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.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The First -- Noelle Tham

I was trying to figure out how to go about doing my "The First" article for a while now. I wasn't sure whether to talk about my roots in J-pop or my transition to enka, but eventually I decided to combine both as I do touch on both genres on KKP. This'll be a long one, so get comfy and please bear with me.

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).

Enka's Hanamichi 

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!


  1. Hello! I was wondering if there was a site that had Oricon 100 charts in English. I've only been able to find some that have just the first 10 or 20 and nothing below that. Much thanks, if you can.

    1. Hi, Behemothbear.

      Well, I looked around a bit and generasia seems like the best source. They've got pages on Top 100 or so singles and albums per year since 1993 and 1989 respectively. In terms of best selling artistes, they have 3 lists, but they only show the Top 30 or 50. You can check it out in the link.
      I hope that helps.

  2. Noelle, thanks for sharing your story. I enjoy reading it.

    Call me conservative but I have a lot of respect for people who appreciate "old culture". Enka is distinctively Japanese. If you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the music, you would know immediately that it's Japanese music. Same for those distinct characteristics present in Cantonese opera music. Conversely, if you listen to pop, this distinctive character is obviously missing. I'm on the side of preserving a culture's distinctively elements.

    As you know, when I listen to Japanese music, I also pay attention to lyrics because I think I can learn Japanese that way. When I read the lyrics of enka, they are like Chinese poems. I know that nobody writes lyrics like that anymore and I feel sad. It's also the first time I pay close attention to the lyrics of Yokohama Tasogare. I think it's beautifully written.

    So don't feel like a weirdo. You're actually closer to that original Japanese culture that makes it unique.

    1. Hi, Larry.

      Thanks for the compliments, I appreciate that a lot. I used to feel like, as you said, a weirdo because I thought only one demographic listens to enka, and many here in Singapore either have no idea about it or dislike it and call it trash - like an ex-colleague of mine... I still feel like giving him a high five. To the face. With a chair. But through this blog and my trip to Japan last year, meeting people of similar interests made me feel more at ease, and I feel like I'm taking it in greater stride now. After all, enka is an key foundation in Japanese music.

      Speaking of enka sounding quintessentially Japanese, that makes me think of the Taiwanese or Chinese versions of enka songs, or their take on enka. Somehow, even though they try to emulate it, it just doesn't sound the same as the original. The arrangement, I feel, always tends to be lacking something. Can't beat the original, I guess.

      I also do like to look at the lyrics of the songs, especially now, when my Japanese is a bit better. I don't know much about Chinese poems, but you're pretty much right about lyrics not being written like that anymore... I mean, besides in enka, that is. The symbolisms used (which I find rather creative), the feelings inscribed, no other genre seems to have lyrics like that.

  3. Hello, Noelle!

    That's quite a First (no pun intended)! I now know how you got into enka and Chage & Aska. As for your comments on Anzen Chitai, I've been a fan more of their moodier fare in their earlier years when someone in charge of them basically order Tamaki and the gang to not smile and act totally cool. I didn't find out til years later that the band was made up of a pretty goofy bunch of guys.

    I was quite impressed at your division of enka/Mood Kayo into "Uramachi" and "Hanamichi". I think it's quite the apt description for the two genres since I've often found the setting of Mood Kayo to often be in the hidden side streets filled with watering holes that one has to be in the know about. Meanwhile the "Hanamichi" of enka always has me thinking of singers in bright silky kimono looking up at the sky while those cherry blossom petals rain down. I think that's the Sabu-chan effect! :)

    Many thanks for your article and looking forward to future articles!

    1. Hi there, J-Canuck, and thanks for the comments.

      For Anzen Chitai: Ah, no wonder they had such a drastic change of image. I guess there's no one there to tell them to be "cool" now. I think they're cooler in this day and age and not so stiff.

      Haha, the Sabu-chan effect! I was trying to be a little creative there with the "Hanamichi" and "Uramachi" thing. The former came from "Enka no Hanamichi", and yeah, the image of the singer walking down a path littered with cherry blossom petals. I actually didn't know what to put for the MK one, but then I thought, "What better place is associated with Mood Kayo than an uramachi?" Enka happens in uramachis too but its usually the Mood Kayo-y type.

    2. I also think that Mood Kayo also has that opposite image of those gleaming sky-high clubs and bars. In either case, I would be afraid to go into one and my credit card would be terrified to go into the other. :)

  4. Hello! I'm Karen, and I'm from Singapore too, and I found your article very relatable, in a sense since Chage and Aska is my favourite. I also like enka, and I found the article very informative and interesting since you wrote a bit about different types of it.

    I really enjoyed your article. Thank you!

    1. Hi, Karen.

      Wow, you're from Singapore too? Cool! Besides Francium, I wasn't expecting to see another Singaporean here on KKP. Thanks for your comments.

      By the way, what C&A songs and what sort of enka do you like?

    2. Hi Noelle. To be honest, I didn't really expect it either. I like so many of Chage and Aska's songs that it's hard to name just a few, but yume no bannin, Redhill, Mr J, Sons and Daughters, Walk, Meguriai, Rhapsody, Trip, no no darlin', and mure are some that I can list of the top of my head. For enka, I'm not especially fond of the super old type, but sasameyuki, amagigoe, kawanonagarenoyouni, yumenohanasakasou, showakoika, and omoidesake are some that I like. I've read some of your articles and enjoyed them thoroughly!

    3. Hi, Karen.

      Thanks for sharing and for the compliment. "Walk", "Red Hill" and "Meguriai" are definitely on top for me in terms of Chage and Aska. But there are also A LOT of their other works I like and it was a little tricky choosing what went into my Top 10 list.

      As for the enka, I can't say I'm a fan of "Sasame Yuki" as of yet (type of enka that I need time with) but I can see why you enjoy stuff like "Kawa no Nagare no Youni". Can't say I'm familiar with "Yume no Hana Sakasou" and "Showa Koika" though.

    4. Hi, Noelle.

      I can't say I won't agree that it's difficult to choose a few favourite Chage and Asda songs. Something about their lyrics and melody make them each a unique piece to me.

      To be honest, "Sasame Yuki" is one of the few enka that I really like, and I think there are a few versions to choose from. Have you heard of "Minato ga Mieru Oka"? I'm not a big fan of enka, but I feel that some of them just stick in my head. I also don't mind "Omatsuri no Yoru", and other more pop-ish enka, Enka is interesting ;-; Do you listen to more recent music too, though?

    5. Hi there, Karen.

      I've not heard of "Minato ga Mieru Oka" until now, actually, and I only just checked it out. It's quite a nice tune and its got a slight hint of the bluesy Mood Kayo in there. I also looked up "Yume no Hana Sakasou", and I do like it too - bits of the melody kinda reminded me of "Kawa no Nagare no Youni".

      In terms of more recent music (J-Pop), I don't listen to it all that much, but I do enjoy stuff from the group AAA and Gen Hoshino. Other than that its mostly new releases from enka or the older generation of J-pop artistes. Very rarely though, I might sneak in an aidoru song (from the current generation) for the sake of guilty pleasure... like Arashi's "Love so Sweet"....

    6. Hi Noelle,

      To be honest I listen to much more than just enka and Chage and Asda, and a large part of that is J-Pop, so yes!! to AAA and Hoshino Gen. As for "Love So Sweet", I never actually liked it for some reason. I like "One Love", "Bittersweet", and "Face Down", for Arashi, and I think those are much more, well, sappy- I remember my grandmother cringing as we watched them close last years Kouhaku.

    7. Hi, Karen.

      To be frank, my reaction to Arashi stuff is usually the same as your grandmother's. Well, at least they can hold a tune better than most of the other Johnny's acts.

      AAA is a different story though. I find that their singing ability is rather decent on a whole, and the guys mostly cute/cool and the gals presentable/cool too. My favourites are Naoya Urata for his style and vocals, and Shinjiro Atae for that "emo" look that's pretty hot.

  5. Oh, hello! Is there is a mini gathering for Singaporeans here? :) Hi Noelle and Karen!

    Noelle, I enjoyed reading your First very much. Thanks for sharing!

    While I’m not really a fan of “hardcore” enka, I think these songs are quite fascinating and needs to be appreciated. The big four whom you mentioned are all amazing singers and icons in their own right. They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s really wonderful that you have such a keen interest in their songs and so much knowledge in them.

    I’ve also listened to a number of Maekawa’s songs after reading your articles about him. Yep, I can see why he is one of your muse. His voice is like fine rich Belgium chocolate and it really grows on you. I also think he aged really well, and looks even better now than his ramrod straight posture days ;) Wish I can find his songs on Itunes or Spotify though.

    1. Hi there, Francium. It's been a while, and I hope you're doing fine.

      Thanks for the comments. For the Yonin Shu, it did take quite a long time for me to get used to their singing styles, but the more I got to know them, the more I grew to respect and like them. They can actually be quite cute too... or maybe it's just me. Ah, they definitely don't make them like they used to, but I'm beginning to see some hope in the new generation of enka singers.

      As for Mae-Kiyo, I think he looks A LOT better now. He was really awkward back then with that awful perm, but now he's more like himself with more fashionable suits and better (not always) hair. I've tried looking for his stuff on Spotify and Itunes but no luck. Enka, and songs from bands like Southern All Stars for that matter, are hard to come by on music app things like this. Although, I had found stuff by Ikuzo Yoshi on both platforms.

    2. Hi, Noelle.

      Yeah, it's been some time. I'm doing good, thanks! Did a bit of traveling in the summer and went back to Singapore for a visit too. As always, we had a great time back home and were sad to leave. We were also very lucky to not suffer any damage in our neighborhood from Harvey.

      Another singer whom I managed to find on Spotify is Hiroshi Itsuki. Speaking of whom, I saw that you used to post pictures from Itsuki's calendar in some of your articles some time ago. I think the pictures look pretty cool. Any plans to post some more? Itsuki is another one whom I think definitely looks better now :)

    3. Hi, Francium.

      Glad that the storm didn't affect you guys. Ah, you were back in Singapore... Perhaps the next time you're back we could meet up...?

      Anyways, yeah, I was so excited about getting my first calendar featuring a singer I like that I just had to share it. I would love to post more Itsuki calendar pictures, but in a sense I kinda ran out - I've posted all 12 months already and he didn't have a 2017 edition. Not to worry, I do have other pictures of him playing a bunch of instruments (he looked really cool) from an enka magazine, and intend to share them when I have any Itsuki songs to write about. As for sharing of more calendar pictures, if everything goes right, it'll be Mae-Kiyo next year. :)

    4. Hi, Noelle.

      It will be great to meet up when I'm back in SG. Hopefully I get to go home next year during the summer like I usually do. Will let you know my plans next year.

      Ooh, I do like pics of Itsuki with the guitar and the shamisen. Wonder what other instruments he plays. Shall look forward to seeing your new pictures of Maekawa and Itsuki!


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