(Flipped) Issue #35: Arigato!
Discussing Ryoko Hirosue's debut album, Hinatazaka46's latest number one and revisiting Capsule's past releases (plus some guest selections!)
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old! This issue is a flipped edition, meaning we’re doing the opposite of the original format: we cover an older album and three older singles plus the newest entry in the Oricon. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
A new Capsule release is a good excuse to revisit old Capsule releases, especially with several folks mentioning how the single in question, “Hikari No Disco,” carries with it echoes from early records by the duo of producer Yasutaka Nakata and singer Toshiko Kojima. I can see where people are coming from, with the track shifting away from big-tent EDM, though it also seems like Nakata is trying his hand at future funk—a post-vaporwave dance subgenre that traces some influence from Nakata and his other J-pop successes like Perfume. Like his attempts at future bass, “Hikari No Disco” sounds like the producer referencing himself, not just his own work but also other’s interpretations of his famed sounds and techniques.
When I first got into Nakata’s music, I explored Capsule’s past records to search for those very echoes from his other projects. The first album from the duo I checked out was 2008’s More! More! More! mainly because it dropped the same year as Perfume’s debut album, GAME. I figured he’d pursue a similar series of interests and ideas as the latter record in the former, and I was correct for the most part. If anything, More! More! More! is louder and more self-indulgent: though “Jumper” predicts Perfume’s “Edge,” the trio’s electro-pop so rarely got that tough or aggressive in texture.
That strategy of picking Capsule records based on Perfume’s output from around the same respective year yielded better results the earlier I went back to the duo’s catalog. Going through parts of L.D.K. Lounge Designers Killer from 2005 felt as though I was excavating future hits to come: Kojima sings the same euphoric, Auto-Tune-laced melodies in “Glider” that would later be re-purposed for “Computer City” and “Baby Cruising Love”; the bleep-bloop of “Teleportation” hints at “Electro World.” And that re-discovery was very literal when it came to “Do Do Pi Do,” a track covered by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in 2014’s Pika Pika Fantajin.
A future candidate for a Kyary record arrive even earlier in 2004’s S.F. Sound Furniture. Nakata tweaks very little of “Super Scooter Happy” for Kyary to cover in 2013’s Nanda Collection, revealing an impressive, if not scary realization that he had the material ready for an era-defining J-pop project almost a full decade before launch. That reality hits more intense in “Uchuu Elevator” as the track opens as though someone knocked over a box full of toy instruments; clean it up a bit and it wouldn’t be so far from Kyary’s “Furisodation.” Nakata not only had the carnivalesque sounds at his disposal but also the ear to arrange them into the scatterbrained arrangement that would come to establish the cadence of 2010s J-pop for international audiences.
S.F. Sound Furniture is eye-opening as a prediction for J-pop’s future but also as proof that Nakata’s thematic interests have relatively remained the same. City life was already on Nakata’s mind in the 2004 album before he presented them for his other later pop projects. The more Shibuya-kei tracks on there channeled the strangeness and utterly foreign concept of modern living into colorful, peculiar music. Whereas Perfume often sung about the city through a more cynical lens—“looks just like day / the lights from the city / hides the stars in the night sky,” they once sang about the depressing amount of light pollution—Kyary blew up the cartoonish existence into even more obnoxious forms. Whatever shape it took, Nakata’s work have not only interrogated a part of a world rapidly evolving through technology but how our emotions responded to such unprecedented change.
Heads up! This Side of Japan will be taking a quick break after this issue. I’m going to use the next two weeks that would’ve been the production period for the next issue to instead rest, recharge, and then get back to work with a refreshed mind. So issue #36 won’t be going out on Wednesday, June 30 as it normally would, and will be instead sent on Wednesday, July 14. Idol Watch and Monthly Listening will still be on their regular publication schedule. Thank you for understanding.
But I am very excited for this issue not only because I get to talk in length about my favorite pop acts but also because I invited a few friends to pick and blurb about some songs for Singles Club! They picked great tracks that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and I’m very glad to maybe introduce you to artists I couldn’t have featured without their help.
Album of the Week
Arigato! by Ryoko Hirosue [Warner Music Japan, 1997]
Ryoko Hirosue’s breakthrough TV performance looked awfully simple. It began with no music — the idol had yet to cut a single record then — and only her modest humming. Then a 16-year-old actress cutting her teeth in the commercial circuit, she played a bored high-schooler lazing around in a suburban playground. “I got a pager for my birthday,” she shares, only half-amused. “Birthdays are great. Pagers are really great. OK, who should I give my number to?” An acoustic guitar starts to strum like a rim shot to a punchline. Hirosue then goes down the slide, starts to sprint off, and the narrator fills in the blanks: Docomo’s PokeBell, wonderful price.
Docomo’s PokeBell ad campaign was mundane in its setting and premise, though the mundane was the point. Hirosue represented the target demographic as the model of an everyday teen doing what teenagers do. Like she said, she gave her number out to boys, many of whom lived in different parts of her city: “it’s a special thing, you know — Kawasaki over there doesn’t know it,” she reminds as she hands a boy the password to reach her at her exclusive line. Hirosue on TV was the girl next door, a 16-year-old teen you’d see in passing in any corner of Japan’s suburbia.
Hirosue’s PokeBell commercials ended up becoming the nation’s number-one favorite that year, according to a reader poll by CM Now magazine in 1997. She also placed in number two and three in the same ranking with her face wash commercial for P&G and an ad for Meiji’s Galbo chocolates, respectively. The in-demand teen actress made minor roles in a few drama series around that time as well, a big one being Long Vacation. All media appearances drew on the same image of her in the breakthrough Docomo commercial, and that image predictably followed Hirosue as she dove into music. Her debut LP, Arigato!, stands as an extension of her larger media universe, though it’s equally essential to understanding the allure behind the young talent as the Docomo campaign that launched her into stardom.
Despite Hirosue’s association as an early Heisei icon, Arigato! succeeds a concept drawn during the Showa era’s original idol boom. Singles and LPs doubled as a point of access to an idol as much as her TV appearances. The materials recorded on wax fed into a grand, imagined narrative of the idol whether she presented herself as a larger-than-life star, a prim model of purity or any character in between. The songs served as set pieces for world-building as well as brand-building with hired songwriters providing glamorous banner anthems as well as moments of introspection for the central cover girl.
Arigato! cribs from this tradition, but it also gestures at nostalgia for the form. Main arranger Takeshi Fujii references an older era of pop to complement Hirosue, grabbing classic bubblegum rock, reflective acoustic pop, and bluesy R&B; the few synth numbers sorely stick out. Even when a post-hip-hop rhythm creeps into the track as it does in “Iidasenakutte,” it still leads into a quiet moment to look back as a low-key blues riff and a shy squeal of a G-funk synth further sets a reminiscing mood. New Jack Swing had then only barely began to fade out, though the stocky drums of “Daisuki!” feel like a part of a different decade of pop as it kicks against a bubbly horn section. If the sound of idol albums from the previous eras dated itself firmly to its respective years, Arigato! aims for timelessness by paying tribute to an already-bygone wave.
The air of pop’s past that surrounds Arigato! frames the songs in an interesting light. While Hirosue on record is informed by the girl-next-door image of her TV gigs, the nostalgic music places her as the resident of the listener’s own fond memories of adolescence. Hirosue is not eternally young like her idol predecessors than she is a flashback to one’s youth — less the girl listeners always dreamed about than the one who got away. Her fleeting presence makes a tragic fate feel that much more irreversible: her account of a friendship gone south in the “back to the summer” version of “Tomadoi” hits bittersweet as is, but the break-up also carries with it a true finality reserved for a time before information was a click away.
The opposite is true with the awareness of impermanence elevating the songs into something precious. The idol’s debut single, “Maji De Koi Suru 5byoumae,” remains an all-time classic precisely because it captures a feeling only ever experienced once in a lifetime. Mariya Takeuchi writes puppy love with charming specificity: “you tease me, saying I like such childish things / but our picture that we took in the photobooth is my one treasure,” Hirosue sings about finally going somewhere with her longtime crush. Though she mentions the ’90s craze of purikura, the rock ’n’ roll twang and the “Lust for Life”-esque drum beat stamp the record as a throwback. Hirosue stands in as if she’s the younger version of the narrator, who’s remembering her unforgettable first date.
Arigato! boasts an impressive roster of songwriters like the aforementioned Takeuchi as well as Mayo Okamoto, an artist coming from two Oricon top tens. Yet their works are beholden to Hirosue, not the other way around. Takeuchi can certainly bring her own personality and charisma, as she once did in a self-cover of her songs for the idol, though “Maji De…” is best complete with a young, naive girl like Hirosue as the main performer: it unfolds like a sequel to the life of her Docomo character, now settled on one cute boy. Written by Okamoto, “Daisuki!” sounds made exclusively for a teenage singer with a twee, if not cheesy hook only an idol can rightfully pull off: “I really, really, really, really, really, really love you / darling, I like you, darling,” she sings as if she’s skipping in immense joy, and the heart-fluttering cadence does not cease until the very end. The album’s best moments thrives because of an idol performing them, not in spite of it.
While Arigato! is often based on the narrow yet wide-eyed perspectives of one’s adolescence, “Koi No Prism” teases a glimpse of maturity with Hirosue peeking beyond the tunnel vision of youth. It’s a rare moment that finds the album celebrating possibilities than the present: “under such wide skies, my heart is shaking from what’s ahead in the future,” Hirosue sings in the huge, open chorus, embracing an optimism as well as a fearlessness afforded from a teenage naivete. The slow number imagines the idol as a ruminative, wizened singer-songwriter posted with an acoustic guitar, the warm string arrangements flattering the tender song. She sounds grown, though not yet all grown up.
Bittersweetness lingers in Arigato! almost 25 years later as Hirosue perpetually exists on record in this in-between state. Though the intentionally nostalgic music preserves her youthful innocence to stand the test of time, its agelessness also poignantly reminds how much time has passed since the last revisit, like a faded childhood photo. It’s not so different as the idol herself: Hirosue put out a more mature follow-up in 1999’s Private before quitting music for good to pursue her acting career, but her time on TV as a teen idol still casts a large shadow on her reputation. Hirosue embodied a not-so-distant memory from the get go, and her sweet, everyday reminiscences in Arigato! could’ve belonged to any teenager in your childhood street. They easily could’ve once been ours.
This issue’s Singles Club features guest song selections from a few wonderful friends of This Side of Japan! They wrote some great blurbs for their picks as well. Please enjoy!
“Live in the Snowglobe” by Canopies and Drapes [self-released, 2011]
Canopies and Drapes was the solo project of Chick, from the noisy electro group Nu Clear Classmate. For the name, she picked the title of a B-side by English singer-songwriter Emmy the Great, a song with the line “I feel worse than when S Club 7 broke up” and plenty of pop culture references besides.
“Live in the Snowglobe”, the lead track from 2011 EP Violet Lilly Rose Daisy, suggests why that song appealed, likewise using the signifiers of pop culture as a shortcut to give an idea of a person. It’s addressed to a boy who is “crazy about Aphex Twin, Snoopy, Godard,” a list which feels like it should provide some kind of insight, though really we get barely a glimpse of him, one fragile mystery among many.
Taking her previous harsh electro sound and honing it to new ends, “Live in the Snowglobe” adds twinkling synths to a softened set of rapid-fire beats and high drones. Her words are largely buried in the uneasily pretty setting, another effective way of emphasising the song’s hazy qualities as she ruminates on dizziness, sleeplessness and sickness. As the beats and chimes and layers of vocals pile up in drifts, she longs to be locked in a snow globe and covered in snow, a perfect expression of its dreamy mix of the beautiful and sinister. —Iain Mew
from Violet Lilly Rose Daisy EP (2011). Listen to it on Spotify.
Iain Mew is a British writer who has contributed to The Singles Jukebox since the beginning of time, or at least 2006. He is currently working on a British history of popular video games told one UK sales chart #1 at a time, at Super Chart Island.
“Silly-Go-Round” by FictionJunction YUUKA [Victor, 2006]
In order to talk about FictionJunction YUUKA, you have to talk about Yuki Kajiura. I’m not going to regurgitate her Wikipedia page, but the key facts are these: she’s been active since the early ‘90s, has done extensive soundtrack work, and has had three major pop projects: See-Saw. FictionJunction, and Kalafina. See-Saw and Kalafina are both bands, but FictionJunction is a bit looser—an umbrella label to cover her collaborations with a variety of vocalists. Of these, FictionJunction YUUKA was the most prolific, releasing two full albums, and Kajiura’s work with Yuuka Nanri forms a really interesting bridge between the stages of her career.
FictionJunction YUUKA were the first Japanese band I ever really listened to, and while “Silly-Go-Round” isn’t the first song of theirs I fell in love with, it’s my favourite of their singles. A lot of its elements are familiar from elsewhere in Kajiura’s discography—the Kajiurago backing vocals especially are an immediate giveaway— but the way they’re combined with some more unusual features lets it stand out in a crowded discography. The big open piano chords give the song a real sense of spaciousness, and the constant rise-and-fall of the melody keeps momentum up without feeling like it’s pushing toward an inevitable conclusion; it’s not remotely static, but it allows room to breathe. This all culminates in the bridge, which does build toward an anticipated climax, only to abruptly fall away, leaving only a beautiful duet between the piano and ehru (an unusual choice for Kajiura, but really effective here). The outro adds the choir to those two instruments, everything becoming looser and slower as you’re gently let off the ride you’ve been taken on. —Dorian Sinclair
from circus (2007). Listen to it on Spotify.
Dorian is a two-spirit Métis millennial, currently living in Ottawa, Canada. His music tastes are eclectic, but loosely documented through his Spotify profile. Other than Yuki Kajiura, his favourite Japanese artists include haruka nakamura, Wednesday Campanella, and the bands of the BanG Dream! franchise.
“Manatsu No Dance Hall” by GO!GO!7188 [BMG, 2007]
Surf rock is one of the most widely cited influences on GO!GO!7188’s sound, but their music makes for an interesting collage of all kinds of genres superimposed over their post-punk base, and disco is one of them. The very early GO!GO!7188 releases are for the most part post-punk played fairly straight, but Turkey is a crafty drummer with big ideas, and you can hear swingy disco beats creeping into their sound around the middle of their discography. One of the things that stands out the most to me about their music is how full it sounds for a three-piece band—a testament to their collective talent and ability to maximize each of their instruments’ potential.
A song about longing to escape from your dreary work life to run to the beach, “Manatsu no Dance Hall” blends surf rock and disco into a song that sounds like summer itself. The tone color of the guitar is decidedly surf rock, but the beat is unmistakably disco, and Turkey’s drums shine the most on this track: they are the arbiter of the mood. In the verses where the singer laments her office-bound life and how she longs to escape from work, the drumming is drawn in, tighter with closed hi-hats; the bridge draws us into her fantasy with dreamy riffs and shimmery open hats, and right through into the scorching, dance-it-out chorus with a sped-up but classic disco rhythm. Listening to Yuu’s wistful singing, it’s not hard to imagine dancing on the beach on a hot summer night, fireworks bursting overhead like an outdoor disco ball. The classic surf rock slide that leads into the guitar solo clinches that mood, and makes “Manatsu no Dance Hall” into a quintessential summer anthem. —Madi Ballista
…from 569 (2007)
Madi Ballista is a writer and musician based on Philly who has been been a fan of Japanese music ever since she heard her first Megumi Hayashibara and Masami Okui duet. In addition to writing for The Singles Jukebox, she also translates song lyrics, and can be found at Twitter.
“Amazing Love” by Folder 5 [Avex Trax, 2001]
I joke but it’s probably true: Avex Trax will make new girl groups cover old Eurobeat tracks well into the year 2030, and the result unfortunately will still satisfy. The label very early on employed the strategy to launch Namie Amuro and the Super Monkeys, which the latter splintered into their own act, MAX, using the same exact move. It also proved to be a convenient way to transition Folder into its new formation after Daichi Miura went into an extended hiatus. The idols had already dabbled in Eurodance anyway so it was par on course: the singles from their first LP, The Earth, had the kids taking on liquid R&B keys set to programmed house drums. So what was not “Supergirl,” their debut with now a 5 at the end of their name, but a slightly more grown-up “Parachuter”?
“Amazing Love,” though, marks a shift. Lifted from Rose’s “A Song from You,” the production amplifies the melodrama. The strings conjure a more forlorn mood. The sharp pianos sketches a pensive melody. The beat is propulsive as Eurobeat can be, though the synths feel always one step behind like it’s unsure about its own capability to bring the ecstatic energy familiar to the dance subgenre. The melancholy overtone stands at odds with the titular lyric that gestures at wonder or elation to the thought of love. The music suggests not reassurance but a struggle to keep faith.
The conflicting mood looming in the tough, relentless beat only lets the sincere sentiments shared by Folder 5 hit that much stronger. The chorus finds the idols surrendering all control in the face of love, and they sound absolutely sure tasking their livelihood to another especially as their lyrics rise against music that represents opposing emotions like doubt and uncertainty. “Amazing love / toughness and selfishness seem to disappear,” they sing. “I can’t say no when you look at me / I’m hooked on you.” “Amazing Love” doesn’t read as a confession of mere infatuation. The intensity elevates love as salvation, like the idols finally found the one who will save them from their misery.
…from Hyper Groove 1 (2001). Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “HEY HEY ~Light Me Up~” by Fairies (2018); “Seventies” by MAX (1996)
This Week in 2021…
“Kimi Shika Katan” by Hinatazaka46 [Sony, 2021]
Hinatazaka46 don’t aim very far nor deep. While Nogizaka offer profundities and Sakurazaka challenge the status quo, the youngest idol group in the Sakamichi series indulges in simple, if not conservative pop. Their singles explore sentiments little more than what their respective title provides, most of them an iteration on harboring a crush so big, it’s overbearing. Their fifth consecutive number-one follows the trend: “Kimi Shika Katan” (“You’re the Only Winner for Me”) joins other love letters like “Konna Ni Suki Ni Nacchatte Iino?” (“Is It OK to Love You This Much?”) and “Azato Kawaii” (“Cunningly Cute”), singing about how they can’t keep their eyes off their crush even if they wanted to.
The hooks are arranged in “Kimi Shika Katan” so neatly in place, they’re practically contrived to reel in a specific reaction. The verse unfolds as call and response with English phrases cuing the beginning of each related line like a bullet point: “(My love) I wonder how many times I’ve fallen in and out of love since my first time,” the group’s Shiho Kato starts to reflect, “(Memories) Every time it ended, I grew a little older.” The claps in the production lay so perfectly in sync in the chorus, they fill in as lyrical punctuation. The bridge is the most knowingly choreographed with the idols harmonizing a series of weekdays as ad libs—”(Sunday) When you lose it / (Monday) is when you finally realize”—leaning in a pop cliche in an almost shameless manner.
I recognize every trick Hinatazaka pull in their respective songs as they happen. They’re not slick by any means. Everything said, “Kimi Shika Katan”—and really, all of their singles thus far—summarizes my very experience listening to the group’s singles, hopelessly falling for their antics with full-on awareness behind their intent. The opening lines capture the sensation: “Don’t look at me with such sad, sad eyes,” the idols sing, like they’re being stared down by a set of puppy eyes too cute to ignore. The group sums up and then sensationalizes that aw-shucks feeling, a response from encountering something so simply irresistible, you can’t help but let your guard down.
“Kimi Shika Katan” reinforces this phenomenon of speaking in behalf of the listener through its lyrical perspective. While the idols sing in the first person, their lyrics express the words of another as they assume the position of a male character falling in love with a one-of-a-kind girl1: “even if I meet another girl / and start another relationship / I’ll still love you,” they confess in the titular chorus, “out of everyone in the world / you’re the only winner for me.” When I fill myself in the first person, I like to take in the lyrics as it applies to Hinatazaka and how their music moves me in inexplicable ways.
“Kimi Shika Katan” doesn’t defy criticism. It’s just that my gut feelings for the song tends to supersede objectivity: what I observe from the music as a wise critic seems beside the point compared to how I react to it as a fan of Hinatazaka. Sure, maybe I am giving Hinatazaka songs a bit too much credit for capturing this powerlessness in the face of bare emotion. But their singles do gesture at the fact the idols, too, consciously indulge in infatuation, obsession or what have you despite knowing better. And it’s this self-awareness towards their own feelings as well as the frustration in being so easy to please that mark “Kimi Shika Katan” as yet another signature Hinatazaka46 song.
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While I love the idea of a queer interpretation, I feel it’s safe to assume a straight perspective here given how heteronormative Japan is, to put it lightly. This also isn’t their first time singing from a male perspective: “Azato Kawaii” similarly sings of an obsessive kind of crush, where they can immediately spot the girl even in “a rush-hour crowd at an all-girl school.”