Perfect Sound Forever

JAPANESE MUSIC

L'Arc-En-Ciel Midori Shimizu-Yasuaki

Ten of Its Interesting Songs- from 1880's to 2010
by Carlos Guillermo


My introduction to Japanese music was anime. For the longest time, I've enjoyed the euphoric hype that comes with the effusiveness of anime openings such as Neon Genesis Evangelion's "Cruel Angel Thesis" or Dragon Ball Z's "Cha-La Head-Cha-La", as well as the warm sweetness of endings like Sakura Card Captor's "Groovy!" As soon as I began seriously getting into music as a teenager, the hours of endlessly re-watching and re-listening to these openings and endings sequences gave me a slow-burning epiphany: Japanese music is something else, something special.

From the melodic sensibilities, to the chord progressions, to the seamlessly mix of major and minor tones, to the indifference between the experimental and the mainstream, Japanese music (and its culture in general) is amazingly diverse, considering its relatively small size of 377,972 km2. Even now, many years since being pumped up by the use of "Brave Heart" during the exciting fighting sequences in Digimon, I'm still impressed by how seemingly infinite the amount of creative variables is within the Japanese music canon as a whole.

So now, both as a way of introducing people to Japanese music, and as a remainder to those already familiar with it, I've compiled this list of 10 of the most interesting songs you can listen to straight from the Japanese creative pool, all available on YouTube.


10. "Risky" Ryuichi Sakamoto (1987)

The name Ryuichi Sakamoto stands like a great mountain in the music world, or the world of World Music, for that matter. What I'm saying is, he is probably one of the most famous Japanese names amongst music fans all over the globe, mainly due to two things: his seminal piece "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (made for the film of the same), a beautiful showcase of the delicate Japanese melodic sensibility; and his numerous –and I mean, numerous– collaborations with all kinds of musicians, which happens to be the main attraction of this entry. "Risky", off his 1987 album Neo Geo, sees him collaborating with the world's forgotten boy who searches and destroys. The mixture of Sakamoto's sweet melancholic melodies with Iggy Pop's warm baritone vibrato lends itself to what most definitely is unpredictable crossover that serves to showcase both of these artists' strongest musical features.

9. "Kaze no Yukue" L'Arc-en-Ciel (1994)

This band was my proper introduction to the so-called J-Rock and J-Pop genres, and I'm just one in a million in this regard, as it turns out that L'Arc-en-Ciel has been one of the bands with the most anime openings and endings to their credit. This song, from their 1994 album Tierra (by now you should've noticed that they like to play with languages), is a tad bit obscure in relation to other tunes from their repertoire, but these hidden songs are, in fact, what makes L'Arc-en-Ciel special to me and many fans. Showcasing delicious overdriven guitars, contrasting counter-melodic bass lines (a staple of their sound) and a savory pinch of Hispanic/Mediterranean tone flavor (after all, they traveled to Morocco for the music video, which is close enough, I guess), "The Way of the Wind" is a nice subtle example of the blend of East and West, albeit an esoteric one.

8. "My Baby Japanese" Buck Tick (1998)

Japan's music scene is filled to the top with all kinds of genres, but industrial music may be its most idiosyncratic one yet. Even though throughout Buck Tick's decades-spanning career they've experimented with quite a few styles, their main aesthetic umbrella could be boiled down to "gothic". This one example, coming from their 1998 single "Gessekai", stands out as one of their dirtiest and android-est tracks, all calculated chaos led by demented vocals, exemplifying one of modern Japan's dearest stylistic realms, one inspired by the literary works of William Gibson, where themes like sex, industrialization, cyborgs and violence all dance together, something better known as cyberpunk (did someone in the distance just sneezed while saying Ghost in the Shell out loud? And this is a hell of a cyberpunk song, so go listen to it and take a trip to bullet-time gun battles and digital demon conspiracies.

7. "Bonyo VS Boyo" Midori (2010)

"Idols" are definitely one of Japan's most prolific trends- individual or collective music acts which you could compare to Christina Aguilera or Destiny's Child in concept... for the most part. Idols tend to present young girls being as cute and adorable as they can while performing pop music, gathering huge audiences obsessed with the performers. Take it or leave it, idol acts can generate cool music, but right now, we're not exactly talking about them, we're talking about the anti-thesis of idols. Replace cutesy vocals with gnarly screams, bubblegum pop arrangements with raw instrumentals and choreographed performances with mosh-pits. What you get will probably sound like Midori, a now deceased band that happily and angrily shifts between colorful tunes to... Well, just consider that this one song, "Bonyo VS Boyo," the second track from their 2010 album Shinsekai and it comes right after an opening track that makes you believe you're in for a soft café lounge experience, but then you're blasted with a disturbing vocalist backed up by a crazy jazz band.

6. "Virgin Blues" Jun Togawa (1990)

And while we're on the subject, here comes one of the MOST interesting artists on this list. There's a reason this song comes after briefly explaining in the previous entry what an anti-idol is. Jun Togawa is a Japanese musician and singer who may appear like any other from afar, but once you take a closer look, you may find yourself seeing and listening to something quite eerie, just like encountering a ghost girl on a midnight walk down the street. While it may be a disservice to compare her to someone who may not match much, or any, of her musical style, I do believe that a good simile to Togawa may be Bjork- a pop musician pushing boundaries with a punk edge. Important to note that the music video for this song is also gorgeous.

5. "The Girl in Byakkoya" Susumu Hirasawa (2006)

Now that we're halfway through this list, it becomes harder and harder not to praise every next entry as the most interesting one, and since I already gave that special mention to Jun Togawa, I may now speak more ascetically about our next musician... But god damn, he's a pretty interesting one too. Susumu Hirasawa's music could be described as vibrant, experimental, impressionistic, cubist, revolutionary. All those terms would be correct, except the one word I would personally use is "emotive". Now, I am totally biased, since I relate Hirasawa's signature style to one of the most touching movies ever, Satoshi Kon's Millenium Actress, so listening to his songs and being transported to a totally different, ethereal ecosystem debilitates my eyes. Many will probably get weirded-out by the way it begins hearing those electronically modified vocals, but as you find yourself listening on, I'm sure you'll be touched by Hirasawa's magic.

4. "Let's Go Away" Takenobu Mitsuyoshi (1994)

Since I'm now prohibiting from pointing out how "interesting" these next entries are, I will gladly choose to call this song the most FUN one. A seasoned videogame music composer, Takenobu Mitsuyoshi has lent his talent and quirks to some of gaming's greatest titles, including the legendary Sega produced Shenmue, and as a mainstay of this game developing company, he did the soundtrack for Daytona USA, an arcade racing game boosted by Mitsuyoshi's whacky and energetic voice-led music (something mostly unheard of for videogame soundtracks). As an arcade theme, it naturally consists of lots of repetition, but rest assured- this song is equipped with enough cool guitar licks and rhythm changes to keep it refreshing all the way through.

3. "Utsukushiki Tennen" Yasuaki Shimizu (1902/1984)

From this point on, this list turns into a trilogy. Japanese modern music, understandably, owes a whole lot to the country's traditions and folklore. It seems like Japan's own reclusion from late 16th century until 1853 (and not being over-exposed to the total overtaking of another culture once it opened itself up to the world) served as the perfect breeding ground for a unique spirit that emanates through each one of its creative outlets until now, with every new generation willing to take its established canon and experiment with it. This is exactly what happened in 1984, as saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu ends his album Kakashi with the traditional pre-WWII piece "Utsukushiki Tennen." There is a romantic minor-scale waltz going through Shimizu's experimental hijinks, adding electronic tweaks, abstract modified noises and traditional percussive cues which accentuate the standard's zeitgeist encapsulation.

2. "Nico Nico Douga Medley" (2007)

I know that all the readers here who know one or two things about Japanese music, anime or Internet culture will roll their eyes to the Patagonia and beyond after reading this entry's title. Would I roll my eyes too? No doubt about it. But I'd also try to keep reading. Enter Nico Nico Douga, which is, in a few words, YouTube's Japanese counterpart- but that's not what interests us. The "Nico Nico Douga Medley", fundamentally, is a set of many melodies from all across Japan's long history of cartoons and videogames. As such, it explodes from the get-go with a euphoric Euro-dance style that fits incredibly well with the 8 and 16 bits most of these melodies came from. What makes this compilation of themes so important to this list is that it brilliantly shows how beautiful, warm, charismatic and emotional Japanese melodies can be, no matter if they come from a games or animation. Of course, I know that some people will get unexcited by its 10+ minute length, so, what we can do in that case is to listen to at least the last two minutes (trust me), which begin with a melody from one of the world's most beloved videogame franchises,

1. "Sakura Sakura" (Circa 1888)

Remember when two entries ago, I claimed this listing turned into a trilogy? But then, the second entry didn't really seem to have anything to do with the third one? Well, this is when they tie together. With Utsukushiki Tennen (#3) we heard a rendition of an old Japanese song, and with the "Nico Nico Douga Medley" (#2), we went through many bodacious melodies that served as a bouquet of modern Japanese sensibilities. However, only those of us who stayed until the end, or listened to the last two minutes of the aforementioned medley, will have encountered the last song- a mysterious, or dare I say scary, melody, like it's listening to the wailing of a lonely spirit inside an abandoned temple. This happens to be another traditional folk song called "Cherry Blossoms, Cherry Blossoms", which, once stripped from the previous entry's uncanny NES sound chip quality, puts a Spring spell on the listener. Haunting and soothing at the same time, these features are augmented or diminished depending on its interpretations. And no matter which version it is, this gorgeous work remains as one of the most elegant and enchanting pieces of music out there, always giving the feeling that the cries of an arcane tragedy lie within the confines of its slow phantasmal notes, like marks on an age-old tea cup. Definitely one of the most fascinating songs Japanese music has to offer.

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