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Issue #72: Launchvox
Discussing the new Yuka Nagase album, ZONE's "secret base," and favorite songs from this year's summer J-dramas
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
While this summer’s dramas for me were mostly fine-but-not-amazing entertainment in comparison to spring, they brought a better hit ratio for music than the previous season. There was at least one satisfying needle-drop, and some pairing of songs and show surprised me as much as the show itself—like who knew I’d be hooked to a mystery series this season! Before the fall season fully arrives, I’m here to blog about the few shows and their attached songs that I enjoyed this past summer.
“Meinichi” by Chanmina [NO LABEL / Warner Music Japan]
from Hayabusa Shouboudan (Thursdays, 9 p.m., July 13 - Sept. 14; TV Asahi)
I’ve always ignored mystery J-dramas since a whodunit plot doesn’t really excite me, and so I initially approached Hayabusa Shouboudan thinking I’d drop it soon enough. From the first dead body found in the premiere episode, though, I was hooked to find out more of what’s behind the crimes set in the small, fictional countryside town of Hayabusa. As mentioned by the show’s main protagonist, the author and out-of-towner Taro (Tomoya Nakamura), Hayabusa soon becomes a place that attracts curiosity as it becomes the perfect setting in which to expand a lore involving cults and conspiracies.
With “Meinichi,” Chanmina turns in a surprisingly stylish track for a small-town mystery; the music video dresses the song into a theme for a bloodier crime drama. While she appears steely singing over a bluesy guitar riff, the lyrics reveal an emotionally lost figure, searching for motivation to choose life over death when the former seems so pointless: “Got no birthdays or death anniversaries to celebrate,” she shouts in the titular hook. If Chanmina being at a crossroads resonates to anyone in the show, it might be the mysterious, aspiring director Aya (Haruna Kawaguchi), who has to choose her own idea of justice to save Hayabusa as she fights an influence much greater than her.
“Monster” by LIL LEAGUE from EXILE TRIBE [Avex Trax]
from Tenshoku No Mao-sama (Mondays, 10 p.m., July 17 - Sept. 25; Fuji TV)
LIL LEAGUE’s bombastic track plays behind the intro of an earnest drama centered on a recruiting agency, and the dramatic montage synced with the song presents the two main recruiters, Chiharu (Fuuka Koshiba) and Kurusu (Ryo Narita), like they’re heroes fighting evil—it’s quite an unintentionally funny juxtaposition. It’s also hard not to let the show’s theme color the lyrics in the chorus of “Monster”: “Lay down all the choices / the future you decide / even if it’s scary / if you enjoy the thrill, it’ll be paradise.” Are these lyrics just typical boy-group sentiments about harnessing one’s potential, or are they about the anxiety in having to pick out your next career out of the many offered by the show’s Shepherd’s Careers?
More than a few other outside parts can frame Tenshoku No Mao-sama as an odd job-recruiter advertorial. Not only are commercials for actual recruiting agencies airing in between the show, the series put together their own infomercial for OpenWork’s job-search app with its side characters as the spokespeople. But I’m not gonna lie: the show actually got me to seek out resources so I can get away from my own unfulfilling day job. Maybe my own dissatisfaction with my workplace lent some of the episodes to hit me on a more personal spot. How could it not when its clients voice wants that aligns with mine like a fairer share of workload or a higher-up who cares? Only if there really were recruiters like Chiharu out there who sincerely cares about your well-being during the job search.
We are down to our last issues of This Side of Japan before the newsletter goes into year-end mode. I’ve spent the past few weeks endlessly tweaking the list, so please look forward to it down the line. But for now, new music continues! Including a few J-pop records that captures how J-pop is now, at this moment in time. And speaking of Japan’s pop at its most current: I recently got to interview Hakushi Hasegawa for Tone Glow, and you can read that here!
Album of the Week
Launchvox by Yuka Nagase [Kigensho]
Yuka Nagase has been expanding her circle since her debut full-length, A Look Front. She began the year by linking up with renowned indie-pop producers and singer-songwriters like Aiobahn and mekakushe for a monthly singles campaign; this summer saw the release of a full album with the musicians from the net-rooted label Local Visions. As she grew her community of peers through these releases, each of her collaborations presented her in a different angle than the last, widening the palette of her maximalist electronic-pop music.
Launchvox arrives as a culmination of these efforts to deepen her artistry. The mini album’s kitchen-sink production teem with life like a restless parade of Technicolor while its otherworldly feel separates it from what came before. Many of its sharply hi-def sounds—the sour, wheezing keys of “Planetary Linea” or the prickly hi-hats and soda-fizz synths of “After You”—shape a vivid, tactile quality to the tracks, like motion smoothing applied to the songs of A Look Front. The lyrics further indulge in the surreal to complement the psychedelic music: “The desert water unravels / Life’s aria gushes out,” Nagase sings the titular lyric of “Sabaku No Mizu” while the music collapses onto itself.
Nagase fascinates when she responds to the album’s evocative soundscapes with a lyrical whimsy that’s just as oblique. But the best songs on Launchvox find the sensual music amplifying the emotions behind the singer’s more candid confessions. Her whispery vocals deliver lyrics like intimate secrets, her hushed tone implying the words as pieces of her thoughts that won’t ever make it out of her head. Nagase is entranced by her busy surroundings in “Chikakute, Tookute,” and it’s when a sight steals her attention that inspires the song’s finest moment: “Time stops, your eyes / almost suck me in,” she sighs in the chorus and a gust of glitchy synths whirrs underneath like a restless heartbeat. While her production grows into bigger worlds, the bursting music all work to elevate its central figure and her larger-than-life emotions.
“Gokiburi Ningen” by Aburinatown [WAKASA WA WARUNA WORKS]
“Gokiburi Ningen” joins Aburinatown’s other songs like “Baka” and “Rokudenashi No Uta” where the band proudly indulge in self-deprecation. Vocalist Yukinari lists off a series of demeaning personal episodes with a sardonic sneer: “Papa got cheated by that other kid’s mama / Mama went out to sell her body.” The band meanwhile play their rowdy punk music without a care, understanding all they can really do in their situation is laugh about it. And as they go belly up, Aburinatown embrace their black humor in the titular chorus, turning themselves into the song’s big punchline: “The day’s biggest bore was me all along.”
Aburinatown 1 -Shinitakunattekaraga Hoban- is out now.
“Rain Candy” by Fake Creators ft. Misi Ke [I want the moon, not records]
Dream pop is an unexpected genre to find at the intersection of the electro-pop of DE DE MOUSE and math-rock of LITE, but the two acts deliver a solid collection of shoegaze-tinged indie rock in their new EP, Rain Dreams, as if they’ve always been making this kind of stuff under their collaborative outfit, Fake Creators. The songs like “Rain Candy” lean the closest in feel to the drifting, sun-dazed works of featured singer Misi Ke, who stands in as the yearning frontwoman of a Beach Fossils-style band bringing fuzzy riffs and gleaming post-punk bass lines. It’d be easy to dismiss as mere novelty, especially as they play with a well-trodden style in indie rock, if everyone involved didn’t nail it so well.
Rain Dreams is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“GALFY4” by KAMIYA ft. cyber milk chan, nyamura, HAKU, MANON [self-released]
Apparel brand GALFY assembled a star-studded crew for the fourth release of its annual rap collaboration series. All specializing in the trance-y side of hyperpop, the soloists make for a perfect fit to promote the brand’s new gyaru-themed Don Quijote collab. And the detail in the curation extends to the high-speed neo-Eurobeat production, handled by Masayoshi Iimori, a producer who helped shape this niche sound. The beat smoothly switches up to allow each artist to show off their individual style: it mutes everything but the stomping drums to closely track nyamura’s whispered flow; a buzzing beat drop amplifies MANON’s larger-than-life verse. Out of all the sections, KAMIYA’s Auto-Tune-fried chorus sticks to my mind the most, especially as she’s seen bobbing along singing the bouncing refrain in the video.
This Week in 2001…
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.
“secret base ~Kimi Ga Kureta Mono~” by ZONE [Sony, 2001]
ZONE’s “secret base ~Kimi Ga Kureta Mono~” is a quintessential hit representing the atmosphere surrounding the last days of summer—that imminent, bittersweet return to reality and responsibilities. The production’s wistful toy-box synths set in a sorrowful mood, and the group starts off the ballad by bidding farewell. “The end of summer with you / dreams and hopes for the future / I won’t ever forget,” they sing. “Ten years later in August / I’ll keep holding on that we’ll meet again.” ZONE’s most successful single presents the inverse of a typical summer song with the group mourning the present while cherishing the possible future.
Before “secret zone,” ZONE looked suited to deliver a song that indulged instead in the fleeting, thrill-chasing side of summer. The teen girl band’s first two major-label singles showed off their youthful spirit with a rambunctious power-pop sound to match. Never mind that the members initially were not keen on this direction forced upon them by the label that was colloquially tagged “bandol1,” as in band and idol. From their talent-academy origins to teen-age line-up, ZONE followed a mold closer to idol-group SPEED; their indie debut rolls out a flashy hard-rock style reminiscent of ZARD. But they made do with what they were given, channeling their live-wire energy into equally scrappy pop-rock that competed with other bands2 riding a wave forged by the likes of Judy and Mary.
With the focus put more on the members’ vocals than loud instruments, “secret base” convinces as a record the girls of ZONE actually wanted to make. They already had history with the song since the group’s indie days at Sapporo’s entertainment academy Studio Runtime. “Secret zone” had been written by their producer at Runtime, Norihiko Machida, while at the school, and the group’s TAKAYO already had been singing the song before their major-label debut. A pivot to a ballad also perhaps made better sense as ZONE’s third single after back-to-back releases of peppy blasts of power-pop.
Machida’s forlorn lyrics in “secret base” pairs well with the teenage singers. They were at the age when summer break can define their life, and the transferring to a new school causes their first brushes with separation; the latter event adds gravity as well as real stakes to the imminent end of their friendship. But they also sound wiser than their age as they solemnly reflect upon the relationship in hindsight. The resigned tone of “secret base” frames the song less as a teen’s immediate response to a break-up than an adult’s reminiscence of their golden years, extracting the most poignant details from the memories: “I know that you waved your hand until the very end / that’s why I’ll keep that forever in my dreams,” the group sing like the lyrics are what they’ve wished to tell their significant other after all these years but never actually got the chance.
ZONE locating that specific, sentimental time during one’s teens helped “secret base” slide right in as the ending theme for the afternoon TV soap, Kids War 3 ~Zakennayo~. The family drama series shifted its demographic from housewives to young adults for its third season, switching the story’s focus to the main family’s teen daughter (Mao Inoue). And the popularity of the show eventually drove the success of the single: the record debuted at number 19 in August, and then slowly climbed up the charts, eventually landing at number two the same week Kids War 3 bowed out with its season finale.
In the past decade, though, “secret base” has been better known from the 2011 anime Ano Hi Mita Hana No Namae Wo Bokutachi Wa Mada Shiranai and the “10 Years Later” cover done by the lead voice actresses for the show’s ending theme3. Though the plot of Ano Hana reads like a wish-fulfillment sequel to the narrative in “secret base” with it centered on a summertime reunion of former childhood friends, its first act depicts a rather soul-crushing timeline where the relationships appear irreparable. But instead of souring the original text, the anime’s jaded reality reinforces “secret base” as an ode to lost innocence. There’s something to admire about how ZONE sincerely promise to “write letters and call you on the phone” with them so focused on holding onto what they have in the present. But “secret base” also gets poignantly nostalgic for a more pure time when the idea of “best friends forever” seemed feasible to fulfill.
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This concept was certainly novel at the time for an idol group, deviating from the dance-pop mold still prevalent at the time in 2001—think SPEED, sure, but also Folder. Even thinking of its power-pop sound, it’s worth considering how their singles predated a record like Ai Otsuka’s “Sakuranbo” or Morning Musume’s “Koko Ni Iruze,” a pop-punk and ska-punk song, respectively, in idol-pop clothing. There was still novelty to this bandol idea a decade later when AKB48 became a rock band proper in “GIVE ME FIVE!” if only in the world of its music video. Or the now-defunct group PASSPO. Or, if we want to bring it back to Yasushi Akimoto affiliates, The Coinlockers. We’ll discuss anime further down this piece, but let’s not get into K-On!!, Bang! Dream and the like or else we’ll need a whole other issue about this…
While the bandol idea suggests ZONE as an act ahead of its time, they seemed to be rather late to the wave in the context of the band boom. There’s the hyperlinked Whiteberry, who pitched JITTERIN’JINN nostalgia in sound as well as an actual cover, not even a decade after the latter band’s break. But also a band like Hysteric Blue that seemed to follow the shadow of Judy and Mary, who broke up the year “secret base” was released. The Japanese Wikipedia entry mentions ZONE as a precursor to the ‘00s alt-rock wave like Chatmonchy, Negoto, and Scandal (who actually have covered “secret base”) but the attempt to organize them as such feels like the writer lumping them together just because of an all-female line-up. I am sympathetic, though, to the idea of Silent Siren in the lineage of ZONE, only in its reversed form of a band trying to write idol songs…