Three Jpop Discs that Matter: Number Three

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J-Pop is a four-letter word. The domestic fans devour it like character goods. The institutionalized press’ palms are greased so well that they can’t hold the pencil long enough to write anything critical about it. The “real” rock community in Japan can’t stomach it. The foreign fans are, for the most part, a bunch of air-headed anime geeks. Most of the music — Smap, V6, Kinki Kids, Hamasaki Ayumi, B’z, Globe, MAX, ZARD, Mr. Children, etc. — is just manufactured commodity product created to sell to prefab youth markets. J-Pop’s worldwide reputation of being dreck is almost completely justified.

So what I aim to do in this three-part column will put my credibility at stake with all sorts of music fans: I wish to present three J-Pop albums that actually stand up to critical criteria, three albums that may stand the test of time, if we let them.

Excluded from the running are anything “indie” or “underground” or not intended to be consumed as pop product (sorry, Cornelius). All three of these albums were big hits of their time. Of course, the Japanese media cannot give these albums any kind of acclaim or merit outside of sales ranking, so I hope this small column will bestow a meager amount of “collective permanent value” or whatever in blazes I call it.

So without further ado:

Number Three: Puffy – amiyumi, 1996

Almost a decade before Puffy were stars of their own poorly-animated and inexplicable children’s cartoon in the United States, they were just another two-girl idol group created in the smokey backrooms of the J-Pop industrial complex. Both Ami and Yumi had entered the world of entertainment through the Sony talent agency, which decided to put them together as a group instead of trying for solo careers. At some point, producer Okuda Tamio began to oversee the project. He had been a member of the wildly successful rock band Unicorn, which had originally been put together as a “band boom”-type idol group but soon became a vehicle for Okuda’s innate songwriting talents.

Now 30, Okuda got free reign to make these two pre-idols into his own dreamy ’60s rock creation. The result was amiyumi — a seven-song girl-voiced pop-rock mini-album that shunned all the conventions and traps of the contemporary J-Pop world’s Eurobeat obsession. Tambourines and subtle harmonies abound, as with Hammond organs, flanged-out rock solos, break-beating drums, and the occasional backwards echo. The big single “Ajia no Junshin” recalled E.L.O.-era analog synth work way before Western indie bands picked up a Juno-6 and wrote songs about their girlfriend’s mom having it going on. “Ajia” seems to be a blatant attempt to open up a pan-Asian market for the girls, but it ended up just being a staggeringly well-produced moment of the domestic industry. When else have J-Pop stars attempted to sound like Debbie Harry, backed up by a vocoder?

Clearly, the expectations on this side project were low, so the freedom ran high. Open up the CD booklet and Ami is playing a giant sitar on an Indian rug. There’s also plenty of fish-eye camera work, portraits avec tablas, frizzy pigtails, and hand-drawn bunny signatures. Shibuya-kei influenced? Maybe. But this was 100% major label output and yet musically 100% respectable.

Okuda got even more adventurous with their next single “Kore ga Watashi no Ikiru Michi” (recorded and released in mono!), but Puffy soon became stars and their albums became hastily put-together collections of hit singles and throw-away pastiche tracks. amiyumi has its own unique sound — very Summer of ’96 — a little bit retro, a little bit Alternative. This was the first J-Pop record I ever heard, and I got lucky. This was a rare exception to the rule, and it still sounds good next to the cookie-cutter clutter of today’s blah-blah idle idols.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 1, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

29 Responses

  1. Jean Says:

    I agree, that’s a great little record. I heard it for the first time in in 97 when I was living in China, and didn’t know what to make of it. I can still listen to these songs though, as well as the JET album. They haven’t produced anything interesting after that.

    I think we pretty much know what album you’re going to put at number 1.

  2. marxy Says:

    I think we pretty much know what album you’re going to put at number 1.

    Actually, I’ve decided to take that one out of the running because it was not a Jpop album in nature and it didn’t do that well on the charts.

  3. Momus Says:

    You’re talking about ‘Chestnut Medicinal Squirrel Sperm’, ne?

  4. Brad Says:

    I had just discovered Okuda Tamio about a year before this came out. He had just started his solo career and I loved those singles, so I had gone back and started picking up Unicorn CDs. It was one of those “How could I have missed something this good?” kind of moments, when in all fairness, I had only been listening to Japanese music for a couple of years.

    Then I heard he was producing this new girl duo and so I picked up the “Asia no junshin” single was was hooked. Then they blew up and became huge. The year I caught both them and Okuda Tamio on tour was probably one of the best years, in terms of live shows I saw. Even though OT has gotten lazy with his recent work, he still puts on a hell of a good show.

  5. Brad Says:

    Oh, if you’re not going to include KZK, what about Shoso Strip? Or even Muzai Moratorium? I think both of those would fit your criteria, esp. SS. Meant as a pop product, sold well, stands up to critical inspection…

    I agree though, I don’t think KZK fits into what you’re trying to do here.

  6. marxy Says:

    Oh, if you’re not going to include KZK, what about Shoso Strip? Or even Muzai Moratorium? I think both of those would fit your criteria, esp. SS. Meant as a pop product, sold well, stands up to critical inspection…

    Jeez, you people are impatient…

  7. rachael Says:

    ha ha, i knew brad would say that.

    for me, the jet album is my favourite when it comes to puffy (pastiche with a wink), though i suppose amiyumi is when they came out of nowhere and started it all.

    i’m trying not to presume about the other two rankings, cos you might change your mind again! :)

  8. Brad Says:

    Sorry. I’ll pipe down over here.

  9. trevor Says:

    i like to speculate. tommy feb. 6, or halcali [bacon] ?
    though maybe those are to recent.

  10. Patrick Says:

    I like Puffy’s “solosolo” album (as ONUKI Ami YOSHIMURA Yumi). I had first got it for the Konishi-produced track, but turned out that I enjoyed pretty much the whole album. It’s one of the few “J-pop” albums of back then I go back to every once in a while.

  11. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Natsukashii! Puffy were everywhere, when I moved to Japan in September, 1996.

  12. marxy Says:

    Jet is fine, but doesn’t flow like a real album.

    solo solo is pretty immemorable, although it has a couple of good songs.

  13. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: what ever happened to your promised definition of creator oriented art?

  14. marxy Says:

    Chris: I’ll get to it. I have to write things when I’m feeling it. This isn’t a job with deadlines. Maybe when I finish this latest series, I’ll get to it. There’s only so much I can take of writing a big essay and being badgered about it for 5 days.

  15. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    The other thing that was big when I arrive that impressed me favourably was UA. How does UA fit into your scheme of things?

  16. marxy Says:

    UA’s not bad, but I’ve never really listened. Always seemed too “ethnic” and “souful” for me. But she’s definitely in my Group B – Artists that I don’t mind existing.

  17. Jean Says:

    Flipping through channels, I just fell on an old Okuda Tamio video. Yeah, he had some great pop songs. There was a single from a few years ago that I really liked. I can’t remember what it was called, but in the video he would be near some train ticket gates.

    Anyway, Puffy, I’m going to listen to JET again, see if I agree with you that it doesn’t flow well. But actually, I think Puffy works best as a “single” band, and that album flow is irrelevant. The albums just act as a collection of singles.

  18. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    UA’s not bad, but I’ve never really listened. Always seemed too “ethnic” and “souful” for me. But she’s definitely in my Group B – Artists that I don’t mind existing.

    Oh well … De gustibus non disputendum est.

  19. ted Says:

    Yep, “Ajia no junshin” was the song of the year for me in 1996. Well, that and FLAGS’s “nowhereland”. I agree with Jean that Puffy is mostly a singles band, but there’s still a few album tracks I like (“Red Buranko” for example).

    Okuda has been fairly consistent, I think, and every album he’s done has at least two songs that make my “best of” lists for that year: “Musuko,” “E-ju Raida,” “Nobara,” etc. His album with Yosui Inoue is also brilliant and contains some of his best songs: “Two Cars,” “Arigato,” and another one whose title I forget, but it was originally written for KyonKyon.

    Right now Halcali is my favorite Japanese act that could be considered mainstream.

  20. ndkent Says:

    I figured out the deal on the kids show when I saw a 5 year old american child at the suburban mall stop dead in her tracks and squeel “hi hi puffy!” at the sight of their posters (nationwide ad campaign) … I also saw a more disturbing combo of the new computer drawn Mickey Mouse and a Final Fantasy character strolling along to to the strains of an Hikaru Utada song.

    It’s a marketing synergy of acclimatizing a young audience to something new to get used to and desire alongside something they know well.

    Interestingly the American Puffy voices are done by familiar sounding voice actors, the plots are all recycled and the Puffy personalities seem very inspired by the two female characters in the already proven popular “Teen Titans” animated cartoon series.

  21. ndkent Says:

    Oh, I taped a fairly long interview I had with Puffy back in 2002
    http://www.technopop.info/puffy/

  22. marxy Says:

    Interestingly the American Puffy voices are done by familiar sounding voice actors, the plots are all recycled and the Puffy personalities seem very inspired by the two female characters in the already proven popular “Teen Titans” animated cartoon series.

    When I was in the states, I watched 5 mins of this and tried to figure out for the life of me what the show had to do with the real Puffy. I gave up, flipped the channel and watched a documentary on the Mamas and the Papas instead.

  23. marxy Says:

    Right now Halcali is my favorite Japanese act that could be considered mainstream.

    Looking at these Oricon charts, Halcali did not sell very well. Maybe they did in 2004, but their stuff did not break the top 100 mark in 2003.

  24. ted Says:

    BTW, though “Ajia no Junshin” does sound a lot like ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” it owes even more of a debt to Dave Edmunds’ “Slipping Away” (written and produced by Jeff Lynne, of course). Listen and compare!

  25. ndkent Says:

    As for what ted was saying about ELO similarity, that’s an intentional part of the whole concept, they are doing a wink wink nudge nudge thing to classic era US/UK poprock. That’s their biggest anomaly. They are working in the mainstream J-Pop milieu but their material only has a very partial foundation in it. It definitely provides a point of reference for grown up fans. Oh and their “Teen Titans” theme song which led to the cartoon gig is pretty darn close to the vintage theme song and single “Secret Agent Man” (which itself was an added to add appeal to an imported UK series). “Teen Titans” btw is a hybrid of a U.S. revisionist superhero cartoon series peppered anime influences. I think it excited young people because those in the know see the intentional anime references and ‘get’ it

    Actually I don’t think any act liked by any half sizable number of non-Asian fans is squarely J-Pop, it might be a twist or odd take on it but it’s never “it”… though I think that’s begun to change as kids become acclimatized to the pop sound heard in anime themes of pop origin. It makes sense because they are referencing something that you are quite accustomed to but weren’t quite expecting coming from Puffy. And you have the advantage more or less proven hooks.

    As for the cartoon show having to do with the real Puffy, well it is meant to pass them off as teenagers (instead of 30 somethings) to 6 to 11 year olds (the target age range mentioned by the producers in the New York Times). There’s plenty of tradition dating back to the Beatles Saturday morning series. Maybe it would be a break with tradition to have a cartoon series more or less accurately reflect the real life celebrity and their personality (though I guess the Robert Evans cartoon series plays on his own hyperbole).

    It is a big faux pas imho to have so little appeal for older audiences (or much creativity for that matter) but it does provide marketing potential from a bunch of business angles. The plots set a new standard in prefabrication. They are a huge weakness in the show because it’s implied the experience will be somehow exotic and hip.

    As for Halcali, no they aren’t charting high but the point is they are an act on the mainstream stage that is more than tolerable, something I’m sure most will realize isn’t common in any major music market. Tommy February 6 is more of the rare anomaly of of a reward or pet project that is so appealing that it crosses into the mainstream. Different circumstances and era but YMO had some of that going on from the viewpoint that someone had enough industry clout to get it done and then the project had greater public appeal than expected.

    What doesn’t work is when acts like Halcali or Tommy February 6 decide or are told to establish a firmer mainstream foundation.

    Minimoni is another act having an odd appeal in the mainstream, though I guess they were more or less a parody of morning musume

  26. marxy Says:

    I didn’t know about all those ELO references. I think ELO has a cachet in Japan it never had in the West. I mean, they were huge in US/UK, don’t get me wrong, but they became demonized by the time I was of listening age. The Japanese have a great advantage of not really understanding lyrics which makes people like Jeff Lynne look dumb over time.

    NDKent wrote:

    They are working in the mainstream J-Pop milieu but their material only has a very partial foundation in it.

    Very good point. I think Puffy had all the necessary ingredients for being a pop act in Japan – catchy songs, a unique visual look, personality, a famous producer – but they did it on their own terms. And once you are famous in Japan and your guys have some leverage, they keep you famous for as long as possible.

    And this is my point with all of this: the 90s Jpop scene had these flukes of tolerable music which are solely attributable to people in the system using their leadership power for good. Okuda or Oyamada could have gone to the dark side, but they didn’t and we’re better off for it. Tom Feb 6 fits this pattern, although I think a lot of people liked it because it sounds like bad 80s idol pop. She crossed that line from parody of Jpop’s past to tribute/redemption of it.

    About the Beatles cartoon: the Beatles were famous. Everyone knew them. Puffy is getting introduced to the world as cartoon characters that have nothing to do with them.

  27. Jean Says:

    Minimoni is not a parody of MM, it’s a full-blown spinoff. It was designed to be successful.

  28. rachael Says:

    every time i think of the puffy ami yumi cartoon, i just think of how when nkotb were cartoonised it signalled their decline. puffy are pretty much dead in the water in japan too :p

    when you talk about tommy february6 attempting to become more based in the mainstream, i’m not sure what exactly you’re referring to. perhaps her spinoff group tommy angels? they were kinda cute, and they even had their own mini tv show. but they didn’t get past that first single.

  29. ndkent Says:

    Minor points:

    Yes, I know Minimoni are a spinoff. I believe they appear extreme enough to confound typical J-Pop expectations.

    As for Tommy February 6, I sent my comment about mainstreaming too quickly. I’d say her second album is dissapointlingly “by the numbers” not attempting to be more mainstream. Still I’d guess Tommy Heavenly 6 had more of a career last year than Fiona Apple.