Thursday, December 7, 2017

NTV ベスト・アーティスト 2017: A Review [Part 1 of 2]

As a way of getting back into the habit of writing--and testing how much interest there would be in a Japanese music podcast--I thought I would try to write up the big end of the year music shows. One of the things I really enjoy about following the Japanese music world is that they still have things like giant end of the year special music shows and enough mainstream acts to fill them all.

I’ve been watching these kinds of shows for about six or seven years now and my impressions have changed as I learned more about the industry in general. When I first began paying attention I only knew one or two groups and found the amount of unknown music somewhat overwhelming but as the years have gone on, a steady diet of the weekly live music show Music Station (or Mステ for short) has helped given me a pretty good understanding of who everybody is and where they fit into the music scene. This kind of context is necessary since a not insignificant part of these shows assumes that the audience knows exactly who such-and-such singer having their 35th anniversary is or how idol group A relates to idol group B and so on.

But what I enjoy the most about these end of the year specials is both the sense of celebration and the sense of closure. Nothing puts a bow on a one hit wonder than dragging him or her out for one last rousing performance of the song that had us all hitting repeat in like March.

The first special to air every year is NTV’s Best Artist (ベストアーティスト). Hosted by Arashi’s Sakurai Sho (who is also a regular contributor to NTV’s news program News Zero), as well as familiar tv presenters Hatori Shinichi and Miura Asami,  Best Artist tends to be the most relaxed and unpredictable of the specials. Not only is there a enthusiastic audience brought in but the hosts stand at the far end of a long wing off to one side of the main stage and they remain there during the performances. The camera will sometimes cut to the hosts so the viewers at home can see them dancing along. It helps add a relaxed feeling to the show. It’s an NTV party and we’re all invited!

This year’s theme appeared to be choreography, so was only correct that Miura Daichi was the opening act. Miura is a former child star who had essentially vanished from the music business but, now 30, he had something like a mini-renaissance over the last couple of years and has burst back onto the scene. (His collaboration with guitarist/actor MIYAVI on last year’s FNS 歌謡祭 was one of the music highlights of the year for me and for them as well, apparently, as MIYAVI and Miura teamed up again this fall for a song titled, “Dancing With My Fingers.”)

Miura is well known for his excellent dancing and his catchy R&B songs but for me, what sets him apart is how he always looks like he is having the time of his life.

This year he opened Best Artist with his 2016 hit “(RE)PLAY”, dressed in a billowy black suit with a stark white shirt (as well as some Michael Jackson inspired white socks and black shoes) and flanked by a squad of dancers also in black. Miura is all smiles as he runs through the special version, tossing the mic up and catching it in his glee at one point. When the backing track comes down in the final build up to the chorus, you can clearly hear the audience clapping along. I may have also been clapping along in my living room. Miura Daichi doesn’t need special effects; he is his own special effect.

After the introductions from the hosts, the next act up was Johnny’s West, one of the many male idol groups from the Johnny’s & Associates agency. Johnny’s West are--as it says in the group name--a Johnny’s & Associates group from the “West” of Japan aka Kansai aka Osaka. The stereotype in Japanese entertainment is that anybody from Osaka is going to be loud and over-the-top and Johnny’s West have certainly risen to the challenge. Beginning with their debut song “ええじゃないか” their singles are Kansai dialect anthems meant to be drunkenly shouted along to at karaoke. (Source: I’ve done this multiple times and it’s so much fun to yell “ええじゃないか”.)

For Best Artist, Johnny’s West performed their 2017 single “おーさか☆愛・EYE・哀” (Osaka☆Ai Ai Ai) , an utterly ridiculous, vampy lounge song they can only perform properly while wearing lurid 1980s “bubble era” suits and I love it so much I went out of my way to buy the CD single when I was in Japan this summer. Unfortunately, the Best Artist producers decided to pair Johnny’s West up with 同志社香里ダンス部 (Doshia Kori Dance Club), the winners of this year’s national high school girls dance competition. “おーさか☆愛・EYE・哀” has extremely entertaining choreography but Johnny’s West has seven members and they are used to filling a stage on their own. Adding the twenty-plus high school girls on stage without adequately compensating for the increased numbers meant the performance came across as rather muddy, which is shame.

Third batter up was the Exile Family’s lady unit, E-Girls, doing “Love☆Queen,” a sweet, peppy, kind of Sporty Spice dance tune. All of the Exile Family groups are known for dancing and E-Girls is no exception. I had never been overly fond of E-Girls. Anchored by the blond-haired, angel-faced Ami-chan, they were always a bit too bland visually and musically for my tastes. But midway through the year E-Girls underwent a major overhaul and cut half of the members (including Ami), leaving a core group of 11 women. For whatever reason, the change worked and I really enjoy the new line-up.

“Love☆Queen” was their first single post-overhaul and the start of the era where I no longer have to fast forward through their performances.

Next up was Sexy Zone, another Johnny’s & Associates group performing “ぎゅっと” (Gyutto, lit. Snugly), which, completely not coincidentally, was the theme to Sexy Zone member’s Kikuchi Fuma’s NTV drama 吾輩の部屋である (Wagahai no Heya de Aru; lit. This is my room). Sexy Zone, despite what the name implies in English, are a bunch of fresh-faced, adorable moppets (one of whom will be appearing in Fuller House at the end of the month so watch out!) and “ぎゅっと” is an adorable song of the type you don’t hear much in the West any more, sort of a bouncy, mid-tempo, emphasis on the one-and-three ditty that’s fun to sing along to.

Sexy Zone only had choreography for the choruses but they had some fun playing around on the verses and overall it was an extremely cute performance.

NGT48 was next. The first of the Akimoto stable of girl groups, whose primary selling point--literally--is the cut throat behind-the-scenes popularity rankings fueled by CD sales. It’s the Hunger Games of idol groups and, unfortunately, there tends to be little to offer the casual fan in these performances. NGT48, out of Niigata, is no different and for their performance of “世界はどこまで青空なのか” (Seikai wa Doko Made Aozora Nano Ka? Lit. Where Does the Blue Sky of the World End?) the only point of interest was that the new center--as voted by the fans through CD sales--was Ogina Yuka, who is a coltish 18 year old with a somewhat unfortunate singing voice. The song and performance were otherwise rather soggy and bland.

After NGT48, this year’s breakout novelty tarento (television personality) Kato Hifumi (known as Hifumin) was invited up on stage. Hifumin, 77, began his sixty-plus year career as a professional shogi player at 14 years old. He’s now retired but those sixty years playing shogi seem to have kept him in amber and on television he comes across as an old man stuck at a clueless, self-absorbed 14 years old. I happened to catch Hifumin on an episode of Out x Deluxe, Matsuko Deluxe’s chat show on which she highlights outre personalities a few months ago. Matsuko had Hifumin working with Piko “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” Taro’s producer to record a pop single and it was an utter trainwreck--although great television. Let’s just say Hifumin has no sense of rhythm or pitch or of “music” generally.

Hifumin, with his gummy old man smile and round face, could not be more starkly different in appearance to Dean Fujioka, another 2017 novelty act. Dean Fujioka sang the opening theme to last year’s hit anime series Yuri On Ice!!! and to his credit, “History Maker,” the theme to Yuri On Ice!!! was genuinely an incredible song. But clearly even more credit for the hit has to go to the anime series’ musical directors Umebayashi Taro and Matsushiba Taku if what I’ve heard from Dean Fujioka on music shows this year are the kind of music he usually makes… because they’re not good. To put it politely.

Mega girl idol group Morning Musume ‘17 were next to perform with the slinky “ジェラシー ジェラシー” (Jealousy, Jealousy). Morning Musume are under the Hello Project umbrella and what separates them from the Akimoto umbrella girl idol groups is their somewhat low brow/chav/prole/down market/whatever you want to call it aura. Their songs have more bite and the choreography has more bounce and flounce. The Akimoto groups work to project an image of trying to be your--assuming “you” are a shut-in male with enough disposable income to bulk buy CDs--one and only girlfriend but Morning Musume want to hit the clubs and party. I quite enjoy Morning Musume.

And then as another NTV tie-in there was a promotion and performance from the special unit Mighty Warriors from the NTV-Exile Tribe property HiGH&LOW〜THE STORY OF S.W.O.R.D.〜

I’m not overly familiar with HiGH&LOW but my impression is that it picked up on the popularity of the CROWS series of movies, since they share a darkly “cool” gang-related aesthetic as well as some casting overlap with Exile Tribe member ELLY and actor Saotome Taichi starring in both CROWS and HiGH&LOW.

This aesthetic is heavily coded as African-American and I know some Americans (and other Westerners) find it problematic or just silly but it’s important to remember that it isn’t aimed at us--Americans existing in an extremely complex ecosystem of racial coding--but rather at a Japanese audiences who have adapted the style of “rap music” without the cultural baggage.

I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy some of the Exile groups but I have to admit that the biggest pleasure I got from watching the Mighty Warriors’ performance of the rap-heavy song “DREAM BOYS (special version)” was the moment at the end when ELLY was asked to give the correct answer to an audience quiz--“What was the correct call and response during the song?!” Bye-bye? Wai-Wai? Hai-Hai?--and the “cool” “rap” aura deflated instantly in the face of the morning television-ness of it all. It was very funny.

After the rap song, Kuraki Mai’s lovely Kyoto-themed ballad “渡月橋 〜君 想ふ〜” (lit. Togetsu Bridge ~ Memories of You~) came as welcome relief. The song, the theme to the film Detective Conan: Crimson Love Letter, was one of the biggest hits of the year in Japan and one of the biggest hits for Kuraki Mai in quite a few years.

As the audience claps along as Kuraki, dressed in a lovely autumn leaf-patterned kimono, sings her heart out. The waver of her voice on the line, “I’ve been thinking about you.” gives me a shiver of pleasure each time I hear it. I’m really looking forward to seeing her on NHK’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen. The outfit alone… I hope she goes all out.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Nakamaru Yuichi (from KAT-TUN)were the next batters up.

Nakamaru’s performance is something that could only make sense with deep context. As one of the less well known members of Johnny & Associates group KAT-TUN (which is currently on hiatus) and with nothing of his own to promote, why on Earth would he be performing solo? Well, Nakamaru is a regular contributor to an NTV morning show Shuuichi and Johnny’s & Associates currently has a huge surplus of undebuted but popular “Juniors” that they need to display. What better synthesis! A double promotion!

Two Junior groups were selected to perform KAT-TUN songs with Nakamaru: Snow Man and SixTones (pronounced “Stones”).

First was Snow Man, known for their acrobatics, accompanying Nakamaru on KAT-TUN’s 2009 hit “Rescue.” Something about the mix of performance styles didn’t quite gel. Snow Man performed around Nakamaru rather than with him. Snow Man comes from the wing of Johnny’s & Associates that specializes in theater and dance while Nakamaru is from the “idol” wing of the agency.

The second collaboration with SixTones on KAT-TUN’s 2006 song “Real Face” worked much better since SixTones, dressed in gloriously over-the-top “cool” ripped denim for this performance, take a lot of their inspiration from KAT-TUN. And the cherry on top was the meta checklist that popped up at the bottom of the screen telling the viewers at home which cool idol type things we should be on the look out for during the performance.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who seems kind of adrift right now, did a medley of two older songs--”もったいないとらんど” and “きらきらキラー”. I quite like Kyary so I don’t mind seeing her doing a couple older songs but she seems to be a crossroads in her career. She’s outgrowing her cutesy Harajuku idol image but doesn’t have anything more adult to replace it with.

Pornograffiti were next with their jangly guitar rock. They’ve been around 20 or so years making more or less the same type of music but if everybody still likes it, what’s the need to change? I mean that in the best possible way. Pornograffiti are always going to deliver you a solid rock product and it’s why they get invited back year after year to these music specials amidst the pop idols. I didn’t quite get it at first but after years of incidental exposure to Pornograffiti I’ve grown fond of them. (And they’re one of the acts I’d love to highlight in a J-pop podcast…)

And back to the idols with Keyakizaka46, the outlier of all the Akimoto groups, as their image is not “You, socially awkward man, let me be your girlfriend!” but more like “You, girls who like pop music, come join our gang!” They’re known for their militaristic choreography, angry-at-society lyrics, and for not smiling.

I love them.

I had no idea they even had a new single out because I’d missed that episode of Mステ--I hate Hey!Say!JUMP to the point that I’m willing to just skip an entire episode because they’re on it--and I immediately fell in love with it as soon as I heard the beat kick in. The best way I can describe “風に吹かれても” is that it sounds like a contemporary Arashi song. That is to say, it’s an upbeat collage of different pop textures with that Arashi-esque minor key slow-down switch to a build-up to an explosive chorus that always sends a wave a pleasure over me.

The choreography borrows a bit from the Exile style with the exaggerated, sweeping arm motions and “running man” dance. Plus, they perform it dressed in dapper suits.

(That's 16 year old Hirate Yurnia on the left and Ito Asako on the right.)

Halfway through, 40-something comedian/actress Ito Asako joined in and for whatever reason seeing her serious face with the severe ponytail and suit just made it all the better.

Overall, I loved everything about it and immediately had to watch it again.

Perhaps it was the fact that their performance fell after the cute young ladies of Keyakizaka46, but seeing Kame and Yamapi trotted out to sing a song that was far too youthful for a couple of 30-something men to be singing was just sad. Although they aren’t formally an idol unit Kame and Yamapi (that would be Johnny’s & Associates idols Kamenashi Kazuya and Yamashita Tomohisa) had a massive hit song in 2005 with 青春アミーゴ (Seishun Amigo; My Youthful Friend), which was the theme song to a popular drama the two starred in together. They were reunited this year for another drama and had another theme song, “背中越しのチャンス” (Seinaka Goshi No Chance; The chance you see over your shoulder) and the comparison between the two does not flatter the current Kame and Yamapi. This song felt like such a nostalgia slog and I had so much second hand embarrassment watching these two 30-something men try to recapture that youthful cuteness of 12 years ago.

Not surprisingly, their 2017 reunion drama was on… NTV so I suppose they had to be trotted out one more time for the network’s end of the year show but I’d have so much rather seen this Johnny’s spot going to my boys A.B.C-Z.

Following the tired old men was pint-size powerhouse Aiko! Aiko, much like Pornograffiti, has been around forever writing and performing the same kinds of songs and, much like Pornograffiti, I’m completely fine with it. She’s got a spunky, singer-songwriter vibe and her songs are always just a bit off-kilter somehow despite the standard accompaniment thanks to her free wheeling melodies.

Her new song “予告” (Yokoku; notify in advance) is a perfectly fine addition to the Aiko discography and I look forward to seeing her next time.

And back to the dance pop with Exile the Second (from the Exile Family) with an “American” themed number called “Route 66” that had special “American” choreography incorporated into it. It’s a sort of an updated version of the types of 1950s themed songs that were popular in the US 1980s with strong echoes of “Twist and Shout” and so on. What the foreign press sometimes misunderstands about songs like this is that they aren’t aimed at AMERICAN audiences but rather at Japanese audiences who like “American” stuff. It’s the equivalent of something like Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies in which a foreign “feel” is re-digested for domestic audiences into something they’ll understand.

“Route 66” is okay but for my money the best Exile the Second song this year was the easy, breazy “Summer Lover” although I suppose it wasn’t appropriate for a winter show.

Johnny’s & Associates Hey! Say! JUMP was next but forgive me if I skip over them as I did when watching the show because 1) they performed a “prank” on one of the members that really was in really poor taste and 2) I really dislike their music and image and would prefer not to discuss them.

(Please note Kumamon back there!)

Kumamoto’s own rock band WANIMA were after the HSJ shit show. They specialize in a cheerful, upbeat pop-punk and were a welcome break from the idol groups. The song they did was “ともに” (Tomo ni; Together) which is one of those wonderfully Japanese songs that’s about working hard towards a goal together and supporting each other and so on.  

(Who is Watanabe Mayu going to apologize to?! I DON'T CARE!)

Last in this block is AKB48 and much like Hey!Say!JUMP I’d rather not spend too much time dwelling on how little I enjoy their schtick. The narrative for this performance of 11月のアンクレット (November Anklet) is that Watanabe Mayu, who is graduating from the group at the end of the year, just had to apologize to one of the other members for something. Honestly, who cares except hard core fans? I really don’t care for AKB48.

In the next part I’ll pick it up with the choreography medley!!

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