Issue #53: Maiwai
Looking into the new SAKA-SAMA album, Toshinobu Kubota's "LA LA LA LOVE SONG" and Hikaru Utada's 2004 crossover record 'Exodus'
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I admit to mentally separating Hikaru Utada’s English releases from their Japanese discography. If I have to be honest with myself, the use of a different language as a divider is only an excuse to hide the fact it’s more convenient for me not to think about those albums in the grand scheme of their catalog. While I love something about all their Japanese albums, Exodus and This Is the One are far from my favorites. They felt not up to snuff to me because of their explicit attempts to cross over to an American market, diluting Utada’s artistry in the process, or so I thought until I recently revisited Exodus, the first of their two English albums.
Listening back to Exodus again revealed that the album actually retains much of Utada’s identity as they were at the time. “Easy Breezy” makes itself a vulnerable target thanks to its ill-suited titular hook—“you’re easy breezy and I’m Japanese-y”—but its overall angry teenage poetry isn’t so far removed from 2001’s equally frustrated “Time Limit” and its overwrought metaphors: “If you want to know the taste of love / past its expiration date / then go order it with someone else / because I’m not paying” goes their kiss-off statement, which lands as slick as the former’s “she got a new microphone / she doesn’t need you anymore.”
The voice and personality of Utada in Exodus feels familiar if cross-referenced with their Japanese output from the time, but simply translating their songwriting style into English as is doesn’t exactly yield the same results. “The Workout” from the album fails partly because of Utada’s forced attempts to be clever—not unlike, again, “Time Limit”—but its conversational approach is rather characteristic of their songs during this period. For one, a candid yet personable lyric like “and let’s eat something delicious today” appears in between more earnest declarations in “Hikari,” shaping the flow of the single more like the cadence of a casual chat with a friend. These kind of lyrics in Exodus, though, often lets the rhythm meander, and their presence feels too minor or too forcefully stuck in for the sake of keeping rhyme.
Exodus at best point to the strengths as well as the limitations unique to the respective languages. “Devil Inside” bounces around its titular lyric extensively, and how Utada stretches the concept recalls the structure of “Colors, which also hinges upon its extended titular metaphor. But while the Japanese in the latter does wonders to deliver gravitas, the simplicity of the former’s English lays bare the shallowness of concept. English is a better language to instead communicate frank emotions sharp and direct, which is also why it seems to make for strong, punchy hooks when J-pop artists pepper it in between verses and choruses. I’m reminded of the ending refrain in this year’s “Bad Mode”: “Hope I don’t fuck it up / Hope I don’t fuck it up again.”
But it also makes me wonder: how much is it really the fault of the language and Utada’s lack of grasp with it as a songwriter, and how much of it actually owes to a possible personal bias? Hikaru Utada in their early 20s might have taken life a bit too seriously and tried to be more clever than they really are. Even if their self-portrait came off supposedly less flattering when written out in English, Exodus did fulfill its job of introducing the true personality behind the music.
I recently revisited Exodus as part research for an assignment. I had no room to write about the songs inside the album, and definitely not these thoughts related to them, so I figured I could journal them here. Though still not my favorite weighed against the rest of their catalog, Utada’s English albums weren’t as bad as I remembered them. Maybe you can give them a try (again) some time.
I cover another classic Japanese R&B artist for our Oricon flashback down below. We also got a sweet idol album for the Album of the Week and a few indie-rock singles with huge guitar riffs selected for Singles Club. If you want something more nostalgic, there’s a single in there for you too.
Album of the Week
Maiwai by SAKA-SAMA [TRASH-UP!!]
An intriguing concept of “lo-fi dream-pop idol group” guided the early days of SAKA-SAMA, but now it only represents a sliver of their output. The act’s 2020 double album, Kimiga Ichiban Kakkoiijyan, curates a master collection of nearly every pocket of alternative music available to boost the underground cool of an idol group. Jangle pop shares space with gabber, shoegaze, post-punk, technopop and more while the idols slip into each genre like outfits to transform into a new personality.
While Maiwai is driven by a similar freedom, the new album sees the duo simmering down. The titular intro suggests a return of the off-the-wall energy: “We are SAKA-SAMA! Cho-ii kanji, let’s go! Can you celebrate? Celebrate or die,” Kokone Suzuki and Mizuho Asakura chant to start the party soundtracked by blown-out drum ‘n’ bass. But the duo then resigns into a much mellower synth-pop, and proceeds to maintain a quieter, more settled version of themselves. They don’t seem as interested in throwing stylistic curve balls as simply lazing around this one chosen spot in their big genre pool.
Now is actually a fitting time for SAKA-SAMA to relax. The costume-fitting approach of Kimiga Ichiban Kakkoiijyan helped especially to regain momentum after a mass exit of its previous 8-member line-up, turning a pinch into a chance to start over. Not to say they completely abandon the spirit of their earlier days: the squiggly synths that draw up “Koi Wa Aino Higasa” still remind of their appreciation for new wave while they continue to crumple the rulebook of what the lyrics to a proper song should be like with “Sushiday Night Fever.” But after throwing just about everything to see what sticks, Kokone and Mizuho now seem to feel comfortable to appreciate the mess they’ve built in the company of each other.
The calm offered by the familiar gives the duo a sense of peace but it also lets new tensions to surface. Despite the song’s twinkling synth-pop establishing one idyllic atmosphere, “Lilac Rendez-vous” has the duo sounding hung up as they ponder of what else: “Teach me / the best way to breathe and walk / to love people important to me,” they ask, and the gravity of their questions leave a deeper mark than any outre style they’ve ever tackled. They wrestle with a similar lack of color in “Kakumei Zen’ya” as the starry electro-pop fails to keep them busy from missing the one they love. For all the conflict, the album sounds richer for it. Their art aims for deeper than genre exploration with the idols navigate intimate, private matters of the heart.
As SAKA-SAMA deal with absence in the album’s best songs, I can’t help but hear some of those lyrics in reference to the impending departure of Mizuho from the group. It was expected in way: she joined only as a temporary support despite her now 3-year tenure. But together with Kokone, she nonetheless re-built SAKA-SAMA into a project beyond its original intentions. “Even if it’s a bit exhausting, I want to keep playing here,” the two sigh in “E.S.P.” SAKA-SAMA had enough fun causing a ruckus. This time in Maiwai, the quietest moments reveal the most valuable takeaways.
“heartless” by Lucie,Too [Thistime]
Lucie,Too tucked a few open letters addressed to crushes in between self-reflective musings in last year’s brilliant Fool, and now the love talk comes to the forefront in “heartless.” True to the title, a tsundere type frustrates frontwoman Chisa as she tries her best to pick open their feelings: “Your kindness is sometimes cold / I want to see you and make sure because it worries me,” she sighs. Their obliviousness gets only more irritating to witness as a bystander when the band deliver the message using a hammerhead of a power-pop riff. It seems madly difficult to ignore a call-out this direct, and yet some people don’t know what’s in front of them even if they smacked them on their head.
“Reflections” by Michiganized [self-released]
The roaring guitar riff heard in Michiganized’s new single hits a personal sweet spot as it sounds straight out of the pages of ‘90s Britrock, crossing together the noisy swirls of shoegaze and the titanic scales of psych-rock. Time seems to move at half speed in the towering presence of the music, but the still music ironically reminds Yumi Aoi of transience: “Can we really see a new tomorrow? / Will you disappear after all we spent laughing and holding hands,” the frontwoman asks into the void. That said, she sounds content just getting lost in its trance and going with the flow.
“Toumei Na Girl ~Dye Me~” by Tokimeki Records ft. Hikari [Namy&]
Call me a killjoy, but city pop-indebted pop songs grab my attention more when sadness lives underneath all the glitz and glamor. Vocalist Hikari rocks along to Tokimeki Record’s midnight funk with a pep to her step, her animated cadence inspired by the percussive, conversational flows of hip-hop. But despite the liveliness, she sighs rather depressing detail of her life: “I get lost into the night / by sunset with the city behind me / but I take out my phone / and keep tracing the same routes,” she sings of nights locked into routine in the pre-chorus. The shiny music, then, starts to taunt more than it soothes as it reminds her of the lifestyle she fails to live out.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1996…
“LA LA LA LOVE SONG” by Toshinobu Kubota ft. Naomi Campbell [Sony, 1996]
Did “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” ever sound new? Toshinobu Kubota’s first and only number-one hit is attached to such heavy cultural nostalgia, it feels as though the record existed as a throwback upon arrival. The public’s memory of the song in recent times seems to date the single as an even older song than it actually is. Korean singer Yerin Baek re-imagined it as a lost city-pop classic in 2018. When Shurkn Pap sampled it in 2021, the rapper overlaid the result as the backdrop of a Bubble-era image of sports car and a blazer-clad OL: Never mind that Japan had been few years deep into its Lost Decade when Kubota’s single came out. “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” somehow perpetually resides in a distant, more optimistic era than the one we currently live in, if not the one home to the record itself.
I’m guilty of associating “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” as a document of lost nostalgia as well. I (re-?)discovered the single via a mix curated by Yeule in 2017 for FADER magazine in which the Singaporean artist traces back her memories through the selected tracks. Her father’s favorite Tomoko Aran track segues into a Yumi Matsutoya (nee Arai) song from the Ghibli film The Wind Rises, and then finally arrives Kubota’s hit to conclude the mix. “Brings me back to when I was in high school, used to watch the show after school,” Yeule wrote about the song and its associated show, the 1996 drama Long Vacation. I don’t remember exactly how I recalled the tune, but “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” still felt vividly familiar as a fabric of my own past. It was always going to be a throwback song for me from the start.
The single’s production is already pretty rooted in its era of pop, and that’s to say it occupies a spot in a peculiar, transitional period of R&B. The snappy drums retain the influence of New Jack Swing—a style which Kubota had more than flirted with throughout the ‘90s—yet the liquid groove eyes the neo-soul movement soon to come. The rhythm section grounds the song in the present, but the high-pitched synths signal in a sense of musical, if not personal nostalgia. Perhaps it’s those squealing notes that stick “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” most firmly in its time, especially as current-day pop songs insert it partly to blanket the record with a wistful, nostalgic atmosphere.
However the music may have sounded, though, “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” was destined to be a fixture of its era after the runaway success of its attached drama. The show carries the torch of a culture-defining hit like Tokyo Love Story which aired on the same primetime block earlier in the decade. More than the story or atmosphere1, Long Vacation remains emblematic of its time though its romantic leads played by two ‘90s powerhouses2, Tomoko Yamaguchi and Takuya Kimura.
That said, “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” has grown too ubiquitous now for its lyrics to be bound exclusively to the lovers played by Yamaguchi and Kimura. Kubota’s devotional words like “you lifted me up / so there’s no time to be shy around you” can be sourced as a sentiment of Kimura’s Sena, an insecure pianist who finally gains confidence to pursue a fellowship after being in a relationship with Yamaguchi’s Minami. But the record lives on like it’s part of the public domain with it covered by dozens of artists from BoA, Ayaka to EXILE. Many voices have embraced the song’s opening lyrics to celebrate the connection in their own lives, enough for it to represent beyond the two fictional characters.
Long Vacation still follows the song like a shadow, but “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” brings attention to the show at this point, not the other way around. Which makes me wonder how familiar people like Yerin Baek or Shurkn Pap are with the drama series. Long Vacation hardly feels like something I can claim as a piece of my own history, existing more as a blurry memory in the background, and so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they don’t know about the show other than how it once featured Kubota’s song. So Kubota’s single has naturally become more and more informed by new nostalgia as it has been handed down into the lives of newer generations. “LA LA LA LOVE SONG” outlived its initial life, and now it persists to live anew.
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Long Vacation’s soundtrack is a pretty intriguing cultural fixture as well. The recurring songs made by CAGNET, a band responsible for the soundtrack, in particular show off a big influence from TLC. Even if Long Vacation didn’t explicitly use R&B to establish its identity, it’s a reminder how R&B was very much alive during this time in the pop vocabulary. Also fun fact: CHAI was watching the show and admiring its music while making their album, WINK, which gets mentioned in their recent Pitchfork interview. I had just got done watching the series, searching up its music in between, and so it was perfect timing when I interviewed the band.
Two other names that feel dear to me are Takako Matsu and Ryoko Hirosue, who play some of their earliest roles here while on their way to become big names of their own.