Issue #63: Akogare
Discussing the new mekakushe album, "DA.YO.NE" and the Last Rockstars show at Hollywood Palladium
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
Yoshiki even seemed impressed of how much The Last Rockstars pulled off in such a short amount of time. He announced his band with MIYAVI, hyde and SUGIZO last November, and barely three months later, the four embarked on their debut tour stopping in Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles. At this time of writing, the band has shared on streaming services exactly one song, “The Last Rockstars,” which it premiered at last December’s Kohaku Utagassen. The four managed to add several more new songs on their rotation by the time they hit the stage at Hollywood Palladium, and yet Yoshiki was forthcoming at one point about how some of the material was almost too fresh off the press.
Many songs sounded specifically for the live performance, perhaps to fill the very gaps in the set list. It’s nothing unique for a hard-rock song to incorporate call and response as “Up & Down” and “Bang!” did, but it’s another sight to see a star such as hyde engage in crowd work if by necessity, like he’s getting back to basics more than 30 years since he started L’arc~en~ciel. For all the unadulterated ferocity teased by the band in the chorus of “The Last Rockstars,” the rest of the unproven material were hungry for acceptance, willing to bend to the crowd’s expectation rather than overturn it.
Regardless of what kind of songs it had, or how many the band had under its own name, people would have likely flocked to see The Last Rockstars anyway given the celebrity behind all of the members. The crowd gave more than a sizable roar when Yoshiki called out each of the fans of MIYAVI, hyde and SUGIZO; the biggest response, perhaps unsurprisingly, came from the fans of Yoshiki and X Japan. And they each did the favor of playing songs from their respective catalogsas well as, in the case of “Red Swan,” collaborations between them. I was especially pleased to hear hyde sing L'arc~en~ciel's “HONEY,” his voice emoting as thick and heavy as it did in 1998.
Because in the end, you still had some of Japan’s biggest names in rock music up on that stage. Hyde’s vocals did the heavy-lifting for the new songs, elevating the by-the-numbers rock with his signature histrionics. Much showboating was abound from the rhythm section, with MIYAVIand SUGIZO engaged in a showdown of a guitar duet and Yoshiki soloing on the drums and then the piano. They borrowed each other’s cultural capital in order to convince even themselves of the Last Rockstars as a worthwhile enterprise. The project ultimately seemed little more than an excuse for the four to get together to play tunes, but then again, it’s these four we were dealing with.
That’s about it for rock music—well, there’s an indie rock song chosen for the Singles section. This issue’s Album of the Week is the opposite of loud but just as resonant. Surprisingly, out of now 63 issues, it’s also the very first album by an artist who was covered in a previous newsletter! If you’re looking for more loudness, I’d suggest the first entry of singles. There’s also words on the first Japanese rap hit in the Oricon flashback section.
Album of the Week
Akogare by mekakushe [mekakushe records]
*Recommended track: “Grapefruit” | Listen to it on Spotify
Mekakushe had always kept her subject at a distance as a songwriter. Her bashfulness informed her early bests when she had switched over from the old name of Hirone-chan to her current moniker, but the 2021 album, Hikari Mitai Ni Susumitai, saw her brave out of her comfort zone in order for the very folks she observed to notice her consoling words to dedicated to them. The vantage point shifts again in her latest LP, Akogare, and the title previews the singer-songwriter’s decision to once again admire from afar. Her lyrical perspective takes a step back in position, though the record is no creative regression and rather the opposite: mekakushe returns to her familiar place as a distant observer with a better grasp on how to express herself.
While the singer-songwriter’s hermetic point of view in Akogare echoes how she saw the world in her past songs, mekakushe discovers new scenery to surround herself in. The singer-songwriter settles into a new kind of quiet intimacy in “Swimmy,” where she abandons her brittle synth-pop to take flight on towering post-rock. “Boyhood” may seem familiar from its electronic sounds to its kitchen-sink feel, but no previous production has been so extroverted and eagerly pop, starting from its sizzling new-wave synths. Some of the music continues to indulge in her identity as an outsider looking in: the title of the first track can be literally translated as “I wonder if I can be you,” and it sounds as stately and reserved as its title claims. But it’s just as prone to go against that very meek personality, with the meticulously threaded bedroom-pop arrangement of “Naiteshimau” teeming with life.
As the liveliness behind some of the album’s different stylistic detours complicates the image of mekakushe as a solitary, homebound singer-songwriter, the songs of Akogare continues to speak as if it’s a piece from her internal monologue. The loose, dream-logic-like connection between one thought to another previously established a unique, whimsical rhythm in her music: the skip-and-step cadence in “Naiteshimau,” both in production and verses, seems born from this process. But her songs in Akogare sharpens its focus as it pursues more a single idea. The unspooled lyrics feel slippery in “Boyhood,” but the theme is revealed straightforwardly: “my heartbeat is getting faster / I’m done in 3, 2, 1!” She sings in the chorus as newfound desire turns a new leaf in her subject.
The ease in which her new songs proceed make Akogare deceptive in its sweetness. As delightful as “Naiteshimau” bounces along, it bears reminding that the chorus is a laundry list of awfully specific daily anxieties, all brought about failing to contain a deep infatuation. She sings the lyrics in “Nichiyobi” as soothing as the hushed acoustic-folk, though the actual content is nothing to sit still about: “The world is going to end tomorrow / but I’m going to send you a letter,” she sings, treating the apocalypse as another lazy Sunday. Bleak, sometimes maudlin asides go by unassumingly, sounding even more banal when sung against gentle, wide-eyed pop. But it only emphasizes the depth of her obsession: She’s too caught up on her object of desire to worry about anything happening outside of her own head.
Obsession stands out as the thematic constant throughout Akogare, losing herself in it but also its after effects. Out of the surreal twists taken of the otherwise obvious titular metaphor of “Grapefruit,” it’s this plainspoken lyric that sticks to memory: “Maybe I can’t ever go back / and be myself before I met you.” She casually picks up on her own self-transformations as if in real time while she lets her mind wander. Though she treats these moment with no more significance than the rest of her loose asides, the frankness nevertheless hits provocative if in part from how casual it all spills on the page: “I wonder if I can be like you / I wonder if I can want to live longer even just a little,” she openly inquires in the chorus of “Kiminoyouni Narerukana,” her dazed tone uncertain whether or not she’s fully aware of how morbid those lyrics come off.
If the upgrade in production or clarity of concept can suggest Akogare as mekushe gone pop, the singer-songwriter still defines pop on her own terms. She can spin her emotional preoccupations into cleaner hooks and choruses or expand upon them as the conceptual basis of a single. But her songwriting still remains enigmatic, with her juxtaposing the cryptic and plainspoken into a surreal mix. Her production is just as unpredictable: once “Grapefruit” seems to settle into a twee synth-pop mold, it gets blasted away with a blistering guitar riff. Akogare is only as easy to pin down as its muse. But if the music sounds more accessible than before, it’s from mekakushe being able to make better sense of herself than before.
“VOLCANIC EMOTION” by BAILEFUNK KAKEKO ft. valknee [self-released]
If any of the “hardcore beats on evil mode” songs from BAILEFUNK KAKEKO’s latest EP can be remotely considered pop, it might be “VOLCANIC EMOTION.” She joins forces with rapper valknee, a frequent collaborator who has tackled the producer’s wildly demanding beats with great success in the past. The blown-out gabber beats provide one fitting music for the rapper to air out the erupting anger in question. “I do what I want / I kill stress and boss,” she shouts with no filter in the chorus, shifting her voice into a metal-vocalist growl on the second go. And if the two-minute ride doesn’t fully satisfy, I’d suggest her to move on to the hirihiri remix or “KAKEKO SUN” with BBBBBBB from the EP.
CHO CLIMAX EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “REDLINE” by STARKIDS
“Resonance” by (sic)boy ft. Only U [UNIVERSAL SIGMA]
(sic)boy’s new single finds him in an environment outside of his usual pop-punk and nu-metal affairs. Producer KM hands his close collaborator a busy beat peppered with the skittering drums and wobbling bass of drill. He knows not to completely remove the rapper from his roots, though, slathering the chorus with this silvery, digitally compressed guitar riff as if to remind this is still a (sic)boy record at its core. Placing the rapper somewhere other than the familiar, brooding sounds ends up feeding into the song’s overall message as he attempts to empathize with lost souls: “Broken hearts, dragging it into the night / until it gets to you, lonely and wanting to die,” he goes in his melodic, wallowing delivery. (sic)boy steps outside of himself for once and for a good cause.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “What U Say!” by Only U; “deadpool” by Peterparker69
“Wonderland To Entairyokin” by TIDAL CLUB [self-released]
The rhythm section of TIDAL CLUB seems to be barely hanging on in “Wonderland To Entairyokin,” strumming a slowly deflating punk riff. Maybe it’s this very type of jaded indie rock that inspires people to reference ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION when describing this Sendai band. The guitars, though, become more for scene-setting once the resigned vocals come in. The voice ponders of what-ifs, only to answer himself with an unaffected shrug, leaving the song with a taste of not so much “not caring about a thing” than “nothing really matters.” Very bittersweet, but my, is it tuneful.
Nease To Kiutsu Wasureta Nanika EP is out now.
See also: “Sukina Mono Wa Te No Hira No Naka” by Conton Candy; “Koremade No Sukuikata” by Frascotation
This Week in 1995…
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.
“DA.YO.NE” by EAST END x YURI [Epic / Sony, 1994]
Highest position at #7 during the weeks of February 13 - 27, 1995 | Listen to it on YouTube/Spotify
Before rap group EAST END and idol Yuri Ichii performed together as EAST END x YURI on Kohaku Utagassen in 1995, their joint record “DA.YO.NE.” had been slowly gaining traction as a local novelty hit. “DA.YO.NE” was met with lukewarm sales when it dropped in August 1994 before Hokkaido’s FM North Wave began to play it on its rotation during that winter, eventually breaking the record in the region. Sony responded to the single’s rising popularity by releasing alternative versions that refit the song’s hook according to the respective area’s local slang: “DA.BE.SA.” for Sapporo, “SO.YA.NA.” for Kansai, “HO.JA.NE.” for Hiroshima, and so on. The record’s success marks it as the first Japanese rap hit with local radio fueling its rise—a story in line with hip-hop tradition.
While it was certainly rare in 1995 to see a rap act like EAST END billed on the year’s Kohaku, rap music wasn’t entirely newin Japan. The scene was very small when rapper GAKU-MC and DJs ROCK-Tee and YOGGY formed EAST END in 1991, with the trio struggling to fill venues as they began to work together with peers like foundational group Rhymester. But the practitioners in the country had already been well revering the genre’s basic tenets as well as its history rooted in New York: the same year EAST END released their debut album, Beginning of the END, in 1992, ECD recited the story all the way back from DJ Kool Herc in his self-titled debut LP.
GAKU as an MC looked to the American East Coast for inspiration as well. His fast-tongued raps and his loud, tackling delivery calls back the style pioneered by Treach of Naughty By Nature. YOGGY’s production of “DA.YO.NE.” also reminds me of NBN’s sample-driven singles like “OPP,” with its piano loop nicked from George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” proving the beat a bright groove. Unlike Treach, though, GAKU in “DA.YO.NE.” plays the part of a not-so-smooth operator who possesses neither game nor natural cool. The way he openly displays his lack of luck with women in music at the time filled with posturing of machismo lets the single find kinship in a classic like Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By.”
What sets “DA.YO.NE” apart is the presence of Yuri Ichii. The idol from Tokyo Performance Dolls provides the actual voice of the girl who GAKU tries to woo to no avail, making his failure sting with extra embarrassment. She sounds partially clueless about his intentions as she keeps on responding him with the opposite of what he likely wants to hear: GAKU pitches the idea of taking a two-shot photo together after she obliges on his invitation to a trip to the theme park, only for her to reply, “and call up a bunch of friends!”
Ichii stars in her own hopeless episode, too, that flips the script. Rapping in a similar, if looser flow as GAKU’s, she fawns over a too-good-to-be-true guy before her collaborator breaks her with the blunt truth: “Ah, he definitely has a second girl.” It’s only appropriate to give good screen time to the idol who made the record happen in the first place. President of EAST END’s label got the rap group and the idol to form the unit together after seeing EAST END perform at Ichii’s show as a guest act. Though she mainly put out Eurobeat-inspired pop for her main gig, the idol smoothly adopts rapping. Any show of amateurism adds to the record a certain charm, a quirk that echoes to even recent times as hip-hop idols like O’CHAWANZ put out boom-bap tracks of a similar vein.
Both MC eventually sigh in defeat the titular slang of “da yo ne,” roughly translating to “right?” to express confirmation. After they narrate their misfortunes with their respective love interests, the hook resonates as a self-deprecating punchline: it’s humorous as it is almost sadistic for GAKU to add slip after slip for his own episode. But the chill in which they all ride the beat and recite the hook helps you gloss over the deep sarcasm that informs the rest of the song.
Everything about “DA.YO.NE” suggests it being a novelty by design. A (short-lived) partnership built from commercial prospect. The adoption of local slang as a hook. The spin-off records. The delivery of a still-niche and nascent genre to the masses. The song itself can border upon gimmick territory but only because EAST END and Ichii tell a great joke almost too well—it’s a proof of concept that’s so dialed in, it’s almost too perfectly on beat. The way these pieces come so seamlessly together, “DA.YO.NE.” transcends being just a rap hit. Almost 30 years later, EAST END x YURI’s breakthrough remains a pop classic.
You can listen back to all of the songs covered in this section on this Spotify playlist.
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 8. 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
MIYAVI’s “Hallelujah,” Sugizo’s “Folly,” and X Japan’s “Born to Be Free” were the others. On the L.A. date, they did not perform hyde’s “Glamorous Sky” originally for Mika Nakashima, which I am bummed about.
Plenty of fan service was provided by MIYAVI, who piggybacked Yoshiki and gave a kiss on the cheek to hyde before the show was over. He was the humorous foil to main MC Yoshiki, teasing him for his tardiness like he’s egging his clumsy uncle.
Yoshiki performed a solo piano rendition of X Japan’s “Endless Rain” on this date.
The Oricon charts in 1994 also saw an entry of “Konya Wa Boogie Back,” a groundbreaking collaboration between Kenji Ozawa and Scha Dara Parr, icons of Shibuya-kei and Japanese hip-hop, respectively. It’s a single worthy of its own entry despite it not charting anywhere close to a number one.
I'm a relative novice regarding the Japanese music scene, but very much enjoy reading This Side of Japan for your insights and suggestions. I went to The Last Rockstars show in LA as much out of curiosity as anything else, being aware of the performers but not really a "fan" per se. I am a fan of Band Maid though, which was announced quite late as the opening act, so that was an added bonus. Minus the delay between the opening act and the main act, I though it was a great show! TLRS performance was, I thought, very glam metal reminiscent of 80s and early 90s LA rock/metal. As you described, the histrionics of the performers combined with the response of the audience, made the show quite entertaining. And I, of course, really enjoyed Band Maid's performance even though it was only a few songs.