Issue #38: I'll Put You in Misery
Exploring the new Tuyu album, Yumi Matsutoya's karaoke anthem from 1993 and the possible early '00s J-pop revival
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Shurkn Pap’s new song “24 Blend” revolves heavily around its sample, Toshinobu Kubota’s “La La La Love Song.” While the instrumental keeps hush of the source record, the intro chime notwithstanding, the chorus explicitly draws from the 1997 hit as a well of pop nostalgia. Featured vocalist Kzyboost interpolates the ‘90s classic, his signature vocoder further accentuating the feel of a bygone era. As if Shurkn Pap’s team decided it’s better to lean into the record than play coy about the inspiration, the lyric video is set against a Bubble-era-reminiscent graphic of an OL standing alongside a red sports car in front of a midnight skyline.
Many singers have covered “La La La Love Song” throughout the decades, cementing the song’s spot in the J-pop songbook, but it feels novel to hear the single sampled by a rapper during this current era. The novelty maybe dawns less on “La La La Love Song” specifically because it has been revisited countless times with the very purpose of channeling a blanket form of nostalgia. Used as a vehicle of a hip-hop song, though, Shurkn Pap interpolating Kubota’s song feels like a Japanese version of Tory Lanez singing over a massive collection of 2000s loops on his Chixtape 5 or Saweetie landing her own hit taking on Petey Pablo’s “Freek-A-Leek”: sampling as an act of canonizing local pop history as much as it is an attempt to re-package it.
Like the throwback to American ‘00s hip-hop in Saweetie’s “My Type,” Shurkn Pap’s reference to “La La La Love Song” signals that the pop fixtures from my childhood are now ripe to be sampled. And I’m curious to see what other J-pop hits from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s would be brought back in a similar sentimental angle. Maybe someone will put down big money to interpolate Hikaru Utada’s “Automatic” or rap over a loop of a L’arc~en~ciel riff. This year, DJ DISK sampled an Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s 2004 album cut, “Last Scene,” for kZm’s “Aquarius Heaven,” so that latter point might not be so far-fetched. Whether the artists correctly remember the past will be another conversation, but for now, it’ll be intriguing to keep an eye on which records from the late millennial’s childhood will be deemed worthy of a throwback.
Before we proceed to the main sections of this issue, I want to highlight a few recent pieces on Japanese music by others that I enjoyed. Patrick St. Michel’s series on the Olympics and Japanese music over at his newsletter Make Believe Mailer has been a great read. I also loved Homicidol’s 50 Greatest Alternative Idol Albums of the Last Decade, a weekly series that finally rolled out its top 10 just last weekend. It’s an amazing list that reflects on a decade of one of the most exciting scenes in Japanese music.
I am back writing about our Album of the Week, which I’d say is very now in terms of sound and content without giving too much away. But I hope you enjoyed our guest review last issue. Our other sections are business as usual. The Oricon flashback highlights a recent favorite discovery of mine, so I had fun writing about that.
Album of the Week
I’ll Put You in Misery by Tuyu [self-released]
Since their first viral hit in 2019, Tuyu have become the vehicle for the creative ideas of the group’s main composer Pusu but also an outlet to confront a unresolvable malaise. The insecurities at the core of “Compared Child” stems from Pusu getting surpassed by his peers in the Vocaloid scene of the early 2010s. But he was actually moved to put the feelings to song after reading tweets written by his followers about a similar dissatisfaction of being constantly compared. While the group has yet to find resolution in their second album, I’ll Put You in Misery, their poignant pop continues to strike a chord through mutually shared woes.
For Tuyu, Pusu applies the production skills gained while grinding in the Vocaloid scene into a full-fledged band like his hero kemu with Penguin Research or his peer n-buna with Yorushika. Familiar musical choices and sensibilities from that time carry over to the project, like the clashing guitars and pianos as well as a taste for speed and jagged textures. Arrangements are less stuffed, however, and the leaner music gives a closer impression of Tuyu on record as a band in the classic rock sense.
While Pusu’s production can seem demanding for an actual person to sing, singer Rei sounds unfazed tackling whatever she is handed. She matches the intensity of the music with equally piercing vocals, but she also expresses a deft sense of control keeping up with the sharp shifts in the arrangements. The singer nails a series of hairpin turns in “Damonisch”: she quickly withdraws from her staccato verse, synced to the blunt, chugging guitars, to prepare for the sprawling chorus ushered by a groovy piano section; the athleticism involved in the breathless chorus is better told through the group’s videographer AzyuN and their choreography of text. Rei’s performance exudes a thrilling virtuosity as much as Pusu’s meticulous arrangements.
But dexterity only defines half of Tuyu’s appeal. “Compared Child” leaves a mark through its infectiously complex music but also its lyrical exploration of a relatable ennui, and the best songs in I’ll Put You in Misery follow this trend. A similar lament to their 2019 track returns in the standout, “Loser Girl”: “Soon I was able to see what was around me / rivals, many of them / and also where I stand / looks like I don’t amount to much,” Rei sings, hitting a wall while pursuing her passions. The song’s origin as a record made specifically for idol group Pure White Canvas shows through its dream-chasing narrative, though its core struggle to reach self-realization speaks to those who also held “Compared Child” close.
Admittedly, Pusu’s lyrics often articulate inner frustrations without much grace in I’ll Put You in Misery. “What If This Isn’t a Slave?” doesn’t subscribe to subtlety in the slightest in both lyrics and structure, doubling down on its navel-gazing about a lack of self-motivation. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,” Rei shouts in the chorus. “Then why do I want to live? / I’m telling you, I don’t know, I don’t know / I’m just turning into a slave, a slave.” The song keeps circling back to the start and ultimately settles instead on a rather self-defeating position. The trajectory mapped in “What If This Isn’t a Slave?” bears open the flaws of Tuyu that’s not yet mended in I’ll Put You in Misery: their music may examine the rot but fails to leave behind a solid conclusion.
What Tuyu does best, however, is vividly expressing the emotional atmosphere when dealing with these impossible questions. The lyrics read maudlin and narrow-minded as they do because the songs are attempting to capture the mind at its most pressured and self-loathing. The music, meanwhile, accompanies that restlessness in searching for solutions with a fury and nervousness to match; the melodies package it into something deceptively accessible. I’ll Put You in Misery doesn’t contain the answers, but it wholly understands the desperate head space trying to look for one in all possible spaces.
“Shigatsu” by Kawaii Renchu [Air the rooM]
Kawaii Renchu’s Renchu I EP last year signaled a promising return to music from the pop-punk three-piece started up by former members of Akasick, and their recent rollout of monthly singles has been continuing on that goodwill. While they shook off the bad aftertaste of a break up with an IDGAF energy in their first drop, “Ultrawear,” melancholy gradually settles in the jangling indie-rock of “Shigatsu.” The track does provide some needed resolve from the humdrum riff via the shouted chorus, though singer Rihi sounds more like she wants to rip her hair out from butting heads with a former fling: “I’m just the kind of person / when things start to get good / gets ready to say goodbye,” she explains to a person who believe in a poetic thing such as fate. “Shigatsu” all concludes with a not-quite-satisfied sigh, but it’s perhaps an appropriate end.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Bosa Bosa” by Shuri [Tsubasa]
The pop singer formerly known as Shuri Uchida perhaps figured she took things a tad too seriously during her late teens. Compared to her 2019 full-length, Hikari No Naka Wo Oyogu, her recent run of singles has been considerably loose and light to the touch. The singer embracing low-stakes fun as she enters the first year of her twenties has been for the better, though, and “Bosa Bosa” directly reflects that very change in attitude. Recalling the dance-y ends of teen-rapper Rinne Yoshida, the single finds Shuri casually rapping over an ebullient house beat about her scrambled mess of a morning. The lyrics may read inconsequential on paper in the way a series of tweets can be—“damn, the train is coming soon / I want to look good and put on my Dior lipstick,” goes her train of thought—but the singer’s carefree cadence makes it beside the point whether or not it strikes upon anything profound. Shuri’s barely 20—her life doesn’t have to always appear so deep.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Mada Mitsukaranai_” by uku kasai [Maltine]
Uku kasai’s voice and the electronic music of “Mada Mitsukaranai_” seem to be at odds with each other. While the former wanders throughout the idyllic soundscape searching for something they can’t put a finger on, the latter appears less comfortable remaining lost as it introduces a skittering drum beat and a stuttering synth to inspire some momentum. But once uku kasai reaches their moment of clarity, the buzzing music, too, freely fires off as though its binds are finally broken. “Anger is relief,” goes the song’s opening line, and “Mada Mitsukaranai_” gracefully maps out that very thought.
This Week in 1993…
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Yumi Matsutoya [Express, 1993]
During its opening scenes, the 2018 film Every Day a Good Day establishes that the story’s first act is indeed set in 1993 by showing Haru Kuroki and Mikako Tabe singing Yumi Matsutoya’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on karaoke, the two just absorbed in the moment. Not knowing much about the record and its success, I initially thought of the Yuming song as a peculiar choice for its intended function in the movie. The singer-songwriter was a dominant creative force during the wake of the Heisei era, but her music didn’t seem commonplace enough to carry a reputation as a karaoke mainstay.
I instead perceived Yuming as a capital-A Artist more focused on crafting albums. Nippon Broadcasting’s retrospective from 2019 on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” also put attention to how infrequent she released singles compared to full-lengths. The singer-songwriter cut at least one album per year from 1978 to 1995, but a few titles during that period don’t have accompanying singles. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in particular was her first single in four years and the only one from its home album, U-Miz, her second full-length in 1993. Not to mention the premium placed on her LPs of the ‘70s and ‘80s from record collectors and city-pop fans alike: to my eyes then, she was an album artist through and through.
Yuming also has been known as a songwriter who strays from conventions and not one to play squarely into the direction followed by probable karaoke-staple hits. “I’m going to be frank, but I honestly think it’s boring,” a blogger wrote about the track in 2015. “The song doesn’t set up any tricks in the melodies. It’s not the ‘new music’ sound unique to Yuming that uses a lot of tension chords or fractional harmony.”
Nippon Broadcasting had a more favorable take but nevertheless seemed to agree on a similar point that she took a more orthodox approach. “Yuming’s songs are known to be easy to remember and familiarize but actually difficult to try to sing or play, but this one is the easiest to approach out of all of them,” they wrote. “Before, she seemed to be ahead of the times with sophisticated songwriting, but this was a song that shifted her into a big direction.” “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” then, forged new impressions of her music for a new pop era.
Perhaps the broad lines and easy-to-consume melodies stick out more than Yuming’s other songs because of the single being a media tie-in. They are an explicit result of an outside power adapting her music to be more palatable for the general audience, or so like that blogger might think. But more than any compromise to her approach, what Yuming instills in the song from the attached drama series, Dare Ni Mo Ienai, is the theme of fatal attraction. The opening bass line already allures with its hypnotic, tail-chasing figure, and the harpsichords loop right behind trying to fully grasp it. The song constantly presses up against its swelling tension with relief placed just out of reach. Yuming adds splashes of psychedelia to distract, but the chorus places us back into the heat of desire. “This is the end, just keep looking at me / like it’s going to burn away,” she sings. “Good bye, I’ll never forget / about the two of us tonight.” Her desire was always going to go unfulfilled, but the song reels her back into the thick of attraction, teasing her with hope despite her best efforts.
A complex arrangement or song structure would arguably get in the way of Yuming exploring such a primal feeling. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sounds designed to be direct, obvious and openly self-indulgent, and it’s precisely why the single makes for an ideal karaoke anthem. Embracing the vain chorus, with a tremble in your voice like Yuming, against the flamboyant guitars, grants an intoxicating sense of power; it’s a poignant moment letting that feeling go through its departing lyric. Why wouldn’t have the onscreen characters of Haru Kuroki and Mikako Tabe sung it on karaoke in 1993?
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Next issue of This Side of Japan is out August 25. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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