Issue #32: Move Like Light

Discussing the new mekakushe album, a Princess Princess single, and Perfume's recent virtual performance now streaming on Netflix

Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.

The below write-up contains spoilers to Perfume’s Imaginary Museum “Time Warp,” the group’s online concert now available to stream on Netflix.

A virtual Perfume concert was not a question of “if” but “when.” The trio’s visual theme has historically focused on futuristic technology. They latched on to it during the early days to present their electro-pop music in a more familiar context to an audience new in the genre: the group’s major-label debut, 2004’s “Linear Motor Girl,” practically introduced A-chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi as androids. The aesthetic meshed well enough for the group to adopt it as their core visual identity and evolve it into something far greater. Perfume’s live shows have now reached a point where their breakthrough 2013 Cannes performance more resembles a draft to the later spectacles.

Considering the achievements of Perfume and longtime visual-media collaborator Rhizomatiks from the past decade, I couldn’t help but think that last September’s online concert Imaginary Museum “Time Warp”could’ve been more impressive had they’ve been given more ample time to flesh out the idea. The team didn’t necessarily settle on a virtual live set by choice with COVID-19 shutting down in-audience shows for the indefinite future. Perfume themselves had to cancel a promising tour behind their best-of triple disc, P Cubed. The shows didn’t last a month until they had to stop altogether, and from the looks of what’s recorded in their “P Cubed” in Dome DVD, it was a live show that topped the quality of the tours behind their past two studio albums.

Imaginary Museum “Time Warp” begins precisely when Perfume had to announce the tour cancellation, just hours before the show. After a flashback to the breaking news, the virtual set proceeds as P Cubed” in Dome does to show what could’ve been. The intro tune, “Opera,” mixes all of their singles into a seamless mash-up with a holographic pyramid shape-shifting to the beat, like it’s Perfume’s own jukebox machine from the future. Then enters the silhouette of A-chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi, dramatically inhaling and exhaling before launching into the earth-shaking low-end of “Game.”

Read the rest here

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Thank you for allowing me to fulfill my annual duty to go long on Perfume, my number-one favorite group in the whole wide world. With that out of the way, we can now continue to the main newsletter. This issue’s Singles Club highlights a few buzzing collaborations while the Album of the Week is a lot more on the quiet side. Hope you find something new. Happy listening!


Album of the Week

Hikari Mitai Ni Susumitai by mekakushe [mekakushi]

Recommended track: “Bara No Hana | Listen to it on Spotify

For how insular her delicate pop feels, Mekakushe refined the songs inside Hikari Mitai Ni Susumitai while thinking hard about how her music can be embraced by a wide audience. “I’m doing this to be heard, and I thought people wouldn’t listen to it like this,” the singer-songwriter explained to Real Sound about hearing the original draft of “Watashi, Fiction” arranged by frequent collaborator Shota Nozawa. Her time spent studying chart-topping hits doesn’t go to waste, rewarding the album with a renewed focus in rhythm. Mekaksuhe’s desire to reach out to others in Hikari Mitai Ni Susumitai, however, manifests in richer, more poignant ways than efforts to tap into mainstream appeal.

That said, mekakushe still writes pop music not too often found in the Oricon. Since she began putting out records as Hirone-chan in 2014, the singer-songwriter sounded like a meek wanderer of her own mind. Her arrangements have grown more ornate, though her songs have remained hushed like a secret reading of intimate notes even as she attached them to her current stage name. The highlight from 2019’s Heavenly EP, her debut as mekakushe, was a love letter meant to never be actually read by its addressee while the music hummed as soft and quiet as the singer.

mekakushe in Hikari Mitai Ni Susumitai, on the other hand, not only wants her words to be heard but close to her intended audience as an extension of her own being. “The dreams I saw as a child scared me / so please stay closer by my side,” she begins “Hakoniwa Uchu”; “if you can / please stay / until I am done singing this song,” she later asks. More than any production tricks, the constant “you” and “I”s in the verses hold attention while establishing a deeply personal relationship. mekakushe isn’t just sharing secrets, she counts on you to keep it between you and her.

Not to disregard said production tricks. mekakushe apparently listened to Vocaloid songs as inspiration for possible ways to keep listeners engaged, and it shows more obvious in the album than her studies of popular hits. The sudden pivots in the arrangement of “Papercraft,” the negative space in between elements of “Watashi Fiction,” the micro breakdown toward the last third of “Hakoniwa Uchu”: the production liberally plays with its structure at a micro level, employing twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes.

Her verses also roll out in an unpredictable manner. Couplets often seem unrelated with what came before. “I have about 20,000 words stocked up, and I choose phrases from there as I write songs,” mekakushe told Real Sound, and her lyric-writing process explains the collage feel. “I swim late at night / I become a whale / The bubble from my tears disappear into the ocean,” goes an abstract yet evocative line in “Okujo Nite.” The slight somber piano-pop that houses these thoughts has its head stuck deep in the clouds as the surreal details mekakushe spits out.

By the same token, “Okujo Nite” shares lyrics like this: “I decided to count on you / I’m going to leave everything of mine to you.” These direct lyrics cut especially sharp as they emerge from a more ambiguous non-sequitur, delivered in a deceptively friendly pop melody. And these moments of connection feel poignant when it’s the other way around, with mekakushe concerned about your well-being. “Really, I want to live with you / keep laughing with you!” She assures in “Paper Craft,” consoling a lonely soul down on their luck. Dozens of lyrics like these are tucked in the corners of this album, and their sincerity may take a bit to register as she sings them as a casual aside.

mekakushe openly shares tenderness without being too sweet, but more importantly, she empathizes with pain in the best songs of the album. “I have to tell you / while I can feel the hurt / from you unable to stop crying,“ she sings in “Bara No Hana,” powerless in the face of another broken heart yet still full of love. It’s unclear whether or not Hikari Mitai Ni Susumitai can gain mekakushe a wide audience by a significant margin as she hopes. The LP, however, will be heard and embraced by whoever decides to crack the album open, particularly those who can use some music for companionship.


Singles Club

“Liquid Talk” by Keiju [PAL.Sounds]

Out of the four founders, DJ/producer Keiju hands in the breeziest tune for the debut EP of Kyoto dance label PAL.Sounds. While he has been dabbling more in UK garage lately, “Liquid Talk” slows down his usual tempo for a languid deep-house record. The airy chord loosens the vibe like a needed exhale while the glassy bells lull the track into a trance. Before it fully settles into a state of calm, though, the producer indulges in some knob-twiddling to spice up the main synth into a wobbly, funky riff. The chillness provides a nice fade-in to his group mate ktskm’s laid-back yet break-heavy contribution, seamlessly passing the baton to introduce the rest of the EP.

PAL.Sounds1 EP is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp/Spotify.

See also:Night-Blooming Cerebrus” by Jun Kamoda; “Tomorrow Universe” by Kawatin

“Kujyo Cypher” by STARKIDS (ft. EDWARD(我), rirugiliyangugili & Yokai Jaki) [self-released]

STARKIDS alone make up one noisy rap collective, and the crew invited a set of even louder personalities for the “Kujyo Cypher.” For the posse cut, they darken their shiny, hyperpop-adjacent beats into something more gritty and dangerous. The blown-out music best suits Yokai Jaki, the red-haired guest whose screamo raps channel the berserk voice of Florida’s ZillaKami. Harsher than her usual songs, the production inspires a more extroverted verse from EDWARD(我) with her flexing alongside her peers with a can of Strong Zero in her hand. STARKIDS meanwhile are in their element, letting out an Auto-Tune’d scream of “we don’t give a fuck!” and proving their point that “STARKIDS are next up.”

Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:Kyohi” by kZm; “social phobia” by (sic)boy

“Presence I” by STUTS & Takako Matsu (ft. Kid Fresino) [Sony]

A new drama series has inspired Takako Matsu to return to J-pop. The last decade hasn’t seen the actress dip into music much compared to the first half of her 25-year-plus career. That said, her few records in the 2010s have been hard to forget. For one, she’s the voice behind the Japanese version of both Frozen themes, “Let It Go” and “Into the Unknown.” Another highlight has been the Shiina Ringo-penned “Otona No Okite,” the title track to her 2017 drama Quartet.

Matsu’s contribution for her new TV series Oomameda To Wako To Sannin No Moto-otto places her in a unique setting not so familiar to the actress. She plays the hushed singing counterpart to rapper Kid Fresino against an exquisite nocturne R&B beat arranged by “now” producer STUTS. Fresino doesn’t compromise much of his loose, stream-of-consciousness-like style as he reflects on love and his past mistakes. Not to be out-shined, Matsu reels his thoughts back in while offering emotional catharsis in the chorus. “Presence I” brings together an unlikely collaboration, though it’s a welcome one for all sides involved.

Listen to the single on Spotify.

See also:Ienai” by MAISONdes (ft. Rio Domura, 301, GeG); “How We Gonna” by SARA-J (ft. LOAR & fofu)


This Week in 1990…

“Oh Yeah!” by Princess Princess [Sony, 1990]

No. 1 during the weeks of April 30 - May 7, 1990 | Listen to it on YouTube

Princess Princess had earned the right to coast on their fame by the release of “Oh Yeah!” The quartet had gradually worked their way to the top throughout the ‘80s, and their grind paid off in 1989 when they started the new year with a headlining show in Budokan. That year saw the band reap in massive success with their 1989 single, “Diamonds,” as well as a number-one album, Lovers. When frontwoman Kaori Okui sang about a sea of lights and howling that won’t stop in “Oh Yeah,” they were all really living that life.

The obvious songwriting, though, also places “Oh Yeah!” more as stopgap material in scope of the bigger picture. The 1990 single hits on the basics of the Princess Princess sound, an ‘80s power-pop interlaced with ‘60s girl-group harmonies. The post-punk new-wave feel, plus a slight touch of horns, remind me of a more arena-rock version of the Bangles. Their performance know-how shows through the commanding chorus built as a call and response. “Oh yeah! I want to hold you / Let me hear you a little more,” Okui shouts, practically gesturing her ear toward an imaginary audience.

Fun as it is, the songwriting pales in comparison to some of the tracks included in Lovers. While reserved more for a cooldown during a live set, the tender melodies of “Tomodachi No Mama” understates the tragic break-up recounted within. More deceiving is “Ding Dong,” a lonely, singledom anthem disguised as an arena-rock stomper. The titular hook of the latter is as effective as “Oh Yeah!” to win the crowd’s engagement, thought it represents a feeling that’s the opposite of enthrallment.

“Oh Yeah!” doesn’t have an album to call home, compiled instead in their singles collections. Perhaps Princess Princess themselves recognize the single is an experience meant for a time and place outside of sitting down listening to an LP. Lip-syncing the lyrics while traveling in their tour bus, the quartet in the music video look like they’d also rather be out and about when the song is on. “Oh Yeah!” holds over for the band’s more proper work but it also satiates a need until they finally stop in your city to bring the experience to you.


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Next issue of This Side of Japan is out May 19. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.

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