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

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

Ayaka & Kobukuro -- WINDING ROAD

The famous line from the original "Ghostbusters" (nope, haven't seen the new one yet) with Bill Murray yelling "Cats and dogs living together...MASS HYSTERIA!!" came to mind when I saw this ad for the Nissan Cube in Japan. There are a lot of those commercials for the Cube on YouTube but for some reason, I couldn't find the one that I was looking for rather ardently.

And it's a pity too since it had the campaign song with the most soul. Popular singers Ayaka(絢香)and Kobukuro (コブクロ) appeared one day on Fuji-TV's venerable "Music Fair" program and apparently enjoyed the experience working together so much that the former visited the latter in their dressing room after the taping. She then asked if they would like to collaborate again at the Warner Music Japan Convention Live concert since the two of them not only belonged to the same label but were also due to perform there anyways. Kentaro Kobuchi(小渕健太郎)of Kobukuro then counter-proposed that they all create a song just for the occasion.

Thus, "WINDING ROAD" was born. It was performed for the first time in the summer of 2006 but didn't actually get out as a single for several months until February 2007. The music video of the three on that rotating stage got a lot of heavy airplay as I recall.

Furthermore, I'm sure that "WINDING ROAD" probably got a lot of play as a karaoke song as well. It's a rousing tune with plenty of heart and that aforementioned soul but when I hear Ayaka and Kobukuro sing their internal organs out for this song that is officially listed as J-Pop, I hear some of the old country songs that used to be performed in grand cooperative style by singers on one of my parents' favourite programs "Hee Haw". And maybe The Grand Ol' Opry comes to mind also. Another reason could be the title itself. When I see that title, I imagine those big rigs traveling across America that were often the topic for a country ballad performed by folks like Jerry Reed and Alabama. However, imagining an 18-wheeler trying to navigate a winding road in the Rockies could be somewhat concerning.

Well, in any case, a cute little Cube car and not a huge truck got "WINDING ROAD". And the collaboration between Ayaka and Kobukuro was very successful. The single went Platinum, broke 2 million in sales, along with hitting No. 2 on Oricon. It just barely missed getting into the Top 10 of the year by peaking at No. 11. The song was even performed at the Kohaku Utagassen at the end of 2007 with the effect being that after it had left the Oricon Top 100 weeklies, its performance helped to gush the song back up to the 20s in the first week of 2008.

If the sheep and wolves had come back for the commercial with "WINDING ROAD", I'm pretty sure that the meadow would soon have been filled with the adorable sight of hybrid sholves and weep.

Miho Nakayama/Cindy -- ROSÉCOLOR

I had been wondering about how Miho Nakayama(中山美穂)was doing recently since the last news I did hear was that she had divorced her husband, writer-composer Hitonari Tsuji(辻仁成)after 12 years of marriage. Tsuji had also been married once before to actress Kaho Minami(南果歩)who would later marry actor Ken Watanabe(渡辺謙)...but enough of that matrimonial merry-go-round. Apparently at this point, Miporin is continuing to live in France with her son but appeared in her very first stage play earlier this year and was a performing guest last December at the annual "FNS Music Festival" for Fuji-TV, her first appearance on a music show in 18 years.

My recollection of the the 80s female aidoru is divided into the early 80s aidoru featuring ladies such as Seiko Matsuda(松田聖子)and Akina Nakamori(中森明菜). But in the second half of the 1980s had the rise of a sassier and take-less-guff brand of aidoru; I always saw Shizuka Kudo(工藤静香)and Nakayama as the leaders of that "movement". And in fact, I read on J-Wiki that for that latter half of the decade, the aforementioned two aidoru along with Yoko Minamino(南野陽子)and Yui Asaka(浅香唯)were dubbed by the media as The Four Aidoru Queens.

(starts from 1:24 although the earlier footage
shows a small blooper with Miho and a Bullet Train, and no
it didn't involve a collision)

In terms of music, my arrival in Gunma Prefecture came following the July 12th 1989 release of Miporin's 16th single, "Virgin Eyes" which had me hooked because of that dynamic melody composed by Anri(杏里). And as a result, for some years, I kept my eyes and ears on the singer who seemed to be making that transition from regular aidoru to pop star because of "Virgin Eyes" without investigating too much about her earlier material.

Consequently, I didn't really know much about her preceding single which came out in February of that year, "ROSÉCOLOR", aside from the title all in caps. A bit of a pity since it is a nice little Latin-infused ballad which was written by Chinfa Kan(康珍化)and composed by Cindy.

One of the reasons that Nakayama and Kudo have stood out to me despite that label of The Four Aidoru Queens is that I always had that comparison between the two singers. Kudo was the aidoru with the oomph factor in her songs and dancing while Nakayama struck me as being at her best with the balladry, vocally speaking. But even in the above performance on "The Best 10", there were some of the characteristic off-notes that I've often associated her with when it came to her uptempo stuff. Still, it is a soothing tune that I wished I could have gotten to know earlier. Well as they say, better late than never.

"ROSÉCOLOR" was the 5th in a string of 5 No. 1 singles that Miporin had between 1987 and 1989 (she would have three more No. 1s after that). It would finish the year as the 27th-ranked single. The ballad would also be used in a Shiseido commercial.

I also came across a video featuring PSY-S' Chaka singing a more straight-ahead pop rendition of "ROSÉCOLOR"; no idea whether this was ever made into a track for one of her own solo albums or as part of some compilation project. The performance stops midway to introduce the cover (with some of that Latin flavour back) by composer Cindy herself for her 1991 album "Don't Be Afraid". She would cover it again in 1997 for her final album "Surprise". At the risk of offending fans of Miho Nakayama, I think Chaka and Cindy delivered smoother versions. The one other reason I put this article up was in a tribute to Cindy herself that I started with my first article on her.