Idol Watch (Flipped) #9: July/August 2021
The first ever flipped edition of the column covers older idol songs by Noriko Sakai, Rie Tomosaka, Bellring Shojo Heart and more, plus a review of Yukiko Okada's posthumous best-of album
Hi! Welcome to Idol Watch, a bi-monthly companion to This Side of Japan that’s all about Japanese idols! This issue is the first ever flipped edition of Idol Watch, meaning we are covering older idol music rather than new releases of the past two months, similar to the flipped editions of This Side of Japan. You can check out previous issues of Idol Watch from this year here: January & February / March & April / May & June.
Before we get to the round-up, we have guest writer Cal on a great record highlighting an iconic ‘80s idol.
There’s a wealth of ‘80s idols to fill your nostalgic fix, but one of the most beloved darlings of the decade is undoubtedly Yukiko “Yukko” Okada. Her posthumous compilation ALL SONGS REQUEST from 2002 serves as not only a tribute to her life, but also a showcase of her talent and a true time capsule of the sound of idol pop from that era.
Starting off with “Sayonara Natsuyasumi,” the shrill synthesizers immediately hit you like an ocean wave before segueing into her dreamy opening verse, which concludes with the line “another memory before our summer vacation ends.” Part of Yukko’s appeal during her career was her focus on teenage nostalgia. It doesn’t matter if you’re an adult looking back to last decade or a 17-year-old looking back to last year—this is like walking hand-in-hand with your sweetheart down memory lane.
However, the fact that this album serves as both a best-of and a memorial album leaves the music feeling occasionally somber in both lyrics and sound. “Mizuiro Princess - Mizu No Sei -” towards the middle of the album is shot through with a particular kind of vocal tension as Yukko sings from the perspective of a fairy tale princess, pleading for the strength to turn to the next page so she can be with her lover. Given the circumstances, it sounds more than a little bittersweet. Much of her body of work is steeped in the idea of memory, and you’re being told to turn the page.
It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of commercialised nostalgia—this is still a product to be sold, after all—but this collection was compiled based on the results of a fan poll. Pony Canyon asked which Yukiko Okada songs people wanted to see re-released, and fans who both saw her shine in real time and those who only experienced her as pixels on a screen responded. This compilation is the amalgamation of their love for Yukko and a testament to the power of her work; it forms an epitaph, illustrating how they believe she should be remembered.
The penultimate song is a standout on the album. “Hana no Image” has an impressive pedigree, with both words and music by legendary musician Tetsuroh Kashibuchi. The staccato stanzas and their glossy synthesizers coalesce into a soaring chorus of “I want to fall in love, I want to be his rose,” peppered with MIDI horns.
ALL SONGS REQUEST covers a range of emotion, but the tracks are united by a common musical excellence. Remembering somebody’s life and the era they’re from doesn’t need to be done in a mourning veil; it can be a celebration as well. Just because you’ve turned a page doesn’t mean you can’t go back and read it again, and this goes for Yukko herself and the sparkling idol-pop music she performed. Her warm smiles will be there waiting between the grooves of her singles, welcoming you back into a never-ending summer vacation. —Cal
For the first ever flipped edition of Idol Watch, we have quite a few guest writers highlighting their choice of older idol music. Safe to say, this issue wouldn’t be possible without their knowledge. Our round-up starts from the ‘80s and covers at least one pick from each decade thereafter, stopping at 2015 as the point at which we define as “old” at the more recent end of the timeline for the purposes of this feature. As you can imagine, the definition of “idol” and “idol music” differs throughout the decades, and exploring those changes is one of the many things that make looking at idol music history so fun.
Here are our 10 favorite older idol songs. Happy listening!
“Apricot Kiss” by Miyoko Yoshimoto [Teichiku, 1985]
The year of 1985 saw great changes in the idol environment. The newly debuted Onyanko Club struck different tastes through different solos and units with also their own variety show that exposed the individual talents of every girl. At the same time, idols such as Yuki Saito, Yoko Minamino and Miho Nakayama emerged, who got big exposure in TV dramas, having their soundtrack songs often debuting in the popular music program The Best Ten.
Debuting in the same year was Miyoko Yoshimoto, an idol who appeared in numerous TV programs as the younger-sister figure of Hidemi Ishikawa, a senior female idol from the same company. With lyrics written by the renowned popular musician Takashi Matsumoto, Miyoko sang about the feelings of a young girl in the same route that Seiko Matsuda had with songs like “Akai Sweet Pea.” In “Apricot Kiss,” the idol sings about recent memories of being kissed by her romantic interest, describing scenarios where they biked together, and her astonishment from being in the presence of her object of affection. Though not achieving the same success as her peers, Miyoko’s voice was charming, soft and stable, successful in singing this kind of “diary songs.” —Ed
Listen to it on Spotify.
Ed is part-time law student, full-time Snoopy fan who you can find in Twitter usually commenting about music, BL or movies.
“Otokonoko Ni Naritai” by Noriko Sakai [Victor, 1987]
There’s a classic pop music trope where the chanteuse dreams of a life free from the expected societal norms placed upon young women, going on reckless adventures, getting away with bad behavior, and taking the liberty to make the first move toward someone they’ve had their heart set on. Lesley Gore had a hit in 1964 with “Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy” while Beyonce released “If I Were a Boy” in 2008, and right in the middle of both of those songs, we have this 1987 gem of a debut by Noriko Saki, the title of which cries out “I Want To Be a Boy”!
The then not-quite 16-year-old Sakai delivers this utterly charming city-pop number with buoyant energy that scores big on the bubblegum scale. The song percolates pure pop satisfaction, with classic ‘80s digital drums, breathy wordless backing vocals, and of course the adorable, fresh-faced girl-next-door vibes of its featured performer. It’s not hard at all to see yourself lazing in your teenage bedroom, wearing a baggy sweater and playing this tune joyfully on a pastel-colored boom box.
But what I really love about songs like this is that while you can sing this tune frivolously in a karaoke booth with your friends in the spirit of good-hearted fun, you can also, if you choose, peel back the layers and take it into a deeper context as a mild jab into the heart of patriarchy and its imposed gender norms. “I want to be a boy, for some reason… I want to travel the world freely”: I wonder how many teen girls heard this song and nodded with understanding. Noriko followed this debut with consistent hits well into adulthood, having a much longer career than most would expect from an ‘80s teen pop idol. And then in the ‘00s, she suffered a drug scandal (with a light jail sentence) that she surprisingly was able to bounce back from. That’s something usually only men get away with. —Brian/supreme nothing
…from Fantasia (1987). Listen to the song on Spotify.
Brian (supreme nothing) is a pop-culture archivist who requires a constant infusion of incoming information in order to feel alive. Aside from making artwork, taking photos, and mentally cataloging everything he takes in, he’s also a contributor to Homicidols. He also loves dogs a whole bunch.
“Aibu” by Akina Nakamori [MCA Victor, 1993]
Forty years ago, Akina Nakamori signed her first record deal. Three years later, she became the youngest winner of the Japan Record Award Grand Prix; a year later, the first woman to win it twice. This amazing career burst with the Bubble era. In 1989, she attempted to take her own life in then-boyfriend Masahiko Kondo’s apartment. The start of a lifelong war with the past, 23-year-old Akina was dragged in front of a golden screen—a symbol of wedding announcements—beside Kondo, and she was made to publicly apologize for her “egoism.”
Once the bubble burst, people desperately wanted change, and singles started selling 2 million copies at once, instead of one artist selling 2 million a year. One of them was Kome Kome Club’s 1992 “Kimi ga Iru Dake de,” theme of the TV drama Sugao no Mama de, where Akina landed a starring role. It would be another year until UNBALANCE+BALANCE, her first original album in four years.
Having climbed to stardom besides renowned musicians, Akina collaborating with singer-songwriter Tetsuya Komuro made all the sense. Precisely in 1993, he became a full-fledged music producer, adapting knowledge from the late ‘80s to new trends of the 1990s. Akina and Komuro meet halfway in this pop music intersection to produce what is probably her most well-known tune of the ‘90s.
“This life is too short, so I want to live it until my brilliance fades out”: lyrics penned by Takashi Matsumoto in “Aibu” talk of a fleeting love as Akina’s songs are rarely an account of happiness. The arrangement seems fitting, employing synthesizers and sound effects combined with piano chords. The “Komuro boom” would follow, the titular musician becoming a synonym of ‘90s J-pop. As for Akina, she dabbled into several music genres, some acting gigs, and the “Utahime” series of cover albums—a personal highlight. Discovering Akina beyond the ‘80s is an act of honouring her life. —Juju
…from UNBALANCE+BALANCE (1993).
“Last Kiss” by Tanpopo [Zetima, 1998]
The easy narrative of Morning Musume often attributes their more serious-minded phase to the group’s Platinum era in the mid ‘00s, but they already had recorded mature, emotionally rich R&B a year into their formation in 1997. While the Second Morning LP showcased their potential, subunit Tanpopo really honed in on the style starting with their debut single, “Last Kiss.” The keyboard riff and background strings weep with yearning, but the wistful arrangement doesn’t stand a chance against the chorus that bets it all on the melodrama: “Only on my lips / stop it, your warmth / only on my lips / it’s always there,” the trio cry out to a ghost of a relationship past, and you can practically visualize them tracing the area to try and recapture what was once faintly there. The three grieve in “Last Kiss” with a wounded sadness but also a tinge of anger, cheated from a deal that was promised to be a clean break. —Ryo
…from TANPOPO 1 (1999)
“Shampoo” by Rie Tomosaka [Toshiba EMI, 1999]
One the three tracks Shiina Ringo wrote for former idol Rie Tomosaka’s album Murasaki, “Shampoo” not only stands as the most subdued of the bunch but it also offers a more intimate contrast to the bright vision of stardom that often defines the idol fantasy.
Consisting only of a simple and somewhat melancholic piano melody, “Shampoo” takes the mundane task of washing one’s hair and turns it into an intimate moment, where Tomosaka links the unusual aroma of the hair product to her own emotional longings. While many of the song’s lyrics showcase feelings of doubt and loneliness, the song brightest point comes from its reconciliation in lyrics and melody, with Rie reaffirming her own convictions, singing “[her doubts are] no good / I have to believe him / After all, he’s the one and he wouldn’t lie to me.” Even if Tomosaka was a bonafide idol then, this song places her closer to alternative singers of the time, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering this track had likely been conceived during the sessions for what would become Shiina Ringo’s first two albums.
Tomosaka would eventually stop releasing music, but her catalogue—especially her Ringo-penned songs—would remain standouts due to the somewhat doubtful or pessimistic aura that surrounds them. “Shampoo” in particular offers a window into the private and mundane world of the idol, something a bit rare given the more spectacular nature of the pop divas of her time. —Bacci
..from Murasaki (1999)
Bacci is a hobby writer mainly focused on music reviews and analyzing visual narratives. They also shared much less streamlined thoughts on Twitter.
“Junai No Crescendo” by No Sleeves [Epic, 2007]
As the subunit No Sleeves, AKB48’s Minami Takahashi, Haruna Kojima and Minami Minegishi nail a spectacular kayokyoku homage in “Junai Crescendo.” The three fully indulge in the delicious melodrama built by the glassy synths and sullen guitars. The arrangement’s stylistic callback to the ‘80s elevates the track from the more orthodox idol pop of the trio’s main group, but it’s the song’s willful play against the schoolgirl innocence assumed by AKB48 that makes the track hit dangerously provocative. The trio express lust in a language far beyond their years with them referring to flowery innuendo—dry spells, torrential rain—to sing about their burning desire. They may play coy in the verses, but they get direct come the titular chorus: “Tonight, I don’t care if I’m held / I want everything to be off,” they yearn before the shimmering synths takes it away. No Sleeves’s flirtation with the risque isn’t without self-awareness, but the performative aspect of “Junai No Crescendo” only feeds more into their brazen pastiche. —Ryo
…from No Sleeves (2011). Listen to the song on Spotify.
“The Edge of Goodbye” by Bellring Shojo Heart [Crimson, 2013]
Bellring Shojo Heart’s skill set (or lack thereof) tends to overshadow their innovative implementation of ‘60s psychedelia, garage rock and other hipster dustbin rock—a choice of genres that proved to be ahead of their time. But the pure rawness of their energy supplants everything else in their best songs, like “The Edge of Goodbye.” The group’s amateurish performance sweetens what’s actually a vicious, vengeful clap back to a break-up. “I’m going to stab this blade to your heart / and throw away this memory,” they sing in the chorus over blown-out rock music that’s as off the cuff as their vocals. With the idols visibly trying to get a handle on the beat, Bellring Shojo Heart don’t seem to have a full grasp of the violence they’re wishing for—or that’s the hope anyway. —Ryo
…from Bedhead (2013).
“Will♡You♡Marry♡Me?” by Kiyoshi Ryujin 25 [Toy’s Factory, 2014]
“Will♡ You♡ Marry♡ Me?” came as a surprise from reading a Kanon Fukuda blog post. Well before joining ZOC, she had already expressed some of her edgier tastes with her often mentioned love of Urbangarde, and Kiyoshi Ryujin 25 was unlike any other idol group. Their intriguing concept was definitely self-serving for the eponymous singer-songwriter, who is also the center of the group. The idea is that all the members are Ryuijin’s wives, because he was such a playboy that he couldn’t have just one. The way Kanon talked about it was also very interesting: the audience members having their favorite wife out of the harem also made them felt “married” to her in some way.
Their MVs bring an explosion of flirty, playful groove not so heard in other groups. I love the humor of the situation, the silliness of the concept played up to 11 while still being flattering to Kiyoshi Ryujin, as well as the variety of voices found in co-ed idol groups. For what it’s worth, while the wives are playful rivals, per their other MV, they do seem to get along well enough.
In the last year, NemoPero, two newer additions to the Dempagumi.inc lineup, have released their debut single as a unit, “Shuki Shuki Shukipi♡ Ga Tomaranai…!” For some mysterious reason, the song confuses me for a Kiyoshi Ryujin 25 song. While this might say more about my brain than about each group’s sounds, it’s a good testament of how fresh Kiyoshi Ryujin 25 still sounds. The universe is also rewarding this association in some way as Kiyoshi Ryujin is writing a song for them to be released on September 22. He doesn’t seem to have strayed away from his thematic habits, considering that its title is “First Kiss wa Ryujin-kun♡" ¬_¬ —Papermaiden
…from PROPOSE (2015). Listen to it on Spotify.
Papermaiden is usually not writing and has a Master's degree in Communications. These two facts may or may not be related. She is part of Team Homicidols, and when she does write, you can find it there. When not thinking about idol, you can find Papermaiden ponding about fashion or manga, her one true love.
“Fly Away” by POP [T-Palette, 2015]
The use of EDM in WACK’s music lives on through acts such as EMPiRE, but none have yet to deliver a synth-laced record as potent as the songs in POP’s self-titled LP. “Fly Away” from the album is remembered as a deep cut and more straightforward a EDM track than a single like “Pretty Pretty Good,” though the song leaves a mark nonetheless. The downtrodden synths colors in a mood inverse from the typically hedonistic dance-pop subgenre, reflecting instead the idols’ bleak, desperate-to-win attitude: “No matter how many times I try for them to hear me / it’s back to square one,” they sing before the buzzsaw synth drop drowns out their thoughts altogether. Their refrain sighed atop the screeching noise—“once more the fly again, fly away”— sounds drained of hope for their future, but the idols also seem finally at peace embracing hopelessness. —Ryo
…from P.O.P. (2015). Listen to it on Spotify.
“Last Glasgow” by Koutei Camera Girl [Tapestok, 2015]
Koutei Camera Girl’s second album, Leningrad Loud Girlz, explains in retrospect why the group later splintered into multiple smaller factions. The 2015 record filled an ambitious amount of maximalist EDM subgenres, enough for each of the nine tracks to potentially inspire its own attached idol group. “Last Glasgow” in particular seems ready to topple over any minute from an overload of information. The gurgling drum ‘n’ bass keeps on accelerating without a moment of rest while the idols hold on for dear life, breathlessly rapping their verses. That vocal desperation to tough out the storm deeply saturates the track as the lyrics express worry about their own expiration date: “remember that we once stood here / even if we’re no longer around,” they all sing in the chorus. Their sentiments hit especially poignant considering how the original group doesn’t exist anymore while their music isn’t on streaming services. But Koutei Camera Girl perhaps knew better than anyone how fleeting everything can be. —Ryo
…from Leningrad Loud Girlz (2015)
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