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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Keisuke Yamauchi -- Ruten no Hatoba (流転の波止場)

When it comes to the younger batch of enka performers, the level of scrutiny I place on them is quite high, and I think it's due in part to me wanting them to live up to the standards of their predecessors I adore and wish to be able to see perform, and to a lesser extent, maybe be a little like them. But I realise that it is quite unfair as they each have their own style of singing and whether or not they sound like a modern-day Yujiro Ishihara or Haruo Minami, even when singing one of the late veterans' hits, frankly, shouldn't matter.

As to why I brought this up: Keisuke Yamauchi (山内恵介) is a prime example of what I had just mentioned. I tend to get riled up whenever he were to attempt a Tough Guy tune as I didn't think he had the voice to carry it - nasally and relatively high-pitched, rather than deep and mellow. However, I have to admit that although it's not a similar voice, Yamauchi doesn't sound that bad. And if he were to wear an outfit that's not too glitzy and a size or two too big, he's actually a rather decent and respectable enka singer. Still, it'd be better if he were to sing something more befitting of his genteel appearance. Case in point, "Ruten no Hatoba".

I'd describe Yamauchi's 17th single as a mix of "Ano Ko ga Naiteru Hatoba" (あの娘が泣いてる波止場) and "Genkai Blues" (玄海ブルース), and a dash of "Minato Machi Blues" (港町ブルース) to add the finishing touch. All three of these songs happen to be a few of my enka-favourites so it was no wonder why this became the first of Yamauchi's repertoire to be liked by me. Put together by Hideo Mizumori (水森英夫), who also happens to be Yamauchi's mentor, and his frequent collaborator Toshiya Niitani (仁井谷俊也), "Ruten no Hatoba" has a jaunty melody but the lyrics are of a young man leaving his hometown (and a loved one who's reluctant to see him go) to chase his dreams, which has him travelling to various places in the country - from Hokkaido all the way down to Kyushu.

"Ruten no Hatoba" was released on 23rd March 2016 and was the enka Ikemen 3 member's first single to get into the top 5 (5th place) in the regular Oricon charts in of his 15 years of showbiz, while also peaking at 1st on the enka-yo charts.

Well, this is going on to the list of stuff to buy in Japan... Man, that's gonna A LOT of stuff.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Momoko Hayashi -- You make me happy!

About a couple of weeks ago, I put in an article about Aya Matsuura's(松浦亜弥)"Yeah! Meccha Holiday"(Yeah! めっちゃホリディ)in which I also noted that the Hello Project aidoru had an impersonating admirer in the form of tarento Ai Haruna(はるな愛). Well, I completely forgot that Haruna wasn't the only Japanese celebrity who enjoyed performing "Air Ayaya". There was also fellow impersonator Ken Maeda(前田健)who comes in at about 2:20 of the above video. With the real Ayaya and her two impersonators in the same room, hilarity results. Although not as much as Haruna, I remember seeing Maeda appear on the various variety shows taking on other guises including that of a typical ko-gal.

Well, 2016 has been a very sad year so far in terms of the music world with so many musicians passing on rather suddenly. The anime world as well has also had some similar sadness to a smaller extent over the past several months. Seiyuu Miyu Matsuki(松来未祐)died late last year due to illness and then just over the past week, the aforementioned Ken Maeda left this mortal coil at the age of 44 because of what seems to be heart failure.

Maeda didn't make a huge contribution to anime since he only performed 2 roles in that genre. However he did apply his other talent of choreography to an anime franchise that was perhaps in need of some reformation at the time. The "Pretty Cure" series(プリキュアシリーズ)had already been around on TV Asahi for about half a decade but according to my anime buddy, following the adventures of the first three Precure teams, the powers-that-be decided that it needed a bit of a shakeup. So, there was a change in production staff and a slightly older team for the new show known as "Fresh Precure!"(フレッシュプリキュア!)which premiered in 2009.

Then, there were the ending credits. In the earlier shows, there was some dancing of a somewhat clunky variety involved with the characters but it looks like the producers decided to amp up the choreography with the contribution of MaeKen and with the addition of some 3D-esque visuals along with music that touched upon different genres, the new team launched a new tradition in the franchise in those ending credits that would continue until the present day. Maeda would also help out in the credits dances for another few seasons and he played the character of Kaoru-chan, the eccentric and good-hearted mobile donut seller on "Fresh Precure!".

But I have to say that the first ending theme for "Fresh Precure!" has been the standard-bearer. "You make me happy!" indeed makes me happy. It was written by Sumiyo Mutsumi(六ツ見純代)and composed by singer-songwriter marhy with Momoko Hayashi(林桃子)on vocals, and I think the fans who actually saw the credits for the first time must have been surprised to hear some good old-fashioned R&B with snazzy horns enter the Precure universe. In a way, the song reminds me of some of Keizo Nakanishi's(中西圭三)early stuff back in the 90s.

"You make me happy!" was released as part of a single including the opening theme, "Let's! Fresh Precure!" in February 2009. It got as high as No. 25 on the singles charts.

To leave off, here is MaeKen with his other famous character.

The Ventures/Yuko Nagisa -- Kyoto no Koi (京都の恋)

May Day today! Therefore in Japan, it's the middle of the annual Golden Week holidays so once again the world's longest traffic jams are in play, and over here it's been an unseasonably cold start to the fifth month but what else is new in Toronto? I took the parents out to the local Eggsmart (a breakfast/brunch restaurant chain) for brekkie as an early Mother's Day present and I'm back here to hopefully enjoy a quiet Sunday.

If I recall correctly, I have been to the ancient capital of Kyoto three times in my life with the first time being in 1972 that I have no memory of. The second time was in the summer of 1981 and I remember being really deep in the crowds watching a parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) trundle by during the city's annual Gion Festival. And being July, it was tremendously hot and humid so it was a minor miracle that I actually survived the experience. I also recall being completely conked out in my bed in the hotel for most of the afternoon afterwards. My love for vending machines continued to grow.

Last week's "Utakon" (うたコン) featured an old kayo associated with the city called "Kyoto no Koi". Although literally translated as "Kyoto Love", the official English title is "Kyoto Doll" for some reason. This was another song contributed by The Ventures for Japan along with "Kyoto Bojou" (京都慕情)and the earlier "Futari no Ginza"(二人の銀座). Released by the band in February 1970, although it goes along at a fairly brisk pace, there is that certain melacholy wa-fu feeling to it. It peaked at No. 19 on Oricon. What is also notable about that The Ventures created the song in commemoration of the 1970 Expo in Osaka.

However, the version that I like even better is the cover by Yuko Nagisa(渚ゆう子)with the lyrics by Haruo Hayashi(林春生), both of whom would also cover "Kyoto Bojou" a few months later. Nagisa's version came out 3 months after The Ventures' original, and what I like about it is that although it basically has that same dramatic pace, there is a certain appealing tenderness in the sung version thanks to Nagisa's vocals. Of course, Hayashi's lyrics about the heroine mourning the loss of what seemed to be the love of her life certainly adds to the sadness. Compared to the relatively lighter feeling of "Kyoto Bojou", "Kyoto no Koi" is bittersweet at best.

Nagisa's "Kyoto no Koi" was a huge hit. It got to No. 1 and stayed there for 8 consecutive weeks, selling more than 850,000 records. And along with the fact that it won a Grand Prize at the Japan Record Awards, it was No. 10 in the annual singles rankings for 1970 and still hung on in 1971 to become the 27th-ranked single. All those accolades and apparently it didn't get onto the Kohaku Utagassen that year.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ken Hirai -- POP STAR

As with a number of singers over the last several years, I couldn't say that I was a huge fan of Ken Hirai(平井堅)but I could acknowledge that he and those folks were very much household names. So even I was a bit surprised when I heard his 23rd single, "POP STAR" a decade ago. For a guy who I always associated with soulful heartrending ballads, to hear this happy-happy-joy-joy song in Hirai's high tones made me ask "OK...what's going on with him here?"

Released in October 2005, "POP STAR" is so light and bouncy and cheerful that I could have mistaken it as a theme song for a Pokemon show, but instead it was the theme for a Fuji-TV drama "Kiken na Aneki"(危険なアネキ...Dangerous Big Sister), starring the IT actress of the time, Misaki Ito (伊東美咲 can check it out at the end of the video).

"POP STAR" was written and composed by Hirai, and the lyrics have the protagonist wanting to become the titular pop star not particular for fame or money but just so that he can continue to have the undying love of his admirer (awww...). According to the J-Wiki article, the singer-songwriter really wanted to have that sense of brightness and optimism imbued into the song so when he went to consult with arranger Seiji Kameda(亀田誠治)about how it was to be brought together, Hirai had him listen to this particular aidoru classic.

And yet initially, he hadn't intended for "POP STAR" to be placed into any particular album but due to overwhelming popular demand, it finally got into his BEST compilation, "Ken Hirai 10th Anniversary Complete Single Collection '95-'05 Uta Baka"(Ken Hirai 10th Anniversary Complete Single Collection '95-'05 歌バカ...Singing Fool)which was released about a month after the single. As it was, though, "POP STAR" did perfectly fine on its own, going Platinum as it hit No. 1 on the Oricon weeklies and quickly becoming the 45th-ranked song of the year. Strangely enough, even the video apparently got a number of accolades, inside and outside of Japan, as Hirai took on 7 different characters including a raccoon. It's too bad that I couldn't find the music video online but it's nice to know that the man has a good sense of humour. As for that BEST album, it also hit the top of the charts and became the top-selling album for 2006. Perhaps I ought to check a bit more into Ken's discography after all.

Seiko Matsuda -- Wagamama na Kataomoi -- (わがままな片想い)

"Wagamama na Kataomoi" (A Selfish One-Sided Love) would be the usual Seiko Matsuda(松田聖子)aidoru song dealing with falling for that boy in school and getting nothing in return. However, it struck me as unusual due to the arrangements. I guess even Seiko-chan had her techno kayo moment way back when.

Originally released as the B-side to her 13th single "Tengoku no Kiss"(天国のキッス)which came out in April 1983, the lyrics are by Takashi Matsumoto(松本隆)and they do relate one girl's unrequited feelings for that guy. However, it is Haruomi Hosono(細野晴臣)behind the whimsical & goofy music and arrangements which sometimes have me thinking that the song is less a lovestruck tune than it is a theme for a childhood hero in the form of a dancing elephant, especially when it comes to that synth that sounds like a tuba. It's rather ironic since the A-side of "Tengoku no Kiss" which was also created by Matsumoto and Hosono is as far away from that techno kayo feeling as Hokkaido is from Okinawa. And that is why "Wagamama no Kataomoi" has implanted itself into my head all these years.

The song found itself on the album "Touch Me, Seiko" from March 1984. The album is a collection of all of her B-sides and has the distinction of being the very first such album to reach No. 1 on Oricon.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Unicorn -- Hataraku Otoko (働く男)

A few years ago, there was all that kerfuffle about the music video for Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". The unrated version had all those topless models shimmying and shammying away with Robin, T.I. and Pharrell (I guess he was happy then as well) as if there were no tomorrow.

Well, seeing that video reminded me of something similar which happened over 20 years ago in Japan. The rock band Unicorn with Tamio Okuda (the fellow who helped launch Puffy later on) had just released their 3rd single in July 1990, "Hataraku Otoko" (Working Man). The song was catchy enough for me as it was but then the video came out. It featured the band goofing about and performing while a nude model innocently posed and traipsed around the guys. Now I'm not sure how much of the footage involved Chromakey/greenscreen but I'm still fairly certain that at least that model and Unicorn shared the same space and time at some point during filming. Tough work, eh, guys? As you readers may already know, the music video above has been muted due to the usual copyright issues but I just felt that I needed to put it up there. Just play the video below while watching the video above.

Let's listen to "Hataraku Otoko" here. Written and composed by Okuda(奥田民生), the arrangement has the song pulling in little bits here and there of exotic rhythm, Beatles and a bit of that swinging 60s also with some added spaciness. It's got an interesting progression as well. It funks about at first before the synths send it soaring skyward. All that for the story of a working cog hanging in there at his desk for the 12 or 13 hours so that he can admire and fantasize about a female colleague. And here I thought it was all about the semi-annual bonuses.

I didn't search for a lot of rock songs during my spare time on the JET Program but I did come across "Hataraku Otoko" because it was used as one of the opening themes during the life of the late-night Saturday variety show "Yume de Aetara"(夢で逢えたら)on Fuji-TV at the turn of the decade from the 80s into the 90s. I've already written about two of the other themes, "Believe in Love" by Lindberg and "Furi Furi '65" by Southern All Stars. Considering how popular that show was, I think there was quite the symbiotic relationship between it and its theme songs.

"Hataraku Otoko" made it all the way up to No. 3 on the charts, and it is their most successful single to date. The song is also a track on Unicorn's 4th album, "Getamono no Arashi"(ケダモノの嵐...Beast Storm). It was released in October 1990 and hit No. 1 on Oricon. Not only did it hit the top but it also won Best Album honours at the Japan Record Awards that year. Hard working men, indeed.

Hiromi Iwasaki -- Dream (ドリーム)

Ahhh...about time to bring up another Hiromi Iwasaki(岩崎宏美)song from her early years. I bring you "Dream", her 7th single from November 1976. With lyrics by the late legendary Yu Aku(阿久悠), the story may be about that one-sided love of a high school girl or an older woman just starting out in life, but boy, does composer Kyohei Tsutumi(筒美京平)bring on the cool urban contemporary rhythm to give the song that oomph. I kinda wonder at times whether it was with Hiromi-chan that songwriters started to bring in some more soul into the works of 70s aidoru. The added bass by the fellow above does help.

Hiromi does look adorable in the video above. Having started to learn about her in the 80s when she was performing all those lush ballads, discovering these early somewhat funky works by her in the 70s which at times approached City Pop was quite the revelation for me. "Dream" peaked at No. 4 on Oricon and ended up as the 64th-ranked song of 1977.

This is an aside here but one of the other things that I also remember Iwasaki for is for her appearances on my old favourite Japanese variety show "Hachi-ji da yo! Zen'in Shuugo"(8時だョ!全員集合...It's 8 O'Clock! Everyone Assemble)hosted by the comedy team The Drifters. Not only did she perform her music but she also took part in some of the zany skits and the regular segments in the hour-long program such as the Chorus segment which always had the guys and the guests trying to warp through some challenging Japanese tongue twisters to a funky beat. The two Hiromis, Iwasaki and Ohta(岩崎宏美&太田裕美), do their best here.