I’ve just learned from the Tokyo Shinbun that Ito Emi, one of the twin sisters known as The Peanuts (ザ・ピーナッツ), has passed away. She was 71 years old. The Peanuts debuted in 1959 with “Cute Flower” (Kawaii Hana), launching a string of pop hits built on the sisters’ vocal harmonies that carried them through their retirement in 1975. Many of their songs contain an international flavor, such as “Coffee Rhumba” (1962), their cover version of “Moliendo Café”:
Their signature number was undoubtedly “Vacation of Love” (Koi no bakansu, 1963):
The Peanuts were also an omnipresent on Japanese television in the 1960s. They made numerous appearance in the U.S. and Europe, as well. Readers might recall their rather odd recurring role as miniature fairies in the Mothra monster movies.
The Peanuts’ music holds up remarkably well today: terrific harmonies, attractive arrangements, and excellent choice of material. I thought about including a chapter on them in my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, but in the end ran out of time. Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing about them: they are essential figures in the history of Japanese popular music.
RIP, Ito Emi.
UPDATE: A friend has sent along a link to this wonderful clip, a collection of scenes from “Shabondama Holiday” (Soap Bubble Holiday), the 1960s tv show that featured The Peanuts.
Apologies for the radio silence around these parts in recent days. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks since last I posted here.
I was in Tokyo for six days last week, meeting with other scholars and visiting archives and bookstores. I also had a chance to get together with the good people at Byakuya Shobo, the publishing house that will be bringing out the Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop next month. It’s the same team that was responsible for the Japanese edition of Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler a few years back.
Along the way, I also attended Day 10 of the May sumo tournament. I was disappointed that the new Kakuryu bento lunchbox was sold out by noon, but had an enjoyable day at the Kokugikan nonetheless. I also saw a couple of current films while in Japan: Waga haha no ki, adapted from Inoue Yasushi’s semi-autobiographical novel about a novelist’s relations with his aging mother and featuring a very strong cast headed by Yakusho Koji and Kiki Kirin; and Rentaneko, an engaging independent film by Ogigami Naoko (of Kamome Shokudo fame) about a young woman who rents out cats to lonely people. It’s a low key, often humorous, meditation on the pleasures and agonies of repetition in everyday life. Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times can be found here.
I flew back to Chicago last Saturday and was immediately plunged into adventure: trying to negotiate my way from O’Hare International Airport to the South Side through a maze of traffic closures in effect because of the NATO Summit.
This past Monday night, we took the whole family downtown to see the reunited Beach Boys in concert at the Chicago Theatre. Once again, the commute was a challenge: the Metra trains didn’t start up at 6:30 as promised, and Lake Shore Drive was still shut down. After some hasty improvising, we managed to get there in time. The show was terrific fun. The first half was heavy on early surf numbers, but things really came alive after intermission. Highlights included a lovely version of “Disney Girls,” a plaintive “In My Room,” and the final encore number of “Fun Fun Fun,” when Brian Wilson came out from behind the grand piano to (at least temporarily) strap on a bass guitar and resume his original position in the band.
My fifteen-year-old daughter, who takes her singing seriously, complained that they were using Autotune to correct pitch on the vocals. I pooh-poohed the idea, but when I got home and did some Googling, I found out that many Beach Boys fans are up in arms about the same issue. Either way, it was a fun and historic show, as Greg Kot noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune.
The group’s celebrations of California surf and car culture framed the opening set, but it was Part 2 where the music cut deepest. It began with the core quintet gathered around Wilson’s piano for a mission statement: “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Then it reclaimed the beauty of the band’s more melancholy and complex late ‘60s and early ‘70s work. “Heroes and Villains” melted into intricate, multi-part harmonies that brought smiles to the faces of the participants as Wilson waved his arms with uncharacteristic vigor. “Good Vibrations,” with its plush harmonies and outer-space sound effects still sounded futuristic. [...] In turn, the Beach Boys made falling in love sound both sacred and tragic – their joy tinged by sadness, their despair lifted by hope. And sometimes, as suggested by Brian Wilson’s performance Monday of “Sail On, Sailor,” it becomes too much to bear.
A couple of other odds and ends:
The Atlantic has a nice story by Patrick St. Michel about the trend toward hits by young children in J-Pop, including a mention of my new book. You can read the article online here, and if you haven’t yet checked out “Make Believe Melodies,” St. Michel’s fine blog on contemporary pop music in Japan, you should do so right now.
JERO, the African-American Enka singer who was raised in Pittsburgh singing Misora Hibari numbers with his Japanese grandmother, will be making his New York debut in a concert/talk appearance at the Japan Society next month. Details here. It’s been a while, so to refresh your and my memories, here’s his wonderful 2008 debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean snow):
I’ve created an online companion for readers of my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, including sound samples, links to video clips, and other goodies. You can check it out here. If you have any suggestions for improvements or additions, please send them along.
In the meanwhile, the Japan Times newspaper (13 May 2012) has run a nice review of the book by Kris Kosaka. Kosaka concludes:
Stylistically, Bourdaghs’ work beats consistently up-tempo, direct, clear prose revealing his nearly 35 year engagement with Japan. Bourdaghs’ analysis reads quickly yet fully covers an important historical span of modern Japan. With the Japanese translation to be in published in June by Byakuya Shobo Publishers, Bourdaghs’ work will soon be heard by Japanese audiences as well. For music, history, or cultural fans of contemporary Japan, this book is a chart-topper.
You can read the full review here.
Now that her band Tokyo Incidents is history, Shiina Ringo isn’t standing still. She has a new single out, “Jiyu e michizure,” in which she taps into her punky shrieking-guitars vein. I kinda like it:
J-Rock veterans Grapevine will be providing a free live Ustream feed on May 2 of the final date from their current concert tour, direct from Club Quattro in Shibuya. Details here.
The fine blog, “Make Believe Melodies: The Latest On Music From Every Corner Of Japan,” tipped me off to Ç86, a free download compilation of current indies’ rock bands from Japan, available from International Tapes. Uneven, of course, but it includes some good stuff, and you can’t beat the price.
Last week, we attended a terrific sold-out show by Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Chicago Theatre. For the most part, I agree with Greg Kot’s concert review in the Chicago Tribune. The concert began with the duo backed by a band of supporting musicians from Cuba–but a bad mix often drowned out the guitars, especially Gabriela’s. The band departed the stage after five or six numbers, and then we got to the highlight of the show: two excellent, versatile guitarists strutting their stuff, and I do mean “strut.”
Another highlight was the occasional patter between songs. Rodrigo went first, and then a few numbers later Gabriela stepped up to the mike. She apologized that she might be repeating things Rodrigo had already said, “but I never listen when Rodrigo’s talking.”
The band came back for the final set of numbers, and the sound was much better this time around. The concert came to a rousing conclusion with “Tamacun,” followed by an extended encore (including a teaser version of “Stairway to Heaven,” the group’s viral video hit).
I like “Tamacun” quite a bit, but I also notice a strong resemblance to another song: the Southern All Stars’ 1996 hit “Ai no kotodama.” Or am I perhaps just hearing the shared Latin roots of both bands?
You can decide for yourself. Here’s Rodrigo y Gabriela performing “Tamacun”:
And here are the Southern All Stars with “Ai no kotodama.”
In my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Pre-History of J-Pop, I trace the hints of coming revolution that seemed to reverberate within guitar noise in Japan circa 1968–and the ultimate absorption of that political edge into the new commercialism of 1970s rock. My primary focus in that section of the book is on “Group Sounds,” the Japanese version of 1960s rock–teen-idol bands like the Tigers, the Spiders, and the Tempters.
As culture industry commodities, mainstream Group Sounds bands remained resolutely apolitical. So it’s a pleasant surprise to encounter the latest recordings by Sawada “Julie” Kenji, former lead singer of the Tigers and a very successful solo act since the early 1970s. After the breakup of the Tigers, Sawada enjoyed a string of solo hits–mostly pop ballads that traded on his flamboyant image (something akin to, say, Elton John)–but you didn’t turn to “Julie” expecting biting political commentary.
That’s all changed now. Check out, for example, the very catchy “F.A.P.P.” (the initials stand for Fukushima Atomic Power Plant), a resolutely anti-nuke song on Sawada’s new maxi-single, “Sangatsu yōka no kumo” (The clouds on March eighth):
And if you think it’s just a one-off deal, here is Sawada’s gospel-tinged defense of Article 9, the anti-war clause of the Japanese constitution: “Waga kyūjō” (the title revolves around a pun: 「我が窮状」 vs. 「我が九条」, ‘My pain’ vs. ‘My Article 9′):
Good on you, “Julie.” GS, I love you.
This morning, I poked my head in at the website for the World Happiness music festival to see who was on the bill this year. This is the annual one-day event organized by Yellow Magic Orchestra, with YMO as headliners and a changing roster of supporting artists, all hand-picked by YMO. We very much enjoyed the 2010 edition, and we might well be in Tokyo again this August.
This year’s show will take place on August 12. In addition to YMO, the artists on the bill announced so far include Grapevine, Original Love, Tokyo No. 1 Soul Set, and Sakamoto Miu. The last name was entirely new to me, so I did some checking around. Then it clicked: I’d heard in the past from friends that the daughter of Sakamoto Ryuichi (YMO) and Yano Akiko was also a musician. It’s her, of course.
Born in 1980 during the heyday of YMO’s fame, Miu released her first full album in 1999. She now has six albums to her credit, include the just-released Hatsukoi. The latter includes her latest single, on which she sounds very much like a genetic hybrid of her mother and father’s styles.
Perhaps I’ll be hearing more of her work this August in Yumenoshima Park in Tokyo.
Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop is the “featured book of the week” on the Columbia University Press blog. Among other things, they’re giving away a free copy, but hurry: the contest ends this Friday. Details are available here.
In celebration, let me leave you with “To My Dear Friends” (Waga yoki tomo yo), a 1975 hit for Kamayatsu Hiroshi. Kamayatsu is one of the heroes of my chapter four, “Working within the System: Group Sounds and the Commercial and Revolutionary Potential of Noise.” The tune, composed by Yoshida Takuro, was the biggest hit of Kamayatsu’s solo career, which followed his stint as resident musical genius for 1960s’ garage rockers, The Spiders.
Kamayatsu was the son of Tib Kamayatsu, a Japanese-American jazz singer whose career in Tokyo dated back to the 1930s. He debuted in the late 1950s as a country-western and rockabilly singer before joining the Spiders. He was one of the first Japanese rock-and-rollers to really “get” the new Merseybeat sound when it exploded onto the scene in 1964 and went on to compose many of the Spiders’ hits. In his seventies now, “Monsieur” Kamayatsu remains an active force on the Japanese music scene today. One of my biggest thrills as a music fan came in 2006, when I ended up sitting a couple of rows away from him in the balcony for a show by the reunited Sadistic Mika Band. It took enormous will power to stop me from cornering him to gush about how much I love his work.
Incidentally, Kamayatsu was (and is) a huge Kinks fan. Listen to the opening riff from the Spiders’ 1966 recording of “Little Roby,” lifted more or less directly from the Kinks’ “Set Me Free.”
This 2008 film came up in a discussion yesterday following a workshop I led at DePaul University for K-12 teachers on using Japanese popular music in the classroom. I did a little web surfing after getting home and learned that it is now available on DVD in North America.
It’s a funny, cartoonish (not surprising, since it’s based on a successful manga) movie about a sensitive singer-songwriter (Matsuyama Ken’ichi) who wants only to record sunny Shibuya-kei style ballads about love and trendy Tokyo lifestyles, but who ends up trapped as lead singer for a death metal band. His fans worship him as the spawn of Satan, but all he cares about is trying to win over the squeaky clean girl (Kato Rosa) he’s had a crush on since college. Gene Simmons turns in a nice cameo appearance as the legendary American death metal icon who challenges our hero to a final showdown for supremacy.
Everything is played in a silly, over-the-top manner, dulling the emotional impact when it tries to go sentimental at the end. But the pop and metal songs are fun, affectionate parodies of the two genres. Around the time the movie came out in Japan, they actually released CDs purporting to be music by the fictional bands from the film.
Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times is available online here. Here’s a trailer for the film:
As unlikely as it may seem, the hit 1991 Fuji Television series 101st Proposal (see chapter six in my Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon) is being revived next month as a stage play in Fukuoka. Takeda Tetsuya and Asano Atsuko will revive their roles from the original series–but the story is being reworked into a jidaigeki: a samurai drama set back in the Edo period.
The Asahi newspaper reports (Japanese-language only) the play will run at the Hakata-za theatre in Fukuoka, March 2-28, with possible runs in Tokyo and elsewhere to follow. No word on whether the piece will include a shamisen version of the theme song from the show, Chage & Aska’s “Say Yes.”