Some things remain unchanged. Some others repeat themselves. That is the case of the Japanese ’70s and ’80s so-called City Pop movement, and what we study now as the late classical Heian Period (798-1185 CE).
In this earlier period of time, the Japanese borrowed from Chinese traditions, like those in religion and craftsmanship, and blended them with their own way of carrying on. Archery, pottery and tea time flourished, but what sets it apart from all other notable eras of the human story is the way it was recorded.
History was not written on emperors’ orders or chronicled by soldiers visiting new lands, but, for a unique and special time, it was written by women. Perhaps some of the most relatable historical texts hail from this time, when the arts flourished and leaders sought not to conquer new lands, but desired to conquer hearts. Much of the writings are about the ichi-nichi (daily life) of the upper class — documenting any event, as small as the falling of the leaves or as marvelous as a tea ceremony in such a detailed manner that they can indeed be studied as History Books.
I’m talking about an era in which poetry was regarded as a noble and feminine thing to partake in; sublime verses could grant an author status and even political power. Yes, the women that wrote these poems were elite, the 1% of the 1. And as such we only have documented reports about this particular aristocracy, since they only registered their observations on their quotidian life and familiar social circle. Yet still, the point remains the same, there exists a sweet little spot from which we can glimpse a rarer point of view.
Books like The Tale of Genji (often argued to be Japan’s, even the world’s, first novel) and the Pillow Book were both written by the noblewomen Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon respectively.
We can absorb descriptions of the lives of people who, as a means to show sensitivity and good breeding, constantly and openly expressed melancholy. We indeed know little about the wars or squabbles between nations from these sources, though it’s not like we care, as our eyes and page-turning hands remain occupied with love affairs and fashion advice. We know about the betrayals, the tears and the joy of a small portion of the people, not quite as lofty or untouchable as kings and queens, but very rich humans.
And this, this is so similar to the Japanese pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s, or at the very least their contemporary revival.
Beginning in 2013 with the pioneer sampling of what we can nowadays consider old Japanese funky tracks, Saint Pepsi’s Hit Vibes album sparked a race to see who could uncover the best groove disco from artists that never got outside Japan.
(Oh, yeah, this may surprise you, but disco music is not originally from Japan, shocking. It was borrowed, as once the finest Chinese pottery was borrowed and embraced by the land of Nippon. Overseas traditions with the Rising Sun twist).
Many big names began popping up with cool beats, like Tatsuro Yamashita, Toshiki Kadomatsu and Haruomi Hosono, but the ladies’ voices stole the show. It’s surprisingly easy to find full albums by singers like Anri, Taeko Ohkuni and Nanaka Satas. They sang with passion about nighttime mischief, summer infatuations and being in love with life itself, rendering records made by their male contemporaries dusty.
And who could discredit them, their performances were the bow, the arrow and the target. Giving away all their beauty to the mundane. With zero interest in singing about people beyond their acquaintance. Many of the themes remain unchanged, even centuries apart.
The ink became a bass line.
The memoirs from Kawai Sonoko’s time spent in Paris, mulled over on her 1986 album Mode de Sonoko, are as vivid and colourful as any journal entry from the Heian Era.
And we are blessed for having access to both periods.
On a side note, during this current revival, there is a paradoxical interest in assigning these singers an artificial status as aristocratic and elite; showing them to the masses, but not giving away the whole soy sauce formula. During an AMA Reddit session, Macross 89-92 (one of the strongest horses pulling the revival movement) expressed how the seminal Cologne album by Kaoru Akimoto should not be seen as banal or earthy, but as something you must work for (whatever that means).
“About two years ago I met this girl Gabrielle,” he remarked, “The best girlfriend ever. At our anniversary thing we gave ourselves amazing things but things turned around. Everything went south, but the last gift she gave me was Cologne by Kaoru Akimoto. Like for real. I remember telling her ‘HEY, THAT IS WHAT I WANT THE MOST.’ And she said, ‘It comes straight from Okinawa…’ So, I actually hate that [downloadable] link around the internet. That album was once something you earned. Not something you can just get. I have it and it’s really special. Those internet links are a shame. I’m sorry, but Cologne is something you gotta earn.”
Of course, this is all in vain, as you can easily find an illegal download link. It’s the Internet after all, the most unholy lands humankind has ever traversed.
The full album in YouTube, MEGA, MediaFire. Even the two other recordings Akimoto made for the Fire Tripper anime series a year prior to her only solo material was realised is available, as well links to the one and only self-titled album by her short-lived band Shambara.
Naturally, I am not providing them, you need to prove your Worth with a captial ‘W’ as an elite and type ‘Kaoru Akimoto Full Album’ on YouTube.
Invade the ichi-nichi of the reincarnation of a Heian aristocrat.