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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Motoharu Sano -- Visitors

July 2011, New York City. While on a short trip to the capital of skyscrapers, I just had to visit the legendary Book Off and stack my backpack with some cheap CDs to bring back home. They don't have places like this here in Toronto anymore. One of the albums I was on a lookout for was Motoharu Sano's (佐野元春) Visitors, which he recorded there in NYC nearly three decades ago. Anyways, here it is, the album supposedly responsible for importing hip-hop into the Japanese mainstream. After the release of his commercially successful album Someday in 1982, Sano relocated to NYC to absorb himself into its culture and produced Visitors during his stay there. It was released in May 1984, and marked a 180° turnaround in his style. Up to this point, he performed bluesy pop and rock tunes influenced by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Eiichi Ohtaki, and then with Visitors, he entered the territory of funk, new wave, and hip-hop. While he would apply fresh concepts to his subsequent releases, none of those albums would sound anything like this one.

The video above is the official PV for the opening track "Complication Shakedown". You can tell that Sano was going for something different that hasn't yet been attempted by popular Japanese artists. Sure, funk and R&B were already popular among City Pop folks, but as far as I know, those songs weren't as melodically detached like this one. Then there's Sano rattling off lines of Japanese mixed with English to the dynamic beat -- very characteristic of rap. It's a stunning number, in my opinion, featuring an exciting percussion performance by Bashiri Johnson. And the PV, which was directed by the avantgarde filmmaker John Sanborn, is one trippy adventure. J-Wiki tells me that the full version was shelved off the air for 20 years due to being deemed "too radical" at the time. I can see why, though I'd like to find out more about this.

The following track, "Tonight", doesn't take the creative liberties that "Complication Shakedown" does, but it's a catchy one nonetheless. I'm not an expert at analyzing technical aspects of music, so perhaps someone else may lend me a hand here. Still, I recognize a strong synthesizer performance when I hear one. Every time I listen to this track I regain fond memories of the busy Manhattan. As for the PV, it's very reminiscent of 80's MTV. I wonder if it ever aired over here.

"Sunday Morning Blue" is an urban mid-tempo ballad that gives me Billy Joel vibes for some reason. Sano's peculiar tone goes well with the introspective mood, I think. I just love how the melody glides seamlessly along with the rhythm and dramatic piano riffs, and then comes the instrumental bridge sending me to another realm. Try listening to this at dawn hours while on a long commute to work. The replay button will come in handy.

Then there's the edgy title track which dips its feet into rock and new wave. We're only halfway through the album, and so far it's been a diverse experience. I have to admit, I avoid playing this song unless I'm at the gym because listening to it exhausts me. Excuse my far-fetched simile, but it feels like an aural version of an 8-hours-long warehouse shift. Still, I enjoy the hypnotic arrangement of the song and Sano's robotic vocals.

The whole album only contains 8 tracks, and I've already revealed half of them, but allow me to squeeze "Come Shining" into the mix. It's just too infectiously funky to be skipped. Once again, we have Sano rapping in his peculiar style to the beat. The catchy lyrics feature plenty of references to Manhattan nightlife and other cozy things. I'm not the dancing type, but I can't help but tap my foot like a dork to this one.

In terms of sales, Visitors scored the No. 1 spot on Oricon weekly charts, though it's nowhere to be seen in the Top 100 for yearly rankings. Nevertheless, it won "Excellent Album" prize at 26th Japan Record Awards and remains critically renowned to this day.


  1. Hey, nikala. Amazing write-up on "Visitors", and it's obvious that you love the album. I may have to polish off my credit card and scour the Net for this one...or wait for my next trip to Japan.

    Geez, where do I begin? "Complication Shakedown", video and song, seems to have so many influences: MTV, Grandmaster Flash, the British band ABC. I had no idea that Sano had done all this. As you mentioned, I know him primarily for "Someday". This video and the one for "Tonight" struck me as being almost a Japanese tribute to MTV videos. If I'm not mistaken, music videos like these two were just few and far between in Japan at that time.

    "Sunday Morning Blue" does remind me of 70s Billy Joel, and that instrumental bridge is fantastic! I actually had chills going down my spine whenever it burst in. Sano was quite the musical chameleon with this album, which parallels Joel's career. At the same time as this album was coming out, I think Joel was in his 50s doo-wop phase with "An Innocent Man".

    The title track, "Visitors" seems to have Sano channeling Bowie, and "Come Shining" is funktastic. Strange opinion, but it somehow reminds me a bit of Blondie's "Rapture" a few years previously.

    Also, I'm not all that surprised that despite winning the prize at the Japan Record Awards, "Visitors" didn't break the Top 100. I think it's just one of those albums that was just way ahead of its time.

  2. Thanks Nikala for this awesome post on 佐野元春! I agree with J-Canuck, "Visitors" is definitely a hidden gem of an album! Sano is one of those rare musicians who can play music in a wide range of styles and has a very diverse musical palette.


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