I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Hi-Fi Set/Yoichi Takizawa -- Memorandum (メモランダム)

Nice and lovely Saturday out there! It might still be a little too cool for al fresco dining and drinking at a high of 11 degrees Celsius but after a bunch of days hovering around the zero mark or far below, I'm sure a lot of Torontonians are lapping up the warm weather like thirsty kittens.

Well, why don't I give you a taste of the Riviera then through some 1970s sophisticated pop? Of course, when I mention that decade and that genre, I can only think of the vocal group Hi-Fi Set (ハイ・ファイ・セット). It's been a while since I've brought another article by this Japanese version of The Manhattan Transfer. From covers of Yuming hits to jazzy numbers, Junko Yamamoto(山本潤子), Toshihiko Yamamoto(山本俊彦)and Shigeru Ohkawa(大川茂)could interpret the entire New Music songbook.

I just discovered "Memorandum", Hi-Fi Set's 9th single from April 1977. It's a champagne-and-caviar number with a light touch, and the vocal harmonies by the Set haven't been better. Dining on the good stuff by the Mediterranean probably found itself a theme song with this one. The music does take one to sunnier climes abroad although the lyrics by Rei Nakanishi (なかにし礼) are slightly more melancholy as a woman leafs through an old memo book left by a former paramour.

"Memorandum" was also a track on the group's 4th album from September 1977, "The Diary". That release also has another favourite Hi-Fi Set song of mine, "Koi no Nikki"(恋の日記).

The music was by singer-songwriter Yoichi Takizawa(滝沢洋一), a singer-songwriter who I haven't been able to find much in the way of information. He has apparently provided songs for many other singers but according to Tower Records, he himself had only released one album which was in 1978, "Leonidas no Kanata ni"(レオニズの彼方に...Beyond Leonidas). On that album is his own cover of "Memorandum".

His version is just as sunny and made even lighter thanks to his high-toned vocals. But instead of that luxury resort that Hi-Fi Set's original version envisages, Takizawa's take is a nice stroll along on the boardwalk while wondering how life is like in that resort. "Leonidas no Kanata ni" has been described as one of those "mystery albums" due to its rarity. I can take that as a challenge.

Especia -- Twilight Palm Beach (トワイライトパームビーチ)

The above was taken not too far away from home during a heavy snowstorm. It's about as February as February can get in my city. And then we hit the deep freeze in the beginning of the week.

But nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to weather in Toronto. As I've continued to say, it's predictably unpredictable. It's Saturday today and yep, we are hitting 11 degrees Celsius. Time to break out the flip-flops and sunblock lotion!

So, let me bring in some premature summery times via the good ladies at Especia. This is "Twilight Palm Beach" from their 2013 EP "Amarga - Tarde".

In Marcos V's recent articles in the last couple of months, it seems like the niche aidoru group that had been trying to corner the neo-City Pop/80s market was moving on and perhaps passing on the baton to groups such as Dance for philosophy. However, back then, Especia was bringing back the urban contemporary groove of yesteryear.

With a title like "Twilight Palm Beach", you couldn't get more City Pop/Resort Pop. There's also that nice slow beat just like lapping waves on the sunset shore. It's about as relaxed a ballad as I've heard from Especia. Heck, the cover for the EP also fairly screams the genre.

Along with the laidback music by Schtein and Longer, the lyrics by mirco and Paul Moriya(ポウル守屋)relate the bittersweet ending of a romance to go along with the cooling of the seasons. One would expect a cool basso profundo DJ to introduce and give a finishing narration to the song. "Amarga - Tarde" reached a peak ranking of No. 52 on Oricon.

Speaking of cooling of the seasons, our balmy weather will probably go into the week but rest assured, there will be at least a few more weeks of frosty times before spring finally comes into view.

Nissy (Takahiro Nishijima) -- Mada Kimi wa Shiranai MY PRETTIEST GIRL (まだ君は知らない MY PRETTIEST GIRL)

In terms of my foray into current day J-pop, AAA is generally my go to group for various reasons. One of it is actually the members. While I don't mind all of them, the few I tend to gravitate to are Naoya Urata (浦田直也) for his vocals and style, Shinjiro Atae (與真司郎) for the looks, and the fellow I'll be talking about here, Takahiro Nishijima (西島隆弘), better known as Nissy, for a combination of both. He's also got a cute charm that makes him difficult to ignore, so it wasn't too surprising that I'd have a look into his solo works apart from his contributions to AAA.

The first of Nissy's solo singles I encountered just a few weeks ago was "Mada Kimi wa Shiranai MY PRETTIEST GIRL". Watching the MV that co-stared actress Kasumi Arimura (有村架純), it brought to mind what J-Canuck listed at the start of his article for Gen Hoshino's (星野源) "Koi" ():

Catchy funk-pop?
Quirky choreography?
Dapper clothing on the singer?
Personal appeal by the singer in the middle of the music video?

The rhythmic beat in the sunny melody is indeed catchy, and the jolly manner in which Nissy lilts "Mada Kimi..." makes for a fun and cheerful song to listen to. Then we've got the adorable "Pinky Dance" that had everyone wagging their pinkies throughout most of the MV. Looks a lot less rigorous than the "Koi Dance", if you ask me, but both are as amusing to watch. As for the dapper clothes, what looks like the cool alter ego of the awkward young man (both played by Nissy himself) is decked in a dark blue casual suit and fedora - it's almost Bruno Mars-like, and his crew are pretty spiffy in black. As for personal appeal, while it's not in the MV itself he did make a separate video (below this paragraph) where he conveyed his thanks to fans and collaborators alike before performing the Christmas edition of the "Pinky Dance" with his own mascot - a thick pair of lips with eyes. I think have bingo!

"Mada Kimi..." was released on 24th August 2016 as Nissy's 6th single. While it's not shown how well it did on the Oricon site, I'd like to think it fared quite well. Writing it were Hiromi (宏実) for the lyrics, and HENRIK Nordenback, SIRIUS, and Sebastian Zelle for the music - no wonder it had a western pop vibe.

This "alter ego" in a blue suit who sprinkles magic love dust seems like a recurring character in as I've seen "him" in a few other of Nissy's MVs.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Works of Toru Funamura (船村徹)

As has been the case since I started "Kayo Kyoku Plus", whenever I hear of a death in the Japanese music world, it's always been in the morning, specifically through NHK's "Newswatch 9", and this morning was no different. Composer Toru Funamura(船村徹)passed away at the age of 84 the day before. According to J-Wiki, he may have created more than 5,000 songs in a career that lasted over 60 years.

Unfortunately, I can't really impart any deep insights off the top (although in writing this article, that may change) about his musical style but his genres were most definitely enka and the somewhat poppier kayo of a past age. Just from some of the hits that he was responsible for, though, Funamura's enka melodies ranged from the poignant to the proud with the common point being the rich Japanese-ness of it all.

Funamura was born Hiroo Fukuda(福田博郎)in Tochigi Prefecture in 1932 and studied piano at what is now the Tokyo College of Music. His university days were during the postwar period when US military forces were frequently seen on the streets, and so he participated and even led a band which toured the US bases. He also collaborated with another budding composer, Kimio Takano(高野公男), to create music but tragically, Takano would pass away at the age of 26 in 1956.

The last time I saw Funamura on TV was on an episode of NHK's "Kayo Concert"(歌謡コンサート)early last year, I believe. And I think he also performed one song himself on stage. During the 1950s, he had his time behind the microphone, and according to his bio on J-Wiki, one of his four singles was "Shinjuku Jouwa"(新宿情話...Shinjuku Love Story)although I couldn't find out the exact year of its release. Composed by Funamura and written by Ryo Inomata(猪又良), it was the melancholy story of a man trying to comfort a young woman in distress in the titular neighbourhood of Tokyo.

I couldn't find an original copy of Funamura actually singing "Shinjuku Jouwa" but according to YouTube, it has been covered by a number of singers including Eisaku Ohkawa(大川栄策), one of his apprentices who would become one of the premier enka singers. That lone guitar expresses the tenderness of the situation and it would be one of those fine ballads to be sung by that traveling balladeer who used to walk the side streets of Shinjuku.

Officially, though, his debut as a composer came in 1953 when he made "Tasogare no Ano no Hito"(たそがれのあの人...That Man At Sunset), although I couldn't find out who the original singer was.

His first bona fide hit though came a couple of years later in 1955 when he composed "Wakare no Ippon Sugi"(別れの一本杉)for Hachiro Kasuga(春日八郎). The video above has Funamura himself singing the song about longing for home. Noelle has already fashioned an article about it right here.

I wrote about a Funamura-penned song just a couple of weeks ago called "Odorou Boku to"(踊ろうぼくと)from 1963 with all-Japanese guy Kazuo Funaki(舟木一夫). Revisiting this one and listening to some of the other hits, I've been getting the impression that Funamura enjoyed expressing aspects of the Japanese man's heart although he also made songs for female singers. This one was a bit less enka but there was that streak of gallantry in there.

In 1961, he composed one of Hideo Murata's(村田英雄)symbolic tunes, "Osho"(王将), a muscular enka that made the game of shogi into an epic battle. The above is a cover by Hiroshi Itsuki(五木ひろし).

Another one of his manly-man songs was his 1982 hit for Ichiro Toba(鳥羽一郎), another one of his apprentices, the ode to a couple of fishermen brothers battling the elements, "Kyodai Bune"(兄弟船). No matter if it's a single piercing trumpet or a whole orchestra, the song packs a wallop of an impression. I can smell the sea salt from here.

Then a year later, "Yagiri no Watashi"(矢切の渡し)became one of the biggest hits for 1983 for Takashi Hosokawa(細川たかし)although it had first been sung by Naomi Chiaki(ちあきなおみ)as a B-side back in 1976. For me, it's one of the most recognizable enka.

Another kayo legend that Funamura created songs for was the one and only Hibari Misora(美空ひばり). In 1962, she released "Hibari no Sado Jouwa"(ひばりの佐渡情話...Hibari's Sado Love Story). As far as I know, Misora may be the only singer who had kayo titles with her name on them. Although the lyrics by Sou Nishizawa(西沢爽)may have had Misora femininely lamenting a lost love, Funamura's melody still reflected a strength of character that was part and parcel of the Misora mystique...the same mystique that was rumoured to have often terrified her fellow singers at any of the Kohaku that the Queen of Kayo appeared on. And yes, she also performed this song on the NHK New Year's Eve special.

Speaking of another famous singer from the old days, Funamura created a Mood Kayo for Keiko Fuji(藤圭子)as her 40th single in February 1987, "Shinjuku Banka"(新宿挽歌...Shinjuku Elegy). And it sounded like the composer crafted the ballad perfectly for his client: that late-night bluesy music paired with Rei Nakanishi's(なかにし礼)lyrics of shattered dreams that had exemplified Fuji's songs from the very beginning.

As I said at the top, Funamura composed over 5,000 songs since 1953. So if my descriptions here are a bit chintzy, I'm sure the articles that have already been written for some of his hits will be more illuminating and there will definitely be more Funamura-penned songs coming up in the future. I might even end up writing up on "Shinjuku Jouwa", "Shinjuku Banka" and the Misora ballad since they have yet to get their own articles as of this writing (but Noelle, if you want to give them a shot, please be my guest).

To finish, I managed to find one interesting story from the J-Wiki bio of Funamura. The original source is a Japanese webpage showing a conversation between him and fellow songwriter Eiichi Ohtaki(大瀧詠一). In 1959, an animated movie for which Funamura was responsible for the score had won a grand prize at a London-based movie festival, and the composer somehow was able to attend an audition for bands. After seeing the whole lot, he was then asked which groups were good. Funamura answered, "That slovenly group of four was the most interesting."

What floored Ohtaki was who that group was. Funamura may have thought the four were slovenly...and interesting, but the world kinda found out later that they were actually quite fab!

X -- Kurenai/20th Century Boy(紅)

The 2016 edition of the Kohaku Utagassen had its ups and downs. But the one thing that kinda went sideways in a weird way for me was X Japan's performance of one of their epic classics "Kurenai" (Crimson). Not that the performance was bad or anything but just the so-called reason for having it played on stage. According to one of the hosts of the show, Shin-Godzilla was getting rather antsy on the metropolis of Tokyo once again, and help was needed to drive him off.

Well, cue in X Japan to provide the sonic weapon necessary to soothe the savage breast of the huge beastie. It was almost as if X Japan was actually the X-Men...or a team of Ultramen! Not sure whether Yoshiki and company rolled their eyes on stage.

As Wikipedia and J-Wiki will report, "Kurenai" has quite the history behind it. It had been performed at concerts for years since about 1985 before it actually was released as their official debut single under a major label (their 3rd overall). And the Yoshiki-penned song apparently had undergone different variations to the point that it was starting to be considered a lost cause.

However, it did get its official release in September 1989 when the band was still called just X, and I think the above video is that version (if I am wrong, please correct me...I'm not an expert on the band at all). Listening to the song for the first time in its entirety, I was surprised about that orchestral intro and the lonely guitar before all that hell-raising metal came bursting in. Then, there were the English lyrics sung by Toshi to start:

I could not look back,you'd gone away from me
I felt my heart ache
I was afraid of following you
When I had looked at the shadows on the wall
I started running into the night to find the truth in me

Years ago, when I first saw X on television, I was frankly terrified by them. I mean, KISS and a plethora of other hair metal bands had been invading the tube for years and years back in the West. However, this was Japan...home of the prim, proper and neat, I had thought naively. But things were changing in the music industry in the late 1980s, and X was just as much an agent of that change as acts such as Dreams Come True and LA-PPISCH.

And despite all of the makeup, the screeching guitars and the ground-shaking drumming, "Kurenai" was basically a love song, although Yoshiki himself countered that it was actually more of a struggle in one person's heart. The strange thing about hearing about it now, over a quarter of a century since its release, is that it doesn't sound all that radical. I've been hearing similarly arranged pieces used in anime for years.

It's still a huge song for all of the fans and I can't even imagine it not being played at an X Japan concert. That single, by the way, peaked at No. 5 on Oricon and became the 74th-ranked song for 1989. A year later, it rose in the rankings to No. 67. "Kurenai" was also a track on their 1989 album "Blue Blood" which had come out earlier in April. That album got as high as No. 6 but it earned even more profuse praise in 2007 when the Japanese version of "Rolling Stone" placed "Blue Blood" as the 15th-ranked release in its list of Top 100 Japanese Rock Recordings.

The B-side/coupling song to "Kurenai" just happened to be the old T. Rex classic "20th Century Boy". X's version had even more octane added.

Heck, we even had one of our own Canadian bands do its cover of the song, Chalk Circle. I think it's awfully hard to screw up this tune.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Mami Ayukawa -- Kaze no No Reply (風のノー・リプライ)

A cloth to wipe my glasses since
after all only Mazinger Z can accomplish this.

When it comes to 1980s anime, I have to say that the only show that I saw with any dedication was "Macross", and that was basically because of its American adaptation "Robotech". Aside from that one, it was simply seeing snatches of this anime and hearing things about that anime.

So, yes, even I did hear about this show called "Juusenki L-Gaim"(重戦機エルガイム...Heavy Metal L-Gaim)which was another in a long series of mecha-based anime but never saw an episode.

But then in the last few days, I heard this wonderful 1980s tune that just happened to be the second opening theme song for "L-Gaim". On hearing "Kaze no No Reply" (No Reply From The Wind), my impression was that this was quite a cheery urban contemporary piece for a show about battling robots

And this was the debut of one Mami Ayukawa(鮎川麻弥)from Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. That still for the video above may have Ayukawa looking like a typical aidoru but, truth be told, she was already about 22 years old when "Kaze no No Reply" was released in July 1984. The song may start out its first few bars sounding as if it were an American AOR song on helium but then when Ayukawa starts singing, it settles down nicely into a soaring anison with those beloved strings and snazzy horns. It just seems to go on like a piece of gum that doesn't lose its flavour. In addition, it doesn't hurt that Ayukawa's voice is more than game with Kyohei Tsutsumi's(筒美京平)music and Masao Urino's(売野雅勇)lyrics. I especially love it when she shoots out "No Reply".

This song has me comparing Ayukawa to fellow singers such as Anri(杏里)and Meiko Nakahara(中原めいこ)who were no slouches themselves when it came to 80s anison. "Kaze no No Reply" peaked at No. 17 on Oricon. She would release 12 more singles going mostly into the early 1990s although her most recent release came out in 2007.

Hikaru GENJI -- Waratte yo (笑ってよ)

Hikaru GENJI’s (GENJI) “Waratte yo” is a song I know since late 2010, when I first watched one of Music Station’s Special episodes (ミュージックステーション), this one from December 1990. In the aforementioned show, the Hikaru GENJI boys, which were the only male performers of the night (if we exclude the fact that B.B.QUEENS was a mixed band) in a vast sea of famous and ‘A game’ 80s female aidoru singers (names like Chisato Moritaka [森高千里], Wink, Seiko Matsuda [松田聖子], Akina Nakamori [中森明菜], Shizuka Kudo [工藤静香] and Miho Nakayama [中山美穂]), performed a medley of hit single “STAR LIGHT” and the newly released “Waratte yo”.

In general, it’s not hard to have a problem with Hikaru GENJI, since they’re pretty cheesy and the vocals really bad, even for Johnny’s standards. We can only think about listening to them nowadays for two reasons: one, of course, is nostalgia, while the other is production value, since their songs were not always that bad in the compositon/arrangement areas. “STAR LIGHT”, for example, is a good late 80s pop song, even if the group itself is lackluster. That said, my favorite from them has always been “Waratte yo”, a somewhat forgotten Latin-tinged gem from the group’s catalogue. I especially like the instrumental breakdown, but also wish it were longer.

To finish, here's the performance from "Music Station" I was talking about before.


Released in November 1990, “Waratte yo” was another hit single for the group, reaching #1 on the Oricon chart. Lyrics were written by Yoshiko Miura (三浦徳子), while music and arrangement were composed by Kouji Makaino (馬飼野康二).