Issue #47: Big World
Exploring the new MONDO GROSSO album, ASIAN KUNG-FU- GENERATION's number-one hit and Horoyoi's mash up of two J-pop classics
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
The marketing team behind Horoyoi had done wonders to sell the canned chu-hi as more than an alcoholic beverage and into a hip, cute lifestyle accessory, and its latest ad nods to a subculture cool to further raise the drink’s taste level. The team’s attempt to earn a buy-in from the hipsters seems obvious enough through the commercial’s visual motif, and especially the central animated character1, that seems cribbed from the anime image still gracing the lo-fi hip hop radio stations on YouTube. The ad, however, proves its zeal through its original song which mashes up two iconic records: Kenji Ozawa’s “Konya Wa Boogie Back” and tofubeats’ “Suisei.”
The kZm x Chiako Sato version of Horoyoi’s “Konya Wa Boogie Back” x “Suisei” mash-up
I hate to admit it, but the mash-ups are fantastic. The Horoyoi team really knows how both of the original records function as a badge of cool as well as symbols that represent the subculture of their respective era through their mood and influences. As the mash-up puts the two records in conversation with each other as related texts, the sequencing behind each version plays key in establishing the mood and message of the overall result.
Each song relies on the other for the whole mix to work. Ozawa’s “Konya Wa Boogie Back” stands tall by itself as a cultural giant, emblematic of not only the Shibuya-kei scene formative to ‘90s Japanese subculture but also the shift observed by Japan’s then-new pop into its postmodern iteration of J-pop. But the era-defining record also wears its age, often used as a nostalgia piece, if not a retrospective statement. Romantic as it reads, Ozawa’s reminiscence in the chorus about that wonderful song he heard on the dance floor is also fodder for other singers to borrow and look into the past with rose-colored lenses.
Tofubeats’ “Suisei” levels the innocence of “Konya Wa Boogie Back” in the mix to meet a more modern attitude. In exchange, “Suisei” piggybacks Ozawa’s record to raise its name recognition as well as overall mood. Several years since the 2015 cover by DAOKO, “Suisei” lives on like a secret handshake as much as a classic between late millennials who dug for new music more on the internet. While as enamored by dance music and hip hop as Ozawa in “Konya Wa Boogie Back,” tofubeats also can’t help but be distracted by his thoughts about his own future to fully lose himself in the present. The chorus echoes the ambivalence perhaps once felt by millennials who headed into the 2010s with a less clear future ahead of them than their previous generation.
The version of Horoyoi’s mash up that more prominently references “Suisei” in the production fittingly sounds more melancholy. The G-funk-esque synth riff2 from the tofubeats track adds a shade of blue associated with the original song. “The mirror ball goes round and round, let’s ride it to Mercury / But tell me, what’s there beyond all the things we’ve already seen,” Tomoko Ikeda3 sings the titular chorus of “Suisei.” The lyrics to the chorus of “Konya Wa Boogie Back” then follows as if to provide an answer: “A graceful light from the dance floor / such an enveloping harmony,” sighs TENDRE. While the beat communicates the burnt-out attitude of “Suisei,” the wide-eyed lyrics from “Konya Wa Boogie Back” assures there will be bright times ahead.
The other version, now focusing more on “Konya Wa Boogie Back,” fleshes out that blessed feeling of discovery central to Kenji Ozawa’s classic. “Boogie back, shake it up / sweet, sweet milk and honey from the lord above,” kZm and Chiako Sato together sing. The two sound over the moon stumbling upon a life-changing piece of music, and their shared bliss colors tofubeats’s lyrics with a lot more optimism about the future ahead. Paired with “Konya Wa Boogie Back,” the mirror-ball ride of “Suisei” suggests a desire to explore to find what else might be out there rather than staring down a doomed journey to a dead end.
Horoyoi essentially paying homage to homages gives the mash-ups an impression of them as products from a game of Telephone. The flattening of time and context is expected, too, given how the commercial seems partly inspired by the algorithmic radio on YouTube. But Horoyoi building its own aura of cool from borrowed nostalgia paradoxically makes the whole enterprise feel only more modern. The hip hop that caught Ozawa’s ears is still a source of cool, and the ambivalence of “Suisei” reads as relevant today. Listening to Horoyoi’s mash-up, maybe things haven’t changed all that much.
I’ve yet to try any flavor of Horoyoi but, boy, do I want to. I was also inspired to check out a bit more from Kenji Ozawa’s discography thanks to the Horoyoi ad, though Dogs didn’t wow me as I would have liked. LIFE is still an essential, though! His music is not available on streaming, but I recommend that you seek it out, at least for the “nice vocal” version of “Konya Wa Boogie Back.”
We got more words ahead on some more Japanese music. I’m particularly surprised how much this issue’s Oricon flashback inspired words out of me despite me never listening to the band’s music prior to assigning myself with the project—but this is exactly why I take these things on! The Album of the Week, meanwhile, comes from someone who has already appeared in a recent past issue, and someone who has inspired many words out of me in the past even before I got on Substack.
Oh, and I got to interview Kyary Pamyu Pamyu for Tone Glow! I got to chat with her about her 10th anniversary in pop as well as her new album, Candy Racer. You can read the interview here.
Album of the Week
BIG WORLD by MONDO GROSSO [A.S.A.B.]
The guest singers in the new MONDO GROSSO album, BIG WORLD, sings with a peculiar urgency to remedy a lingering issue best articulated by millennial parade’s ermhoi in “FORGOTTEN”: “We’ve forgotten how to feel,” she sighs over the otherwise steady-moving house beat. “We’ve forgotten / the joy of dancing.” It’s one of the many responses to the album’s guiding theme—“a soul-searching journey in a changed and constantly changing world”—posed to Shinichi Osawa’s collaborators, who all embrace the producer’s pumping dance beats to inspire others to feel the moment and start moving with purpose again.
Osawa rendered the here-and-now with a lot more patience in his 2017 album, Reborn Again and Always Starting Anew. Warm, languid R&B stretched time into infinite, and the album’s best songs indulged in a precious moment as long as possible, sometimes manipulating the music itself to turn mere seconds into minutes: “TIME” devises a neat trick in which the song’s tempo slows down into a half time come the chorus but not before featured singer (and longtime collaborator) bird sings, “we surpass each other then we can turn back the time.” The music appeared in absolutely no hurry as it figured out how to dissolve the beginning and end, focusing on the very present taking place in between.
Some songs in BIG WORLD share a similar power as the 2017 record, sealing listeners in its own universe and sense of time. Nothing within the hypnotic piano riff of the vacuous “IN THIS WORLD” seems to exist but you and the ethereal voice of Hikari Mitsushima. “We’re awkward creatures who just want to be happy / so let our five senses dance,” she sings a series of cryptic lyrics but no less enchanting as their last collaboration. “LAST HEART” wraps you with synth-pop as warm and tenderly as the disarming love sung about by Yorushika’s suis: “This last heart / see through it all / and reveal everything / this shaking, overflowing love,” she sings in the chorus with abandon.
But even at its most gentle, BIG WORLD expresses a deep hunger for life and love with the caveat either can disappear at any minute. Suis in “LAST HEART” alone thirsts for one final, satisfying love at the face of an impending apocalypse. The preceding track “OH NO!” is driven by more simple, pop pleasures of Osawa’s sizzling electro-funk riff, but CHAI sound no less adamant to pull you into the center of commotion. Dongurizu in “B.S.M.F.” won’t take no for an answer for us to hit the town and make the best of a Friday night: “bullshit, motherfucker,” they hit back like a friend catching your bluff that you’re not in the mood tonight. The understanding behind every song is that there won’t be another day like today.
As a producer, Osawa strikes inspiration out of his vocalists not only by identifying the strength of their voices but also transporting them into an environment outside of their usual field of play. Awesome City Club’s PORIN benefits a lot becoming the weekend warrior feeling Osawa’s sleek electro-house beat—a far cry in style from the flowery, formalist J-pop of her main band. The best comes from returning guest Asuka Saito from Nogizaka46. Her hushed vocals works wonders over a blurry shoegaze riff, like she’s fulfilling her secret calling as a frontwoman of a dream-pop act. Her vocals in “STRANGER” also become a metaphor: While its flatness once communicated the numbness felt from staring down one’s own insignificance, such a colorless fate is the very thing she kicks and screams to break away from.
Insistent as its collaborators sound for you to make the best out of the present, BIG WORLD ultimately understands not everyone can be as as enthusiastic to embrace life as, say, Dongurizu in “B.S.M.F.” If so, Osawa only hopes his music can be the one to help you get through the tough times. “Please, fill both of your arms with sadness / and throw it to me,” Mika Nakashima calls out in the chorus of the penultimate track “OVERFLOWING ”to those who are less emotionally equipped to handle the pressure. “The song will let it all pour out.” Osawa and his collaborators in BIG WORLD acknowledge different ways to cope with the ever-changing world, but their faith in beats and music as the remedy remains unanimous.
“Punish” by 4s4ki & gu^2 [Victor]
Hell seems like an amusing place coming from 4s4ki, who phones in from down below like a crank caller in the intro of her new Here or Hell EP. Well, a far better alternative compared to her current life situation anyway. “If this is despair, then what is hell,” she sighs in “Punish.” “This reality is a given punish.” While 4s4ki occupies a similar maudlin perspective as her 2020 album, Your Wonderland, the soft, plush synths are now replaced with much harsher, harder EDM. Before you can properly marinate on the bleakness of the lyrics, the gurgling bass line overtakes the entire space of the song. She seems like she’d rather get lost in the noise than focus on the present anyway.
Here or Hell EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“JH25” by SANRAKU STORE [self-released]
Information currently runs scant about SANRAKU STORE, but the band’s scattered credits in their latest self-titled EP suggest they may not hold an official line-up of members. The potency of their instrumental rock, though, runs uniform in their new record regardless of personnel. A classic math rock riff signals the start of the EP’s opening track, “JH25,” and the guitars continue to crochet zigzagging lines with a breeze. The 120-second jam ends all too fast: the compact track has room to work out its scribbled riff for several more minutes.
“I Can’t Hide” by Snowk ft. Kei Owada [Namy&]
Snowk dim the lighting of their feelgood house in “I Can’t Hide” to signal the wee hours. The producer duo’s slow-burning R&B gets Kei Owada in her feelings, and the music inspires the guest singer-songwriter to gather more vulnerable material than the joyful platitudes in her LIFE EP. “Come with me / I want to get to know you more,” she sings in the chorus, swearing the feelings between her and them are mutual. “I want to stare into the forever in your eyes.” The languid music helps keep up the fine facade that Owada has her emotions in check, though the lyrics about a burning, unrequited desire suggests otherwise.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 2006…
“World Apart” by ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION [Ki/oon, 2006]
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION’s greatest-hits compilation, BEST HIT AKG, strangely doesn’t include “World Apart,” their first and so far only Oricon number one. From their 2006 album, Fanclub, the four piece decided to feature instead a non-single, “Black Out,” in its place as well as actual single “Blue Train,” which charted fourth. AKG’s decisions and personal feelings toward the song remain their business, though one thing seems pretty clear: making it to the top of the Oricon didn’t seem to matter much to them in the case of “World Apart.”
A different number-one record of theirs took up a lot more stock in the mind and trajectory of AKG. Their 2004 chart-topper Sol-fa was a victory lap of a sophomore record. Constantly rising in status since going major in 2003, the band had began to really reap the fruits of their labor after their breakthrough: for one, they got to join the same level of billing in Summer Sonic 2005 as their heroes Oasis and Weezer. But the success with Sol-fa also inspired them to be more critical about their next move in order to avoid redundancy.
“Since ‘Siren,’ there has been more and more songs written while putting feelings first, but this time, we learned the hard way that we have to set aside time in the end to organize it,” the band’s chief songwriter Masafumi Gotoh told Excite Music in 2006. “For Sol-fa, we were just thinking about how fun it felt playing the music, and we ended up following what felt good to us… But if we set a certain direction and follow it straight through, we end up with the same songs. So this time we spent some time stepping back and thinking about it together.”
The effort resulted in Fanclub, an album described by fans as being darker and “monochrome.” AKG’s influences from punk such as Number Girl and Hi-Standard as well as Britrock like Teenage Fanclub and Oasis once seemed very legible from their sheer energy, but they stood a bit slicker in Fanclub with their hands stuck in their pockets. The loud, inspired power-pop of Sol-fa cooled into a more reserved alt-rock in “Blue Train.” The four piece appeared more careful not to step too far outside the lines in “Black Out.” I can’t confirm the claim in its Wikipedia page that “World Apart” was a product of the label asking for a more obvious single, but I also can understand a want for something livelier.
And though AKG delivers something with a bit more verve in “World Apart” than the songs from Fanclub included in BEST HIT AKG, it’s only the surface details that scan as a feeling resembling excitement. The buzzing, white-hot guitars seem familiar as what’s expected from the stage-conquering version of AKG as the world knew from Sol-fa. But Gotoh’s screams don’t communicate triumph as much as it does anxiety. “I lost even you / in this imaginary world,” he shouts in the chorus. “And I understood.”
“It wasn’t so much about being frustrated from not being accepted, it was me turning more inward. I was getting impatient by the band in general,” Gotoh said to Rockin’on in 2015 about being more strict to his band mates while making Fanclub. “We got to write better songs. We got to get more creatively interesting. If we’re to be finished, we’re going to just be this band that sold a lot. I wanted to have something more lasting.”
Gotoh indeed zooms out to stare at the bigger picture in “World Apart” and the view overwhelms him enough to leave him frozen. “From so far away / sadness struck the building / reality numbed / in the tiny apartment,” he screams in the chorus. The efforts to be loud and exuberant in the song seems almost forced in light of the disillusionment that also permeates the rest of Fanclub. But their insistence to get rowdy despite it all also reads as a conscious, if not desperate attempt to not let the band’s momentum stagnate and fall into complacency.
Though Sol-fa remains on top in the AKG catalog in both success and legacy, Fanclub hold a place just as significant in their discography for both fans and AKG themselves: “I think that’s when we really became a band,” Gotoh said looking back in 2015. Maybe other songs from it represented Fanclub better, but “World Apart” is undoubtedly inspired by the same pressures that defined the mood of its home album.
This Side of Japan has a Ko-Fi 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 a Coffee to show thanks.
Next issue of This Side of Japan is out March 9. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
Need to contact? You can find me on Twitter or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kotone Furukawa plays the girl in the live-action portion of the ad, and she shares an uncanny resemblance as the lo-fi hip-hop radio girl.
That iconic riff is actually a sample of KOJI1200’s 1996 track “Blow Ya Mind,” off of his album, I Love America. Tofubeats’s questioning of the prospects of his future only rings more bittersweet when you learn the foundation of the music consists of a song directly from the period when musicians’ being enamored by the freshness of Western pop music, particularly hip hop and R&B, inspired more innocent takes of its influences—just like Kenji Ozawa and Scha Dara Parr’s “Konya Wa Boogie Back” from 1994.
Tomoko Ikeda also raps the verses originally by Scha Dara Parr in “Konya Wa Boogie Back,” and her cool, whispered, almost monotonous flow sounds so indebted to DAOKO and her raps in the 2015 remake of “Suisei,” further winking at the source material while giving Ozawa’s classic a modern twist.