Issue #27: Not So Foreign
Discussing the new Kudaranai 1nichi/ANORAK! split, Momoko Kikuchi's "Broken Sunset" and the unique obstacles in writing about non-Western music
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
Writing about music is certainly fun, but I can also feel lost while I work on my drafts. A lot of questions come up. How should I talk about this subject? Is it OK to use this reference? Would people understand me if I said this? Though these questions can arise for any music writer, it feels a bit tougher when there aren’t as many examples to consult as guidance for writing about something specific as Japanese music.
It’s an overwhelming task to discuss music that’s not as covered by Western music publications, for listeners who aren’t very familiar with the scenes and history. Not every genre label translates; “alternative rock” describes different style between America and Japan’s rock music. References can start to get political. How many times have you read that a pop singer is the Asian facsimile of an American one? And my curation has more weight to it when I think about how I’m one of the few providing any recommendations at all. I provide a small window to the country’s music, and it’s up to me to decide what they see and hear.
I’m fortunate to know a few music writers like Michael Hong who I can discuss these experiences with. Michael currently edits and writes the Mando Gap, a Substack newsletter covering new Mandopop releases, and he also reviews pop singles from all over the globe at the Singles Jukebox (where I also sometimes contribute). I wanted to chat with him as a fellow writer covering East Asian music to see if some of the things I thought about was on his mind as well. Mandopop is a scene with its own place in the Asian music sphere, separate from Japanese music, but I was also glad to find some common points in our process.
I also wanted to share this conversation to make our writing and editorial processes more transparent for anyone else out there covering East Asian music, or for anyone aspiring to write about the topic in some capacity. I always stress that it’s music writing like any other, just trying to explain the unfamiliar by providing more valuable context, but there are also some obstacles unique to the subject that come up while trying to do so. We are all figuring it out on the spot. Hopefully, it can be one guide to look at because I know I can use some myself when I get lost.
Ryo: I got to know you through the Singles Jukebox, blurbing about pop music from all sorts of places, but I don’t know much else about you as a writer. What got you into writing about music? What kind of music did you start writing about?
Michael: I actually got my start writing about music from the Singles Jukebox! Before that, the only things I had written were on my private Blogspot, things that were only for myself. I kind of applied to the Singles Jukebox on a whim, just because I didn’t really have many people in my life who shared the same interests in pop music as me and thought that it’d be a great way to get my thoughts on my latest pop obsessions out there and also work on improving my writing.
Ryo: I don’t think I’d be engaging with non-Western music as a listener and critic had I not started writing for the Singles Jukebox. One of my biggest learning experiences as a writer came from trying to blurb about songs from an artist whom I didn’t know, based in a scene and country I was not at all familiar with, sung in languages I did not understand. Have you had any similar experiences writing for the site? How did you get over that obstacle?
Michael: Yeah, definitely. I remember the week I started, we covered Sơn Tùng M-TP’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg. I hadn’t heard any music from Vietnam, so at the time, it was a struggle to try and blurb about something like that. East Asian artists in particular listen not only to Western artists but also each other, heavily borrowing different things. Lyric translations can often be helpful, but the most rewarding thing for me was opening myself up to music from a more diverse background, trying to just be more curious about what kind of music is coming out from different areas. It’s definitely helped me rely less on focusing on any one part of the music, like the lyrics; and being able to pick at different parts, like where pieces of the production might be coming from; and contextualize what a track is doing differently compared to others from the same scene.
“Hãy Trao Cho Anh” by Sơn Tùng M-TP (ft. Snoop Dogg)
Ryo: I want to go back to that point you brought up about East Asian pop artists listening to Western artists. I think it gets missed in context sometimes, that the former is in conversation with the latter. You see a lot of acts influenced by Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and recently Billie Eilish in one way or another partly because Western pop music is just pop music in those countries, occupying the same space in the mainstream as the domestic acts.
I struggle to relay that context in my writing. I don’t want it to read like the many reductive descriptions of “they are the [Western artist] of [East Asian country]” that’s made by other writers because they lack any points of reference outside of Western music. On the other hand, though, sometimes an American artist ends up being the most apt connection to make when talking about a certain record; sometimes that one indie-rock band in Japan really is directly lifting their style from Mac DeMarco. How does mentioning Western music work whenever you write about East Asian music? Do you try to stray away from it? Do you feel comfortable connecting those dots?
Michael: There have definitely been comparisons of East Asian artists to Western artists that have felt extremely lazy—a big one is how G.E.M. has often been referred to as “China’s Taylor Swift” and even she herself has struggled to find any commonalities beyond being a popular woman writing her own music. Whereas, there’s comparisons like the influence of what The Weeknd and Dua Lipa were doing with the 80’s synth-pop sound on K-pop. The former comparison comes out as lazy and dismissive of G.E.M., as it doesn’t really help contextualize who G.E.M is or what she sounds like; the second at least tells you a lot about the music. Comparisons between these groups of artists help you understand where you might have heard that style before and where these artists are coming from when they produce something that sounds so similar.
I think the second kind of comparison can be especially helpful to any readers who aren’t familiar with that scene. These comparisons don’t just highlight specific influences of an artist, but they can also help readers understand the shape of the scene, like what prevailing trends are popping up in markets. It’s the former comparison I try to avoid, the one that begins and ends with a “Asian [Western artist].” When I draw comparison between Asian artists back to Western artists, I try to strike a balance, to help create a sense of familiarity for those who might not be as into the scene as I am, while also allowing the music to stand on its own. Back to one of your examples, many Asian artists are definitely listening to Ariana Grande and incorporating parts of her sound into their own work, but as much as the comparison may help contextualize it, as a writer you need to go beyond that. Readers should be able to understand what a track sounds or feels like without having to rely solely on your comparison to Grande.
There already has been a lot of information, so I’ll keep it short here. Enjoy the music, happy listening!
Album of the Week
Split EP by Kudaranai 1nichi & ANORAK! [Ungulates]
Out of any of Kudaranai 1nichi’s peers in Japan’s emo scene to serve as a palate cleanser to the band’s thorny, heart-on-sleeve rock, ANORAK! offer more than a simple treat on the two act’s latest split EP. The relative divide is apparent at least sonically. Sharing a guitarist in ANORAK!’s Tomoho Maede for this record, the former group’s scrawled riffs are more burdened by the weight of reverb in comparison to the latter’s more effervescent sound; the shift between the two is pronounced as the sparkling “Socks” enters the picture. But while the split EP format further illustrates the contrasts, it also effectively presents the emo greats as two sides of the same coin.
Kudaranai 1nichi can scan as sardonic from a quick skim. The moniker approximately translates to “a worthless day,” and their self-titled album last year similarly joins together songs graced with some slapdash titles such as “Red Eyes B. Dragon,” “Ramen Curry Fried Rice Cake Set,” and “True Record! [Geek Tears at a Beautiful Arpeggio].” But despite the attached phrases, the band’s mastermind Daisuke Takane sings lyrics earnest about fighting against life and the mundane. “You whispered if it’s OK at the place you disappeared / Your heart was gone the moment you jumped off,” the frontman shouts in the void in “Hardcore Emotion Club” as the rough-shot guitars play a slow, elegiac riff.
Takane’s laments carry over to Split, and the best track “I Guess So” once again finds his messages robbed of the opportunity to actually reach the person he wishes to address. “What could I have said? What could I have done / for you to be happy,” he sings. He rushes through his verses, his questions in the refrain breaking the breathless stammer and forming into devastating pop hooks; the riffs fumble its way through, tripping on its own speed. The guitars sound glorious at first through its sheer rush, though the exuberance reads more like a too-late effort to turn back time when paired with his lyrics.
This is the very part ANORAK! is now called on to follow up. Heavy pressure for any other, perhaps, but the band casually move along from the crushing songs of their emo partners with a sunny ride of “Socks” as if to begin anew on a blank slate. “Call Me By Your Name” doubles down on the jolly energy with a fast and loose pop-punk number. Maeda’s slightly slurred vocals befit the music like it’s all being thrown into the mess in real time without complete preparation.
While the preceding tracks establish a difference in mode, “The Same Gloomy Look” points to just why ANORAK! finds kinship with Kudaranai 1nichi beyond a mutual taste in emo. The jangling riffs sound as bright in attitude yet the opening lyrics suggest otherwise: “What I’m a bit scared of / is that I feel like I can’t go anywhere.” As alluded by the title, Maeda sings about listlessness while trying to navigate the day to day. Both bands wrestle with the same opposing forces. If Kudaranai 1nichi magnify purposelessness by applying crushing weight as equivalent to the experience to their music, ANORAK! capture it as an intense feeling that comes and goes.
“Paranoid” by Donut Real Elephant [self-released]
“Paranoid” already devastates in isolation, removed from its place as the second-to-last track in Donut Real Elephant’s great new album, Wannabe. “You will probably forget about me / meanwhile, I’ll probably forget about you,” Taisuke Yoneda opens the song with surprising candor while the rest of his band mates jam along an otherwise breezy indie-rock rune. The frontman shows slight doubt about whether ridding the bad will be that easy, though he’s immediately occupied by the mundane in the next song, the title track: “I gotta go / I messed up / the night bus is going the opposite way.” As its sequenced in the album, “Paranoid” highlight just how ephemeral things can be, from a precious relationship to the pain of holding on to it as a memory.
“Iron Board” by kotono [self-released]
The past two Sewing Machine EPs by producer trio Ableton Sisters have compiled two solo tracks from the “sisters”—asami, kinuyo and kotono—all on one record with each member individually displaying their own style of dance music. The format naturally inspires some friendly competition, easy for listeners to pick, compare and decide which of the three was the highlight after a full listen.
While asami’s drunk house grooves of “ASTRNAUT” stuck out in the first, kotono wins this round with “Iron Board.” The producer’s relationship with genres already seemed slippery in the previous Sewing Machine as a flirtation with lo-fi house preceded a full dive into electro-trance. “Iron Board” leaps into another completely different corner, grabbing at jungle, grime and drum ‘n’ bass. A crunchy chip-tune riff bleeps while a choppy breakbeat propels the track with speed. Echoes of chants and sirens further establishes the jungle-inspired ambiance. The other two siblings contribute harsh sounds and dizzying drum breaks, though the immersive feel of “Iron Board” edges them out.
“Silver Rain” by She Her Her Hers [Conditioner Label]
She Her Her Hers polished up their once-reverb-shot sound as they returned after a five-year hiatus, and the band lean more into the sleepy psych-soul bubbling up in Japan’s alternative rock scene. Though, the delicate ways in which they build the mood in a song has stuck around from their shoegaze past. Melancholy develops at a glacial pace in the title track of the latest Silver Rain EP, and the opaque stillness of the music deceptively suggests a moment of peace. “Swallowed by the winter’s morning, it faded away / there is not one sure thing, like the rain,” Takahashi Hiroyasu laments in the chorus, and the slow speed makes it even more bittersweet to watch his only love slip away from reach.
Silver Rain EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1986…
“Broken Sunset” by Momoko Kikuchi [VAP, 1986]
No. 1 during the week of Feb. 24, 1986 | Listen to it on YouTube
The production of “Broken Sunset” stole my attention right away. I had a different single planned to highlight for this week until I heard the puncturing, rapid-fire drum loop and the gorgeous, glossy synth riff heard in the song’s first 10 seconds. The bulky build of the drum-machine-made beat stamps the music as a definitive product of its time, and yet the synth-pop sounds dreamy as any of Momoko Kikuchi’s Showa idol peers backed by dramatic string bands.
Perhaps you were already familiar with Momoko Kikuchi’s embrace of a luxurious ‘80s sound thanks to her third album, Adventure—a city-pop classic and a mainstay in YouTube’s Recommended sidebar. But the idol is done vacationing in a mental getaway in “Broken Sunset.” The chugging guitars mean business, and paired with the electronic arrangements, the music paints a late-night scene with Kikuchi on edge, not unlike a past entry on this column, Anri’s “Cat’s Eye.”
“Broken Sunset” certainly sounds cinematic, though the production is only a side decoration compared to the opening lyrics that sets up a hell of a scene. While the idol sits passenger on a drive, the highway lit by a glowing sunset, her date suddenly stops the car radio to tell her this: “I’m in love with another girl, he confessed to me / with his eyes so sad.” Mind you, this all succinctly unfolds in the the first four lines. Kikuchi sounds shockingly well-composed—or is she petrified in surprise?— as she notes how the aftershock quickly ran through her body. With lyrical details so vivid yet delivered with her soft vocals as though at a remove, she sounds like an omniscient narrator of her own tragedy.
Though the second verse employs a neat trick in which the narrative shifts to the perspective of the date after he confessed, it’s honestly less delicious as a piece of drama than the place of the poor girl who sits speechless. “Standing at the edge of time’s cliff, the seasons I spent waiting for you / I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t cry,” Kikuchi sings in the chorus as the broken-up one in this split. The novela-like lyrics reinforces the fatalism as though her fate was always written this way, and Kikuchi’s emotionally distant voice makes the chorus sound even more forlorn as she accepts complete defeat to the situation at hand.
“More than any sadness, this moment where I lose you / this sea of loss goes on,” goes the parting words as the couple continues their drive, their car probably now filled with deafening silence. “Broken Sunset” leaves it up in the air as to whom the last verse belongs to, though Kikuchi’s destroyed sigh can really only belong to one of the party. The TV performances of the song shows the idol looking more stately than the tragic heartbreak may suggest. “Broken Sunset” hits even more devastating with Kikuchi narrating with despondency, like a cautionary tale that feels way too vivid to be made up.
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out March 10. You can check out previous issues here.
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