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, November 15, 2017

The Works of Masao Koga (古賀政男) Part 1: The Early Years

Took me more than a year to finally get around to it, but here's a tribute to the great composer with his trademark square glasses and neat mustache, Masao Koga (古賀政男), via a Creator article.

This'll be my first entry under this label - I'd always wanted try my hand at a Creator article ever since J-Canuck started it this sort of write-ups, and I wanted to do one on a composer whose works I could more or less pinpoint easily, so who better than this legendary Showa era songwriter? All the more I thought he was a good and fitting candidate as I got the opportunity to visit his museum in Tokyo in 2016. However, I knew that this would be a big undertaking, considering Koga's title of Father of Kayokyoku and the fact that there are numerous famous pieces of music under his name. One article wouldn't suffice - it might, but it would be an extremely lengthy one. As such, I had to wait until I had the time and the will (the most important) to consolidate what I know about him into a couple of articles, and so, I thought now would be good since my schedule is pretty free, and "Uta Kon" paid their annual tribute to him this week, and his 113th birthday is coming up.

As mentioned, Koga had an extensive discography, so I'll try my best to put down what he was known for, as well as some interesting ones I'd come across. In this first part, I will include Koga's bio and his early works from when he began his composing duties in the 1930's to the post war period in the late 1940's. Sorry if something you're looking for doesn't show up - it might in part 2 though.

The picture on the right shows Koga when he entered Meiji.

Alright, let's begin with some background information. Koga was born on 18th November 1904 and his real name 古賀正夫 was the same as his stage name, with only a slight change in the third kanji character. He hailed from a village by the name of Taguchi Mura, now known as Ohkawa city, in Fukuoka. After the death of his father, Koga moved to Korea where his brother worked and spent most of his adolescence there. In that period of time, he got acquainted with the taishogoto, or the Nagoya harp, as well as the instrument he was often associated with, the mandolin.

In 1923, Koga returned to Japan and attended Meiji University, where he joined the school's mandolin club (明治大学マンドリン倶楽部). However, a few years later in 1928, it seemed like he hit quite a rough patch as he actually planned to kill himself at an onsen town in Miyagi. Fortunately, after being inspired by watching the sun setting in Zao, he decided to release his frustrations in a less morbid way by creating his first piece of music, "Kage wo Shitai te" (影を慕いて) - I can now see why this song is so depressing.

Sato's version.

In 1929, he would play "Kage wo Shitai te" at one of the mandolin club's performances and caught the attention of a popular singer at the time, Chiyako Sato (佐藤千夜子). As a result, she recorded the song a year later in 1930 with Koga, then using his real name, on the mandolin and guitar. It did not sell very well, but this marked the start of Koga's path as a composer. Once he graduated from Meiji in 1931, Koga went to Nippon Colombia Records, which from what I've been seeing was the record company back then, in hopes of being a regular employee under the company's literary section due to not having confidence in his songwriting abilities. But he got signed on as a contract composer instead. From there on out, by collaborating with prolific lyricists and the early showa era's shining stars, multiple hits that are still being remembered today were spawned.

At the moment, I am able to pick out two of Koga's distinctive songwriting styles, the first of which is what I call the quintessential Koga Melody where you can hear the eerie notes of the mandolin clearly in the midst of a brooding score. The other was a bit difficult for me to pick out and it's not really guaranteed that having these traits in the music means they were made by the man himself, but when Koga creates jolly tunes they seem to have a very festive, exuberant, and light quality, and I tend to hear crashing cymbals in the background from time to time. With that being said, I shall go on to talk about the songs that brought him fame and status.

One of Koga's frequent collaborators was the classically trained Ichiro Fujiyama (藤山一郎), who had encountered the new composer when he was still in music school (Tokyo Music School). "Oka wo Koete" (丘を越えて), "Sake wa Namida ka Tameiki ka" (酒は涙か溜息か), and "Aoi Sebiro de" (青い背広で) are just some of the Koga-composed works from Mr. Fujiyama's (it's my nickname for him) discography, but I think their most successful hit was "Tokyo Rhapsody" (東京ラプソディ) from 1936. As I had mentioned not too long ago, this optimistic tune about the wonders of Tokyo is quite the ear worm. If I'm not mistaken, Koga came up with the melody to "Tokyo Rhapsody" with the idea of exploring the metropolis by car, where one drives around and gets to take in the sights and sounds of the different parts of the city. Perhaps those in the car are new to the bustling city, which would explain the excitement conveyed. Fujiyama had also recorded his version of "Kage wo Shitai te" in 1932 which then became successful and probably became the de facto version of it.

Another artiste whom I always see having mustachioed composer's name pop up when the title flashes on screen is Noboru Kirishima (霧島昇), who was quite the contrast to the almost constantly grinning Mr. Fujiyama. Kirishima's Koga-collaborations included "Reijin no Uta" (麗人の歌) and "Shin Tsuma Kagami (?)" (新妻鏡), which was a duet with Akiko Futaba (二葉あき子), but they seemed to be most well-known for "Dare ka Furusato wo Omowazu" (誰か故郷を想わざる). Koga had written this bokyo tune from 1940 with the equally renowned Saijo Yaso (西條八十) after he returned from a cross-cultural sharing program of sorts in the US. It's got a rather jaunty melody to it to accompany the premises of a fellow far away from home fondly reminiscing the good times spent in his village hometown. Not surprisingly, it was very well received by soldiers at war at the time who could relate. Koga had drawn inspiration for "Dare ka Furusato wo Omowazu" from his time at his own hometown in Fukuoka.

Going a bit on a tangent to give you some trivia I uncovered not too long ago since I have mentioned Yaso: The Lyricist Award at the Japan Record Awards were known as the Yaso Saijo Award at one period of time. I found it nice that they named that award after the songwriter - it was a good way to honor him. On another note, Koga and Ryoichi Hattori (服部良一) were the ones who started the Japan Composer's Association (日本作曲家協会).

Alright, moving on. The two contributions Koga made for Mr. Fujiyama and Kirishima that I shared were showcased his livelier side, so the next few tunes will bring the spotlight on to the melancholic side, which he was probably most noted for.

Koga's own life experience played another role in the making of "Jinsei no Namikimichi" (人生の並木路), sung by actor and jazz singer Dick Mine (ディック・ミネ) in 1937. Early in the article, I mentioned about Koga's move to Korea after his father had passed on - well, the songwriter had translated the suffering and pain he felt at that time to a melody for this bleak song about a pair of siblings having to support each other away from home. The reason for the siblings' departure from home didn't seem to be specified in Sonosuke Sato's (佐藤惣之助) lyrics, but it does remind me of the Studio Ghibli film "Grave of the Fireflies".

Up next is a piece that, to me, is the definition of Masao Koga: "Jinsei Gekijo" (人生劇場). While the original take was recorded by Shigeo Kusunoki (楠木繁夫) in 1938, whose version I have put up, it was made popular by Hideo Murata (村田英雄) in 1959. This was where I got to know Koga's typical unnerving musical styling - especially in Murata's version where the use of the mandolin is obvious.

Although actor and movie director Toshiro Omi's (近江俊郎) hit "Yu no Machi no Elegy" (湯の町エレジー) is more about pining for love lost at an onsen town, I can't help but wonder if the wistfulness in the music from this 1948 hit was influenced by that incident Koga went through two decades ago. The melody of "Yu no Machi no Elegy" also focuses on the acoustic guitar rather than the mandolin, and that brings to mind similarly melancholic compositions from Toru Funamura (船村徹) years later. Y'know, I never really liked this song for the longest time, but with the number of times I have been listening to it over and over again recently on my own accord and while writing this section, I'm quite glad to say that it has grown on me... unfortunately that means "Izu no yama yama..." will be stuck in my head for the weeks to come.

Now that I've covered the more depressing works from early in Koga's career, I would like to end off this first segment of my tribute to the great songwriter on a silly note with "Uchi no Nyobo nya Hige ga aru" (うちの女房にゃ髭がある). Yep, Koga created comical stuff too, even for something titled "My Wife Has a Mustache". This aMAzing song was the theme song to the movie of the same name starring Kyouji Sugi (杉狂児) that featured a timid salary man who is ruled by his wife. It's a happy-go-lucky tune that amusingly undermines the guy's fear of his wife - he's clearly bothered by her facial hair (probably grown after they got hitched and he's got no where to run), but is beyond terrified of telling her and facing the consequences, as you can hear from Sugi's stammering when the wife, played by Geisha singer Yakko Michi (美ち奴), confronts him. Man, I would love to hear Hachiro Kasuga's (春日八郎) version of this. Speaking of Michi, Koga had also created a successful song for her called "Ah,  Sore nanoni" (あゝそれなのに) for the same movie.

Sudden epiphany from 16/11/17: Although I find that it might be unlikely that "Uchi no Nyobo nya Hige ga aru" might have a deeper meaning as it was meant for a comedy, I just realised that what if the wife having a mustache is another figurative way for saying that she runs the house? It could be a twist on the saying "The one who wears the pants in the household", just that instead of pants it's having a mustache. I mean, madame here could may as well have a solid handlebar too while wearing the pants (mustache).

Okay, that's all for this half. I hope you've enjoyed this so far and would look forward to part 2.

P.S. I would love to have a T-shirt with that caricature of him in this photo.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Noelle.

    It's amazing and also quite uplifting how Koga was able to literally come back from the brink through music. And he was able to show all of us...and himself...that his creations were not all about the melancholy side of life. "Tokyo Rhapsody" was one example of the joy of discovery and exploration of the big city.

    Looking forward to reading Part 2.


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