Credits

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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Anri -- Innocent Time




Ahhh....innocent times indeed. No need to worry about things like income tax, pension plans or what-not. Anri(杏里) came out with her 17th single, "Oriental Rose" back in February 1986 as I was going through 2nd year at the University of Toronto, and yep, I didn't have to worry about the above things, except for those irritations known as exams and essays.

In any case, I was more interested in the B-side to that single, "Innocent Time". It didn't become an Oricon hit although I think it was good enough to earn an A-side. Every time I hear Anri singing it, it just reminds me of those wonderfully breezy summery songs that came out by specialists like her, TUBE and Omega Tribe in the 1980s. Composed by Anri herself and written by Kazunori Sonobe(園部和範), "Innocent Time" is about as sunny and smiling as they come and has about as much to do with work as laying on the beach all day. The melody alone just seems to whisper, "hedonism".

And as the video below will tell you, it can reflect both the best of enjoying the summer and winter. In fact, "Innocent Time" was used as the theme song for this TV Tokyo show called "Ski Now '86" for which the below is the opening credits. My favourite part is that electric guitar solo in the middle as well as that thumping bass throughout the song.




Akio Kayama/Mika Hino/Teresa Teng -- Hisame (氷雨)


Probably one of the most recognized enka songs there is, "Hisame" (Icy Rain) is the song that most likely every enka singer and even beyond has tackled on stage or in front of the TV cameras. On YouTube, Mood Kayo veteran Kiyoshi Maekawa (前川清of The Cool Five) has given his rendition, but Akina Nakamori(中森明菜)also covered it some years ago, and even the late singer Minako Honda(本田美奈子) gave her tribute to it.

But I wanted to center this article on the renditions by the original singer, Akio Kayama(佳山明生), the first female enka singer to give it a spin, Mika Hino(日野美歌), and finally Teresa Teng(テレサテン), who makes any enka song sound great. "Hisame" was written and composed by Ren Tomari(とまりれん), and it follows the classic enka trope of "crying into your sake" as the lonely protagonist just hangs about in a bar feeling sorry for himself/herself since there is no one home to come to....at least, not anymore.

The very first version of "Hisame" came out in December 1977 as Hokkaido-born Akio Kayama's debut single. It seems to have been the enka song that would never die as it was released again in late 1981, and then a 3rd release was made in July 1982. Well, it was three times lucky for Kayama as this version torpedoed into sales of about 800,000 records into 1983. I'm not sure if the 1982 version had undergone major changes from the first two attempts, but the video above is for this version, and it is the one with that famous melancholy intro that has greeted professional enka singers, karaoke amateurs and audiences alike for years. It peaked at No. 2 on Oricon and eventually became the 5th-ranked song for 1983. And at the Japan Record Awards for 1983, it won the Grand Prize as well as the Long-Seller's Prize. I guess timing is everything, even for a song that at the time was already 6 years old.



In December 1982, Mika Hino covered "Hisame" as her 2nd single. The arrangement here is different but no less melancholy. Although the song can and has been covered by male and female singers alike, I've wondered if the song was truly made for a woman. Kayama's delivery seems, at least to me anyways, to take on a feminine quality, and Hino certainly makes her version her own. Her delivery has a bit more of a fuller body and more resonance when she sings it. And apparently, the lyrics for her version have also been slightly altered. As for her success with the song, it peaked at No. 5 and then became the 15th-ranked song for 1983. I can gather that it isn't everyday that the same song sung by two different singers can get into the Top 20 of Oricon in the same year.




Teresa Teng's cover of "Hisame" was never released as an official single, but I've always enjoyed her voice when she delivers those enka classics. The melody follows that for the Kayama original.

At this point in my life, I don't think I would ever be able to competently give my own version of the song in the karaoke box, but I'm more than content to listen to the professionals handling it.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Alfee -- Flower Revolution


Magnolias and dandelions all! Come and march with us! I had never heard of this 1990 International Garden and Greenery Expo in Osaka until I watched an episode of "Music Fair", and The Alfee (yup, the definite article was being used here) appeared. As usual, they and fellow guest, aidoru Yu Hayami (早見優), performed some of their past hits until the last 10 minutes when the band launched this marching melody, and then Toshihiko Takamizawa(高見沢俊彦) screamed out in full-throated glory "TO BE A ROCK FLOWER REVOLUTION!!!"

Watching The Alfee perform this proud paean to all things botanical at close to 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night from the comfort of my futon was a bit surreal. However, I'm sure the organizers for Expo '90 looked at the Takamizawa-penned "Flower Revolution" with sage approval. And heck, although this occurred in the dead winter, I rather promised myself to shake hands with the first crocus I met thanks to this happy song. It was a bang-on call to arms for the flora of the planet.

The 34th single by The Alfee was released in January 1990, and peaked at No. 3 on Oricon. Not only was it the image song for that expo, but it was also the theme for the Osaka International Women's Marathon in the same year. The song was also on their album, "Arcadia", released in October of that year.

Never ended up taking the Bullet down to Osaka to see the Expo, but did pick up the single.

Utada Hikaru - First Love (Theme to Majou No Jouken/「魔女の条件」


Continuing my posts on various J-Doramas, I wanted to post this entry on one of the most tragic of the J-Doramas that I've seen, "Majo No Jouken" 「魔女の条件」AKA "Forbidden Love" which starred the stunning beauty, Matsushima Nanako/松嶋菜々子.  NGN Hawaii recently just finished broadcasting the 2011 NTV drama "Kaseifu No Mita" 「家政婦のミタ」, a very odd but compelling TV drama series featuring Matsushima.  Wikipedia mentions that Matsushima wanted to star in "Kaseifu No Mita" as she wanted to work with famed screenwriter Yukawa Kazuhiko/遊川和彦 again on another series as they had previously collaborated on the immensely popular「GTO」 and this series.  Her role as the sympathetic yet disgraced high school teacher Hirose Michi  was one of former model Matsushima's first starring roles on TV and is often considered a career defining performance that showed that Matsushima was more than just a pretty face and was a serious and talented actress as well.

The story premise is indeed a bit lurid for the time - 26 year old math teacher, 広瀬未知/Hirose Michi (Matsushima) has always depended on others to make decisions for her - her stern educator father had urged her to become a teacher and even went so far as to select the particular school in which she serves as a math teacher. Her current banker boyfriend, the affable Kitai Masaru/北井大 (別所哲也/Besshou Tetsuya) was introduced to her by her best friend and high school classmate Uda Kiriko/宇田桐子 (西田尚美/Nishida Naomi) and is now set to become her fiance and future husband. While Michi has mixed feelings about marrying Masaru, she feels pressure from her parents to start a family. 
One faithful day Michi is almost run over by rebelious, 17 year old rich boy Kurosawa Hikaru/黒澤光 (滝沢秀明/Takizawa Hideaki of the Johnny's/ジャニーズ事務所 duo タッキー&翼) riding his motorcycle. It is love at first sight as Michi is enthralled by the handsome yet mysterious student. Hikaru is the son of Kurosawa Kyoko/黒澤鏡子 (Kuroki Hitomi/黒木瞳), a former nurse who is now head of a small but influencial hospital in Tokyo, which was established by Hikaru's late physician father. Hikaru's father had died when he was 7, and now his mother has become emotionally dependent on him (almost to the point of being incestial). Hikaru has transferred to Michi's school after being expelled from his previous school and has been assigned to Michi's homeroom. As Michi and Hikaru interact they soon find themselves becoming more than teacher and student and soon develop a romantic relationship with each other. As their love affair becomes more intense and heated, their secret and taboo relationship soon becomes exposed with devasting results.
 
"Star-Crossed" Lovers - Michi (Matsushima) and Hikaru (Takizawa) - Image courtesy of http://blogs.privet.ru/community/147/tags/123522?page=11

After rebuking Masaru's wedding ring proposal, the normally good natured Masaru becomes insanely jealous and vows to get win her back at whatever cost. Hikaru's mother conspires with Masaru to have Michi arrested on kidnapping charges and seducing her son. Kiriko, secretly in love with Masaru and bitter at Michi for hurting him, betrays her friend by aiding Hikaru's mother. Hikaru's mother goes so far as to even force Hikaru to transfer to a school in the United States to seperate him from Michi.  Michi's disciplinarian father disowns Michi and she is forced to quit her teaching job and find menial employment in a variety of low paying jobs. Yet despite these hardships and the world seemingly turning against them, Hikaru and Michi still manage to keep their love alive even managing to runaway to the country briefly to live together. Michi however soon becomes pregnant with Hikaru's child but suffers complications from all the stress that she has been suffering.


Looking for the "Dream World" - Michi (Matsushima) and Hikaru (Takizawa) -- Image courtesy of BananaIdol (http://www.bananaidol.com/JD/%E9%AD%94%E5%A5%B3%E7%9A%84%E6%A2%9D%E4%BB%B6%E6%97%A5%E5%8A%87%E7%B7%9A%E4%B8%8A%E7%9C%8B/)
 It is to the series directors' credit (Doi Nobuhiro/土井裕泰, Naniwa Kazuhiro/難波一弘 and Katayama Osamu/片山修) that they treat an otherwise salacious story and plot with seriousness, integrity and touching sentimentality.  While others would have exploited and played up on all the taboo and kinky sexual themes, of the story,  prolific screenwriter Yukawa Kazuhiko/遊川和彦 grounded the series, choosing to focus on the tender love story between two individuals who just so happen to be teacher and student (I'm not completely sure how much inspiration Yukawa drew from the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case which occurred at around the same time). 

Eternal Beauty - Matsushima Nanako - Image courtesy of Kootation (http://kootation.com/matsushima-nanako-sorimachi-takashi.html)
 The series' success (earning an average 21.5% viewership rating during it's original air dates) owes in large part to the bold and convincing portrayals of its stars Matsushima and Takizawa.  Enough can't be said of how great Matsushima was as the conflicted teacher Michi. Matsushima brought just the right amount of emotional vulnerability and sensitivity to her difficult role. In addition to her appearances in such diverse drama series as 「花より男子」(2005) and ラッキーセブン」(2012) , Matsushima has also been making a name for herself on the big screen in such films such as the popular "Ring" 「リング」(1998), "Bizan"/ 「眉山 」  (2007) and most recently in 三池崇史/Miike Takashi's electifying and gritty "Shield of Straw"/「藁の楯」(2013).

Takizawa also really surprised audiences as well with this his first co-starring role in a drama series. With his 美男(イケメン)/"ikemen" good looks, it was just a matter of time before he would also become a breakout star. 

"Lucky bastard" Hikaru - (Takizawa 'Taki' Hideaki)

Incidentally, Matsushima's fellow castmate Shirakawa Yumi/白川由美 who portrayed her Matsushima's supportive and kindly mother in "Majou No Jouken" also portrays a similar motherly role in "Kaseifu No Mita" in which Shirakawa plays Harumi Akemi, Mita's quirkly employer and the only one who knows Mita's tragic past. 
Utada Hikaru's/宇多田 ヒカル stirring and powerful ballad "First Love" was appropriately selected as the theme song for this drama and I feel it is a absolutely perfect fit. Utada's vocals mixed with the tearful lovelorn lyrics only enhance the powerful tone of the tragic series. "First Love" was Utada's 3rd single from her landmark debut Japanese album of the same name which shattered Japanese and Asian record sales in the year of its release 1999.  According to Wikipedia, the album "First Love", sold over 2 million in its debut week, and topped the Oricon album chart for 6 weeks. "First Love" was Japan's 7th highest album in debut sales and is also noted as the best-selling album in Asian music history. It sold over 10 million copies worldwide. 
Cover to the Utada's "First Love" Single - Image courtesy of Review Carnival (http://reviewcarnival.blogspot.com/2010/07/j-pop-album-review-utada-hikaru-first.html)
"First Love" the single was another major hit for Utada, ranking in the top ten Oricon charts for the month of its release. There is both a 8cm single version and a 12 cm single version which featured different arrangements of the song in additional to the standard single.  Written and composed by Utada with arrangements by longtime collaborator Kawano Kei/河野圭, the song has been a popular cover for a variety of artists including JUJU, Tokunaga Hideaki/徳永英明, Nakanishi Yasushi/中西保志, Eric Martin, Boys II Men, Sotte Bosse, Cao Xue Jing and Jessa Zaragoza among others.  With its bilingual (Japanese-English) lyircs, it is a popular song staple at Karaoke Bars especially among foreigners.  The inventive PV for the song incorporated some very elaborate high-speed camera effects to achieve its dreamy stylistic look. 

 

I wonder if it was just happenstance that Takizawa's character was also named 光 using the exact same character that Utada uses for her name (although for professional purposes she opts to use Kana - ヒカル most of the time).

While various love stories such as 「Beautiful Life」, 「神様、もう少しだけ 」 and 「東京ラブストーリー 」 are often credited as being the golden standards of weepy, romantic dramas I consider "Majou No Jouken" to be just as good as, if not in some ways superior to those dramas in its boldness and straightforward approach to tackling an otherwise sensationalized topic.  While nowhere near as bleak and over-the-top tragic as the similarly themed cult series 「高校教師 」(1993) or its sequel 「高校教師 2003 」(2003),  "Majou No Jouken" is nonetheless a powerful and sometimes sobering drama that looks a true love and dealing with tragedy through the eyes of an unconventional  romantic couple.
 
"Now and Forever" - Chinese replicas of the promise rings that Michi and Hikaru exchanged in the series - Image courtesy of http://global.rakuten.com/zh-tw/store/asterism/item/414405/

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mariko Takahashi - Runner (ランナー)




I decided to go for the trifecta. After profiling two other songs by the same title: one being the end theme for the anime "Macross"by Makoto Fujiwara(藤原誠) and the other being the big hit by Bakufu Slump, I thought it time to bring in the third, the sweet and inspirational one by Mariko Takahashi(高橋真梨子).

"Runner" was never released as an official single but was a track on Takahashi's 3rd album, "Monologue"in 1980. Although I eventually got the album, my first time with the song came when I received an audiotape of her concert album, "More 5th Love Affair" which came out in the mid-80s. Written by Akira Otsu(大津あきら)and composed by Kisaburo Suzuki(鈴木キサブロ), it starts off like a Carpenters song, has a bluesy bridge and ends nearly like a rock gospel song. The lyrics talk of trying to dig oneself out of trouble and then run for one's life with support at his side.

Not surprisingly, "Runner" has been a favourite tune to finish off a Mariko Takahashi concert. It's a fine song for the chanteuse to leave the stage on.


Iruka -- Itsuka Tsumetai Ame ga (いつか冷たい雨が)


I first heard this tearjerker of a song by Iruka(イルカ) when I'd bought her BEST compilation years and years ago. "Itsuka Tsumetai Ame ga"(Someday, A Cold Rain) was the final track of this album, and it struck me pretty hard with the softness of her the folk singer's voice before giving way to an angry power. The melody followed this pattern as well....a gentle lullaby followed by a near-anthemic song of hope.


Both melody and lyrics were created by Iruka, and I was also moved by her story which describes that poor stray dog at a station staring sadly at some scraps thrown it by someone or about that cat who has just been run over and left dying at the side of the road while the singer looks helplessly at it from a train. Her point is that animals should never be taken for granted, even going against her mother's opinion that fauna such as chickens and cows are for humanity's benefit. It is a musical manifesto which should get pet owners hugging their charges a little closer.

This was the title track on Iruka's 6th album, released in September 1979, which hit No. 1 on the album charts.


My Little Lover -- Hello, Again



Every time I landed in Japan, I always came across new forms of popular music. In 1981, it was the first of the decade's frilly-and-sweet aidoru boom along with technopop, and in 1989, it was kayo kyoku making way for the diversification into J-Pop. And then in the mid-90s, on the one hand, it was the dance music steamroller driven by Tetsuya Komuro(小室哲哉), and on the other, was the jangly guitar pop of bands like Mr. Children, Spitz and this unit called My Little Lover.

There were a few songs which best represented my time in Japan in the 90s, and included in that group was My Little Lover's "Hello, Again". Actually, I first heard about the duo of Akiko 'Akko' Akamatsu(赤松亜希子) and Kenji Fujii(藤井謙二) through their debut single, "Man & Woman", a swingy and sprightly tune released in spring 1995 and created by songwriter and producer Takeshi Kobayashi(小林武史)that was a regular inhabitant on the "CDTV" and Oricon charts. I remember it primarily for Akko's delivery of "Ma-an, Woman". It was a cute number but it wasn't quite enough for me to pick up a single or album by them.

Then, Takeshi Kobayashi officially joined My Little Lover as a member, and the trio was complete. There was a second single, "Shiroi Kite"白いカイト...White Kite) a couple of months later, and then in even less time in August came their third song, "Hello Again....Mukashi Kara Aru Basho"昔からある場所...A Place That's Been There For Ages). This was the one that reeled me in, hook line and sinker. There was just something about Akko's soft but resonant voice and the breezy melody that pulled me in. The song and video also had plenty of airplay on "CDTV", so I got to say hello again to "Hello Again" over many weeks.

The song was written and composed by Kobayashi with Fujii co-writing the melody. "Hello Again" was a huge hit; in fact, it's been the band's biggest hit up to now with over 1.73 million discs sold. It hit the No. 1 spot on Oricon and later became the 6th-ranked song of the year.




My Little Lover -- Hello Again

Sunday, July 28, 2013

KERAKERA -Star Loveration/スターラブレイション & Rihwa - Last Love/ (Themes to "Last Cinderella"/「ラスト♡シンデレラ」)



Fuji TV's recent Last Cinderella/「ラスト♡シンデレラ」 J-Dorama series, which ran earlier this year (April 11 - June 20) is another great drama featuring one of my all-time favorite actresses Shinohara Ryoko/篠原涼子.  It's been a good three years since Shinohara last did a drama series (2010's NTV series Ogon No Buta/黄金の豚-会計検査庁 特別調査) and "Last Cinderella" served as a welcome comeback vehicle for her.  While Shinohara's character, Toyama Sakura/遠山桜 is similar to a lot of the rebellious, tough girl roles she has done in the past, Sakura also had a attractive vulnerability about her as well and the character is very likeable in her quirkiness.  

The story is a bit cliche - Shinohara's Sakura is a 39 year-old hair stylist who manages a trendy beauty salon called "Happy Go Lucky" in a fashionable section of Tokyo.  She has a loyal and faithful clientelle due to her personable nature and good natured outlook (her mostly older clients love talking to her regarding their problems). While Sakura is pretty, she often times downplays her attractiveness by not wearing makeup and dressing like a "tomboy".  In fact she is often labeled as an 親父ギャル/"Oyaji Gal", a new generation of older women who rebel against Japanese societal expectations to get married, be femine, act subserviant and confirm to a more traditional female role.  

Bizarre Love Triangle - the stars of 「ラスト♡シンデレラ」 - L-R - Miura Haruma, Shinohara Ryoko and Fujiki Naohito - Image courtesy of http://hk-blog.com/205.html)
Sakura has not really dated much in the past (and is currently not in any relationship) and seems content in just devoting herself to her work. She has a bit of a love-hate relationship with her boss, Tachibana Rintaro/立花凛太郎 (Fujiki Naohito/藤木直人) a rising star in the fashion world of styling and they frequently lock horns, get into heated arguments and exchange in witty and playful name calling (Rintaro loves teasing Sakura on her name and how it is similar to the famous movie character of Toyama Kinsan - in fact his nickname for her is "Kin chan").

However their sexual tension has rubbed one of Rintaro's admirers the wrong way.  Spoiled rich-girl Okami Chiyoko/大神千代子 (model turned actress Nanao/菜々緒) has had a crush on Rintaro since she was a young girl (Sakura cut her hair when she was still in Intermediate School).  Carrying both physical and emotional scars from her tramatic childhood, she becomes insanely jealous of Rintaro's attention towards Sakura, and decides to pull a mean prank on Sakura. 


Image courtesy of http://hotnews-money.blog.so-net.ne.jp/2013-03-26.
 Enlisting the help of her handsome step-brother Saeki Hiroto/佐伯広斗 (Miura Haruma/三浦春馬) an accomplished BMX Biker with dreams of becoming a National Champion, she has Hiroto try and seduce Sakura and then dump her when he tires of her (similar to the film "Cruel Intentions"). Hiroto agress to go ahead with the plan for fun but soon inexplicably finds himself really falling in love with Sakura (nearly 15 years her senior). While the story (penned by Nakatani Mayumi) follows the atypical meledramatic J-Dorama beats - heartbreaks, misunderstandings, cruel revolations, proclamations of love and three-way romantic triangles) there is a nice charm about the series and Shinohara is so damn cute in in role. 

It's hard to believe that Shinohara is herself nearing age 40 (her birthday is this 8/13) as she looks absolutely ageless.  While Shinohara started off as a singer - first with dance unit 東京パフォーマンスドール/Tokyo Performance Dolls and then as as solo performer with the T. Komuro Family, releasing hits lit like "Itoshisa to Setsunasa To Kokorozuyosa To" 「恋しさとせつなさと心強さと」 she is now primarily known for her acting performances, appearing in such drama series over the years as Pure/「ピュア」(1996), "Mother & Lover"/マザー&ラヴァー」, "Anego"/アネゴ」(2006) and her breakout series "UNFAIR" アンフェア(2006).

 The supporting cast of "Last Cinderella" also boosts a number of J-Dorama veterans including the absolutely gorgeous, Ijima Naoko/飯島直子 (who starred in such series as 「OUT」(1999) and "Wedding Planner" 「ウエディングプランナー」(2002)) who portrays Sakura's 'gal pal', Hasegawa Shima/長谷川 志麻, a gym trainer and fellow single '30-something' (who willingly engages in  "one-night stands" inorder to fill the lonely void in her life) and Otsuka Nene/大塚 寧々(who starred in such series as 「HERO 」(2001), "Tokyo Tower"/ 「東京タワー」(2006) and "Around 40"/「アラウンド40」(2008)) as another gal pal, Takenouchi Miki/武内美樹, a married housewife who is having marital problems with her husband.  

Best Friends - Shima (Ijima Naoko), Sakura (Shinohara Ryoko) and Miki (Otsuka Nene) - Image courtesty of Mainichi.co.jp -http://mainichi.jp/graph/2013/04/10/20130410dyo00m200066000c/003.html and Fuji TV.

The two songs that comprise the "Last Cinderella" soundtrack are ケラケラ/KERAKERA's uplifting and catchy 「スターラブレイション」"Star Loveration" and Rihwa's sentimental and tearful 「Last Love」.

The three member rock-pop band ケラケラ somewhat recalls いきものがかり/Ikimono-Gakari a bit in style and composition.  The band comprised of lead singer MEME, bassist FULIP/Philip and drummer Mori-San were formed in 2010 and "Star Loveration" is their first major hit (it made it up to No. 30 on the Oricon charts). 
 
ケラケラ - 「Star Loveration」 single cover - Image courtesty of Kanpeki Music - http://kanpekimusic.wordpress.com
  

25 year old pop singer-songwriter Rihwa (リファ) was born in Hokkaido, Sapporo and is of Korean-Japanese decent (similar to Ito Yuna/伊藤由奈).  During high school she transferred to Belleville, Canada where she graduated from a local high school there. After graduating from high school there she later moved back to Japan to follow her dream of becoming a singer. Her experiences abroad have had a profound impact on her songwriting and this is very much apparent in her current hit "Last Love" which is sung entirely in English.  While the "Engrish" lyrics of "Last Love" are a tad bit distracting, Rihwa's incredible vocals and melancholy sound is very appealing. 

I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more song from her.

Rihwa 「Last Love」 single cover - Image courtesy of Kanpeki Music - http://kanpekimusic.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/rihwa-last-love-lyrics-%E5%AF%BE%E8%A8%B3-pv/




The instrumental soundtrack is also quite nice with musician and DJ Hanzawa Takeshi/半沢武志 (AKA FreeTEMPO) providing some great OST music for the series such as the following OP title theme - Last Cinderella/ 「ラスト・シンデレラ」



"Last Cinderella" is certainly not a perfect series as it does get a bit goofy at times and can be a little heavy-handed in its plot but I think the drama succeeds in telling a really great love story and Shinohara's performance is great as always. 

Happy 40th Birthday - Shinohara Ryoko!  Image courtesy of http://www.viki.com/artists/20614c-shinohara-ryoko

Saturday, July 27, 2013

EXILE - Flower Song (Theme to 35-Sai No Kou Kou Sei/ 「35歳の高校生」)




It's been a while since I really enjoyed watching a great J-Dorama series. I'm a big fan of 80s and 90s J-Doramas, especially the darker toned dramas of writers such as Nojima Shinji/野島伸司 who would craft wickedly entertaining and emotionally intense stories such as Kou Kou Kyoushi/ 高校教師 (1993), Seija No Koushin/ 聖者の行進 (1998) and Kono Yo No Hate/ この世の果て (1994) which were filled with over-the-top soap-opera style tragedy and love romance. That's why I was really happy to finally watch NTV's recent Spring 2013 'renzoku' drama series 35 Sai No Kou Kousei/ 35歳の高校生. Penned by fledgling writers Yamamura Masahiro and Takahashi Yuyaa, this inventive story focused on the mysterious Baba Ayako/馬場亜矢子 (played by the stunning 米倉涼子/Yonekura Ryoko), an emotionally scarred 35-year old woman with a tramatic past who is asked by her former high school teacher Asada Yukinobu/阿佐田幸信 (Watari Testuya/渡哲也), who has since become a high ranking official with the Japanese Ministry of Education, to go back to her mother's alma mater, Kunigita High School to fulfill her mother's last dying wish that Ayako graduate from high school (Ayako had dropped out of high school having been the victim of intense bullying and who witnessed her mother's attempted suicide).

While Ayako is not the same timid and frightened girl that left high school years before, she soon discovers that Kunigita High School is still wrought with the same type of bullying problems that she remembers from years ago but has since taken on an even more sinister aspect, growing into a brutal social hierarchy system (known unofficially on the school's internal online blog as the "School Caste" which ranks student popularity based on group ranking (i.e. those in the highest rank "Ichi Gumi" have free reign to do whatever they want while those at the lowest level "San Gumi" are open targets for unrelenting cruelty and abuse). As Ayako struggles to win her classmates approval and friendship (on the first day of class she vows to "make 100 friends") she must also help her various bullied classmates survive from the various abuses doled out by "Ichi Gumi" members headed by beautiful yet cold-hearted star athlete and elitist Kudo Mitsuki/工藤美月 (Shinkawa Yuua/新川優愛) and the brutal, calculating and violently unpredictable pretty-boy Tsuchiya Masamitsu/土屋正光 (Suda Masaki/菅田将暉).

The cast of 35歳の高校生 courtesy of トレンドズームニュース (http://trendzoom-news18.blog.so-net.ne.jp/archive/201304-1)
Ayako (who is often times rudely referred by her classmates as 「ババア」“Baba”/old hag – a word play on her last name) being a woman of many talents and abilities (having had a string of jobs since she dropped out of high school, including experiences as a cook and Police Woman) uses all her skills, charm, noble spirit and strong sense of justice to crush the "School Caste" and bring the students together despite being hampered in her efforts by an appallingly ineffectual and shockingly indifferent school faculty headed by pompous school administrator Noda Yoshio/野田芳男 (Enoki Takaaki/榎木孝明) and his mean spirited assistant principle Mayuzumi Yuki/黛有紀 (Yokoyama Megumi/横山めぐみ). While Ayako's self-serving and naive homeroom teacher Koizumi Jinichi/小泉純一 (Mizobata Jyunpei/溝端淳平) tries his best to support Ayako’s efforts, his disgraced past comes back to haunt him.

While its story is nowhere near as landmark a school drama as GTO, Gokusen/ ごくせん or the iconic San Nen 'B' Gumi - Kinpachi Sensei/ 3年B組金八先生, "35-Sai No Kou Kou Sei" succeeds primarily on the strength of its lead heroine and star, the tall and beautiful Yonekura, who portrays a character very close to her own age. I've been a fan of the former model turned actress ever since watching her in the drama Seikei Bijin/ 整形美人 (2002). While Yonekura seems to play the same type of character (strong willed, coolly intelligent, physically tough) in most of the dramas such as Doctor XKoshonin/ 交渉人 and Hunter, it is still fun to watch her charismatic performances and marvel at ability to shift from lighthearted comedy to serious drama at the drop of a hat. Yonekura was recently voted #2 in a NTT DoCoMo poll as one of the “coolest” (エロ可愛い) actresses on TV (just under Maki Yoko/真木よう子) along with another one of my favorite actresses, 篠原涼子/Shinohara Ryoko (who ranked #5)

The beautiful Yonekura Ryoko/米倉涼子 is heroine
Baba Ayako/馬場亜矢子

The supporting cast is also terrific with the standout being Suda Masaki/菅田将暉. Tokusatsu fans may be particularly surprised as Suda's portrayal of the scumbag character of Masamitsu as it is a complete departure from his affable and fun-loving, heroic character of Philip in the Kamen Rider - W/ 仮面ライダーW(ダブル) series. Although not as unapologetically cruel and manipulative as Fukuda Saki's/福田沙紀 'ultimate bitch' character Anzai Manami/安西愛海 in the similar series LIFE, Suda's performance here is nothing short of chilling as his adolescent character is pure evil (although the writers do cop out in the end by having Masamitsu have a change of heart and ending up befriending and making amends with Ayako). 

'Queen Bee' Kudo Mitsuki (Shikawa Yuua - Center) and her underlings (L-R - Miyazaki Karen, Kojima Fujiko, Mizuno Erina, Shikawa Yuua and Kitayama Shiori)
Teen bastard Tsuchiya Masamitsu (Suda Masaki - Center) and his punk henchmen - (L-R - Takazuki Mahiro, Suda Masaki and Nomura Shuhei)
While the story is often times over-the-top in scope and a bit goofy at some parts (particularly when focusing on the various bubbling and incompetent faculty members) it still has a lot of uplifting, tearful and emotionally rousing moments as well. The last few episodes in particular are absolutely riveting and grueling albeit very melodramatic. 

The title song for the series is EXILE’s catchy and triumphant Flower Song. Written by EXILE lead singer ATSUSHI in collaboration with Swedish Music Producer Magnus Funemyr and singer/song writer Nomura Yoichiro, the song is EXILE’s 42nd single and was a moderate hit ranking No. 2 on the Oricon Charts for June and earning decent CD sales.  It got a lot of airplay on Japanese radio and I think its one of their more fun and energetic songs (RISING SUN being the other one I like a lot). 

Single cover for EXILE's "Flower Song" - Image courtesy of Kanpeki Music - http://kanpekimusic.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/exile-flower-song-%E6%AD%8C%E8%A9%9E-lyrics-video/

The PV for the single is pretty nice but surprisingly features very little of their signature dancing (albeit there is a great sequence at the end).




I definitely recommend “35 Sai No Kou Kou Sei” to fans of Japanese drama as it is a compelling and interesting drama series.  While not as uplifting as GTO or as relentlessly grim as 「LIFEit is very addictive to watch and one can't help but root for Yonekura's character 「馬場ちゃん」 "Baba Chan" to fulfill her goal and win her classmates hearts.

Here's a promotional interview with Yonekura Ryoko where she talks a little bit about her role in "35 Sai No Kou Kou Sei".  This was to help promote the start of the series in Japan earlier this year.  The series is currently available on Japanese DVD and Blu-Ray released by VAP.


Oricon Top Ten Singles for 1993

1.  Chage & Aska                            Yah Yah Yah
2.  B'z                                             Ai no Mama ni Wagamama.....
3.  The Tra★Bryu                           Road                
4.  Southern All Stars                     Erotica Seven
5.  B'z                                             Hadashi no Megami
6.  Zard                                           Makenai de
7.  Wands                                       Toki no Tobira
8.  Yumi Matsutoya                       Manatsu no Yoru no Yume
9.  Zard                                          Yureru Omoi
10. Miho Nakayama & Wands      Sekaiju no Dare Yori Kitto

That B'z entry at No. 2 probably has one of the longest song titles in J-Pop history. Still, considering their success, Inaba and Matsumoto could probably title a tune "Fido"and it would become a million-seller. B'z and two other bands managed to get double entries into the Top 10 of 1993, and strangely enough, neither of the other two were named Southern All Stars. It was certainly high times for Zard as it got what would be one of the most popular songs in terms of encouragement up on the list in the form of "Makenai de". Rock band The Tra★Bryu's "Road" was a popular song to sing in the karaoke boxes during the early part of my time in Japan. However, the even bigger karaoke favourite was Chage & Aska's "Yah Yah Yah", the audience-lifting megahit theme song to a pretty dark medical drama on TV.


Black Biscuits/Keizo Nakanishi -- Timing


I just remember this video going on heavy rotation on the music shows such as "CDTV" in the late 90s. Black Biscuits was the so-called archenemy to that other trio Pocket Biscuits. As was the case with the latter unit, Black Biscuits was formed in that Friday night comedy-variety show starring comedic duo Ucchan-Nanchan(ウッチャン・ナンチャン). With Pocket Biscuits on the road to success with their first two singles, "Rapturous Blue" and "Yellow Yellow Happy", the powers-that-be must have thought it was time for another rival (after Chiaki and the gang had defeated McKee) to push the band. So, the Black Biscuits were formed with Taiwanese singer/actress/model Vivian Hsu, Kiyotaka "Nanami"Nanbara(南原清隆) of Ucchan-Nanchan and Hiroyuki "Amajan" Amano(天野ひろゆき)of Kyaiiin, the latter two being partners of the guys who were now in Pocket Biscuits.

The trio supposedly made their first appearance on the program in early January 1997, but their first single, "Stamina" didn't come until near the end of the year. The debut did very well, selling over a million copies but then came their 2nd single, "Timing", in April 1998 which brought even more success. Composed by 90s funkster Keizo Nakanishi(中西圭三) and Takao Konishi(小西貴雄), and written by Hiromi Mori(森浩美) with help from the Black Biscuits, "Timing"had a fun strut in it, and everyone in the group added something vocally. Plus, there was the karaoke-friendly choreography which probably had a lot of beer and lemon-highballs spilling onto the carpet in the boxes and bars. And the video was even shot in Manhattan; I think even jaded New Yorkers were probably trying to figure out what these weirdly-dressed Asians were all about.



"Timing" also appeared on Black Biscuits' first and only album, "Life", released in May 1999 which got as far as No. 6 on the album charts and was the 71st-ranked disc of the year. As for the single, it sold around 150 million copies, but didn't hit the top spot, instead settling for No. 2. It was the 4th-most successful song of 1998.


Nakanishi himself couldn't resist covering "Timing"since it was so catchy. His cover has even more of a disco beat to it, and can be found in his album, "Songs", released in November 1998.

Black Biscuits -- Timing

Friday, July 26, 2013

Shizuka Kudo -- Kindan no Telepathy (禁断のテレパシー)




Being just a casual fan of Shizuka Kudo(工藤静香), I didn't know the title for this song nor where it stood in her discography. However, I did remember it for the opening words: a breathless repetition of "Tell me why", and then some pretty intense synth string activity. I would never have pegged it as Kudo's actual debut song; it just seemed a little too muscular for a launch tune for an aidoru. I thought it was something that happened much later in her solo career, and that Kudo started that career off with the usual sweet little ditty.

But then again, Kudo would later take on that image of a kickass aidoru with the huge mounds of hair, stark makeup and the bright dresses, so perhaps "Kindan no Telepathy"(Forbidden Telepathy) was prescient or the people behind her career were. Strangely enough, though, the cover of the single showed a rather different visage of a girl in shorter, darker hair and with a bit more baby fat in those cheeks. The lyrics by Yasushi Akimoto(秋元康), about a woman who's trying to recover from a sudden breakup, should probably hint at some sort of love ballad, but Tsugutoshi Goto's(後藤次利) dramatic melody keeps the words closer to a suspense-thriller (almost kinda like the editing genius on YouTube who manipulated scenes from Tom Hanks' romantic dramedy "Sleepless In Seattle" into a trailer for a dangerous stalker going after Hanks).


"Kindan no Telepathy" was released in August 1987, and reached the top spot on Oricon. It would become the 59th-ranked song of the year, selling 145,000 copies. It was also a track on Kudo's first album, "Mysterious" which was released in January 1988 and peaked at No. 3. It eventually became the 40th-ranked album of that year.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Goro Noguchi -- 19:00 no Machi (19:00の街)


I first heard...and saw....Goro Noguchi(野口五郎) on the 1983 Kohaku Utagassen performing this song, "19:00 no Machi"(7 p.m. City). At the time, I didn't know about his career as an aidoru in the 70s or his media-created loose association with Hideki Saijo(西城秀樹) and Hiromi Go(郷ひろみ) as the Shin-Gosanke(新御三家....The New Big Three), although I did see those two on the first few Kohaku I had caught on TV here. But I do remember the announcers on that 1983 show along with the audience creating a louder-than-usual hoopla when he made his appearance for some reason. Apparently, Noguchi had been a fixture on the NHK New Year's Eve program since he had appeared consecutively from 1972 to 1981, but not having any sort of hit in 1982, his invitation was summarily dropped which caused some ripples. So his return in 1983 was a bit of a comeback of sorts, although this appearance would be his very last one up to the present day.

I enjoyed "19:00 no Machi" as the dapper Noguchi performed it in front of that darkened huge staircase behind him all decked in lights. It helped give that image of nightlife that the song was providing. The lyrics by Kaoru Ito(伊藤薫) concocted a nighttime metropolitan scene during the winter as a light sleet hit the glass and the fog rolled into the city; I especially enjoyed that early metaphor of "The city is the ocean, the people are the desert, and love is the mirage". There are also references to the cars passing by and cigarette smoke floating up....makes me miss the ol' Tokyo scene. The bluesy, languid music by Kyohei Tsutsumi(筒美京平) evokes images of being in that hotel top lounge, and perhaps it's the high-pitched chorus behind Noguchi but that refrain reminds me a tad of a Bee Gees song. About a few years later, I was actually to pick up the song via a compilation tape sold in Chinatown.



"19:00 no Machi" was Noguchi's 43rd single since his debut in 1971. It was released in January of 1983, and was used as the theme song for a drama that starred him called "Dareka ga Watashi wo Aishiteiru"誰かが私を愛してる....Somebody Loves Me). The song also got its fair share of accolades as it was his 30th single to get into the Top 20 of Oricon, and it was his first single since his 1978 "Good Luck" that was able to get into the Top 100 for the year....71st place for 1983 with 177,000 records sold. On the weekly charts, it peaked at No. 16.

Interestingly, Noguchi also got one more accolade for his song. It won the Julio Iglesias Prize at the 12th Annual Tokyo Music Festival World Competition. I guess when it came to this Shin-Gosanke, where Hideki Saijo was the rocker and Hiromi Go was the Casanova heartbreaker, Noguchi would probably be seen as the urbane man-about-town....somewhat akin to Iglesias. That 1983 Kohaku would also be the final get-together of that trio.

Goro and his guitar

Princess Princess -- Oh Yeah!


Along with the big bonanza of a hit in "Diamonds" back in 1989, Princess Princess scored another home run the following year with a driving pop/rock song that I first saw on a Sony commercial for those quaint little things called audio tape cassettes. Titled "Oh Yeah!", this was about a year before Kazumasa Oda's(小田和正) ballad "Oh Yeah!" came out, and is obviously a wholly different animal.

Written by guitarist Kanako Nakayama(中山加奈子) and composed by lead vocal Kaori Okui(奥居香), those first guitar blasts make "Oh Yeah!" instantly recognizable for all those teens and twenties in the early part of the 90s, and it's always nice with that added horn section. The song hit the No. 1 spot on Oricon and then became the 5th-ranked song of the year after its release in April 1990 as Princess Princess' 9th single. Along with "Diamonds" and "Sekai de Ichiban Atsui Natsu"世界でいちばん熱い夏)as the band's 7th and 8th singles respectively, the turn of the decade was a huge one for them.


You can take a look at this series of SONY commercials starring Princess Princess. The one with "Oh Yeah!" shows up at around the 45-second mark.


Princess Princess -- Oh Yeah!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pocket Biscuits -- Yellow Yellow Happy



I didn't see the protracted genesis of this trio, Pocket Biscuits, consisting of pixie-ish tarento Chiaki (千秋...vocal), Teruyoshi Uchimura(内村光良) from the comedic duo Ucchan-Nanchan (keyboardist) and the Frankenstein-ish Udo Suzuki(ウド鈴木) from the other comedic duo Kyaiiin (keyboard and other instruments), but from what I've read of the group on J-Wiki, it seems as if the birth of this group kinda followed the same path as the one which would lead to Morning Musume about a year later. Apparently, on an Ucchan-Nanchan variety show, a segment began in which the boys started an audition for two female tarento to back up model Rie Takayama(高山理衣) as the 3-person band McKee to help sell Takayama to the rest of Asia. Eventually, Sayuri Kokusho (国生さゆり....formerly of Onyanko Club) and actress Shigeru Muroi(室井滋) were selected, leaving poor Chiaki, who had wanted to become a singer, in the dust. The tears started flowing, and from there it was decided to create another trio which would become Pocket Biscuits. To add to the (most likely contrived) drama, McKee and Pocket Biscuits went head-to-head with their respective debut singles, with the winner being the band with the higher ranking on Oricon. Chiaki's trio, with "Rapturous Blue" scored 3 ranks higher than McKee's "Can't Stop My Heart", and won the challenge. Right then and there, McKee disbanded. Just like a feel-good drama.



And from that point, Pocket Biscuits would have their 15 minutes in the spotlight for over 3 years, would spark a "rival"band, Black Biscuits, and even a collaboration with the Yumi Matsutoya(松任谷由美) in 2000. But for me, their most recognizable song was their 2nd single, "Yellow Yellow Happy", released in September 1996. Written by the band and composed by Pappara Kawai(パッパラー河合), the lead guitarist from Bakufu Slump, I think the things that stood out for me was the clunkily adorable CG of the three members in the video and Chiaki's singing. Not to say that Akina Nakamori and Hiromi Iwasaki had anything to worry about, but Chiaki sounded somewhat better than I thought she would be, especially considering her usually squeaky but occasionally tart-tongued spoken delivery. And I gotta say that there is something adorable about a 5'0"woman doing a one-foot stomp as her choreography.

It was a catchy enough song for me to get the CD single, and it looks like a lot of other folks followed as well. It did far better than their debut by peaking at No. 4, and even broke the million-seller barrier. "Yellow Yellow Happy"not only had power but also had longevity: it became the 30th-ranked song of 1996 and it lasted on the charts long enough to become the 77th-ranked tune for 1997.

A lot of my memories of music during those early years getting settled into my life in Chiba and Tokyo involved the Komuro family and Dreams Come True, but there were also these brief-but-bright moments by folks such as Pocket Biscuits.

Pocket Biscuits -- Yellow Yellow Happy

Akiko Wada -- Datte Sho ga Nai Janai (だってしょうがないじゃない)


For years, I have always seen Akiko Wada(和田アキ子) as the big Godsister of Japanese show business and as the singer of her trademark song, "Ano Kane wo Narasu no wa Anata"あの鐘を鳴らすのはあなた). With that booming Kansai dialect, she could hold the audience's attention or terrify any of her celeb kohai who crossed her.

But there was also this one mellow song that she released in the late 80s. "Datte Sho ga Nai Janai" (C'mon, Nothing I Can Do About It) was composed by Koji Makaino(馬飼野康二) and written by Masumi Kawamura(川村真澄) as her 47th single in April 1988, and it has Wada singing in a slightly woozy tone as the protagonist resignedly declares her fate as a lady going in and out of the one-night affairs, and probably in and out of the bars of Osaka. I could imagine the woman sitting slumped over the counter in some skyscraper bar way past midnight as she spills her guts to some other barfly. Being a City Pop fan, it's nice to hear Wada croon this one in that quietly velvety voice. Admittedly, I'm not a huge Wada fan, but it would be nice if I could discover some of her other past songs that had this sort of tone.


"Datte Sho ga Nai Janai" did pretty decently on the charts, getting as high as No. 25 on the weeklies and becoming a long seller for the next couple of years. It ended 1989 as the 94th-ranked single and sold a total of about 200,000 copies.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ryoko Moriyama -- Kyo no Hi wa Sayonara (今日の日はさようなら)



Apparently, a version of this 1967 folk song by veteran songstress Ryoko Moriyama(森山良子) was used in one of the latest "Evangelion" series. It's always nice bringing back some of the ol' kayo kyoku back into the light. As for the above video, unfortunately, the version with the singer herself was taken down, but this version above is wonderfully sung by a couple of ladies that I don't know about.

According to the liner notes of "Good Times Diva Vol. 6", "Kyo no Hi wa Sayonara"(Today is the Day for Goodbye) was originally written and composed by Shoichi Kaneko(金子詔一) for Moriyama as the ending theme for a student music event back in her amateur days, presumably before 1967. Even before her professional debut, the song quickly became a folk fan favourite, but its first appearance on a record was as the B-side to her 3rd single, "Koi wa Mizuiro"恋はみずいろ....Love is the Colour of Water), released in August 1967. Still, its fame has grown and has even become a song that has been sung by the Japanese Boy and Girl Scouts, and it has had its fair share of covers performed by acts such as Saori Minami (南沙織)and DEEN over the decades.

The lyrics has that eternal theme of friendship even under impending separation, and the melody would make for a nice lullaby. It has been used as a song for graduation ceremonies, including the ones I've attended in Gunma. There weren't a whole lot of dry eyes in the auditorium. And I'm sure at a Moriyama concert nowadays, the same would hold true.