Issue #25: Multiverse
Discussing today's J-pop sound through the new Paraiso single and new GenJibu album, plus a look back on "Mini Moni Janken Pyon!"
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
A few weeks ago saw the debut single by Paraiso, a sort-of supergroup made up of musicians who each occupy a solid place in the middle tier of Japan’s pop scene. For the new unit, duo Pop Shinanaide join Shuichi Mabe—formerly of Soutaiseirion and currently in the indie-rock band Group Action—with singer-songwriters NAGAMUU and Mashinomi. The resulting track, “Biryani,” from this collective remarkably sums up the J-pop sound of the late ‘10s from many different angles. Though, perhaps some may not be familiar with what I mean by “the J-pop sound of the late ‘10s,” so let me break down a little of what I am talking about.
Looking at the artists involved in the project, it’s not too surprising to hear “Biryani” sound the way it does. The spidery guitar riff makes the song fit right in with other bands taking a jazzy or math-y approach to their guitar music like, say, Mabe’s own Group Action. While none of the singers play with a sound so overtly steeped in rock, they naturally adapt the run-on lyrical style that define their own respective works without much compromise. If anything, the noodling guitar music encourages them to indulge even deeper with their word-cramming.
Mabe is more than familiar with taming all this word salad into thrilling pop. Along with mastermind Etsuko Yakushimaru, the former’s old band Soutaiseiriron practically built the blueprint 10 years ago to what Paraiso is doing now. The hip-hop-inspired vocals of Mashinomi in “Biryani” also has a distant echo of the whisper-raps of DAOKO—an early student of Yakushimaru—and the pause-less delivery of the three also follows the scatterbrained chatters of songwriters like Enon Kawatani or Seiko Oomori.
The lyrics of “Biryani” meanwhile points to the school of Wednesday Campanella, a J-pop act that connected many developing trends of the last decade. For one, Paraiso’s reverse-engineering of a single titled after an Indian dish follows Wed Camp’s quirky songwriting strategy behind their universe of songs named after historical figures. The titular dish inspires a tongue-twister so labyrinthine, a translation seems almost beside the point: like Kom_I, DAOKO or Etsuko Yakushimaru, the singers of Paraiso prirotize the textural and musical qualities of language over narrative or message.
If you must know the contents, the lyrics of “Biryani” basically dresses the preparation of the titular dish as a metaphor for a desire for higher living—or maybe not! The artists that influenced the singers of Paraiso resist a need for meaning in their lyrics, and who knows, maybe the song is simply a songwriting exercise for everyone in the band. While this lyric-writing approach specific to the ‘10s can sometimes feel laborious in Pop Shinanaide and Mashinomi’s own music, it thrives in the new, unique environment of their freshly formed supergroup. Though the project has only just begun, Paraiso is already easily the most exciting thing any of the members have been involved with so far.
If you read the above discussion, I want you to keep that idea of “the sound of today’s J-pop” in mind while you read about this issue’s Album of the Week because the same topic essentially carries over in the review. We got more of what’s new in today’s Japanese music in the Singles Club, plus another entry of a single by an idol group I really love.
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Anyway, we got a newsletter to return to. Happy listening!
Album of the Week
Multiverse by Genin Wa Jibun Ni Aru [SDR]
The idol group’s reboot as Genin Wa Jibun Ni Aru looks prescient from the vantage point of 2021. Formerly called Battle Street, as part of the many boy-idol groups in Stardust’s EBiDAN collective, their change in direction as GenJibu in late 2019 initially seemed a bit too transparent in how they aspired to stay current. While the Skrillex-core drop of their single “Stargazer” under their former name yearned for an early 2010s revival, they now adopted a dense, mystique-filled moniker and a kitchen-sink production familiar to post-NicoNico producers like n-buna. Their creative gamble, however, has payed off a year later with today’s J-pop now fully aligned with their vision.
GenJibu’s debut full-length, Multiverse, reflects the sound of current J-pop trends so faithfully, it practically acts as a survey for those unfamiliar with the charts. The group had their pulse on what’s current since their first single, “Genin Wa Jibun Ni Aru,” from August 2019, with its scrambled piano riff, jittery guitar scrawls and even more restless flow of lyrics. Like Paraiso as I wrote above in this newsletter, GenJibu prioritize how words sound and rhyme over how they serve as a vehicle for meaning or narrative. It’s best to watch the music videos of the singles than just listening them for this reason: seeing the choreographed flow of lyrics as scrolling text in sync with the rapid flow of music enhances the listening experience.
Other than this kitchen-sink sound with its ears on the Vocaloid scene, GenJibu looks to today’s “it” acts like King Gnu and Kenshi Yonezu. For all the idiosyncrasy the two possess in their respective works, the thick, woozy electric guitars and scratchy back vocals in GenJibu’s “Uso Kara Hajimaru Jishoukei” stand out as a hallmark indebted to those two; the chorus practically swipes from the former band, all except for the pained falsetto of Daiki Tsuneta. That said, the rap influences in the verses are a work of GenJibu’s own, adding a unique wrinkle to a popular sound.
Ironically, what sounds like an outlier in Multiverse is the collaboration single “Snow Dance” with YOASOBI’s Ayase, a representative of J-pop in 2020 if there was one. The overcast atmosphere matches GenJibu, though the difference with their usual work is immediately noticeable from the absence of guitars. Moreover, the song doesn’t highlight a playfulness with language as the rest of them; the lyrics are too bound by the simple rhythm, resulting in a much restrained performance. Catchy as it is, “Snow Dance” reveals that GenJibu has indeed established a style to call their own, enough to be detectable when they’re straying away from their usual path.
GenJibu may be tied to specific sounds and techniques yet their best songs prove they’re not beholden to the gothic mood introduced in their early singles. They sound as adorable as any typical boy idol group in “Shakespeare Ni Manabu Renai Teiri” without compromising much of their singular production. If anything, the music’s bounce and the idols’ infatuation-inspired exuberance result in a stronger song as it works in contrast with their initial heady, glum personality.
Multiverse is an apt title in the way the album presents GenJibu as a point in which many of the seemingly different styles in today’s J-pop meet. The album finds an intersection of the aforementioned Vocaloid scene as well as the brooding alt-rockers, but also the dizzying arrangements from the anime-song sphere: “A Phantom Night’s Dream” takes a plunge into that side of Japanese music through its full course of musical goods, starting from the opening string piece. What unites these disparate parts is constant activity, whether it’d be the restless rhythm, the collage of fumbling sounds or the playfulness to language. GenJibu embraces all of the madness in this neat, formal package of a naval-gazing idol group.
“Fuantei Na Fuanten” by OOPS [Mouse]
“But what is this fresh feeling that springs forth from their evolving punk/hardcore,” remarks the description on OOPS’s Bandcamp page, and sure enough, the band introduces yet another side to their still-brand-new catalog in “Fuantei Fuanten.” Their previous EP showed off post-punk grit, whether it’d be the swampy ESG riffs of “Lil More” or the 30-second hardcore rush of “Catch Up.” Here, they lay back with a bluesy jam, getting down to a rockabilly-esque chug halfway in. Vocalist Joniko, meanwhile, adds a familiar splash of punk by approaching the track with the same fervor as the band’s more explosive spurts. Whether they decide to speed it up or chill out, OOPS consistently deliver.
Out of Pictures EP is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp.
“Capsule” by YonYon (ft. Daigo Sakuragi) [Peace Tree]
After putting out a few solo singles in 2019, I’ve been used to seeing YonYon on the other side of the “featuring” credit, contributing to tracks by PEAVIS and Maeshima Soshi. “Capsule,” then, is a welcome return with the singer as the main star. She patiently feels out the reverb-heavy R&B production, wandering in the dark, hissing beat like she’s exploring uncharted waters. Following the appearance of guest vocalist Daigo Sakuragi (better known as D.A.N.), the hazy music suddenly changes shape into a propulsive house track. The breakdown is short-lived, though that’s how she gets you to press rewind.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Oto Ga Suru” by Yuigot + Hakushi Hasegawa [Musicmine]
While “Oto Ga Suru,” bounces along with an exuberance mutually shared by the collaborators’ works, you can also observe each of their signature touches if you squint at the details: the bubble-pop textures can definitely be traced to Yuigot while Hakushi Hasegawa provides the track’s cloud-like piano riff. The latter sounds particularly at peace resting upon the huge, bendy future-bass synth of the chorus, humming a sweet tune he hears in his head. “Between me and this world, I want to gather everything—I hear a sound,” he later remarks near the climax. With all the tiny sounds swirling around him, he might as well be singing about the very experience listening to the song.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 2001…
“Mini Moni Janken Pyon!” by Mini Moni. [Zetima]
No. 1 during the weeks of Jan. 29 - Feb. 5 | Listen to it on YouTube
To get a glimpse at the massive popularity of Morning Musume as an idol group in 2001, just look at the chart placements of their shuffle-unit singles in the Oricon. Along with other idols in Hello! Project, Morning Musume members were mixed into three new temporary groups for a summer single, and all three releases would rank in the top 10 for a few summers. Not to mention other subunits of the group like Tanpopo and Puchimoni had already been chart successes as well. During its initial peak during the ‘00s, it seemed as though Hello! Project could just keep on re-arranging its members into new sub-groups and land a hit almost every time.
They couldn’t have been more unstoppable riding on the high of this sub-unit craze than the hit success of Mini Moni. Like the name suggests, the unit rounded up the smaller, younger members of Hello! Project, but it also tailored its music to appeal to little children. Later in its career with popularity at its highest, it made perfect sense for them to collaborate with the kids anime Hamtaro, making a cameo in the franchise film and releasing a couple singles as a tie-up.
Mini Moni was also right at home as guests on Oha Sta, a morning weekday variety show for children, which introduced viewers to the unit’s debut single, “Mini Moni Janken Pyon!” The lyrics are just commands for a game of Simon Says and roshambo, inviting direct participation from the viewers on the other side of the screen. Thinking of its audience, producer and songwriter Tsunku also not-so-subtly inserts some educational takeaways. The four implore the kids to eat their green vegetables in this cartoon-ish language—“midori no yasai wo taberunoda pyon!”—before returning to their regularly scheduled program of play and dance.
Equally silly are the arrangements by Takao Konishi, who would later work on another children-show jingle “Morning Musume No Hyokori Hyotan Jima” among other Morning Musume songs. The horns nail the goofiness you’d expect from a pop group of four dorky girls dressed up in bunny astronaut suits, singing about a game of rock paper scissors. The song enters a brief moment of oriental pop psychedelia when it shifts into the educational bits as though the idols are hypnotizing the young listener to drink more milk.
Aside from the parental bits like eating more greens or taking in more calcium, Mini Moni reminds one general piece of earnest altruism at the end of their chorus: “Jibun wo shinjite ikunodapyon!” or “keep on believing in yourself,” they sing in their childish language. The spoon-fed message hangs on par with the group’s reminders of a healthy diet as part of the song’s overall “made for children” broadcasting, and the obviousness of the lyrics plus its goofball language makes the line easy to dismiss as a mere gag.
And yet such earnestness about promoting strong self-esteem speaks consistent to Morning Musume’s main works especially during this era. A few years after “Mini Moni Jankenpyon,” the group continues to deliver sincere messages wrapped in music that plays it fast and loose. Take a single like “Koko Ni Iruze!” that sings “spread the wings of your dreams / breakthrough, break through yourself” to the tune of busy, fun ska. Tsunku wrote songs for the main group that spoke to and benefited the greater good. He only needed to tweak the hit formula slightly for it to be palatable as a children’s pop song.
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out Feb. 10. You can check out previous issues here.
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