Issue #62: A Calming Towel Blanket
Exploring the new Kaneko Ayano album, Aya Matsuura's "Momoiro Kataomoi" and the best anime songs of January
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
Let me break you down a bit of the process behind deciding which three singles to feature for these newsletters. I try not to have overlap in genre between the chosen songs for the sake of diversity, usually picking the best one out of pop, rock and electronic music, respectively. The See Also section helps so I don’t completely leave off runner-ups. But as you might imagine, even when the songs are divided into pools of a specific genre, it’s still difficult choosing a single best out of the running with so much new music being released.
Such was the case with new releases from the anison sphere of J-pop in January. An unusually great amount of new songs dropped from many of my favorite voice actresses in the span of a couple weeks. Anison music in the general is an even harder case in the selection process for this newsletter because much of it can admittedly be of an acquired taste. It often takes a lot of convincing for me to believe readers would find the songs in question worthwhile as I do in comparison to other non-anison pop songs. Not to mention that anison can be tough for me to write about.
And so this feature exists to cheat my own system. Instead of agonizing over which song to pick, or if said single is even worth writing about, I dedicated a special separate section to the great new anison released during the month of January. And if you’re not all that into anison? There’s the regular Singles Club to hopefully bring you more of what you’re looking for. Better this than a poorly made Twitter thread, or just not writing about these songs at all.
Here are 9 anison singles from January that I enjoyed.
“Loud Hailer” by Maaya Uchida [Pony Canyon]
Heavy rock guitars make a comeback in Maaya Uchida’s “Loud Hailer,” and the pop-metal sound goes even harder than her last rock number, “Never Ending Symphony” from her 2021 album Hikari. Out goes the musical-esque bubbliness familiar to her output last year in favor of a steely cool, and the voice actress utilizes the blast of music as a means of catharsis from an unnamed agony. “I want to celebrate this unique freedom / that shined from this exhausting day,” she sings in the chorus as the guitars crash and burn. She returns with edge as if she has never left.
Loud Hailer is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Campanula” by Eir Aoi
“Dear Doze Days” by Akari Kito [Pony Canyon]
Akari Kito initially seems to aim for a homely song in “Dear Doze Days” after indulging in some black-tie classiness in last year’s “Esquisse.” But while the accordion intro sets in a cozy scene, the sprightly brass-led arrangement quickly rolls the song wide awake. The voice actress, too, can’t hide her enthusiasm to spend time with you like she’s wagging her tail. “We met eye to eye, is this fate? / My lost Teddy boy, here, take my hand,” she begins the song, and she proceeds to be happy-go-lucky no matter how unpredictable the path ahead can get with whoever she has her eyes on. Her excitement spills into the rest of the song with the peppy music hardly ever quieting down.
Dear Doze Days is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Gift” by Miku Itou
“LOVE CRAZY” by Sumire Uesaka [King]
For her return to theme-song duty for the second season of Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagataro, Sumire Uesaka reaches again for blistering hard-rock riffage and clamors for your attention as incessantly as her previous contribution to the series. She’s eager to cut to the chase as if she knows you heard it all the first go, speeding her way to the cloying chorus: “Don’t run away / don’t be afraid / come catch me / with all your heart,” she sings without a breath to spare, not so much tugging your shirt than gripping you by the collar. What else did you expect from a song called “LOVE CRAZY”?
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Bokura Wa Genius” by Shuka Saito
Now that we got all the anime pop out of our system, let’s go on the main issue. We got a great, folk-y album for our Album of the Week, a classic by one of my favorite idols of all time and another batch of singles. Oh, and I’ll be seeing The Last Rockstars—the supergroup comprised of Yoshiki, hyde, MIYAVI and SUGIZO—later this week. Let’s see how that goes!
Album of the Week
Towelket Wa Odayakana by Kaneko Ayano 
*Recommended track: “Towelket Wa Odayakana” | Listen to it on Spotify
Kaneko Ayano’s lyrics don't stand a chance against her own voice. She likes to keep it casual in her writing, favoring conversational speak over bookish prose, but the sheer outpouring of emotion from her wallowing vocals is far from subtle. In a highlight from her previous album Yosuga, the singer-songwriter fashioned that cutting voice into an instrument to express not only a primal yearning but also the kind of devouring love she wanted to envelop her significant other with. “Deep down, I was waiting for your embrace / to hold me tight, like an unruly baby,” she hollered in the titular chorus of “Houyo,” her wails gesturing to the scale of her desire as well as the size of the gaping void in her heart.
At least Kaneko is self-aware of her own intensity, which she lays straightforward in the chorus of “Kibun” from Towelket Wa Odayakana: “My feelings are always up and down / my words are far from reach, you are so far away.” Resigned as she sounds, she refrains from inflating her predicament into melodrama. She accepts the internal rise and wane with a calm as though she accepts it as a default state of being. Throughout the rest of the singer-songwriter’s seventh album, Kaneko lets herself be emotionally vulnerable, and yet she also appears more centered than she has ever been.
Her band’s warm arrangements help keep the singer-songwriter at bay. The laid-back, twangy rock establishes a suburban chill not so far in feel from indie rock by a band like mitsume, where a humdrum drift smooths over trip-ups with a shrug. The guitars in “Kibun” jangle with a carefree ease, buoying Kaneko as she rides out her ups and downs; the bluesy wah-wah riffs in “Yasashii Guitar” complements an excited Kaneko but also tethers her as she sounds ready to burst from her overwhelming feelings. The band doesn’t restrain than it streamlines a measured groove, coaxing and matching her voice when it best counts. It cranks up the electric-guitar fuzz in “Yokan” as Kaneko takes one last moment to admire her object of desire before returning to the main refrain. They both know when to draw back, when to step in.
For all her capabilities as a vocalist to intensify the gravity of a situation, Kaneko with her band avoids the histrionics in Towelket Wa Odayakana. The stresses behind her internal monologues come across lifelike, and in the case of “Kisetsu No Kudamono,” slightly ironic from its rather low-stakes presentation. “Why are we like this, worrying so much / we know / that we can’t keep hurting each other,” she sings about two lovers colliding as they give it their all. Kaneko tosses such an important question off seemingly as an aside, letting the balmy beach-rock strums wash away any bitterness.
If her decision to scale back in a song like “Kisetsu No Kudamono” make the drama feel more banal, it’s only a display of maturity as Kaneko takes stock in what she can actually control. The all-consuming quality of her vocals give the sense she’s so engrossed in the lives of her characters as if the issues are her own, though she also allows herself to give distance and stand back as the observer. When she sings about those cyclical habits of inflicting mutual pain, she reveals not the hopelessness but the cruel humor in repeating the same mistakes. She acknowledges the wrong happening in the scenario at hand, but she sings it at a remove as if to treat the circumstance as a rather everyday episode—it hurts to see, but so it goes.
Kaneko’s renewed lyrical clarity is shown best in the title track. “It’s alright if you still don’t know / this awkward love,” she sings in the chorus, and her signature wails ensures the message cuts through crystal clear. Her words on paper elsewhere in the song portrays a mind so wrapped up in its own insecurities, questioning the feelings of others so obsessively to the point it gets stricken with a literal fever. But her voice sounds light as air riding on the breezy guitars, the weightlessness of it hardly reflecting the headiness detailed from her words. Sorting out emotions doesn’t have to be a painful experience, Kaneko reminds in Towelket Wa Odayakana. It can be mundane as it can be revelatory.
“STOKED!!” by AIRCRAFT [FRIENDSHIP.]
The guitars on AIRCRAFT’s latest indie-rock jam shred with a verve fitting for its exclamatory title, though the its barely-contained enthusiasm behind the music ends up sending some mixed signals. “Let me hear you out / you can disappear later,” vocalist Yui sings at one point, and she sighs in the refrain about being together and singing in unison while watching the world collapse. AIRCRAFT gathers a messy collision of emotions from devastation to desperation to pure bliss in “STOKED!!” with its intense shot of overwhelming feelings presenting something beyond irony.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “26” by Kaneyorimasaru; “BAD?” by Nenne
“Heartbeat” by KOTONOHOUSE ft. SHACHI [Kawaii Dance]
As hyperpop seeped into the sounds of the J-pop underground these past few years, KOTONOHOUSE needed just minor tweaks to let his fizzy electro-pop production stay up to date. For “Heartbeat,” the producer culls bruised, metallic textures that are a bit more abrasive in feel than the cute, squeaky clean exterior featured in the 2020 album, Synchronicity. But the single teems with colorful energy familiar to his work, springing with a happy-hardcore-esque bounce. A new chrome finish, but goes down just as chromatic and exuberant.
Heartbeat is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “strong zero gravity” by MANON; “Shizuku” by PIKASONIC & Tatsunoshin ft. NEONA & KOTONOHOUSE
“What You Wanna Do” by submerse [self-released]
Submerse’s beats continue to speed up in his latest single, What You Wanna Do / Good Lookin Out. The boom-bap soul of his 2019 full-length, See You Soon, grew into R&B-flecked garage a year later in Get You Down, and the evolution moves on the next level with the producer embracing jungle for his new tracks. That said, his hip-hop roots shows through the seams in “What You Wanna Do” with a chipmunk-soul croon rising above the knotty drum loop, softening the hardcore jam into a tender, feather-light journey.
What You Wanna Do / Good Lookin Out is now. Listen to it on Bandcamp/Spotify.
See also: “COM_PLEX” by Pasocom Music Club; “Sunrise” by TREKKIE TRAX CREW
This Week in 2002…
This section is usually dedicated to the Oricon number ones throughout the chart’s history, but for this issue, I’ll write about a hit that did not make it to the very top.
“Momoiro Kataomoi” by Aya Matsuura [Zetima, 2002]
Released February 6, 2002; highest Oricon position at #2 during week of February 18, 2002 | Listen to it on YouTube
The plot behind the music video of “Momoiro Kataomoi” seems straight out of a cartoon with then-15-year-old Aya Matsuura in charge of a canned-peach factory, the setting a play on momoiro (peach color) from the song title. More than its whimsy, the clip is best remembered for presenting the teen idol in her iconic pink-cowboy outfit. Her public image rests in this look almost 20 years on: 2021 film Ano Koro features an actressdressed in this exact get-up to recreate the star when depicting its idol otaku of a main character meeting Matsuura at a handshake event. And with Matsuura being one of the first of her kind that I’d come to know, the cute, flashy, pink personality presented in “Momoiro Kataomoi” is also what I’d first associate as the general model of the Japanese idol.
“Momoiro Kataomoi” bounces along with a bubbly exuberance associated with the classic idol, if exaggerated from the typical form handed down from the '80s. Even without its accompanying video, the twangy classic-rock arrangement keeps the song on a fluttering high while the lyric sheet is filled with silly, love-drunk hooks: “my heart goes kyu-ru-run,” Matsuura sighs in the chorus as though her eyes are reduced into heart symbols. If the cloud-nine feel of it all lends it a comical effect, it's only business as usual for the song's lyricst and producer Tsunku, whose main idol group Morning Musumehad then-recently became a cultural sensation through a series of classic singles sporting even-sillier hooks and concepts.
Matsuura originally auditioned to become a new member of Morning Musume, but Tsunku saw a potential in her to be a solo star. Though, she didn’t don the flashy, pink-leather image seen in “Momoiro Kataomoi” right away. It took some time for her singles to grow into creative peers to a record full of humor like her sister group’s “Renai Revolution 21.” Her initial singles introduced her more as a girl-next-door type who gets involved in more everyday drama: Her debut single “Dokki Doki Love Mail” incorporated a narrative you’d find in any J-pop singer-songwriter track with the idol singing about her move to Tokyo. And from its wistful throwback sound to its cliche teen-girl gossip, “Love Namidairo” featured an idol closer in lineage to Ryoko Hirosue who resembled a girl you might bump into in any suburb.
The theme of infatuation provides the perfect excuse to usher in a new image for Matsuura. She’s not herself when she’s thinking about her crush, so might as well transform her into someone entirely different. Yuichi Takahashi’s rock ‘n’ roll arrangement gives an intense whiplash compared to the gentle stroll of the arranger’s work on “Dokki Doki Love Mail,” as it moves in sync to the idol’s spiked emotional high from daydreaming about her crush. Tsunku writes hooks for it in a language as delirious as one’s mind might get under the influence of puppy love. “I think I’m so in love that I don’t know the things I don’t know anymore,” Matsuura sings at one point. Yes, what she’s saying doesn’t make any sense because things hardly do when love gets you this googly-eyed.
The bubbliness of her subsequent singles eclipse what’s displayed in “Momoiro Kataomoi.” Both Takahashi and Tsunku get even quirkier in the follow-up “Yeah! Meccha Holiday”; the idol tackles one demanding, obnoxious dance track in “The Bigaku.” For how innocent the record seems relative to Matsuura’s overall catalog, the bigger swings taken in those future records were mostly possible because of her success with the 2002 single. The producers continue to up the stakes for Matsuura, warping her on-record character into more exaggerated caricatures, but it all goes back to the classic, foundational idol image introduced in “Momoiro Kataomoi.”
You can listen back to all of the songs covered in this section on this Spotify playlist.
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Next issue of This Side of Japan is out February 22. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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I wrote about the movie for Idol Watch issue #10.
Yuhane Yamazaki of idol group BEYOOOONDS, home to Hello! Project, the agency that launched the career of Matsuura, to make things full circle.
It will take a whole different post to properly cover Morning Musume, and unfortunately, the newsletter will not ever be covering any Morning Musume singles for this section because I actually wrote about it all already in my other Tumblr where I cover every Morning Musume single ever released. I recommend you head there instead if you want a more detailed read on their singles.