(Flipped) Issue #51: Ping Pong
We go deep into Kensuke Ushio's soundtrack for Masaaki Yuasa's Ping Pong, plus guest selections as well as words on AKB48's latest Oricon number one
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old! This issue is a Flipped edition, meaning we’re doing the opposite of the original format: we cover an older album and three older singles plus the newest entry in the Oricon. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
Welcome back to the newsletter! And welcome to another flipped edition of This Side of Japan. This being the first issue back from writing vacation, I decided to go long on one of my favorite albums by one of my favorite musicians. Like the previous one, I also rounded up supplemental albums as further recommendations, and so you’ll see that down below in place of the free write I usually do in this top space here.
The Singles Club section features a couple of guest writers who selected some great tracks for this issue, so make sure you check that out below as well. Happy listening!
Album of the Week
Ping Pong (Original Soundtrack) by Kensuke Ushio [Aniplex, 2014]
The first episode of Ping Pong: The Animation quickly cranks the heat while putting its central hero Peco in his proper place. The high-schooler wears a huge grin counting the cash won from a stick-up game at his local table-tennis club Tamura’s, like this has been his favorite pastime since he picked up the sport as a child. He soon finds himself in trouble, though, after challenging transfer student Kong Wenge, a drop-out from China’s national team with a score of his own to settle. Peco experiences a new, ferocious level of play, and a high-speed techno track sets the match in motion as it writes home the main message—the game has changed.
For the Ping Pong soundtrack, Kensuke Ushio crafts many flashy beats like the breathless techno workout, “Let’s Dance,” amplifying the Peco vs. Kong match. His dynamic backdrops and themes for the anime’s main characters draw inspiration from big beat, drum ‘n’ bass, and more techno offshoots, solid enough on their own right to work as material for an edgy dance mix. But just like how the show’s true heart lies in the trials during the preparation for the big matches, Ushio’s true voice as an artist reveals itself in the ambient stretch of the record’s back half. As if in the spirit of the main anime, he invites you to come for the intense action and stay for the tender self-reflection.
As a musician, Ushio initially resided in the periphery of the dance music fashioned in the first half of the Ping Pong soundtrack. He began his career under the wing of Denki Groove’s Takkyu Ishino, who hired him as an engineer on the spot when they struck conversation at one of his techno nights in Shibuya. “I think I can make tracks like the one for Kong’s games from working with dance artists a lot, and I know electronic music production so I can make break beats and hip hop tracks.” Ushio told Natalie in 2014. “No matter what tracks I make, the basic process is more similar than you think.”
If his time in the background granted him a deft grasp of production techniques, his love and respect for anime provided the drive. While he was given very loose parameters, he took it upon himself to compose a collection of stems for the music directors to piece together as they deem fitting. “He would think about the music editing side of it so much, he might as well have chosen the music for us,” recollected Masaaki Yuasa, the director of Ping Pong, to Natalie. “He would make music that were like transforming robots, and that was a lot of fun.” His meticulous undertaking results in the soundtrack’s sheer breadth of styles on display but also its quality control. The restless techno of “In Mirrors” resides in a whole other field of genre from the booming big beat of “Four-Eyes Attacks” or the high-concentration rush of “Let’s Dance”—all of them working too hard a sweat to be dismissed as mere genre exercises.
Techno shapes the character’s themes in exception of “Dragon,” each as distinctive as the respective character’s ambitions behind the sport, and the break beat plays especially essential for one of the show’s most important themes. Peco’s theme soars as free and agile as the titular character during his most locked-in match, and the beat’s boundless momentum expresses how engrossing a game he brings: the pure thrill of it enlivens even the most brutish player like reigning champ Dragon, who finds fun in ping pong for the first time in his life playing against Peco, unshackled from all personal responsibilities outside of the game.
When the hard techno simmers down during its latter half, the soundtrack reveals its humanity. The synth-speckled cloud of ambivalence looming in “Tenderness” can be directly traced to Ushio’s main project agraph, whose sleepy synths and soothing pianos file the music in the mid-point of IDM and electronica. The inherent stillness befits Ushio’s outsider position in relation to heavy club beats and the producers who craft them. Agraph tracks function well as comedown tunes, or as Ushio himself described it, lonely music made by his lonesome self, suited for the afterhours spent ruminating in solitude.
“The Melancholy of Dragon” lets a dissatisfaction linger like a bitter aftertaste, and the dim, twinkling synths pace back and forth like the exact word to describe the feeling at hand lay at the top its tongue. Themes like “The Melancholy of Dragon” takes more stock in the space of the anime than the lightning rounds of techno loaded in the soundtrack’s front half, sticking around more in memory, which come to no surprise: they provide the atmosphere in scenes where characters contemplate their relationship with ping pong and the life around the sport. These opaque themes resist settling into one clear emotional color, like a synth-pop inkblot. Even a theme with a definitive title as “Tenderness” wavers like it’s adjusting its lens in attempts to sharpen its focus only for its line of vision to become more washed away.
While these ambient stretches feel more embryonic in retrospect of his more pointed attempts in later soundtracks, this evocative yet elusive feel of his themes have become somewhat of a calling card for Ushio as a composer. His score compositions grow more tactile in material as the year goes by: sharp, ASMR-like strikes of piano keys puncture his later scores for the film Liz and the Blue Bird, fostering intimacy as much as unease. But it wouldn’t feel any less blurry, like it’s perpetually trying to remember a dream. He would devise this hollowness of his spacious IDM into its own poignant emotional palette for the music of A Silent Voice, the cobwebbed synths adding texture to a foggy mind of the film’s depressed teen protagonist.
Whereas Naoko Yamada, director of A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird, inspired Ushio to conslidate the blurry ambient tracks into a singular piece, Masaaki Yuasa seemed to draw out more sprawling, pop efforts from the composer for his works. The latter direction suits splashy, sometimes psychedelic anime like Yuasa’s Ping Pong, a show not afraid to visually express a powerful return as an electric dragon charging to the other side of the ping-pong table. Ushio’s soundtrack for Devilman Crybaby is structured similar to Ping Pong with it frontloading the dance tracks while doubling down on the flashiness of the beats. His indulgence in dance production only gets sharper and more diverse.
Ping Pong can seem green in comparison to Ushio’s later soundtracks. But his debut work remains precious from it being precisely guided by an innocence reserved for a first-time experience. While Ushio maintained high personal standards for his first-ever soundtrack, he employed a sincere, pure unit of measure: “I wanted to make something the anime-loving ‘mini Ushio’ in me can agree on,” he told Natalie, and the lack of a clear direction only got Ushio more eager to create with abandon. A wide range of techno tracks fly out of the door as if the composer is throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks; the foggy ambient remains raw as if he’s also searching for the right words in real time. The art reflects the process with Ushio returning to his roots, dwelling on what about his passion initially made him tick and gave him joy.
Branching Out from Ping Pong
The preparation writing about the Ping Pong soundtrack consisted of different media, which brought me new discoveries as well as a renewed love for old favorites along the way. Of course, I re-watched the anime series—a must-watch—and I ended up loving it even more the second go. But I also revisited Kensuke Ushio’s discography, both his soundtracks and his music as agraph, checked out the live-action film adaptation of Ping Pong1, and explored some of the music attached to said film. It took me down a deep, rewarding path, so I wanted to share my findings:
An Alternate Take
PingPong (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Various Artists [Ki/oon, 2002]
*Recommended track: “Yumegiwa Last Boy” by Supercar
While it’s unclear exactly how much the 2002 live-action film adaptation of Ping Pong influenced the music of the anime, the movie’s soundtrack curates a pool of dance genres very similar to Ushio’s for Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong. Yoshinori Sunahara’s bobbing techno could fit in a montage of matches without missing a beat while Boom Boom Satellites’s brash big beat is practically ready-made for a pre-game pump-up. The soundtrack also doubles as a fascinating if quaint snapshot of Japanese alternative music around the turn of the century, featuring rock bands infatuated by electronic music and electronica acts beefing up their music to suit rock-festival fields. Supercar stands as a band emblematic of this era, whose techno breakdown in “Yumegiwa Last Boy” seems fully removed from their alt-rock classic, Three Out Change. And then there’s the presence of Takkyu Ishino, who lies at the center of this electronica intersection while bringing the soundtrack’s connection with Ushio full circle.
More from the Artist
the shader by agraph [Beat, 2016]
Ushio’s first post-soundtrack release as agraph, the shader, showcased a rich stylistic evolution from its predecessor, 2010’s equal. The fundamentals remain intact with granular synths comprising tactile electronica beats that sparkle like constellations, but no longer could the music be completely described as quiet or bashful. Warbled, growling synths of “greyscale” cut through the tranquility sourced by the piano, and a harsh electro breakdown emerges out of the restless instrumental of “radial pattern.” The synths radiate vibrantly even as the tracks simmer down, the fuzzy glow like the one warming up “poly perspective” intimately familiar as the composer’s signature. If the range of moods explored in Ping Pong opened new doors as it did in the shader, I can’t imagine how expansive a new agraph album would be now with Ushio almost a dozen scores deep.
Come for the Action…
Devilman Crybaby by Kensuke Ushio [Aniplex, 2018]
Ushio whipped up a bigger, badder score for his second collaboration with Masaaki Yuasa. The range of styles on display brings competition for Ping Pong with the front half of the soundtrack introducing a flashy run of cinematic synthwave tracks while making room for some hip hop in “School Life.” Techno plays as central and more blockbuster in feel: “Judgement” and “Sabbath I” tower in scale, the former’s roaring synths fit to soundtrack a stadium EDM rave as much as a city in ruin. Tender, introspective themes signature to Ushio’s scores also reside in the track list, though I am admittedly more a fan of the electro tunes from Devilman Crybaby—including the re-arranged main theme of Devilman, featuring Avu-chan of Queen Bee.
…Stay for the Self-Reflection
A Shape of Light “A Silent Voice the Movie” Original Soundtrack by Kensuke Ushio [Aniplex, 2016]
Though it collects dozens of proper electronica tracks, Ushio’s soundtrack for Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice is geared towards those who prefer to let their mind wander along the more ambient stretch of Ping Pong. The grain of the instrumentals provide an intimate texture as if the fuzzy passages are incomplete pieces of unearthed nostalgia. I’ve always been fascinated by the overall atmosphere and how the textures align with what I imagine the physical quality of memory to feel like: a brief flash of hot light that quickly disintegrates before your eyes. The whole soundtrack feel fleeting, like it’s trying to make sense of itself before it all washes away.
We got selections from a couple of guest writers for this section! I’ve known these two folks way before I started writing about Japanese music, so I am happy to have them here and share music outside of my own listening. Enjoy!
“Yakusoku Wa Iranai” by Maaya Sakamoto [JVCKENWOOD, 1996]
Maaya Sakamoto doesn’t give even 10 seconds for you to comfortably settle into Yoko Kanno’s enchanting arrangements before cutting through the grandeur with a pair of sobering questions: “Hey, does everyone feel this lonely when they fall in love? / hey, does everyone hold on to a sadness deeper than darkness?” She asks about grief and heartbreak as if she’s trying to demystify a rumor she heard over the grapevine. The fluttering music continues to soar and yet Sakamoto couldn’t sing of more downtrodden ideas of love.
Then again, love might as well be a tall tale to someone who has never experienced it before. Her curiosity doesn’t cease, and what her series of questions suggest about what might lie ahead of her should spook out anyone from being in love. But while foreboding preconceptions occupy the song, Sakamoto sings with fascination more than fear of this alien experience, understanding sorrow is just the price of admission to feel something spectacular. Her faith in love even after knowing of the possible anguish becomes its own power. Wide-eyed wonder doesn’t fade from the singer’s voice while the music ascends in bliss. Nothing can stop her now. —Ryo
…from Grapefruit (1997). Listen to the album on Spotify.
“The Red Line” by Shinichi Atobe [Chain Reaction, 2001]
Shinichi Atobe has spent most of his career as techno lore and legend. The Saitama producer put out the second-to-last release on the legendary Chain Reaction label, the 2001 Ship-Scope EP, which remains one of the crown jewels of both the label and the dub techno genre it epitomized. Nothing was heard from Atobe until 2014, when the DDS label tracked him down and coaxed out six new Atobe albums as of this writing. All are of comparable quality to Ship-Scope, and he’s become one of electronic music’s most reliable artists, even as the possibility that he could pull another disappearing act hovers uncomfortably with each new Atobe release.
Yet Ship-Scope and its centerpiece, “The Red Line,” still cast a shadow over the Atobe catalog. That’s in part because “The Red Line” was the most substantial thing he’d put out for many years, taking up nearly half of Ship-Scope by itself, but mostly because it ventures so deep and crosses such expanses that it comes off like the heart of Atobe’s entire universe. The pad in the distance sounds frighteningly loud yet heard from far away, and the webs of texture in the foreground make the whole track sound as if you’re squinting at it through the rain and fog. It ends with what sounds like a snippet of a completely different track, as if “The Red Line” has punctured through the firmament of our world and gone multi-dimensional. At nine minutes, “The Red Line” isn’t especially long by Atobe’s standards, yet it feels larger than life.
Atobe refuses interviews and never performs live. For many years, skeptics believed he wasn’t even Japanese but an alias of a European producer, perhaps René Löwe or Torsten Pröfrock, until he revealed his face in 2020. The question of his identity still comes up, not least after the Modern Love Instagram posted that they were about to drop “another one from Torsten lol” in advance of this year’s Love of Plastic. But what producer in their right mind, German or otherwise, would establish themselves as one of techno’s most reliable and interesting artists and then pretend to be someone else? I think Atobe just wants us to believe his music washed up on a remote beach, rusted and corroded, rather than being made by human hands. And so long as he puts out tracks as frightening and elemental as “The Red Line,” the illusion persists. —Daniel Bromfield
…from Ship-Scope (2001)
“Walking in the Rhythm” by Fishmans [Polydor, 1997]
The opposite but equally magnetic poles of how to get into Fishmans are “Night Cruising” and “Long Season.” “Night Cruising” was a pop hit for the Japanese psychedelic band, a wistful ode to summer evenings spent aimlessly riding bikes or driving cars with the windows down. An instant dose of huggable nostalgia. If you’ve been around certain corners of the internet, “Long Season” needs no introduction. It’s a song as an album epic. A sprawling, 34-minute mass as ambitious as a King Crimson album, but with a sharp ear for pop hooks that constantly one-upped itself around every corner, each new minute revealing a new climax that set off like fireworks.
And at the equator between those two is “WALKING IN THE RHYTHM.”
Fishmans were a band that showed their influences on their sleeves: the pop savvy psychedelia of The Beatles, the dub and rocksteady mastery of The Congos, the longing dream pop of Cocteau Twins, the budding post-rock of Spiritualized and Japan’s own city pop that married virtuosic musicianship and pristine production with an uncanny ability to fish hooks out of thin air. The thrill of listening to Fishmans wasn’t seeing these influences on display but hearing how the band found the natural connective tissue between all of them, and on Uchū Nippon Setagaya, they fused the overlapping excellence from each genre into a sort of soulful gumbo. There were soft, cozy lullabies like “POKKA POKKA,” spaced out love songs like “Weather Report” and warm embraces like “IN THE FLIGHT,” but “WALKING IN THE RHYTHM” was everything Fishmans could muster at once, flexing every musical muscle they had.
“WALKING IN THE RHYTHM” begins with shuddering ambiance, broken by heavenly piano chords that sound like rays of sunlight busting through a cloudy day. Then, once the song kicks into gear, it becomes clear that the title is no joke. The foundation is built by the rhythm section, with drummer Kin-Ichi Motegi putting up an almighty, metronomic shuffle for nearly 13 minutes. Bassist Yuzuru Kashiwabara perfectly fits the niche between melody and rhythm, his impish bassline a lock for a Jimmy Cliff record. Kashiwabara provides a sense of stability as the song grows ever more delirious, even as he punctuates some of his phrases with bent, spicy notes that remind you there’s a human, not a machine, behind the perfectly played rhythm.
Singer Shinji Sato had a voice that sounded unnatural coming from a full-grown human. His cooing tenor occupied a similar space to Elizabeth Fraser’s angelic soar, and on “WALKING IN THE RHYTHM” especially, he sounds like a particularly cheerful alien teleported into the studio, or a curious cherub wondered into earshot.
Right when a normal pop song would close, Fishmans signal they’re just getting started. After a long, locked-in groove from Motegi and Kashiwabara, a violin shudders into a solo. “Solo” is underselling it; thanks to a tricky mix of delay and overdubs, it sounds like a sextet of strings have all beamed in from alternate universes, playing slightly different versions of the same solo. As they flutter and catch flame, the moments of discord are matched by sudden interjections of union that serve as the song’s heart-snatching climax.
Then the song’s title finally comes in, with the band chanting “WALKING IN THE RHYTHM” for nearly six minutes as the song lopes to its close. At first it feels like a joke. Are these guys really going to just roll with this? But if you allow yourself to submit to the song’s logic, it all makes sense. “WALKING IN THE RHYTHM,” the song and the lyric, becomes a sort of mantra, a 4/4 OM that provides balance, stability and a feeling of peace.
Fishmans would follow Uchū Nippon Setagaya with 98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare, one part live album, one part greatest hits. It’s often held by fans as the band’s finest moment, but, for my money, Uchū Nippon Setagaya is still the band’s peak. When Sato unexpectedly passed away, we lost a band in its imperial phase. They didn’t double down on Long Season’s progressive ambition, nor did they play back into more pop-friendly territory. Instead, they walked the tightrope and crafted songs that further burrowed into their strengths, making a surreal but immensely comforting album headlined by the repetitive hymn of “WALKING IN THE RHYTHM.” Perfectly magnetic. Perfectly balanced. Perfectly Fishmans. —Nathan Stevens
…from Uchuu Nippon Setagaya (1997). Listen to the album on Spotify.
This Week in 2022…
“Motokaredesu” by AKB48 [King, 2022]
It can’t be helped if lyrics are secondary, if not tertiary concerns whenever anyone checks out a new AKB48 single. The man who writes them has been caught treating writing lyrics for his family of idol groups like homework that he still needs to submit by due date. More focus has been also put on the performance side of a single lately, with attention placed on the idols reflecting on learning the tough choreography as much as what they think the song is about. And spicy gossip floated around this time around for “Motokaredesu,” mainly about its center girl Hitomi Honda and how she may or may not leave the group to put it lightly.
The distractions are unfortunate because “Motokaredesu” intrigues on the lyric front. The song’s narrative follows exactly as advertised on the title—“yes, I’m the ex-boyfriend,” it affirms—and the idols find themselves in a peculiar position assuming the titular role. The disparity between the song’s protagonist and the actual singers reminds of Yasushi Akimoto’s roots as a lyricist for hire. He maintains a Showa-pop approach of treating pop songs as more a vehicle for storytelling, with its details not exclusively lifted from any specific biography. No matter the parallels, there is an understood distance between song and singer.
AKB is obviously no one’s ex-boyfriend, and so the lyrics don’t literally represent them. But the relationship between lyric and performer still drives “Motokaredesu” as the song presents a sort of role reversal, shifting who’s now the object of desire: not only are the idols gender-swapped2, they are on the other end of the chase as they try their best to sort out the jealousy from seeing their ex-girlfriend with someone new. It’s out of their ordinary routine, but it’s not necessarily an unfamiliar position: the song’s point of view echoes “Ne Mo Ha Mo Rumor” with the idols assuming a protagonist who must look at a former love interest gain new history and essentially become someone else.
While it might be easy to draw upon the novelty of the scenario, AKB commit to their role with zero irony. The on-stage stoicism adds a cool-headed attitude to their voice: “If you’re that happy with someone other than me / then please, go right ahead,” they sing in the chorus without a crack in expression, trying to be the mature one in this situation. That said, the song also plays against that stoicism to its favor, letting the vulnerable moments become more emotionally revealing. The idols flex a cool hip-hop cadence in the bridge, only for the section to reveal a soft, poignant refrain: “You were mine, but for now…” Despite their best effort to collect their feelings, AKB can’t walk away without a few scratches.
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The film is fine in isolation, but a lot of key details get squeezed out trying to fit the story into its feature length. The relationship between Smile and Butterfly Joe is hardly fleshed out, if nonexistent, for one. I felt like I got cheapened out of the experience watching it fresh after revisiting the anime series in its entirety.
Here is where I would link you to my explanation from my footnote on Hinatazaka46’s “Kimi Shika Katan” of why I assume a straight-male gaze in idol songs from the AKB family when I write about 46/48 records while welcoming queer reading of idol songs. Except, here the gender is made clear both of the protagonist and former partner, and so I feel more comfortable bringing in concepts like gender-swapping as a literal device.