwriter sums up life in the candidly bleak way that she often does: “This episode named Life of the day until you die / that keeps going no matter how much you run and run,” she describes this experience with her overwrought poetry sticking out of the margins. The more melodic parts cut deeper as she sighs lyrics like “I wish I had something that no one else has” with alarming ease.
Consistent with her overall outlook, what Aimyon offers as consolation in “Till I Know What Love Is” is sobering in its realistic view though no less comforting. It’s life’s very mess that makes living worthwhile, she reminds, and it’s the tears and anger that lead to the titular love she’s searching for. ConPaji reaches a similar conclusion after every other episode, with the trio realizing what really matters after going through a series of intense fights, rooted in genuine fears and worries. While Aimyon doesn’t mine much newness in “Till I Know What Love Is” when it comes to style and format relative to her own catalog, her signature voice and perspective as a songwriter makes a great fit for such a heavy yet intimately warm drama series.
“Fushigi” by Gen Hoshino [JVCKENWOOD]
My thoughts on “Fushigi”? One of the finest pop singles of the year. My opinion on Kikazaru Koi Ni Wa Riyuu Ga Atte, the show that the song is attached to? It’s a cute and overall pleasant romance drama, but it’s also against some tough competition. What the series has that stands out from the pack is its very current, hipster aesthetic built around the main character influencer Kurumi (Haruna Yamaguchi) and her love interest Shun (Ryusei Yokohama), a former chef-turned-food truck owner. The former is glued to her iPhone managing her Instagram, and her social media activity consistently shows up on our screen. Another nice touch is the phone calls between characters, presented through a vertical screen like a FaceTime call. People also drink craft beer from fancy glasses, and Ryusei Yokohama owns a goddamn food truck.
The core of Kikazaru Koi, meanwhile, runs on a traditional rom-com engine with love triangles and the classic “so what are we?” dilemma. The series is on episode six at the time of this writing, and though both characters have confessed they have some kind of feelings for each other, Kurumi can’t figure out exactly what the relationship means. Part of that comes from just how Shun is: he plays the go-with-the-flow, “we don’t need labels”-type of guy when she’s around, which makes him simultaneously frustrating and irresistible3. But he’s also struggling to figure out her feelings as he gets the hint that her former love still occupies her thoughts.
“If we can put words / to these days where we held love / it would be so relieving,” Gen Hoshino sighs in the chorus of “Fushigi,” and he puts firm words to the inexplicable emotions surrounding not just Kurumi and Shun but also any couple trying to feel each other out without verbalizing their mutual attraction outright. The production, too, foregrounds that ambiguous mood. A light touch of melancholy permeates the low-key synth-pop to a degree it feels cozy as it does bittersweet. While the undefined fixation that inspires “Fushigi” leaves behind a slight void that can’t be quite soothed, it also provides its own kind of comfort in the fact that ignorance can be bliss.
“Sora To Ao” by Leo Ieiri [Victor]
The tie-up song to a drama series often plays in the respective show in sync to the episode’s climactic moment to add an extra oomph to the final word in an argument, a hand finally held, and things of that nature. Leo Ieiri’s “Sora To Ao” appears in Uchi No Musume Wa Kareshi Ga Dekinai!! instead to provide denouement, as a sweet and joyful song to take home with you until next week. It’s a bit different for Ieiri, who has previously handed rather dramatic tunes to TV shows. And the different approach to the routine is one of many parts that has made UchiKare a delightful, refreshing series this year.
UchiKare isn’t exactly free of conflict. The show centers on mother Aoi (Miho Kanno) and daughter Sora (Minami Hamabe), and though I won’t spoil what happens, let’s just say the family relationship is in jeopardy by the latter half of the series. Romantic interests and love triangles pop up in both characters’ lives, but the joy of the show is less about following those emerging romances than how they affect the bond between Aoi and Sora. Kanno and Hamabe share such strong chemistry together in the show while playing colorful characters of their own, and the script further draws on their closeness with their dialogue written in a tone that resembles a mother-daughter inside joke—a type of quirky speak reserved between the two.
Once you realize he title of “Sora To Ao” plays on the main characters’ names, the feelgood love song changes into a warm ode to family. Details from the drama show colors the song differently right from the opening lyrics, where this joy from “seeing you smile” comes from a more motherly place. Ieiri’s mention of separation doesn’t read so much as lamenting a break-up than seeing her child outgrow her love—another subtle yet crucial conflict driving UchiKare. But “Sora To Ao” takes all of life’s obstacles in stride like the show it’s attached to, with faith that everything will eventually turn out alright.
“Tabiji” by Fujii Kaze [Universal Music Japan]
Considering its spring release, “Tabiji” on its own can sound like a graduation season cash grab. “Ah, in this long journey with a lot more ahead / we’ll love, we’ll forget,” Fujii Kaze sings in the sentimental chorus. “Even this day will suddenly become nostalgic / and we’ll probably laugh and love about everything.” When it plays at the end of every wholesome episode of Nijiiro Karte, though, the song puts to words the warm bliss in realizing you are never lost for love always surrounds you.
Nijiiro Karte centers on physician Masora (Mitsuki Takahata) settling into the small village of Nijinomura after her diagnosis of a disease forces her to be dismissed from her role at a big hospital in Tokyo. Her new work partners in the village clinic, surgeon Saku (Arata Iura) and nurse Taiyo (Takumi Kitamura), had similarly drifted there to start anew. But a typical hospital drama, Nijiiro Carte isn’t. The series focuses more on the three finding their place in the quirky, tight knit community of Nijinomura and ultimately becoming lifers in a place they moved to seemingly on a whim.
Nijiiro Karte begins with Masora facing a dead end, devastated that her hard work to fulfill her dream to become a doctor has gone down the drain. The show ends with her settling down in a new home, adopted by a community she can call family. The chorus of “Tabiji” echoes as a reminder of the peculiar, unexpected ways life can go, especially as it syncs with scenes of Masora reassured about where she belongs. Though it all can feel like a silly, cruel joke, Fujii Kaze ensures there will come a time when everything makes sense.
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The emotional climactic actions of Rikokatsu are delivered mostly by Koichi because, you see, it’s the least expected and even ironic: he’s a military meathead who gives his all to protect his wife but have zero sense in how to be a boyfriend. Nagayama is hilarious acting as Koichi at his most oblivious and clueless.
There is also Rihoko (Kasumi Arimura). About a year before the show takes place, she quit her job and subsequently became intensely depressed to the point she didn’t leave her house for weeks and her younger sister had to help her get back on her feet. When she finally got a part-time job at a family restaurant, she bumped into the three who regularly came by for dinner and work on their skits. She looked them up one day out of curiosity, became a fan, and grew obsessed to subconsciously fill a void in her life. I really can’t help but layer my obsession with idol groups and my recent stint with unemployment for her story line. Don’t worry, it did not get severe enough that I would neglect my hygiene, and thankfully I am now currently employed!
I mean, how would you feel if a standoffish Ryusei Yokohama, who previously has been constantly teasing you about your iPhone usage, suddenly obliges in your request to take a picture together but also steals your phone, put your arms around you, and snaps a two-shot with you himself? The punchline here, though, is that the picture actually also includes two of your roommates in the frame, but until the moment I check back on the photo and subsequently feel absolutely played, I would be living.