Issue #30: Akaboshi Aoboshi
Discussing the new Kayoko Yoshizawa album, a collaboration between Kiyoshiro Imawano and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the need for better ways to talk about J-pop
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
If you want to know the current sound and cultural mood of Japan, Ado’s recent viral hit “Usseewa” provides a great sample. “Ado is the latest Japanese artist to score a hit by reflecting a new generation’s unease about the way life in Japan works, standing out by how upfront (and how fierce her voice is) about it,” Patrick St. Michel wrote about the track’s mass appeal for Otaquest. And if you see a light resemblance in style and perspective with last year’s runaway smash “Yoru Ni Kakeru,” you’re not alone. Ado and YOASOBI share roots in the Vocaloid scene, and they both take on deceptively sprightly music to confront a glum reality.
There seems to be a growing group of artists of similar origins, sensibilities and outlooks on life like Ado and YOASOBI, most of them native to the internet. But as these acts start more conversations as they gain popularity, I want an answer to one looming question: what do we call the music they’re collectively making? They share enough recognizable stylistic choices to categorize their output as a new subgenre of their own. I think it’s time to reach a consensus on a name so it can be easier to discuss this specific type of music.
For private discussions with myself, I describe songs like “Usseewa” and “Yoru Ni Kakeru” as “post-Vocaloid” to respect both the artists’ roots and musical influences. The post- suffix also alludes to the fact these acts usually employ an actual human singer while still arranging the voice and lyrics on the software. Breathless, run-on vocal cadences and dense word choices, for one, feel like qualities rooted in Vocaloid music production. But I’m not necessarily advocating here that we used it. I’m just throwing one into the pile of maybe’s in hopes that others might also pitch their own suggestions.
We could use more of this process of “put a name in a hat,” so to speak, no matter how silly it may sound, until we draw one that we can end up running with. And there’s a lot more potential subgenres rising in popularity right now that very well could use a proper name. Like, how do we label Kenshi Yonezu and his genre-ambiguous doppelgangers shrouded in the shadows? Rate Your Music tags Yonezu under “J-pop” but also “Alternative Rock” and “Art Pop.” They might do to organize their music in an iTunes library, but none of the three feel specific enough to concisely sum up their style when used in a conversation.
There was a time when terms like shoegaze, mallcore, vaporwave, hyperpop and hundreds of other subgenre names did not exist. And sure, they still might sound ridiculous, but they at least convey a very particular sound, style or scene that’s difficult to exactly describe otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I need more of these terms at my disposal for when I discuss Japanese music. Adjectives can only do so much, and it’s less exhausting for me to sum up the basics as “math rock” than go on for the tenth time about how a guitar riff is jagged, angular or whatever else. I also wonder if I am tiring you, the reader, out for repeating words while I try my best to give you an image of a particular sound.
We’re going to end up with a lot of obnoxious tags during this process, but the only way to reach a good consensus is if we keep having critical conversations about the music and the music itself. It can feel like a Catch-22 in that it’s hard to start a conversation without the sufficient vocabulary, and it’s even tougher when it’s an underrepresented subject in the English-speaking community. But the only way we can gain the new vocabulary we need, and filter out the superfluous ones, is to first create it and then exercise it in conversation. I think a good amount of us understand “J-pop” no longer describes anything singular, if it ever did. It’s been time we introduce new terms to better discuss what we love to listen to.
And so that’s that on another episode of My Adventures in Writing About Japanese Music. It’s all music from here on out. I’m particularly psyched about the Oricon flashback for this issue that’s a meeting of two brilliant minds in Showa music. The Album of the Week features a new one from one of my favorite artists working today, which I am stoked that people can actually listen to this one since her music hit streaming services recently. The singles, as always, touch on multiple genres so I hope you find at least one cool thing there.
Oh! I was a guest for Lamniformes Radio! I’ve known the podcast host Ian Cory since we wrote for the music site Unrecorded back in the mid-2010s, and he invited me to talk about the newsletter, writing about music and a lot of other things. I had fun chatting with him, and so I hope you also enjoy listening to our conversation. You can listen here or from the player below.
I also set up a Ko-Fi for the newsletter as a tip jar if you want to show appreciation. A subscription to This Side of Japan is free, and you don’t have to pay money to access any published content. I appreciate any form of support, but if you want to, you can buy me a Coffee to show thanks.
Album of the Week
Akaboshi Aoboshi by Kayoko Yoshizawa [Victor]
I’ve described Kayoko Yoshizawa’s past music as “storybook pop.” Fantastical arrangements accompanied her first three albums, tying them to a world of make-believe. A unifying concept informed each of those records, and her songs functioned as pop allegories told through a childlike perspective. Following the more reality-grounded effort in 2018’s Jyoyuu Shimai, the singer-songwriter’s fifth, Akaboshi Aoboshi, initially suggests another return to innocence. But while Yoshizawa remains with her head in the clouds, her lackadaisical daydreams also inspire some of her most human character studies to date.
Though Yoshizawa invites more of the surreal back into her work, her music is tied down to earth. Where her early output might wander into vastness, she intentionally emphasized a sense of quiet intimacy for the production to stay true to the album’s thematic focus: a relationship between two lovers. The tracks retain some of the peppiness heard in the past yet songs like “Redial” and “Ryusei” play while trying not to wake up the neighbors. With their feet not too high off the ground, even the most dreamy songs feel bound to reality.
It’s not so much self-restraint than a reflection of the type of narratives Yoshizawa chooses to write. A gorgeous, ethereal chorus blooms in the string-driven album opener “Lucifer,” but her gossamer vocals also communicate an inconsolable distance that separates the titular angel. The melancholy swing of “Service Area” leads to a doomed chorus: “The lovers will land on a distant planet / and eventually burn themselves out,” Yoshizawa sings of the inevitable. These soaring songs soar are also chained by personal issues, preventing them from flying to exactly where they want to reach.
The singer-songwriter still has yet to shed her use of extended metaphors and fantasy-fiction language to tell her stories, but they’re now re-fit tools to explore complex, adult scenarios new to the world of her music. Sometimes the naive imagery softens a bleaker truth. Colorful ribbons distract from the tragedy in witnessing the gradual collapse of a relationship in in “Ribbon.” Sometimes the metaphors border on vague innuendo. “Without even knowing, the two of us in the warm water / forgot about it all and suddenly became one,” she sings in “Jello No Koibito,” a song about “melting together” that’s apparently about failing to turn love into something more solid and everlasting. Carried over from her songs of adolescence, her lyrical language now re-imagines the adult world as abstract and dreamlike as she sees it.
For all she dances around a darker reality, the closing track and the album highlight “Shishu” gets straightforwardly sincere. “Good night / hey, let me hear you say good night,” she requests in the chorus of the starry ballad. “All I have now is you / you’re the one for me.” The chorus wraps around its finger many different pains and wishes that came before in the album. The star-crossed destiny inside “Lucifer,” the fatalist yearning of “Service Area,” the need in “Jelly No Koibito” to leave behind some kind of physical proof—it all culminates in the song, driven by both a feeling of bliss and tragedy. If Akaboshi Aoboshi has any lessons to spare through its collection of rich storybook pop, it’s that those conflicting emotions go hand in hand.
“Blank Paper” by Denonbu Sotokanda Bungei High School [Bandai Namco]
Asobinotes has not stopped putting out Denonbu content since I’ve talked about the media project on the newsletter last November—looks like they did an online festival recently!—and the Bandai Namco-affiliated imprint serves more electronic-pop candy with their new batch of music for 2021. While its initial run consisted of solo character songs, they’ve been now progressed to what they call “area songs,” or subunit tracks that round up the three characters of each high school.
I’m particularly hooked on “Blank Paper,” the song for the Akiba area’s Sotokanda Bungei High School—home of the first three characters revealed when Asobinotes launched Denonbu. It’s a sweet, slinky UK-garage cut produced by TEMPLIME, who has crafted some sweet garage cuts for their own output. While the music hits more mellow than the solo songs handed to voice actresses Sena Horikoshi, Yuuka Shidomi, and Miho Amane, they nevertheless deftly tackle the skipping production. “I was scared to be alone / I didn’t know what I was good or bad at / But I was able to do anything once I forgot about all of it,” they sing as cool and nonchalant as the backing music. Paired with the cartoon music video that narrates their origin story, “Blank Paper” echoes emblematic of the thrilling media project.
“Gather the Lights” by JYOCHO [No Big Deal]
JYOCHO’s rock songs often feel gospel-like in the way they aim to reach musical as well as spiritual transcendence. It’s no different for “Gather the Lights,” the band’s tie-up track for LION’s new fabric softener commercial (featuring Yui Aragaki!). The title joins other evocative phrases like “Circle of Life” and “A Perfect Triangle, Rising Sun Human,” and the attached music hits just as sublime. The math-rock-indebted guitar lines are intricate as it is breezy, awe-inspiring than it is stupefying through its grand complexity. The pastoral touches from the flutes to the countryside guitar tones add to their wholesome embrace of nature. “I want to transcend sadness,” Netako Nekota opens the song. “I want to see my potential with a clear heart.” Though the band is still working to see the aforementioned light, they’ve already built a welcoming home to nurture it in full.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“OK!” by Only U [self-released]
With many Japanese rappers taking on styles of Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert, it comes to no surprise to see someone like Only U hit up a “type beat” producer to get their music as close to the source as possible. For his January upload, “OK!,” Only U tapped Uno Jordan, a New Jersey beatmaker whose YouTube account features dozens of instrumentals with artists like Carti, Uzi and Trippie Redd in mind as their base sound.
Uno also has more than a few mimicking the tracks of Jetsonmade, the producer known for his work with DaBaby, and “OK!” resembles the latter’s Playboi Carti contribution, “@MEH.” The shiny, tumbling synth lines and the fat, pinging bass link the beat if not to Jetsonmade specifically than definitely Carti’s Whole Lotta Red. The twinkling production gets Only U in his feelings, splitting his Auto-Tune-driven verses between being sprung and high off life. He chirps like Carti, croons like Uzi and spits out a sugary earworm like the both of them.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1982…
“Ikenai Rouge Magic” by Kiyoshiro Imawano & Ryuichi Sakamoto [London, 1982]
Bills are flying everywhere in the music video for “Ikenai Rouge Magic”—30 million yen to be exact, and they’re all real. Kiyoshiro Imawano and Ryuichi Sakamoto keep grabbing at handfuls of cash stuffed in their oversized coats. The two later emerge from an upright casket, buried in money, and they’re caught in a windstorm of bills throughout the rest of the clip. Paired with the flamboyant glam-rock music and Imawano’s roaring howls, the whole scene provides perfect imagery of the expensive indulgence the culture will later observe as Japan heads deeper into the Bubble era.
While the two musicians stood almost as equals when they recorded “Ikenai Rouge Magic,” Sakamoto once felt outlapped when he first heard the late Imawano on “Boku No Sukina Sensei,” the 1972 single by the latter’s former band RC Succession. “I was in college having no clue what I wanted to do,” he shared in a 2009 radio broadcast. “We were in the same generation, but he was already breaking out in music, and that was a shock to me.” Sakamoto was playing as a session musician while Imawano, only a year senior, became one of the key figures who’ve come to define Japan’s rock music that decade. Hardly any of RC Succession’s ‘70s releases made the charts, though he left enough of an impact in the public consciousness for TBS to eulogize the frontman as “king of rock” when he died from cancer in 2009.
The two were pop acts as much as they were contemporaries by the arrival of the ‘80s, popular enough for their names to appear in a boardroom conversation. After beauty giant Shiseido passed him a demo to field any ideas, producer Kenichi Makimura threw out how it would be interesting to pair together Imawano and Sakamoto for this jingle promoting lipstick. The Shiseido connection explains the “rouge magic,” though the heavy makeup is a rather natural result considering the minds involved. “It was a normal thing for me,” Sakamoto laughed in the radio broadcast about him applying makeup during those days. He said they also looked at acts like T. Rex for inspiration, wearing the glamor on the production as well as their appearance.
The music of “Ikenai Rouge Magic” indeed puts on those British influences on its sleeve. The bass line teases a baggy groove, and the swell of the glittered organs sporadically tumble in the track. The guitars gets showy with a roaring intermittent solo that most closely eyes the aforementioned T. Rex as a model. That said, it also serves as a natural extension of RC Succession’s work around this time as the band was adapting to a changing decade. Whatever it was channeling it played a fitting support for the belligerence displayed by Imawano.
Imawano’s swaggering performance gives the song an off-the-cuff feel. He beats the original title of “Suteki Na Rouge Magic” (fabulous rouge magic) assigned by Shiseido to the dust with his unpredictable, grizzled voice bringing a sense of uncontrollable thrill as much as danger. Applying make-up feels fashion-forward as it does taboo and punk not only under the title of “Ikenai Rouge Magic” (roughly, forbidden rouge magic) but also that mercurial performer at its center. Honestly, the song’s association with Shiseido almost goes out the window the second Imawano enters the track. I’m not thinking about lipstick, instead interested to hear more of what the frontman decides to bring to the record.
His audacious personality ended up winning Imawano a new generation of fans who were a bit too young to come across RC Succession when they first hit the scene. A couple of fan blogs reminiscing on “Rouge Magic” note how the record entered their lives around the end of elementary school. “For our generation, RC Succession was both a band that was within reach and challenging for a child to get into,” music journalist Sawada Taiyo wrote in his Note blog. “Thinking back even now, though, how can you not be interested seeing an artist doing whatever he wanted, make it in top 10, and perform on TV like that?”
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out April 21. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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