The J-Pop Roots:
For me, everything began with Chage and Aska. As a young kid (probably around 10 years old), my parents used to play some of the pop duo's songs when we went on road trips to the neighbouring Malaysia. With rolling fields passing by as we headed to Cameron Highlands on one trip, the track that resonated with me the most was none other than "On Your Mark". I had no idea who they were or what they were saying, but the mellow rock melody and chorus had me not wanting the song to end. However, after that road trip I never got the chance to hear those C&A songs again, for some reason. Probably because it didn't occur to me that I could personally take the CD of downloaded tracks and search for the song using Dad's old laptop.
Anyway, it wasn't until a year or two later when I managed to get my hands on an MP4 player (prize from a Reader's Digest issue... I still have no idea how I became the winner) did I finally reconnect to that fateful song, which opened the gateway to the rest of C&A's discography. Being a little older and more aware of things, I also decided to sample the other songs in that CD and grew to enjoy every single one of them - the eight tracks ranged from "On Your Mark" to "Hitori Zaki" (ひとり咲き). Then I gained access to YouTube in the years that followed which allowed me to finally see the guys behind the music and broaden my C&A horizons. I distinctly remember listening to "Heart" during my one hour computer curfew, and having "if" playing in the background while I wrestled the keyboard's arrow keys to keep my character from squashing himself in online motorcycle games. Ah, good memories.
Throughout secondary school (grade 7 to 10), it was literally nothing but C&A (especially Aska). Having gotten some compilations from HMV in Singapore (when it was still around) and reprints of their original albums in Japan as well as online, I became quite well-versed in their works. Unfortunately, Aska got into trouble (2013) and went out of commission for a few years.
As terrible as it was, there was a silver lining. It had me venturing out into the works of other J-pop acts as an alternative. The most notable group I clung on to in the aftermath was Anzen Chitai (安全地帯), whom Mom mentioned and recommended occasionally. Considering how devastated I felt when Aska was indicted and the hell the GCE 'O' levels put me through, my introduction to the band via "Kanashimi ni Sayonara" (悲しみにさよなら) helped to ease the pain considerably. Southern All Stars followed soon after with "Manatsu no Kaijutsu" (真夏の果実).
Despite being a good distraction, I lost most of my interest in them quite quickly as I found Koji Tamaki (玉置浩二) to be too bohemian and Keisuke Kuwata (桑田佳祐) too zany. None of the other 90's J-pop acts I came across in 90's hit medleys really resonated with me either - their hits were good, but I wasn't enamored by the singers - and I felt like I was simply waiting on Aska to make a comeback.
Then I discovered Korokke (コロッケ), the monomane artiste, who opened the gateway to a whole "new" genre.
The Transition (with Korokke's help):
I encountered Korokke around the same time as Tamaki and Kei-chan. I recall looking for impressions of singers I recognize, which then led me to Korokke's shenanigans. What I loved about his impressions were that they could be on point, inaccurate to some degree but hilarious, or a mix of both. Now, I had no idea whom many of the targets were at the time but multiple viewings of Korokke's warped faces and exaggerated deliveries were enough to make me do some investigating. As it turned out, they were enka singers.
Needless to say, I had little idea of what enka was, besides the fact that it's old music sung by the old and grey. I'd typically avoid it at all costs, but because of my burning curiosity and slow gravitation to the fragments of the strange sounding songs Korokke sang, I went ahead to listen to some of them, one being Hiroshi Itsuki's (五木ひろし) "Yokohama Tasogare" (よこはま・たそがれ).
With its distinctive, snake charmer (as I usually call it) music and Itsuki's mellow vibrato-filled vocals, it made for a very different listening experience - it wasn't something I've heard or seen before, but it was thoroughly refreshing and amusing. From there, I began trying out a little more enka that were easy on the ears, all while marveling at the kooky characters who sang them, like Ikuzo Yoshi (吉幾三), Aki Yashiro (八代亜紀), Takashi Hosokawa (細川たかし), and Masao Sen (千昌夫). But just like what I mentioned above, it wasn't enough to sustain my interest in the genre, and so I set it aside while I explored more of 90's J-pop until I decided to look up another of Korokke's targets.
Mood Kayo's Uramachi
Brows furrowed so often it left five obvious wrinkles on his forehead, standing so straight and still he earned the nickname of "Pillar Man" from Mom, yup, it's Kiyoshi Maekawa (前川清), or as I like to call him, Mae-Kiyo. Korokke doesn't do impressions of him as much as, say, Itsuki, but it was amusing enough for me to look into. Also, Mae-Kiyo was one of the last few fellows from the monomane tarento's list I had yet to check out at the time.
Oddly enough, I got drawn to him fairly quickly the moment "Soshite Kobe" (そして、神戸) hit my ears. Besides looking rather spiffy, there was just something hypnotizing about hearing his intense baritone droning on to the equally as intense and dramatic strings. And the fact that he could stand so still despite bellowing out the last line of the song was fascinating... Yeah, he became my long sough-after muse soon after.
My fascination in Mae-Kiyo and subsequently his group, The Cool Five, reignited my enthusiasm for enka and allowed me to learn about its sister genre, Mood Kayo. Current day me is more aware of what is considered an enka song and what is considered a Mood Kayo song, but considering how often the lines between the genres are blurred, the kayo green horn that was me three years ago couldn't really tell the difference and simply saw Mood Kayo as the more listenable version of enka, where singers have deeper, smoother vocals and the melodies were easier on the ears (not always, though).
Coming to the tail-end of my journey into Japanese music (for now) is how I got myself into what I affectionately call "Hardcore Enka", which I wouldn't normally recommend to a first time enka listener for fear they'd run for the hills. Under this label I include the extremely melancholic or minyo-infused stuff, and singers with an overall shriller, more enka-y delivery. I had a hard time stomaching this brand of enka, especially when a ton of it descended on me via "Kayo Concert". I vividly recall uncomfortably sitting through Kouhei Fukuda's (福田こうへい) performances during one of my first viewing of the music show where he sang "Wakare no Ippon Sugi" (別れの一本杉) and later "Toge Goe" (峠越え). I was only a couple of months into my enka phase so that felt like a killer.
That was also around the time when I started visiting KKP often to look up information on the stuff I had watched from "Kayo Concert" as J-Canuck would do a write up on a song or two from the show. And that was when I came across the fierce figure that was Hideo Murata (村田英雄) via his "Jinsei Gekijo" (人生劇場) article. "Jinsei Gekijo" did sound kind of cool in both its music and title but again, just like the Fukuda experience, that was rather intense.
Anyway, with Murata becoming a familiar name, it was only a matter of time when I discovered "Osho" (王将). Now, that was something I could swallow with its elegant and powerful strings that complemented Murata's forceful growling. While searching around YouTube for more clips of this hit, I stumbled upon this video (it got removed, but I found all three parts) which had Murata and "Osho", as well as two other fellows I wasn't really aware of.
Muchi appeared first, but he sang "Aishu Ressha" (哀愁列車) instead. The first mystery fellow, the stone-faced Michiya Mihashi (三橋美智也), came after to sing "Akai Lamp no Shuressha" (赤いランプの終列車). Finally, mystery guy no.2, Hachiro Kasuga (春日八郎), made a grand entrance fit for "Osho" (at long last). Couldn't say I was a fan of his higher-pitched warbling but he literally stood out for standing a head over the other two and having those bushy brows.
As you'd expect, I didn't like the two melancholic train songs by Michi and Hachi a whole lot at first, them being "Hardcore Enka" and all, but as time went by, I kept visiting the same video again and again. Maybe it was because of their rhythmic beat and haunting score that had a knack for getting stuck in my head. I did look up their individual performances after the songs grew on me, which only led to me liking more of the heavy or minyo stuff from them. And so, constantly exposing myself (willingly) to the singing styles of these three enka veterans and the musical stylings of the type of enka common back in the days of yore built up my tolerance and made me more accepting of this big part of the genre. I even grew to like it a lot and find solace in it, as you can probably tell from the articles I wrote. Okay, the really, really depressing ones still do take time for me to warm up to.
Since they were an integral part of me getting used to enka, the San'nin no Kai, plus Haruo Minami (三波春夫) in later days, also became some of my favourite singers. Yup... Muse no.4 is one of them... I think it's pretty obvious by now which one it is. Believe me, I was as perturbed when I made that revelation as you probably are now... or probably not (anymore). NO, I'm quite certain it's not because of the unruly brows. Probably his vocal gymnastics. Hmm, or that grin. Or both...
ANYWAY, that about wraps up my "The First" article. That was a long one, but I hope you enjoyed reading about my taste in Japanese music changing from J-Pop to predominantly enka. Thanks for sticking through!