Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

This and That

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 10th, 2012

Apologies for the lack of updates these last two months. Not only have I returned to teaching from my sabbatical, I’ve also become department chair. Life is busy, in other words–but it keeps me off the streets.

This has come up rather suddenly, but I’ll be giving a talk at UCLA next week (Friday, November 16) on “Tokyo Boogie Woogie in California: The 1950 Sacramento Recordings in Japanese and Japanese-American Cultural History” (details available here). In the presentation, I’ll introduce the collection of 1950 concert recordings of Japanese musicians (Misora Hibari, Kawada Haruhisa, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Watanabe Hamako, Kasagi Shizuko, among others) that I helped authenticate and that were in the news in Japan this past summer (see, for example, here and here). The man who discovered the recordings has now donated the entire collection to the UCLA library. While in Los Angeles, I’ll also be filming an interview for a television special about the recordings that will air later this year. I’ll post details about broadcast times when they become available.

I was also recently a guest on the NPR radio program “To the Best of our Knowledge,” talking about my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. You can listen to or download my segment here. And don’t forget about the online companion for the book that I’ve put together: I’ve heard from a few people who are teaching the book this all that the webpage was very useful.

The Japanese translation of the book continues to do very well, with nice reviews coming out in many magazines and newspapers (for example, here and here).

In the meanwhile, I am moving on to other scholarly projects: co-editing a two-volume series of new scholarly essays and translations related to early postwar Japanese literary criticism, finishing up a translation of Karatani Kojin’s magnum opus The Structure of World History (Sekaishi no kozo), and returning to a longstanding project that involves rethinking Natsume Soseki in relation to the problems of modern property regimes and world literature.

I’ll try to blog here a little more regularly in the coming months, too. It keeps me off the streets–the wild, wild streets.

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Skitterish New J-Rock

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the August 28th, 2012

I learned this morning from the Tokyo Hive website about a just-released new video from Sakanaction (サカナクション). They’ve been one of the more intriguing mainstream J-Rock bands the past five or six years. The song “Yoru no odoriko” (Dancing girl at night) is their seventh single and is set for release on August 29. The promotional video is directed by Tanaka Yusuke, who has worked with the band in the past.

Some instant analysis: musically, it’s very much in the band’s usual style. But both the video and song flirt with exotic Japanese elements–fer crissakes, they’re playing at the foot of Mount Fuji. But the seeming Japanese-ness is all underwritten by a strongly ironic bent: sudden shifts in camera distance function like jump cuts to remind us repeatedly that what we are seeing is mediated by technology. These hints become more explicit as the video progresses and images of goggles and binoculars become central. The lyrics (available here) reinforce this: the back-up singers’ first line is “Mite ita furi shite” (Only pretending to look), and later the singer talks about mirages and about images.

My initial response: intriguing. What do you think?

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Scenes from a Month in the Life

It’s been exactly a month since I posted here. I spent that month mostly on the road — two weeks in Japan and a week in Minnesota, sandwiched around a brief stay at home in Chicago. What did I do during that month? A few randomly chosen scenes:

Rediscovery of Zazen Boys. After enjoying their first two CDs very much and watching them play a live set in Sendai back in 2006, I’d drifted away from this post-punk/funk combo. But an entry of Patrick St. Michel’s excellent blog alerted me to “Potato Salad,” a wonderful new track from a forthcoming release, and while in Japan I picked up a copy of Zazen Boys 4, their 2008 CD. Terrific stuff, and back on heavy rotation in my life.

Celebrating what would have been my father’s 75th birthday. The whole family gathered in St. Paul for the event on August 15. We took in a Twins’ game on a lovely afternoon at Target Field (alack, a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers, with Ben Revere hitting a triple for the only Minnesota highlight of the day), then supped on pizza, wine, and cake in the evening as we passed around photos of Dad and swapped stories. The next day, I dragged the kids to a free concert in Mears Park in downtown St. Paul by the Flamin’ Ohs, a local Minnesota band I adored during their late 1970s, early 1980s, heyday. The kids hated the show; I loved it. You can decide for yourself:

Enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame. I did about a dozen media interviews in Japan and here about my book and the discovery of wire recordings of 1950 concerts in Sacramento by a number of prominent Japanese musicians, including Misora Hibari and Yamaguchi Yoshiko. This resulted in a large number of stories and reviews in newspapers and magazines, as well as a fair amount of television coverage. The Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon seems to be selling well, and the press comments so far have been quite positive. Here in the States, I’ll be on the August 26 edition of the public radio program, “To The Best of Our Knowledge.” It will be available as a podcast after the broadcast.

Participating in the July 29 “Encircle the National Diet Building” Anti-Nuclear Protest in Tokyo. It was a disorienting but exhilarating event: tens of thousands of marchers trying to follow bizarre police directions that made me feel increasingly like a laboratory rat trapped in a maze. We were repeatedly directed to walk away from the Diet Building, but eventually we did find the cheese: a swirling carnival that occupied a blocked-off street in front of the main entrance to the building. In the meanwhile, the weekly Friday afternoon protests in front of the Prime Minister’s residence continue.

Dashing off an Angry E-Mail to NBC. How could they possible cut Ray Davies’ performance of “Waterloo Sunset” from the American broadcast of the London Olympics closing ceremony? It was the emotional centerpiece of the whole show. Sigh. I wasn’t the only one who was mad about it, either.

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Wish I’d Had These Books in Hand Back Then

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Jazz,Music by bourdaghs on the July 19th, 2012

I finished writing my book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop in late 2010. Chapter Five, on 1970s New Music, was the last one I worked on; the other chapters were mostly finished (and published separately as articles and chapters) years before that. I was able to make a few last-minute revisions in the summer of 2011, but for the most part my work on the book was finished in 2010. Since then, several important new books have appeared in Japan. I wish I’d had these available to me when I was doing the research for the project. They would have not only made my job easier, they would have made the book better.

Sakoguchi Sanae’s (砂古口早苗) Bugi no joo: Kasagi Shizuko (『ブギの女王・笠置シヅ子』) (Gendai Shokan, 2010) is the first biography of Kasagi Shizuko, Japan’s early postwar “Queen of Boogie Woogie” (excluding a quickie autobiography that Kasagi published in 1948, which I do cite in the book). It includes many photographs and a useful chronology of Kasagi’s life. Sakoguchi’s book fills a definite need: I wonder why it took so long for someone to write up the remarkable story of Kasagi’s life?

Ue o muite aruko (『上を向いて歩こう』)(Iwanami Shoten, 2011) by Sato Go (佐藤剛) is another long-overdue study, this one on Sakamoto Kyu’s 1963 worldwide hit, “Sukiyaki,” which I take up in my chapter three. There are several other books out about Sakamoto’s life, which I cited, but this is the first book-length study to focus on the cultural repercussions of Sakamoto’s global smash, both inside and outside of Japan. Like me, Sato is interested in Sakamoto’s relation to contemporary Western popular music, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Yuasa Manabu (湯浅学)is a prominent music critic in Japan–and one of the participants, along with Hagiwara Kenta, in the taidan dialogue that was included in the Japanese translation of my book. Ongaku ga orite kuru (『音楽が降りてくる』 (Kawada Shobo Shinsha, 2011) is a collection of his articles and liner notes. It opens with a series of essays on 1970s New Music (Happy End, Hosono Haruomi, Endo Kenji, etc.), including the “rock in Japanese” debate that I write about. The other chapters range widely across genres and styles: Misora Hibari, Nakajima Miyuki, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, etc.

Wajima Yusuke’s (輪島裕介) Tsukurareta ‘Nihon no kokoro’ shinwa (『創られた「日本の心」神話』)(Kobunsha Shinsho, 2010) is a critical history of postwar Japanese popular music centered on the genre of enka. The winner of the Suntory Gakugeisho book prize, it starts off with a question I explore in my own book: was Misora Hibari really an enka singer?

All of the above are highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject. When I started studying the history of Japanese popular music back in the late 1990s, I was shocked by the paucity of reliable scholarship on the topic available in Japan. As the above titles suggest, the situation has improved considerably since then, and I think it will continue to get better as writers and scholars in Japan continue to reassess the crucial legacy of music in Japan’s modernity.

If you know of any other useful recent studies of Japanese popular music, please drop a line in the “Comments” section.

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On YMO and Aging Gracefully

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the July 13th, 2012

We were watching the live upstream feed of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s closing set at the No Nuke music festival outside of Tokyo last Sunday when my wife noted how well the members of the band have aged. It’s true. All three not only look terrific, they’ve also consistently been making excellent music the past few years. Would we could all be so vital when we reach our sixties.

Thanks to his work in film music and acting (cf. The Last Emperor), Sakomoto Ryuichi is the best-known member outside Japan. With his strong commitment to environmental and anti-nuclear activism, he remains one of the great moral authorities in the world of Japanese popular culture (I’ve been thinking about “moral authority” in pop music a good deal these days). He also continues to write and record challenging yet beautiful music, moving effortlessly between the worlds of pop, classical, and even Brazilian music. Here he is performing his composition “Thousand Knives” live in Europe from his world tour in support of his 2010 CD, Playing the Piano. On the tour, which we were caught here in Chicago, he played two pianos: one with his hands, the other by way computer programming and sampler.

Like Sakamoto, Hosono Haruomi continues to float between genres. The hero of chapter four in my recent book, he last year released HoSoNoVa, a delightful CD–and his first album with Hosono singing all the tracks in 38 years! It includes about half original numbers and half covers–including Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Desert Blues,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones” and Leiber/Stroller’s “Love Me.” As that list suggests, Hosono continues to explore the possibilities of hybrid crossings of musical styles. Backing musicians include some of Hosono’s old cronies (Suzuki Shigeru from Happy End, Hayashi Tatsuo from Tin Pan Alley, Van Dyke Parks) and some new faces as well (Yoko Ono, Cocco, Nakamura Mari). Very nice.

When I first encountered YMO back in the 1980s, I thought the band consisted of Sakamoto Ryuichi and two other guys. Then, as I discovered Happy End and Hosono’s solo work, I revised that view: YMO, I decided, consisted of Sakamoto, Hosono, and some other guy whose name I could never remember. Then, about seven years ago, I finally discovered Takahashi Yukihiro. The turning point was the Sadistic Mika Band reunion: I hadn’t connected the dots until then and realized that Takahashi came out of that legendary band. When I saw them in concert in 2006, I was struck by the intelligence and beauty (not an easy combination to pull off) of Takahashi’s compositions. Since then, I’ve been a fan of his terrific new outfit, pupa. I also very much like Last Train to Exit Town, the new CD he put out last year with Suzuki Keiichi (late of the Moonriders) under the name “Beatniks.” As I’ve written here before, what really strikes me about Takahashi’s recent music is his ability to combine electronically generated sounds and acoustic instruments into a lush, organic sound. Maybe YMO was really Takahashi and two other guys all along?

I hope these three guys keep on making music for decades to come. I mean, look how good they looked and sounded last weekend. Hosono sure plays a mean bottle:

Those 1950 California Concert Recordings by Misora Hibari and Others

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the July 6th, 2012

In the last few days, the Japanese press have been reporting on a discovery I was involved in of a set of previously unknown recordings made in Sacramento, California around 1950 of a number of Japanese singers in concert. You can see the story in Japanese in the Yomiuri, Nikkei and Asahi newspapers, among others. In English it’s run in the Japan Times and the Mainichi.

The press coverage has understandably focused on the recording of the June, 1950 concert by then thirteen-year-old Misora Hibari and her mentor, Kawada Haruhisa. It’s a remarkably clear recording of the full concert, almost ninety minutes long. But the collection also includes recordings of concerts by a remarkable range of popular musicians from the day: Yamaguchi Yoshiko (known during the war as “Ri Koran”); the “Queen of Boogie Woogie” Kasagi Shizuko together with her mentor, composer Hattori Ryoichi and his sister, singer Hattori Tomiko; Watanabe Hamako together with Kouta Katsutaro; and the Akireta Boys in their postwar incarnation. There are also a number of recordings of performances by local Japanese-American musicians from the Sacramento area. The quality of the recordings vary from concert to concert (unfortunately, the Kasagi/Hattori concert recording has the lowest quality), but most are in remarkably good shape.

The recordings were actually discovered by a retired Bell Canada sound technician who collects old recording devices. In August, 2008, he purchased two boxes of wire recordings in an online auction from a seller in California, without knowing what the contents were. When he received the reels (twelve in all), he digitized them and began to figure out that they were concert recordings of Japanese performers. Although he speaks no Japanese, he was able to figure out the names of most of the performers and that the concerts themselves were held in Sacramento. Through an Internet search, he found my name because of a paper I delivered at a conference several years ago on the 1950 American concert tours by Misora Hibari and Kasagi Shizuko.

He contacted me in the summer of 2009 and described his discovery. To be honest, I was a first highly doubtful–I thought perhaps he had discovered recordings of concerts made in Japan that somehow happened to fall into the hands of someone in California. But he was kind enough to send me copies of the recordings. When I started listening to them, it was clear within minutes that these were indeed recordings of Sacramento concerts. It’s still not clear who made the recordings or for what purpose, but since they were clearly recorded directly off the stage microphone, it seems likely that it was someone connected with the Nichibei Theater, the venue in Sacramento that is mentioned in many of the recordings.

I’ve been working with the owner and other colleagues since (notably, Loren Kajikawa of the University of Oregon and Christine Yano of the University of Hawaii) to try to figure out how best to present this archive to the world. We did a roundtable panel at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in Toronto this past March and had a very good reception. The owner has since decided to donate the entire collection of recordings to the UCLA library. We have also sent a copy of the Misora Hibari concert to her management office in Tokyo, and I am currently working to find contact information for representatives of the other performers who appear on the recordings so that we can send them the files, as well.

I’m still in a state of disbelief about the discovery. I’d spent a good deal of time thinking about the 1950 concert tours. The U.S. Occupation lifted the ban on overseas travel by Japanese citizens in late 1949, and Japanese musicians scrambled to arrange American tours. Misora Hibari was invited to Hawaii by veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment and 100th Combat Battalion, the famous Japanese-American U.S. army units, for a charity show. From Hawaii, she traveled to the mainland for a concert tour on the West Coast. (More information about the Misora Hibari and Kawada Haruhisa 1950 tour can be found in a very helpful Japanese-language book,『川田晴久と美空ひばり―アメリカ公演』). The other performers crossed the Pacific shortly thereafter for their own tours.

Incidentally, I recently attended a dinner at UCLA where Senator Daniel Inouye was a guest of honor. Knowing that Sen. Inouye was a veteran of the 442nd, I asked him if he remembered the 1950 Hibari visit to Hawaii. He confirmed not only that he remembered it, but that he had been at concerts.

The recordings are significant in a number of ways. They give a remarkable snapshot of the state of popular music in Japan, circa 1950. To my knowledge, there are very few similar concert recordings from the period in existence. Moreover, they give a very palpable sense of the rapidity by which Japan was converted in the American imaginary from wartime enemy into Cold War friend. To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of the recordings is their significance for Japanese-American cultural history. I find it astonishing that a mere five years after their release from wartime internment camps, Japanese-American audiences in Sacramento and elsewhere were able to indulge so publicly and so gleefully in their cultural ties to Japan.

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RIP, Ito Emi

Posted in Change is Bad,J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the June 27th, 2012

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.

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This and That: Two Weeks in the Life

Posted in Film,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo by bourdaghs on the May 24th, 2012

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):

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Online Companion for Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the May 12th, 2012

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 addition to paperback and hardcover, the book is now also available on I-Tunes as a download for the I-Pad, I-Phone, and I-Pod Touch. It’s also available for Kindle downloads.

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.

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This and That: New J-Pop Stuff

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the May 1st, 2012

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.

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