Issue #24: Kusou Sekai
The first newsletter of 2021 explores the new DJ Chari & DJ Tatsuki album, Hiroko Yakushimaru's breakout single, and seeing J-pop cover depression in plain sight
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
During the third episode of the Recultured podcast series, the Japan Times described YOASOBI’s “Yoru Ni Kakeru” as being deceptively sweet on its surface. Underneath the bright music and the tuneful melody, the duo’s lyrics in last year’s breakout hit revealed a bleak wish to jump out of the window of a multi-story building. The rather glum perspective in an otherwise friendly pop environment, according to the publication, summed up the general mood of 2020 with many of us internally dealing with hardships while presenting a calmed self on the outside.
I was reminded of the stark contract of “Yoru Ni Kakeru” when I stumbled upon Riu Domura’s “Kusou Sekai,” featuring singer Uyuni. While the song’s relaxing melody and the main feelgood piano riff invite a friendly sing-along, the compassionate lyrics caught me off guard from how it addressed depression in plain, earnest language: “Nothing good happens no matter what I do / I want to disappear from this world,” Domura croons before returning to a laid-back rap cadence. “But a past like that all went away / these blessings, I’ll give them to you.”
Despite his lyrics frequently touching upon gloomy topics, Domura’s hip-hop-rooted music remains very socially accessible. He resides in a similar musical lane as Rinne with raps heavily focused on melody and beats culled from a “lo-fi hip-hop to…” playlist. While his album For You to Meet Someday features a collection of songs about loneliness and a longing for a significant other, his weepy boom-bap practically asks to be a soundtrack to a sentimental TikTok photo collage of one’s friend group—basically Domura’s own “Snow Jam.”
As his audience interacts with his music, as a part of a meme or otherwise, the singer-rapper is mindful of how his listeners connect with his lyrics as an extension of how they’re currently feeling. While “For You to Meet Someday” addresses a blank “you” who others can fill in with their own name that fits their situation, “Kusou Sekai” talks directly to whoever is tuning in. “Let’s get away to an imaginary world / an Eden where there are no bad dreams,” Domura sings with Uyuni in the chorus. Uploaded to YouTube during the final month of 2020, the single probably tapped into unassuming viewers like myself who looked forward to give closure to a bad year.
Some lyrics in the verses of “Kusou Sekai” can read sappy as text alone: “Welcome to this free world / and I’m so proud of you for making it out another day,” Domura raps right before the fluffy cheer-up of a chorus. But he delivers these hopeful sentiments not so much as a saving grace than a simple, soft compliment. He also refrains from exploiting the darker realities for melodrama. While contemporaries of emo rap might squeeze everything out of their voices to exorcise their anguish, Domura skates along the laid-back beat matter-of-factly. Depression in “Kusou Sekai” doesn’t ring as an intense, private torture but a common affliction of daily life, so everyday that it can comfortably find its place within a pop song.
I suspect the juxtaposition of the dark and the light heard in “Kusou Sekai” is rather unintentional. Personally, the jarring feeling I get from this song perhaps owes more from how casual the whole affair feels. If anything, the contrast helps present depression at face value, not insignificant though also not all-defining—a mundanity that exists in our lives at all times. “Kusou Sekai” normalizes, but not cheapens or trivializes, depression through the accessible, social language of pop. This approach and perspective feels very now especially during these broken times, and I wonder if we’ll see it continue in J-pop beyond “Yoru Ni Kakeru” in the near feature.
Welcome to the first newsletter of 2021! And welcome to new subscribers of This Side of Japan! Hope you’ll find this issue and the subsequent ones worth your time. To kick off the year, instead of a regular album review, I worked on a mini feature for our Album of the Week to bring you an issue jam-packed with recommendations. The Singles Club and This Week in… sections follow the usual routine.
Oh, and for those who don’t know, I was invited as a guest on the year-end episode of the Arama! Japan podcast in December! I get together with Ronald Taylor and Hannah Lee (who was also part of our Friend’s List) to talk about the year-end charts, the effects of COVID on J-pop, and a lot more. You can listen to the podcast here.
One more thing: if you haven’t done so already, it’s be great if you can fill out the short feedback survey for the newsletter. I want to know more about you so I can improve This Side of Japan! You can fill that out here.
And now, I bring you the rest of issue #24. Happy listening!
Album of the Week
Golden Route by DJ Chari & DJ Tatsuki [Air Waves Music]
Listen to it on Spotify
For a crash course on who’s in who in Japan’s rap scene, look no further than DJ Chari and DJ Tatsuki’s third album, Golden Route. The two club DJs play a role reserved for perhaps an earlier era of the genre as seen by the likes of DJ Clue or DJ Khaled, assembling the hottest rappers and producers to cut original tracks for their project. A real curatorial spirit exists throughout the record with rappers feeding off the energy of another, or a producer bringing a fitting sound to pair with an irresistible line-up. Tohji teaming up with Elle Teresa as well as Uneducated Kid and Futuristic Swaver from Korea for a song called “Goku Vibes” sounds like a glorious piece of fan fiction, and the actual record somehow exceeds the version that exists in the imagination.
For this issue’s Album of the Week section, rather than discuss Golden Routes as a whole, I figured it would be more beneficial to break it down track by track to highlight the key artists involved in the project. I’ll be covering seven out of the album’s 14 songs, and each song also will have a Further Listening section to point you to the latest projects by the featured rappers. Take this as an intro guide to some of Japan’s most exciting rappers to hit the scene in the past year.
featuring: Tyson, SANTAWORLDVIEW, MonyHorse, ZOT on the WAVE
“Next to me, young 2 kids,” MonyHorse raps on the album’s laid-back opening track. Behind the YENTOWN crew member are two newcomers: SANTAWORLDVIEW indulges in a verse full of juvenile antics—not the first time with MonyHorse, going on about this kind of stuff—while Tyson handles chorus duties. Carried over from his own work, best displayed on 2019’s MYSKINTERIYAKI, his stuttering delivery and Playboi Carti ad libs ensure his part stays in your brain. If not, perhaps him name-checking Haneda Airport might be what sticks.
ZOT on the WAVE doesn’t appear in the music video, but he’s featured all throughout Golden Route as one of the main beat suppliers. With his snares rolling about, the producer looks to other diverse styles adjacent to his post-trap sound: “Jet Mode” seems business as usual, though the next song, “Couch Potato,” throws in bass wobbles reminiscent of UK drill while the bouncy synths of “Goku Vibes” is one tweak away from being some early PC Music song. Once you recognize that chirpy tag, you know you’re in for a ride.
featuring: Tohji, Elle Teresa, Uneducated Kid, Futuristic Swaver
How does one compete with the bugged-out energy of Tohji? ZOT on the WAVE at least has him somewhat contained, dishing a beat as candy-dipped as the rapper’s Auto-Tune-drunk voice and with a bounce to feed his hunger to move his lanky body to the music. (It’s no surprise the song spawned a TikTok dance challenge.) His verse is as bonkers and self-satisfied: “kirari, shinin’ like I’m Ayumi Hamasaki” might be the best flex of 2020.
Impressively, DJ Chari and Tatsuki assembled acts that stand as tall as the manic rap star. Elle Teresa, who also adorns herself with neon beats for her own music, opens her verse with a hard-to-match intro: “me, I’m Bulma, yeah, OG / boys, come fuck in my ouchi [house].” The two rappers from Korea, Uneducated Kid and Futuristic Swaver, are also familiar with this shiny world; the latter’s YFGOD is basically neo-swag rap with him sporting ringtone beats and interpolating Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru the Phone.” Not here to just follow suit, the two flip the flow into a mesmerizing double time while the colorful melody practically bleeds out from their Auto-Tuned voices.
Angel by Tohji (2019)
Youngin SeasonEP by Elle Teresa (2020)
Hoodstar 2 by Uneducated Kid (2020)
YFGOD by Futuristic Swaver (2020)
“Into U” (ft. sheidA) by JUVENILE & ☆Taku Takahashi [HPI]
“Doesn’t this just sound like an m-flo beat,” producer JUVENILE asks the camera in his interview video with m-flo’s Taku Takahashi, who’s tweaking the drums of their collaboration, “Into U,” on the computer. “No, it’s just regular 2-step,” the latter quickly hits back with a laugh, like a father humbling himself in front of his child.
True, this track’s shuffle and swing mark a textbook example of 2-step, though I also can’t blame JUVENILE for being starstruck from witnessing his hero recreate the backbone of what resembles “Come Again,” the m-flo classic from 2001. Much of “Into U” sounds in tribute to the J-pop icons circa Expo Expo, like the elegant build in the verses that anticipates a lush, string-assisted breakdown as well as guest vocalist shiedA, whose bilingual tongue befits a track nostalgic for Western R&B of the aughts. A good half of JUVENILE’s debut solo album, INTERWEAVE, already hints at the influence, so he might as well fully indulge with Taku Takahashi at his side.
INTERWEAVE is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Loser Girl” by Tuyu [self-released]
Speaking of artists with deceptively sweet songs, here’s Tuyu—a group shrouded in anonymity with similar Vocaloid-rooted origins as YOASOBI. The fast-paced combo of jagged guitars and melodramatic piano in “Loser Girl” already overwhelms, but there’s also the blunt lyrics to consider. Vocalist Rei wallows about her shortcomings to the point her self-loathing becomes her own downfall. Overtaken by the drunk melody, her emotions heighten with extreme speed in the chorus: “Then what can I do? / then what can I do,” she repeats for emphasis, “Someone let me know, what did I do wrong? / low life for life: loser girl.”
The group’s chief composer Pusu wrote “Loser Girl” for the idol group Pure White Canvas (you can listen to their version here) and the song gains an additional layer in context as an idol song. “I started to see what’s around me / the many rivals around me / I started to see where I stand / and I wasn’t much,” Rei sings as the music video depicts the titular girl standing among a crowd of aspiring singers. While idol songs are often vehicles to celebrate hopes and dreams, “Loser Girl” provides a sobering, if not fantasy-crushing alternative about hanging on to dreams. Innocence isn’t all lost thanks to Tuyu’s otherwise sweet pop music, sugar-coating the glum content underneath.
“Sojou” by Uminecosounds [Umineco]
While it took six years for Uminecosounds to return with their third album, Miso, the indie-rock band quickly followed up with a new single in a matter of a few seasons. Dense with thick distortion, the opening guitar riff towers over the autumnal tunes that came before. The band’s familiar, mellow jangle soon scatters away some of the muddle, and frontman Osamu Furusato nonchalantly begins to ruminate on the passing of time. “It’s going to be a brilliant season,” he sings amid the swirling sounds, “Blooming and dying / Returning and then resting.” After kicking off 2020 asking how soon will spring arrive, Uminecosounds bookend one unpredictable year with one poetic conclusion.
Sake To Inu is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1982…
“Sailor Fuku To Kikanjyuu” by Hiroko Yakushimaru [Kitty, 1981]
No. 1 during the weeks of Dec. 21, 1981 - Jan. 18, 1982 | Listen to it on YouTube
Sailor uniform and machine gun. The irony of the titular pairing works wonders as a hook to the 1981 film of the same name, and the plot adapted from the original novel reads as though it was trying hard to wring out as much as it can out of the phrase. High-school girl Izumi Hoshi succeeds as a yakuza boss after learning about the death of her father, the former ringleader, and she soon gets involved in a conflict against a rival gang.
The star-in-the-making behind the character of Izumi, Hiroko Yakushimaru is the best-remembered singer attached to the film’s tie-up song after many remakes and covers over the decades—including the original source material. The then-teen actress had no plans for a music career at the time despite gaining enough of a following to easily break out as an idol. The single was originally tasked to singer-songwriter Takao Kisugi, but director Shinji Soumai sat unimpressed at the resulting tune, insisting Yakushimaru to be the singer instead.
Yakushimaru’s “Sailor Fuku to Kikanjyuu” didn’t change much of Kisugi’s original, titled “Yume No Tochuu,” which also saw release as a single. (His record came out a couple weeks before Yakushimaru’s, charting at no. 4 on the Oricon.) The song opens with the same bluesy guitar riff imbuing a faint wistfulness; it reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” or “Dreams” a little bit, backed by a grand string arrangement as a Showa pop spectacle wont to have. Kisugi’s composition is simply placed in a higher key to accompany the teen actress’s voice.
That said, though “Sailor Fuku” remain faithful to Kisugi’s song from the music to lyrics, it makes a world of a difference when Yakushimaru’s the narrator of the story. “All the men you loved, turn them into memories / and I hope one day you’ll be reminded of me,” goes the spiteful chorus. The protagonist’s curse of a wish for their memory to never leave their former flame’s life echoes more haunting through her unwavering voice. The toxicity stings a lot more, too, from an otherwise passive Yakushimaru singing these lyrics without an ounce of detectable sympathy. More than the juxtaposition of a schoolgirl wielding a deadly weapon, the biggest contrast lies in a pure teenage soul praying for revenge of a former lover who did her wrong.
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out January 27. You can check out previous issues here.
Need to contact? You can find me on Twitter or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org