Believe it or not, Japan can make other music aside from peppy pop! It has a vibrant underground music scene, which over the years has developed into an influential force to be reckoned with. In Jukebox, we take a look at the versatility of the Japanese music industry — beyond the realm of anime and other geekery. Last time, way too long ago, we learnt about Mop of Head and their bouncy dance music. As usual with this feature, it’s time for something entirely different… erm, peppy pop, actually. Who the heck is Kayoko Yoshizawa?
If my smouldering disdain for the idol industry isn’t enough indication, it probably won’t come as a surprise to you that my usually sunny disposition is perfectly reflected in my taste in music. Luckily for me, though, there’s more than enough depressing music to pick from. It’s often said that true art comes from the darkest corners of the mind, yet somehow, this assumption has driven the happy song to near extinction. Unless your name is Pharrell Williams, chances are likely being unconditionally cheery as a Western artist is going to net you accusations of being vapid, commercial and most of all, annoying. In idol culture, this seemingly harsh judgement isn’t exactly untrue, though. The Japanese music industry is so rife with miniskirts, cutesy songs and unambitious lyrics about teenage love, the happy song has been stuck in a rut for years now, fueling its bad reputation amongst insufferable snobs such as myself whenever it shows yet another crack in its optimistic facade. Luckily, a whole slew of indie artists have popped up recently who deliberately sneak under the idol radar and bring their own sense of quirkiness to the table — only with the synthesized mass appeal of idol and anime culture replaced with a much more genuine lust for life. Armed with a very own sense of eccentricity and some surprisingly solid songs, debuting folky Kayoko Yoshizawa proves that just a dash of authenticity can do a whole lot to make even the staunchest cynic a fan of her kooky love songs.
24-year old Yoshizawa started wringing songs in high school, yet despite what anime might teach you about Japanese teenagers, her intentions didn’t seem to be to become a pop star. Inspired by her father’s love for legendary folk singer Yosui Inoue and, I kid you not, Brand-New Idol Society — who make a sweet and rather hard to miss cameo in the Pharrell video linked above — Yoshizawa took her songs to the annual Music Revolution competition hosted by Yamaha in 2010, where she won both the grand prix and the audience award performing “Rarirurerin” with her backing band Ririnzu. The same song would appear on Yoshizawa’s debut EP three years later, an unapologetically adorable little curiosity by the name of Majou Zukan, literally translated “A Field Guide To Witches”. Six folky songs clearly influenced by 50s swing and the Beach Boys’ sunny singalong pop, Majou Zukan‘s true strength lies in Yoshizawa’s intangibly giddy vocals, boosting her soft, gentle timbre with zany ad-lips and cheeps. It’s an album brimming with enthusiasm that could boil over at any given moment, immediately making you drop headfirst into love with life itself.
Nevertheless, Yoshizawa’s quirkiness never gets so out of bounds she gets lost in it. Don’t expect any ukuleles, tribal rhythms, animal noises or whatever other insufferable wackiness here; the focus remains solely on bite-sized catchy hooks and summery melodies. Lead single “Miseinen no Shucho” (“A Minor’s Claim”, watch above) is an infectious ear worm with a chorus so simple even someone who doesn’t speak a lick of Japanese can sing along to it, while songs like “Hazukashi” (“Embarassing”) or the aforementioned “Rarirurerin” amp up the campfire factor significantly. In fact, Majou Zukan feels very much structured like a summer’s day, from the fluttering joyousness of its first half to the melancholy, and distinctly more folk-inspired closing track “Buranko Nori” (“The Swing Rider”), an acoustic candlelight waltz spiced up with a healthy serving of flute. Depending on your mileage, it’s either a toe-curling relic of a past better left forgotten or the best possible way to lay a warm evening to rest, but either way, it looks like Yoshizawa will never look back, as whatever folkiness was left in her got skillfully ejected from the nearest airplane window for her major label debut.
This spanking new EP, not inappropriately named Henshin Shoujo (“Transformation Girl”), amps up the quirk considerably and eschews the acoustic guitars in favour of horns and catchy backup choruses. Retro pop at its finest, to the point where some claim to hear a lick of enka in songs like “Hyuru Remember”, despite the distinct lack of shamisens, kimonos and ear-eviscerating boringness. Henshin Shoujo is most certainly old-school, but these thirty minutes of doo-wop infused joy are far from conservative. Spearheaded by swinging lead single “Bishoujo” (“Beautiful Girl”) and its equally wacky music video (check it out below), Henshin Shoujo is every bit as adorable as its predecessor, with stronger songs that sound like they came straight out of a 1950s music hall, to boot. While the abundance of handclaps, honky-tonk pianos and backing vocals crooning ‘shoobie doobie da’ might bring Henshin Shoujo awkwardly close to becoming a carnavelesque and overly girly farce on paper, the result never feels over-indulgent like most music in its subgenre.
Quirky pop often, oddly enough, lacks any sense of self-awareness — being whimsey just for whimsey’s sake and usually forgetting people are actually supposed to listen to whatever cluttered nonsense this usually creates. Kayoko Yoshizawa has the musical talent to back up her relentless enthusiasm, however, with a unique voice, a plethora of inspirations and some very talented collaborators — including bassist Akiko Fukuoka of Chatmonchy and Yuko Araki, drummer for Cornelius and Cibo Matto — to set her off on the right path. With one foot firmly in the past and the other in a witch-infested present, the release of Henshin Shoujo has generated a fair share of buzz on several Japanese music blogs. I for one, think Kayoko Yoshizawa deserves a lot more attention than that. Not only does she serve as a perfect example of what pure, unfiltered zeal looks like, her genre-busting tendencies tell me this girl could one day produce a big pop classic. One thing is for certain: Kayoko Yoshizawa has the potential to one day be so much more than the next best manic pixie dream girl.
Take note: If you judge quirky pop on its authenticity.
Take cover: If whimsies give you an aneurysm.
Essential tracks: “Miseinen no Shuchou”, “Bishoujo”
Sadly enough, Kayoko Yoshizawa’s music is not on iTunes or Amazon MP3 yet. If you can’t get enough of her, feel free to loop this life performance of “Miseinen no Shucho” with Hyadain, of Nichijou – My Ordinary Life fame. For extra fun, bore yourself to death with the hellishly awkward interview beforehand and witness Yoshizawa become an entirely different person as soon as she starts singing. Also, check out these previous Jukebox entires if you haven’t: