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.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1.  EXILE                                 Exile Love
2.  Namie Amuro                      Best Fiction
3.  Kobukuro                             5296
4.  EXILE                                 Exile Catchy Best
5.  Hikaru Utada                       Heart Station
6.  EXILE                                 Exile Ballad Best
7.  B'z                                       B'z The Best "Ultra" Pleasure
8.  Ayumi Hamasaki                 A Complete - All Singles-
9.  Dreams Come True             And I Love You
10. Greeeen                              Ah, Domo. Ohisashiburi desu.

Princess Tenko -- The Magic (ザ・マジック)

I can't do any sort of magic aside from the rather sad ability to seemingly detach my thumb that I had learned from an old Laurel & Hardy movie decades ago. However, my mother has often "marveled" at how I can make 2 hot dogs disappear within a minute at lunch.

Bad segue aside, I'm not sure if there are too many folks out there who remember or even know about the Japanese magician known as Princess Tenko. I had just started my life in Ichikawa when the lady known as Mariko Itakura(板倉満里子)burst out onto the American stage and became this hugely successful performer of the magical arts from the 1990s. My impression was that she gained her fame mostly Stateside and Canada and although that fame even reached the Japanese shores, she didn't exactly become a household name in Japan like Ichiro or some of the other athletes making it big in the United States. Still, she became a darling in America to the extent that she even got her own cartoon.

One night though, I was watching the Fuji-TV variety program "Trivia no Izumi"(トリビアの泉...Fountain of Trivia)which challenged guest panelists to show how impressive a certain piece of surprising trivia could be when this certain morsel got featured. Apparently, the Princess had also been for a very brief time an aidoru! Yup, a magical aidoru. That got quite the reaction from the "Trivia" folks.

Before she took on the title of Tenko Hikita(引田天功)from her predecessor in 1980, she had been apprenticing under him from 1976 as a teenager when she took on the name of Mari Asakaze(朝風まり)and released a couple of singles in 1978 and 1979.

The first of those singles was "The Magic" (naturally) from June 21st 1978 which had somewhat of a Pink Lady-sort of uptempo melody. Not too surprising, considering it was Shunichi Tokura(都倉俊一)who composed it, and he was the one behind a lot of Mie and Kei's hits in the 70s. Akira Ito(伊藤アキラ)was the lyricist. Basically the future Princess Tenko sang about having those mesmerizing abilities to pull that special someone under her power...which she indeed did many years later, only it was more like millions of people. To continue with the Pink Lady comparison, Asakaze didn't have the spangly outfit or the high-kicking choreography but she did have her bag of magic tricks to charm the audience. 

It was quite the thing to see Princess Tenko as this aidoru of the late 70s since I never heard her talk, and so to hear her sing like a typical teenybopper was quite the revelation. "The Magic" wasn't particularly magic but its singer wasn't too shabby interpreting the words and music. However, we were all to find out where her real abilities lay. Incidentally, her 2nd single was released exactly a year later in 1979, "Kuse ni Naru kara"(くせになるから...It Will Become a Habit).

Kyu Sakamoto -- Hitoribotchi no Futari (一人ぼっちの二人)

Now, that's an interesting title, "Hitoribotchi no Futari". I was wondering how to translate it, and episode 37 of Steven Universe popped into my head with the reason being: it's called "Alone Together".

In the video above - knowing the uploader's history, it may not be here for long -  Hiroshi Itsuki was performing this during the "Tribute Time" part of his own music show, "Nihon no Meikyoku Jinsei, Uta ga aru" (日本の名曲 人生、歌がある). In this segment, the week's guests and Itsuki himself would have a go at the works of established singers or songwriters, alive or not. So who was the focus of the tribute in this episode in the clip? The whistling at the start was a huge give-away. From my knowledge of Showa era music, there's only one guy who'd whistle in his songs, and when the camera panned from Itsuki to the portrait, that guy was at his smiley best. It was none other than Kyu Sakamoto (坂本九). Also, I should've guessed that "Hitoribotchi no Futari" was by Sakamoto just by looking at the ones had put it together: Hachidai Nakamura and Rokusuke Ei (中村八大 . 永六輔), but I only realised the "6-8-9 combo" (Roku-Hachi-Kyu) much later.

Moving on, as I listened to the original and Itsuki's rendition of the ballad, I was again able to pick out one other trait that seems prevalent in Sakamoto's songs: a lighthearted melody. Done by Nakamura, what contributes to that is the nice rhythm, which feels like there's a slight Latin touch, combined with the whistling and (in the original) Sakamoto's lilting style. At the same time, to balance things out here, there are the soft strings that bring out a gentler and grounded side. It has me picturing a couple spending time with each other under the moonlight.

The original version.

For Ei's lyrics, I can't say I fully understand what it had Sakamoto singing about. However, I've come up with a couple of possibilities as to what "Hitoribotchi no Futari" may mean:

1) The happier option; the fellow enjoys being alone, but he prefers doing so with the one he loves.
2) The not so happy option; the relationship ain't fantastic and though together, the guy still feels lonely.

To better match Nakamura's music and Sakamoto's almost carefree delivery, I'm hoping it's the first option. But the more I read what Ei had written, I'm beginning to think that it may actually be the second option.

"Hitoribotchi no Futari" was released in November 1962. Out of the two renditions, I find myself preferring the cover to the original - this is purely objective. Itsuki's rendition feels smoother and more comfortable.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Top 10 Singles for 2008

1.  Arashi                                 Truth/Kaze no Mukou e
2.  Arashi                                 One Love
3.  Southern All Stars              I AM YOUR SINGER
4.  Greeeen                              Kiseki
5.  Shuchishin                          Shuchishin
6.  Mr. Children                       HANABI
7.  Thelma Aoyama                 Soba ni Iru ne
       feat. SoulJa
8.  KAT-TUN                           DON'T U EVER STOP
9.  KAT-TUN                           LIPS
10. Arashi                                Beautiful Days

bird -- Sora no Hitomi (空の瞳)

Another weekend is upon us so it's time for a bit of spice in my choice tonight. And since I've put up an article in the last few days about a turn-of-the-century J-R&B diva, I'll put up another one via the chanteuse bird.

This would be her 4th single from October 1999, "Sora no Hitomi" (Eyes in the Sky). I noticed that Yuki Miura (三浦有紀...bird's real name) had a really busy freshman year in music with her first 5 singles coming out between March and December of that year. Her inaugural single "Souls" was a lovely and light piece of disco soul introducing her and that huge ball of hair. But with "Sora no Hitomi", it was all about the more nighttime downtown brand of soul with those fine horns. Even the music video above had me imagining about these 1970s performances in those urban nightclubs although I was way way too young to ever enter those. Plus, there were enough flares to get J.J. Abrams' attention.

To date, "Sora no Hitomi" which was written by bird and composed by Shinichi Osawa (大沢伸一...aka Mondo Grosso), is the singer's most successful song in terms of chart achievements. It peaked at No. 14 on Oricon. Of course, I'm being biased here because I like her work so much but I was hoping that she would have scored even more highly (her next-highest-ranking singles were in the 20s). Then again, I don't think she particularly cares about rankings and TV appearances so why should I? She's been singing the music that she wants to sing.

Yumi Matsutoya -- Shiokaze ni Chigirete (潮風にちぎれて)/ Shoutou Hiko (消灯飛行)

For those superhero & kayo kyoku enthusiasts out there, does everyone remember that famous "Action Comics" Issue No. 1 circa 1938 which introduced Superman? Well, according to an online article from a couple of years ago, a "pristine" copy (and I do agree with putting up the quotation can anything that old be pristine unless it got a near-lethal dose of Botox?) of Issue No. 1 sold for $3.2 million via an eBay auction! I hope the fellow who bought (or invested in) it had that lead-lined Baggie or vault to store his acquisition.

This begged the question of what the most expensive J-Pop album that I have ever purchased was. Well, I remember that I did get that double-CD BEST album of Hitomi Tohyama(当山ひとみ)at Tacto for about 5,000 yen but I don't consider that a crazy collector's snag. There was another CD on the shelves there for a Mai Yamane(山根麻衣)disc that was going for 8,000 yen! I wasn't sure whether it was covering her earlier City Pop days or her later rock stuff or was spanning both periods. All I knew was that as much as I was curious about the singer, that CD was just too much cholesterol for my blood.

Now the reason I bring up this thing about rare releases and their corresponding costs is that I was looking for a new Yuming (ユーミン) tune to put up onto the blog when I came across "Shiokaze ni Chigirete" (Torn Apart by the Sea Breeze) which came out in May 1977. This was the singer-songwriter's first single (her 8th) since she switched names from Arai to Matsutoya when she got married. Perhaps that fact would have been reason enough to everyone go bonkers and buy it up considering how respected she was. But there's also the point that the A-side had never been put into an original album until it was placed as a track for a couple of her BEST compilations in the 21st century. The B-side, "Shoutou Hiko" has yet to be placed anywhere on an album, so basically it is that single that you have to get if you want your own copy of that particular song. And that single apparently costs close to 25,000 yen on Amazon! Nope, it's no "Action Comics" but still...

Anyways onto the main event. "Shiokaze ni Chigirete" may have been the first single in the new era of Matsutoya but the gentle ballad despite that violent title has that folksy Arai feeling (accentuated by that harmonica). Yuming still had more of that velvety flavor and less of the nasal tones in her voice back then which reminded me of those early days of New Music. Her lyrics go into a woman's visit to a favourite beach post-breakup as she struggles with her feelings on the matter. She wonders aloud why she is still wearing those sandals that he used to like so perhaps there is some ember that could be rekindled if the guy hasn't already hooked with someone else.

This is the true rarity here. I was wondering how to translate "Shotou Hiko" when I just decided to pitch the title into the Weblio search engine. It came up with "Lights Out Flight". Good enough, I say. For me, "Shotou Hiko" is a mix of her Arai days with some of that Matsutoya pop she would be bringing in over the next few years through some hints of urban contemporary...I hear a bit of jazz and soul with that piano in there. This song is the breakup in progress as a woman has got her visa ready to head out to a new country and leave her lover in the dust. There doesn't seem to be any regret in her decision. I'd say that the song is the Night to the Day of "Shiokaze ni Chigirete". And according to J-Wiki, the instrumental version of "Shotou Hiko" has regularly been used as the ending themes for radio programs.

"Shiokaze ni Chigirete/Shotou Hiko" went all the way up to No. 31 on the charts. It was a pretty quiet beginning for the newly-married Yumi Matsutoya but of course as we all know more successes came her way not too long after.

Strangely enough, about some days after the release of this single, there was a release Stateside of a movie with some Kurosawa elements about battles in space. It actually did gangbusters. And I only wonder how much a poster labeled "Revenge of the Jedi" would cost these days if the auction fans haven't already bought out the market.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Kiyoshi Nakajo -- Uso (うそ)

Well, let's see here....the Top 10 Singles for 1974 had a mellow enka, "Namida no Misao"(なみだの操)by Tonosama Kings(殿さまキングス)take the No. 1 spot while No. 2 belonged to Akiko Kosaka's(小坂明子)wonderful love anthem, "Anata"(あなた).

So, curious about No. 3 for 1974, I saw Kiyoshi Nakajo's(中条きよし)"Uso" (Lies) up there. I couldn't recognize it from the title or the singer behind it so I gave it a listen on YouTube. I didn't exactly give it a " I remember it!" but that intro was certainly familiar to me. Probably I've heard it on one of the NHK music programs or it was played on an episode of "Sounds of Japan".

In any case, "Uso" is another fairly mellow enka with a bit more Mood Kayo sung by Nakajo most likely from the point of view of the scorned other woman as she sees her soon-to-be-ex lover sleaze away to be with someone more "wholesome" to start a family. He may be using every platitude in his black book, but the lady can see right through his uso. Listening to this surprisingly wistful take on a bitter breakup, I already had the perfect setting mapped out in my mind. They were probably sitting at some sort of old cafe franchise such as Renoir in Tokyo or a cafe in one of the older hotels such as the good ol' Tokyo Prince. The tension was probably as thick as that strawberry shortcake I had at that cafe in the Prince.

Perhaps it was the knowing lyrics by Yoko Yamaguchi(山口洋子)or maybe it was the music by Masaaki Hirao(平尾昌晃)with that alto sax but "Uso" was that breakthrough hit for Nakajo when it was released in January 1974. It took 3 months for it to crack the Top 10 and another 6 weeks before it finally hit the top spot on Oricon where it would stay for a straight 8 weeks with sales of over 1.5 million records. When it rains, it pours as the saying goes and this time it was raining gold for the singer as it won a few awards at contests such as the Japan Record Awards. Of course, the Kohaku Utagassen dropped by and asked if he had some time on New Year's Eve, and of course, he accepted. However, although Nakajo had some more success, it would be his only time on the NHK special.

All that good news in the last paragraph must have sounded even sweeter and more poignant for Nakajo who was actually born Kiyoshi Shimomura(下村清)in Gifu Prefecture in 1946. It wasn't a particularly smooth ride to the top. After graduating from high school, Shimomura worked on a boat and then joined an acting troupe in Osaka where he tried to become an actor, sometimes coming in as a singer in the warmup before the main performance. A record company executive caught one of his performances and signed up him. Kiyoshi Shimomura was given the stage name of Akira Takanami(高波明)and he debuted in 1968.

Unfortunately, he didn't particularly sell so a second attempt was made in 1971 under the name of Ken Atsumi(渥美健)but the results were the same. So the singer went to a salaryman's life and in his mid-20s, he even set up his own little bar in Tokyo which drew regulars consisting of folks in the mass media industry (did this guy set up in front of NHK studios?!) and was encouraged to try once again to be a singer. In 1973, he tried out for the 1970s Japanese equivalent of "American Idol", "Zen Nippon Kayo Senshuken"(全日本歌謡選手権...The All-Japan Kayo Championships)on Yomiuri TV where he won the title of Grand Champion after winning 10 weeks in a row. The songwriters for "Uso", Masaaki Hirao and Yoko Yamaguchi were actually two of the judges on the show which set up the fateful meeting, and with that final name change to Kiyoshi Nakajo, the stage was all ready for him to finally grab that brass ring.

It still wasn't all wine and roses for Nakajo, though. Between the release of "Uso" and his appearance on the Kohaku that year, he and his manager ended up on a Japan Air Lines flight that was hijacked. They had the bad luck of being seated right up at the front of the plane so that they had to hear all of the vitriol spewing from the terrorists in the cockpit. Then, many years later, it was found out that Nakajo had been playing a round of golf with a mobster so his NHK appearances were curtailed for about a year. Such is life. And he survived both incidents to release a total of 38 singles including his last one to date in October 2015, "Tanpopo"(たんぽぽ...Dandelion).

The cake set at the Tokyo Prince Hotel