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, July 30, 2016

Kaori Mizumori -- Kumano Kodo (熊野古道 )

Kumano Kodo
by Ippei and Janine Naoi

As one of my translation assignments, I actually worked on a site that has been recognized as part of the collective UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan known as the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range."  Known as the Kumano Kodo (Old Kumano Trails), these are ancient pilgrimage trails which lead to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano. The trails are all over the Kii Peninsula which occupy a good chunk of Wakayama Peninsula, the home of my ancestors.

So of course, something this grand just had to be given its due tribute via an enka song. And no genre covers the geography of Japan like enka! Plus, as Noelle mentioned in the first article for this particular singer, who better to sing the enka tribute to Kumano Kodo than the Queen of Geography Enka herself, Kaori Mizumori(水森かおり)?

My parents seem to appreciate her so much for singing "Kumano Kodo" that I had thought that Mizumori had actually been born and raised a Wakayaman. Actually, she was born and raised in Kita Ward, Tokyo. However the sentiment is still there with my folks, and Mizumori's vocals have a similarity to another enka singer that they like, Sachiko Kobayashi(小林幸子).

And I gotta say that the melody by Tetsuya Gen(弦哲也)stands out a bit from the usual enka song. The immediate intro starts things off as if it were a celebratory song but then quickly takes on a slightly more solemn but no less majestic song. Nothing less for a UNESCO site! Plus, there is that electric guitar that I would have heard usually in one of those manly-man enka by George Yamamoto(山本譲二)or Saburo Kitajima(北島三郎). Still, overall, "Kumano Kodo" has that feminine touch to it, with Ryutaro Kinoshita(木下龍太郎)providing the lyrics.

"Kumano Kodo" is Mizumori's 14th single from April 2006. It went up to No. 5 on Oricon and proved to be enough of a hit for the singer that she received another invitation to the Kohaku Utagassen that year. In fact, Mizumori has been on every Kohaku since 2003. When it comes to our family at least, this particular song will be her trademark ballad.

Ryoko Shinohara -- Lady Generation

Time to pluck myself back to the nostalgic 90s...the time of the Tetsuya Komuro Boom(小室哲哉)with Namie Amuro(安室奈美恵)and trf. With those big stars in there, it can be easy to overlook that actress Ryoko Shinohara(篠原涼子)was also part of the TK collective. I first got to know about her from her mammoth hit "Itoshisa to Setsunasa to Kokorozuyosa to"(恋しさとせつなさと心強さと)with Komuro as the theme song for "Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie".

She was in her early 20s then and was a very well-known face everywhere on the telly. Shinohara graced the magazines and commercials along with her appearances as a comic tarento on variety shows. But of course, there was her music career which began with her time as a member of Tokyo Performance Doll which led to her association with Komuro. A little over a year after scoring big success with "Itoshisa to Setsunasa to Kokorozuyosa to", there was the other song that I knew by her, "Lady Generation". Well, mostly it was from the commercials plugging her 6th single from August 1995 and that saucy cover of the album of the same name. I have just seen the entire video for the first time in the last half-hour.

"Lady Generation" was also another Shinohara-Komuro collaboration but listening to the entire song, I didn't think it had quite the oomph factor that the "Street Fighter" theme had. Mind you, anyone who had a crush on Shinohara probably was quite satisfied from the music video. However, despite the familiar Komuro beat, the melody kinda stayed at the same level throughout.

The song was also used for a campaign involving Family Mart. That's one zippy song for a convenience food chain...although I enjoyed their bento over there. Anyways, "Lady Generation" managed to peak at No. 5 and went Double Platinum. It ended the year as the 64th-ranked single.

Hachiro Kasuga -- Hyotan Boogie (瓢箪ブギ)

Bura bura bura bura ~ Hyotan Boogie ~ 

It came as some sort of epiphany a week or so ago that most singers would have a song or two in their repertoire that isn't like the others, or a piece with a musical style that you wouldn't usually associate the particular singer with. So because of this and a lucky coincidence when planning the articles, this set of Yon'nin shu articles will feature works by these four enka veterans that deviate from their status quo in one way or another. With that said, let's begin with Hachiro Kasuga (春日八郎).

The moment I heard "Hyotan Boogie" being sung by one of the Oji-sans at the karaoke bar back in Sugamo, I knew I had to put it down in an article some time once I got back. This tune was not only catchy, it also revolves around the hyotan a.k.a. calabash a.k.a. bottle gourd, which is quite strange in an amusing sort of way, and something you don't see/hear of everyday. Why I feel that "Hyotan Boogie" is my choice for this set of songs is because, to me, Hachi equals more serious sort of enka rather than fun little ditties. Of course, he has stuff similar to "Hyotan Boogie" in his extensive discography, but I don't see him performing those often, if at all - y'know, besides his hugely popular hit from the same year, "Otomi-san" (お富さん).

You can see what a hyotan is here.

Showa era composer, Yoshi Eguchi (江口夜詩) was the one behind the jolly melody, and together with Hachi's carefree way of singing, "Hyotan Boogie" sort of reminds me of "Otomi-san", just that the former has a more Western flair. From what I've read about the ditty in the above video's description, the late Kikutaro Takahashi's (髙橋掬太郎) lyrics seem to talk about the Yoro waterfall in the Gifu prefecture and an old story behind it. I'm not entirely sure what goes on in it, but there's something about the water at the falls being turned to sake, and people would used the squash (hollowed out and probably also dried) to collect this water-sake and bring it home to drink... The fellow in "Hyotan Boogie" must've brought back too much sake.

"Hyotan Boogie" was released in 1954, which wasn't long after Kasuga made his debut. While it's a catchy tune and all, it didn't seem to be one of the First Enka Singer's mega hits. The song can be found in Hachi's compilation album set "Uta no Takumi Kasuga Hachiro Kayo Zenshu" (歌の匠 春日八郎歌謡全集). The picture at the start is from the second album in the set, but "Hyotan Boogie" is actually in the first album. I chose this picture in particular because it looks like it fits "Hyotan Boogie" better as it has an animated Hachi.

To round things up, here's Michiya Mihashi's (三橋美智也) take on "Hyotan Boogie". Personally, I prefer the original. Kasuga's higher and more nasally voice brings out the fun in the song - it's easier to imagine the main character happily dancing around in a drunken stupor with a hyotan filled with sake in hand. I actually find Michi's rendition to be rather flat in comparison. Michi's version can be found in his cover album of Hachi's songs, "Kogane no Utagoe Mihashi Michiya 'Kasuga Hachiro wo Utau'" (黄金の歌声 三橋美智也 “春日八郎を歌う”).

Friday, July 29, 2016

Makoto Saito -- Aru Gray na Koi no Baai (或るグレイな恋の場合)

Well, I'm still waiting for that latest installment from the "Light Mellow" series of City Pop/J-AOR songs. I had been hoping that it would arrive today since all of us here in Toronto will be entering a long holiday weekend but since it didn't come to the door, any potential arrival will therefore now be Tuesday at the earliest. Ugh, is all I can say for now.

One of the reasons that I decided to get "Light Mellow - Wave" was for a cool song by a musician-songwriter that I hadn't heard of before by the name of Makoto Saito(斎藤誠). And while waiting for that CD, I decided to take a gander at another YouTube ad video for another in the "Light Mellow" series, with this disc called "Travellin'". The usual urban contemporary material from Japan was present but then I got intrigued by the 4th track's excerpt. Looking up the tracks at Amazon, I discovered that it was once again Mr. Saito.

Fortunately, the whole song could also be found on YouTube. Allow me to introduce "Aru Gray na Koi no Baai" (The Case of a Certain Gray Love), a groovalicious number by Saito that was his 3rd single from 1984, and a track on his 2nd album from that same year, "Be-Gray". One of the commenters stated that Saito has some Michael McDonald influence, and yup I think there is a nice amount of Doobie Brothers in the arrangement. It does sound light and mellow although Saito is singing about trying to get a relationship out of the gray zone. Saito did indeed write and compose the single.

As for Saito himself, he was born in 1958 in Tokyo but moved about with his family during childhood to places like Hiroshima, Takarazuka and Shizuoka. In 1977, when he entered the prestigious Aoyama Gakuin University, he also entered a music circle called Better Days which also included his senpai, Keisuke Kuwata(桑田佳祐)of Southern All Stars. Kuwata was indeed the inspiration for Saito to become a professional musician and songwriter. Saito would make his major debut (although he had already become involved with the music industry before then) with the album "LA-LA-LU" in 1983.

When Saito consulted Kuwata after graduating from university about his next steps into the music world, the latter simply told him "You're 10 years too early to quit music!", perhaps suspecting some trepidation in his Padawan. Luckily for us Japanese music fans, Saito heeded his advice. Now I'm not only going to have to get "Light Mellow - Travellin'" but also the original "Be-Gray". So many aural temptations out there.

Sumiko Yamagata -- Kaze ni Fukarete Ikou (風に吹かれて行こう)

Long time, no see, Yamagata-san! The last time an article was written up about Sumiko Yamagata(やまがたすみこ)was back in January 2014 by nikala for her 2nd single "Natsu ni Nattara"(夏になったら).

I started the other way around with my approach on the singer-songwriter from Tokyo. Because I first saw her in the annals of "Japanese City Pop", I encountered her music when she made the switch over from folk to City Pop through songs like "Moonlight Jitterbug" (ムーンライト・ジルバ) in the late 1970s. But listening to "Natsu ni Nattara" again, I realized that she had that comfortable voice for folk.

So, I went back to the beginning with her debut single "Kaze ni Fukarete Ikou" (Let's Go With The Wind At Our Backs), another breezy and summery song written and composed by Yamagata. Released in February 1973, images of kids out in the fields trying to catch butterflies with their nets materialized in my head as I listened to this comfy tune with the recorder intro which came out when she was still just 16. That high voice and her baby face made her look even younger as an elementary school student.

And that innocence was also in play in Yamagata's lyrics which reassured the listener that love doesn't have to get in the way of a friendship. Just enjoy the good times together as a best-friend duo. I wonder if that wisdom came from personal experience...then again, doesn't all wisdom?

The Miku Hatsune(初音ミク)cover has pictures of Yamagata as she grew up from a teenage folk singer-songwriter into a young and slightly more glammed-up New Music singer. "Kaze ni Fukarete Ikou" also appeared in her debut album from March 1973, "Kaze, Sora, Soshite Ai"(風・空・そして愛...Wind, Sky and then Love).

I came across the YouTube advertising video for the "Light & Mellow" CD compilation of Yamagata's works from that latter half of her career.

Eigo Kawashima -- Jidai Okure (時代おくれ)

This morning on "NHK News at 9", there was an unexpected feature on the late Yu Aku( 阿久悠), the prolific lyricist of the Showa Era who I've equated as the Japanese version of Ira Gershwin or Irving Berlin. It has been almost a decade since his passing but the reporter revealed that Aku had kept a diary for many many years which contained not only his thoughts but also newspaper articles and trendy catchphrases at the time.

I didn't understand 100% of the feature but my impression is that Aku had made the transition from frequent lyricist to author since he felt that an ever increasing group of new and young songwriters popping up in the 1980s was making him a bit out-of-date. However, he never was quite content about being just a writer of words instead of lyrics and from time to time, he would still produce songs for some of the greats in the Japanese music industry. But with that peek into his diary, I got the feeling that there was a sense of desperation as his time came to an end...that he didn't want to relinquish his greatest gift.

Perhaps those feelings came to the fore when he wrote "Jidai Okure" (Old-Fashioned) in 1986 for singer-songwriter Eigo Kawashima(河島英五). Another kayo veteran, composer Koichi Morita(森田公一), took care of a melody that sounded downright elegiac. The NHK report also mentioned that the song had been created just on the eve of the Bubble Era when the then-young generation of Japan was about to truly taste a time of decadence through travel, hostess clubs and discos such as the famous Julianas. Aku may have seen this and jotted down his observations into the diary and felt that an age was truly passing by with him being swept along. "Jidai Okure" certainly is melancholy but there is still a sense of wistfulness and gratitude that the happier age did exist for him and his contemporaries to enjoy. The one line that stands out is "Jidai okure no otoko ni naritai"(時代おくれの男になりたい)which means "I want to become an old-fashioned man". Perhaps the song also has a defiance stating that Aku and the others would rather keep their old-fashioned attitudes and songs instead of moving on, but the rest of the song also illustrates the protagonist slowly getting quieter...not yelling at his kids so much and not standing out as much as he used to as a young and ambitious fellow. In a way, I see it as a lyrical declaration of passing the baton to the newer Young Turks.

The original recorded version is below but I thought Kawashima's performance in the video above had an even better tone with just him and his majestic piano. Wouldn't be surprised if there were a fair number of folks in the audience quietly tearing up.

Listening to "Jidai Okure", I was also reminded of another majestic ballad by Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi(長渕剛), the karaoke favourite "Kanpai"(乾杯)which is arguably one of the best go-to songs to celebrate a wedding among all those family members and friends. "Jidai Okure", then, could be more for retirement as a few buddies get together to celebrate and commiserate. The song is supposedly set in a bar or an old neighbourhood izakaya for the guys to drink down the realization that an age is passing.

To add to the wistfulness of it all, the song only got as high as No. 77 on Oricon although it won a special prize at the Japan Cable Awards. But listening to the recorded version, I guess I can't be that disappointed since the original sounds a little too cheerful (it was actually used for a sake commercial). If it had taken on the gravitas of the performed version from the top video, I think Oricon could have shown it some more love. However, the good news was that when the song was re-introduced on a 1991 NHK documentary on Aku, "Jidai Okure" suddenly gained in popularity leading to it being re-issued as a single. Kawashima then appeared on the Kohaku Utagassen at the end of that year to perform it; ironically 1991 was seen as the end of the Bubble Era.

Covers have been made of "Jidai Okure" including one by Koji Tamaki(玉置浩二). I'm sure Kawashima who died in 2001 would have approved. And I gotta say that along with his other magnum opus, "Sake to Namida to Otoko to Onna"(酒と泪と男と女)that was a karaoke staple at my old haunt of Kuri during my university years, Kawashima could really belt out those "take-a-moment-to-reflect" ballads.

As for Aku, he would live for at least another 20 years after writing the words to this poignant song. It may not have been at his old frequency but he still continued to provide his lyrics to other singers, so I'm not sure whether "Jidai Okure" was a culmination of some mid-life crisis after which he gained a certain contentedness about that part of his life. However, he did leave a song that has become a symbolic tune representing the passing of a certain time period to be reminisced over among friends and family, and for that, I'm sure a lot of kayo fans are grateful.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Michiko Maki -- Watashi no Gallery (わたしのギャラリー)

Aside from Japanese popular music, I'm also into jazz, 80s Western of all genres, and even some of the classical stuff. I know Beethoven's 5th and 9th, Chopin's "Polonaise" and "Nocturne", and Pachelbel's "Canon" among other masterpieces, but I can hardly say that I'm anywhere near the expert there that I am with kayo kyoku/J-Pop. Often when it comes to the centuries-old stuff, I usually characterize it with the name of the composer, a number and the key. Of course, I will hear something and know it but cannot for the life of me identify it by title.

Such was the case with the above piece. Until a few hours ago, I didn't know that it was titled Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G Minor" although I have heard it many times in the past. In fact, I knew it as part of the "Hooked on Classics" album from 1981 which was a huge hit on radio and in stores because it gave all of the old masters' works a disco beat (that strange rumbling sound I heard was Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Beethoven rolling over in their graves). But even before that, it was played all the time as an accompanying piece on an early-morning aerobics show that was on TV when I woke up. I knew it as that Classical Exercise Song. Every time I hear it to this day, I get that image of a young woman contorting herself into a pretzel. It warped my fragile little mind.

However, even earlier than that, Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G Minor" had apparently been co-opted into a kayo, strangely enough. I only encountered Michiko Maki's(牧美智子)"Watashi no Gallery" (My Gallery) a few days ago and though it started off as the usual 1970s light kayo tune, it started veering into Mozartville enough that I just went "Whoa!" Oh my golly...the lady in the leotard just made a reunion with my mind for the first time in several years.

This was Maki's 7th and final single from May 1977...information that I got from the few lines of description under the YouTube video. As I mentioned for her other song "Akatsuki ni Kakeru"(暁に駆ける), there isn't a whole lot of data on this singer who went back to a normal life after the release of "Watashi no Gallery". But I have to say that she gave this song which wove back and forth between Mozart and kayo quite a nice little vocal spin...kinda like having white wine with eggs n' a nice way, of course. Maki's voice could almost be considered operatic but she keeps it in the comfortable field of pop kayo.

"Watashi no Gallery" was written by Kazuya Senke(千家和也)and composed by Hiroshi Takada(高田弘). Well, part of it was composed by Takada....of course, there was that help from that fellow from Austria. No idea how well it did on Oricon and perhaps Mozart may have rolled around back then, too, but still, I give my compliments to Ms. Maki. Nice way to bow out.

And here is "Hooked on Classics" straight from my radio memories to you!

Ueno Museum