Bump of Chicken, School Food Punishment, Porno Graffiti and Rip Slyme are among the many names you’ll find in the mix down at the Tokio Top 100. In fact, you’ll find Bump of Chicken twice as they have done the seemingly impossible in the age of digital music and released a double A side. I suppose an mp3 file can be multifaceted – I have no idea of the physics of computer data. In any case, RIP sits at number six (up from number seven last week), while Merry Christmas has failed to carry any festive season momentum and has dropped to 44th from last week’s 30th. Of course, I would never try to assert that Japan has a monopoly on silly band names. Or even, having just watched a top 20 on the telly, that it is the only country serving up utter dross as a substitute for popular music. After all, the top contender for the UK’s Christmas number one single was so horribly bland (listening to it from beginning to end is like watching a bored cleaner methodically wiping a smudge from a Formica worksurface) that a campaign to get people to buy Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name instead was able to succeed. Nonetheless, I can tell it’s going to take a bit of research to sort out the wheat from the chaff of current Japanese music but in the meantime, I thought I might share what little I do know (and supplement it with a handful of lies) about Japanese music.
First of all, modern Japanese music is mostly blissfully free of the shamisen. If you’ve ever eaten in a Japanese restaurant, you may have been treated to the plinking, plunking of the shamisen in the background until, like John Cleese in the cheese shop sketch, you finally feel compelled to shout: “Will you shut that bloody shamisen up?”. If you really must, you can see some exciting shamisen playing here. For me, however, the essence of Japanese pop is some bad dancing, odd clothes and a smattering of random bad English, as in Hate Tell a Lie, the 1997 hit for Tomomi Kahala:
Her real name is Tomomi Shimogawara but for some reason she performed as Kahala, even though there’s no ‘l’ in Japanese. A bit like the band Glay (we’re not black, we’re not white, we’re Glay). Kahala was a member of the so-called Komuro Family, named after Tetsuya Komuro, a sort of one-man Japanese Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Also in the Komuro Family was Okinawan Namie Amuro, who famously asked: “Can you celebrate?” in what was the highest ever selling single for a Japanese female solo artist (a bit I suppose that’s a bit like being just the third batsman with a surname beginning with K to score exactly 78 runs at this ground).
It all ended badly. Kahala was romantically involved with Tetsuya Komuro, the gossip magazines carried rumours of drug abuse, her and TK split up, her career went downhill and she was eventually fired by her management agency after “several months of sudden cancellations, drunken collapses and an ongoing history of prescription drug dependency” (right down the bottom of the page, if you do follow that link). Namie Amuro got pregnant to, married and later divorced some bloke twice her age and her paternal uncle repeatedly ran over her parents in his car and attacked them with an axe, killing her mother. Apparently they had disapproved of his girlfriend. However, unlike Kahala, Amuro has recently been enjoying renewed popularity. Be sure to ask someone tomorrow if they can celebrate and let me know the response.
Although it’s the right time of year to be watching David Bowie swanning about in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, I’ll be sparing you the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto but I will draw your attention to Kyu Sakamoto, the singer of what is I believe the only Japanese song to reach number one in the US charts. Ue o Muite Aruko topped the charts in 1963 and you are probably familiar with it but because the Japanese title was deemed to be too hard for the average American DJ to pronounce, it was renamed Sukiyaki for the foreign market. Sadly the same strategy hasn’t worked for the songs Borscht, Casserole or Tamale.
You can’t say that’s not a nice tune. The song’s title, which is also the first line, means I look up when I walk. The second line is: so the tears won’t fall. Kyu Sakamoto died in 1985 in Japan’s worst ever aeroplane disaster. Other Japanese groups that may be familiar to western ears include the Pizzicato Five, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra and Shonen Knife. Pizzicato five are quite handy for those who like pop music but don’t like to be seen to follow the charts. They go quite well with chardonnay.
Tokyo Ska Paradise, or just skapara as they are often known in Japan, were brought to the attention of the Australian public thanks to the good work of the best DJ Triple-J ever had, Maynard F-sharp Crabbes. Here they are live doing a classic medley:
And despite Shonen Knife being quite famous, I couldn’t actually remember any of their songs. Except for their version of the Carpenters’ Top Odda Word, where they prove that despite living overseas for great periods of time, it’s not just Scotsmen who never lose their accents.
Which brings me to my favourite Japanese girl band – Puffy. Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura sparked Puffy-mania in Japan in the late ’90s with their first CD amiyumi and its hit single Asia no Junshin. They had their own TV show in Japan and changed their name to Puffy AmiYumi when they tried to crack the US market to avoid conflict with one of the many pseudonyms of rapper Sean Coombs. They even have their own cartoon on the Cartoon Network – Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi. Their tunes are lively and their lyrics are incredibly daft. You’ll notice a bit of Beatles influence in the following song:
Japan’s most popular boy band is SMAP. They’ve been around for years now and there isn’t a Japanese TV show left that one of them hasn’t made a guest appearance in. One of them plays Monkey in the brand new remake of that classic Japanese tv series. Oddly, all the characters in the new Monkey look like their counterparts in the old series. Takuya Kimura (or Kimutaku to the faithful) is one of the best-known entertainers in Japan but fellow band member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi brought scandal upon himself earlier this year when noise complaints led police to a park in Tokyo where he was found drunk, naked and yelling incoherently. When they arrested him, he is said to have asked: “What’s wrong with being naked?”. A fair enough question, if you ask me. I couldn’t tell you any of SMAP’s songs, but from the snippets I have heard, they would appear to be rubbish so I won’t be linking to any youtube videos of them.
That’s roughly it for all the Japanese music I can think of just now but I will be looking to increase my knowledge of J-pop, so be prepared for future updates. I will leave you with a collabo of my two favourite Japanese groups with Puffy demonstrating that the dance moves that worked so well in their early 20s are only going to look more absurd, the older they get.
Couldn’t help myself, here’s another Puffy song: