How to collect Japanese pop music, part seven: the alternatives course

How to Collect Japanese Pop MusicThis final installment of our seven-week dive into Japanese pop was supposed to be focused solely on the Shibuya-kei scene, that movement in the 1990s that I have a bit of a soft spot for because it gave us Pizzicato Five. But then, as we put this series together, we ended up with a lot of acts that don’t exactly fit their obvious categories. One is a soloist that doesn’t exactly fit her pop sheen. Another does music you wouldn’t exactly call J-rock. Yes, I know, this all sounds like an excuse to lump acts that don’t quite fit the themes of the past few weeks, but don’t take it that way. Not at all.

We’ve illustrated in the past few weeks just how Japanese pop has evolved, thanks in part to the many influences coming in from other countries, as well as a bunch of musicians not just filtering in those trends, but making it distinctly theirs. These acts often begin from the fringes, only to gravitate towards the mainstream – or at least mainstream consciousness – as they go along. And, personally, with what I now know about J-pop – not a lot, but a lot more than before – these musicians have done their scene a big service.


We begin with an act we’ve been mentioning throughout the past few weeks: Yellow Magic Orchestra. Arguably, among all the acts we’ve written about, it’s these guys who have had the biggest impact in music – music in general, not just Japanese pop. Formed by musican veterans in 1977 – Haruomi Hosono was previously of Happy End; Yukihiro Takahashi was with the Sadistic Mika Band; Ryuichi Sakamoto was an accomplished session musician – the group expressed interest in the time’s synthesizer-based music, but wanted a less mechanical, more melodic and “liberating” sound. So they took the template of Kraftwerk, who they looked up to, and forced it through the sieve of 1950s exotica, although they later also borrowed from traditional Japanese music, disco and surf pop.

YMO was not supposed to be a long-running group, with their members pursuing solo careers at the same time as the group’s success. Indeed, they have split up and reunited many times, most recently reforming in 2007 and performing sporadically since. (Ryuichi notably won an Oscar for his score to The Last Emperor, but his work for The Revenant was controversially deemed ineligible by judges.) But their impact has become widespread. Their self-titled debut, released in 1978, captured imaginations in Japan and elsewhere in the world; their later albums proved the group’s forward-looking stance by experimenting with new (at the time) equipment, and pioneering the use of bleeps, drum machines and sampling. Electropop boomed in Japan right after YMO’s ascent; the rise of synthpop and hip-hop around the world also trace their origins, in one way or another, to these three boys.


This week was supposed to focus fully on the Shibuya-kei movement – that subcategory of alternative music that rose out of Tokyo’s chic Shibuya district in the early 1990s, inspired as much by the indie pop coming out of the UK at the time, as well as most stripes of 60s lounge-y pop, from chanson to bossa nova. We realized that felt too specific – and, okay, that idea was mostly because I can be partial to 60s-inspired sounds, and I love Pizzicato Five – so instead we’re compressing all that to these two paragraphs, represented by an artist who, at least in his solo moniker, is not exactly part of the movement: Cornelius, aka singer and producer Keigo Oyamada.

He got his start as one of the core members of Shibuya-kei pioneers Flipper’s Guitar, alongside Kenji Ozawa. Founded in 1987, the group clearly loves its British pop, with their three albums embracing the indie pop and new wave coming out of the UK at the time, as well as the movement’s usual jazzy concerns. (See early single “Goodbye, Our Pastels Badges”.) The two parted ways in 1991, and Keigo became Cornelius, producing indie pop that’s just a tinge more experimental, and definitely more modern. His albums have been solid performers in the Oricon charts, although chances are you know him more for his remix work, reconfiguring tracks for the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, the Avalanches and Kings of Convenience – as well as Beck, the artist he is most often likened too. So, firmly on the cool side, then.


Inevitably I would mention Gesu no Kiwami Otome – yes, I am once again crushing on Hona Ikoka, also drummer of the band Microcosm – but, well, I’m actually going to focus on that band’s leader, Enon Kawatani. Sure, the guy’s controversial now because of his off-stage decisions – both his bands are on hiatus after it was discovered he was drinking alcohol with a minor – but you’ve got to give it to the guy: he’s slowly becoming a force in J-pop, both through his work on Indigo la End and Gesu no Kiwami Otome, as well as his production and songwriting, notably for, of all people, SMAP. Well, at least until all this. But anyway.

Enon founded his first band, Indigo la End, in 2010, and that group’s more of your straightforward indie rock sound: “Sayonara Bell”, the song we’re featuring, is evocative of the group’s emotional style. He founded Gesu no Kiwami Otome two years later, assembling musicians from the bands he often hangs with (including former Indigo la End bassist Masao Wada) and creating a group with a more jammy, jazzy sound. After both groups scored major record deals in 2013, and simultaneously saw boosts through both television dramas and commercials featuring the bands’ tunes. Indigo la End’s been a bit more volatile, though, as they went through a series of line-up changes – again, until the hiatus these past couple of months. Well, I’ll watch another Hona video, then we resume, okay?


Okay, we’re back. Sheena Ringo, then – and yes, she did begin as a pop soloist, rising in popularity alongside Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki. But while they pursued a more R&B-centric sound, she pursued a rock-influenced sound that felt like a throwback to the popularity of the likes of Chage and Aska in the early 1990s. (Her first big hit, “Koko de Kiss Shite”, is a good example, with a touch of late 90s grrl-rock for good measure.) Also, she has always been uncomfortable with being a pop icon, so she announced early on that she would retire as a solo performer after the release of her third album – that, Kalk Semen Kuri no Hana, was released in 2003. After one last “goodbye” single, she decided to make a permanent group out of her touring band, and performed as part of Tokyo Jihen.

While the band was relatively successful – they released five albums and scored a number one hit in 2009’s “Nōdōteki Sanpunkan” – they were beset by several line-up changes, compounded by the impression that all they were was Sheena’s back-up band. She had by then resumed working solo, although apart from the 2009 album Sanmon Gossip she worked more on writing songs for other artists. She has focused on releasing singles – her two albums in 2014 were either compilations of those singles, or cover versions – which show off her expanding influences, moving past rock and teetering towards jazz, Latin and R&B (but not like her contemporaries). (I’ll still raise “A Long and Short Festival” as an example.) There’s a reason why she’s admired by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Courtney Love.


And finally, Shonen Knife – not exactly a revolution by all means, but throughout the years their defiance of what’s popular has earned them a dedicated following in Japan and around the world. Founded at the end of 1981 by sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano (alongside their friend Michie Nakatani, who has since left the group), they took solace in the then ongoing transition from British punk to new wave, never mind the surge of electropop at the time. The fact that they’re an all-female group, and their songs were just so… flimsy, must have also ruffled some feathers. But they steadily gained an audience, and by the late 1980s they have appeared on a Sub Pop Records compilation, got played by John Peel, and found a fan in Kurt Cobain.

Despite several line-up changes (only Naoko remains from the original trio) Shonen Knife remain prolific, and their fan base remains dedicated. Never mind that they’re still singing about the frilly things – there’s something powerful about the bursts of rock these girls emit. I guess that’s a good ending note to these past seven weeks. Yes, Japanese pop is hard to get into – unlike with the Koreans (who we dived into last year) you always get the sense that you’re just getting a small part of the picture. But perhaps that is by design. There are small scratches they make in the whole scheme of things, yet the impact Japanese artists make are noticeable enough… if you look (and listen) a little longer. [NB]


[Many thanks to Adette Razon, James Habitan, Saturn de los Angeles, and especially to Icka Alcantara for helping out as we worked on this series.]

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